March 30, 2012

Inverted in Many Ways

The other day I was paging up a breviary and I came across the holy card from this post, and Fr. Venantius's reflection on a priest seeing his reflection in the chalice during the consecration. (I have three sets of breviaries going right now: Latin, English, and Italian.)

I was just thinking about how, most of the time, the reflection one sees in the chalice is inverted. It's like when you see yourself in a spoon; the concave surface refracts such that your reflection is upside-down.
Thinking on this, I'm reminded that the person I think I know as myself is not the same person known by the Creator. My distraction and sin distorts my self-knowledge. Coming to know myself as God sees me is the substance of the spiritual journey. So it turns out that you really should take the advice of your kindergarten teacher when she said to 'be yourself.' Trouble is, it's not something you can just do, but a long and sometimes terrifying work of the spirit.

Perhaps it's a trite reflection, and if it is I apologize, but maybe when I see my inverted reflection in the chalice I can be reminded that Jesus Christ died and rose into the Eucharist and the other sacraments precisely that I might be 'reverted'. That I, one who finds himself as a homo incurvatus in se, a human being bent over and turned back in on himself, might learn to stand up and be the flourishing creature willed by God. This new person, as he emerges in the course of my journey of prayer, might appear upside-down and foreign because of my confusion and my attachment to false selves, but this is an optical illusion of the spiritual vision. The image that appears to be upside-down only looks funny because my confusions and disordered affections have distorted my perspective; in the end it is he who will turn out to be the real me.

March 29, 2012

My Bride Ate Herself to Death, Father Director

I was once told the vocation story of Blessed Raniero of Borgo San Sepolcro, a friar who lived around the turn of the fourteenth century. Anybody who knows better please correct me.

He was from a poor family. When he grew up he attempted marriage with a young woman who was also from a poor family. They had a lovely wedding, and somehow the families scraped together enough money to have a nicer meal than either Raniero nor his bride had ever seen. Unfortunately, however, the food was so good that the would-be Mrs. Raniero ate so much that she died that very night.

Raniero interpreted all this as a sign that he ought to become a Franciscan, and entered the Order. Miracles were attributed to him, and he was beatified by Pius VII in 1802.

It just goes to show the vocation story is a category of religious narrative that proceeds according to certain accepted rules and critical vocabulary. Can you imagine someone going to a vocation director with this story? He would probably be sent away, told to get counseling, and his 'vocation story' would be a joke in the community from then on. I bet there are a lot of saints who had 'vocation stories' that wouldn't fly nowadays. Have we become wiser in our sense of God's action in the lives of individual souls, or more boring in the cautiousness of our claims?

March 28, 2012

Walter Hilton on Slips and Detours

From the Scala Perfectionis, as quoted in Augustine Baker's Sancta Sophia:

"But if it shall happen sometimes, as likely it will, that through some of these temptations and thy own frailty, thou stumble and perhaps fall down, and get some harm thereby, or that thou for some time be turned a little out of the right way, as soon as possibly may be come again to thyself, get up again and return into the right way, using such remedies for thy hurt as the Church ordains; and do not trouble thyself over much or over long with thinking unquietly on thy past misfortune and pain--abide not in such thoughts, for that will do thee more harm, and give advantage to thine enemies. Therefore, make haste to go on in thy travail and working again, as if nothing had happened. Keep but Jesus in thy mind, and a desire to gain his love, and nothing shall be able to hurt thee."

March 27, 2012

Weeping, as We Should

I've been enjoying the prayers over the people that the new missal offers during Lent. Today's is especially good:

O God, who choose to show mercy not anger to those who hope in you, grant that your faithful may weep, as they should, for the evil they have done, and so merit the grace of your consolation. Through Christ our Lord.

Like so many prayers, this one would be easy to take the wrong way, as if God has somehow decided to be nice to us--and maybe just this once--when what he really wants is to be angry, or if our contrition somehow buys us divine consolation.

The punishment we receive for our sins, in this life and all the way down the road to hell, is only what we do with the emptiness we suffer from lacking the goodness of God that ought to be there. This emptiness, as we sinners sorely know, is all too easily filled with violence, craving, despair, self-medication, and every other settling for less by which we purchase for ourselves our alienation and misery. Take this to our created finality, and that's hell.

The spiritual work is to refuse to fill the emptiness with anything else, but to sit in it and grieve the absence of God we have insisted upon with our sins. This is the beginning of compunction. It does not buy us God's consolation, but merits it in the sense that praying out of the emptiness in a mode of receptive grief opens us to the consolation God is just dying--literally--to give us.

It is in the openness of this grieving for our emptiness that we really begin to see Christ crucified, God having united his very self to our pain, our stuckness, our alienation, our feeling of abandonment. And it is then that we realize the mercy of the divinity of Christ crucified, because he has blazed a trail--for our humanity--through our suffering to the new creation that is the Resurrection.

