Following Mary, Martyr of Charity

Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman wrote – of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin – “It is a pious belief that she died from love. This alone could kill that body. It was a contest between body and soul. The body so strong, the soul so desirous to see God.” If in this month of August we want to follow Mary’s example all the way into heaven, how great it is for us to consider her identity as one killed by love… a martyr to Charity. Most of us will never be asked to offer up a martyr’s gift by blood, but like our Lady, we can so give ourselves over to loving Christ that one day, when God allows it, our body will yield to our soul’s desire to be with him forever; and our journey to him will be swift. How do we do it?

Let’s consider three moments from Mary’s life: The Annunciation, The Visitation, the Way of the Cross.

At the Annunciation we know that Mary first and foremost received the Love of God, both in his words and in his Word. “Hail full of grace, the Lord is with you, blessed are you among women… you have found favor in the sight of God. And behold, you shall conceive in the womb and bear a son, and shall call him Jesus.” (Lk 1:28-ff) As St. John tells us, “the love of God consists in this, not that we have loved him, but that he loved us first.” (I Jn 4:10). And having received that love, having perceived it, she contemplated it, “she cast about in her mind what she was to make of such a greeting.” (Lk 1:29). Contemplation of the love received is always a first step in the Christian life because, as St. Jean Vianney tells us, “we can love what we have perceived.”  

Having received the Love of the Father in the Spirit, and having contemplated that Love, Mary decides how to reply to it in the Visitation. Her response is two-fold: first, she sets off to the hill country to serve her cousin in need (Elizabeth) (Lk 1:39-ff). It’s at this point that she utters Scripture’s most beautiful hymn of praise, the Magnificat. It’s the song of a young woman’s love: excited, exultant… and like all young love, it is desirous. Service, sharing what God has done for us, and fanning the flames of desirous love; I see this so beautifully on display in our high school and college campus ministries. When young people begin to contemplate the Lord just a little bit, they want to jump up and serve him in their neighbors… and as they do, as I hear their laughter, their praise at Eucharistic Adoration, their trust in confession/counsel, what I hear is an every-day form of the Magnificat. Like Mary, they run after God, they pursue him with ever greater intensity… sometimes almost recklessly… but always in love.

Finally we come to the Way of the Cross. All Christian experience must lead through the Cross, and Mary’s was no different. No longer an excited teen, Our Lady’s love, like the rest of her, has matured. The desire for God is still there, but strong, focused, persevering… and thank God for that mature love. This love is a love of choice, not convenience. As she watches her son take the abuse of the crowds, Mary feels every blow, winces at every mockery, weeps with every drop of blood that he leaves on the road. In an experience totally devoid of consolation, like Christ, she chooses to keep on loving… chooses to believe that the source of her love is still there, supplying her heart with the grace to go forward and attend Jesus in all things.  

In the long years that followed, Mary’s love, proven to the utmost, would be a strong support to the nascent Church and the Apostles… and one day, when the Lord allowed, the fruits of her contemplation, desire, and gift were finally realized. She passed on, directly into the glory of the Father who had loved her first and the Son she so desired to see again.  

Take time each day to perceive and contemplate God’s love for you… Fan the flames of that love by sharing its story with others and serving them… And choose each day no matter what to persevere. We are all capable of becoming martyr’s to Charity and sharing in Mary’s eternal reward. We return to where we began, Newman’s reflection:

“It was surely fitting then, it was becoming, that she should be taken up into heaven and not lie in the grave till Christ’s second coming, who had passed a life of sanctity and of miracle such as hers… Who can conceive that God should so repay the debt, which he condescended to owe his mother, for the elements of his human body, as to allow the flesh and blood from which it was taken to molder in the grave?”

Lord, my house is sinking.  What am I to do?

So… my Rectory is sinking. Well, not the whole house actually, just one corner of it. Nothing quite so dramatic as say… the sinking of Venice, mind you. That kind of drama would at least add an aesthetic quality to the whole experience. No my situation is much more banal. It seems that for several years an unnoticed downspout clog has caused water to collect under the corner of the Rectory, softening the soil. As Jesus himself pointed out, houses don’t do well when not built on solid rock. Hence, the half inch crack in my basement foundation wall, and the gentle (but menacing) bowing of a steel I-beam running under the length of the Rectory.  
I’m neither an architect, nor an engineer… the experts with whom I’ve spoken tell me the situation needs to be addressed, but it’s safe… for now. That last little phrase, “for now” runs through their assurance like a half-inch foundation crack… tiny, but menacing.

