I’m writing from my little house chapel. When I first sat down, my mind was anything but focused. I’m traveling later in the day… need to pack, meet with some facilities management folks, say two masses and about a dozen other things before hacking my way up the BW Parkway to fly to my niece’s baptism. So, yes… distracted. Unto itself, that wasn’t a problem. BUT… in the midst of that distracted state thoughts of my own foolishness, sinfulness, inadequacy all started flooding my consciousness, and this distinct phrase, “You not worthy to pray this morning.” Forcing myself, I opened the psalms for Morning Prayer and began to read slowly aloud. By the time my prayer concluded, I felt so much better.
The Psalms of the Divine Office go on day in and day out. No matter how we feel, no matter what we have done or failed to do. The constancy of their praise, of their rejoicing in the Lord reminds us that it’s really not about us. Mother Angelica once said, “Do you know that God sees everything that you do? .. and he loves you and wants you to be happy.” Even the greatest saint is, unto him/herself unworthy of prayer, praise, happiness and glory. That’s not the point… HE, the Father, loves us anyway and invites us to rejoice in his love and care.
Read the Psalms… follow the Divine Office day in and day out… it’ll put your focus back on the Lord. And should you ever hear a little voice saying, “You’re not worthy to pray this morning.” Reply back simply, “You’re right, but it’s not about me.”
I’m reading a great book by Michael Chricton, author of Jurassic Park. It’s all about his world travels, a memoir of sorts. One line stuck out this week as he described his efforts to watch the great sea turtles of Malaysia lay their eggs: “Driving miles back and forth in the dark looking for my hotel, this wasn’t high adventure, just mundane frustration.” Rarely does a written word make me laugh out loud, but that phrase had me roaring. As we traverse Lent, there’s certainly a dimension of high adventure: “Lord, I’m with you in the desert. Lord, save me from my sins; make me holy! Lord make me more perfectly your instrument in the world!” All off this is very real. Like the woman at the well, or the man born blind, or Lazarus in the tomb, Jesus desires to do great things for us. But those great things don’t come along every moment of every day, do they?
The woman suffered years of humiliation, the blind man a life without sight, Lazarus death before the hero -Jesus- arrived to save them… and afterwards all of them had to clean their homes, go shopping and deal with the desert heat like anyone else. The Blessed Virgin Mary too… she had lots of great adventurous moments, but in between she lived, daily, with the knowledge that one day a sword would pierce her. Hence, even in happy moments, she is portrayed with a very pensive almost sad look.
The line between high adventure and mundane frustration is thin indeed. While I can’t take away or speed up those hard moments, the witness of Scripture has certainly helped me through so much frustration. In the famous Lenten Psalm 51, we learn, “Sacrificium Deo spiritus contribulatus.” “A spirit afflicted with tribulation is a sacrifice to God.” The standard English translation, “my sacrifice is a contrite spirit,” doesn’t really capture the substance of what God is telling us. He’s saying that he knows our struggle… he knows how the long days and even years of challenge hurt our hearts. He knows because Jesus his Son experienced all of it. …And just as Jesus offered the high adventures and the mundane frustration to his Father as a worthy sacrifice to save us, we can do likewise through him. Be not afraid, our sufferings have meaning! With Christ we are winning great graces from the Father for the salvation of our families, our community, our world.
Well, it’s here. Tomorrow we begin our yearly observance of Lent. The following are some reflections I offered to our parish Sodality about walking with Mary during Lent. I hope you find them edifying:
Peace! I’m writing with gratitude and encouragement for your good works in our parish of St. Francis Xavier. As we enter the holy season of Lent, the witness of your devotion to Our Lady takes on special meaning for our community. Walking with our Lord toward the Cross and Resurrection, we so need for Mary to be with us at each step of the way.
In life’s general challenges, we might think of Mary during the hidden years at Nazareth. Nearly every painting made of our Lady shows – to the surprise of most viewers – a serious or even sad look on her face… even as she holds the Christ child in her arms. The cross was part of her existence even then. Recall Simeon’s prophecy, “and you yourself a sword shall pierce.” (Lk 2:35). So even through the events of daily life, perhaps even before Jesus himself grew to understand the sacrifice that would be required of him, Mary had to bear the weight of a shadowed future. We can be assured that Our Lady will be sympathetic to our pleas as we deal with the cross in daily life.