March 26, 2012

Theological Study and Crises of Faith

The study of theology often produces crises of faith. In a certain sense, this is what it is supposed to do. True knowledge tends to upset all the subtle ways that we have made gods in our own image. The presence of the living God, especially as he subsists in the rational creature by our knowledge of him, always means the smashing of idols and the burning of pagan sanctuaries. Therefore, just as it is a tragic error to cling to forms of prayer that give us sensible consolation when the Spirit is inviting our hearts into the 'uninteresting wilderness' of contemplation, so it is a fatal error to cling to the way we have always understood the propositions of a catechism or manual as a way to fend off the crises of faith induced by theological study.

Births are hard and dangerous and painful. That's one of the basic effects of original sin. And so it is when God wishes to bring to birth deeper understandings and purer acts of faith in the minds of students. We have to consent to the vertigo and often to the letting go of ideas we didn't even know we cherished so much.

All that being said, not every crisis of faith occasioned by theological study is salutary. Some are pointless, and some are even evil. For these, we must take the Lord's advice and be careful what we hear.

Pay close attention to your teachers. Sometimes teachers of theology can be angry at the Church or at God. This doesn't mean that one can't learn from them, but the student must be careful. Anger and bitterness have their own proper contagion. Always pay attention to what's at stake in the doctrine you are being given. More than anything else, reject any idea of a God that would put an earnest soul in an impossible existential dilemma and thereby assure its misery.

Also, be very careful of any teacher of theology who advocates sin either by word or public example. All of our efforts to think clearly are hampered and darkened by the injuries of sin within us. Even if we are living a prayerful, sacramental life in an honest and ruthless effort to eliminate sin and its occasions in our lives, this will be still be the case to one degree or another. This is especially true in theology. As Augustine says at the beginning of the De Trinitate, nowhere is the work more laborious or a mistake more dangerous than in theology. If someone encourages sin, he has no reasonable hope of not being confused.

Finally, examine carefully the doctrine you are taught. This is not untrusting suspicion; a true teacher will rejoice to have his students do so. If what you are taught does not eventually--and the adverb is critical--help you to make a fuller intellectual assent to the truths of the faith and a more complete surrender to God, you may reject it. If the 'theology' you are given is finally reducible to political philosophy, sociology, psychology, or anthropology, or has no Christian specificity, you also ought to reject it. It's a 'post-Christian' world out there, and to our shame, our so-called theological reflection is sometimes complicit with it.

Above all, pray as honestly and devoutly as you can. That's the most important thing.

March 24, 2012

Very Pedantic Liturgical Dubium

Here's a liturgical dubium at the heights of pedantry.

I have Masses in two parishes this weekend, one a Saturday vigil and the other on Sunday. At the Mass on Saturday afternoon, the readings will be from Year B, but at the one on Sunday, the readings from Year A will be substituted per the option for RCIA.

That means two different Sunday homilies, but that's o.k. I don't mind being kept on my toes in that regard.

My question is about the hinge hours of the Divine Office. On Sundays I usually use the typical edition Liturgia Horarum, which offers three different antiphons for the Magnificat at Evening Prayer I and II and for the Benedictus at Morning Prayer. These three correspond to the three-year cycle of readings. (I have observed that most editions of the Hours do this; it is only the American English edition that does not, instead offering but one that matches year A at Evening Prayer I, year B at Morning Prayer, and year C at Evening Prayer II. That's something worth fixing when a new edition comes out, which is all the more necessary now that the collects are in the new translation, but I digress.)

So, the question: which antiphons do I use for the gospel canticles? My best guess is to use the B antiphon for Evening Prayer I and the year A antiphon for Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer on Sunday, as will correspond to the Masses I celebrate in the course of the veritas horarum of the Sunday.

March 23, 2012

Loneliness and Communion

I grew up feeling like something of a stranger and alien in this world, as someone who felt like he didn't get what was going on or why other people were the way they appeared to be. As I got older and made good friends, I found that people became less opaque as I got to know them. I was grateful for such connections and the gift of friendship. So as a young adult I had this idea that people would become less unintelligible as I got to know them, and I would delight to find that a lot of people were quite lovable once you really listen to them.

In a certain way, years of living in religious community have made me shift once again. There's a particular loneliness that comes from living so closely with others, for the exterior intimacy of common life serves to accentuate the irreducible discreteness of each member. In other words, after I get to know the other members, a new opacity starts to emerge, and I realize how much I don't really know or understand the other, why he says the things he says or does the things he does, what really 'makes him tick,' as it were. One comes up against a core of individuality that cannot be pierced by the insight into another. Many times we don't even have the option of sharing our own since we're not even acquainted with it ourselves.

I've been thinking about how this is why the communion of saints is an article of faith. To say that I believe in the communion of saints is not just to confess my confidence that Mary, Joseph, Francis and Benedict Joseph Labré are praying for me right now, although it certainly means that, but to confess my faith that the operations of the Holy Spirit among the baptized are broader, wider, higher, and deeper than my awareness. Thus, in the life of a religious in community, it is the confession that the connections and resonances one is aware of are just a portion of the larger economies of grace. To put it simply, in our life with each other, God is up to more than we are aware of. So we might feel lonely, but a sense of isolation is an illusion.

