The Easter Candle Tells Us Who We Are

Each year, one of the most striking moments of the Easter Vigil is the presentation of the Paschal Candle and the Exultet the Easter Proclamation.  It speaks to us not only of the candle itself, but also about us, about who we are. Lifting the light up onto the paschal candlestick, its light is multiplied, divided yet undimmed, among us, each of our lights representing our baptism, our new identity given to us in Christ the very first time we received the light so long ago.  During the Easter season, admiring that light, that pillar of fire, what can it tell us about ourselves and who we are called to be?

To begin with, as the proclamation reminds, the candle is “the work of bees”… many bees.  Thousands of little instruments of earthly nature came together to make the wax of this candle.  Likewise, we are – each of us – the product of a multi-generational effort.  All that came before us worked together to make us who we are.  We should give thanks and pray daily for those who went before us, not only in our family lines, but in the lineage of the Church.  We are the inheritors of their efforts.

But the our identity doesn’t stop with the natural.  If that were the case, life would be meaningless, colored and condemned by the inevitability of death.  All those generations that came before us knew this… and so, well aware of our mortality, we were – like the Easter candle – raised up to the glory of God, “hallowed to the honor of His name.” Scored with the Greek letters Alpha and Omega, the candle shows an awareness of our beginnings, but also of the divine end in store for those who live out their baptismal identity.  Never lose track of that orientation, lest you should fall back into mortality and its consequences.

The candle, made by nature, lifted to the glory of God is by its nature made to be shared.  It’s light spreads, not only on its own within the limits of the church building.  In us, that light spreads into the whole world.  It’s sanctifying power is meant to, “dispel wickedness, wash faults away, restore innocence to the fallen and joy to mourners.”  If we keep all that locked up in a building, or even with the polite confines of our immediate family, we deny the candle’s identity and our own.  Be joyful and share that light in whatever way you can each day.

So often we come up with excuses to put off our sharing of the light.  Like the Italians we say, “domani, domani, e dopo domani.”  “Tomorrow, tomorrow and after tomorrow.”  Have we forgotten the very first words of Lent, “Now is a very acceptable time.  Now is the day of salvation.” (II Cor. 6:2) The candle is marked by the year, “2-0-1-8.”  It was built and consecrated for this time, no other; likewise each of us.  “I am too young and inexperienced.” The Lord says otherwise (Jer. 1:7).  “I don’t know what to say.”  Neither did Moses (Ex. 6:30), and God made him leader of his people.  I am too old, too infirmed.  God doesn’t accept sacrifice only from the young and the able… He asks us each to give our all whatever that may be!  Be an evangelist, share the light now, like the candle, in 2018!

Finally, as Holy Week reminded us so well, the candle, like our lives, is marked by the cross.  It suffers as the cross is carved into its base… but it is not defeated by that mark.  Indeed, the contrast of the cross’ wounds and the prevailing light gives the light so much more credibility.  Like Jesus with the Apostles in the Upper Room, show the world your wounds.  It’s not a matter of taking pride in our battle scars, but rather of reminding our brothers and sisters that vulnerability is not the end of us… that the limits of our flesh are not the limits of our being.  Its worthy to note that the nails we insert into the candle contain a grain of incense in each of them… a reminder that each wound is a completely offered gift to God.  Through that gift the wound is transformed.

This Easter season pay special attention each time you see the Paschal Candle burning in church.  It’s an eloquent reminder and inspiration for us to be who we are meant to be, a people of the Light.  -Amen

Don Carlos and the Discernment of Spirits

Earlier this week, I went to the Kennedy Center to see Giuseppe Verdi’s opera, Don Carlos.  It’s the story of eponymous crown prince of Spain and his family.  Based much more on Schiller’s play than on actual history, Don Carlos offers viewers a grand tangle of humanity.  Set against the backdrop of the Spanish Inquisition many contemporary critics see the play through a myopic lens.  “It’s all about liberty vs. oppression.”  “It’s about the cruel Church crushing the spirit of liberty!”  Wrong on both counts.

