January 29, 2013

Of Bridesmaids and Tabernacles

Making the rounds on Facebook today was a picture of a group of bridesmaids. Wearing strapless dresses and photographed from behind while sitting in a pew in church, the viewer might easily imagine that the poor things were wearing nothing at all. Of course I was amused; many times I have endured the jarring experience of observing a group of bridesmaids while presiding at a wedding, unable to recognize the anxious creatures as continuous with the group of pretty young women I had met in the same role two evenings before at the wedding rehearsal, so transformed they were by unflattering dresses, fussy hairdos, and too much makeup.

January 26, 2013

Of Toothpaste And The Superlative Universe

When I buy toothpaste for myself, one of the brands I often choose is the Colgate that says, "Great Regular Flavor." It's not that I give any thought to the product itself; I'm just amused by the claim as a piece of language. I find it a funny example of the overreach of the language of advertising, the overlapping uses of 'regular,' etc. It's 'great' but it's also 'regular.'  It's a superlative world we consumers live in; the regular (read: ordinary) is great.

January 23, 2013

Touches and Imperatives

It's probably because trying to learn Italian makes me more attentive to grammar, but as we've started once again to journey through St. Mark in the daily lectionary, I've been thinking about how Jesus heals people.

Sometimes it's by a touch, as in Peter's mother-in-law or the leper in chapter one. Later on, in chapter five, we'll see that the touch works the other way too, when the woman with the hemorrhages is healed just by reaching out and touching Jesus' garment. These touches exist for us in our prayer, as we strive to reach out to God through the crowd of our distractions and attachments, and as God touches us in so many ways, noticed and unnoticed, but especially in Holy Communion.

But touch isn't the only way Jesus heals. The paralytic in chapter two and the man with the withered hand in chapter three are healed by a word. And it's not just a word, but an imperative, a command. 'Rise, take up your pallet and go home.' 'Stretch out your hand.' The new wholeness for each came in obedience to the command, and the imperative holds within itself the power to be effected. Divine speech is creative in its very utterance--'God said, and so it happened'--and by just the command of Jesus these two people are created anew, renovated.

It seems to me this sort of reflection can save us from two ways our sense of religion gets impoverished sometimes.

First, without quite knowing it, we can start to think as the world does in viewing the imperatives and 'rules' of the faith as arbitrary or oppressive. But the truth is, though they may seem otherwise to our minds made confused and wills made disordered by sin, all of the commands of God are of the form, 'rise' and 'stretch out,' that is to say ordered to our wholeness, flourishing, and happiness.

Second, sometimes I hear hints of an impoverished sense of God's will with regard to salvation, a sense that salvation is something God simply offers to the world for anyone who might be fortunate enough to find it and diligent enough to accept it. Holding such an idea, even half-consciously, can be attractive because it lets the believer think himself a little special. "God, I thank you that I am not like other men." But the truth is that salvation isn't just something God offers to the world, but something God wills for the world. Indeed, God commands us to be saved, willing and desiring passionately that we should become free to be the creatures he made us to be for his glory and one another's salvation. And just like the imperatives that healed the paralytic and the man with the withered hand, God's command is effective; it contains within itself the power to stand up, to stretch out hearts and minds turned in on themselves in misery and sin.

January 22, 2013

Doing The Red

Here's a cute story.

One of the jobs I've picked up in my time here in the Curia is some of the day-to-day busywork for the website. Yesterday was a good example. Brother director of communications prepared and published a web page of the latest decisions of the general council of the Order. Then, as translations of the text arrived from the different language secretaries, it was up to me to 'case and paste;' I take the code from the Italian page, switch in the translated text, and publish more pages.

When I first received the text, brother director called my attention to a little part highlighted in red. It was an updated bit of information, he wrote in his email, and I should 'do it like this' on the translated pages. By this he meant that each of the webpages should appear with the updated information, but because I'm slow and simple, or perhaps distracted by interior or spiritual things more pressing or interesting than spending my life in grand cascades of copy and paste, I 'did it like that' just as he said, reproducing the same part of the text in bright red on each of the webpages.

Another email brought my silliness to my attention, and I went back and fixed each of the pages. Looking for a humorous way to excuse my having appeared as a simpleton, I blamed my behavior on my disordered appreciation of rubrics.

