It’s a hard thing to realize that one conforms to a cliche or stereotype… ‘happened to me yesterday… actually it happens to me frequently, but yesterday was striking. Sitting in my room,tapping away at my iPad, I was trying to multitask. I was building a parish website while drawing background inspiration from DC’s local NPR station (WAMU)… and it hit me, “Geez am I a millennial!” At first, like so many in my cohort, I brayed at the very notion of labeling… even self-labeling. Then, I remembered that there is an upside to everything, even stereotypes, even cliches.
For better or worse, people tend to live “seventy years, eighty for those who are strong” as the Psalmist tells us. And those years, in which we all find ourselves in some sort of social grouping, are nurtured by some positive goods. I mean they have to be present or we’d die, right? Even we espresso drinking, iPad tapping, label rejecting millennial shave some great things going for us; among them are the free exchanges and sharing we experience through podcasts and the like. Consider listening to two particularly inspiring ones here both from the Moth Radio Hour:
Both are great witnesses to the experience of loss and the tremendous possibilities for growth when we finally embrace the reality of what’s happened to us. In other words, how to embrace the cross and come out resurrected on the other side. Enjoy.
Walking around the city today a very mundane sight caught my attention: a building site on the 1700 block of M Street, NW… One building is in the process of being demolished between two others (see photo).
Do you notice what I noticed? The adjacent building has hardly been scratched by the destruction! It may not seem like much, but if you’ve ever worked with a sledge hammer you know it’s not exactly an instrument of finesse.
I marveled at the work crew’s achievement for a moment then walked on. I’m sure the destruction will be matched eventually by equal feats of construction. It’s all very impressive… but it pails in comparison to God’s achievements in nature. Whether it’s me strolling the city or any of us being self-impressed, a dose of humility never hurts the avid humanist. I was reminded as much when I sat down later with this verse from Bl. John Henry Newman:
Man goeth forth with reckless trust upon his wealth of mind, as if in self a thing of dust creative skill might find; he schemes and toils; stone wood and ore subject or weapon of his power.
By arch and spire, by tower-girt heights, he would his boast fulfill; by marble births, and mimic lights – yet lacks one secret still; where is the master hand shall give to breathe to move to speak to live?
“While we live in our present tent we groan; we are weighed down because we do not wish to be stripped naked but rather to have the heavenly dwelling envelop us,so that what is mortal may be absorbed by life.” (From II Cor 5)
Today is the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene. A few years ago, the National Gallery hosted an exhibition, “The Sacred Made Real,” displaying a series of sculptures carved to make people’s favorite paintings in 3-D. It was the 17th century version of 3-D experience. One such statue was of today’s saint, Mary Magdalene. Mary is depicted nude, clothed only with her long hair. It’s actually an iconic way of portraying the saint who tradition assumes is the “woman caught in adultery.” (Jn 8) The imagery is shocking, one sees the Magdalene humbled, almost haggard in her nakedness… and yet… This is Mary at her best. Brought before the Lord, she does not deny her sins, and in that nakedness, in that emptiness she is completely filled by Jesus: Then Jesus stood up again and said to the woman, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?” “No, Lord,” she said. And Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.” She does not clothe herself in defense, in pride. Sitting in the nakedness of truth, she is lifted from the ground and clothed in new life by Chirst. In a way, she undoes the dynamic of Eden. No fig leaf for Mary; whatever shame it may cost in the eyes of men, she is loved by her God, and that becomes enough for her. At the end of the Gospel (Jn 20:11-18) Mary is again completely empty. Jesus has been taken from her. Going to his tomb she weeps and once again he appears, Resurrected, to give her new life. At this point Mary becomes the apostle to the Apostles, running to deliver the Good News to Peter and the others.
Speaking of Peter, he demonstrates a marked contrast to Mary. A few nights before (Jn. 18) Mary’s garden encounter with Jesus, afraid, vulnerable, weak, as Christ was being arrested, how does Peter respond? He slices off the ear of the High Priest’s servant. Clothed in earthly strength, Peter sets himself up for the biggest fall of all, the triple-denial of Christ later that night. Like Mary, Peter’s restoration comes days later when in the triple confession of his love for Jesus, his humility gives Christ space to forgive him and restore him as the chief pastor of the Flock. “Feed my sheep.” (Jn 21)
Sometimes penance comes involuntarily, as it did for Mary when she first met Jesus. If in those moments we accept our penances we demonstrate wisdom. Sometimes penance comes… or needs to come… voluntarily, chosen as an exercise to help us grown in wisdom and grace. We can do this by fasting, praying, giving to the poor or some other form of appropriate self-denial, to – again – make a space our heart for Jesus. Such is the beauty of Mary Magdalene and the beauty, really, of penance. It makes a new space in our hearts for Christ and for new life.
“While we live in our present tent we groan; we are weighed down because we do not wish to be stripped naked but rather to have the heavenly dwelling envelop us,so that what is mortal may be absorbed by life.” (From II Cor 5)
This week I took my eyes of faith on a bit of a field trip. The Scouts from my parish were on a campout at the Boy Scout Reservation in Goshen, VA. The trip was a great opportunity to get away from the city for an overnight, enjoy the fresh air and spend time with some of our wonderful parish youth. While there, I stopped in nearby Lexington, VA, home to Washington and Lee University (W&L). An experience at the school put me in mind of a conversation I had with a high school student. She was having trouble understanding the concept of ‘loving the sinner, but hating the sin.’ Looking at W&L through eyes of faith gave a great example of my answer to that young lady: “It’s complicated.”
