Dinner with the Cheese Lords

It was a dark stormy night…. No, really it was.  DC has been underwater for the last several days, and another deluge was in the works as my uber pulled up to the chunky dimensions of a grand DC townhouse.  Could this really be it?  A parishioner invited me to join him and some friends for a rehearsal of their choral group.  What a nice invite… but this edifice, this great old keep… could this really be where a bunch of guys were gathering to sing among friends?  

It was indeed the right place.  My friend had bought the home years ago and was slowly, painstakingly restoring its former glory.  In the meantime, he hosts frequent rehearsals of The Suspicious Cheese Lords a group of ordinary DC guys who sing works from the West’s great treasury of Renaissance wonders.  Even more intriguing, the Cheese Lords only sing works that have never been recorded!

I touched the front door knob.  As the door gave way, so did all the tensions of a new place and stormy night.  Inside was warmth and a carefully assembled potluck of meat, potatoes and wine to warm hearts and minds before rehearsal.  The Cheese Lords are a quirky smily agglomeration of musicians, federal workers, scholars… it’s all very DC… and it’s WONDERFUL.  I was instantly at ease with the joyful band and we laughed our way through dinner before they set down to the evening’s work: singing.  Sheet music shuffled around the group, some of it ending up in my hands.  I started to hand it back, when my hosts questioned, “aren’t you going to sing with us?  We heard you sing.”  

I was amazed and a little nervous; I hadn’t sung polyphony since seminary.  But slowly, it came back: first the beat, then the notes and slowly the sense of the music… of fitting into a harmonious hole… What can I say but, “Wonderful!”

The Suspicious Cheese Lords are what music, and in a special way sacred music is all about: hearts and minds bound as one through the Love of a music and a message greater than themselves.  Into the hands of that music they surrender their voices so that they can transmit a transcendent Word.  “Are they all Catholics?” You may ask… I don’t know… and I’m not sure it matters.  Their music witnessed to me that Jesus is Lord… and no one can say that unless the Holy Spirit is at work in them (cf I Cor. 12:3).  One might also assume that these are all classically trained experts, but they’re just ordinary Joes.  Transcendence doesn’t flow from our expertise, but from God’s… that’s why it’s transcendent.  What is required of us is a little humility and a lot of love.  I got to experience all of that last night, for which I say, “Thank you Lord.” And thank you to the Suspicious Cheese Lords.

Albums by The Suspicious Cheese Lords are easily available on iTunes.  I highly recommend checking them out.  They also have a website: http://www.suspiciouscheeselords.com

We become what we worship… morning reflections on Psalm 134 and Isaiah

Since coming to St. Mary’s in Chinatown, I’ve been engaging in something of a bi-ritual existence… paying attention to the two forms (Extraordinary Form in Latin and Ordinary Form in vernacular) of expressing the one Roman Rite of the Catholic Church.  It’s been an interesting challenge studying two sets of readings and prayers, sometimes multiple saints, each day… but it’s been enriching, as I hope my morning meditation will show…

Praying this morning from the EF breviary, I was struck by this line from Psalm 134:

“Similes illis fiant qui faciunt ea: et omnes qui confidunt in eis.” 

Who make idols will become like them, and likewise those who place trust in them.

Words of wisdom, to be sure.  Put another way, “You are what you worship.” And if the thing you worship is a blind, deaf, dumb, inanimate thing, then that’s what you’ll begin to resemble.  We can extend the idea beyond the classical motif of the static graven image: Who worships greed, will become greedy.  Who worships anger and hate will be an angry hate-filled person.  We might even draw connection to another bit of Biblical wisdom, “Who lives by the sword shall die by the sword.” (Mt. 26:52)

When man becomes a “technologist” when he builds things out of self-reference and self-reverence, those things will be limited by the bounds of his own mortality.  If he becomes so self-impressed that he effectively worships these things then – in an ironic twist of fate – they become his God and the created controls the creator.  It’s the oldest sin: the desire and attempt to “be like gods.” (cf Gen. 3:5)

Better to be an artist… to perceive and appreciate something much larger than us and to participate in it, in something immortal.  If we worship that then rather than being limited by our own mortal bounds, we become liberated by the infinite Being of the divine.  You are what you worship.  This better path, this humbler artist’s way is summed up in the laudes antiphon for Ps. 134, 

“Laudate nomen Domini, qui statis in domo Domini.” 