Don Carlos debuted in Paris, 1867.  At the time, Giuseppe Verdi was not only a world famous composer, he was also a patriot firmly dedicated to the unification of Italy.  The natural instrument of unification should have been the Pope, but history doesn’t always go the way we think it should.  Pope Pius IX was torn between his own love of country and his duty as a [then] national leader.  To unify Italy meant declaring war on multiple Catholic dynasties (Habsburg, Bourbon, and multiple smaller Italian clans).  As the ruler of the Papal States, the cause of unification put Pius IX in a terrible position.  Further, Pius IX had lived through the “year of revolutions” (1848) and seen the terrible toll they took on effected lands and people.  That he was hesitant to engulf Italy in further warfare should not necessarily be counted against him.

This historical issue actually leads me to the real theme of this opera… an issue much deeper and more satisfying than the shallow dialectic of “liberty good, Church bad.”  It’s about discernment.  Each character has his or her own “good,” to which he or she is totally committed.  The resulting clashes might easily leave you scratching your head.  “A royal family in discord… this is what I paid $100 to see on stage?  I could’ve stayed home and watched the news.”  That assessment would be fair were it not for Verdi’s music.

Music, much more humanely than mere argument, has the power to present competing “goods” like love, patriotism, faith etc. without the process feeling chaotic.  Just as competing themes in a symphony can be resolved at the piece’s end, so human conflict finds balance as the curtain falls and the audience rises to applaud.  For our part, the orchestra’s work carries singers’ voices, softening hearts not to judge each good, not to take sides, but rather to appreciate each in turn.  When the evening is over, we leave the argument on the theater’s stage, taking home the fruits of our meditation.

In life as in opera, the hardest choices are not between good and evil, but between competing goods.  There’s nothing wrong with patriotism, love, faith, or duty, but when they clash, how are we to proceed.  To make things harder, our lives don’t come with sound tracks.  What’s to carry our soul in discerning between these goods?  I suggest that there are certain musical accompaniments in our lives to help the discernment process.  Friendship is a sweet, patient, nurturing environment where we can work our the knots of our lives.  It’s a melody that carries us, lightening the load until a decision can be made.  Sacramental life (mass, confession, prayer) is the steady drumbeat that drives us ever forward over obstacles, constant in our commitment to the long haul.  Marriage is, perhaps, a beautiful combination of the two.

This Lent, consider a trip to the opera… if you can’t go, consider tuning into the Saturday afternoon live broadcasts from the Met on WETA 90.9 FM.  See what food for thought it may give you and what it can do to aide in your own discernment of spirits.

A Lenten Triptych

A Lenten Triptych

Rev. Vincent J. De Rosa

In the world of medieval art a triptych is usually an altar piece.  It has three panels telling a story… the central panel supported by the details the two side pieces.  Triptychs were useful for their symmetry, but also because they could be closed: the two side panels, swung on hinges to cover the middle  forming a safe portable piece of art.

Yesterday I presented something of a narrative triptych to the brothers of the Little Oratory of St. Philip Neri at St. Thomas Apostle Parish.  The brothers are a neat bunch.  About forty men, young adults to seniors, who draw their spiritual life from the teachings of St. Philip, and then take those graces into the world for evangelization.  The mainstay of this weekly meeting is preaching offered gently and in a style accessible to all.  A brief homily given by a priest is then followed by prayers and a more lengthy witness offered by one of the members, usually over drinks and snacks.  Here are the thoughts I offered

Central Panel: Tensions of Lent – How am I supposed to feel?

In many ways, I grew up with everything.  I was raised by a loving family in a nice neighborhood.  I received an excellent education.  …which is not to say life was perfect.  I was bullied… a lot, I now realize, by classmates.  It set up something of a spiritual tension for me.  How can someone who has everything, feel like a nobody?  Objectively, of course, there was no need for this stress, but subjectively, what can one say but, “kids don’t care about objective reality.”  We’ll come back to that.  There was also a tension of faith.  We were Catholic, but rarely went to church.  I certainly didn’t know my prayers.  All that said, as an Italian-American family we would never be anything other than Catholic.  Again… tension.  Lent often makes me think of tension.  It’s a season of mortification… ordered toward resurrection.  A season of death, and yet just yesterday I saw the first flowering trees of the spring beginning to bloom in Dupont.  What am I supposed to feel?  As I said… tension.

