September 30, 2011

I Feel Like Lovecraft in Brooklyn

My Pears

The other day I got into a conversation that reminded me of one of my early experiences of religious people.

Folks like to make fun of St. Augustine and the big deal he makes about stealing the pears in the Confessions, but I get it. I get how childhood experiences become ways into an understanding of the depth of the problem of sin.

I was in the first or second grade. Some earnest religious kid asked me if I was 'saved.' Partly curious and partly making fun of him I answered his question with another: "Saved from what?" The kid didn't have a ready answer.

When I think of having said what I said, it fills me with awe before the mystery of sin. For that from which I needed to be saved was with me always: I was a sad and anxious kid, and already at that age I felt--felt, not knew--that there was something very out of sorts with my particular being-in-the-world.

Sin is not just the unreality that robs us and our societies of the good that ought to be there, but it also clouds our minds and perverts our thinking so that we lose our sense of the most fundamental thing of all, our need for salvation. If we were well aware of our need for God and the deliverance that God wills to give us, we would immediately become filled with such devotion and missionary zeal as to become like the saints. Indeed this is what sanctity is; not that we should conform ourselves to some religious standard by agonistic effort at 'personal holiness,' but that we should surrender to the need and desire for God which is our own deepest identity.

Even for us who are baptized and have been delivered from the burden of the guilt our first parents earned for us by their sin, the injury left by original sin remains in us. All of the actual sins of our life have kept the wound festering. The whole rotten business makes it hard even to think straight about things, which is something that should teach us theology students a lot of humility.

Even in my unhappiness I could ask from what I needed to be saved. That's the mystery of sin in its deepest and most sinister.

This is not to say that the purpose of salvation is to make us feel better or to help us arrive at a better mental health situation. The purpose of salvation, at least as long as we remain in the Church on earth, is to get us free from carrying our own selves around as a burden so that we can give ourselves to each other in love, open and responsive to how God wants to make use of us for the salvation of others.

September 29, 2011

Fat Free Roman Missal Rant

So I notice today that LTP has started to ship the new missal. Our new adventure in English-language worship comes another step closer. Will folks get used to saying, 'and with your spirit'? Will it help them pray? Will saying 'consubstantial' assist folks into the mystery of the Father and the Son better than 'one in being'? How long will it take priests to get used to saying 'dewfall' in their beloved Eucharistic Prayer II? How many boring arguments will have to be had about 'the many'?

I was thinking about these things as I ate my cereal this morning. That's when I noticed something fascinating on the kitchen counter: a carton of something called 'fat free half & half.' One of the brothers was putting some of it in his coffee. Isn't the idea of 'half & half' that it is something not quite as rich as cream but more so than plain milk? So what could it possibly mean that there is something called 'fat free half & half'? But there it is, right on the counter. And, apparently, whatever the referent of the utterance, 'fat free half & half' is supposed to be, the term carried enough meaning for somebody to buy it.

My point is that our problem is not just what words mean, but recovering the idea that they should have certain meanings at all. Therefore, for example, in addition to the question of whether it's better to say 'consubstantial' or 'one in being,' we need to be about recovering the assertion that the words matter because they refer to something in a specific way.

As one of my best teachers once said, we always have to remind ourselves that, in trying to talk about God, we are up against a grave challenge in a society that can say, "'Coke is life' and infinity [sic] is a car."

What we need to be careful of is the thinning out of language to the point that saying 'God is one and three' or 'Jesus Christ is one person of two natures hypostatically united' is the same sort of thing as saying 'fat free half & half.' The latter is a contradiction (which doesn't bother us because we have ceased to believe in truth and have, sometimes implicitly, accepted the relativism we have been taught) while the former is the best attempt of faithful and thoughtful Christians, helped by the Holy Spirit, to indicate the mysteries of revelation and the experience of salvation in human language.

Without truth, the mysteries of the Blessed Trinity and the Incarnation are the same sort of thing as the mystery of 'fat free half & half.' Without truth the new translation doesn't matter either, and both its defenders and detractors become those who argue from the meaningless tediums of taste and power.

