December 31, 2012

Noctu vel Summo Mane

It's the end of December. I remember coming here to Italy at the end of May, so that means I've been here seven months. It also means that--according to my interpretation of the letter accompanying my obedience--I have completed more than half of the year-long probationary period that either begins or constitutes this assignment, depending.

I have been careful not to try very hard so far; instead I have tried to execute the assignment with the same incomplete commitment and inconsistent sense of responsibility--alternating between scrupulous and disinterested--that would seem continuous with my performance in the past. Such only seems fair to those friars whom I presume will make an evaluation at the end of this privileged season in my religious life.

Nevertheless, such mea maxima culpas and/or rationalizations (weeds and wheat we are) aren't the point of this post, but something far more glorious. The point of the post is to share that it has taken all of these seven months in Italy to learn at last how one of the most wonderful bits of the jargon of religious life is said in Italian.

"Morning Prayer is in private" is "preghiera del mattino individuale."

So now you know, thanks to the curious brand of perseverance which I have been granted by the Lord. Use it in good health.

December 30, 2012

Through the Darkness

For the feast of the Holy Family today, we have in the gospel St. Luke's scene of the Finding of Jesus in the Temple. Treating this moment in the epilogue to The Infancy Narratives, the Holy Father writes:

Saint Luke describes the reaction of Mary and Joseph to Jesus' words with two statements: "They did not understand the saying which he spoke to them," and "his mother kept all these things in her heart" (2:50, 51) Jesus' saying is on too lofty a plane for this moment in time. Even Mary's faith is a "journeying" faith, a faith that is repeatedly shrouded in darkness and has to mature by persevering through the darkness. Mary does not understand Jesus' saying, but she keeps it in her heart and allows it gradually to come to maturity there.

It seems to me that there's a lot of encouragement for us in Mary's example.

December 29, 2012

Toward Chastity

Last night I went to chapel early so I could pray my Franciscan Crown before Vespers. I thought to pray for the young Indian woman who has been in the news. Last night she was still alive. This morning I read that she had died.

While I was praying for her I found such a terrible sadness. It was, on the one hand, grief at the meaninglessness of her suffering and the loss of her life. It was clear yesterday that even if she were to have survived the injuries inflicted by her attackers, it would have been with a mutilated body. On the other hand, my sadness was for the knowledge that the roots of such violence and unchastity live also in my own heart, and every time I have been unwilling to suffer anything rather than indulge and nourish them, every time I have given in to the world's wish to co-opt and collude with them for its own vile purposes, I have made myself, spiritually, an accomplice of those miserable men.

It is not enough to be chaste, if by chastity we mean solely a personal project focused on the self. It might be the one of the most difficult things in the world to begin to mortify our own acquisitive gaze, our tendency to objectify and instrumentalize other persons, and our own lust for control and coercion, all in the name of achieving some degree of physical and affective chastity according to our state in life. But it's not enough. The world is so injured by the terrible, destructive power of sexualized violence that if our chastity is to mean something, it must also be a positive force directed outward into the situations and relationships of our lives.

I used to think about and pray on this back when I was working at the parish. At the beginning I was put in charge of the altar children. As I worked with the kids I used to wonder to myself what it should mean for me, given that some of my brother priests, doing this same ministry, had abused the children in their care, leaving their lives wounded forever. Of course it meant that I had to carefully observe and implement all of the plans and guidelines that had been put in place to make sure that we had a 'safe environment.' I knew that it meant keeping a calm but watchful eye on things, always being aware of where the kids were and who might be with them. But in my prayer I realized that it had to mean more than that. I realized that in how I worked with the kids, in how I spoke with them, in what I would say and how I would say it, I had to notice and take opportunities to recognize their human dignity, to build them up, to let them know, somehow, the great dignity of their very being. Over time I began to know that this was, in fact, my primary ministry with the children. All the practicalities were secondary. The most important thing was for me to actively and purposefully treat the kids as integral persons, as creatures seen as good by the Creator and as human beings infinitely dignified by the Incarnation of the Word. In my prayer I knew that I had to do this if I wanted to have any hope of being faithful to the children who had suffered such abuse from my brother priests.

In the same spirit I pray today for the eternal rest of that Indian girl and for the consolation of her family. I pray in thanksgiving that our society is still outraged by her suffering and death, and I pray that it might come to see more clearly how it accepts and even celebrates other forms of violence and unchastity continuous with them. Finally, I pray that God let me know how I may begin to do penance for what she has suffered, and for the loss of her life.

December 25, 2012


Twice already today I've started to write a Christmas post, but it's not coming out.

I had a fun post in my head about the Missa in nocte last night: the beautiful homily from the Minister General, the friars singing Tu scendi dalle stelle as a Twitter friend told me to hope for, the Nativity Scene with the slightly-too-glamorous looking Blessed Mother and the baby Jesus with a touch of the jaundice, the 'agape' afterwards and how it made clear to me a certain saying of Abba John the Dwarf.

I had a dreadfully serious post in my head too, all about our world's desperate need for the real good news of Christmas.

Perhaps I find myself, as I often do on Christmas, taken up inside by the anniversary of my departure from the novitiate of the OFM, still easily the most difficult but ultimately fruitful event of my Christianity.

But I guess none of it feels like expressing itself today; not my awful solemnity, not my goofy pieties, not even my pet archaeologies. After all, it's all straw before the mystery at hand. But the newborn Lord wills to rest on straw, and that, precisely that, is our hope.

December 24, 2012

Christmas Eve

The first entry in the Marytrology strikes me this morning:

Commemoratio omnium sanctorum avorum Iesu Christi, filii David, filii Abraham, filii Adam, patrum scilicet, qui Deo placuerunt et iusti inventi sunt et iuxta fidem defuncti, nullis acceptis promissionibus, sed longe eas aspicientes et salutantes, ex quibus natus est Christus secundum carnem, qui est super omnia Deus benedictus in saecula. 
The commemoration of all the holy ancestors of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham, the son of Adam, namely those fathers who pleased God and were found just according to the faith of the deceased, who didn't receive the promises as fulfilled, but gazed on and hailed them from afar, from whom Christ was born according to the flesh, he who is the blessed God above all forever.

It's especially interesting as a kind of preparation for St. Matthew's genealogy in the gospel for the vigil Mass of Christmas and for the Christmas Proclamation, which is found in the Martyrology for tomorrow, but which ought to be proclaimed tonight ahead of the 'Mass during the night.'

On the morning of Christmas Eve, the Martyrology offers us a liturgical commemoration of all the ancestors of Jesus Christ, and reminds us that the Word became flesh not just in an abstract human nature, but as a historical human life in a particular place and culture with specific ancestors. To me it invites a reflection on the doctrine many of us have absorbed that culture is basically fungible, that the cultural elements of the time and place of the incarnation are ultimately accidental. More and more it seems to me that this set of assumptions impoverishes the doctrine of the incarnation.

We commemorate this morning the faith of all of those who looked forward to Jesus Christ come in the flesh, gazing on the great mystery in the obscurity of the night that preceded the first light of his birth and the full dawn of the Resurrection, the Resurrection that is the full meaning of the 'let there be light' by which the Word of God brings into being the first day of the new creation.

December 23, 2012

In Vino Veritas

This is a very random and rambling post. Just a warning.

I've been led recently to recall what I think was the first sermon of Christian doctrine I ever heard. I was around twelve years old, maybe. A friend from the neighborhood invited me to the ecclesial community he attended with his family on Sundays. I must have gone more than once, because I remember having some kind of religious ed leaflet with a picture of a kid in the figurative 'full armor of God' and taking it back for another visit. So I must have gone at least twice.

On one of these visits I found myself in a smaller group of boys that was being taught by a man who must have been a junior preacher or a disciple of the main preacher or something like that. He was teaching on what had to have been 1 Corinthians 8. In fact, the illustration he used was pretty good. He said that he liked to have a glass of wine with dinner, but that if he was eating out somewhere in the neighborhood of the congregation, he wouldn't have any so as not to risk scandalizing any fellow believer. (Obviously this wasn't a Catholic church.) Though he had every right to his wine as a free child of Christ, omnia munda mundis and all that, he put the thought of injuring the faith of his brother ahead of his own preference. Anyway, for whatever reason, I've always remembered that. I wonder what that guy is doing today. I said a prayer for him this morning.

This bit of ancient personal history came to mind because I have found myself in a similar, though converse, position.

This is Italy, after all. One always has wine at meals. The regular wine we get here comes in a big bottle, a little bigger than an American 40 perhaps (to take up a standard measure of intoxicating drink from home). The brothers say that it isn't very good. But I don't mind it because I don't know the difference. That I don't know how to tell if the wine is good or bad  is actually the result of one of my early failures as a Capuchin. A rather illustrative and seminal failure, perhaps.

You see, at one point during my religious formation, there was an ongoing opportunity to learn about wine, how to tell the good from the bad, obtain a working, if basic, knowledge of its critical vocabulary, etc. I, however, secretly refused to learn anything because I was bitter about the bad coffee we got at the time. I had complained about the coffee, but felt rebuffed. So, I said to myself, if the Order will not admit the existence of a critical vocabulary surrounding coffee, I shall refuse to learn one for wine. And I succeeded marvelously in my effort to remain ignorant.