Tensions, and their accompanying anxieties, come when we perceive a deficit that we can’t seem to fill.  The normal course of human life is to pile up distractions.  Sometimes these distractions are for ourselves: various forms of self-medication.  Other times, we don’t try to distract ourselves so much as we do the world.  Again, at the root of it all is a perceived deficit on our part.  In my case, I piled up accolades to my credit, in order to distract the world from what I thought was lacking in myself.  I excelled at school, followed every rule to perfection, learned lessons of culture well beyond most of my cohort.  It was all good, but in many ways it was all a shiny shield to distract the world around me from what I was convinced were my own deficits.

One problem with such typical tactics is that they never address the underlying source of our personal tensions.  And in the case of children/adolescents, though adults are very impressed, classmates don’t particularly care.  They continue to reinforce one’s deficit-perceptions despite the most spirited defense.  A second problem is that our deficits… the holes in our lives… do have some root in reality.  Indeed, as we grow, we discover that we can’t do everything.  Yearn as much as you want, you probably won’t become President of the United States.  The line between our real limits and the false sense of lack -whether imposed on us by the world or by our own imaginations – becomes blurred.

It was over the course of several Lenten seasons, in seminary and then as a priest… several seasons of spiritual tension… that Christ began providing me with the tools… two tools in particular… to become free in all the other parts of my life.

First Side Panel: Poverty of Spirit – “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of God.” (Mt 5:3)

What does it mean to be poor in spirit?  Meet any mendicant (Franciscan, Dominican, Missionary of Charity, etc.) and you will realize that despite the best efforts of popular culture to convince us otherwise, spiritual poverty is not about self-punishment or self-hate.  Indeed every mendicant I’ve ever met has been a cheerful, loving person.  In Rome, I met St. Philip Neri who on the one hand is famed as the saint of JOY.  On the other hand, he frequently prayed, “Father do not trust Philip, for I will surely betray you.” What Philip, Francis, Dominic, Teresa and all the others have discovered is that truly, God loves us no matter what.  “He made us, we belong to him.  We are his people, the sheep of his flock.” (Ps. 100:3). He knows that I am a sinner, that I am weak, that I am small, that I am mortal.  Like St. Philip, given the slightest chance I will betray him… and yet, He loves me.  It hit me one night in confession to an old mentor, Msgr. Lyons.  Dutifully, he sat, gentle and ancient, waiting in the confessional each day before Evening Prayer.  Like many, I found myself confessing sins of habit… and while they were in one sense common by their frequency, I was so ashamed of them… as if somehow God was shocked by them each time I confessed.  Msgr. Lyons sat their quiet behind the screen listening to me that night.  With quirky gentility he simply replied, “Well, don’t do that again.” and absolved me.  The same response, the same absolution as every week… but on this night, this particular night I found myself suddenly overwhelmed by a realization.  God’s love for me in my poverty is absolute.  To be ashamed before him is useless.  I needed to love my sinful self as much as he does or I’d never make any real progress.  For the first time, I left confession with a real sense of the mercy that had always been there.

God had given me the riches of the Church: her music, culture, literature, and above all the sacraments not to defend myself, keeping the world at bay… but to fill in my deficits… to say, “Be not afraid, whatever is lacking in you, be it real or imagined, my LOVE can fill in the holes.”  But none of it ever really hit me until I acknowledged and embraced my identity as poor.  More than that, when I began to embrace my poverty and let God fill me, his gifts in me became more desirable to others.  After all, when you use a gift as a defense mechanism, who wants it?  But when the gift loses its martial orientation, then “we console others with the consolation we ourselves have received.” (II Cor 1:4)

“Be not afraid little flock, your Father is pleased to give you the Kingdom.” (Lk 12:32) Today I read this verse everyday on the base of my priestly chalice.