March 22, 2012

Bye Bye Peculiarly, Hello Passiontide

The other day one of the brothers and I were watching a Mass on TV. The priest appeared to be very influenced by the Extraordinary Form, and I wouldn't have been surprised to find out that Mass in the Ordinary Form was the exception for him. My confrere and I noted many little gestures and behaviors that revealed the influence of the older rubrics, and had an interesting discussion on Benedict XVI and his idea of 'mutual enrichment.'

It's funny; priests who are dismissive of or even hostile to the EF might be horrified by certain little gestures from the older form making their way into the modern Roman rite, such as the custody of thumbs and forefingers, but I routinely observe priests of all kinds making certain gestures according to the old rubrics when the newer ones say do to do something else. Two easy examples are breaking the host over the chalice and holding the host over the chalice at the doxology. Perhaps many priests who do these little things would be shocked to learn of their traddy-ness!

I've never offered Mass publicly in the EF, apart from once ministering Holy Communion for a priest with some mobility issues. (See this post.) When I do assist at one it's usually because I want to sing. I used to say some of my Divine Office with the older form of the breviary, until I concluded from Universae Ecclesiae that one ought not to mix the two forms that way. But even with this little contact with the EF, I am so grateful for having become acquainted with the older form of the liturgy.

This particular moment of the year is a good example of what makes me grateful. As we approach the end of the fourth week of Lent, the lectionary and the Office of Readings start to edge us toward Passiontide. This is a sort of phantom liturgical season in the Ordinary Form; it's not really named anywhere, and rarely (at least in my experience) is its traditional marker of veiling images still observed. But Passiontide is there in the Ordinary Form. After Sunday the preface for daily Mass shifts from those of Lent to the first of the Passion. After four cycles through a weekly set of readings for Morning and Evening Prayer, these change as well. For those who pray in the American English Liturgy of the Hours, not until next year will anyone have to face the dreaded 'peculiarly' on Wednesday morning. As this week ends we pass into a new time with a more intense focus on the overwhelming mystery of a God who saves us not only in spite of our rejection of him, but through it.

That I notice patterns and depths such as this I credit to having studied and learned the older form of the liturgy. That's why I recommend it to everyone, traddy or not.

March 21, 2012

My Despicable Beard: A Capuchin Dubium

In the course of this past winter Ordinary Time, a confluence of factors led me to stop shaving altogether. Since the spring semester of 1993, around the time of my twenty-first birthday, I've been sporting the Grunge-inspired Van Dyke, and I just decided--as I say, for a number of reasons--that such was over for me.

So I started to let a full beard grow. Such is, of course, como Dios manda for a Capuchin.

But here's the problem. It's not going very well. It's patchy, incomplete, and looks pretty bad. At least it looks pretty bad so far. Of course the brothers don't point this out to me. This is because they are gentle souls but also because they know well the anarchistic and contrarian tendencies that will make me want to do something even more once it is criticized. Be strong, be wrong, as Nomeansno famously put it.

So here's my question. In the oft-quoted precept from our Constitutions of 1536, Capuchins grow beards because they are "manly, austere, natural, an imitation of Christ and the saints of our Order, and despised." If my beard is despicable, and thereby all the easier to despise, doesn't that make it more Capuchin?

March 20, 2012

Renounce and Remain Empty

One of my great teachers, John of the Cross, has been with me in a special way this Lent. From the Subida de Monte Carmelo:

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. (1,13,4)

"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)

Emptiness is not an option; our ontological poverty as created beings and our temporal and cognitive limitation make us experience ourselves as lacking. We find ourselves as beings who long for something solid and eternal, but without much reliable or solid in ourselves nor with much time left. Emptiness is our condition, but what sort of emptiness we want to be is our freedom. We can have the searing and grasping boredom that is the emptiness of sin, or the blessed emptiness that makes our souls like unto the no-thing that is God. We are either the rotten and inverted pride that is the emptiness of despair, or the dark and blessed emptiness of the Holy of Holies at the heart of God's Temple.

The glorification and glory of God is my happiness. Each time I try to enjoy any created thing apart from this glory, I allow myself to be tricked into choosing my own misery and non-being.

"Everything you love for its own sake, outside of God alone, blinds your intellect and destroys your judgment of moral values. It vitiates your choices so that you cannot clearly distinguish good from evil and you do not truly know God's will." (Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 203)

Humanity exists in the image and likeness of God that God himself might be incarnate in it, perfectly sharing the glorious, infinite, and perfect delight that is his own being. In and because of Jesus Christ, my deepest and most real identity is the glory of God. "The glory of God is man fully alive," said St. Irenaeus, famously. For the converse we go to St. Paul: 'Life' means Christ.

Jesus of Nazareth, as a human life, is the Word of God conceived by the Holy Spirit. The fruit of this mystery of the incarnation and the passing of Jesus through the alienation, suffering, and death we insist upon for ourselves with our violence and sin is this: we realize ourselves in the Love that makes us beloved sons and daughters in the Beloved of the Lover who is the Father of all.