In the actual and most intense moments of challenge, when we walk with Jesus up the via dolorosa on the way to Calvary, the one face in the crowd we know we can count on is Mary. She is the Mother who never forgets her child and in a uniquely maternal way shares with us the pains of our sacrifices. It is precisely in that sharing, in that solidarity that we find hope; we are not alone.
Finally, after the sacrifice has been made, as we gather in the Upper Room with the Apostles, we learn from Mary how to wait… how to wait patiently, faithfully, upon the coming of Resurrection Life and Light. How often would we completely collapse were it not for the warm embrace of a loved one saying, “it’s OK, just a little longer and everything will be all right.” Such is the love our Blessed Mother gives in that quiet time after the immediate pain has passed and all we can do is wait.
All my prayers and encouragement go with you this Lent as you direct our parishioners and neighbors to the maternal embrace of Mary directly in prayer and mirrored in the life of our Holy Mother the Church.
Surrounding Washington are a series of beautiful places that most people never pay much attention to: cemeteries. Like Rome before, Washington’s cemeteries are on its peripheries. Historically, dead bodies were always interred outside city boundaries for reasons of hygiene. As a result, however, they take on their own sort of civic identity, becoming necropolises, “cities of the dead.”
Visiting cemeteries is an important part of Christian existence. It helps us keep up a real relationship with those who have gone before us: each visit to a loved one’s grave is a little sacrifice we can offer up for their sake, contributing to their journey to heaven. Such visits can also serve as important reminders of our own mortality… a reality many prefer to ignore. And those reminders aren’t just a help to our own [hopefully] distant judgment, but to our daily lives here and now. St. Philip Neri told the faithful of Rome,
“An excellent way of keeping ourselves from relapsing into serious faults is to say to ourselves every evening, ‘tomorrow I may be dead.'”
Philip’s suggestion is full of a typically dark Roman humor, but I’ve found it very practical. He certainly had taken time to consider the Last things (death, judgment, hell and heaven). For the first few years after St. Philip’s arrival in Rome, he spent considerable time walking among the catacombs outside the city walls.
It was an odd practice. The old cemeteries had not been mapped at that point. Grave robbers and other unsavory types were known to seek refuge in the catacomb tunnels. There was no light save the candle St. Philip brought with him, and the tunnel paths were far from stable. It should also be mentioned that unlike today’s well preserved and clean pilgrimage sites, the catacombs in Philip’s day were filled with dead bodies! Despite all that, Philip felt drawn over and over again to visit these holy sites, to commune with those who’d gone before, especially the martyrs.
It was a monastic period in St. Philip’s life. New to the city, he had disappointed his family’s hopes for his future in business. Philip knew he wanted to serve God, but wasn’t sure how. He earned his bread by tutoring the children of a local merchant, didn’t really know anyone. His catacomb walks were, perhaps, distilled expressions of a deeper loneliness he experienced walking the streets of the living city, pondering his future. Nonetheless, from within that solitude a voice began to speak to St. Philip, the voice of God our Father. He was directed to serve the needs of the poor and of pilgrims entering the city after long grueling journeys. From among these good deeds a small cadre of disciples began to emerge surrounding St. Philip and evangelizing the city. They became the Oratory: a loose family of priests and lay people bound together by charity and a commitment to the evangelization of culture. They changed the history of Rome and so the whole Church!
In spite of the crowds that flow up and down DC’s avenues each day, so many people feel as if they’re walking among open graves… alone, scared, worried about falling into a pit at any moment. It’s true, one can certainly look at an urban life’s journey that way… and given the trials and tribulations so man people face each day, I get it. Even as a priest, I sometimes feel like I’m walking alone among the ruins. But Philip’s experience reminds us that there is another way to use our solitude… to use it as a time of privileged listening for the Love of God. Surely he’s calling each of us to a path like St. Philip’s, by which we do works contributing to the building up of something truly great. This week, apropos as we approach Lent, consider visiting one of DC’s cemeteries… drive in, park your car and take a walk among the graves. You may find a surprising clarity and approach things differently when you return to the city of the living.
“Who walked for so many years among the catacombs, pray for us!”