So, perhaps you say, what's the problem? With my ignorance I can happily drink the bad wine. But it's not that easy. You see, sometimes on a special day, a Sunday or solemnity or someone's birthday perhaps, we get what is said to be better wine. These wines come in regular-sized bottles with fashionable labels, and the brethren sample them and praise them while the homely big bottle of the everyday wine sits lonely somewhere else. At first I kept going to the wine that's said to be bad even when the special wine had been put out. Since I don't know the difference, I thought, why should the good wine be wasted on me? Such seemed sensible and humble and charitable to me. But I was wrong. I was wrong because my behavior turned out to be scandalous to my brothers. What was wrong with me? Did I not care to celebrate the occasion at hand? Had I not seen the better wine?

So now--so as not to seem ungrateful or given to vainglorious gestures of false humility (which of course I am)--when they put out the special wine, I take it. And I still don't know the difference. But like my old friend the young preacher who followed the teaching of the Apostle by giving up his wine, I take the wine in the same spirit.

December 21, 2012

Prayer of Compunction and Adoration

Most High, good and loving God, there are so many things for which I used to pray. But now I just don't anymore.

I used to pray for forgiveness of my sins. But now I don't, because I know that you are the merciful and forgiving God, and if I don't feel forgiven it's because, in my hardness of heart, I have not accepted the vulnerability and humility of receiving your mercy. Or perhaps I have not forgiven from my heart my brother who has sinned against me.

I used to pray for the graces to overcome the sins that weaken my life with you and hurt my soul. But now I don't, because so many times I have thus prayed in vain, asking wrongly, to spend it on the passions. (James 4:3) For I didn't want to overcome sin in order to give you glory, but for the vainglory of thinking myself devout and holy.

I used to pray to know the next steps in the journey, both in exterior life and in the interior journey of prayer. But now I don't. Since I have not yet fulfilled what you command publicly and plainly in your Scriptures, loving you with all my heart and caring for your poor, what business do I have asking for further, personal instructions?

So many times I have constructed clever personal tales that recount the work of your grace over my life, emphasizing unimportant details that appealed to my vanity and paying no mind to what you were really doing. Since I have been unable to interpret clearly the work of your grace in the past, what makes me think I understand it well enough in the present to presume to direct it? Most of the time I have been for you like an anesthetized patient, dreaming pious theater while you were at work on my soul in some way from which I was more or less distracted.

So I just pray that you keep at it.

I pray also for conversion, for I know it is your will that I be converted. I pray that my heart and mind be converted to you, that my thoughts and hands be converted to the salvation you give to my brothers and sisters, especially your poor.

But most of all I pray in thanksgiving. For I know that the whole mess of my being, the meager bits of good that I have let you accomplish in me together with all the misery I insist upon for myself--and my neighbor--with my sins, you take to yourself in the broken Body of Christ crucified. And I know that, on all the altars in all your churches throughout the world--with a humility so deep that it shrouds how it works from our proud minds--you make that broken Body nourishment and salvation for me and for the world.

And for that I adore you.

December 18, 2012

Reek of Stupefaction

Yesterday I finally got to confession. It had been too long. In fact, it had been since the day of my pilgrimage to the bleak Via Ostiense 131/L. I just didn't know whom to ask. It's so much easier to walk up to a confessional box. When you have to pick someone, knock on his door, and ask him if he has a moment to hear your confession, that's something different. But I had been praying that the Holy Spirit let me know to whom I should try to go, and, perhaps spurred on by the beginning of the second stage of Advent yesterday,  I finally managed it.

In his counsel, the priest invited me to live these days of immediate preparation for Christmas con cuore stupito. It probably just stuck in my mind because it sounds funny to the ear of an English-speaker. 'With an amazed heart' or 'with an astonished heart,' I guess you could say. 'With a stupefied heart' doesn't really do it, but it's not an entirely useless thought; perhaps it captures something of being overwhelmed by contemplation of the mysteries at hand.

In one of the little synchronicities of grace, later on I happened to pray Night Prayer in Italian. (As I have mentioned, I don't really prefer it.) When I came to the Alma Redemptoris Mater in Italian, there was the substantive of the same word:

O santa Madre del Redentore,
porta dei cieli, stella del mare,
soccorri il tuo popolo che sta cadendo,
che anela a risorgere.
Tu che accogliendo quell'Ave di Gabriele,
nello stupore di tutto il creato,
hai generato il tuo Genitore,
vergine prima e dopo il parto,
pietà di noi peccatori.

That's the Latin natura mirante that translates in our American-English breviary as 'to the wonderment of nature' if I remember rightly.

A certain amazed, astonished, joyful wonder is the spiritual climate of Christmas. We are amazed to see that the birth of Jesus Christ reverses everything that our insecure and acquisitive minds think power and mightiness should mean. The Word of God, through whom all things are created, is born as one of us, born to plain parents, born away from home, born into a people and a place that were considered important by no known criterion of human civilization.

But Christmas is not only astonishing because it is an amazing and even scandalous revelation of God; Christmas is also invites us to wonder because it reveals who we really are, what creation really is. The creation, and we ourselves as created beings in it, as full of wonder and beauty as it all is even just on its own terms, finds in the newborn Jesus its true destiny, that we and all created being exists precisely so that God might be with us, incarnate among us. And our prayer is to sit in wonder, con cuore stupito, at the astonishing realization that we exist so that the overflowing Love we call the Blessed Trinity may love all the more by drawing us into the dynamic relations that are Himself. This is why it is the Holy Spirit--the Love the proceeds from the Father and the Son--who conceives Jesus Christ, that in the humanity of Christ we might be invited, drawn, and folded into the eternal, blessed and infinitely happy generation of the Beloved by the Lover.

December 17, 2012

Phase Change Idea

After nearly seven months in Italy, I have to confess that I'm still not used to the differences in the horarium of Capuchin life here. 6:30 for the beginning of prayers in the morning, though not so early as to be unheard of at home, is still earlier than I've been used to for most of my religious life. Not that I have any trouble being up by then; I've just been long-accustomed to more morning solitude and quiet time before the beginning of the formal schedule. Getting up even earlier for this purpose is out of the question, because chapel in the evening doesn't start until 7:15, and supper isn't until after that at 8. That's the part I'm really not used to; at home supper might be as early as 5:30 in a parish setting, where the brothers have to get to evening activities. Of course the sort of schedule they have here presumes that you take some of your daily sleep in the afternoon. This, though I have tried, I haven't really accomplished yet. I can usually go to sleep, but only for a few minutes. And for some reason I always wake up with a craving for Coca-Cola.

Reflecting on this situation in an idle moment, it occurred to me that all I would have to do to make it more like what I am used to would be to phase-shift myself and turn the day around. I could start the day with Evening Prayer at 7:15 p.m., having been up for a couple of hours enjoying my prayerful solitude, then go to the friar's supper and have a little breakfast. Around 8:30 or 9 p.m. I would get to my desk and go to work, finishing up about 5 a.m., such that I had some moments to clear my mind before Morning Prayer and Mass started at 6:30 a.m. I could have a little supper at the brothers' breakfast table, have some 'evening' quiet time, and then get to sleep around 10 a.m. or so. It's not an exact fit, but the schedule thus turned around would be closer to what I am used to from home.

I foresee, however, a couple of problems with this plan. First, Sext and Compline would, in practical terms, take each other's place in my liturgical day. I fear that it would seem weird. Nevertheless, in seeking strategies against this trouble, I thought I could consult some spiritual person accustomed to praying through the liturgical year in the southern hemisphere, where the year's ebb and flow of light and darkness metaphors are not matched by the astronomical circumstances as they are here in the north. Perhaps whatever works for praying in that particular dissonance could, mutatis mutandis, be useful for me in turning my liturgical day around.

The second trouble I think of is that I'm not sure if the brothers might not notice my permanent absence from the midday meal (which is the principal one here in Italy), and wonder if something was wrong. I'm not sure what to do about this one. Sometimes, however, it's best not to test such things, because one is better off not realizing that nobody notices.

December 16, 2012

Reading 'The Infancy Narratives'

I've been reading Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives on the Sundays of Advent and finished it this morning. The first thing I would say about it is that the reader does well to take seriously what the author says about the nature of the book, that it "is not a third volume, but a kind of small 'antechamber' to the two earlier volumes." It's a sweet little book of just a few chapters, but shot through with the sort of reflection that reveals a real devotion to the events recorded by Matthew and Luke. Particularly touching in this sense is the thoughtful section on the Virgin Birth:

It seems natural to me that only after Mary's death could the mystery be made public and pass into the shared patrimony of early Christianity. At that point it could find its way into the evolving complex of Christological doctrine and be linked to the confession of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God--yet not in the manner of a story crafted from an idea, an idea reformulated as a fact, but vice versa: the event itself, a fact that was now in the public domain, became the object of reflection--understanding was sought. The overall picture of Jesus Christ shed light upon the event, and conversely, through that event, the divine logic was more deeply grasped. The mystery of his origin illuminated what came later, and conversely the developed form of Christological faith helped to make sense of that origin. Thus did Christology develop.

Another section that makes a similar point in a more general way:

The two chapters of Matthew's Gospel devoted to the infancy narratives are not a meditation presented under the guise of stories, but the converse: Matthew is recounting real history, theologically thought and interpreted, and thus he helps us to understand the mystery of Jesus more deeply.