But this deepest identity for which we were created still suffers frustration. Because of the lingering effects of original sin, my thoughts are confused and my affections disordered. That's why I try to enjoy created things for their own sake, apart from the glory of God. Each time I do, I reinforce the misery which is the law of sin and death that festers in my mortal nature. To "renounce and remain empty of any sensory satisfaction that is not purely for the honor and glory of God," as John teaches, is the beginning of recovering my real self, the particular humanity created by God to be a unique and unrepeatable expression of his glory.

March 19, 2012


Sometimes I think of things I once found amusing and realize that they aren't funny at all. Sometimes, on the contrary, I notice that they are troubling.

Beavis: "The only thing cooler than bands that get lots of chicks are bands that scare chicks."

And so it is illustrated that the sexuality taught by the world is not without its admixture of violence.


From the 'you can't take friars anywhere' file:

Cheesecake Factory waiter: "Do you have any questions?"

Friar: "What do you think of my hat?"

(The friar was not wearing a hat.)

March 16, 2012

Motivations in Temptation

If you struggle in temptation and fight against sin because you are in love with an idea you have of yourself as a holy soul or a religious person, you might succeed for a little while, but sooner than later you will fail and fall into sin. And this, in fact, is God's mercy, for you are only flattering the flesh.

If you struggle in temptation and fight against sin because you believe in goodness or morality or the sovereignty of God or because of your duty to observe the state of life you have chosen for yourself, you might succeed for a time, but eventually you will also fail.

But if you don't fight temptation at all, but instead rejoice to find yourself in temptations because you realize that in them God has found you worthy of embracing Christ crucified and sharing in his sufferings, and that this suffering is the resetting of the dingy sack of broken bones that is your mortal nature deformed and miserable in the effects of original sin--a procedure for which there is no anesthesia--then you have found the remedy for sin and the path from death to life.

The College Voice

In these transitional and liminal spells, I often experience a sort of interior compression of the time of life-history, and people and events from the past start to come up in my prayer. There are graces for which I need to be grateful again, moments ready for new interpretation, old sins I need to confess, people before whom I need to repent.

This morning it was one of my college classmates, someone I don't think I ever met.

During our very first semester, he had written a letter to the editor of the school paper. It was published in one of the first issues of the year. Apparently he had been quite shocked and scandalized by what he had found in his first experiences of college life, and wrote strongly about how inappropriate and undignified was this life of binge drinking, recreational drug use, and casual sex.

When the letter was published, it was the hilarious entertainment of the day. Here was this stupid freshman who put his uptight annoyance and out-of-date views on display for everyone to have a good laugh.

I laughed at him too. I guess I didn't know any better.

My own critical turn against college life came a little later. For me it started as a worry about privilege and responsibility. What right did I have to this life of leisure and social and intellectual enjoyment when so much of humanity was suffering so badly? Concerns about the so-called sexual liberation came a little later. I had accepted without a thought that abortion was a matter of 'choice.' Nevertheless, it didn't seem to me like a very good thing or something to be taken lightly. To hear of the procuring of abortions talked about in a matter-of-fact or even joking way made me start to wonder if something wasn't wrong somewhere. How many of my tiny sisters and brothers died around me on that little island of privilege? Probably not that many, but to imagine even one gave me such compunction that I wanted to leave the world right then and there. Also, by the end of my time in college I had known a few women who had suffered date rape. Sure, there were vigils and awareness sessions about the problem, but I never heard anyone criticize the role that binge drinking and the expectation of sexual permissiveness may have played.

So today I just pray for the kid who wrote that letter. I have no idea where he is now. I ask his forgiveness for how I laughed at him and took him lightly. I don't know if his concerns were anything like the ones I came to in my own time, but no matter.

March 15, 2012

On Funerals and Fr. Guarnizo

To be honest I hadn't thought much about it, but I've found the case of Fr. Marcel Guarnizo and the troubled funeral Mass he celebrated coming up in my prayer. I don't really want to say anything about it per se, but just that I've been praying for Fr. Guarnizo and that I think I know something of his trial.

During my three years as a parish priest, I took care of about seventy funerals. The whole ministry became was a very blessed development for me. Almost always I would preach at the wake service as well as at the Mass. That's a lot of homilies. Praying through the Scriptures and trying to preach the great mysteries of salvation, sacraments, life and death, fresh and new vistas began to open in my whole sense of my Christianity. Many times I would find myself walking back to the friary from the funeral home, somewhat amazed by the graces being opened and unfolded by it all. This post, for example.

I learned a lot about life and families praying through funeral liturgies. I learned that just because something is emotionally difficult doesn't mean it has to be so relationally. I noticed that the funerals of old maids tended to be full of friends while those of old bachelors tended to be empty. I witnessed and considered it my blessed privilege to give reverence to very complex sets of thoughts and feelings: grief, relief, anger, disappointment, hurt, gratitude.

But funerals were also something stressful. There was a certain stressed dread that would come upon me as soon as I found out that I would have a funeral, and it wouldn't lift until I was at the cemetery. At funerals you meet everyone: devout and committed Catholics, Catholics who have drifted away, Catholics who have apostatized peacefully, Catholics who have apostatized angrily. In addition, there are often mourners of some other religion or none. Most of the time I would have the grace and wherewithal to take these situations as blessed opportunities for evangelization and to give a good impression of the pastoral care the Church offers the world. Much of it was an enjoyable challenge; I developed funeral homilies for moments when there would be a lot of Jews or Protestants present, and even one for times when the dominant 'religion' in the assembly was the recovery movement. 'The Resurrection as Step Twelve' I named it for myself.

