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.

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!”

On personal gardening…

 

One of my favorite places in all of DC is Dumbarton Oaks.  The most recent owners of the famed Georgetown mansion and gardens were the Bliss Family who punctuated the gardens with their family credo, “Quod severis metes.” (What you sow you shall reap) in mosaics and even topiary throughout the property.  I’ve been thinking about that as I read this coming Sunday’s readings in both the Extraordinary Form (Latin) and the Ordinary Form (English).

In the Latin readings for this Sunday we hear, “For what a man sows in the flesh, from the flesh also will reap corruption.” (cf Gal. 5:25-6:10).  In the English readings we hear, “Humbly welcome the word that has been planted in you and is able to save your souls.” (cf Jas. 1:17-27).  Finally, in the English Gospel we hear, “Hear me, all of you, and understand.

Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile” (Mk 7).   Only the Word of Jesus… the Living Word preserved in Scripture and Tradition brings about unbounded life.  Anything that comes from me will always be corrupted, ultimately limited by my own human sinfulness.  Often today we lay blame for our  personal issues at the world around us, or at what other people may have done to us: “There’s just so much suggestive imagery out there, I couldn’t help it.” Or “Well, if you knew what my mom did to me as a teenager…”. Certainly our external circumstances – whether they be the images that surround us or the details of our past – have an immense effect on us.  But ultimately, if we want to be happy, we need to follow Jesus’ Word today, because all that is from outside can eventually pass through us… it’s what we choose to originate, or what we allow to fester for that matter, that determines whether we will be happy or not.  As Shakespeare put is, “The fault is not in our stars…” (Julius Caesar)

A couple of years ago I was in a very politically-charged parish.  Each week I’d inevitably get beaten up by a few parishioners for either being too strong or too soft on an issue.  Didn’t matter what the issue was you were always going to hear about it from someone.  I was down and my Pastor noticed.  He asked me what was going on and I told him.  His response, “That’s fine, but what are YOU going to do about it?”  In my prayer, I started focusing less on the outer circumstances and more on the inner… and not so much on my own feelings (though those were taken into account) but on what Christ was doing for me and with me each day… His Word planted in me.  Life became sunnier day-by-day, week-by-week and soon ministry opportunities were blossoming left and right and I was visibly joyous.  

We’re surrounded by a lot of outer circumstances in Church life right now.  What are YOU going to do about it?  Over the last week I’ve gotten some wonderful offers of help and volunteerism from folks.  We need more!!  A group of young professional men are getting together to form a men’s group to grow in their Catholic identity.  Amazing!!  A woman approached me about entering the Church and asked if her instruction could take place in the context of a small group with her and her friends.  ABSOLuTELY.  Jesus has planted a Word in each of these folks’ hearts… and he’s planting one in yours.  Water it, let it grow and let’s see what happens.  If each of us engages this process we can grow a joyful helpful and worshipful community here at St. Mary’s for our good, our neighbors’ and for the Glory of God!  

Your priest,

Fr. De Rosa

One Sunday, Two Homilies

This Sunday I preached at both or parish’s EF (Latin) mass with its readings, and our OF (English) mass with its.

At the EF mass we meditated on serving the One True God and not the false gods of our passions.  In the present moment that means channeling those passions through the lens of our prayer and our reason to address needed reforms in the Church in positive effective ways.  I also discussed practical concrete considerations and examples:

At the OF Mass I talked about how Jesus invites us into nuptial relationship with him, whether through the sacrament of marriage or celibate Holy Orders.  The witness offered by both forms of nuptial giving is an essential witness to hope for the world… demonstrating -on the one hand- the Trinitarian love of God hasn’t abandoned us… and on the other the infinite possibilities of original solitude wherein God is the spouse of the soul.  Both forms of nuptial love remind us that with God ALL things are possible… and to lose either form of love in the life of the Church would be to limit God’s capacity to help us.

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.