January 20, 2013

Sunday Ramble

I really appreciate Sundays in my current assignment. It seems like we make an effort to put work on hold for a day and just take some quiet. After Mauds*, four empty hours of morning stretch out wonderfully before dinner. I tend to use the time to read, to clean out my inbox by answering those emails that are a little more personal or for whatever reason were more suited to a quieter moment, and to write real letters. Today I came to the end of all that with some time still remaining before dinner, so I went to the chapel to say Midday Prayer (which we don't have in common on Sundays) and to pray a little.

I was praying about how my moods and emotional states still have too much of an effect on my discernment and where I imagine myself to be with God. Whether I feel good or lousy on the emotional level, either way, interferes with the clarity of my prayer. I can even start to mistake these states for my spiritual condition. I prayed for a greater sense of faith, as something that I stand upon, or that grounds, or is behind or above--pick whichever metaphor works for you--all of that.

What came to mind was a set of events in my life: my baptism, my religious profession, my priestly ordination, and how, in God, these moments held within themselves everything that came after them for me, much of which I never would of imagined. On that tired old Saturday afternoon in the summer of 1992, when Deacon Ron poured water on my head and invoked the Blessed Trinity, everything that has come of my Christianity was contained in that brief moment of water and word: the twists and turns the journey has taken me on, the fellowship, the loneliness, the sensations of being lost and then found, or found and then lost, the joys and regrets, the friendships made and the friends lost. There were present all the prayers I would ever say, and the few of them that have been truly prayerful. Even all the sins I have committed since that moment were present in my baptism in a certain way. For, as I'll never forget, I once asked a spiritual director where God was when I was sinning. And he looked at me like I was the sad, ignorant case that I am and said, "He's on the Cross, suffering with you."

In the double-moment of my religious profession, first on a Saturday Morning in Yonkers, New York, and then, four years later, on another one in Middletown, Connecticut, my whole life as a Capuchin friar was present, my joy at receiving the mercy of this vocation and the salvation God has worked for me through it, my struggles to know how to observe the Rule I have promised, the burning desire for obedience, poverty, and chastity God has put in me set against the shallowness of my efforts to put them into practice. In that moment were all the joys and consolation I have had from brothers who have been true brother to me, as well as the injuries I bear from those who have hurt me. And there are all of my meager attempts to be brother to the brothers the Lord has given me, and all my failures to live up that simple title. And there is so much more, all of it every way that my whole experiment of finding myself in this journey of Christianity has come to be inextricably woven together with the example and words of St. Francis of Assisi.

In my ordination to the priesthood, in that moment when Se├ín O'Malley laid his hands on my head, anointed my hands, and prayed over me the prayer of consecration, everything my priesthood has been was present. There were the infinite graces of each Mass I have ever offered, there was whatever truth and encouragement the Holy Spirit was ever able to give to God's people through my small efforts at being a diligent preacher, there was the privilege of hearing every confession I've ever heard, as well as the awesome, saving healing of every absolution I have ever given, the forgiveness of God--stronger than sin and death--given from Jesus Christ to St. Peter and then passed down through the hands of so many and finally into the unworthy, dingy vessel of my voice.

I realize that I stand on those moments, and that whatever else should become of me as a Christian, as a religious, and as a priest, from right now, on this rainy Sunday afternoon until I should die, sooner or later, flows from them and, in a sense, is those moments. And I think this is what we mean when we talk about things as sacraments.

I arrived at such a confession through recalling a reflection on faith I used to have from time to time when I was working in the parish. A certain collection of circumstances led me to have, during the middle set of my three springs and summers as a parish priest, a lot of weddings. I think there was a spell of fourteen weeks, if I remember rightly, during which I had at least one every weekend. So that meant a weekly rhythm of rehearsals and wedding liturgies themselves, not to mention many last-minute phone calls from anxious brides and a few near-misses with paperwork arriving from other dioceses. So during this time, as a result of reflecting on what I could say for wedding homilies, shtick for rehearsals, and little catecheses for meetings, I had a lot of opportunity to reflect on what marriage might mean as an act of worship and faith. And it was just this that began to strike me, that a marriage was an expression of faith. In giving themselves to each other precisely as sacrament, what the couple were proclaiming to the Church and to the world was their faith that what they had found in each other was going to be stronger, more important, and more durable than a future that they didn't and couldn't know. It was to say that the goodness of the Creator had come to be reflected in their union, that they had found in each other the original blessing--a blessing not forfeited by original sin nor washed away by the flood, as one of the nuptial blessings puts it--that was the gaze of God upon his creation when he knew it to be good. God is love, and so to be in love always touches upon God and his eternity, which is why lovers always say, 'forever',whether they know what they are saying or not. The experience itself demands the closest imitation we have of God's eternity, our total self-giving, our unqualified 'forever.'

