Meditations in the Midst of Daily Life

advent week i – wednesday

Silence and Listening

Advent Week I – tuesday

The Sacred Act – How He Trusts Us!

In today’s Gospel, Jesus praises the Father:

“I give you praise, Father, Lord of heaven and earth,
for although you have hidden these things
from the wise and the learned
you have revealed them to the childlike.

And this is the crux of Fr. Guardini’s meditation on the nature of our sacred act.  Throughout natural history, man has responded to God action in the world.  In salvation history, more specifically, God takes initiative and invites man to build an altar of sacrifice after encountering him.  God has, throughout time, invited us to partake in covenants responding to him.  With the coming of Christ though, something changes.  The covenant tools he gives us, the sacraments, aren’t bound to a calendar date, but only to doing what we do in memory of him.  Jesus has given man the capacity to initiate a sacred act… He has made us, in the words of St. Paul, “stewards of the mysteries of God.” (I Cor 4).

Whether our role in these mysteries is as part of the ordained priesthood of the clergy or the royal priesthood of the faithful, what an awesome responsibility we have to engage in sacred actions well.  To use the words of the Second Vatican Council, we are called to engage in “full, active and conscious participation.” (“participatio actuoso”).  Now this does not mean being overly raucous or effusive in worship, but rather taking it seriously… engaging with our full selves, SEVEN DAYS-A-WEEK… since – after all – our sacred acts are not specifically bound by time any more…

Do I give worship my all?  Do I pray conscientiously, meditatively at home using Scripture and the lives of the saints to guide me?  Do I confess regularly to prepare myself for mass?  Do I attend mass fully engaged from my dress to my decorum to my attentive prayer and offering of the week’s work to the Lord?   Good questions as we engage in sacred action and renew our worship this Advent.

Advent Week I – Monday

Expectation as a starting point for renewing worship

Do I expect the Lord.  As Father Romano Guardini – a wonderful forerunner of the Second Vatican Council – points out in his excellent book Meditations Before Mass, expectation is a key component of worship.  Certainly, today’s Advent Scriptures bear this out (Is 2:1-5).  How often we hear Isaiah’s words, “In days to come…” or, “On that day…”. Throughout Advent, the prophets expect the coming of Jesus in time at Bethlehem.  We expect him in our prayer life, and in the sacraments.  BUT… do we look forward to and expect him at the end of our lives… at the end of time?  Jesus tells us the fullness of the Kingdom is coming… and that the Son of Man will return on that day, but do we really expect that?  The rapid fire Christian response is, “of course we do.”  But our lives don’t always bear this out.  

The first generation of Christians believed that Jesus would return in person, in their own lifetimes.  St. Paul’s letters testify to this imminent sense of expectation.  As time went on, our ancestors settled in for a longer haul.  Still, a deep sense of Jesus’ personal concern for us, and hope that he would be part of our future, deeply marked the experience of the early Church.  This sense was very much in display at the time of the Roman persecutions.  Only people who fully expect to see the Lord on the other side of death can readily walk into the arena and face the lions with hymns of praise.  Expectation was at the foundation of the Christian emotional experience when our ancestors worshipped.

As Fr. Guardini points out however, a subtle shift happened when Christianity became not only legal, but the official religion of the Empire after Constantine.  Suddenly, there was security… and the desperate need to look for Christ, the yearning to see him at the end of our lives and the end of time… it all began to cool.  To co-opt a contemporary ministry slogan: worship became a mater of daily maintenance instead of daily mission.  Going to mass became simply “what we do,” instead of a matter of life and death on which all hope rides.  

It’s a worthwhile question to explore: Do I expect Jesus… in my life? after my death? at the end of all time?  Looking to and renewing our worship this Advent can be a great way to check-in on this question, and begin to address is for the future.

Consider these words, the verses of the ancient Latin hymn for Monday Morning Prayer during Advent:

Hark, a herald voice is calling;
“Christ is nigh,” it seems to say;
“Cast away the dreams of darkness,
O ye children of the day.”

Startled at the solemn warning,
Let the earth-bound soul arise;
Christ, her sun, all sloth dispelling,

Shines upon the morning skies.

Lo, the Lamb, so long expected,
Comes with pardon down from heaven;

Let us haste, with tears of sorrow,
One and all to be forgiven.

So when next he comes with glory,
Wrapping all the earth in fear,
May he then as our defender
On the clouds of heaven appear.

Honour, glory, virtue, merit,
To the Father and the Son,
With the co-eternal Spirit,
While eternal ages run.

Amen.

Receptivity: The Beginning of Worship

 

During the season of Advent, the Church prepares to worship the Christ Child in the manger with Mary, Joseph and the shepherds.  It’s fitting then that the Church traditionally turns an eye toward her worship practices during this holy season.  And I’d propose, as a start to our considerations, that worship begins with receptivity.

