The Integrity of Travel

What is it about travel that is so liberating?

I’m away from DC, just for two or three days. Tomorrow I witness the wedding of a lovely young couple I’ve been working with. As many DC brides and grooms do, they’ve decided to wed in a place mutually inconvenient to both families, but thoroughly charming: Charleston, South Carolina. Late Thursday morning I threw my suitcase in the trunk, climbed into my car and sped up the B/W Parkway to the airport. The road seemed smoother under the wheels, the engine seemed to respond more intuitively than usual. Even the fall breeze seemed to cooperate blowing me up the highway to the airport. I say, “seemed,” because of course the road was just as pockmarked as ever by cracks, potholes and patches. The cosmos didn’t actually make the wind blow in my direction. Nonetheless, don’t you find that travel brings with it a wonderful sense of liberation? On the streets of Washington, speaking to strangers is a cautious exercise driven more by necessity than desire…and yet, waiting in line to board the plane it’s so easy. What’s going on?

When we travel we leave our cares (most of them, anyway) behind. My broken boiler is 457 miles away (I googled it). Certain issues, even in the age of mobile communications, just can’t reach you on the road. Travel is also somewhat purpose-based: “I need to get from point A to point B.” Focusing on one thing relaxes the mind. Achieving it gives satisfaction.

Looking at the experience through eyes of faith, it all adds up to a certain sense of integritas. As Bishop Barron explained to our priests last week, and he picking up on themes of St. Thomas Aquinas, integritas has to do with being about one thing…one core principle around which all others are harmoniously ordered. In common parlance we get shadows of this when we talk about integrity. A person of integrity organizes his behavior cohesively around a central idea like fairness, love, mercy…etc. While I wouldn’t recommend it, there is even a certain integrity to the stereotypical greedy corporate leader. It’s not pleasant, but one can reasonably predict his actions based on the principle of “greed first.” Everything orbits around that core.

In the Christian life a retreat or pilgrimage gives participants a concentrated dose of the integrity one enjoys while traveling. Travel gives a general sense of purpose… A retreat/pilgrimage specifies our purpose, the core of our integrity: “I am all about my relationship with Christ for these days of retreat/pilgrimage.”

Returning home we try our best to keep the high going. We resolve to live a greater sense of la bella vita like the Italians, or to slow life down like our countrymen here in the South. If we’ve been visiting family, we strive to bring back with us a sense that in DC we are not alone. There are folks back at home who love us. We hope against hope that each of these memories or resolutions will improve life by an order of magnitude. Usually, though, our growth is incremental. The wheel of fortune spins and we get dragged from the peaceful center back out to the chaotic edge… Well, maybe not quite all the way back out to the edge.

One final thought. I always keep this in mind on my day off, and it seems particularly appropriate here… I have to remind myself that people pay a lot of money and go to great efforts to visit Washington. We are a destination as desirable as Charleston or Paris. That means that others touch on that beautiful human integrity in our own home town just as we do in theirs. Might we be able to do likewise?

Why Get Huge When You Can Get Small?

I’ve heard it said that the gym, particularly regimented gyms like “CrossFit,” is the post-modern temple. It’s a communal entity that requires discipline aimed at human flourishing, and co-members will call each other on it if they’re not seen at their regular devotions. ‘Not a bad argument by any stretch, though it may credit a little too much altruism to gym-goers. Regular exercise at the gym does make us feel better… and -speaking at least from a male point of view- who doesn’t want to have a friend or colleague compliment, “Dude, you’ve gotten huge!” It’s a somewhat more Nietzschian view, but the gym-as-post-modern-church strikes me as a place where we overcome adversity by “getting huge,” whether that means simply getting an endorphin high, or exorcising our frustrations etc. on the bench press or treadmill. I’m not saying that there is no truly Christian approach to exercise, but given the secular circumstances in which we live, I think the gym as training ground for the uber-mensch isn’t so far off the mark. But… has “getting huge” ever actually eliminated a person’s frustrations?

Why get huge when you can get small?