Things aren't always a joyful opportunity, however. There are a lot of misunderstandings about Catholic doctrine out there, about the nature and functions of the funeral liturgy and the treatment of the mortal remains of the dead. There are a lot of people who are angry at the clergy, and often for good reason. And then there are folks who just don't have any manners. Put all of those folks together with the observant and devout (who can also have challenging expectations of the priest) at a time when family divisions tend to flare up and everybody is grieving and upset to one degree or another (or feeling guilty for not feeling bad), and it can seem like an overwhelming task to preside over the whole thing as the Lord's assembly.

Once in a while I would get into a conflict too. Discretion is very important, but I'm not the kind of priest who can let anything go under the sorry excuse of being 'pastoral' or because it's 'not a teaching moment.' I am a steward of the sacred mysteries, and I want to be faithful.

So I'm just praying with and for Fr. Guarnizo. I've had small tastes of his trial.

March 14, 2012

Proof that Religious Life is Conservative

Sometimes it is said that religious life is too liberal and progressive. I beg to differ. Religious life is inherently conservative. Allow me to adduce some examples:

Religious hate to eat the last cookie in the package or to consume the last bit of milk or juice in a carton. They wish to preserve things as they are. Likewise, they hate to use the last paper towel or bit of toilet paper on a roll, preferring to preserve the old order of things. In fact, they are so conservative that they will begin to use a new roll of these things rather than dismiss and supersede the old one. They simply perch the newly begun roll on top of the old one they don't dare reject, observing the hermeneutic of continuity rather than giving in to the hermeneutic of rupture.

Ignoratio Christi Est

Often when I read the Church Fathers or the great medieval theologians I can't help but notice how immersed they were in the Sacred Scriptures. The vocabulary, the theological imaginations therein, these writers seem to just swim in it.

Why am I not like that?

I think about it sometimes. Of course it's primarily my own fault and my own failure to let myself be absorbed by the Bible instead of clinging to the noise and nonsense of the world.

But I've come to think that we in our time are also subject to a set of mistakes and errors that keep us from living as deeply in the Scriptures as we could.

First, for some crazy reason that I've never understood, we have decided that all Christian doctrine is relative while certain other systems of doctrine are raised to an unassailable, dogmatic status. There are certain forms of psychology, for instance, and the anthropology and teachings of Alcoholics Anonymous, to take two common examples. Questioning these is often far more 'heretical' than leaning toward a genuine heresy. I imagine that most religious could name the seven sacraments. But I wouldn't be surprised to find out that more could list the Twelve Steps than could name the Ten Commandments, and I would be willing to bet on it for the mysteries of the rosary or the fruits of the Holy Spirit. Now I don't mean to say anything against the recovery movement itself, which has done a lot of good for a lot of people, but just to say that we religious are often confused and uncritical about what are and what ought to be the axiomatic foundations of our thinking and practice.

Second, I think our poor practices of liturgy contribute to the poverty of our relationship to the Scriptures. Since we have accepted as a norm, for example, the option of  substituting the ordinary texts of the Mass with songs and hymns, we receive the scriptural language and imagination of the Mass in a much more processed and derivative way in this regard than we would if we just sang the proper chants. That's really the lovely thing about chant on the theological level; the music conforms itself to the actual words of Scripture. In the offerings of the big music publishers, it's often more like the other way around; the scriptural theme conforms to the music.

Our practice of the Divine Office, too, represents certain missed opportunities to embed ourselves in the Sacred Scriptures. The Liturgy of the Hours is more or less made out of Scripture and provides an opportunity to return our hearts and imaginations to them five times each day. Unfortunately, I don't think we say our prayers. I know that I miss them sometimes, in my distraction and to my shame. This is bad enough for us as religious, but even worse for us who are clerics who have publicly promised the people of God that the Liturgy of the Hours would be celebrated fully and daily in our individual persons. In my own institute, because of our lukewarmness but also for good reasons regarding our ministries and good things we need to be about, we tend to celebrate in common the minimum of the Hours that our Constitutions demand. This leaves the rest to be prayed in private. Unfortunately, I don't think we do it. As one of my confreres once said, the 'saddest sound in religious life' comes from chunks of breviary pages being flipped forward in the chapel, not having been looked at it since the last time we prayed in common. Now I also think that some of this problem comes from an uncriticized and impoverished sense of liturgy as a community activity rather than the worship of God, but that's another rant. Today I only wish to rant about how we rob ourselves of the power of the Word by our failure to say our prayers.

Therefore, let's repent of all these errors. Let's say our prayers, sing the Mass instead of substituting something else, and recover the Sacred Scriptures as the true foundation of our thinking about ourselves, our spiritualities, and the world.

March 12, 2012

Motor Memory

In advance of my anticipated big move to Italy, I  have made a transitional move to our friary of post-novitiate formation. I lived here myself, of course, when I was in temporary vows and studying for ordination. That was six years and four moves ago. Our home is not here, but in heaven.