On our own, human beings don’t have much that God wants.  Throughout the Psalms the Lord reminds us that he made everything, so our earthly activities -unto themselves- don’t mean much.  The meaningful gift that we give to God in sacred worship must come from him, grow to perfection in us under his guidance and then be rendered back to him as a gift.  Put another way, in the words of St. John, “The Love of God consists in this, not that we have loved him, but that he loved us first and sent his Son as expiation for our sins.” (I Jn. 4:10).

Certainly, receptivity marks Advent in a particular way.  On the coming feast of the Immaculate Conception, we recognize the gift of Christ received by Mary in anticipation of what he would do for us.  Throughout this month we’ll think about how Mary received the Word, the Son into her womb.  We might even hear a bit about Elizabeth and Zechariah who received John the Baptist in a miraculous conception during Elizabeth’s old age.  Aside from these births unto themselves, we also see in these figures people who were receptive of God’s plan, God’s timeline rather than their own.  …And by that receptivity they launched the New Covenant.

Our Lord himself, though he needed nothing, received loving kindness from God his Father all those times he “went off to a lonely place to pray.”  Receiving and doing the Father’s will was the Lord’s sustenance (Jn 4:34).  And as if to highlight this reality by contrast, at the height of his earthly ministry, the Passion, one of the most striking facets of the experience is precisely that Christ seemed to have lost all perception of the Father’s consolations, experiencing – as St. John of the Cross would name it – a dark night of the soul on the Cross.

Receptivity is the beginning of worship!

But here’s the challenge: Receptivity demands of us, has built into it, vulnerability.  In today’s first (EF) reading from Romans, St. Paul advises us to rise up and put on the armor of light (Rm 13:12).  He doesn’t tell us to put on the armor of steel or of silver, but of light.  What’s that supposed to do for us?  The armor of light is our ticket to Resurrection.  It means, like Jesus, we are called to be receptive to God’s grace… and to the nails, and to the thorns… and to the lance in our side.  Like Christ though, these wounds don’t have to stop us.  Resurrection isn’t just for the end of time.  We experience little deaths through life… we also experience little resurrections.  And with each new experience of the Cross, our confidence grows in the next resurrection… so that one day we’ll be ready to face physical death itself.  But we must let our hearts be vulnerable.  There’s the rub…

Human hearts, when wounded, tend to get hard, or “stony,” as the Gospel says.  Stony hearts are ok at fending off more wounds, but they never let in healing… and they never leave us open to wonderful new possibilities.  Overtime they end up hurting us more than protecting us.  We’ve all been there.  AND… thanks be to God , we have wonderful examples of the kind of hearts God wants for us: The Immaculate Heart of Mary, pierced by seven swords; and the Sacred Heart of Jesus, aflame with love, crowned with thorns.

In my own life I’ve experienced both a stony heart and a fleshy one.  Let me tell you, much as it hurts sometimes, the fleshy heart is better because it’s alive… it’s moving forward, pushing me on pilgrimage toward heaven.

So this first week of Advent, put a special emphasis on receptivity.  It asks a lot of us, but it promises a hundredfold reward.  Blessed Advent everyone!

The Thanks We Fear to Give

Thanksgiving was wonderful in DC!  One of the things I loved most this year was marveling at how the city empties out.  Walking home from dinner last night I past huge apartment buildings, normally packed with young adults, windows twinkling with signs of life… but last night almost every window was flat black.  The rare exceptions, those who stayed in town for the holidays, stood out like lonely sentinels keeping vigil over the quiet street.

Amidst all of my considerations about gratitude I thought about writing to some folks who’ve helped out a lot over the last few months here at the parish… and then a strange thought occurred to me, “What might happen next?”  I’m usually fairly effusive in my thanks, never more so than when I write to someone… and it’s an unfortunate sign of the times that the desire to express gratitude is sometimes squelched by the need to [potentially] cover your back.

It’s not just gratitude, actually… there’s all sorts of silences that have begun to pop up in Church life.  When a colleague… or even more so, a superior… asks me, “How are things going?” a flat “OK” or “Fine I suppose.” is sometimes the best I can manage… not because it’s actually how I feel, but because the neutral response can’t come back to haunt me later.  Right?  I mean when you answer, “Oh things are going great… couldn’t be better!” and then something blows up the reply comes back, “but Father we thought everything was just dandy and now this…”  And so I (and many priests I know) limit ourselves and our official correspondences as much as possible.

