Yesterday at our parish’s weekly adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, the parish hosted a wonderful speaker from the St. John Paul II Inst. on Marriage and Family, Brendan McCauley. Brendan gave an outstanding synopsis of our late and great Holy Father’s Theology of the Body. The presentation is linked HERE I hope you find it edifying.
“The world is too much with us…” the great poet Wordsworth was correct in his own time… and how much more so today. Long have we known that the cares of the world are many and overbearing, but now -as if that weren’t enough- we begin to discern that the manipulations of the world weigh heavily on our simple shoulders. What do I mean by manipulations. Some are pro-active and some more passive. Pro-active manipulation might include the use of mundane, even benign data by powerful socio-corporate forces to actively manipulate our shopping patterns, real estate values, political opinions and voting patterns etc. To them we are objects, pawns on their chessboard to be used for increased profit margins and power. Other manipulations are more passive: the design of smartphone screens, for example, lulls our eyes such that physiologically it gets harder to look away as time goes on. Algorithms prompt us, “Based on reading article X we think you might like reading article Y.” Before we know it we’re only reading things we agree with. Such manipulations result not only in the fracturing of civil society into partisan and identity-based groups… they even result in doing psychological damage. As Bishop Barron recently reported, studies have shown that there is direct link between smartphone screen time and increases in depression! “The world is too much with us.”
In the life of the Church the manipulations of the world (active/intentional and passive/unintended) have similar effects, driving wedges between Catholics who ought to see each other as fellow subjects of divine love, and not as problems to be solved. The faithful begin to murmur about each other in the same way that the crowds/pharisees “murmured” about Jesus… and as a result of digital manipulation we end up blowing things way out of proportion and far from the truth. A brother or sister in Christ… or a priest… or a bishop suddenly becomes the focus of all our digitally-hyped rage… WE, who should’ve been most immune to it all given the many gifts we’ve received from God in the Church. It reminds me of the words of Psalm 52 from morning prayer this past week:
“Why do you glory in what is evil, you who are mighty by the mercy of God?
All day long
you are thinking up intrigues;
your tongue is like a sharpened razor,
you worker of deceit.
You love evil more than good,
lying rather than saying what is right…”
This is a societal epidemic; certainly non-specific to the Church, but as Church we are divinely called to pull ourselves out of it for our good, for the good of our neighbors and for the effective spread of the Gospel throughout the world. I’ve been a victim of this dynamic; as a priest I often have a target painted on me… ‘comes with the job. In a few of my assignments I’ve been labeled a “neo-con” or even -in one case- “fascist patriarch,” for teaching Biblical truths. In other cases I’ve been called “big lib,” or even -and this one I had to chuckle at – and “unwitting dupe of the left.” I take comfort that folks on both sides of the present divide aim arrows at me, I assume it means I’m doing something right. BUT… I’ve also given in to the temptations of the world in this regard. I’ve discovered that my own senses are sometimes tuned by the world and not by Christ. I might go into a conversation assuming the other person is going to be “a problem,” or automatically assuming that he/she is “coming after me,” when nothing could be further from the truth.
If this is the challenge, where is our solution? Psalm 52 gives us a great image of the holy one:
But I, like an olive tree flourishing in the house of God,
I trust in God’s mercy forever and ever.
I will thank you forever
for what you have done.
I will put my hope in your name—for it is good,
—in the presence of those devoted to you.
The olive tree: source of a major life staple for everyone else, itself totally dependent on God for life. The olive tree lives sometimes over a thousand years. Gnarled and twisted by all it experiences, it nonetheless perseveres quietly, steadfastly. It’s entire attention, as the psalmist suggests, is turned toward God… not to a screen, a commentator, or even to its own natural fears/anxieties; it is wholly focused on its Creator and Sustainer, God alone… and in HIM the olive tree finds its peace, its serenity.
Brothers and sisters, if you feel like “the world is too much with you,” if you feel like screen time has taken over, if you feel fear, anger, hurt vis a vis the world, if you feel you are anything other than that olive tree, seek out silence. Come to Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament (Wed. 5:30-6:30), stop in to the confessional, open up Scripture in a physical book rather than your phone. Fast from the digital and feast on the divine. I promise you, you will find peace. I’ll leave you with just a few words from A Letter to the Corinthians by Pope St. Clement I:
Let us put on the unity of mind, thinking humble thoughts, exercising self-control, keeping ourselves far from all backbiting and slander, being righteous in deed, and not in word only… It is our duty then to be eager to doo good, for everything is from God.
This week I was blessed to perceive and appreciate three moments of illumination in my day… they all came in the midst of a very normal day in our fair city… but as seems to be our God’s way the normal got lifted up to the divine.