September 28, 2011

Slow Posting

Posting has been a little slow lately, I know. The truth is that I'm a little preoccupied these days. The good news for the blog is that once I discern it all out, there should be some good material for posts. Until then I'm grateful for your prayers.

September 27, 2011

Taking Hold of the Garment of the Jew

Again we have the prophet Zechariah as the first reading for Mass:

"Many peoples and strong nations shall come to seek the LORD of hosts in Jerusalem and to implore the favor of the LORD. Thus says the LORD of hosts: in those days ten men of every nationality, speaking different tongues, shall take hold, yes, take hold of every Jew by the edge of his garment and say, 'Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.'" (8:22-23)

An image, this passage is, of Holy Communion.

Through the consent of Mary, the power of the Holy Spirit conceives the eternal Word of God as the human life of Jesus Christ, who is the Israel of God in person. By his Body broken open and his Blood poured out on the Cross, this divine humanity is offered to us as our saving nourishment in the Eucharist.

In approaching Holy Communion we desire to grasp the Jew by the edge of the garment of his humanity so that he may lead and carry our humanity to the destiny of the New Jerusalem, the Kingdom of God both arriving and fulfilled in the Resurrection.

September 26, 2011

A Picture of Salvation

In the first reading for Mass today, the prophet Zechariah presents an interesting picture of salvation:

"Thus says the LORD of hosts: Old men and old women, each with staff in hand because of old age, shall again sit in the streets of Jerusalem. The city shall be filled with boys and girls playing in its streets." (Zechariah 8:4-5)

The city which has received the salvation God offers displays the following attributes:
  • People mingle freely in public
  • People grow to old age
  • Old folks have the support they need ready at hand
  • Children play freely and safely in public
A society, or a church for that matter, if it wanted to examine its conscience on whether or not or to what degree it had accepted the salvation God desires to give (and indeed is just dying to give, literally), might examine itself on how it is doing on these points.

September 24, 2011

Supernatural? Perhaps.

My all-time favorite movie quote: Bela Lugosi as Dr. Vitus Werdegast in The Black Cat (1934)

September 22, 2011

On Being a Student of Theology

"And Christ has granted us His Friendship so that he may in this manner enter our hearts and dwell in them as a personal presence, not an an object, not as a "what" but as a "Who." Thus He Who is, is present in the depths of our own being as our Friend, and as our other self. Such is the mystery of the Word dwelling in us by virtue of His Incarnation and our incorporation in His Mystical Body, the Church. (Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 154)

"God is not some inert object that can be passively spied upon and encompassed by a creaturely knowing but an active subject who can only be encountered in relation to his own self-presencing." (Khaled Anatolios, Retrieving Nicaea, 230)

There is nothing to God apart from himself as his own self-presencing Act. Thus there is nothing to know about God apart from the actuality of the divine missions in the world which are the temporal expression of the eternal processions which constitute the divinity.

The Holy Spirit, the Love proceeding from the Father and Son, conceives the humanity of Jesus Christ, as we pray in the Creed. In the same way, the Spirit continues to conceive the baptized as the Mystical Body of Christ, drawing our humanity into the eternal, mutual Delight that is the Blessed Trinity.

Theology, as a project of the striving human mind, is not separable from the knowledge of the divine missions imparted by revelation and the experience of them we call spirituality. Nevertheless, this truth is easily forgotten and even more readily not taken seriously much of the time.

Therefore, just as the divine revelation contained in the Sacred Scriptures cannot be simply abstracted from the temporal, salvation history which it describes and the historical cultures in which it is embedded, so our study of theology is bound up with the personal history of our own conversion to Christ and assimilation to God, and nor should it or can it be otherwise. God is only his Actuality, and is not subject to study as anything else.

Duns Scotus Movie

I found out about this over at The Smithy.