It’s painful on a number of fronts, mostly summarized in this: Limiting communication means limiting the good that may come, even as you limit liability.  And there it is… the word that has so come to dominate Church life, “liability.”  Priests are treated as potential liabilities instead of treasured resources… conversations with parishioners always have, “how could this come back to bight me?” hanging over them… not only from the chancery but from the parishioner himself/herself… So we adopt protective measures… insurance policies, ostensibly to protect the Church, ourselves, you name it… The irony is, we end up being less Church-like and more corporate.  Isn’t that one of the many overarching concerns about the deliberations of our leaders lately? Stuck inside our newly agreed upon silence, one begins to feel its limits more and more… its dehumanizing.

Recently I’ve been going back and forth over leaving the social media platform Twitter.  I’ve always wanted to be part of the positive digital evangelization, but there’s just so much negativity… and often so unfounded.  I’ve seen good people derided and squelched on Twitter… I’ve seen very dangerous and unorthodox people celebrated on all sides of all issues.  The limits of Twitter -as a medium- are something akin to the unhealthy silence I mused on above.  There’s another kind of silence: that of the official/public person.  As a priest I try to be VERY reserved on Twitter because of my official and public position in the Church… meanwhile I watch other priests and even employees of my own local Church spout off on all sorts of things… seemingly without any consequence… Is there a level playing field to be had?  The silence hurts.  It stands in stark contrast to the beautiful affirming silence Cardinal Sarah speaks about in his book, “The Power of Silence”.

Should I stay on social media?  If I do, should I be more vocal…? less?  A devil-may-care attitude has never really been my thing… but …well, I don’t know.  But it strikes me that when the administrative culture of the Church (under which I include not only the actual governance but also how we communicate) gets to a place where I am nervous about being grateful… that’s a problem.  And when good Catholics lambast each other online… that’s a problem too.  More questions than answers today I’m afraid.  But one mustn’t be afraid to confront them with eyes of faith.

Sometimes the sidelines are more interesting…

Earlier today I visited the National Gallery of art.  I took in a beautiful special exhibition, “The Chiaroscuro Woodcut in Renaissance Italy“.

Chiaroscuro is a printing technique utilizing wooden blocks, each of which carries the etching for part of a picture, and the colored ink that belongs to that portion of the picture.  When the block prints are layered one over the other, you end up with a complete image.  For the world of renaissance art this [then] new technique represented a huge leap in the ability to multiply images and sell them… or send them to far off markets.  What strikes me, however, is this art form’s ability to convey such pathos.

Take for example this Deposition From the Cross, printed by Ugo Carpi, a father of the technique.  The limp body of Christ, the strained bend of the figure over the Cross’ left arm… To convey such motion and emotion by carving in wood.  And to represent such depth through the application of successive printing blocks… It blows me away.

What’s equally moving about these pieces is how many “moments” they convey; not just the principal subject matter but the ancillary stories.  In the “Deposition,” you could spend an hour just meditating on the women ministering to Mary in her need (see detail below).

In a carving, no easy feat by itself, one can perhaps expect more motion… sculpture -after all- utilizes three dimensions.  In fact, elsewhere in the gallery I found this piece… same subject matter:

Monnot, “The Virgin Mary Swooning Over the Dead Body of Christ”
Monnot, -Detail-

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the “Healing of The Man at The Beautiful Gate” (Acts 3) you can see the surprise and excitement in the man as Peter and John restore him:

Likewise in the “Catching the Draught of Fish”(Lk 5)… the nets are heavy, the boats lie low in the water and you can almost hear Peter cry out, “Depart from me Lord for I am a sinful man!” (5:8)… It wouldn’t be the last time he needed to say it.

Just amazing… but back to the main theme: side themes…

Carpi, “Death of Ananias”

Several other prints had important side stories.  In the “Death of Ananias” (Acts 5) The Apostles stand in judgment over Ananias, who having lied to the Holy Spirit out his generosity (or lack thereof) was struck dead.  Certainly a cautionary tale about administrative life in the Church… but look at what’s going on at the right.

Carpi, -Detail-

While the Apostles govern, the other disciples are busy handing out charity to those in need.  Both are happening at the same time.

In “Martyrdom of Two Saints,” by Parmigianino, the swirling motion of the swords and the soldier’s cloak focus us on the main them, framing out the martyrs-to-be, but check out the juxtaposition of the Angel vs. the Imperial Eagle at the top: angel totally wins!  It’s a beautiful exercise to consider, “What are the side characters talking about among themselves?” Are there conversions about to happen among them because of the martyrs’ witness?

In life, there’s usually more going on than initially meets the eye.  Taking a contemplative moment to see things through eyes of faith can reveal so much more!  At the moment, the picture of the American Church would appear to be chaos, a horrific swirl of bad news and sadness.  But look to the side stories, especially in your own parishes.