The day after the engineer’s visit, I went downtown to check in with the Finance Office at the Chancery (i.e. “local church headquarters”). I wanted to review the coming year’s budget with the powers that be and make sure they are well aware of this developing engineering situation… Anytime the word “engineering” is involved, count on the solution being expensive. And the thing is, we don’t have the money. Few parishes do these days and mine is among the tiniest of them. We get by remarkably well – all things considered – but slight upsets threaten disaster.   

Whether it’s little old me as Administrator of this lovely parish, or the whole Church trying to survive in the circumstances of the world… or you in the drama of daily life… we are, all of us, in a boat that constantly threatens to take on water (c.f. Mk. 4:35-41). Our situation isn’t actually that unusual, if you think about it… Human beings are always in a fragile state. A tiny clot in our blood can kill. The smallest fraying of the thinnest membrane in our hearts can mean death. A priest from Northern Nigeria told me last year that -there- people fear to sleep…because they never know when a team of militants may come to burn their church and village to the ground. Even in peaceful Edens like central Italy, one never knows when an earthquake may strike. So really, fragility shouldn’t shock us.

Prayer over the last two days reminds me of what Jesus told the Apostles in the boat that stormy night, “Why are you faint hearted? Have you so little faith?” In today’s morning prayer we read from Psalm 57, “in you my soul has taken refuge till the storms of destruction pass by.” and later, “They laid a snare in my path… but fell in it themselves.” The Divine Author speaks in the indicative… He is making a statement, confident. These surges of worry, that are -ultimately- about our lack of control don’t have to entrap us… We are safe in God’s hand… certainly no worse off than people anywhere in the world. In his book, “The Power of Silence,” Cardinal Sarah writes beautifully about how we tend to drag the noise of the world (i.e. these worries) into our prayer life, but they are only surface noise… they need not distract us from the grand silence of God which can claim and renew our souls. “Claim me once more as your own, Lord, and have mercy on me.” This is the Church’s confident refrain (c.f. Evening Prayer).  

Lord, remind me today that I… and ‘you-and-I’ are more than the mere circumstances of daily work, daily responsibilities…Remind me Lord that such circumstance, such noise doesn’t need to disturb the ever developing Grand Silence in which you are my refuge. “The light from on high shall break upon us…to guide our feet in the way of peace.” (Lk 1:68-79). Amen.

Read the Psalms: God loves you EVERY day!

I’m writing from my little house chapel.  When I first sat down, my mind was anything but focused.  I’m traveling later in the day… need to pack, meet with some facilities management folks, say two masses and about a dozen other things before hacking my way up the BW Parkway to fly to my niece’s baptism.  So, yes… distracted.  Unto itself, that wasn’t a problem.  BUT… in the midst of that distracted state thoughts of my own foolishness, sinfulness, inadequacy all started flooding my consciousness, and this distinct phrase, “You not worthy to pray this morning.”  Forcing myself, I opened the psalms for Morning Prayer and began to read slowly aloud.  By the time my prayer concluded, I felt so much better.

The Psalms of the Divine Office go on day in and day out.  No matter how we feel, no matter what we have done or failed to do.  The constancy of their praise, of their rejoicing in the Lord reminds us that it’s really not about us.  Mother Angelica once said, “Do you know that God sees everything that you do?  .. and he loves you and wants you to be happy.”  Even the greatest saint is, unto him/herself unworthy of prayer, praise, happiness and glory.  That’s not the point… HE, the Father, loves us anyway and invites us to rejoice in his love and care.  

Read the Psalms… follow the Divine Office day in and day out… it’ll put your focus back on the Lord.  And should you ever hear a little voice saying, “You’re not worthy to pray this morning.”  Reply back simply, “You’re right, but it’s not about me.”

A Prayer for the Start of Lent

O Jesus, my Saviour and my Lord,

during this Lent, I want to unite myself to you,

praying and fasting in the desert, 

to you who suffered and humbled yourself for me.

By your solitude and your silence,
detach me from the things of this world and draw me to yourself.

By your hunger and your sacrifices,
open me to your grace and enlarge my desire for you.

By your temptations and your sufferings,

fortify me in my struggles.