How refreshing that is for us who absorbed so many brittle doctrines about history and fact and meaning and God--e.g. 'yes, it's just a myth' or 'yes, it's just a symbol,' 'but that means it's more true!' or 'yes, the Bible is all true, and some of it really happened'--all of these doctrines that when they are heard by unbelievers convince them more deeply that we religious people are self-deluded and full of nonsense. More and more I tend to consign such teaching to the large category of things that seemed liberating to our parents in the faith but have not delivered on such hope.

It is said by some that the Church needs to be updated according to the times, in order to be more relevant, more comprehensible, and set free from her doctrines that are offensive to the cherished ideas of contemporary society. But what they forget is that the world doesn't hate the Church because of her teachings; the world hates the Church because it hated Jesus Christ first. And those are his words, not mine.

And why should Benedict's assertions seem strange? Do we not in just the same way work out our spiritual understanding of ourselves? It is a historical fact that in the early afternoon on August 29, 1992, I walked up and out of the basement of Freeman dormitory and down the street to Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Quaker Hill, Connecticut, where a deacon of the Roman Catholic Church poured some water on me and invoked the Blessed Trinity. It really took place. You can go to the church and find a historical record of it in their office. But to know and understand what happened that day requires some theological reflection. That's how our spiritual lives work, history coming to be understood in light of God's eternity. Why should the Sacred Scriptures be any different?

I also enjoyed a little jab at academic theology delivered by the old professor. He is discussing the beginning of Matthew 2, in which Herod, following up on the inquiry of Magi, asks the chief priests and the scribes where the Messiah is to be born. Despite giving a learned and complete answer, Benedict notes that this knowledge does not prompt them to actually do anything:

The answer given by the chief priests and scribes to the wise men's question has a thoroughly practical geographical content, which helps the Magi on their way. Yet it is not only a geographical, but also a theological interpretation of the place and the event. That Herod would draw the obvious conclusion is understandable. Yet it is remarkable that his Scripture experts do not feel prompted to take any practical steps as a result. Does this, perhaps, furnish us with the image of a theology that exhausts itself in academic disputes?

December 15, 2012

How I'm Praying Today

Yesterday afternoon after my walk I came back to my desk and saw the beginnings of the awful  news coming from Newtown. I looked up the school and saw that it was right by the intersection of I-84 and Connecticut Route 34, a spot I remember from many happy Friday and Sunday afternoons, driving back and forth to Capuchin vocation weekends at the former St. Francis Friary in Garrison, New York. At first things looked like perhaps it wasn't so bad, just some people hurt maybe, and I went to chapel early for Vespers so I could say a rosary for everyone at home. When I got back to my room after Vespers and supper, I saw that the situation had been discovered to be much worse.

So today I'm just praying.

I'm praying for those who were killed, that the adults may have peace in God and that the children, after the terror of their last moments, might know the embrace of God, an embrace of which that of their parents was the created sign and footprint.

I'm praying for the parents of the children who are dead, now living with a grief I wouldn't pretend to know or understand, surrounded as they must be now, at this time of year, with such terrible symbols of their loss: Christmas trees, presents never to be received.

I'm praying for the children who survived, whose lives will be forever impacted by what they have seen and experienced. May the mystery of the crucified and Risen Lord transform that memory into gentleness and compassion, so that it might not only be a nightmare that never goes away.

I'm praying for the shooter, that in whatever he should have found at the particular judgment, it may give glory to God.

But I'm also praying for someone else. I'm praying for the next guy, the next shooter, the guy who is somewhere right now, trapped in his sadness and anger and resentment, and for whom the unthinkable becomes each day a little more thinkable. I don't know who he is, but I know him a little bit. He's easy to be aware of, because everyone who has grown up in our society can know him. Our ancestors decided that they could do without God, and in their misplaced optimism they thought that in rejecting him they were lifting up human liberty and dignity. But they didn't understand that he himself was our freedom, and that this true freedom was our salvation. And so our supposedly liberated and dignified souls found themselves adrift, only to become dingy and beaten down by the rotten luxuries of the false glory of violent entertainment, the false joy offered by advertising, the false connectedness of pornography, the false solidarities of contrived identities of rebellion invented to make money off young people. And that's where the next guy is right now, I have no doubt. He's reaching out for something, but in places where it can never be found, and it gets worse every day. And as the imprisoned soul turns in on itself, the unthinkable gets a little more thinkable each day. And so I pray for him.

Most of all, though, I'm praying for another person I probably don't know. I have faith that God wills to inspire someone to say something to the guy who today begins to consider a plan to become the next shooter. God wills that someone, perhaps a very particular someone at a very particular moment, reach out in some way to that guy. I pray that she or he is praying, for it is by prayer that we become sensitive to the inspirations of grace. That is why we pray, not as if we could change God's mind or change the misery our insistence on our sin has already brought upon the world, but that we ourselves might be transformed into people more attentive to the promptings of grace, such that we might become clearer and more effective instruments of the salvation God desires to give us through each other. So whoever you are whom God today inspires to reach out to the guy who thinks to become the next miserable, lost murderer, I pray for you that you might be attentive to God's grace and generous in your response. Amen.

December 12, 2012

maran atha

Today was my turn to be principal celebrant at Mass. Whenever my turn comes around I think first of Zechariah taking his turn in the Temple, and then of the little bits of paper you get when you 'take a number' here in Italy. (In Italy you're always taking a number.) The little thing has your number on it and written below is, è il mio turno. 'Is my turn.' There's something so cute and innocent about it, as if you were playing Uno or Monopoly insteading of waiting to attempt some arcane bureaucratic procedure in a foreign language. And once in a while it even turns out to be true, i.e. you succeed in taking your turn according to the number.

I was trying to think of something very short for a homily, such that I might have a chance to actually deliver it in Italian, but also because short is pleasing to the brethren.

It struck me as interesting that in this time of Advent, when we focus on the coming of Jesus Christ, when we are often praying in the words of St. John at the very end of the New Testament--Come, Lord Jesus!--in the gospel today (Matthew 11:28-30), it is rather Jesus who says, "Come to me."

It reminds us that we hope for the coming of Jesus Christ, that we are able to pray, Come, Lord Jesus, only because God has already given us his Spirit who prays within us.

But that's more than just a clever, pious thought. The whole mystery of Christmas is in it.

It is the Spirit who conceives the Word as the historical life of Jesus of Nazareth.

In the same way, the Spirit, whom we have received by the water of baptism and the blood of the Eucharist that flowed together from the opened side of Christ crucified, wills to conceive the presence of Christ in our humanity.

When we find ourselves praying, Come, Lord Jesus, this is, in fact, an experience of the Holy Spirit praying within us, working to accomplish in our humanity the mystery of the Annunciation. The whole dialogue of the Annunciation occurs within our own prayer, or, it could also be said, between the desire of our heart and the Spirit praying within us, such that our Christmas task becomes a simple making of our own the assent of Mary, Let it be done to me according to your word, that we may begin to nurture the Word conceived in us. In God's time, we will bring him to birth in the places, situations, and relationships of our lives.

December 7, 2012

Make Sure You're Right

On Saturday nights some of the friars here watch a movie on TV. Last Saturday it was Falling in Love (1984, Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro). Not my kind of thing at all, but I sat through it because it's the sort of movie that's good for foreign language practice, with lots of scenes with just two characters and slow, predictable dialogue. To be honest, it made me feel a little homesick, structured as the story was around rides on the Metro-North Hudson Line. I know it well. When I was at the parish one of my standard day-off itineraries was to take the #2 bus to 242nd St., where I would take the subway into Manhattan. After the last stop of whatever it was I wanted to do, which was often a pilgrimage to the altar of St. Thérèse at St. Patrick's Cathedral, asking her prayers that I might learn how to be a good religious, I would go to Grand Central and take the Hudson Line back to Yonkers Station, where I would catch the #6 bus back up to the neighborhood of the parish.

Well, the images must have stuck in my heart because last night during meditation another Metro-North memory came into my prayer. It was an evening in the winter of 1994, and I was traveling from New York on the New Haven Line. Of course the New Haven Line is also dear to me as the context of many adventures over various stages of my life. I don't remember if I was going home to New Haven or on my way all the way back to school in New London. I was a senior in college at the time. It had been my third meeting with the vocation ministry of the OFM. My first meeting was with a kind of regional vocation director in Hartford, but there wasn't much to it; I think it was just a screening thing. For my second meeting I had gone up from New London to Arch St. in Boston to meet with the real vocation director, an old gent of a priest who was retired from military chaplaincy. But this meeting had been a little odd too; mostly he just expressed his relief that I didn't present as overly strange and then catalogued some of the curious characters he had met in his current ministry. But my third meeting was wonderful. I went down to St. Francis of Assisi on 31st St. and met with the assistant vocation director, who struck me was a wise and spiritual man. (I was fortunate to have him assigned to me as a spiritual director when I was a postulant.) We talked, I prayed, I worked the famous bread line in the terrible cold of the early morning. Returning from this visit on the train I prayed from my Shorter Christian Prayer and read from Julien Green's God's Fool: The Life of Francis of Assisi, which Father had given me. I was so happy, so full of dreams and excitement for the Franciscan life, so fervent. In some ways, I feel like I was a better religious then than I am now; more prayerful, more detached, more poor, chaste, and obedient.

Eighteen years and many twists and turns later, have I lost something?