Second side panel: Desirous Love – It’s real and it’s wonderful

Another Lenten lesson of several years has been the power of desirous love.  In seminary and afterward it’s been so easy to fall into the trap of comparisons.  Imagine two hundred fifty future Pastors -future leaders- gathered in chapel.  Two hundred fifty alphas.  You could almost hear the silent comparisons emanating, “Lord he looks more prayerful than me.”  “Lord why can’t I give myself as well as him.” The supreme love, agape, is a love of total self-donation that happens when the Lord is truly with us.  And so each time we feel challenged by this love… feel that we haven’t quite satisfied the demands of such love, there is an implicit question, “Has the Lord abandoned me?  Have I become distant from him?”

Father Buonsignore Cacciaguerra, a renaissance spiritual master in Rome and friend of St. Philip Neri offered this image as part of a reflection on Divine Love:

The soul can find no rest because of the absence of her spouse, and desires him the more; then as it were, mad with love, she seeks him day and night, and finds him not, though oft-times he is hidden within her, though she knows it not, to increase within her a yet greater love of him and infinite desire. 

Whether our lack of agape is real or perceived, the desirous love for God on which we fall back is not necessarily a bad thing.  Indeed, as Fr. Cacciaguerra instructs, it is sometimes a tool of the Lord precisely to fan the flames of love in our souls… to grow those souls for ever greater self-gift in the future.

Further… as St. Thomas points out, the existence of an innate desire (e.g. for food, or for air… or for love) confirms the existence of the object of that desire… in this case God, the lover of our souls… even when the object cannot be seen at the moment.

I cannot tell you how often I feel like a terrible priest… nay a terrible person… not because I’m horrible to others, but just because I keep thinking, “I should give more.”  Is that a real aspiration or a temptation to despair… probably a little of both… but I take both comfort and motivation from this truth: that a desirous love for God is always real… that the presence of that desire means God is out there waiting for me to run to him… and that (as Thomas Merton put it so well), my desire to please him does please him.  More often than not, I find that focusing on fanning my desire for God usually leads to somebody from outside affirming that indeed, I have been a good giver.  Don’t knock desirous love.  It’s real and it’s wonderful.

Evangelizing step 1: Live in the REAL world

Domine, refugium factus es nobis a generatione et progenie; a saeculo, et in saeculum tu es. (cf. Ps. 90:1-2)

Lord, you are become our refuge, from generation to generation; from age to age, you are.

A series of Scriptural bits and pieces caught my attention today.  The first (above) is the entrance antiphon to the daily mass (Tues. 1st Week, Lent).  It’s that part at the end, “you are.”  This little cherry on the Scriptural sundae occurs in any number of places, both in the Bible and in the ceremonies of the Church: that most basic statement, “Lord, you are.”

Of course, this confession brings us right back to Moses receiving the Holy Name of God, “I AM WHO AM.”  With that name, God identifies himself as over and above everything.  He is indeed the God of Being itself, uncontainable within the confines of the universe.  As St. Anselm put it, he is, “that than which nothing can be greater.”

Today’s Psalm Response also caught my eye: “From all their distress, God rescues the just.”  This based on the text of Psalm 34, oculi Domini super iustos et aures eius in precem eorum. “The eyes of the Lord are on the just and his ears are for their cries.  The just are those who live in right relationship with God.  They recognize that “He is,” and they respond accordingly.

This may not seem like much of a revelation, but it touches on a major challenge for evangelization… really, a challenge for people generally.

What do I mean?

There’s another MAJOR Lenten text, Psalm 51, the Miserere… so named for its first phrase, “Have mercy on me.”  P.S. Listening to Allegri’s setting of this psalm will change your life… but I digress.  Psalm 51:7 says, ecce enim in iniquitatibus conceptus sum et in peccatis concepit me mater mea.  “Behold, in iniquity was I conceived, in sin did my mother conceive me.”  