The room I have been given is on the same corridor as the room I had when I last lived here. Even after a couple of weeks, when I come out of the stairwell I still find my feet and eyes pointing me to my old room. I have to catch myself. Through all of the places I've lived, through all of the joys and sufferings of the past six years, hidden away in the memory of my eyes and feet was the orientation to my old room. It was there all along. I never noticed that this bodily memory was there, and why would I have?

Perhaps there's a lesson and encouragement about prayer in this. Maybe prayer is less an activity, and still less something I decide to do or not--let us put to death our inner semipelagian!--but just a consent and a surrender to an orientation that heart and mind have had all along. Underneath all of the undulation of devotion and dissipation, in the soil beneath the weeds and wheat of my meager acts of love and my outrageous selfishness and sin, perhaps there is a heart that would turn to God without a thought or reflection if only I would get out of the way.

It is through the only-begotten Wisdom of the Father that we are created, and the imprint of divine wisdom is on our hearts and minds. We have only to let go of the unwisdom of the world, to let the waters of our baptism wash the mud of distraction and sin from our eyes and ears and heart. Then we will find that we are becoming ourselves, the blessed humanity which God has regenerated for his glory, and that we have known who we really were all along.

March 10, 2012

Noctu vel Summo Mane

Daylight Savings Time begins tomorrow morning. Gone are the days when any significant number of people will come to church late; we have too many self-updating devices for that to happen anymore. I have the 8:30 a.m. Mass out in Wayland, so it will be an early morning for me.

As I go forward in this spiritual quest that my life has turned into, in this religious life and priesthood, my waking and sleeping phases have slowly moved backwards. More and more I want to get up when it's still dark, and have the early morning, the summo mane, as the Liturgy of the Hours calls it, to myself. Over the years my desired time for getting up has slowly crept backwards into the night.

This progression was somewhat interrupted during my three years as a parish priest. In that life one has to work when regular folks have free time, such as in the evening. But since leaving the parish life for a return to full-time study three semesters ago, the creep has begun again.

That's why I love the beginning of Daylight Savings Time, not because there is more daylight at the end of the day, but because an hour of morning darkness, lost since Christmas, is restored.

It was in the obscurity of eternity that God first spoke the creation: Let there be light. It was in the silence of that same eternity that he spoke the Word, and it is in the same obscure silence that we hear it. Dark always precedes light in the spiritual order. Evening came and morning followed, the first day.

In the same way, according to both Christian tradition and traditional wisdom, the incarnate Word was born at night. The Resurrection was discovered to have occurred in the morning, making it also a nocturnal event. Despite the reluctance of pastors, annoyed and tired children and drunken worshipers, the Christmas Mass at midnight still holds the imagination. Despite many liturgical abuses and misunderstandings, the greatest liturgy of the year, the baptismal Vigil of Easter, must be celebrated entirely at night.

Maybe it's true what someone once said to me about Capuchins being frustrated Trappists. But for whatever reason, the night continues to pull me back into itself, and I get up earlier and earlier.

March 9, 2012

Theses on Community Relations in Religious Life

People are a complex mixture of conscious and unconscious motivation.

Presume that the darker side of your own unconscious motivation conspires with that of others to make dysfunction in relationships and hinder the salvation of both parties. This is what it means to take the effects of original sin seriously in community life. Therefore, work on bringing the best parts of your conscious and rational motivations to bear in relationships.

Whether members of the community are attracted to or repelled by each other is likewise usually based in a mix of the good and the bad, the conscious and the unconscious. Therefore, there is little confidence to be taken from others being friendly to you, nor discouragement from them staying away.

We all tend to reproduce in community the place in the relational system that we had in our family of origin. This is neither good nor bad in itself, depending on the nature of that role and its relative utility for our salvation and the good of the community. It's not all toxic and maladaptive, though sometimes a lot of it is.

The more skilled and accomplished the manipulator, the greater the rage will be against him when those who have allowed themselves to be manipulated realize what has happened. Therefore, strive against your own tendency to manipulation.

Celibates do not have the experience of being parents, and so tend to be very out of their element when it comes to the discipline, teaching and care of very young children. Unfortunately, people who are still very young children on the emotional level are sometimes found in the community. Therefore, if you don't know how to love such persons such that they can grow, or are not permitted to try, stay away. The more they are not helped, or are appeased and spoiled rather than loved, the greater will be their tantrums.

Of those who suffer in community, some are victims. But most are volunteers.

People find change in the system upsetting. Therefore, even if you are changing in accord with your salvation, expect push-back from the community.

If you get along with everyone, worry that perhaps you are putting getting along ahead of your own heart. If you can't get along with anybody, worry that you are selfish.

If nobody is ever annoyed by your opinions, you probably don't really have any. If everybody is annoyed by them, perhaps you are an ideologue.

The point of community life is being brother to others, not having them be brother to us. It is not to say, 'I'm a brother' but 'I'm your brother.'