It's a hazardous thought.

I say that because the reflections and discernment that follow on the thought are very delicate and not so easy.

On the one hand, you can't go back. First fervor goes away and you have to let go of it. The flesh longs for the interior consolations and lush experiences one has at the beginning of the journey because it doesn't understand that God gives these only to get the soul to the point where he may offer her the real nourishment of the broken and forsaken Body of Christ crucified in the 'uninteresting wilderness' of quiet prayer. Certain forms of feeling energetic go away too, until you only have your weakness to offer to God. Finally, you get to the point where you even feel sacrilegious asking for the graces you need because you know you won't accept them anyway, and this is the true sorrow of compunction. And in the midst of these sorts of trials it's easy to want to go back to a place where everything felt fresh and exciting and the heart delighted in every pious sentiment. You can try it, but after a while you will feel even more sick and empty, and you will know that you are trying hard to lie to yourself. And this knowledge is the mercy of God resting in your heart.

On the other hand, though, there are genuinely valuable things that get lost, compromises with the world and with sin that get made, interior fatigues that creep in and harden the heart. There are forms of doublethink one learns in religious life, such that you don't even think any longer about things that were totally confusing when you first encountered them in your innocence. But you never get away from them, because God in his mercy puts them back in your face each time somebody totally new comes around and asks a question. For example, as goes the famous line of one candidate for the Order, now a successful public official, "If this is what you guys call poverty, I'd hate to have to see chastity." Over time one also realizes that there are subtle vainglories, gluttonies, idolatries, and unchastities of the spirit that the flesh is just as happy to have in the place of the more gross and obvious forms of sin. Indeed the devil is happier for you to indulge these latter, because it helps him make you into the sort of person that is a counter-sign of God's Kingdom and the sort of character that makes religion odious to humanity.

December 5, 2012

Both And

I notice on the calendar that it will be my turn to be principal celebrant at Mass on the 27th, one of those curious hybrid liturgical days we get this time of year, at once the solemnity of the Christmas Octave and the feast of a saint, St. John in this case. It's one of the rare times in the reformed liturgy that we see something like the celebration of one day and the commemoration of another, as in the older form.

Looking forward to this, I notice a couple things I need to prepare. First, it's the sort of day when at home I would certainly sing the Preface. I haven't heard one sung since I've been here in Italy, and I don't know what sort of resources the Italian missal offers for this, so I'll have to go exploring and see what I can find. Second, according to my famous plan for the minimum use of Eucharistic Prayer I, the 27th qualifies. Oddly, I haven't heard the Roman Canon in Italian yet either. Perhaps a more innocent person would imagine that in the venerable diocese of Rome herself one might hear this particularly Roman anaphora, but he would be quite wrong, at least if his experience were like mine has been. So, having neither heard nor prayed myself the Roman Canon in Italian, I started to look at it in preparation for the feast of St. John.

For the occasion of its first birthday, this brought to mind my standard shtick regarding the new translation of the Missal in English. I always say that I love it and support it in every possible way, but that I have one little issue with it, namely that, in my arrogant opinion, the 'vel' in "vel qui tibi offerunt hoc sacrificium laudis" in the memento for the living, which now in English is an 'or,' ought instead to be an 'and.' I would also accept something like 'indeed,' but this 'or' just doesn't fly. Now, even though I have been given permission to make this change on my own authority in Masses I celebrate, by a learned and somewhat well-known scholar of the Sacred Scriptures no less, I have never done so. What can I say? I'm like St. Paul, not taking advantage of all my rights in the Lord.

Therefore, given that I have decided to make this a kind of 'ha ha only serious' liturgical pet peeve, I enjoyed reviewing the Italian translation of the same and finding it thus: e anche'essi ti offrono questo sacrificio di lode... Not only an 'e' but also an 'anche.' Further evidence of my claim, I would say. Now, to be fair, I have observed that some of the more traditionally-minded (taking 'tradition' in the narrow sense of tending towards Catholic 'traditionalism') here complain about their translation of the Mass and look with some longing on what has been accomplished for the English-speaking world, the prayer as it is nevertheless supports my complaint, I think.

Not that I have much pity for such people. Should there be legitimate reasons for celebrating the liturgy in a language other than Latin (and I accept that there might be in certain cases), the Italians are surely in possession of the fewest of them.

In any case, I'll keep studying and I'll let you know how it goes.

In a more serious spirit, for those into the tradition, I recommend a new blog, Missal Notes, to which I was alerted by the reliably edifying Br. Matt of the New Sandals blog.

December 2, 2012

venter tuus sicut acervus tritici

Advent underlines the 'in between-ness' of all spiritual life. We feel ourselves suspended in prayer between the first and second comings of Christ. We lie down between hope and memory, know their mutual embrace, and get up to take the path again for the first time.

Within that, I mark a couple of moments. I've been here in Italy for six months now, as I find myself entering one of the privileged seasons for the first time. I came here on the Monday after Pentecost, so it has been Ordinary Time since then.

Here's the curia chapel in her Advent outfit:

The green cloth is just a covering for the altar.

Here's a closer picture of the icon of the Virgin of the Sign:

Striking, isn't it? At first glance, I thought the four figures in the tree would be the four evangelists, but they're not. The lower two are Isaiah and Jeremiah, and the upper two are David and Solomon. The iconographer happens to be one of the friars here, so I asked him about it, and here's what he said:

"It's the tree of Jesse [who is seen dreaming at the bottom]. From the stump has sprung the branch, and from the branch the flower, that is the flower of the Virgin and from her the Savior. It is the genealogy of Jesus, with Jesse the father of David, the father of Solomon, the ancestors of Jesus, but it is also the throne of Grace and Wisdom. On top rest the seven gifts of the Spirit. The prophets indicate the expectation of the promise fulfilled in Jesus. From the stump of Jesse comes a new shoot and from the shoot a new tree."

November 30, 2012

Ends, Naps, Death

I haven't minded much having to pray in Italian; it's a pretty language in its way and it's lovely for singing. Though in this latter aspect, it's not quite Latin. After six months here I think I'm fairly well acquainted with the liturgy in Italian, though I'm aware that I have not yet heard nor prayed the Roman Canon. Funny, isn't it? Someone more innocent might think that in the diocese of Rome the Roman Eucharistic Prayer would be heard more. Also, as I've posted about before, I find it curious and a little bit amusing that after all the fuss and workshops and bulletin inserts at home regarding the pro multis, here in the diocese of Rome I concelebrate at a Mass wherein the cup is still 'poured out for you and for all.' I also haven't bothered to learn the quiet prayers of the Mass in Italian. And since I can't remember how they go in the new English translation, I just say them in Latin.

There's just one thing in the Italian liturgy that really irks me: the blessing at the end of Night Prayer. I guess I'm attached to the English: May the all-powerful Lord grant us a restful night and a peaceful death.

To me nighttime looks forward to death. It's the end of the day, when our day ceases to be subject to revision. We did what we did, we were who we were, for better or for worse. And so with our death; when it comes it marks the moment when we have made up our minds who we were and for whom in this life, and that's it. No more revision, no more re-invention. (Of course we believe in a God so gentle and compassionate that even if we fail to fully accept our sanctification in this life, a means is provided to continue the process afterwards, and this is what we call the doctrine of Purgatory.)

To me the night also looks forward to death in its emptiness, as an empty space that awaits a new light.

And so it just seems right and just and fitting to me to pray for my death at the hinge between the day and the night. That's why I just can't get used to the Italian version of the blessing: Il Signore ci conceda una notte serena e un riposo tranquillo. "May the Lord grant us a serene night and a tranquil rest." Riposo? That's just doesn't do it for me.  'Buon riposo' is what the brothers say to each other after lunch, in the sense of 'have a nice nap.' Now there's nothing wrong with praying for a night of tranquil repose; I often pray that I might sleep during the night. But I'm not that worried about it. More and more, whether I sleep or not during the night I feel the same during the day. I'm much more concerned about death. Not that I'm really afraid of dying, at least I don't think I am; I just want to do it well.

To be fair, the Latin is almost another thing entirely: Noctem quietam et finem perfectum concedat nobis Dominus omnipotens. 'May the Almighty Lord grant us a quiet night and a perfect end.' I'll admit, I do like the 'end' here. It has a wonderful ambiguity; am I praying that my end as a historical person (i.e. my earthly death) might be perfect, or am I praying for my final end in eternity? The answer, of course, is both or at least whatever it is I need to be praying for. That's the beauty of ambiguous, mysterious language in prayer. It's what grace needs it to be. Fine, I'm happy to pray for my end, but in the end I like the English the best, when I pray for a peaceful death.

November 29, 2012

Pious Requests and Laudable Desires

I have noticed something that had never occurred to me before about the feast of All Saints of the Seraphic Order, or All Franciscan Saints, which we celebrate today.

At some moments I have wondered if this observance was perhaps an expression of that certain Franciscan chauvinism one encounters sometimes. What, All Saints isn't good enough for you? You need to have your own All Saints day?

But over time I've started to think of this feast as an expression of gratitude to God for the gift of the particularly Franciscan sanctity that he has given to the Church, and that catches for him the hearts of so many. In a way this thought is confirmed for me by something very plain and obvious, but which for whatever reason I never noticed before: November 29 is the anniversary of the bull Solet annuere of Honorius III, which includes the later Rule of St. Francis, which remains our rule today.