A brother priest and veteran pastor once told me, “When problems get big, we need to get small.” He was referring to a Theresian (of Lisieux) spirituality of doing the small things in front of you perfectly for God, and letting him handle the rest. After all, you can only do so much… control so much in your life. Put another way, St. Philip Neri used to say, “It is enough that you should avoid sin,” and “Be good, if you can.” Neither Philip nor Therese was suggesting a fatalistic approach… nor were they suggesting we resign ourselves to where we’re at, never to grow again… but sometimes getting back to basics, withdrawing from a battle in which we’ve lost our way, is the best way to win in the long term.  
I’m particularly inspired by this morning’s Office of Readings. The author, an anonymous second century priest, reminds us, “…in order to obtain eternal life, we must remain pure and keep the seal of our baptism undefiled.” Later, the Responsory pointed me to read Ezekiel 18, which reinforced the point beautifully. Sometimes continual unexamined growth (i.e. getting huge) goes wild… sends us in unintended even unhealthy directions. Returning to fundamentals makes us happier and equips us to move forward in the right direction.  
In some ways this is a participation in the evangelical virtue of poverty, on which I meditated a few posts ago. It was certainly the experience of St. Philip: unsure how to grow in his native Florence, he left home to “get huge” working for a wealthy uncle in Gaeta. But he found no real happiness in mercantile life. Disappointing his uncle (who had no heir) and shocking the rest of the family, Philip left everything and went to Rome. He returned to basics, cleared the decks… working for his bread, and praying with the Scriptures, he found Christ, the true compass of his life. Philip went on to become such an incredible evangelist that he was accorded the title, “Apostle of Rome,” shared with only two other saints, Peter and Paul! Why get, huge when you can get small?
For myself, this concept has become a daily guide. Priestly life has been topsy-turvy for reasons far beyond my control, so I’ve been trying to return to basics: pray, confess, celebrate sacraments, preach… and let God handle the rest. He hasn’t make me a vast community organizer, nor an engineer, nor a financial wiz… maybe he will one day, but for now he’s made me his poor servant and priest. The more I fulfill that tiny role the happier I’ll be and the more (in the end) I’ll contribute to the building up of his Kingdom.  

Staying at the Center of the Wheel


Yesterday, at our priest convocation, Bishop Robert Barron spoke beautifully on the theme of encountering Christ.  One image he used was of the Rota Fortunae, a medieval “wheel of fortune” image found in many gothic cathedrals.  The wheel typically has Jesus at its center.  Spinning around him is the image of a king who is variously “ruling,” “falling from power,” “mortified,” and “rising to power with ambition.”  The wheel is sometimes spun by an allegorical image of Fortune herself.  Bishop Barron reminded us that for all Christians, and especially for priests, the place to be is at the center, at peace with Christ.  The wheel portrays the foolishness of ambition (a king, it’s chosen character), but ambition isn’t the only thing that pulls us to that precarious outer edge of the wheel.  Anxiety can… losing perspective can.

A really crazy week last week had me pretty spun up.  Everything that happened was a good thing (a wedding, a funeral, traveling around the city giving spiritualdirection, spending time with the poor), but it was physically exhausting.  Then it happened: the church boiler decided to die just in time for the first 32-degree weekend of the year.  The great irony (and this is soooo like Jesus) is that getting freaked out about what this means for our parish is the least Christ-like thing to do right now.  Given the stories I hear from the needy of the neighborhood, from the unemployed guys sitting in the park, and even from the kids in my school, the challenges of moving mass into the school gym for a few weeks really isn’t that big a deal.  So I return to the chapel, chilly as it may be, and kneel before the tabernacle… comforted, quieted, and yes…even warmed by another encounter with Jesus. Preferisco Paradiso!

If you need some extra help, consider this prayer to my patron St. Philip Neri:

My holy Advocate, Saint Philip, thou whose heart was so serene in the midst of adversity, whose spirit was so devoted to suffering, thou who when thou wast persecuted by the envious, or calumniated by the wicked who sought to discredit thee, or sorely tried by Our Lord with many persistent and painful maladies, didst endure it all with an admirable tranquility of heart and mind; obtain for me also the spirit of fortitude in all the tribulations of this life. Thou seest how perturbed and indignant I become at every light affliction, how angry and resentful at every insignificant contradiction, and how unable I am to remember that the cross is the only way to paradise. Obtain for me perfect patience and readiness like thine in carrying the crosses which Our Lord daily gives me to carry, so that I may be made worthy to rejoice with thee in our eternal reward in heaven.

Why keep giving?  Because it’s what we are built for.

This past Sunday’s readings never fail to make priests quake in their boots.  Through the Prophet Malachi, and then directly in the Gospel, our Lord chides the priests of the Old Covenant for not keeping his ways, not giving glory to his name, and most of all for looking to their own status instead of the needs of God’s people.  In the Gospel, from Matthew 23, Jesus’ admonition comes as a last ditch effort call to conversion, just before his arrest and Crucifixion.  Since, under the new covenant we have not only a ministerial priesthood [of the ordained], but also a royal priesthood [of the lay-faithful], we all do well to listen to Jesus’ words.  