The community does not exist primarily to be a support on the natural level, and still less to provide for anyone's unrealistic emotional needs. It does not exist to provide some 'intimacy' that we have allegedly renounced by our celibacy. The community exists to be a sign of the arriving Kingdom of God, to be a sort of laboratory where practitioners of the Christian life can learn a certain wisdom that they can then pass on in ministry, and to be a place of interior asceticism for those whom God--in his mercy--calls to embrace the Cross of Jesus Christ in this particular way.

March 7, 2012

Intra tua vulnera absconde me

When I say I pray in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, what do I mean?

I don't imagine that my puny and distracted heart, full of vainglory and the vanities of this world, is capable of adoring in any commensurate way the mystery of the Incarnate only-begotten Word of God who gives himself to me under the little form of bread. With all of my sins and hardness of heart, it would be hypocritical to say that I loved God in any way that made common sense.

I guess what I mean is that I just appreciate and contemplate the love that Jesus Christ has for me, a crucified love that has been calling to me and drawing me in for as long as I can remember. And he remains, patiently resting in all the tombs I make for myself with my sins, resting in all his tabernacles, waiting patiently and lovingly for me to grow weary of all the boredom and sadness I insist upon for myself.

The consuming fire of his humility burns to weightless ash all the pagan altars that the demons trick me into building in my heart. And when I finally let go of all of it and let my soul melt in the embrace of his Cross, I find that his Passion has torn open his flesh in the same shape as my own broken heart.

So I place my heart in his wounds, and adore the Love who pursues me.

My Vocation: An Examination of Conscience

Today in the gospel we have the wonderful scene of Mrs. Zebedee trying to intrigue with Jesus for her sons to have the top spots in the Kingdom. (Matthew 20:17-28) Jesus responds by explaining that it doesn't work like that in his Kingdom; it won't be like it is among the gentiles where one lords it over another. Instead, to be close to Jesus, to sit by his side, will mean drinking the chalice of Christ's passion and suffering. The one who wants to be great must be the servant, and the one who wants to be first will be the slave.

This is the sort of teaching that put the hook in me for Christianity when I first sat down and read the New Testament. Here was the answer to the never-ending violence of this world, to the disregard for human life and the natural world, to the structures of privilege that gave so many material advantages to some and so few to others. The answer was a sort of inverted revolution accomplished by Christ crucified, a revolution that provides human nature with an escape from the violence of power and the tyranny of the self, a path from the death of sin to the life of Resurrection.

The Franciscan expression of Christianity grabbed me similarly. Here was what becoming the servant and slave looked like in practical terms. Francis had renounced his status and refused to have money. He had insisted on 'most high poverty.' For a kid who knew of no durable and complete way to understand the world and what it meant that he was in it, and who wondered why he should have the safety and leisure, the fun and play of being in college while other kids the same age were dying or suffering terrible traumas inside and out in Iraq, it was a powerful message.

Twenty years later, I have to ask myself how it's going. Have I drunk the chalice of Jesus Christ? Have I become servant and slave of all? Has my life as a friar made me a follower of most high poverty? I'm not sure. In some ways the religious life that I have found is more bourgeois in its orientation and presumptions than anything I knew beforehand. I live in a nice house. I can go out to eat if I want to. I have a smartphone. I can have nice beer. I have a reliable internet connection and pretty good health coverage.

For the three years I was a parish priest, I even had a good job. Having earned my credentials at the former Weston Jesuit School of Theology, I learned the trade, and found myself suited to it by both natural talent and supernatural gifts. I had my own office. Sometimes I felt like a functionary in a sacramental bureaucracy, especially when I found myself--as I often did--presiding at funerals, weddings, and baptisms of folks with little or no interest in the faith. But even at those moments I was usually able to rise to the occasion and preach even harder and better, giving reverence to the intense privilege of the opportunity for evangelization.

But I didn't get into this thing to have a career, to be a 'professional minister,' or even to be a respectable member of society. Were the apostles 'professional ministers'? Does anyone ask for the CVs of the martyrs? Have I drunk the chalice of Jesus Christ? Have I become a follower of most high poverty?

But here a critical and difficult question emerges: As a finally professed religious, is my obedience my poverty? Is my renunciation of my own will, the 'money bag of my own opinions' as St. Bonaventure put it, my highest poverty and my renunciation of the world? For example, if my superior tells me to take a nice vacation because he thinks I need it, or tells me to go buy new shoes because the ones I have are ratty and unpresentable, is letting go of my own will and ideas about these things my drinking of the chalice of Jesus' passion and death, even though the world is full of poor people and poor children who will never enjoy a nice vacation or have a new pair of shoes?

March 6, 2012

Some Thoughts on Where I Am These Days

A few days ago I turned forty years old. Since I was baptized when I was twenty, I have spent more or less half my life as a convert to Catholic Christianity. I'm still a little awed when I think of this having happened to me. On the one hand, there were lots of kids just like me at Connecticut College. Why should I have received this gift, this mercy of God? Maybe it's none of my business to know. On the other hand, the older I get, the more I can see the work of God preparing me for the vocation he has given me. I feel it in the daily practice of my priesthood; in many ways, some plain and practical and others very subtle, from a very young age God has been preparing me to offer the sacrifice of the Mass.