Bull of Pope Honorius III 
Bishop, Servant of the servants of God,
to his Beloved Sons,
Brother Francis and the other brothers
of the Order of Lesser Brothers,
Health and Apostolic Benediction. 
The Apostolic See is accustomed to grant the pious requests and favorably to accede to the laudable desires of its petitioners. Therefore, beloved sons in the Lord, attentive to your pious prayers, We confirm with Our Apostolic Authority, and by these words ratify, the Rule of your Order, herein outlined and approved by Our predecessor, Pope Innocent of happy memory, which is as follows... (trans. FA:ED)

Old Honorius must be one of the most invoked popes in the whole of the Church Militant, given that he is mentioned by every Franciscan friar when he takes his vows.

It seems fitting that we should celebrate All Saints of the Seraphic Order on the anniversary of the confirmation and ratification of the Rule, as inextricably bound up it is--as a document and ideal--with Franciscan sanctity. It's a sanctity that once caught my mind and heart strongly enough to make me join the Franciscan Order not once, but twice. And I pray God would again use it to convert me to his will, for up until now I have done little, or nothing.

November 27, 2012

Vatican Visit and Some Cultural Learnings

The other morning I got a phone call, which was a rare enough thing in itself. The caller invited me to come see him in the Vatican. How exciting, I thought, and I put myself together as soon as I could and headed out to the bus stop.

Once I was on the second bus, however, I started to have one of those anxious, 'who will roll away the stone' kind of moments. In my various visits to the neighborhood, I had many times seen the good Vatican gendarmes shooing people away from the gates and entrances, or blowing whistles at those careless enough to step beyond where they were permitted to be. It happened to me myself recently; thinking that I would use the restroom next to the post office on the right side of St. Peter's Square (ad orientem), but not realizing that whole area was closed for some reason or other, I got the shooing gesture and the, Prego, Padre, tutto chiuso. So how was I supposed to get into the Vatican to get to this appointment?

I got down there too early. So I said my rosary, pacing up and down inside the south colonnade. I think my picture was taken a few times. I explained to some Dutch visitors the nature of consistories. I listened to the sounds of creche construction. When the time came, I approached one of the gates.

This leads me to the first of two cultural reflections in this post. I have learned that the best way to approach authorities or officials here is to self-present in a supplicating, deferential, and self-deprecating manner. If, as an American, you feel like you're at the point at which you fear to be thought obsequious and insincere (the reader can insert other terms more vulgar and perhaps more fitting), then you've got it. You must suppress the American idea that the most important thing is to present, as quickly and as clearly as possible, exactly what you need so that the person may deal with you efficiently and be on to the next thing. On the contrary, the most important thing is how you express your recognition of the gloriousness of the post occupied in this life by the official before you. Whether this glorious post happens to be Cardinal of the Roman Church or ticket lady at the train station, it makes no difference. The same principle obtains.

So I approached the gendarme at the gate. Forgive me, Sir, for taking your time, but I don't know how this works. So-and-so invited me to come here and meet him at place such-and-such. Could you help me know what to do? That did the trick. Why, yes, Father, it works like this: we will call so-and-so right away. Once they had done this, they gave me some directions to the place where I was to go, and released me into the streets of the Vatican. I have to say that it was a bit of a thrill, setting foot in the Vatican for the first time. (I mean apart from St. Peter's, the Museums, and the Post Office.)

Secrets of the Vatican: the Gas Station

My visit included a couple of pilgrimages inside St. Peter's, such as my first visit to the altar of Pope Blessed John Paul II since he's been upstairs. It was my first time in St. Peter's since the early morning in 2007 when I went to Mass in Polish on the feast of St. Maximilian Kolbe. It struck me that St. Peter's was one of the very  few Catholic churches I had visited before becoming a catechumen. "Why not start at the top?" offered my host.

This brings me to my second cultural reflection. One of the places I got to visit on my trip into the Vatican was the Domus Sanctae Marthae, the 'conclave hotel' built by John Paul II. Now I remember back around the time of the last conclave there was some noise about this place in the press, somebody saying that it was scandalously opulent and someone else saying no, it's simple and monastic, or something like that. They can't both be true, so what gives? In reflecting on this, I have come to realize a cultural difference regarding the nature of luxury.

We Americans tend to think that costliness brings with it comfort. When you go to the house of a well-to-do friend, you expect to enjoy the classy drink you are offered while you sit on a comfy couch, or at least something like that. You get what I mean. But in Italy, you see, or at least in the world of the Roman Church and her affiliate institutions, these things don't automatically go together as we Americans presume they should. It is not at all strange here to enter a room with a shiny marble floor, adorned by luxurious curtains and works of art in classic style, and find there for sitting the sort of small, hard, straight-backed chair that brings to mind something from your elementary school. This is how, perhaps, a place in the Vatican could seem to us both fancy and monastic at the same time.

November 26, 2012

Ad Vesperas Sancti Laurentii

Gentle Advice From The Italian Ordo

The new Ordo that comes ahead of the new liturgical year is like the ecclesiastical equivalent of the new box of crayons on the first day of school.

Finding an Ordo for the year of grace 2013 in my mailbox yesterday, I noted right away that the Italian version (or at least the version of the Capuchin provinces of the middle part of Italy) is somewhat bigger and more beautiful than what we have in the States:

It also has a heap of information presented by way of preface, some of it useful, like the faculties granted to priests of the Order to absolve from certain censures and excommunications, as well as the faculty to commute private vows. (I remember reading about that last one when I was first ordained and thinking that I would never have the chance to exercise such a thing. On the contrary, I have had a couple of occasions to use it.) Other parts seem somewhat random, like Universae Ecclesiae in between the sections of pastoral considerations for Celiac disease and the Eastern Orthodox, respectively.

However, one section caught my eye especially, on how to improve celebrations of the Liturgy of the Hours. Most of the points are pretty standard, e.g. sing, don't pretend things are optional when they aren't, etc. A couple of the points, though, are fun:

"In the recitation of the Offices a 'spoken' style is used, thus avoiding those emotional emphases that disturb praying in common."

Anyone who has been in religious life knows what that's about. So much for Franciscan prayer being 'affective.'

"If a minister makes an error with an antiphon or something else, avoid brusque and immediate corrections, which are ill-suited to the climate of prayer."

There's one some religious could pray over.

November 25, 2012

The Funny Feast of Christ the King

I woke up this morning thinking about today, the last Sunday of Ordinary Time, the solemnity of Christ the King. In a way that it hadn't before, it struck me as an odd day. I'll try to explain how.

The most powerful doctrines are the ones we hold as assumptions, moods, 'interpretive keys,' 'lenses,' and the like. The less they are explicitly taught and simply absorbed from one's surroundings, the more powerful and normative they become. One such doctrine I learned early on in my Catholic journey and theological education was a certain way of understanding the relationship between history and eschatology.

It was said that in the past there was too strong a focus on an other-worldly salvation, on an eschatology which was reduced to the four 'last things' (death, judgement, Heaven, hell). This absolved Christians of taking seriously enough the need to serve the salvation and well-being of people in the here and now. But since we modern Christians knew well that we would be judged according to our never-questioned reading of the Judgment scene in Matthew 25, our work was less in preaching, catechizing, 'making disciples of all nations,' but in serving the needs of the 'least of our brothers and sisters.' Our ancestors in the great modern flowering of apostolic religious life did this by finding new forms and building new institutions to serve the needs of people. For us it wasn't to do such things ourselves, but to try to make civil authorities do them instead. This was called the shift from 'charity' to 'justice.' It was one of the great dogmas of my Catholic upbringing.

Now maybe I make a caricature of these things and thus a straw man, but the theological insight behind them is solid; eschatology isn't about a far-away world that renders the current reality less important, but about a Kingdom that is transcendent, always and everywhere present, available, and inviting history into its beatitude.

To reiterate the the basic doctrine: we used to talk about other-worldly salvation, but now we are about peace and justice in the here and now. But here's the funny thing about Christ the King; as an observance, it has journeyed along the opposite trajectory.

The reformed liturgy presents the feast of Christ the King as a celebration of the rule of the cosmic Christ, the alpha and the omega. The day crowns the apocalyptic theme of the last days of Ordinary Time and makes us ready for the similarly apocalyptic first Sunday of Advent. The readings for the Mass and the Divine Office seem to emphasize Christ the King as a day to reflect on the end point of time, history, and God's purpose, without a lot of interference of the messiness of the 'here and now.'