By your return to public life, teach me to live with you and in you, so that amidst the world and its trials, filled with you and your life,

I may shine only with you and your joy.

Amen.
Pierre Cardinal Berulle

Founder of the French Oratory. 

Epiphanies Big and Small and in Every Age

 

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Today, the Church in the US marks Epiphany, that beautiful day when the Magi arrived in Bethlehem to adore the Infant Lord.  Libraries of books could (and have) been written expounding on the meaning of the event.  For myself, one dimension sticks out this year: Epiphany is a sign on earth that points us to the heavens.  ‘makes sense, really for isn’t that what the ministry of Jesus was all about?  He came as a man to conduct men to the heavens.  Such is also the meaning of each of the miracles.  In Gospel Greek, the “miracles,” were called “semeia,” “signs” in English… and a sign never points to itself, it points to a destination yet to be reached… The sign keeps us going on the way.  We’ve encountered a number of these signs in the readings lately.

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Detail from the Sanctuary of St. Francis Xavier Parish (Photo by Rev. James Bradley)

Earlier in the week John the Baptist pointed Andrew to Jesus, “Behold the Lamb of God.”  Andrew then leads Peter to Christ.  Together Andrew and Peter lead Nathaniel.  Each becomes a sign pointing to Jesus… and Jesus points us to the Father in Heaven.  Friday we read about the Baptism of the Lord, when the Father and the Spirit testified to the Son, “You are my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.”  Saturday, Jesus testifies to himself by performing his first miracle at Cana.  So many signs, all telling us, “There is something more to this world than meets the eye.  Keep going.”

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St. Francis Xavier Parish, DC

I’ve arrived at my new parish assignment, St. Francis Xavier Parish in Southeast DC.  The first three days have been VERY full, exhausting actually.  Priests have to move into wholly new surroundings, learn the lights, locks and locations of a new property all while shepherding the life of that new place forward without missing a step.  The devil tempted me to despair at several points.  Before arriving I found out that the music program had been cut.  The day I arrived I discovered that my 3-day-a-week volunteer secretary had decided to retire, the organ doesn’t turn on and… well, you get the idea.

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Sanctuary of St. Francis Xavier Parish, DC (Photo by Rev. James Bradley)

I prayed in chapel first for music.  The Church teaches that music is a constitutive part of the mass… it’s not really an option.  “Lord,” I said, “you want music at your mass.  Help me.”  and he did!  My friend Luca came forward and announced out of nowhere that he is a classically trained organist / pianist.  “Lord,” I said, “I need an electrician to make the organ work.” Sure enough, a parishioner came forward in conversation and revealed that his brother is an electrician!  He’ll be here Tuesday.  Finally, I asked the Lord for someone to answer the phones in the office, and sure enough, a woman presented herself to volunteer hours at the desk.  Finally, just today, I woke up without a voice… a developing sore throat turned into laryngitis just in time for my first Sunday mass.  kneeling before the altar, I begged the Lord to make mass happen… and wouldn’t you know it… I got to my chair, opened my mouth and found my voice again!  It promptly cut out again after the last mass.

Small signs, perhaps, but for me they’ve done the trick… they’ve kept me walking, sacrificing on the way to heaven.  Another thing about these Epiphany signposts is that they tell us “Jesus is here, not there”  In a unique way, Christ is fully present in the Catholic Church.  That’s a message worth sharing with others.  That’s truly Good News.  There are so many in my new parish who need the hope of that message, who need an epiphany.  So I’m inviting all of the parishioners to work toward that goal… to announce the Good News to everyone we know… but particularly to all the homes of our neighborhood.  How we do that will be a subject of discernment over the coming months, but the epiphanies I’ve received so far are enough to convince me that we can do it together in Christ.  Happy Epiphany!

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Stained Glass Window of St. Jean Vianney, St. Francis Xavier Parish, DC (Photo by Rev. James Bradley)

Advent Reflections

 

Fra Angelico, "Annunciation"
Fra Angelico, “Annunciation”

During the season of Advent, I’ll be posting weekly reflections to match the homilies I deliver each Sunday about renewing our awareness about liturgy and culture in Church.  Check out the first one posted in the Weekly Reflections Page, or click HERE

Maurice WILL rest in peace

Maurice
Maurice

Last week, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg took part in the Washington National Opera’s production of “Daughter of the Regiment.”  A devotee of the opera, the Justice was hailed for a fine job in her cameo appearance.  Reading about this happy and peculiarly DC moment I thought, “Wouldn’t that be fun?”  This week, the Lord gave me an opportunity to take part in a much more moving human drama, a story of tragedy and triumph: the funeral of a parishioner, Maurice Hawkins.