September 20, 2011

(Our) Holy Father

At the Mass for the perpetual profession of friars, the litany of the saints is sung as the candidates pray prostrate. At this year's perpetual profession the setting of the litany by John Becker was used. I have a vivid memory of the first time I heard this setting; it was (I think) September 17, 1994 and I was at St. Francis of Assisi on 31st St. in Manhattan for another perpetual profession. I was a postulant to the OFM at the time. I also remember that it was the first time I ever heard the responsorial psalm sung at Mass, which just goes to show how shallow my Catholic experience was at the time. Anyway, on that day I remember being caught up in the moment and thinking that the Becker litany was the most beautiful thing ever. Over the years I've grown rather sick of it, but I don't mind singing it once in a while.

As in various litanies of the saints, Francis and Dominic are paired in one invocation. Of course they are counterparts in various senses. From this a conversation arose at table about Franciscan veneration of St. Dominic. I had long remarked that Dominic has a certain solemnity in the Franciscan calendar: his day is a feast for us, raised slightly from the obligatory memorial he is in the general Roman calendar. (In the Extraordinary Form the distinction is between a ii and iii class feast.) I have always presumed that this is mirrored in the Dominican calendar such that Francis is raised to a feast, but I have never checked this. Anybody know?

In our conversation, a venerable and devout friar pointed something out that I had never noticed before: in the Franciscan calendar both Francis and Dominic are given the title 'holy father,' but only Francis is called 'our holy father.' So this morning I went to check on this, and found it just as he said. In the current Roman-Franciscan Liturgy of the Hours, the solemnity of St. Francis is titled, "Our Holy Father Francis, Deacon, Founder of the Three Orders," while the feast of St. Dominic is simply titled, "Holy Father Dominic, Priest, Founder of the Order of Preachers." I presume that this is the same in the Roman-Franciscan Sacramentary, but I can't check because we don't have one at the friary where I live. The same pattern is found in the 1962 Missale Romano-Seraphicum and Breviarium Romano-Seraphicum: the i class feast of St. Francis is titled, "In Solemnitate S. Patris Nostri Francisci Conf. Fundatoris Trium Ordinum," while the ii class feast of St. Dominic is simply, "Sancti Patris Dominici Confessoris."

Interestingly, in the most recent Franciscan rite of religious profession (which, as far as I know, has not been approved by the Holy See) Francis and Dominic do not appear together. Both appear in a little section of the litany that seems to be dedicated to religious founders: St. Basil, St. Augustine, St. Anthony, St. Benedict, St. Dominic, St. Ignatius and St. Alphonsus, Our Holy Father St. Francis, Holy Mother St. Clare. Francis is still styled 'our holy father,' but Dominic has lost his 'holy father.' A little rupture in the tradition, no?

Holy Father Dominic, pray for us.
Our Holy Father Francis, pray for us.

September 19, 2011

Priests' Confessional Surprise

Last week was the week of road trips. Last weekend I was in Manchester and Camp Fatima, New Hampshire. It was Beacon, New York for Tuesday and Wednesday and then New Haven and Yonkers for Friday and Saturday.

In the course of my travels I stopped by a religious house that I had been told still had a functioning priest confessional. Houses of religious priests used to have these in former times, a semi-secret entrance where a priest could go and summon another priest to hear his confession. I guess that most of these no longer exist or function; what used to be the priests' confessional in my last assignment is now the parish food pantry.

Enter by a unmarked side door which you will find open, I was told, and there you will see, in addition to inner doors to the house proper, another door, which to a trained eye--such as that of a priest--will be recognizable as a confessional. Go in and press the button there to ring the bell, and a priest will come to hear your confession.

I admit that I was somewhat doubtful about all this. It all seemed to belong to another time. Nevertheless I went and found everything just as it had been described to me. I found the outer door unlocked. Once inside, I recognized the confessional right away. I rang the bell and knelt down in the dark.

A couple of minutes went by. But just when I was ready to get up and leave with my doubts confirmed, I heard footsteps. Then the light came on the other side of the screen. Then came the big surprise: the voice of a young woman:

"Are you a priest here for confession?"

"Yes," I said sheepishly, too thrown off to think of anything more clever. She was just a bit of a surprise.

"O.k., I'll see if I can find someone," she offered back and left.

A couple of minutes later a priest came and heard my confession.

Of course I have spoken with many young women in the confessional, but up until the other day it had been as the confessor, not as the penitent.