It's funny because the feast of Christ the King used to be a lot more pointed toward the current moment, with much heavier political overtones. Here are a couple of quotes from the encyclical Quas primas of Pius XI, which established the observance:

In the first Encyclical Letter which We addressed at the beginning of Our Pontificate to the Bishops of the universal Church, [Ubi arcano Dei consilio] We referred to the chief causes of the difficulties under which mankind was laboring. And We remember saying that these manifold evils in the world were due to the fact that the majority of men had thrust Jesus Christ and his holy law out of their lives; that these had no place either in private affairs or in politics: and we said further, that as long as individuals and states refused to submit to the rule of our Savior, there would be no really hopeful prospect of a lasting peace among nations. (1) 
Nor is there any difference in this matter [i.e. the "empire of our Redeemer"] between the individual and the family or the State; for all men, whether collectively or individually, are under the dominion of Christ. In him is the salvation of the individual, in him is the salvation of society... If, therefore, the rulers of nations wish to preserve their authority, to promote and increase the prosperity of their countries, they will not neglect the public duty of reverence and obedience to the rule of Christ. (18) 
When once men recognize, both in private and in public life, that Christ is King, society will at last receive the great blessings of real liberty, well-ordered discipline, peace and harmony. (19)

That's 1925. Kind of shocking, isn't it? Somewhere along the forty years between Quas primas and Vatican II, the Church decided to make friends with the project of European modernity, and with it the idea of secular, pluralistic, modern democracy. And so, as we turned from other-worldly salvation to justice and peace, the funny feast of Christ the King had to take the opposite path and be changed from a politically-charged observance to a work of awe and wonder at the world to come. The politics of Christ the King went out of style, but since you can't just get rid of a feast day instituted by a Pope, the best thing you can do is to make it mystical.

But now, another fifty years on since Vatican II, perhaps the concerns of those who made such a fuss about 'modernism' are looking a little less stuffy and reactionary, as the happy friendship between the Church and modern liberal democracy starts to show some signs of stress.

Christus vincit, Christus regnat, Christus imperat

November 21, 2012

The Veil

A part of the new mosaic reredos in the church here at the International College 'San Lorenzo da Brindisi' by Marko Ivan Rupnik, SJ.

Moses' veil protects him from seeing the the full glory of God, namely the incarnation, the motherhood of Mary in the burning bush.

There seem to be different feelings about the image. One the one hand, it brings forth the mystery of the incarnation in its foreshadowing and inchoate revelation in the old covenants; the burning yet unconsumed bush as a type of the virginity of Mary, the revelation of the divine name in its relation to the procession of the Word from the Father and the human conception of that same word by the Holy Spirit.

On the other hand, it brings up Paul's sometimes uncomfortable interpretation of the veil in 2 Corinthians 13, wherein the veil remains to this day, keeping the Jews from understanding the scripture when Moses is read.

To me, whatever one makes of it, the striking nature of the image invites contemplation of the Mystery who is the hope of our gaze, as we pray for our transformation "into the same image from glory to glory, as from the Lord who is the Spirit." (Cf. 2 Corinthians 3:18)

November 20, 2012

A Little Rationalization

Apparently the current project of this foreigner is supposed to be the Italian carta d'identità, the 'identity card.' Unfortunately, I just haven't yet found the energy to do it. As far as I can tell, it would involve leaving around six in the morning and taking a combination of buses and trains to get to the place (either 3 and 0 or 1 or 2 and 2, it seems to me), an adventure which I would probably have to repeat anyway, guessing that the first attempt would be just to figure out the place and the required procedures, how many photocopies of exactly what, arcane tax stamps, etc., are required. So, given also that I'm not sure I even need this thing, I haven't yet found the energy for this project, as I say. It is, I'm told, a prerequisite step to obtaining an Italian driver's license, which is supposed to be a difficult project in itself. "The questions are designed to make you err," one of the brothers said of the test. But I'm not really sure I would even want an Italian driver's license.

So, I was thinking of what I would say when and if I am ever challenged on my failure to have yet executed this project of getting the carta d'identità. It occurred to me that I could say that it was culturally insensitive to ask me to obtain such a thing; to us Americans, a national identity card seems like an instrument of totalitarianism and thus contrary to our ideals. Everyone else seems to benefit from the cult of cultural sensitivity, so why shouldn't I?

November 19, 2012

John of the Cross

One of the blessed coincidences of my current disposition is living under the same roof as the Capuchin Central Library. I had to go to what we in the States would call an 'orientation' to get a key, but it was worth it. Yesterday I was grateful to find that they had an ICS Collected Works of John of the Cross. I borrowed it, I hope with the correct procedure. You fill out the duplicate form with the location of the book (in this case 125 G 41), the names of the book and the author or editor, and your own name and room number. You put the top leaf (white) in the place where the book was, and the bottom leaf (rose) in the golden box by the door to the library. When the nice librarian first explained all this about special keys and depositing the rose note in the golden box, I thought I was in some kind of fairy tale.

Anyway, back to John of the Cross. I'm so grateful to him. His writing just sets me back on track when I need it. For a long time I couldn't read him. When I was first a Catholic I tried to read all kinds of spiritual books. I thought I wanted to read John of the Cross because he was supposed to be deep. But a lot of that was a vainglorious lust to obtain 'forms of prayer' that I imagined to be more 'advanced' or something. And so, in his mercy, the Holy Spirit prevented me from reading the mystical doctor. I would try, but I just couldn't. Then one day, I could. I guess I was ready or at the right moment. It was in Marathon, Wisconsin. It was towards the end of novitiate, and we were on retreat in preparation for our temporary religious profession. I had found an edition of The Ascent of Mount Carmel, I think in one of those sturdy old Doubleday Image paperbacks. What a blessed resource those must have been at a certain moment in English-speaking Catholic experience! I picked it up and read it, slowly, deliberately, and with great interest. All of a sudden I could read John's doctrine, and see myself and my own struggles in what he described.

Perhaps what I find most helpful in St. John, what is most useful for me to recall for myself over and over, is what you might call his 'fundamental theology' of prayer and the spiritual life. There's this abiding sense in his writings that prayer and the spiritual life are basically about something God is up to with the individual soul. It is God who wills to put us into some trial or other so that our faith and trust might become more simple and pure, that our wills might let go and become more identified with his. Based on this, the daily, unglamorous work of prayer arrives in three parts.

First and most fundamentally, consent. It is God who wills, who desires to draw us to himself and who--towards this end--wills to place us in trials for our purgation. And so our work, if it can even be called such, for it is more an undoing than a doing, becomes a letting go and a consenting.

Second, the spiritual life is a work of discernment in the sense of seeking an understanding. John says over and over that one of our basic hindrances is that we don't understand ourselves or the action of God in us. And perhaps worse, as he also says many times, those who are supposed to be guides and directors on the spiritual path often enough don't understand these things either. Diagnosis of our spiritual condition, a good sense of its graces and opportunities, sicknesses and temptations, is not an easy or automatic thing, either in our examination of our own conscience or in the interpretation of a director. This can be a terrifying caution and a source of awful doubt and confusion, but it is also itself a school of abandonment to Providence.

Third, the spiritual life becomes a life of clearing things away. Since it is God's work in us, our job is only to clear away those things that hinder his will in us, that slow us down in letting ourselves be drawn into our identification with him. John expresses this most simply in his advice on how to enter into the first of his 'nights', the active night of sense in The Ascent of Mount Carmel, 1, 13, 4:

Cualquier gusto que se le ofreciere a los sentidos, como no sea puramente para honra y gloria de Dios, renúncielo y quédese vacío de él por amor de Jesucristo.
"Renounce and remain empty of any sensory satisfaction that is not purely for the honor and glory of God. Do this out of love for Jesus Christ" (trans. ICS)

Only the empty soul is ready to be filled by God, only the naked heart free enough to run to him.

Il semble que la perfection soit atteinte non quand il n'y a plus rien à ajouter, mais quand il n'y a plus rien à retrancher. (Antoine de Saint Exupéry, Terre des Hommes)
"Perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away." (trans. Lewis Galantière)

November 16, 2012

Tape Measures and Memorial Cards

Sometimes, just to keep me going, God gives the grace of a little awe at the journey.

Today I'm thinking of a night back in the late winter or early spring of 1995. We were postulants to the Order of Friars Minor at Holy Cross Friary on Soundview Ave in the Bronx. After supper we got in our van and drove over the river into New Jersey, where we visited the friary where the brother tailor lived. Juniper Capece, OFM. You couldn't forget him. There we were measured for the habits we would receive later that year as our novitiate began. I remember it being a fun time; Br. Juniper joked with us and gave us beer.

I have a picture of the two of us from that night; Br. Juniper has the tape measure around my neck, and is either speaking or laughing. I have a look of devout, awful solemnity about me. I still get tempted to the latter, though it feels so wrong to me now that it never sticks. The former I miss somewhat and wish I could find again.

Br. Juniper died a couple of weeks ago. Eighty years of life on this earth, sixty of religious profession. I still have the name tags from the habit I got from him. One of them is in my New American Bible. The other is in my Roman-Franciscan Christian Prayer. He also made me a Franciscan Crown for my habit. When I left the novitiate I sent it back so that he could give it to somebody else.

It graces me with a little awe when I think that on that night, in spite of my awful solemnity even given the beer and the fun, God knew that eighteen years later I would have left the OFM, spent some time on my own, praying, working, seeking him, that I would finally enter the Capuchins and twelve years into that find myself here in Rome.

On that same night there was also a kid who must have been a freshman in high school. Did he have any idea that in ten years or so he would enter the Capuchins and then, after some years, switch over to the OFM? I don't know if he knew. But I know that God knew it. And God knew that he would inspire this friar to send me a memorial card from Br. Juniper's funeral, all the way from Maryland to Rome, so that I could be encouraged by the memory of my journey and how, despite all of my distraction and nonsense and interior darkness and sin, it is God who leads me by the his own subtle and obscure light, his rayos de oscuridad, and suffers on the Cross so that I might have the courage to take the next step.

Thank you, brothers.

Br. Juniper Capece, OFM, requiescat in pace.