As I’ve mused before, the priests of Jesus’ day probably didn’t wake up with villainous scowls on their faces, thinking from first light, “How can we be selfish today?”  Nor do priests, nor do most lay people today in 21st-century DC.  If we’re going to learn and grow we need to look a little deeper than that simplistic image.  The religious leadership of Jesus’ time was deeply afraid: afraid of rebellion among their own people, afraid of Roman occupation, afraid of losing their own position or even their lives.   Can’t we see similar issues among our people today?  Among the priests, we do, we truly do ask the important questions, “How can I follow the heart of Jesus more faithfully today?”  “How can I introduce others to that Sacred heart?”  But it can’t be denied that other more terrestrial questions cloud our attention: “Will this Sunday’s collection pay the bills?”  “Will the government make life easier or harder for the Church?”  “Will the Chancery come down on me because of that homily I gave?”  Etc. etc….  For the faithful too, exercising their royal-priesthood in the world, there are fears and anxieties that threaten to drown out the more important stuff: “What effect will office politics have on my job?”  “Will I ever find Mr./Ms. Right?”  “How am I supposed to pay my bills and save while living with downtown expenses?” Etc. Etc…  Given that depression and anxiety are the two most commonly diagnosed psychological issues in America today, I don’t think I’m far off asserting that like the priests of old, we are afraid.  Maybe that’s why Jesus, and more recently St. John Paul II’s most common phrase was, “Be not afraid!”

Indeed, fear generates in us an autonomic physiological response.  Preparing us for fight or flight, the body secures its digestive system (hence you lose your appetite when fighting).  Excess waste is shed (i.e. The scared child who wets himself).  Muscles tense and adrenaline floods the brain shutting down higher functions like advanced planning.  Our bodies do everything they can to prepare us for battle/self-defense.  What you’ll notice is that none of these autonomic responses are disposed to generosity.  

Theologically, that disposition toward self-preservation could be described as a symptom of original sin… part of concupisence.  But that’s not the end of the story.  Man was made, after all, “in the image and likeness of God,” and God is all generous.  The Catechism reminds us of this right off the bat in paragraph #1: “God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to mak him share in his own blessed life.”  Gratuitous self-gift is part of our hardwiring as human beings.  Hence, human beings are theonly creatures on earth who can rationally choose to give their lives for the sake of another. That’s us at our best.  That’s us at our most God-like.  It’s also why St. Paul says all creation “awaits with eager expectation the revelation of the children of God.” (Rm. 8:19).  If self-preservation is a result of sin, then self-gift is a sign of redemption and of hope.  

Whether you’re an ordained priest, or a member of the lay-faithful offering up your own sacrifices each Sunday, I know it’s hard.  Struggling against he gravity of self-concern is a huge deal and it hurts sometimes.  It brought Jesus all the way to the Cross.  But it’s worth it.  Not just because of the good that is achieved… though that is a worthwhile end… but at an even deeper level, we strive to be givers because that is who we are meant to be.  Being a person of self-gift lays aside the old man (Eph. 4:22) and puts on Christ (Gal. 3:27), thus revealing -to the hope and relieve of all creation- the children of God in our midst. 

The Threefold Beauty of this Day

Three “Takes” on All Saints Day

Today’s Feast of All Saints is a favorite of mine.  I thought I’d share three takes or angles on this beautiful feast and its pastoral applications:

The Personal/Family Angle – I’ve always understood it as a day to remember not only the canonized saints, but all those whose names we either don’t know… or know only privately.  There are members of my family I’m convinced have arrived in the fullness of heavenly glory.  I can’t praise them from the pulpit.  No one will name churches after them, but today, the Lord touches our hearts to ask for their prayers in his heavenly presence.  “All you holy men and women of God, pray for us!”

A Day for Urban Ministry – The missal describes today as “the festival of [God’s] holy city, the heavenly Jerusalem, our mother.”  So in some senses All Saints Day is a great feast for those who love city life.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful to lift the entire population of Washington to heaven?  As God’s people in the city, that’s exactly what we are called to do.  I’ve begun working with a great group of Catholics called the Downtown Serra Club.  Part of Serra International, their mission is to help each other grow in holiness, and – as an act of thanksgiving to God – support the growth of priestly vocations.  The Serrans were a big part of our lives as seminarians, so it’s a pleasure to be their chaplain.  More than that, though, I’m excited to be reaching out to young professionals in our downtown parishes and offering them “mobile spiritual direction.”  Meeting them, literally, where they’re at to talk about what God’s doing in their lives.

