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."