-from the Litany of St. Philip by Bl. JH Newman
It’s a hard thing to realize that one conforms to a cliche or stereotype… ‘happened to me yesterday… actually it happens to me frequently, but yesterday was striking. Sitting in my room,tapping away at my iPad, I was trying to multitask. I was building a parish website while drawing background inspiration from DC’s local NPR station (WAMU)… and it hit me, “Geez am I a millennial!” At first, like so many in my cohort, I brayed at the very notion of labeling… even self-labeling. Then, I remembered that there is an upside to everything, even stereotypes, even cliches.
For better or worse, people tend to live “seventy years, eighty for those who are strong” as the Psalmist tells us. And those years, in which we all find ourselves in some sort of social grouping, are nurtured by some positive goods. I mean they have to be present or we’d die, right? Even we espresso drinking, iPad tapping, label rejecting millennial shave some great things going for us; among them are the free exchanges and sharing we experience through podcasts and the like. Consider listening to two particularly inspiring ones here both from the Moth Radio Hour:
Both are great witnesses to the experience of loss and the tremendous possibilities for growth when we finally embrace the reality of what’s happened to us. In other words, how to embrace the cross and come out resurrected on the other side. Enjoy.
Anyone who’s ever yearned to visit Paris will feel right at home in The Phillips Collection’s latest special exhibition, showcasing the work of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) because his work is literally the stuff that populates dreams of the Cit’s of Lights. In a relatively brief life, Toulouse-Lautrec documented and defined French popular culture in a way that still affects us today. It’s impossible to visit any of DC’s universities without running into the famed “Chat Noire” on a freshman’s wall.
The galleries and living rooms of Northwest frequently boast the artist’s work; his posters, once quotidian, now fall under the “vinatage” genre, a point of pride to collectors. Beginning to understand this artist, reflecting on his work has been an eye
-opening experience for me in several levels.
Each of Toulouse-Lautrec’s prints captures some facet of belle-epoque Paris. Author Charles Hiatt put it this way,
“For his posters are at once realistic and grotesque; they are delineations of life as seen by a man who, possessing the most acute powers of observation, is poignantly impressed by the incongruities of modern life.”
Personally impressed, Toulouse-Lautrec then pressed his perceptions indelibly into the modern medium of printing: preserving and diffusing far-and-wide a vibrant record of his age. In this, modern as he may have been, Toulouse-Lautrec was a man of tradition: he handed on what he had received. And not only from his own era. From time to time, he would borrow or carry over motifs from earlier prints (17-18th centuries), updating them for his day. This understanding of tradition, so critical to the Christian faith may be what’s so endearing to me about Toulouse-Lautrec’s work.
What a wonder, to have all the world agree that in a few brush-strokes on paper you have captured the multifaceted living breathing reality of an entire society! And what a society!
Here we move beyond Degas’ dancers or Parisian women ironing. Toulouse-Lautrec descends from the wrought iron balconies of the Champs Elysees into the dirt and grit of Paris’ late nineteenth century demi-monde. Here we meet celebrated poets, clowns, dancers, and even prostitutes of the day.
They drew artists and tourists alike to the city Haussmann built… so strong was the attraction that even the Franco-Prussian war could not long slow Paris’ growth nor dim its glow.
This praise must be matched, however, with a certain mourning. If Toulouse-Lautrec’s capacity to preserve and hand on the Paris of his day is a joy to behold, the content of that day is certainly a cause for weeping. …and that’s no prudish judgment on my part. Look carefully at each of the exhibit’s posters. Do you see any happy people?
Is anyone thrilled or even positive about the glories of the belle epoch? The artist indeed captures incongruity: a society famed for joy and celebration seems absolutely dour… a people famed for their dedication to freedom seem trapped in sadness. They hold up a fetid bourgeois feast as the god of their idolatry, but what is there to praise. Elsewhere in the Phillips Collection you’ll always be able to find Renoir’s “Boating Party,” another iconic snapshot of belle epoch France. I’ll never forget my freshman art appreciation professor’s essay question “Are the characters happy?”
Often, Toulouse-Lautrec’s figures practically drip. In some cases their features almost resemble wax melting off a candle… a sign of the excess of the age. In other works, the artist’s reductionist approach yields lumpy broad-angled bodies.