A Day for Catholic Aesthetics – Today’s Morning Prayer reading is just two verses from Ephesians 1 (17-18).  Paul prays for the Ephesians, “May he who is the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father to whom glory belongs, grant you a spirit of wisdom and insight, to give you fuller knowledge of himself.  May your inward eye be enlightened, so that you may understand to what hopes he has called you, how rich in glory is that inheritance his found among the saints.”  The verse was so beautiful, that I went to the Bible to read the whole first chapter of Ephesians.  Just a few highlights (using the Knox translation of the New Testament):

“[The Father] has chosen us out, in Christ, before the foundation of the world, to be saints…” (Eph. 1:4) Jesus is the Revelation of the Father, the eikon (icon/image)  of God, the refulgence of the glory of God, the shinning forth of God… Jesus is, more simply  put, the beauty of God.  Insofar as we were made in the eikon (image) and likeness of the Father, we were created in light of Christ.  Likewise we find re-creation/redemption in him.  Insofar as we resemble Christ… insofar as we are beautiful we are saved.  All Catholic aesthetics is based on this truth.    The saints are those who heroically manifest Christ in the world… they radiate his beauty so clearly.  This harkens back to what St. Paul said yesterday to the Romans (8:18), “If creation is full of expectancy, that is because it is waiting of rot sons of God to be made known.”  All of creation waits for us to make Christ visible in the world!  Beauty is the mission of the Church!  It cannot be said often enough.

“So rich is God’s grace, that has overflowed upon us in a full stream of wisdom and discernment, to make known to us the hidden purpose of his will.” (Eph. 1:8) – God’s way is always the way of abundance!  of overflowing!  It is beyond mere efficiency.  Indeed, from the very beginning, the Catechism tells us, “God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life.” (CCC, 1)  He didn’t need to make us, he did so as a gratuitous act.  Beauty is rarely “useful” or “efficient,” it’s a mark of generosity, of taking things to the next level even though it’s not necessary.  Jesus himself says that he told us everything, “that my joy may be yours, and the measure of your joy may be filled up.”  (Jn. 15:11)  This abundance is on display whenever people marvel at the sheer number of canonized saints… and the fact that we’re still making more!

Finally, Paul identifies his role in this midst of all this… he is in awe: “…I too play my part; I have been told of your faith in the Lord Jesus… and I never cease to offer thanks on your behalf or to remember you in my prayers.” (Eph. 1:15)  Encountering beauty engenders awe in the heart of the beholder… which then inspires him to imitate what he has seen… to spread the beauty further.  It requires little explanation… no force or coercion… When beauty gets under your skin it is self-perpetuating.  This is what Paul experienced… this is evangelization!

Today, pray with those who’ve gone before us.  Pray for those in the city who still accompany us, and think on the immense beauty with which the Lord has graced the world.  Happy all Saints Day!

The Bright Side of Mortification: More than DC Spin

Life in downtown DC is often marked by spin… as in putting a positive spin on everything, no matter what.  It’s become a tired tool of politicians, a nuisance to the average citizen. Looking at spin through eyes of faith though… one can draw some redeeming qualities from the concept.  In my last post, “When autumn leaves fall,” I mused on a classical concept of the spiritual life: mortification.  Yesterday, in the readings for mass, St. Paul advises the Romans (8:13), “if you mortify the ways of the flesh through the power of the Spirit, you will have life.”  In a seemingly curious pairing, the Gospel then has Jesus admonishing the synagogue leaders that it is indeed acceptable to heal on the sabbath (Lk 13:10-17).  Understanding the pairing of these two readings can help us find a healthy positive spin on mortification.  

The Jewish authorities we encounter in the Gospel had become cynical, jaded, and afraid.  I don’t think any of them woke up each day and decided to be that way.  Actually, if you think of it, there were lots of very natural, understandable reasons for it.  They had been, for centuries, a subjugated people.  First the Babylonians, then the Persians, the Greeks, then finally the Romans. While they had their own local “king” (Herod), he was a turncoat and Roman puppet.  As if being a conquered people wasn’t enough, their province was one of the poorest, most backwater regions of the Roman Empire.  Had God abandoned them?  Even in the leadership classes, daily existence must’ve been marked by fear, anxiety, cynicism and a host of other negative emotions.  And isn’t that precisely what Paul is referring to as, “the ways of the flesh” (opera corporis).  Typically, readers see that phrase and think of sexual morality, but it’s really broader than that.  The Knox translation of Romans actually phrases it, “the ways of nature,” which helps us gain a broader understanding.   