Today a young man in my community gave thanks to God for helping him in time of deep mourning.  Another parishioner took a moment of pause in the midst of the midterms and had an epiphany about holy detachment.  A woman took special time out to pray for her grandson. Three simple but beautiful actions of grace… and they’re just what I heard about on my day off!  Is our central frame a mess… YES!  But it’s hardly the whole story.  Look to the sidelines!!

Two Expressions of the ONE Rite: From whence do we take our hope?

This weekend at St. Mary’s revealed, once again, that the two expressions of the one Roman Rite: the Ordinary Form and the Extraordinary Form speak to us the same ONE Truth from Jesus Christ.  Below are transcribed homilies I gave… the first for the Feast of Bl. Karl of Austria (EF, yesterday)… and the second for the OF Sunday masses today.  Each one addresses one of my favorite issues: Hope… and it’s origins in hard times.


In Commemoration of Blessed Karl of Austria

In the beginning, the Apostles, the first Christians, drew their hope directly from an encounter with the Lord Jesus.  In the readings for today’s mass, the Lord enjoins us, “be prepared, for at what hour you think not the Son of Man will come.”  The Apostles believed that within their lifetime, Christ would return to inaugurate the end of time and the fullness of the Kingdom.  Based on that, and on their personal relationship with him in faith, they remained hopeful through martyrdom and other persecutions.   As time passed and it became obvious that the Second Coming wouldn’t be happening any time soon, the Church in her beauty and wisdom developed various means by which we could stay awake and girt with lamps burning waiting for the master’s return.  Literature, music, cuisine, ceremony… CULTURE developed as an instrument of hope linking us back, confirming us in the hope that comes from a personal encounter with Christ.  

The thing of it is… over time, the chaos of the world begins to creep back in to our consciousness.  We can become distant from Christ so that the cultural instruments of our hope begin to feel hollow, or even disappear.  The first time this happened, St. Benedict left Rome and established his order (We’re blessed to have some Benedictines with us today)… so that from Subiaco and Cassino bright centers of learning and peace and music and… well, culture might once more confirm our people in hope.  Their work, it is popularly said, “saved civilization.”  Eventually however, as perhaps it must, chaos began to creep in again, until the Lord called up Francis, Dominic and their itinerant friars (some of whom are with us today) to kindle again the fire of culture.  Time passed and again saints were needed.  St. Philip Neri renewed Rome (and, as it happens we have members of his Oratory with us today) using the tools of culture to renew hope among a cynical, despairing, and all too often depraved Roman establishment.  Over and over again… and we could name so many more great saints… God provides for a reanaissance of culture unto the confirmation of hope!  But it was never just the vowed religious who confirmed the brothers and sisters in hope.

 

 

 

 

 

 

In St. Peter’s Square one sees, at the heart of it all, the monumental basilica where Peter rests waiting for the Resurrection.  The first bishop at the heart of the Church… but reaching out embracing the world… or so it seems whenever the square is full… reaching out are the arms of the Church the colonnade of Bernini, which begin with two statues: Constantine, the first Christian Emperor and Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor.  Representatives of the laity, who bonded to the clergy embrace and love the world, bringing hope to all.  

Blessed Karl of Austria was the last heir to that Tradition that began so long ago.  He saw his life as a ruler as that of the shepherd, meant to build a realm… and a culture… where people could be safe enough educated enough and faithful enough to touch hope.  He, the arms of the Church would take the lessons he’d learned at mass and put them to use serving his people in the world.  With the conclusion of World War I this would all be sorely tested.  Blessed Karl and his family lost everything: power, wealth, prestige, and not only their home but their homeland.  Exiled to a small Portuguese island, all the instruments of hope were taken away from them.  But what Karl learned and what we all must learn is that the instruments of hope are just that: instruments, means to an end.  Hope begins with a personal encounter with the living God… And this does not require wealth, power, music, literature… any of that.  Furthermore, all those instruments of hope are pointless if they don’t spring from a profound encounter with Christ.  We know that Karl learned this lesson because he passed it on to his children… whose descendants are also here today.  They are living breathing icons of the reality that hope begins and ends with Christ who rose from the dead… And no earthly circumstance can change that.

Today the Church, and society in general, finds itself challenged to hope.  All the cultural instruments that once buttressed our hope are gone.  The Empire has fallen and is not coming back.  Our teachings are not just challenged… much worse, they are ignored both without and often within the Church.  Our songs, literature, drama, art, ceremony… all are threatened either by active assault or the sad possibility of obsolescence.  And we… we are left to wonder, “how can we stay awake until the master’s return. 