The People We Love Without Realizing It
Our parish hosts a women’s shelter for 21 homeless women preparing to reenter the world in homes/jobs of their own. This past week one of the ladies “graduated” and asked if a friend could park in our lot to help her move into her own independent apartment. Of course the answer was, “yes.” She was so excited; a huge grin spread from ear-to-ear. Gushing with joy she hugged me and then dropped to one knee to hug my dog, Annie. “I’ll miss you little pup! Seeing you every afternoon and hearing you bark when those trashy dogs walk down the street!” Quietly, in the background of my day to day experience, this wonderful lady had become part of my life… and Annie’s… and we a part of hers… part enough, anyway, so that she knew Annie’s habits and schedules. It got me thinking, “I will miss seeing this person.” Who are the other people in our lives that are part of the background… and yet -undeniably- part of our joy?
Joy on the Metro
On the Metro a totally diverse group of riders (myself included) watched as a family with a small boy boarded the train. The kid was so excited to be on a train and bounced Into the first seat he saw with a great big grin on his face. Everyone… myself, the man with dreadlocks, the Asian tourists… everyone lit up as this little kid shone with joy on the Metro. It may seem like a small thing, a tiny thing in fact… but it made everyone’s day better. This becomes the stuff of our discernment, or it ought to become the stuff of our discernment. What are these moments in my life?
Lord Acquit Me Of Hidden Faults!
I went to get my hair cut at a long time DC barbershop, “Diego’s.” I’ve been there a few times. I like the cut I get there and the vibe of the shop is happily busy. You can tell the barbers have known each other for some time and enjoy working there. The owner is kind of a local monument… one of the last traditional barber’s in his neighborhood, and I admit I was a little intimidated about meeting him. Silly, right? But true nonetheless. I also assumed by his name, “Diego” and from hearing him speak with his employees across the shop that he was a native Spanish speaker. While I can read Spanish, speaking is a whole other world. The long and the short of it is that despite the pleasant environment, I retreated into a quiet shell as my hair got cut. Then something happened. Sitting in one fo the chairs I heard Diego speak Italian with one fo the women dying her hair. What? Italian? All of a sudden I was in my element!! After m trim, I walked up to Diego and introduced myself in the old tongue. We struck up a conversation along with another one of the barbers and discovered that we had places in common in Italy: towns, home provinces etc. My whole experience opened up! Afterwards, riding the metro home I thanked God for the experience of meeting new people… but I also asked his forgiveness for my silly anxieties, which very nearly hampered a really great afternoon. Lord, acquit me of unseen faults so that I may be free to live life to the full!
“Sacrifice and offering you did not desire,
but a body you prepared for me;
in holocausts and sin offerings you took no delight.
Then I said, ‘As is written of me in the scroll,
behold, I come to do your will, O God.’”
-Excerpted – Hb. 10:4-10
The Annunciation… absolutely my favorite Marian feast. It’s all about the coming of the body of Christ into the world. It’s the very first instant, the very first moment when Jesus takes flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary, by the Holy Spirit.
One Body… Three Bodies..
It was only through this Body of Jesus that we could be saved. No other body ever created could satisfy the Divine Justice of the Father, expiating our sins.
“Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me.”
And in the instant that this body, his body, comes into the world, another person’s body is intimately wrapped up with it… The body of Mary: “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son…” A prayerful young woman receives her mission from God, doing so with perfect submission and self-gift even to the point of bearing a child! “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me.” This is the ultimate act of worship. And also of holy imitation… because if the Son himself was pleased to descend from heaven and take up a place in the mortal world, sacrificing his body for the sake of the Father’s love… then why should we humans be any different?
And here we find a third body: The Mystical Body of Christ which is the Church. We are called on this Feast… and so appropriately duing Lent… we are called to offer up our whole selves in imitation, in worship… in union with the body of Jesus. We strive during this holy season to make our own bodies more and more like unto his by fasting prayer and almsgiving… by healthy self-possession and self-gift to place ourselves on the Cross with him so we may one day find ourselves with him in heaven. “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me.”
On the Annunciation, how can we look more and more like the flesh, like the Body of Christ? Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman may give us some pointers.
Three Guide Posts to Intimacy with the Flesh of Christ
In his Meditations and Devotions, Bl. Cardinal Newman prays over the titles of Mary from her Litany. Among the tiles he associates with the Annunciation are: Mother of the Creator, Mother of Christ, and Mother of the Savior. These titles may can guide us to a closer union with our Lord this feast day and this Lent.
Mother of the Creator – As the Word, Jesus is the creative principle of God. He was sent forth at the beginning of time to create all things. He is a life giver! He is celebration! If, in our lives we are not life-giving, celebratory people, we are doing something wrong! Be a people of life and of joy!!
Mother of Christ – The Christ is precisely the “anointed” one. Anointed for what? In Isaiah we find two strong guide posts. The Anointed one is here to proclaim good news to the poor, healing to the brokenhearted liberty to captives…(Is 61). In other words, he is here to spread word of the great things God has done. The anointed one is also here to offer himself in sacrifice as the suffering servant (Is. 53). A prophet of good news… and a living sacrifice for the sake of love… that’s what we are called to be. Do I speak the GOOD news often? Do I give myself completely for God? Or do I reserve parts of my heart just for me?