For human beings, bound to this earth, mortal… fear, anxiety, the “fight or flight” mentality is indeed the way of nature/the flesh… and this is the limit, the chain, from which Jesus came to set us free!   If that’s what was motivating the synagogue officials, then despite all their observances of the law, they weren’t really practicing mortification.  During Lent, one of the authors in the Office of Readings reminds us that the true goal of fasting must always be heaven itself; and likewise all forms of mortification.  Put another way: consider today’s Psalm 37 in the Office of Readings, “Do not fret because of the wicked; do not envy those who do evil: for they wither quickly like grass and fade like the green of the fields… If you find your delight in the Lord, he will grant your heart’s desire.”  Saint Paul continues the lesson in today’s mass reading (Rm 8:18), “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory revealed for us.”

In my own life, I find that certain fears and anxieties can be paralyzing, even tortuous.  They must be defeated if I’m going to move forward on the pilgrimage to heaven.  Most recently this came up with regard to a report I had to send downtown about our parish budget.  It was an honest statement about the cost of deferred maintenance on our grounds, and the current state of finances.  Worrying about it wasn’t doing me any good, wasn’t changing the situation… If anything it was hurting me: each time I tried to game out the possible outcomes it was like a lash on my back.  So I forced myself not only to send the report but to go over it with the whole parish council.  It was so liberating.  I don’t know what the outcome will be… probably much more bland than any of my fears would’ve suggested… but whatever happens, the monkey is off my back and I’m free to pray, and rejoice now, no matter what may come tomorrow.  I’ve got some other things rolling around in my prayers, long term stuff that’s been a weight on my shoulders for a couple of years actually.  I’ve always assumed these issues were crosses, but if Jesus carries the cross for us, then maybe the weight I’m feeling isn’t so much the cross as the fears and anxieties I’ve been holding on to.  Maybe mortification looks like, “letting go, and letting the dice fall where they may” (another phrase that’s been coming to me in prayer lately).  As with so much of the spiritual life, the answer is… “we’ll see.”

Is all of this DC Spin from a DC priest?  I don’t think so… I think it’s the Lord leading me to look at a classical Christian practice with renewed eyes of faith.  I hope you find it helpful.

As Autumn Leaves Fall

Yesterday, walking through Congressional Cemetery, there were some splendid views of DC’s autumn laves; a bright light show of reds and golds prefacing their inevitable fall. As we come to the end of the growing year, and another liturgical year, the Church turns her attention toward the passing of all things.  Indeed, the month of November is dedicated solely to prayer for the dead.  Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them!

For me, thoughts of the “last things (death, judgment, heaven, hell and purgatory), bring some concern, but I’ve reached a point in my spiritual life where concern rapidly shifts to practical considerations: Am I being honest with myself about my spiritual life?  How does my training for heaven look?  What can I do to keep moving forward… not get stuck on the road to a positive judgment before the Lord?  Far from a tortured process of guilt (as many portray it), the Christian life is a beautiful series of opportunities.  As autumn leaves fall this year, they’re reminding me of some important spiritual tools that can help me get closer to heaven, and maybe help bring some others along for the ride.

Mortification is a classical concept in the Christian life, but one that gets short shrift in preaching these days.  Nonetheless, it’s been the key to happiness for every saint ever canonized.  “Blessed the people whose God is the Lord.” (Ps. 144:15)  The Psalms remind us that living out the First Commandment is the key to happiness.  But so much gets in the way, gums up the works…  “Sin speaks to the sinner in his heart.  He so flatters himself that he knows not his guilt.  In his mouth are all mischief and deceit.  All wisdom is gone.”  (Ps. 36).  Life happens, it makes it hard for us to see clearly good vs. evil.  Eventually, without ever purposely intending it, God is no longer first in our lives.  Our own yearnings, interpretations and decisions become the “gods of our idolatry.”

The saints, realizing this tidal drift away from the worship of the Lord in and through all things, bravely take up the process of mortification in order to restore true happiness and life!  A superb example of this process if St. Philip Neri.  Everyone knows that Philip was a saint marked first and foremost by JOY.  His smile, his humor and his love are widely remembered even today, 500 years after his earthly ministry.  What many casual observers don’t know is that Philip’s joy was grounded on a firm foundation of mortification.

Mortification means to deny oneself.  Classically, it’s broken down into three categories, mortification of the senses, understanding and will.