How few people believe in sin anymore… And even if they believe in sin, they rarely believe in their sins… and almost never in the idea that from the time of Adam and Eve, we have been -let’s say “genetically”- disposed toward sin.  This phrase has been in my mind in light of a family funeral we recently observed in my family: the reality that we have, along with all the good, a heritage of sin.

On the flip side, how many people really pay attention to miracles.  They’re real… we can prove it.  Sometimes, we even have video evidence that one can look up and watch from half a world away.  And yet… how few people live in relationship to these supreme “goods” that we call miracles?  Again, at my family funeral, I thought about how often my dad has questioned, “With all these miracles, why do you think people don’t practice religion?”

What I want to touch on in all of this is “Being.” Or maybe it’s better said, “substantial reality vs. insubstantial fantasy.”  In a city… in a world… where folks are not in relationship with the great reality of sin… nor in a relationship with the reality of goodness (i.e. miracles), what are people in relation with?  If God is the great “I AM,” can one really claim to be in a right relationship with him while denying such vast swaths of that which is (evil and goodness in this case)?

It’s something for us to think about this Lent both as individuals and as evangelizers.  In my experience, a big first step in bringing people to Christ is bringing them to grapple with reality… with all that is… That starts with goodness in things like Revelation, doctrine, beauty, love.  It also include grappling with the reality of evil.  The First Step, after all, is admitting that one has a problem.

Only when one is in real contact with all that is… can one begin to be in right relationship with Him who is.  Lord, you are become our refuge, from generation to generation; from age to age, you are.

Little Picture, Big Smiles: Rejoice!

Today, Gaudete or Rejoicing Sunday, Scripture advises:

Brothers and sisters:
Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing.
In all circumstances give thanks,
for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.
Do not quench the Spirit.
Do not despise prophetic utterances.  (cf I Thess. 5:16-24)

Of all the things Scripture commands, this should be the easiest.  After all, who doesn’t want to rejoice.  Nonetheless, it can be a challenge.  Here in DC folks tend to get very “big picture;”  some because it’s their sworn responsibility to keep their eye on the big picture, but for most of us there is a mysterious, mesmerizing allure to anxiety about the “big pictures” of our lives.  It could be politics.  It could be family.  It could be our efforts on behalf of the most benign causes in civil society.  It almost inevitably generates a sentiment, “Everything’s falling apart,” that colors our whole outlook.  I call it “Big Picture-itis.”  It’s the same feeling I got at university starting each semester.  I’d look over all my courses’ curricula and feel completely overwhelmed.  The only way forward was one reading assignment at a time… little picture.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve just gotten a dog.  Puppy that she is, and novice that I am at bing a dog owner, she’s a handful.  That said, the “little picture,” focus I’ve been keeping on getting to know my dog has put big picture demons back in their appropriate boxes.  Laying on the couch one night, Annie (my puppy) began to lick my face.  It tickled and I couldn’t stop smiling even as I struggled to shift her squirmy form away from me.  I rejoiced that the Lord had given me a moment of light and joy via my dog… and then I rejoiced even more because I recognized I had been touched by God (again, via my dog… I don’t worship animals).  On the flip side, Annie and I were walking yesterday.  She leapt into one of the church flower beds, sniffing as she moved.  All perfectly normal, but then she tried to eat one of the wood chips… with lightning speed my hands were on her muzzle, gently prying her jaw open and reaching in to remove the choke-hazard… Only it wasn’t a wood chip she’d chomped on, it was another dog’s droppings.  I cleared the…material… from Annie’s mouth and cleaned my own hands in a little pile of snow.  Humiliation, humility… Lord, you have shown me my smallness!  I was, spiritually aware of being on the cross with Jesus.  I was angry and frustrated for a moment, but then felt privileged to be with the Lord.   I rejoiced.  Annie and I walked on.

One might protest, “Now wait a minute… This isn’t exactly John-the- Baptist-style rejoicing.  Can you really claim that ‘the Spirit of the Lord is upon you’ (Is. 61) as you have these ‘little picture’ moments?”  The answer is: YES… and so did John.