Maurice was a regular at St. Peter, Capitol Hill.  For a significant time he was homeless, and though I never knew details, it was obvious he had some sort of learning disability.  Years ago, the Pastor of St. Peter’s, Fr. Michael O’Sullivan, helped Maurice to find decent housing and support.  Nonetheless, as for many who’ve experienced homelessness, Maurice’s life seemed to be an ongoing series of assaults: medical problems, people trying to scam him, etc.  But this beautiful simple man found his peace and his joy in something beyond  the world’s many attempts to bring him down.  Maurice knew that he was loved by Jesus Christ, and he loved Christ in return.  His limited learning became perhaps his greatest asset as he lived without guile, giving himself completely to the love of Jesus.

Maurice prayed daily, helped out around the church grounds as best he could, and always had a smily greeting for his neighbor.  Two of Maurice’s habits struck a special chord in my own heart:  Each week, Maurice brought random articles to the parish priests to be blessed… rosaries, clippings from the newspaper, discarded toys, even bits of string.  Strange as it may have seemed, I actually found this quite beautiful.  In a St. Francis sort of way, Maurice always seemed concerned about bringing more blessing into the world.  The second of Maurice’s habits that really touched me was his weekly request for holy water.  Curious, I asked him why he always needed holy water.  He answered, “…because I never know when I may die.  I want to have the Lord’s blessing always.”

When Maurice died a few weeks ago, the community at St. Peter swung into action to prepare for his funeral.  Many people chipped in to cover expenses.  The body was treated with the utmost care, being brought to a proper place of burial at Gate of Heaven Cemetery.  The church was fuller than I’ve seen for many funerals, and the music would make any priest envious for the same when his time comes.  His life was a human drama of – dare I say it – “Biblical” proportions marked by struggle, tragedy, and -at least to earthly eyes- futility… but for those of us who, like Maurice, see with eyes of faith… this story is really about the triumph of Jesus’ love for us.  It’s not often that I say this about the deceased, but Maurice’s holiness was imminently clear.  He who suffered so much in this life and loved throughout will surely rest in peace.  We should all be so blessed.

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For further reflection, consider this Gospel passage, chosen for Maurice’s funeral (Lk 16:19-ff):

“There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen and dined sumptuously each day.

And lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores,

who would gladly have eaten his fill of the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table. Dogs even used to come and lick his sores.

When the poor man died, he was carried away by angels to the bosom of Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried,

and from the netherworld, where he was in torment, he raised his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side.

And he cried out, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me. Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am suffering torment in these flames.’

Abraham replied, ‘My child, remember that you received what was good during your lifetime while Lazarus likewise received what was bad; but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented.

Moreover, between us and you a great chasm is established to prevent anyone from crossing who might wish to go from our side to yours or from your side to ours.’

He said, ‘Then I beg you, father, send him to my father’s house,

for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they too come to this place of torment.’

But Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them.’

He said, ‘Oh no, father Abraham, but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’

Then Abraham said, ‘If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.’”

A different sort of swan

I just read a great article on the website of The Atlantic.  In it, James Hamblin makes an eloquent defense and promotion of arts education in our schools.  Gamblin’s piece explores the concept of multiple intelligences, pointing to the arts as a useful way of accessing them all.  The example he cites is an innovative dancer named Lil Buck who’s rendition of The Swan (accompanied by Yo-Yo Ma) brought him national attention.  I’ll be the first to admit, ballet is not my thing… actually, I can’t stand ballet.  I may be the only person on earth who finds ballet utterly un-graceful.  Lil Buck’s use of jookin a hybrid form of modern dance, on the other hand, is one of the most graceful and evocative movements I’ve encountered.  He seems to skim, rather than step, across his performance zone transforming his ball-capped self into a truly convincing… swan.  I’m amazed.  Something so beautiful must, by definition participate in truth and goodness… and thus in Christ.  I’ll be re-viewing Lil Buck’s interpretation of The Swan with eyes of faith trying to encounter our Lord in his art form.