[For more on this, consider reading, Spiritual Combat by Fr. Lorenzo Scupoli a renaissance spiritual master.  The book is avaihalbe in print and in digital format.  Also, Fr. Francesco Agnelli’s Excellences of the Oratory]

Mortification of the senses denies unnecessary appetites focusing us on what is truly good for us.  The easiest example is: I see and smell chocolate cake, but I know that at the end of the day, what would really be better for me is a green salad.  I deny my urge for the chocolate cake and start mixing vegetables.  This can be applied to any of the senses.  Mortifying sight to avoid pornography, mortifying hearing to listen only to edifying music… etc. etc. Eventually, the cleansing process of mortifying our senses purifies the lens of the heart enabling us to see the world as it truly is… as God himself sees it.  And this we call “chastity/purity.”

Mortification of the understanding is an active acceptance of the reality that we really don’t know all of God’s plan, or why things have been allowed to happen.  Put another, perhaps more positive way, to mortify our understanding is to actively trust that however impossible it may seem, God can and will pull new life from every situation.  “Lord I don’t know why my friend got cancer, but I trust that somehow you will bring resurrection life from this experience of darkness.”  Mortification of the understanding admits and begins to love our own inner poverty by trusting the Lord.

Mortification of the will is where the rubber really hits the road, because this is where all our inner thoughts about appetites and understanding get translated into action, “Lord I submit my decision to a will other than mine.”  We may subject ourselves to God’s revealed truth/commands… We may subject ourselves to the will of another person, a spouse for example, or a poor neighbor.  In this we live out obedience.

Note how each of these forms of self-death (mortification) participates in one of the evangelical virtues: chastity, poverty, obedience.  They’re called “evangelical” precisely because living them demonstrates the power of the Gospel in our own hearts, where our God is now the Lord… and when other’s see this… and see us finding true happiness, these virtues become a mysteriously attractive quality drawing others to live the Christian life as well.

As autumn leaves fall, we may feel a little glum, but Jesus is a master at turning death into life.  Don’t flee the experience; embrace it!  You may be surprised at the freedom and new life you find on the other side, and consequently a greater happiness on earth in preparation for heaven. Preferisco Paradiso!

What does the Freer Have to do with Laudato Si?


Over the last few weeks, the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery has reopened after an eighteen month restoration.  The Washington Post’s Philip Kennicott has done a fine review of the museum’s renewal.  While the Freer and its sister gallery, the Sackler, are most known for their impressive collections of Asian Art, the Freer began as the home of Charles Lang Freer’s personal collection.  It was, in fact, the Smithsonian’s first museum dedicated solely to art.  I’m a big fan of all the works in this gem of a museum, but as a confirmed old occidental, I have a soft spot for the Euro-American pieces by James M. Whistler and John Singer Sargent.  


On a recent visit to the Museum, I got reacquainted with Whistler and Sargent’s elegant portraiture, their brilliant Venetian sketches and oils… and a new group of paintings: Whistler’s Nocturnes.  Painting in industrial England, Whistler captured classic subject matter at an historical turning point: the industrial revolution.  His river scenes, captured at twilight (hence the title nocturne ) are sometimes called “dirty” oils because they appear to be grimy, filthy.  


In fact, there’s nothing wrong with Whistler’s paintings.  He accurately captured the world’s first major manifestation of smog.  Doing so, the artist captures in oil something of what Dickens achieved with words… the deep sense that a certain corruption now obscures the beauty of old England.  Sun and moon try their best to pierce the gloom of the new world order testifying to the perseverance of hope as eloquently as Bob Cratchet, Oliver, or Joe Gargery ever did.  Whether considering Whistler’s paintings or Dickens’ words what comes through is the human toll of unbridled economic revolution.  


In their day, Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum spoke up for the needs of the suffering.  Today, we are blessed with Pope Francis’ moral encyclical Laudato Si reminding us that we’re not just talking about a few rivers in England or the US.  Trade and economics have vastly expanded the impact of today’s industrial/technological advances.  No corner of the world is free from the effects, and the number of the poor negatively impacted by new economies has grown at a geometric rate.  Many think that Laudato Si is primarily about climate change; it’s not.  The document is about putting humanity at the heart of economic planning… which necessarily includes environmental awareness.  Call it, perhaps, ‘Industrial Moral Theology.’  

I’d encourage anyone who loves art, history, or climate awareness to stop in to the renovated Freer.  You won’t be disappointed… and perhaps the lessons of Whistler’s time can help all of us to make healthy decisions in the future.

II Timothy, The Sequel As Good as the Original!