So in my own reflection for myself today, I find something similar. If I really believe in sacrament and it what the Church means by public vows, I too have to know that there was more faithfulness present in my baptism, religious profession, and ordination than a 'faith' that I could have been aware of in my own subjective desire or fervor or relative lack thereof at those moments. This is because our 'faith' isn't about how we feel or even how we think, in the sense of the depth of our intellectual assent to the articles of the faith, but about our willingness to let the faithfulness of Jesus Christ make a home within us, both for our own salvation and for that of others as it may please the Holy Spirit to work it through us.

May you attain full knowledge of God's will through perfect wisdom and spiritual insight. Then you will lead a life worthy of the Lord and pleasing to him in every way. You will multiply good works of every sort and grow in the knowledge of God. By the might of his glory you will be endowed with the strength needed to stand fast, even to endure joyfully whatever may come. (Colossians 1:9b-11, reading for Evening Prayer, Monday of Week I)

*"Mauds" is the name I give to the liturgy that results from combining Morning Prayer with Mass, as a portmanteau of 'Mass' and 'Lauds.' For more information see my post, "On the Various Forms of Prass."

January 18, 2013


Today's gospel, Mark 2:1-12,

When Jesus returned to Capernaum after some days, it became known that he was at home. Many gathered together so that there was no longer room for them, not even around the door, and he preached the word to them. They came bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. Unable to get near Jesus because of the crowd, they opened up the roof above him. After they had broken through, they let down the mat on which the paralytic was lying. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to him, “Child, your sins are forgiven.” Now some of the scribes were sitting there asking themselves, “Why does this man speak that way? He is blaspheming. Who but God alone can forgive sins?” Jesus immediately knew in his mind what they were thinking to themselves, so he said, “Why are you thinking such things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, pick up your mat and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins on earth”–he said to the paralytic, “I say to you, rise, pick up your mat, and go home.” He rose, picked up his mat at once, and went away in the sight of everyone. They were all astounded and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this.”

I have never known quite what to make of the question of the forgiveness of sins in this passage, or what the 'easier' is supposed to mean. In preaching it, therefore, I have usually tended to shift the focus to the four men who carry the paralytic and break through the roof in order to get him in front of Jesus. That's a challenging image of Christian friendship, I say, exerting ourselves and even doing what is outrageous in order to get a friend into the presence of Jesus. Fine, it's a clever thought, and it makes for a nice little homily. Nevertheless, I was happy to find in Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives a beautiful reflection on the aspects of the passage that I have never known how to understand, and which are certainly more important:

The paralytic needed to be able to walk, not to be delivered from his sins. The scribes criticized the theological presumption of Jesus' words: the sick man and those around him were disappointed, because Jesus had apparently overlooked the man's real need. 
I consider this whole scene to be of key significance for the question of Jesus' mission, in the terms with which it was first described in the angel's message to Joseph. ["...you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." Matthew 1:21] In the passage concerned, both the criticism of the scribes and the silent expectation of the onlookers is acknowledged. Jesus then demonstrates his ability to forgive sins by ordering the sick man to take up his pallet and walk away healed. At the same time, the priority of forgiveness for sins as the foundation of all true healing is clearly maintained. 
Man is a relational being. And if his first, fundamental relationship is disturbed--his relationship with God--then nothing else can be truly in order. This is where the priority lies in Jesus' message and ministry: before all else, he wants to point man toward the essence of his malady, and to show him--if you are not healed there, then however many good things you may find, you not truly healed.
It is from carrying poorly the injuries to our spiritual heart that we fall into the worst kinds of violence and disregard for ourselves and one another, but it also through their healing in forgiveness that we become free to love.