If in our mind’s eye we return to St. Peter’s Square and enter the great portal of the Basilica, we find at our feet a seemingly nondescript disc of red stone.  Once, in Constantine’s Basilica, there were twelve such discs.  They were carved from red porphyry – stone of the Pharaohs, the Senate and the Emperors.  When Julius II began to build the present church, eleven of these precious discs were broken up, sent to monuments in various parts of the holy city.  This one remained… because on this stone, on Christmas Day in the year 800 the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne was crowned, signaling the return of culture, peace and hope to the West.  For five hundred years only popes and Catholic monarchs could traverse the porphyry disc… until St. John XXIII removed the barriers around it.  Good Pope John pointed out that the royal dignity of the popes and monarchs was not ultimately based on their coronations, their wealth or their power… but upon their baptism… the baptism ALL of us share, our very first encounter with Christ.  From that moment we all have royal dignity with the Lord… and our hope springs to life as we are joined to his death and resurrection.   This was the lesson Blessed Karl learned and taught us by doggedly holding on to a joyful hope until the end.  Through his prayers may we be likewise blessed, may we remain awake and vigilant until the Master’s return.

29th Sunday of Ordinary Time:
“It’s going to be OK”

Today’s OF gospel for mass (Mk 10:35-45) exposes for us an anxious moment.  It’s not just that Jesus is concerned for the Apostles about their infighting.  He’s preparing for crucifixion, worried that they just haven’t gotten it.  And when he’s gone, to whom will they look? 

It’s a question we’re all facing right now.  In an America that no longer agrees on what it means to be American, with our national identity shredded by identity politics, we feel uneasy, uncertain about our future.  Historically we would look to a unifying figure, the President, not necessarily to solve everything at once, but to say to us, “It’s going to be OK.”  But we don’t seem to have that at the moment.  Likewise in the Church.  There have always been problems in Church life, even grave scandal, even war.  The faithful rightly seek out a familiar voice to say, “It’s going to be OK.”  At the moment, it’s hard to find that voice.  The credibility of our bishops has been deeply scarred, and even Pope Francis by his comments, or at least by the media coverage of them, makes it hard to believe that, “It’s going to be OK.”  

A number of parishioners have come to me in recent days looking for me to tell them that and I found myself running on empty, hard pressed to tell them, “It’s going to be OK,” because it’s hard for me to see where our story goes from here… as a society, as a Church… and the voices to whom I would normally look are confused, silent, retired, discredited.  It was such a striking feeling that I actually went to see a friend who’s a therapist to discuss the matter.  He confirmed for me, (a) I’m not crazy (…big relief there…) and (b) this really is a hard moment.  I put that second point in there because often I find that I minimize challenges.  I assume that my life as a priest doesn’t have big epic-scale difficulties… those are reserved to people like corporate titans and high state officials… but it’s true.  This is a ground shaking moment for us as a Church.  

Then I looked at today’s second reading (Heb 4:14-16) and these words, 

“Brothers and sisters:
Since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens,
Jesus, the Son of God,

let us hold fast to our confession.
For we do not have a high priest
who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses,
but one who has similarly been tested in every way,
yet without sin.”

Heaven doesn’t depend on human beings, but on Jesus Christ… and HE is risen from the dead.  He remains sympathetic to our situation.  He reigns on high.  I don’t know what the future will look like for our society… for our Church.  Maybe, in all honesty I never did.  Maybe before we just had a greater statistical grasp of what the future would most likely be… but even that was never a guarantee.  The challenge of our Christianity is not to know the future, but to “hold fast to our confession” in the present.  To all our people: I don’t know how life turns out… but I do know, it’ll be OK… because Jesus is risen from the dead.

Two feasts… express on one day the one Roman Rite celebrating our one Faith in the the one Lord

Today we celebrate two feasts.  On the Ordinary Form Calendar we honor Pope St. John XXIII, who announced on that day his intent to open the Second Vatican Council.  On the Extraordinary Form Calendar we honor Mary, precisely in her role as Mother and so patroness of our parish.  These two feasts represent in a beautiful way the diversity and the harmony of our community.  

One way to understand Mary is in her role as the primordial Church.  Before there were 1.2 billion Catholics there were 12… and before there were 12 there was just 1: Mary, worshipping Christ, loving him, bringing him into the world.  She did this by the “overshadowing of the Holy Spirit.” (Lk 1) .  In a similar way, 1,963 years later, Pope John XXIII recognizing a need to renew the ways in which we worship Christ and bring Christ into the world placed the Church firmly in the hands of the Holy Spirit and called together all her bishops in Council. 