September 13, 2011

John Chrysostom on Haters

St. Vladimir's Seminary, one of my favorite day off destinations back when I lived in the City of Gracious Living, does the English-speaking Christian world a great service in publishing their Popular Patristics Series. Maybe it's because I'm somehow deranged, but I've often found more wisdom and support for Christian life and ministry in these books than I have in many contemporary things I've been asked to read.

For his feast day today I was looking through the volume of John Chrysostom's Six Books on the Priesthood, where I alighted on this passage on the criticism of preachers:

For the congregation does not sit in judgment on the sermon as much as on the reputation of the preacher, so that when someone excels everyone else at speaking, then he above all needs to take painstaking care. He is not allowed sometimes not to succeed--the common experience of all the rest of humanity. On the contrary, unless his sermons always the match the great expectations formed of him, he will leave the pulpit the victim of countless jeers and complaints. No one ever takes into consideration that a fit of depression, pain, anxiety, or in many cases anger, may cloud the clarity of his mind and prevent his productions from coming forth unalloyed; and that in short, being a man, he cannot invariably reach the same standard or always be successful, but will naturally make many mistakes and obviously fall below the standard of his real ability. People are unwilling to allow for any of these factors, as I said, but criticize him as if they were sitting in judgment on an angel. And anyhow men are so made that they overlook their neighbour's successes, however many or great; yet if a defect comes to light, however commonplace and however long since it last occurred, it is quickly noticed, fastened on at once, and never forgotten. (131)

Of course the passage is about preaching, but could be applied to many other things in ministry and life and general. The point: never mind the haters.

September 12, 2011


Folks are sometimes amused when I tell them that I first met St. Francis in a history class. It was the spring semester of my sophomore year of college. He grabbed me right away. Presented as someone who opted out of the emerging capitalist economy, Francis appealed to the punk rock kid who wanted to critique and drop out of the 'system.' But he was also an intensely Catholic Christian and so appealed to my emerging desire to become a catechumen.

At that moment, not yet having consented to God's invitation to baptism within his Catholic Church, I had found my first Francis.

Over the years I've encountered other Francises. Just two years after that semester I found myself as a senior in college, filled with the vainglorious zeal that told me I was going to be a Franciscan friar. I talked to vocation directors and went on vocation weekends. I remember having in my Shorter Christian Prayer two different holy cards of Francis I had received from different vocation directors. One had Francis standing in a field with a serene expression, surrounded by happy-looking animals. The other showed Francis praying in a ragged habit with a look of devout anguish on his face. Two more Francises were presented to me for my discernment.

Which is the real St. Francis? All of them, I suppose, and none.

Sometimes the assertions we make about St. Francis say more about ourselves than they do about him.

For me, the further I go in my little journey as a Franciscan, Francis himself seems to become more obscure. Who is this funny man of thirteenth-century Umbria? A irresponsible adolescent, a failed soldier, a bad son, a bold religious experimenter, a mystic of intense prayer, a stigmatic, a hapless founder of a movement to which he bequeathed a beautiful but near-impracticable dream that leaves us his followers either in a happy state of semper reformanda or an eternal fractiousness, depending on what side you're on and how you decide to look at it.

When people tell me about Francis as if he were the patron saint of 'faithfulness to the magisterium' I wonder about Francis's seeming unwillingness to take up any accepted or respectable form of religious life. When they tell me about Francis the tree-hugging, peaceful hippie, I think of him saying that guardians should chain up brothers who don't say their Office. There are so many Francises. Francis 'the man of the council.' Francis in solidarity with the outcast from society. Francis loyal to the Pope. Francis the critic of hierarchical power. Francis the ecologist. Francis the alter Christus.

Who is my Francis now? I'm not sure. He's all of these. But he's somewhat more mysterious than all of them, and gets more mysterious over the years. But it's a mystery I still want to follow. Because even if can't always articulate it, his way is the best way I can see for me to become a disciple of Jesus Christ.

September 10, 2011


The best I could do for a sermon for this weekend:

Today is a hard, complicated, and difficult anniversary for our country and for many families among us.