January 14, 2013

Winter Ordinary Time in Heaven

Ah, Monday of the first week of Ordinary Time. So begins that curiously plain liturgical 'season' that runs from the morning after the feast of the Baptism of the Lord until the night before Ash Wednesday. It's on the short side this year, just four weeks and three days.

Back when I was at the parish I used to joke that winter Ordinary Time was my favorite liturgical season. It was just so wonderful when I would go to open the church at six in the morning and have so little to do. There were no windows to open and fans to turn on, no crawling around, bumbling with the switches and plugs of Christmas trees and Nativity scenes, no trying to guess if you could get away with not turning on the suggestive racket of the baptismal waterfall, no futility of trying to light a paschal candle for a few minutes before giving up and getting the ladder, no trying not to notice the dead leaves of Easter lilies or Christmas poinsettias such that they could prick your conscience and have it remind you that surely taking the time to remove such things from the Lord's sanctuary before Mass would give him more glory than the pleasure of one's private prayers which were probably vain anyway.

In winter Ordinary Time there was none of that. All you had to do was throw on the lights and set up the few things for the humblest of Masses, and you could pray in the empty quiet.

Sometimes I like to think of Heaven as something like winter Ordinary Time; as finding oneself in place that is refreshingly, almost startlingly open and spacious, marked most of all by an emptiness of fuss and worry such that the only thing left to do is love God.

January 5, 2013

Pilgrimage to St. Benedict Joseph Labre

Guessing that it was probably the last day of Christmas quiet here in the Curia, I decided that yesterday was the right moment for a little pilgrimage I had been hoping to make.

I first happened upon a devotion to St. Benedict Joseph Labre in the days after my departure from the novitiate of the OFM. I had entered their formation program right after college. It was a very rich of time, full of formative experiences, things learned, and friendships made for which I have become increasingly grateful over the years. In the end, though, it didn't work out. I found myself marking my third anniversary of baptism already a novice religious; I had a lot of zeal, but not a lot of roots. I was also very innocent in a lot of ways; most of my expectations of religious life had been formed from reading the lives of the saints and from the movies. Having found something different and not a few things that were hard for me to understand or interpret, life got confusing. On the advice of my directors, I left half-way through the novitiate, on Christmas morning.

It was a strange time, difficult and confusing.  But it also got to be a very blessed time, a moment when I began to learn for myself--somewhat ironically--what Franciscan poverty really meant for me. I had to seek in prayer what I was supposed to do, not in some abstract sense of 'what should I do with my life', but in the immediate and concrete sense of what I was supposed to do the very next day.

At some point in this moment of my journey I discovered Benedict Joseph Labre. I don't remember if I read somewhere that he was the patron saint of people dismissed from religious life or if I decided it myself. If he's not, he should be. Having decided that he wanted to become a Trappist, he applied to La Trappe and was rejected. After that he tried to be a Carthusian, but was sent home after a few months. After that he was admitted to another monastery of Trappists, but that didn't work out either. In each of these cases, one immediately suspects something that what we would call mental illness or at least instability. What he had taken to be a vocation to religious life not having materialized, Benedict Joseph became a kind of homeless pilgrim, a 'fool for Christ', visiting and praying at the shrines of Europe. He died during Holy Week of 1783, at the age of 35, on a street in the neighborhood of S. Maria ai Monti in Rome, where he attended Mass each morning.

What I hadn't known before moving here to Rome is that Benedict Joseph Labre is also buried in that same church; the people of the area already thought him a saint at his death. When I realized this, I knew I had to make a pilgrimage.

Hic Jacet Corpus S. B. J. Labre

If you know Rome at all, S. Maria ai Monti is close to the Cavour stop on Metro B, so it's also not far from the Colosseum. St. Benedict Joseph's altar is the first one to the left of the sanctuary.

After praying for everyone I could think of, I spent some time just sitting by Benedict Joseph's altar. I got to thinking about how many times, on the way back and forth to Italian school, I had rode by on the subway not so far from there, totally unaware of my passing the remains of this saint given to me as an important devotion in my own story. I thought that perhaps he had been praying for me all that time. Some of those summer days weren't so easy, in fact, especially during the second half of August as Rome went dead and the heat seemed like it would never end, and there I was, still living the grind of language school. Probably Benedict Joseph Labre is praying for everyone who passes by on Metro B, especially those in any kind of struggle.