Over the last week or so, I’ve been called back, over and over again, to Paul’s First Letter to Timothy (see some posts below). What can I say? I wanted more. So this morning I began praying with II Timothy… and in an all too rare sign of wonder, the sequel was just as good as the original!  
Paul is nearing the end of his life. Imprisoned at Rome, he’s writing to one of his favorite disciples, Timothy… possibly the bishop of Ephesus. He identifies Timothy right off the bat as, “his well beloved son.” (1:2). The circumstances of the letter convey the deep movements of Paul’s heart… How beautiful, to peer into the heart of an Apostle!  
We’re also given a privileged look into the relationship between Paul, Timothy… and Timothy’s family, as Paul traces his disciple’s spiritual lineage through his mother and grandmother’s faith: 

“I long to see thee again so as to have my fill of joy when I receive fresh proof of thy sincere faith. That faith dwelt in they grandmother Lois, and in they mother Eunice, before thee.” (1:4-5). 

These verses give me hope for the life of the Church in our parish. In our neighborhood, traditional family structure has been eviscerated. That structure has been under threat in every parish where I’ve served, but here it’s different. It’s not just a matter of semi-isolated divorces, as elsewhere… or young people rationalizing a reticence to marry… Here there’s very often a total apathy toward relationships, a desperation that plays out in broken/frayed family structures… and all too often a violence both physical and psychological that destroys all the people involved. The result is that when families try to pass on any sense of faith, it’s usually through a grandmother and mother. Timothy’s circumstances might not have been quite so tinged by violence, but cynicism was surely there… marriages were bartered business arrangements in the Roman world. Irreligion was a factor too as traditional Olympian worship broke down into doubting syncretism. Men were largely out of the picture, but Paul, and later Augustine refer frequently to the role women play in handing on spiritual as well as physical life to the next generation. Maybe we can build on that here.  

The second theme that catches my attention today is the power of personal influence. Here, I’m not just talking about winning friends in high places or any other such networking skills. I’m referring to communicating a wholistic truth through the whole range of who each of us is as a person. Paul brings up the issue in 2:14-16 as he reminds Timothy how to deal with false preachers:

“Bring this back to men’s thoughts, pleading with them earnestly in the Lord’s name; there must be no wordy disputes, such as can only unsettle the minds of those who are listening. Aim first at winning God’s approval… Keep thy distance from those who are bringing in a fashion of meaningless talk…”

That first part about “no wordy disputes,” is also rendered “arguments with words.” In the Latin, “Haec commone testificans coram Deo verbis non contendere.” Here, verbis can mean “by, with or based on words.” Obviously Paul isn’t dissing the use of language, but there’s more to communication than words. Have you ever had a discussion that devolved into an argument and realized that you lost sight of the actual issue… that really, what you were pursuing was victory, or even just the adrenaline high that came from the argument? Such dialogues are the stuff of every undergraduate debate I’ve ever witnessed, and far too many on major news outlets. Paul is telling us: don’t even jump into that arena, or you will have lost. IF on the other hand, in all things we aim at winning God’s approval…. then our whole being will testify to the truth of his Gospel and convince others. We see this all the time in those members of our lives who seem to “be above it all,” who maybe we think of as really, “transcending,” the rat race of earthly arguments. When we see someone who really works every day for God’s pleasure and not human victories, that person is instantly attractive and wins souls for the Gospel without firing a single verbal shot. Blessed Cardinal Newman spoke of this so eloquently in his Parochial and Plain Sermon #5: “Personal Influence as the Means of Propagating the Truth,”. I highly recommend googling and reading it. One caution: I’m not saying… andI don’t think Paul is saying… that we should never use words. Goodness knows anyone who wrote as many letters as Paul could never suggest such a thing. And the famous phrase, “Preach and if necessary use words,” does indeed apply here… HOWEVER, that phrase has been used and abused as a cop out from ever having to actually discuss the Gospel with anyone… Don’t fall into the trap. Use words… but use all our other forms of communication as well.
This brings us to the final inspiration St. Paul gave me this morning: the power of vocation.  
“That is why I would remind thee to fan the flame of that special grace which God kindled in thee, when my hands were laid upon thee.” (1:6)

Paul is speaking specifically about Timothy’s ordination at his hands, but the issue is no less true for any of the baptized who receive gifts of the Spirit by the laying on of hands, anointing with oil, and pouring of water in baptism. Here, the inspiration comes, as do the gifts, from without. “You did not choose me, but I chose you…” Jesus tells us (Jn 15:16). The gifts are HIS power in us, not our fallible, ultimately mortal strengths. If we stir into a flame the gifts of our baptismal/married/ordained vocations, nothing can stop us. We can move through life’s challenges with peaceful confidence. Paul reminds Timothy of this -in a way- in chapter 2:
“God’s foundation stone stands firm, and this is the legend on it, the Lord acknowledges none but his own; and again, let everyone who names the Lord’s name keep far from iniquity.” (2:19)