Think about it… John the Baptist came, today’s Gospel (Jn 1:6-28) tells us, “for testimony.”  And to what was he testifying? …That God had touched him and would touch others.  This doesn’t exactly require an ad campaign made in Madison Avenue.  John proved that too… he lived in simplicity in the desert wearing camel hair, eating locusts and honey.  He didn’t begin with a crowd of thousands… more likely he met whoever was passing by and had very normal conversation with them.  His listeners then testified and then the crowds got big.

Are we really so very different?  This Advent, “don’t quench the Spirit.”  Believe that the little picture ways in which God touches you are indeed full of his Spirit and share that story with others.  When you do you will have rejoiced and given them the perfect gift.

The Threefold Beauty of this Day

Three “Takes” on All Saints Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Autumn Leaves Fall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A word on silence

“Silence is golden,” so they say… and whoever they may be, they’re right!  All the best things happen in silence.  In silence a person realizes that he loves another.  In silence we realize that we are loved.  As Cardinal Sarah points out in his wonderful book, “The Power of Silence,” even the voice of God telling us we are loved emerges, in and from… silence.   I want to muse on a few examples of silence’s beauty that I’ve encountered and then make a modest, quiet proposal regarding recent headlines in Catholic media.

Between 1999 and 2003 I was a student at the George Washington University, here in DC.  When we first introduced Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament to the Catholic Student Center it was a new concept for many, myself included.  We needed to have music played/sung throughout our holy hour.  But as time went on and our relationship with Christ matured, more and more students wanted more and more silence.  I came to discover that the same holds true in many youth movements: Steubenville, life teen, charismatic renewal etc. While people initially associate them with loud joyous musical praise (all of which is good), the long-initiated participants begin adding more and more elements of silence to their lives.  Silence is a place we should aim for as a goal of spiritual maturity.

In 2005, Pope St. John Paul II died.  I was there, in St. Peter’s Square when it happened.  Their was a quiet recitation of the Rosary…  The Holy Father’s death was announced… a brief applauds to commend his soul on high… and then silence.  What was more amazing was what happened next.  Millions, perhaps six million visitors came to Rome to observe his funeral.  The world stopped… foreign leaders, some of them at war with one another, gathered peacefully in Rome to pay homage and pray.  In the squares you could hear a pin drop as the Eucharist was consecrated at the altar.  How beautiful!  BUT even more impressive was this: The world had been a very noisy place during John Paul II’s more than quarter century in the Chair of Peter.  In that noise, many thought the Church was dead, done for.  And yet… the entire world showed up for this sainted man’s funeral.  What explains the disconnect?  Silence.  Catholicism bears the greatest fruit in quiet, humble, ministry carried out by men and women, priests, religious and lay people everywhere under the radar.  When John Paul II died, the whole Church in all her mighty beauty rose up out of the silence to celebrate his life and commend him to God.  The world… the noisy world was shocked and awed by the Church’s thunder.  Far from dead her new springtime was just beginning.  But it begins and germinates like all life… in humble silence.

Just a few years ago, a fellow priest won an award.  He will remain safely anonymous to prevent any chance of embarrassment.  I’ve always known him to be a nice guy, a good priest, and steady worker in his field… but always so quiet.  He doesn’t publish books.  He doesn’t hob-nob with the wealthy.  He’s always gentle, even to the point of being a little awkward.  He prays and he ministers, a smoldering wick he does not quench, no reed does he bend.  Then someone noticed… almost by accident and it was so blatantly obvious that he deserved the award he received.  After the photos, celebration and claps on  the back, this good priest returned to the grand silence of his daily work… and I’m forever grateful for his example. I want to be more like him: silent and radiant with Christ.

Finally, there’s the beauty of the confessional’s silence.  In the most humble, quiet, secret of places, the greatest work of the Church is done.  Sins are forgiven.  Healing is brought to bear.  Souls turn back to face God again.  Is it any wonder that the silence of this place is the most closely protected privileges of the Church?  In the quiet of the confessional… and in the quiet that follows… I’ve been so privileged to accompany people of diverse backgrounds through a wide range of life-challenges, gently applying both the love and the teaching of the Church in a way that no one ever knows about, but brings conversion.  It won’t ever make it on to the news or twitter, but real change happens in the silence of the confessional’s truth and charity.