And what is there to say? Standing with and before our own memory, perhaps silence is the better part of reverence.

We continue to pray God's eternal rest for all who died on that day, for those who died on account of it, and for consolation and peace of their families, friends, and loved ones.

As Christians we recall for ourselves that we have received the mission of announcing to the world that Jesus Christ is the true path to peace and reconciliation, and that there is no salvation from the violence and hate of this world but in Christ crucified.

Christ crucified is the burning love of God for his creation. May the fire of that love burn all the searing griefs of this day clean and whole.

September 9, 2011

Pius X on Frequent Communion

One of the little games I play on Twitter is to tweet Church teaching appearing in the year that corresponds to the number of followers I have. Yesterday I was up to 1905 followers, and so of course I arrived at the decree Sacra tridentina of Pius X on frequent and daily communion.

It's worth a look as a document, not only because it represents a big shift in Catholic life, but also in the way it addresses the common questions and scruples that often come up in confession and spiritual direction around sin and the receiving of Holy Communion:

Though it is extremely desirable that those who practice frequent and daily communion be free from venial sins, or least from fully deliberate ones, and from all attachment to them, yet it is enough that they be free from mortal sins and resolved never to sin again; with this sincere proposal, it is impossible that they should not gradually correct themselves from venial sin and from attachment to it.

Holy Communion is not a reward for ready-made saints, but medicine for sinners still on the way. It is not a prize for the sinless, but itself the ordinary means for growing in freedom from sin.

September 7, 2011

Names in Books

I love having books that once belonged to someone else, or, even better, were once gifts between people I don't know. It makes me feel like the books connect us, and are some small sign of the communion of saints.

I have copy of the St. Anthony Guild Press edition of Bonaventure's translated Mystical Opuscula that seems to have once belonged to Nicholas Elko, sometime Ruthenian bishop of Pittsburgh, who was one of the council fathers at Vatican II and once wrote a cold war-themed historical novel. It's stamped with his ex libris, complete with an episcopal cross before his name, in a lovely sort of teal.

My set of the Breviarium Romano-Seraphicum seems to have once pertained to a Fr. Louis of the Capuchin community in Mons, Belgium, and my Liber usualis seems to have once been for the use of Fr. Ignatius McCormick, a famous curmudgeon of my own province.

My copy of √Čtienne Gilson's The Philosophy of St. Bonaventure bears a stamp from the "Catholic Library" at MIT. I wonder if such a thing still exists.

I don't even know how I came to have it, but I have a volume of Franciscan sources in Italian which was originally given to a Fr. Pio from a Fr. Bonaventure in Turin in 1978. As far as I can tell with my minimal Italian, the inscription is quite heartfelt and flowery.

I have what I think is a first edition copy of Merton's The Seven Storey Mountain inscribed to someone called Daddy "Ga-Ga" as a gift on Father's Day, June 19, 1949. In a different hand it also seems to be the property of a M.W. O'Connell. Were M.W. and Ga-Ga the same person? Who knows. Having been old enough to have a son old enough to give him a serious book for Father's Day sixty-two years ago, I suspect that Daddy "Ga-Ga" has left this world. May he rest in peace.

I also have a book with a hoax of a dedication. It's one of my history textbooks from college, and one that I've never been able to part with because of the hilarious selection from Alvarus Pelagius's De Planctu Ecclesiae which it features. In the front a couple of my college friends marked it up as an alleged gift from them to me on the occasion of my forty-fifth birthday, February 27th, 2017. That must have seemed like the unimaginable future back in the goofy bemusement of college, ca. 1992. Not so much anymore, I'm afraid.

Of course I also have a number of books inscribed to me: a 1987 edition of Stedman's Pocket Medical Dictionary, a first edition of Fight Club, and a beat-up, paperback copy of the The Idiot in which one of my best friends from high school wrote, "To Charles, may you cultivate blessed idiocy."