November 15, 2012

On Candy Corn And The Cross

Brothers, I could not talk to you as spiritual people, but as fleshly people, as infants in Christ. I fed you milk, not solid food, because you were unable to take it. Indeed, you are still not able, even now, for you are still of the flesh. (1 Corinthians 3:1-3a)

One of the things about prayer is getting through your head that prayer is answered. And it's not even that, because when we say 'pray is answered' we're just embracing a sort of optical illusion of the spiritual vision; prayer is the answer, since it is our response to the Holy Spirit praying in us, through the Son to the Father.

Sometimes we don't notice the answer to prayer because it's so immediate, obvious, and plain.

Here's an example. How many times in my life as a Christian have I prayed in something like this form:

'God, I am willing to suffer, I am willing to suffer doubt, uncertainty, confusion, even to just not even knowing what I am or what you are. I know that this is part of what it means to embrace the Cross of Christ, and it is even what I am asking for when I take Holy Communion and put his broken and sacrificed Body into my body and soul. But please, Lord, just give me something today, a little consolation, a little something or other, interior or exterior, to give me enough certainty, enough courage and strength to get through the day. But if not, Lord, I offer you the sufferings of my doubt and confusion for everyone in this world who might be in despair today or who suffers in any way.'

It was years and years before I realized that to be inspired to make the act of the last phrase was the answer to the prayer of the phrase before it. To be given to make the final act of the will was the consolation, the grace, appropriate for me to receive as an answer to prayer. I just didn't recognize it as such because I was looking for something less immediate, more grand, and more consoling to the flesh. I wanted the milk, not the solid food.

In the life of the body, we take for granted that a moment comes when we move from our mother's milk to solid food. We grow up, physically anyway, and eventually we wouldn't even want to eat candy corn for breakfast. But in the spiritual life the analogous transitions (of which the physical ones are signs and vestiges) can be much harder to make. And if we're always looking for the spiritual candy corn in our prayer, we're not going to see the graces God is just dying--literally--to give us.

November 14, 2012

New Breviary Hopes

I heard yesterday with great delight that our bishops in the United States had voted in favor of a project to develop a new translation of the Liturgy of the Hours. This is, of course, a necessary thing given the new translation of the Roman Missal. At the very least, we need to be relieved of the funny situation of using the new Sunday and sanctoral collects for Mass while still having the old ones printed in our breviaries.

So, given that I am full of opinions about breviaries--and for this I make no apology, since, as one notes, breviaries are the only things (apart from our clothes) that the Rule permits us to have--I offer my hopes for the glorious day when I unbox a new English Liturgy of the Hours. Please, my brothers...

  • Let us have the three Magnficat and Benedictus antiphons for each of the three Sunday hinge hours, instead of this stingy business we have now where Evening Prayer I gets year A, Morning Prayer gets year B, and Evening Prayer II gets year C, such that the antiphon only corresponds to the Sunday gospel once during the Sunday hours. Every other edition I have ever seen gives all three for each.
  • Point the psalmody for singing.
  • It's a little thing, but put the daggers for when the antiphon doubles the first line of a psalm so that it might be skipped, as is right and just. I don't know why we don't have these.
  • Include the Latin hymns, or at least translations of them. Both would be best.
  • Make the cards for the gospel canticles, festal psalmody, Te Deum, etc., tough.
  • Dump the psalm prayers.
  • Six ribbons are better than five. That way there's one each for Proper of Seasons, Ordinary, Psalter, Night Prayer, Proper of Saints, and Commons.
  • Give us books just as tough as the Catholic Book Publishing Company's 4-volume set we have now. Say what you want about them, but those books are strong.

Thanks in advance for all of your work!

It was no longer possible to consider myself, abstractly, as being in a certain "state of life" which had certain technical relations to other "states of life." All that occupied me now was the immediate practical problem of getting up my hill with this terrific burden I had on my shoulders, step by step, begging God to drag me along and get me away from my enemies and from those who were trying to destroy me. 
I did not even reflect how the Breviary, the Canonical Office, was the most powerful and effective prayer I could possibly have chosen, since it is the prayer of the whole Church, and concentrates in itself all the power of the Church's impetration, centered around the infinitely mighty Sacrifice of the Mass--the jewel of which the rest of the Liturgy is the setting: the soul which is the life of the whole Liturgy and of all the Sacramentals. All this was beyond me, although I grasped it at least obscurely. All I knew was that I needed to say the Breviary, and say it every day. 
Buying those books at Benziger's that day was one of the best things I ever did in my life. The inspiration to do it was a very great grace. There are few things I remember that give me more joy. (Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain, 329-330)

November 13, 2012


Ever since I bought my first real breviary, the Daily Prayer I picked up at Galway Cathedral in the spring of 1993, I've been familiar with the document, printed toward the front in editions of the Liturgy the Hours, called the 'General Roman Calendar.' It's the calendar, mostly of the sanctoral cycle, of those observances that are celebrated throughout all of the Latin Catholic Churches. For example, St. Francis of Assisi. He might be a memorial at home in the United States, a feast here in Italy because he is the national patron saint, and a solemnity for us Franciscans, but everywhere in the world the liturgy celebrates St. Francis each October 4.

Now apart from living within this General Roman Calendar, I've also been aware of some of the proper or particular calendars I've lived in; those of the United States and the Franciscan Order, to take the clearest examples. But it never crossed my mind, until today that is, that in addition to the General Roman Calendar there should be such a thing as a particular Roman calendar, a liturgical calendar proper to the diocese of Rome. Today, however, I realized as much when I read the little weekly liturgical calendar that the brethren make here (to which I'm paying special attention because it's my week to be lector) and saw that today was the memorial of Pope St. Nicholas I. You won't find him in your breviary, because his day only seems to be observed here in Rome, where it is an obligatory memorial, and, somewhat unfortunately for us Franciscans, it suppresses the optional memorial of Didacus of Alcalá.

I've been looking around for a copy of the proper liturgical calendar for the diocese of Rome, but haven't found it yet, even on the wonderfully named website of the diocese,

According to Wikipedia, Pope St. Nicholas was most famous for having denied an annulment to Lothair II, king of Lotharingia, so he could get unmarried to Teutberga, daughter of Boso the Elder, and get married to his mistress Waldrada. Who wouldn't want to marry a girl named Waldrada? Or be relieved of having a father-in-law named Boso, for that matter. I have to say, people had cooler names in the olden days.

In any case, this Roman observance of Pope St. Nick meant that, for the first time I can remember, I got to read the bit of sermon from Leo the Great that the Common of Pastors provides for the Office of Readings for a Pope. I liked this part in particular:

"As the faith stands firm in what Peter believed in Christ, so it stands firm in what Christ instituted in Peter."

Of course it works better in Latin: sicut permanet quod in Christo Petrus credidit, ita permanet quod in Petro Christus instituit.


November 12, 2012

Thoughts From The Bus Stop

Athanasius, Archbishop of Alexandria, of holy memory, begged Abba Pambo to come down from the desert to Alexandria.  He went down, and seeing an actress he began to weep.  Those who were present asked him the reason for his tears, and he said, “Two things make me weep: one, the loss of this woman; and the other, that I am not so concerned to please God as she is to please wicked men.” (Sayings of the Desert Fathers, trans. Benedicta Ward)

On various sorts of errands I've spent a good amount of time hanging out at bus stops in recent days. One of the things I do while waiting is contemplate the advertisements, those posted at the stop and those on the other buses that pass. What can I say; I'm a five on the Enneagram, 'the observer.'

They intrigue me. Most of all they just impress me; of all of the texts and images I encounter, ads are probably the most carefully and deliberately constructed. I'm in awe of it in a way. The meticulous arrangement of clothes, makeup, posture, expression, etc., to make this person look attractive or cool according to the subtle modulations of fashion, the angle by which a new car is viewed such that it makes you think that it could cure that place inside that feels so powerless, the orchestration of a group scene to make you imagine somewhere inside that if you could hang out with those people--and of course drink or eat or smoke what they're having--then you could feel relaxed or elegant or accepted or loved, and not so awkward and ugly and unappealing as you feel now.

It's really quite impressive, the knowledge of human nature as the insecure mess in which we experience it, wounded as it is by the vanities and lusts and miseries we insist upon for ourselves (and each other) with our sins.

Reflecting on all that, the words of Pambo came back to me. If only I was so eager--with such attention to detail and with such keen precision and cleverness!--to please God in his desire for my salvation, my wholeness, as the advertisers are to play on the wounds of original sin!

November 11, 2012

Blessed Eugene Bossilkov, CP, Bishop and Martyr

Now sometimes I don't think the threats to our religious freedom in the United States are as grave as some of us are making them out to be. Or at least not yet. Nevertheless I was thinking about these things as I read about Blessed Eugene Bossilkov, CP, bishop and martyr, in the Martyrology today.

He was executed by the government of Bulgaria, by this sentence (via Wikipedia and this site, note links oddly placed in lower-right corner):

By virtue of articles 70 and 83 of the penal code, the court condemns the accused, Eugene Bossilkov, to be sentenced to death by firing squad, and all his goods confiscated...Dr.Eugene Bossilkov, Catholic bishop; completed his religious studies in Italy and was trained by the Vatican for counter-revolutionary activities and espionage. He is one of the directors of a clandestine Catholic organization. He was in touch with diplomats from the imperialist countries and gave them information of a confidential nature. The accused convoked a diocesan council in which it was decided to combat communism through religious conferences, held in Bulgaria, activities called 'a mission.' No appeal of his sentence is possible. The High Court, Sophia, Bulgaria, October 3, 1952

The sentence was carried out 60 years ago today. That's not so long ago. Switch out Communism for some of the errors of our own time which one is not allowed to question, update 'mission' to 'New Evangelization,' and the same sentence would be ready for new martyrs.