Today, fifty years after those historic events parishes all over the world experience the legacy of Mary and of John XXIII.  At Nazareth, Mary raised up Jesus in the synagogue, not desiring to bring about a new religion, but to see the full flowering of Judaism in the new covenant inaugurated in her Son.  She looked to the ancient realities of the faith to ground her steps raising up Christ.  John XXIII understood this concept well.  Opening the Council, he very firmly established that the Church was not out to find new doctrines, but to find new ways of expressing eternal Truths.  Likewise all parishes.  

We look to the eternal Truths of Scripture and Tradition.  We place ourselves prayerfully in the hands of the Holy Spirit, and doing our best, we worship Christ, introducing Him to new times and new people.  At St. Mary’s our Latin Mass Community, our immigrant Chinese community, and our largely newly-arrived young adult community all want the same thing: heaven… And looking to the ancient Truths – the mysteries of the life of Christ – we each try our best to apply his love in our very diverse circumstances… trusting the the Holy Spirit will protect us and keep us as one faith-family.  He did it for Mary and Jesus… He did it for St. John and the Church… I’m very confident he’ll do the same for our parish.

The Rosary Jumpstarts the Engine of Holy Wisdom

Yesterday I attended a beautiful celebration.  A parish family who live in the country invited a bunch of friends and fellow parishioners out to their home for a Lepanto Party.  The name comes from yesterday’s feast, Our Lady of the Rosary, which celebrates the victory of the Christian fleet over the Ottoman Turks at the Battle of Lepanto (1571).  We ate drank and had merry enjoying local ciders, homemade delights and -of course- locally… distilled… products.  When everyone was full, the whole group gathered to pray the Rosary.  It was the very first time I’d been present for something like that: a group of lay families gathered at one of their own homes all praying the rosary together.  And… as if that wasn’t enough… after the Rosary ended, the children of several families lined up to recite -from memory- G.K. Chesterton’s epic poem Lepanto.  

The afternoon festivities confirmed something I’d been praying about and preaching on earlier that morning: the Rosary is an incredible spark for the engine of salvation.  What do I mean??

The EF readings for the feast begin with, interestingly, Proverbs 8:22-ff… a tribute to holy wisdom.  As we’ve discussed before, wisdom is the fleshing out of mere information/data.  Anyone can read an instruction manual to operate a machine, but the long-experienced worker who knows the machine’s inner workings, its temperament (so to speak) handles its operation with wisdom.  The ordinary means for the passing on of saving wisdom is the family.  God has so designed that wonderful basic unit of society that it’s particularly good at handing on wisdom.  As an old Irish professor of mine used to say, “you learned it from your mother’s knee…”. But with the breakdown of the family unit, and the rupture of real catechesis that has happened over the last several decades, there has been a concomitant breakdown in the ordinary means of handing on wisdom.  

I see this on display in various parts of parish life, ironically among those who are most faithful.  An earnest Catholic young adult walks in.  He’s read every word JPII ever wrote and visited half the Marian shrines in Europe.  He knows the information that constitutes our faith.  But he’s nervous as a leaf on a tree, worried that he’s committed a grave mortal sin, when -in actuality- his life has been benign.  What’s going on?  Information… such as the young man has read… can tell us that lust is a mortal sin… but it takes wisdom to know where and how that plays out in life.  My visitor is relieved to find that holding a girl’s hand and thinking thoughts doesn’t constitute a mortal sin separating him then and there from communion and salvation.   

We NEED wisdom in our lives again… and not just nervous young Catholics, but all of us.  Since ancient times, God has used the mysteries of his Son Jesus’ life to jump start that engine.  Mysteries so striking that the hard human heart can’t help but melt before them.  In his own earthly ministry isn’t that exactly how it happened: Jesus is conceived – Mary says, “yes.”  Mary visits Elizabeth – John leaps in the womb.  Jesus is born – the shepherds fall down in praise and the pagan world pays its homage in the wise men.  The Holy Spirit descended and the Apostles began to preach in his power.  Divine mystery prompts a new human response.

Fast forward to the middle ages: the engine of faith was breaking down.  All the usual methods were failing.  Then Our Lady gives the Rosary to St. Dominic and the tide shifts.  Speaking of tides, let’s jump back up to 1571 when the Turkish fleet, laden with over 100,000 soldiers approached a fractured Christian Europe intent on burning Rome.  A lighter Christian force commanded by the illegitimate son of the House of Austria, Don John, sails out to meet them, out numbered and out gunned.  Pope St. Pius V commanded all the faithful to pray the Rosary on the day of the battle… and against all odds and rules of meteorology, the winds shift… the Turkish fleet is annihilated saving Christian Europe.  

The mysteries of the life of Jesus, enshrined in the Rosary are the extraordinary means of rekindling the ordinary engines of wisdom in our experience.  