September 6, 2011

Via et Vehiculum

Sketchy van is the way and the door. Sketchy van is the ladder and the vehicle. (Cf. Itinerarium 7:1)

Thanking God For My Teachers

My first liturgy teacher, whom I realize more and more was a signficant influence on how I've turned out as a Catholic, when he wanted to talk about the quintessential day of low liturgical rank, bereft of solemnity, would speak of the 'rainy Tuesday in Ordinary Time.'

I thought of him as we offered Mass this morning on this rainy Tuesday in Ordinary Time. Maybe it's also because today, as I begin my twenty-third school year of formal education, I feel the slight vertigo of it being my first first day of school with no classes to go to. I'm registered for just one academic entity, something called TM 980. God help me, with a number like that I must be almost done with this stuff.

The further I get along in this journey the more grateful I am for my teachers, and for the quality of education I didn't even know I was receiving most of the time. So today I'm just thanking God for all of them and for the proximate, remote, and very remote preparations for my vocation that God was working for me through their work. I started to write them out, but there are just too many.

September 5, 2011

What is Lacking in the Afflictions of Christ

I've always been intrigued by the letter to the Colossians and the idea of "filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the Church" as it comes us in the first reading in the lectionary today.

Certainly there is nothing lacking in the afflictions that Jesus Christ took to himself for the world's salvation; on the contrary, these were and are superabundant in their efficacy. Nor is there any lack of afflictions in this world, in the misery we insist upon for ourselves with our sins and the injustices and violence that plague and hobble human society.

So what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ? What still needs to be filled up? What is lacking is that not all of the afflictions of this world have surrendered to Christ's work of identifying himself with them. We have not yet consented to God's plan to identify himself with our suffering and alienation so as to reveal the path through it to new life. In theological terms, we have not yet consented to the glory of the cross in which the resurrection is revealed.

Suffering is our opportunity to embrace our Marian vocation of becoming those who conceive and bear God's salvation to the world. In ourselves this means surrendering to the Christ who identifies himself with our afflictions so as to show us the path to new life he has blazed from within them. In others this means allowing our hearts to be broken at the suffering of others so that we might learn the compassion that assimilates our own hearts to God.

What is lacking in the afflictions of Christ is our individual and collective realization of the salvation that we already have.

September 3, 2011

Charity and Obedience

Back before I concluded from Universae Ecclesiae that I shouldn't mix and match OF and EF in praying the Divine Office (see my pre-UE dubium on the question here), I would often pray the little hours from the Roman Breviary rather than from the Liturgy of the Hours. In doing so, for large parts of the year I would find myself praying through Romans 13:8 as the capitulum for Sext:

Nemini quidquam debeatis, nisi ut invicem diligatis: qui enim diligit proximum, legem implevit.

"Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law." (RSV)

The passage has been coming to mind for me during my examinations of conscience for confession. More and more I find it hard to examine myself on obedience and charity as if they were separate things; some kind of new, converging understanding is starting to come into focus for me. I am not quite sure how to articulate it yet, but I'm confident that it's some kind of grace that God wills to give me.

Perhaps it has something to do with my new ministry as guardian, as a 'grace of office.' I'll pray for that.

September 1, 2011

Holy Poverty Against Pious Prosperity

I love how today's gospel of the huge catch of fish (Luke 5:1-11) cuts through the very unfranciscan doctrine of the 'prosperity gospel.'

Peter, James, and John had caught nothing all night, but at Jesus' command the nets are lowered once again. The huge catch that follows is astonishing to all. Trusting in the Lord's command leads to a turnaround for Peter's business. At that moment he is a flourishing success of a fisherman. So far so good for the prosperity gospel. Following the Lord leads to material success.

But what happens next shakes up the materialistic doctrine. Peter and his co-workers don't even enjoy their new success, because their response is to leave it all behind to follow Jesus. They see through the blessings to the Blessed One. Now Peter will be a fisher of human beings, the material success of the moment being realized as a mere sign of the evangelical victory that is his real destiny.

Two truths of the Christian life come to mind. First, we must always remember that the Christian life is not an opportunity to get something, but a challenge to give even our own selves away. Second, the material blessings of this life are not to be enjoyed for their own sake, but as signs and means for the working of the salvation God desires for people.