I was brought up with the standard liberal doctrine that the 'separation of church and state' was for the protection of civil government from religion. And I wouldn't deny that sometimes this is a good thing. But it's also to protect people's legitimate desire to be faithful to God from the excesses of human power, which so easily decides that it doesn't need to refer itself to its Creator.

Blessed Eugene, pray for us.

November 10, 2012

et vobis fratres

Yesterday at our house chapter one of the friars brought up a tradition I had never heard of. He said that at one time, when a friar was transferred from one place to another, he would kneel in the middle of the refectory before leaving, asking pardon of any of the brothers whom he might have offended and announcing his forgiveness for anyone he might have sinned against.

It seems to me a pity to have lost such a thing.

Maybe I'm being overly dramatic or indulging temptations to shame, but I think of my various transitions in the Order, my moves from one place to another, and I can't help but imagine that my heart and my vocation would be more at peace if, before leaving a place, I had the chance to kneel in the middle of the refectory and ask the brothers' pardon for any way that I had sinned against anyone, and to say that in whatever way I was able to accept the grace of forgiveness from God, I desired to forgive them too.

November 9, 2012

Between Flaminio and Kendall/MIT

I think I miss Boston a little bit. The other morning I must have been half asleep or at least spacing out when I was riding Metro A from Cornelia to Termini. As the train plodded out of the earth to cross the Tiber, I opened my eyes half expecting to see the Museum of Science or the Hatch Shell. I guess I not only didn't know what city I was in, I didn't know which side of the train I was sitting on. I guess ten semesters of Red Line rides from Downtown Crossing to Harvard Square leave their mark on the soul.

It's funny though...Rome and Boston have their similarities. Sure, the thick mythology on which the idea of each city rests is somewhat different, but think about it. The Metro and the T, the Tiber and the Charles, the GRA and Route 128, the neighborhood identities, the tourists.

Maybe it's just that my new job here reminds me of certain classic Boston tunes.


Some signs by which a native speaker of English may notice that he has already been in Italy too long:

He writes, 'letter of obbedience' without noticing the error.

He says, 'cancel' when he means 'erase.'

He says, 'control' when he means 'check.'

November 8, 2012

Feast of the Subtle Doctor

Today is the first time I ever remember celebrating the feast of Blessed John Duns Scotus. I'm not saying that he's not on the most recent Franciscan calendars at home, but we certainly don't have any propers and I don't remember ever observing his day. In any case, he seems to be an obligatory memorial for us here in Italy, and here's his collect in the 2011 Santorale Francescano: Collectio Missarum (Padua: Editrici Francescane):

Father, source of all wisdom,
who in blessed John Duns Scotus, priest,
believer in the immaculate conception
of the Virgin Mary,
have given us a teacher of life and of thought,
grant that, illuminated by his example
and nourished by his doctrine,
we might hold fast to Christ.
He who is God, and lives and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
for ever and ever.

From the Martyrology:

At Cologne in German Lotharingia, blessed John Duns Scotus, priest of the Order of Friars Minor, who, born in Scotland, taught the disciplines of philosophy and theology as an illustrious master at Canterbury, Oxford, Paris, and at last, Cologne, with subtle genius and wonderful fervor.

Pray for us.

UPDATE: I notice that The Smithy has posted the actual collect.

November 7, 2012

Lonely? Italy Is Here To Help

Yesterday was one of those adventures.

Back in August, when I finally concluded my application for the permesso di soggiorno, or residency permit, at the beloved Via del Mascherino 12, I signed some paper, promising to show up for a 'session of civic formation.' I didn't think much about it at the time; it was so far in the future in terms of my life here in Italy. That day there was an Irish Missionary of Charity there helping some of her sisters make the application. I asked her what this 'session' was all about. She said that it was a class to teach foreigners how to eat spaghetti without cutting it. I was disappointed to find out that this wasn't part of the lessons, but now I'm getting ahead of myself.

I decided that it wasn't a habit day. So off I went in my post-punk shoes and my faded Yankee cap. I took the roundabout bus to the Cornelia subway stop. There I had my first Franciscan encounter of the day. A sister in a beige habit with a Franciscan cord asked me, "is this the side that goes to Termini?"

"," I said, "e pace e bene!"

"Uh...pace e bene, grazie," she managed in an awkward reply, clearly thrown off. More on this issue later.

So I rode the train from Cornelia to Termini, changed trains, and rode Metro B down to St. Paul's Basilica. I figured that Via Ostiense 131/L, where this 'session' was supposed to be, couldn't be too far up from there, and I really wanted to visit the Basilica, which became a sort of spiritual home for me during the three months I lived in Garbatella. There was a big Mass going on, in red. A bishop was presiding. I didn't get close enough to see who it was. The only confessor on duty had a sign outside his confessional: "Italiano." That's short for 'I hear confessions in Italian and only in Italian.' So I did my best to get out an integral confession in Italian. I hadn't been since moving here to the Curia; despite living in a place lousy with priests, the Holy Spirit has not yet revealed to me whom I ought to approach as a confessor. Or maybe I'm resisting. But in any case it had been a while.

I said my penance in front of the altar of the Assumption and took off. I walked through that park that's there and joined the Via Ostiense. Soon I came to the dreaded 131/L. It looked like a bleak place from that start. But I was still early. Who knows how long this will take, I thought to myself; maybe I should eat something. So I kept on going for a bit and ate a terrible kebab. I mean, really disappointing.

After that I walked back to Via Ostiense 131/L and found the line where I would join my fellow foreigners. We showed the forms that we had signed and our passports, and were ushered into a windowless room with chairs, a movie screen, a laptop, and a projector. The guy came in and said, "The presentation is two hours, then a break, then an hour and a half or so. Maybe then you have questions. We should be finished at five and something. I'm sorry if it's a little boring, but this is what the Ministry demands." I was in shock. I had been thinking an hour, maybe two. But four hours, no, this can't be. The place was bleak, indeed. It reminded me of the bunker of an edifice, now demolished, where I spent fifth through eighth grade, the former East Rock Community School. Except dingier.

The video, I have to say, wasn't badly conceived. The presenters were two Italianized foreigners, Constantine (sp?) of I forget where (Greece perhaps, or Croatia?) and the beautiful Alison of Eritrea. I was particularly struck by her recounting that she had come to Italy as an undocumented person, and speaking at times from this perspective, she assured the viewer of those services available in Italy even to undocumented immigrants. I'm not sure, however, how any undocumented person would end up in that room watching the video. Unfortunately  the production values weren't very high. Both the presenters were somewhat in need of makeup, a few retakes would have served them well, and not a few of the cuts were oddly placed.

Despite all of the good intentions, it was deadly boring. The first hour was on the Constitution and demographics of Italy. During the part on the presence of various religious attributions, I noted the claim that there were 13,000 pagans in Italy. Insert your own snarky comment. The second hour was on the various documents that matter to foreigners, where to get them, how to apply for them, etc.

After two hours the guy came back, turned on the lights and said, "Brec?," which is Italian for "break?" So fifteen minutes to stretch, run out for coffee, etc. A few didn't come back.

The third hour of the video began with health cards and how to use the national health services. Following that was other services of social assistance. A list was presented, detailing those things for which one could seek social assistance. One of them, I'm not making this up, and I checked my translation with someone, was,

"To feel more involved and not so alone."

I'll keep the number close by.

I have rarely felt so bored and held captive, though one of late sections, on traffic violations and how to retrieve impounded vehicles and appeal traffic tickets to Caesar, was marginally entertaining. During the fourth hour, while the presenters were speaking in great detail on how to register one's children in elementary school, the guy came in and turned the thing off. Nobody complained. Maybe he had pity on us. Maybe he saw the large proportion of priests and religious in the group and guessed that such issues didn't matter so much for us. Maybe he wanted to go home. He called our names, we signed next to them, and were free to go.

I left the sadness of Via Ostiense 131/L at the very end of daylight. I took the 23 bus down to the neighborhood of St. Peter's so I could pick up a couple of little booklets for Mass and prayers for one of the new friars here who is just starting with the Italian. Walking through St. Peter's Square, I saw coming towards me a classic Franciscan sight: a gang of OFMs, complete with satchels and guitars, no doubt on their way to praise the Most High and Glorious God with Franciscan joy.

"Frati Minori! Pace e bene!" I exclaimed, arms outstretched.

One managed a pace e bene in return, though mostly they had that look of, 'oh no, weirdo alert.'

Is it perverse that without my habit on I enjoy making such grand Franciscan greetings, whereas, had I been in my habit I probably would have settled for a sober wave or nod of the head? Is it a sign of some passive aggressive rage I have against this movement with which I have identified myself? It's a curious thing in any case.

From there it was two more buses--the second of which was an hour wait, I know not why--to get home, quite worn out. But I have to say, to pray Vespers all alone and by just the light of a Roman bus stop is a peculiarly wonderful solitude.