In our times, it can be so easy to despair.  I’ve not only heard it from our people, I’ve felt it myself.  But whenever I turn to meditation on the mysteries of our Lord’s life, in Scripture and especially in the Rosary, somehow worry fades and confidence is restored.  If you’re feeling down about life, about the Church, whatever the case may be… pick up the rosary to get your engine going again.

Our yearning for strength, for guidance, for confidence

I guess I’ve been on a bit of a translation kick lately, but it’s rocking my prayer life in a really good way!

Meditating on the psalms of Morning Prayer today I came across a phrase that always sticks in my mind… and beautifully so:

“This is what causes me grief, that the way of the Most High has changed…” (Ps. 76 [77]:11)

Now that’s the English Translation in the Breviary.  Both the vulgate and the neo-vulgata Latin render the verse thus:

Et dixi “Hoc vulnus meum, mutatio dexterae Excelsci.
And I said, “This is my wound/my vulnerability, a change in the right hand of the Most High.”

The modern English isn’t bad… there’s certainly a legitimate understanding that the Right Hand of the Lord guides things in his way… but simply saying “the way” of the Lord removes from this Psalm so much beautiful color!

The right hand of the Lord is his strength… the saving strength that brought his people out of Egypt.  That right hand has lifted us up with paternal strength and tenderness.  If it goes… it’s not just that his way has changed, but that God is no longer capable… his strength is gone… and so we are made vulnerable… Vulnerability is grief, to be sure, but it’s a specific kind of grief: personal, visceral, at the level of survival.

This beautiful little verse is all about CONFIDENCE in God’s ability to be God.  That sense is only confirmed as we read on “I remember the deeds of the Lord, I remember your wonders of old, I muse on all your works and ponder your mighty deeds.” By going back to the good old days, the Psalmist’s confidence is renewed, and with it his faith.

At a time when Pew reports that American’s confidence in the Pope’s handling of sex abuse-related issues has plummeted… and likewise when confidence in the US Bishops is at an all time low… when many fear for the unity and sustainability of the Church… the right reading of the Psalms lifts me up and gives me what I need this morning to go forward.  If you’re feeling vulnerable… turn to the right hand of the Lord… it’s always been there for us and it always will.

On the power of being listened to…

We hear a lot lately about being a “listening Church.”  And so we should.  To be a listening Church has some wonderful practical ramifications… it helps us to address reality by constructing [we hope] an accurate picture of that reality from the data we gather.  There is another side to being a “listening Church:” People like being listened to.  It makes them feel respected, acknowledged… and in some ways we may even say it helps people feel hope.  To be listened to means you are not alone, and THAT – I would argue – is the beginning of hope.  

I’ve felt this in my own life recently.  There’s nothing worse for a preacher than to look out over his congregation and see faces that are utterly disengaged.  Conversely, there’s nothing better than to look out and see people actively listening.  I’ve been blessed to have “listening” congregations.  Recently, in the wake of all the sad news being revealed/revisited by the Church, I’ve noticed this dynamic present among my brother priests.  The crisis spurred several listening sessions wherein clergy were totally free to express their worries, concerns, critiques etc. about the present moment.  The men felt listened to… and it gave them a sense of hope.  This in sharp contrast to the frequent conversations we have about how we don’t always feel listened to or like there’s even a place for dialogue to happen with our superiors.

Listening is important.  

That’s why a seemingly spare phrase in this mornings Office of Readings really hit me during my holy hour.  Psalm 17(18):36.  In the Ordinary Form Psalmody it reads,

You gave me your saving shield;
You upheld me, trained me with care.

‘sounds fine, right?  But here’s the Ordinary Form Latin (neo-Vulgata) with my own translation based on a simple dictionary search:

Et dedisti mihi scutum salutis tuae          You gave me your saving shield
Et dextera tua suscepit me                          and your right hand lifted me up
Et exauditio tua magnificavit me            and your generous
                                                                             hearing/understanding
                                                                             glorified me

I then consulted the Vulgate (Extraordinary Form) Latin

Et dedisti mihi scutum salutis tuae            You gave me your saving shield
Et dextera tua suscepit me                            and your right hand lifted me up
Et mansuetudo tua educavit me                and your clemency/gentleness
                                                                               led/taught me

I’ve been diving into Latin as part of my assignment at St. Mary’s in DC.  We celebrate the Extraordinary Form of the Mass and the Ordinary Form side by side quite harmoniously.  But had I not been here… had I not begun this study, I never would’ve known this morning that God HEARS me… and that his hearing is qualified by his clemency, his gentleness… and further that he desires me to be lifted up in the same way that Mary’s soul lifted up praise of him (Magnificare).