Paul is referring to the Roman custom of marking the foundation stones of temples and other major public buildings with the builders’ original intent. The marking or “legend” (also rendered, “seal”) preserved the building from misuse, or ineffective use. Likewise us. If we rely on our own gifts, our own sense of self-determination, then we will be ineffective at best, harmful at worst. But if we turn to our identity as belonging to God, written on the foundation stone he laid when he made us (see also Jer. 1:5) then we can’t go wrong.

I saw this play out beautifully yesterday when a blessed a poor man’s house. He’s a lovely simple soul, but got lost through a lot of life. He’s also complained that something at home has been preventing him from doing good or growing. He’s baptized… and so when I went with a missionary to his home yesterday, we prayed over him and blessed him and his apartment with holy water. I charged him to remember that he belongs to the Lord and nothing can change that. I laid hands on his head and prayed over him. When we finished, he was like a new man. He actually became light on his feet… sort of danced in place a bit and smiled. What happened was a two-fold action of blessing from without… and reminding from within… a visit down to the basement of the soul to re-read the foundation stone and rise up more confident and peaceful than before.  

These are just a few thoughts, reading II Timothy and the experiences of life with eyes of faith. I hope you find them edifying and pick up the Letter for your own prayer. Peace!

Belief

In today’s mass readings, St. Paul tells the Romans, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”  (Cf. Rom. 4:1-8).  Later, the Lord warns his followers, “Beware the leaven – that his, the hypocrisy – of the Pharisees (Lk. 12:1-7).  How might we look with eyes of faith at these readings and daily life?  

To begin with, belief, even under the best of circumstances can be really hard.  …and I mean believe in anything.  The strongest beliefs usually involve an intense credibility between the believer and the person proposing the belief.  Such credibility usually comes after a long relationship with ups and downs.  Our own life stories/history complicate things, as does trying to peer into the future, “What will the consequences of this belief be for how I live?”  Belief is, perhaps, hardest when involves total lack of control… as in, “I believe that everything will turn out ok.”  So, indeed, the fact that Abraham believed God would bring him across the desert to the Promised Land… and give him a vast lineage in his old age… the fact that Abraham believed was truly credited to him as righteousness.  

At the other end of the spectrum are the Pharisees who had sold out.  Those who should’ve believed in, hoped for, looked for the coming of the heavenly Kingdom could not recognize it when they appeared in Jesus.  Rather, they sought a lesser peace, founded on fear, collaborating with the authorities of the Roman Empire.  Nowhere is this more obvious than the trial of Jesus (Lk. 22-23).  

Most of us exist somewhere between the Pharisaical fear and Abrahamic Faith.  I know that reading these texts this morning, I couldn’t quite place myself.  I really have no clue what the future holds for the parish where I serve, but I know God wants people there to get to heaven.  “Lord, how will we overcome our obstacles?  Lord, are you there?  Is there hope?  I do believe Lord… help my unbelief.”  

To avoid getting stuck in the challenges of belief, always contemplate… then act.  Today’s saint, Paul of the Cross, is a great example for us.  Paul founded the Passionist Fathers, whose yearly existence is instructive.  The Passionists spend several months each year living as contemplatives, observing a rigorous monastic schedule before returning to active ministry for the remaining months of the year.  What a witness!  A great example is Passionist father, Bl. Dominic Barberi.  Dominic was an Italian theologian fascinated by the beginnings of the Oxford Movement in the Anglican Church.  Traveling to England (which was not a terribly welcoming place for Catholics or non-English speakers at the time), Dominic began to learn about budding converts at Oxford.  Preaching one day in pouring rain, holding his passionis cross high in the air, he was spied by a young John Henry Newman.  Newman had set a little test for God.  He was so close to becoming Cathoic, but needed a little push to put him over the edge.  He said, “If I could but see a holy priest preaching with the cross, I would convert.”  Newman saw Fr. Barberi and was (along with two friends) received by him into the Church.  Barberi had no idea when he left Italy that his mission to England would not only enhance the Oxford Movement, but give spiritual birth to one of the greatest theologians of the last five hundred years.  Contemplation led to belief… belief to action… action to the fulfillment of God’s plan.  

Lord, I do believe… fill me with a contemplative Spirit… help my unbelief, and move me to be your instrument though another day. Amen.