Mother of the Savior – Newman describes the Savior as the one who fights for his people, to free them from oppression. But what kind of warriors does God bless? Let’s look to God’s greatest warrior, the one who was a prefigurement for Jesus himself: King David. As a young man fighting for his life, David had a chance to kill his enemy, King Saul (I Sam 24), but he didn’t. David would not touch the one whom God had made king of his people. Again, in later life, when David’s own son Absalom raises a rebellion against him: a soldier think he will please David by killing Abasalom (II Sam 18). Far from pleased, David mourns the death of his child. In both cases, God’s saving warrior David keeps his focus where it belongs, on the providential plan of God… not on his own safety, or even his own suffering. Likewise us: if we are to be close to the flesh of the savior, we need to keep our focus outside ourselves, to save the world through fidelity to the Father…and not to our own visions of what should or shouldn’t be.
This Lent… This Annunciation, draw close to the Flesh of Christ, which first entered the womb of Mary on this night so long ago. Mary, Mother of God, pray for us!
A Homily for Quinquagesima Sunday
Readings: I Cor 13:1-13 and Lk 18:31-43
“We see now through a glass in a dark manner: but then face to face…”
Paul sets up our meditation perfectly. In these last days leading up to Lent, Lord we pray for sight… and not just any sight, but specifically Lord we pray for sight that is qualified by your Love, your charity, caritas. Lent being a time of moral renewal, our plea finds special importance on the threshold of Ash Wednesday. “The practice of all the virtues is animated and inspired by charity, which ‘binds everything in perfect harmony;’ it is the form of the virtues; it articulates and orders them among themselves; it is the source and goal of Christian practice.” (CCC 1826)
Man has always been able to practice some degree of charity… at the level of nature, we are unique among animals in our capacity for chosen self-sacrifice. Under the old covenant of course a great degree of charity was possible under the Law, but as our Lord demonstrates over and over again, that was hardly a guarantee. And so we saw darkly as through a glass.
This issue of sight and partial sight also casts charity, and today’s readings as a Kingdom issue: In the Kingdom of this world, illumined as we are by partial charity… we see dimly… but in the Kingdom of heaven we will see as “face-to-face,” our faces and the face of God clearly illumined by the perfect reign of his love. In Jesus this Kingdom becomes present on earth… He incarnates the Charity that should illuminate and guide his Church until he comes again. It’s a charity marked neither by fear, nor by the promise of gain, but rather a charity a Love observed for its own sake. As St. Basil says in his Rule, “If we turn away from evil out of fear of punishment, we are in the position of slaves. If we pursue the enticement of wages we resemble mercenaries. Finally, if we obey for the sake of the good itself and out of love for him who commands us we are in the position of children.”
That same Lord who illumines our practice of Charity gives us a shining example today… And perhaps, as we approach Lent we might consider the unexpected ways Charity can work.
First, there’s the blind man himself. St. John Chrysostom says so beautifully, “it is a source of wonder to reflect, by what inspiration did this blind man, who had not read the Law, nor scanned the Prophets, neither had he yet read the Gospels nor had he been confirmed by the apostles, should so address the Savior of mankind and say to him, ‘Son of David have mercy on me.’” The Love of God was present in this man: this man whose blindness condemned him as cursed, whose blindness mad him shunned by polite society. The Love of God was present in this man giving him a sight that so many with healthy eyes could not enjoy. Perhaps it was a desperate love, perhaps it was only yet a desirous love, but it was planted in his soul and gave him enough light to sense the Son of David, the Messiah when he was near.
We don’t always take time to think about this. So many of our neighbors suffer the effects of a secular world. In their suffering, in their outcries, echo the hunger for something more their desire for charity… Love has a place in those hearts and like Christ we can be there to fan that light into a flame. And that’s the other part… Our Lord constantly had ears and a sacred heart attentive to the cries of sinners, the outcasts, the cursed. He was always ready to take the time to listen… take the time to know and love his Creatures… and then to instruct them as they truly needed. In addition to today’s encounter with the blind man, consider the rich young man, “Jesus looked at him and loved him”…then instructed him. I think we jump at the opportunity to instruct… but that earlier step… taking time to listen, to know, and to love… that can be where we fall short. But our Lord illumines the path before us… incarnating this process he teaches us that taking that time is what we MUST do so that love may come first and guide all the other virtues that follow.
If we can begin, this Lent, to follow Christ’s example that much more deeply. To hear love present in the sinners’ cries, and to love them as he did, then we can truly claim to have been illumined by Him and to be part of that Kingdom where St. Augustine tells us, “we shall rest and see, we shall see and love, we shall love and praise. Behold what will be at the end without end. For what other end do we have, if not to reach the kingdom which has not end.”
On the homilies page (see above):
IV Sunday of Advent – Renewing our Worship by offering up our bodies… why the body matters to spiritual life.
Christmas – The unfinished work of building the manger: The Gospel of Christ vs. The Gospel of Caesar
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.
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!
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 :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.