I’m offering up this meditation on silence… something I’ve been thinking of a lot lately… because of recent events in Catholic news.  As one might expect, so many headlines surround news coming out of the Vatican.  More locally, there’s been a big dust up over Fr. James Martin’s recent book on the Church’s relationship with people who have same-sex attractions.  And in the coming weeks, months, years, there will be yet more news-quakes over other many issues in the realm of Catholic social media.  My opinions on any such matters are held… in silence.  What follows is for all on all sides of every issue.  My quiet, modest proposal is this: In all things, on all sides, regarding all those concerned from every background… do we perceive the grand silence of the Church that marks spiritual maturity, fruitful ministry, and conversion?  Silence is the lens through which we should judge “am I going in the right direction?”

Does a priest whether a parish priest, author, or blogger have followers…? disciples…? If so he should stop his writing immediately lest they or he be tempted away from humble service of Christ.  Remember Paul and Barnabas (Acts 14:12-ff) who were treated as gods… any priest who thinks he may have “followers” or “disciples” should rend his garments, his tablet and his manuscripts and disabuse such followers.  Only Jesus is Lord.  Better to bring your media empire crashing down around you than lead one soul astray… whatever the opinion, whatever the issue however right you think you may be.

Do the lay faithful get wrapped up in twitter debates and the like, choosing sides and fostering division within the Church?  Remember St. Paul’s words (II Thess. 3) “Such people we instruct and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to work quietly…”  Even if you are 100% sure you’re side is right… STOP… the fight is not winning others to conversion… and the misery is doing little to save your own soul.  Repent, pray, adore, serve others quietly and you’ll be on a better track.

In almost ten years as a priest I’ve been wowed, privileged to see lots of conversions of heart.  The two subjects-du-jour seem to be divorced and remarried Catholics, and those who self-describe as part of the LGBT community… and from BOTH of these groups I’ve encountered, accompanied and been part of people coming to Christ, to healing… to conversion.  What a beauty!  What a blessing!  but it never happened through blogs, books, publications or news interviews.  It happened in silence… a personal internal silence for the people concerned… the silence of long-developed pastoral friendships with them… the silence of the confessional.  The Church needs more silence… I know my soul’s future is riding on it as are the souls of all those Jesus is calling us to love.

Trinity Sunday

Today, Trinity Sunday caps what I call the “grand cycle.”  We recognize that the Father who created us and planned our redemption… The Son who came at Christmas and rose at Easter… and the Spirit who descended at Pentecost are with us as the Holy Trinity.  Sent on mission at Pentecost, we have the privilege -during Ordinary Time- of sharing our experience of God with all those we meet.  This sharing process reflects our Trinitarian identity.
God is one loving communion of divine Persons.  The Father Loves the Son.  The Son Loves the Father.  The Love between them is so strong is has its own personality: the Holy Spirit… a love the binds and gives life (He is, after all “The Lord and Giver of Life” dominus et vivificantem).  And isn’t that what the Church does each and every day and in every place, most especially in our neighborhood parishes.  We love each other and our neighbors… And when that love is strong enough it blossoms in new life.  Usually this new life takes the form of newborn children, but it also has other forms: adults who come to be baptized at Easter; family members and friends long distant from the Church who come home to be reconciled in the sacrament of Confession; a long suffering neighbor who forgot something of their identity as God’s child, but remembers it after contact with our community.

Some folks, in blogs or other churchy publications question whether the parish system here in the US is on its way out.  I don’t believe that.  Whatever reversals Catholic communities have faced over the last several decades are nothing compared to the loving power of the Trinity.  What is required of us is that we are intentional in living our faith, and that we never forget, there’s more to us than first meets the eye: we are not just people, not just neighbors… we are the living breathing icons of the Holy Trinity… the Father who made us, the Son who Redeems us and the Spirit who sustains us unto new life.