I’ve been coming across more and more inconsistencies like this as I dive into the Scriptures using multiple languages (vernacular English, Italian, Spanish), comparing them with what is supposed to be their origin today (neo-Vulgata Latin) and our ancient Vulgate texts from St. Jerome.  It has so enriched my prayer… and it makes me thank God more and more for the new translation of the mass and other sacraments.  Folks get hung up on some of the seemingly awkward cadence of the new translations, but they’ll get used to that over time.  The richness of spirit that can come from being ever more true to the actual texts of Scripture is too good to pass up.  Among other things, that richness reminds me today that God is a listening God who has not left me alone… and it inspires me to be part of a listening Church.

Illumina oculos meos

Inspired by my friends The Suspicious Cheese Lords and their preparations for singing a motet and mass based on this text, I offer the following reflection:

Illumina oculos meos, ne unquam obdormian in morte,

Nequando dicat inimicus meus, “Praevalui adversus eum.” -Ps. 13:4-5

Illumine my eyes, that I sleep not in death.

Lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed against him.”

Have you ever walked into a really beautiful cathedral? Dappled light floods the space translated, sanctified by stained glass windows. Candles flicker, reflecting their humble light off mosaics and polished stone. It’s a different sort of light, the light that fills these hallowed spaces. It’s translated, enhanced, reengineered -as it were- for a special task; it lights not only the path of our five senses, it illumines the inner darkness, inspiring and empowering us to continue on the path to heaven. St. Paul strikes the right note when he writes to the Ephesians, “May the eye of your hearts be enlightened that you may know what is the hope that belongs to [Christ’s] call, what are the riches of glory in his inheritance among the holy ones.” (Eph. 1:18) The cathedral experience manifests the experience of the human person each and every day.

St. Gregory of Nyssa gives dramatic context to this moment. He describes our illuminative experiences in relation to Moses (Ex. 3). Called by God, Moses leaves his sheep to discover the famed burning bush. The wonder of the moment enthralls him: what is this bush burning yet not destroyed? And in the wonder of that moment he begins to speak with the Most High about the incredible direction his life would take. St. Gregory calls this precisely the, “illuminative phase,” of prayer… the first stage of our encounter with the God who is Love and Life. Unlike St. Ignatius who insists on a first “purgative” phase in which suffering clears our spiritual palate, Gregory suggests that it is first and foremost love and through wonder that inspire us to put aside all other cares in order to follow God. And isn’t this just the dynamic that St. John describes in his first letter (4:11) “In this is love, not that we have loved God, but that he loved us first and sent his son as expiation for our sins.” Such is the illumination the Father desires for our souls.

We experience this holy light, not only in the noble architecture of our columns, arches and galleries, but preeminently in the rites of sacred worship: that divine work on earth known as the liturgy. At holy mass we are transported from the earthly the to the heavenly. The triumphal procession of the ministers is not a triumph over earthly powers, but over death itself. The lights of the candles enter the sanctuary and us… A single cantor calls out, “Kyrie eleison”… that one voice pierces our awareness, inviting us to realize our sins and failings… to consciously invite more light into our hearts. Light does not hesitate; it explodes on the scene in the Gloria and… and as our inner eyes adjust to their newly bright surroundings they gradually perceive the Word in all its splendor, detailing in human terms the awesome contours of the Father’s merciful love for us. Thus emboldened by the light, the faithful dare to make a response: sacrifice. The mass of the catechumens gives way to the mass of the faithful as those who have learned the Love of God now make a return to him, offering up their lives, praying for yet more light and strength to press on toward heaven. On the Fourth Sunday After Pentecost that offering begins right where we began today, Illumina oculos meos, ne unquam obdormian in morte, nequando dicat inimicus meus, “Praevalui adversus eum.”

Like Moses, we can’t stay with the burning bush forever. We must eventually leave the comfort of illumination and return to the world. This, St. Gregory calls the purgative phase. With Moses we cross the desert and climb the holy Mountain surrounded by a cloud. The journey will be difficult. We will trip. Thorns may tear at our flesh, but for all the pain, we know that the cloud is precisely the manifestation of God’s presence… and when doubt assails us on the journey we can always return to that first illumination. It happened, it was real. The truth of it does not change. It keeps us going until we reach the fullness of God’s presence atop the mount, becoming one with him in the unitive phase. Illumina oculos meos, ne unquam obdormian in morte, nequando dicat inimicus meus, “Praevalui adversus eum.” And how apropos of the divine symmetry that what began with the light of the burning bush should end with Moses staring directly at the presence of God… a God who’s Love is so brilliant it illumines the prophet’s face… illumines it so much so that he must wear a veil the rest of his life lest he blind his fellow man… Illumination, Purgation, Unity manifest by a change/conversion of life. “Late have I loved thee, beauty ever ancient, ever new.” “Illumine my eyes O Lord!”