One time I went to confession and the priest recommended to me as a penance to pray for everybody who was praying for me. A lot of people pray for priests and religious, he said, and it was a good thing to remember and remain grateful for their charity. I think there's a lot of courage in that, to remember that we are being prayed for not only in ways that we are aware of, but also by people and in in ways that are hidden from our awareness. Indeed, in the largest sense, this is one of the great encouragements of being a Catholic. When we say that we are members of the 'Catholic' Church, we don't mean this primarily as a historical or geographical category, but as an acclamation of a communion that embraces at once the Church on earth, the Church in heaven, and the Church in purgatory. To pray in Christ is to embrace the catholicity of this communion, to confess and take courage that the Church in Heaven is praying with us and for us.

St. Benedict Joseph Labre, pray for us.

January 1, 2013

Motherhood of Mary

The Martyrology is marvelous today:

The octave of the Nativity of the Lord and the day of his Circumcision, the solemnity of holy Mary, Mother of God, whom the Fathers at the Council of Ephesus acclaimed Theotokos, for from her the Word took flesh and the Son of God lived among human beings, he who is the prince of peace, to whom a Name above all names is given.

It's all in there: the solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, the octave of Christmas, the feast of the Circumcision, (which continues to be celebrated today in the Extraordinary Form), the feast of the Holy Name, of course associated with the circumcision but now having migrated to January 3, and even the the World Day of Peace, given to us by Pope Venerable Paul VI.

I know that the Motherhood of Mary, now today's principal title, is a restoration of something older and more venerable, but I've still sometimes wished that we could have the feast of the Lord's Circumcision. Maybe it's because the circumcision of my older nephew was one of the most interesting rituals I have ever been privileged to attend.

I think about this very bodily ritual by which Jesus of Nazareth was brought into the covenant of Abraham and I'm led to contemplate the mystery of his human body, out of the flesh of Mary, as the hinge that joins the old creation to the new.

I think about this sometimes at Holy Communion. It's clear that the Body of Christ we receive is not the finite, historical body of Jesus of Nazareth. (This is why I consider misled and confused those priests who replace 'behold the Lamb of God' at Communion with 'this is Jesus...') The Body we receive is Christ risen into the Sacraments of his Church. The wonder and marvelous mystery--as well as the stumbling block--of it all is that this Risen Body is continuous with the historical life of Jesus of Nazareth, born of Mary, executed on the Cross.

By our Holy Communion, we too become sharers in this mystery. We are made citizens of the new creation and are offered the grace to become new, renovated creatures, the grace of eyes to see new hope in the midst of the aimlessness and violence of the world. But at the same time we remain, in some sense, children of Adam and Eve, laboring under the confusions, pathologies, and injuries that are the whole human legacy of brutality and sin to which we are the latest heirs. Christianity makes us into very curious beings, blessed messes, weeds and wheat, rejoicing in our newly-granted citizenship in the new creation but still struggling with everything that continues to bind us to the old.


Friar 1: "How's your life, Father?"

Friar 2: "My life? There is no longer 'my life' but Christ who lives in me."

Friar 1: "I think Christ is a little cranky today."

It's cute, but I think it captures something. Despite the dual citizenship of the Christian, member of the 'Israel of God' which nonetheless is still in pilgrimage in history, he is not two people, but one. From the Cross Jesus gave us his mother to be our mother. By our burial into his death in baptism, we are reborn of Mary. We become the offspring of her 'fruitful virginity,' itself the great sign of the dawning new creation.

And yet it is the child of Eve who becomes a child of Mary, and the 'inner child' that was born of Eve remains. Miserable as he necessarily is, I need to treat him like the spoiled, short-sighted, tantrum-throwing brat that original sin has made him. I have to put him in 'time out' when it's time to pray and when I'm called to any kind of delicate and difficult charity for my neighbor. But I also have to look upon him with some fondness, not hating him, and not treating him with the contempt which only makes his wounds fester all the more, for he also is me.