Of the half of my life I have been a Catholic, I have spent about two-thirds of it in religious life: a year and a half in the OFM right after college and then with the OFM Cap. starting in the summer of 2000. In another six months, on our Blessed Mother's birthday, I will have been a priest for five years. The first three years of my priesthood I spent working as a parish priest in Yonkers, New York. After that, the community asked me to move back to Boston to begin doctoral work. This assignment, however, has been interrupted by another. Last I heard, I am to move to Italy in the later spring, spend the summer in Assisi learning Italian, and then take a position in the Capuchin general secretariat in Rome starting in the fall.

It's funny being a convert. Some say converts make the best Catholics. Others say that converts tend to by annoying and given to rigidity. For better or for worse, I share some of the typical traits of Catholic converts and reverts of my generation, such as a delight in doctrine and a certain sort of  attachment to the practices and behaviors of the faith, what the older generation likes to call 'structure.' Like other converts and reverts, I have found in this a blessed deliverance from the vertigo of this world's relativism and a refreshment from the boredom of its hedonism. I want to say that I don't make any apologies for this, though that would be a lie. I have made apologies over the years, in my sin and to my shame.

So, on the one hand, being a convert makes me an intensely committed Christian, Catholic, religious, and priest according to a certain pattern and along certain axes. On the other hand, the convert knows God in all of his blessed adventitiousness, as a God who has worked life-altering discernments, desires, decisions, and movements in one's life before, and who has to be known as someone who is free to continue to do so.

March 5, 2012

Night Watch

Today in the Office of Readings we arrive at the Israelites crossing the Red Sea. As I was praying through the reading this time around I was struck especially by the indicators of time. The crossing itself was made at night. I think that's something we don't always remember; depictions of the event don't always help. Then, at the last watch just before dawn, the presence of God throws Pharaoh's army into a panic and their chariot wheels get clogged and mired. Then, at dawn, at God's command, Moses stretches his hand over the sea and the waters cover and drown the army.

As I was thinking about this, I thought that perhaps our spiritual condition is finding ourselves in that moment just before dawn. Our salvation has been accomplished; by our baptism we have passed through the water and arrived at the beginning our journey to the Promised Land. The pursuing army of Pharaoh, mired in the mud and in a panic, can no longer get to us or hurt us. But the chariots and charioteers are still there, probably loud and certainly ferocious. We can still hear their war cries, and we know they want to kill us. And sometimes in our lingering fear and distracted by the noise, we fall into doubts and sin despite the salvation we have received.

We stand, saved but sometimes still scared, as we await the full dawn of the Resurrection.

March 3, 2012

The Salvific Un/Willingness

Mainstream religious life, at least in my cultural context, faces some large and fundamental challenges. Hardly anybody would disagree with that. What we disagree on is how to go forward. Some think we need to retrieve what has been lost and restore what once was. Others see our trouble as having failed to complete or commit to the process of renewal and updating called for by Vatican II. Sometimes I think I have an opinion on this, and sometimes I don't. More and more I feel like most of what I hear in this debate has hardened into unwisdom.

But here's one thing of which I am increasingly convinced: A religious must be maximally willing to lose his life for Jesus Christ through the charism of which the Holy Spirit has made him a steward. At the same time, however, a religious must be maximally unwilling to lose his soul to the state of religious life as a human institution.

The most dangerous temptations religious face both individually and corporately seek to invert this stance, to help us find ways to protect our lives from the invitation of the charism while simultaneously tricking us into losing our souls and salvation to the institution.

It is a difficult and, at times, harrowing discernment to follow this stance in the small moments of daily life as well as the larger contours of one's vocation. But it is the burning love of the Crucified within, and it is salvation.

March 2, 2012

Quaerere Deum

My first priest, who dealt with me in my early curiosities about becoming a Catholic, and who also had the burden of my pastoral care from my neophyte days until I graduated from college and joined the Leonine Franciscans, has always insisted that I am supposed to be a Benedictine rather than a Franciscan.

I, of course, am not convinced of his assertion, though I wouldn't be surprised to learn that some of my Capuchin confreres agreed with it.

Nevertheless, watching this video from the new monastery of St. Benedict in Norcia, I can't deny the attraction. I think I also heard that they plan to build a new abbey where there once stood a Capuchin friary. Go figure.

When I get to my own new assignment in Italy, I'm looking forward to visiting these monks. In some of the scenes I see what looks like a friar in a Conventual sort of habit, so I already feel welcome.

March 1, 2012

Mille Viae

Today I am no longer a guardian, or local superior/minister of a friary. This is the latest of several disentangling transitions I'm going through in preparation for my transfer to Rome and the general secretariat of the Order.

It's funny. Most people would think that for a Roman Catholic religious and priest, a move to Rome would be an exciting moment and a coveted privilege. But not everyone sees it that way.

For example, here's a portion of an email I received from a priest, in which he gives me his advice on going to live among the Romans:

And how long will you be among the killers of my Lord and Savior? I understand that God's abundant mercy has been extended to them but be careful in any event.