Praise the name of the Lord all who stand in the Lord’s house.

It’s appropriate to note that the Lord’s name – particularly his Holy Name as revealed to Moses (Ex. 3:14) – is the only name in the world not generated by man.  Everything else it was our privilege to name, but God’s name is not of our making, nor is his house.  

In today’s OF Reading for Mass (Is. 7:1-9), Isaiah warns that even as the northern kingdom (Israel/Ephraim) gathers allies for an assault on the southern kingdom (Judah/House of David), they are spelling their own doom because their obedience to pagan practice is now complete.  They have literally bowed to the outside [false] gods of Syria, preparing the way for the Babylonian exile.  Judah would not fare much better in the end, but they would ultimately be brought back to rebuild and renew true worship of the One True God… to praise the Name of the Lord in his house.

St. John Paul II wrote and preached frequently on these topics throughout his ministry.  Under Soviet domination, he could see the deadly effects of an atheist regime that [practically] worshipped human achievements only.  He strenuously critiqued the development of nuclear weapons and other WMDs pointing out that they (man’s creation) had come to dominate their creators determining so much of how we live hope and fear.  As the Soviet Union fell, his social encyclicals began to warn us of the dangers of capitalist triumphalism and the worship of the dollar… and haven’t we seen some of those warnings come true today.

More locally, consider: societies that effectively worship their phones become enslaved by them.  Do you spend more time looking down, chained by your phone’s tiny screen, or do you spend more time looking up to limitless heaven?  Do you know friends/colleagues whose absolute adherence to contraceptive culture has led to difficulty conceiving when they do want to start a family… or worse… has obedience to porn led to hollow relationships and ultimately loneliness?  How many of us can truly say we feel free from the constraints of this world?

We become what we worship folks… take every chance you get today to liberate yourself from adoring the things of this world… you’ll find yourself happier and more fulfilled for the effort.

Power is Made Perfect in Weakness… The Beauty of Rome Crucified

Yesterday I celebrated Sunday mass for the first time at St. Mary Mother of God in DC.  It was a great day… with WAY too much to unpack in one blog post, but I’ll offer one reflection.  It my first Sunday celebrating mass in the Extraordinary Form (EF)… that is, the mass as experienced before the Second Vatican Council.  Donning the vestments, whispering the Latin prayers, inhabiting ageless silence, I was reminded of a line from Fellini’s Dolce Vita, when a church musician speaks of the “ancient voice that we’ve forgotten.”  What follows are some thoughts integrating readings from both the EF and Ordinary Form (OF) masses I celebrated.

In this week’s OF Sunday readings, St. Paul reminds the Corinthians that “power is made perfect in weakness.”  He’s referring to the experience of suffering under a constant “thorn in the flesh.”  All of us have them; sometimes they are easily removed, sometimes these problems become constant life challenges… But Paul discovers what we are all called to: acceptance of our mortality.  Be it a habit hard to break, or an annoying neighbor, or the ultimate thorn, death itself, Christians are called to live in the real world… to embrace their weak humanity and hand it all over to Jesus for resurrection grace.  

In the EF readings, Paul speaks to the Romans of slavery to sin… which may free us from the rigors of justice, but gains us only pain and death… vs. slavery to justice, whose fruits are eternal life.  I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to propose that Paul’s words can also refer to the things we love/value.  When we are immature, we want freedom from rules and constraints.  We love the easy win, instant gratification.  Over time, however, we find that these fruits quickly spoil in our hands.  Hopefully, our taste develops such that we appreciate the fruits of hard work and self-sacrifice instead of easy gains and self-service.  The more we love those quality fruits, the more happily we will enslave ourselves to their prerequisites, including justice.   Power, happiness, true satisfaction is made perfect in weakness, self-gift, sacrifice.  