No time, no care has been taken to move the figures beyond sketch-status. Is this a commentary on the regard in which people held each other? It would certainly fit wider themes of the Industrial Age from which atheist Marxism rose, reducing all people to angled cogs in the great machine. It’s telling that one of his last works was a print of model/actress Jane Avril, a representative woman of her time coiled in a serpent’s embrace. “And his heart was moved with pity for them.” (Mt 9:36)
Reflecting on tis exhibition, questions naturally arise: how does this relate to life today? Are we, the great-grandchildren of the belle epoch, different? Better? Worse? I’m not sure… and there’s really no time for me to dive into it here and now, but the estimable work of this artist certainly lends credibility and merit to the questions… questions to be carefully examined with eyes of faith.
I can’t stand driving in Northern Virginia… specifically on the roads running along the Potomac’s southern bank. Granted, they’re beautiful, boasting some of the most scenic approaches to D.C.’s monumental core… but I wish the signs were bigger!
My running theory is that under the Parks Service the roads are beautifully kept, but the Parks Service signs stink. They’re the same ones you see in all national parks: small white letters in quaint font plastered against a ubiquitous forest green background. They work wonderfully driving at five miles per hour on a deserted road in Yellowstone… not so well at fifty miles an hour in a city where everyone is in a rush and in the same road as you all the time! I want bigger signs, but if I’m honest with myself I have to admit… the signs are there.
Today’s mass readings are replete with a similar truth: Cain murders Abel jealous that God likes Abel more. Nowhere does it say however that God didn’t love Cain, just that his plant sacrifices weren’t as impressive as Abel’s animal offerings. Cain was beloved of God… even after his transgression, God did not allow anyone to kill him. Note also, it was Cain’s decision to leave God’s presence. Why couldn’t Cain see the signs that were there?
In the Psalm, we read,
“You sit speaking against your brother;
against your mother’s son you spread rumors.
When you do these things, shall I be deaf to it?
Or do you think that I am like yourself? I will correct you by drawing them up before your eyes.”
The Lord himself promises to draw sins before our eyes so that we can correct them and grow beyond then. Why do we have so much trouble identifying our sins?
Finally, in the Gospel, Jesus is tested by the Pharisees “seeking from him a sign from heaven.” Were the miracles already done by Jesus not enough? Even without miracles, wasn’t his manifest goodness enough to convince them at least that he wasn’t the bad guy they suspected?
A certain myopia seems to afflict our humanity. To be honest I think the reasons are different for each person and circumstance, but the common lesson seems to be: pray for vision, pray for the peace where vision can do its work, and pray for the will to carry out what vision reveals. Pray to see with eyes of faith.
Last week’s Sunday Gospel (Mt 5:13-16) spoke beautifully, warning us to keep our lights burning brightly before the world. It’s something of a theme taken up during the weekly Office of Readings in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. Having left them to continue his missionary journeys, Paul hears that the Galatians have fallen back into a dependence on earthly laws of the Old Covenant rather than a focus on faith and the New Law of grace. Nearing the end of the letter, the Apostle asks a question that touched me deeply,
“…you know that it was because of a physical illness that I originally preached the gospel to you and you did not show disdain or contempt because of the trial caused you by my physical condition, but rather you received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus. Where now is that blessedness of yours? Indeed, I can testify to you that, if it had been possible, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me.”
Despite his limitations, Paul’s first preaching must’ve been so full of life and hope. The zeal of his former days transformed into an evangelism that clearly shined for the Galatians. So excited were their souls that they would’ve torn out their own eyes; such a vivid, if macabre image. What happened to them? What happens to us that dims the zeal of beginnings hiding our light under a bushel basket?
Sometimes I notice it my own life. Ministry becomes routine. A dense fog of paperwork, politics and policy clog the air threatening to drown my excitement, my hope. Even those who first preached the Gospel to me seem far off, burdened perhaps by their own fog. And I hear Paul’s question, “Where now is that blessedness of yours?” Then… just as things seem darkest a new light…or rather a re-newed light sparks. It happens in my morning prayers each day. It doesn’t come from earthly preachers, nor any other secular circumstance but from the Truth and the Love that I have known; his name is Jesus. Whatever happened to the sower, the seed seed has sprouted and is now autonomous within me. My relationship with the Lord can be ever old and ever new… and no one can extinguish it.
The month of February was once explicitly dedicated to preparation for Lent, such was the wisdom of the old church calendar. There’s no reason for that not to be the case today. Pray! Pray during this month to prepare for the warfare of Lent. Renew your zeal. In winter’s coldest weeks pray for new warmth and light! So that we can enter into Lent with our lamps held aloft, guiding us all to new heights of holiness.