With regards to practice, we can look at this lesson at a few levels, global, local and individual.  

Globally, the “power is made perfect in weakness,” argument played itself out beautifully in the history of ancient Rome, the history of the Church.  Rome was a great power, to be sure.  The cry we all remember from Gladiator, “Roma victa!” (Victory for Rome!) is appealing.  Who could fail to be impressed: in her might, Rome unified the entire Mediterranean world (and more) for nearly a thousand years.  No one’s managed it since.  But impressed by her own achievements, Rome changed over time.  Victories once driven by commitment to philosophy, public service and divine worship became self-serving and self-referential.  By the Imperial period (44BC – AD476), every Roman town had at its center a statue of Divine Rome.  The city had become so self-referential that she deified herself!  This is the Rome that ultimately fell.  Her only currencies were power and earthly achievement, each only as strong as the mortal beings wielding them.  But a new Rome would rise, Christian Rome whose motto would not be “Rome Victorious,” but “Rome crucified” because her builders recognized that “power is made perfect in weakness.”

Today, I’m aware that the Church observes the Memorial of St. Augustine Zhao Rong and his companions, martyred by another Empire, China, in 1815.  Today, like Rome, China has become very self-impressed… and perhaps reasonably so, but can the achievements of atheistic communism – ironically now fused with capitalist consumerism – stand up to death?  They can only last as long as coercive strength is applied to the human spirit… and that can’t last forever.  

More locally, I look down 5th Street NW to the dome of the National Gallery, and across the rooftops to Judiciary Square.  DC’s Classically inspired architecture strives to make her a new Rome.  It’s worth noting that the Founders were huge fans of the literature of the Republic… the great legends of communal service set to paper by Livy, Virgil and Cicero… Merging those ideals of civic identity and service to their own Christian background they built Washington, and by extension the U.S. But are those still our guiding principles?  On the right, slogans like “Make American Great Again,” tempt us toward self-aggrandizement and selfishness.  On the left hyper-individualism, and the exaltation of personal pleasure over all else likewise threatens to pull us apart.  Nations rise and fall, personal pleasures fade and sour over time… By their fruits you will know them: the fruits of slavery to sin are death, the fruits of slavery to justice are eternal life… Power is made perfect in weakness.

At an individual level, I’d obviously say that I want to be like St. Paul, I want to be part of Rome crucified instead of Rome victorious… I prefer paradise!  But living it… that’s another very mixed matter…  

Lord, I want to give you all!  But what if you ask for more than I was expecting?  To further complicate things, Lord, which would you prefer: a brief blaze of sacrificial glory? Or a lifelong slow burn?  Your saints seem to fall on both sides… Lord, I know you want me to carefully discern spirits, to live and love prudently… or am I using virtues like prudence as an excuse for my own cowardice and selfishness?  As so often seems to be the case, Lord… help!  Whatever my own limits, Jesus I trust in you.  Amen.”

Divine Physics, St. John the Baptist, St. Philip and the source of real Fortitude

Some weeks ago, I attended a great seminar on evangelization in the present cultural moment.  The Speaker used a phrase that really stuck in my mind, “divine / spiritual physics.”  The idea is that because God has placed certain systems in place in Creation… and because he is always faithful to his own Word, there is a divine physics in place to which we are subject (as created beings), and to which God voluntarily subjects himself in fidelity to his own Word.  So, for example, God gave us free will.  We must live with the consequences of that… and so does he (albeit by his own choice).  God does not enslave us.  To do so would go against the divine physics of Creation.  

Often enough, I think we focus on the negative (for lack of a better word) consequences of divine physics: “Why did my relative get cancer?”  “Why did disease break out in that village?”  “Earthquakes… really God??”  Each of these things is a consequence of humanity introducing sin into Creation.  They’re not God’s fault any more than it’s his fault I can’t breathe under water… It’s just the way things are.

There is however a more positive approach to divine/spiritual physics.  These laws of Creation establish an objectivity… a floor on which we can stand… something we can lean on with absolute certainty throughout life.  Consider the words of Jeremiah at tonight’s mass for the Vigil of the Nativity of John the Baptist:

Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
before you were born I dedicated you,
a prophet to the nations I appointed you.

“Ah, Lord GOD!” I said,
“I know not how to speak; I am too young.”
But the LORD answered me,
Say not, “I am too young.”
To whomever I send you, you shall go;
whatever I command you, you shall speak.
Have no fear before them,
because I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.
(cf Jer. 1:4-10)

The would-be prophet makes a reasonable argument… the same one Moses made in fact… “I’m not good a public speaking; and you want me for your Prophet?”  Jeremiah was forgetting about divine physics.  Eloquent or not, it’s not about him… or you… or me.  God’s plan is about God’s will, not ours.  Relying on this, Jeremiah goes on to become not only a prophet, but one of the greatest prophets of the Old Testament.  

Celebrating his nativity, it’s appropriate to look to the Baptist’s parents.  Zechariah and Elizabeth were unable to conceive a child.  Nonetheless they remained faithful to their relationship with the Lord.  God rewarded them, sending them not only a son, not only a miracle, but a son who would be the greatest of the Prophets and point the way to Jesus himself!  Keeping it all about God became their strength.  John, their son, was no different.  Whether it was his ascetic life in the desert, his preaching repentance, or his courageous witness in the court of Herod (cf Mt. 14) John was able to let go of this life by being totally focused on what God wanted.  This was his strength.

I also think of St. Philip Neri (whose patron saint, as a Florentine, was John the Baptist… and who often preached in the church of San Giovanni Battista dei Fiorentini in Rome).  God performed many miracles through St. Philip including one very much related to divine physics.  A certain Gabriele Tana was dying in Rome.  Calling for St. Philip, Gabriele told him, “I do not want to die.”  The man was tormented by this desire to hold on to earthly life, even as heaven called him.  Philip, embraced Tana and asked him, “My son, do you trust me?”  He responded to his confessor, “Of course Father.”  “Then give me your will… and I will offer it to God at holy mass.”  Gabriele surrendered this spiritual gift to St. Philip who immediately offered mass, lifting up the dying man’s will to God.  When Philip returned from the chapel Tana was preaching to everyone around him how peaceful he felt.  Suddenly, a terrible vision locked Gabriele’s attention.  The devil was tempting him to hold on to life, but Tana replied with great peace, “You cannot tempt me because I have no will of my own anymore; God’s will be done.”  He died having made a great witness to all those around him.  Gabriele’s problem was the disconnect between what he wanted and the reality (i.e. divine physics) in which he found himself.  Once he surrendered himself to that reality, peace… and death… came quickly, as did Eternal Life.

Great challenges can plague us, none greater perhaps than our own self-centered willfulness (e.g. Gabriele Tana).  More commonly however, we prefer to play the victim.  “I don’t trust the government anymore.”  “It’s all the president’s fault.” “If only Congress would…” etc., etc…  In the life of the Church we find this (sadly) all too frequently: “My priest stinks, so I don’t believe the Gospel.”  “This leader set a bad example so I’m not buying all this ethics business.”  etc., etc… While the credibility of a teacher, a leader, even a priest may make belief easier or harder, Truth is not dependent on the messenger.  Truth is dependent only on God it’s author, His witness, His power, His beauty, His miracles.  Truth is a matter of divine physics.  And in times of great sadness and struggle, those divine physics become a pillar of strength for me.  I hope it may be that way for you too.  

The Gifts of the Holy Spirit

With the return of Ordinary Time, it can feel like the Church is returning to business as usual.  But as many catechists will repeat around the world, “There’s nothing ordinary about ordinary time.”  It’s really a period of Mission in which the Church takes what she has received from the Advent-to-Pentecost season and brings it into the world.  Consequently, it’s appropriate to meditate on the gifts of the Holy Spirit, given at Pentecost, that launch us – as it were – into this long stretch of Ordinary Time.

Sunday Homily for Corpus Christi – Spirit’s Gift of Understanding