Washington and Lee was founded (as you might guess) by George Washington. The first president knew that the US would need an educated populace if democracy was going to work, so he endowed a number of schools with canal stocks from the C&O Canal Company here in DC. Our own GWU was founded with funds from that same bequest. W&L was, at that time, an investment in the frontier and it paid off splendidly.
The Lee in W&L is a reference to the school’s most famous president, General Robert E. Lee who is buried there along with most of his famous family (Robert E. was descended from Richard Henry Lee of the Continental Congress, and war hero ‘Light-horse’ Harry Lee. He married a direct descendant of George Washington, Mary Custis).
Before the Civil War, Robert E. Lee was an honored graduate of West Point, an accomplished military engineer and field officer. His impressive family home at Arlington still overlooks the Potomac; it’s the mansion at the heart of Arlington Cemetery. Lee was so respected that when war broke out in 1861, President Lincoln asked him to command the Army of the Potomac. As a Virginian, descended from one of the first families of Virginia, Lee could not take up arms against his neighbors and family. Throughout the conflict he led from the front, and commanded the Army of Northern Virginia winning some of the most stunning upset victories in American military history. Were it not for the overwhelming economic/industrial might of the Union, it’s altogether possible that Lee’s martial genius would’ve won the war for the South. After the war, Lee took over W&L, modernizing the school to play a key role in reconstruction. There he died and there he lays in monumental splendor in the school’s chapel.
If my description of Lee seems to glow, that’s intentional. He was a man worthy of respect on account of his integrity. He believed that all men are honor-bound to do their duty according to their convictions. For Lee, those convictions orbited certain key values: family, duty, states’ rights, fairness and courtesy. But what of the southern cause? Try as one may, the Confederacy’s arguments for states’ rights sprang from the abhorrent institution of slavery at the basis of their economy. How could such an honorable man fight for such an imperfect, even evil, cause?
As I told my high school student, “It’s complicated.” The war wasn’t as black-and-white as… well… black and white… on either side. Lincoln himself, the great emancipator, held off emancipation waiting for a military victory that would signal a turn in the tide of the war. Did that make the the president an accomplice? Was emancipation a conviction or a political tool? It’s complicated… because people are complicated. Parsing out good and evil in human actions is sometimes harder than pulling oil from water. And yet… where we see the good we are invited to recognize and honor it, that it may give us hope and keep civil conversation going until such time as free human souls freely choose to purge evil from themselves with the help of God. Faced with this complex and often painful reality we need to pray for humility… a humility that truly allows us to hate sins while loving sinners until one day, all of us receive judgment from the one who truly judges: God himself.
My soul is downcast within me; therefore I remember you From the land of the Jordan and Hermon, from Mount Mizar. (Ps. 42:7)
This excerpt comes from today’s Morning Prayer. At first glance, it might seem an odd verse to consider on Independence Day, but as I look with eyes of faith over [what seems to be] our national consciousness Psalm 42:7 might be more useful than you’d think.
A lot of people feel like the American experience is, at the moment, a big hole in the ground. We hear about divisions everywhere: 50/50 elections and referenda, 4/4 Supreme Court Decisions, Partisan rhetoric (polemics, really)… racial divides, divides over gender identity issues… Everywhere there is talk of division. Talking heads speak about the large number of Americans who believe the country is headed in the “wrong direction;” likewise the sense that for the first time, the next generation will not live as well as the last. Neither a pollster nor a statistician, I won’t endorse any of these views in their specifics, but I will say – anecdotally – I’ve heard enough people talking like this (family, friends, parishioners) to conclude that people aren’t necessarily feeling great about America on Independence Day. Many seem to be staring into a great big hole of sadness. Indeed, the most commonly diagnosed clinical psychological conditions in the US are depression and anxiety. What’s a country to do?
Our souls are downcast within us.
A brief lesson in metaphysics: God created all things and made them good. Goodness has substantial nature. Think of goodness as a pile or a mountain. What about evil? Evil has no substance of its own. God did not create it. So what is evil? It’s a “privation,” a lack of goodness. Think of evil as a hole in the ground where a mountain ought to be. Because evil has no substance of its own, it only has the power we substantial beings give it.
History would seem to prove that as weak concupiscent human beings we have a tendency to become fascinated, even obsessed, with the hole in the ground. From the beginning, Adam and Eve were distracted from all the good God had created around them. They became fixated on their perceived lack. The devil plays on this in Genesis: “God knows well that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods, who know good and evil.” (Gn. 3:5)
In the beginning, focusing on privation, focusing on lack brought about our fall. Today, it seems to be responsible, at the very least, for a national bad mood.
Both sides in the current Western debate have fallen for the same trap. The left (exemplified in T.S. Eliot’s Christianity and Culture) has spent three centuries running from the pain for Europe’s 17th century religious wars. Call it secular politics, call it rejection of patriarchal structures, call is sexual revolution it all goes back to the same flight from pain that began at the Peace of Westphalia. But running from something painful is not the same as positively building up something better. The current response of the right is eloquently exemplified in David Brooks’ recent column, Revolt of the Masses (June 28, 2016 – The New York Times): it’s not so much economic downturns that have angered the right, it is the death of the culture that sustained their souls. Both left and right have become fixated on a metaphysical hole in the ground… both are grieving for a lack of life-giving culture. What is the West to do?
…therefore I remember you From the land of the Jordan and Hermon, from Mount Mizar
It’s time to get up off the mat… not with a facile optimism but with a substantial hope! God is author of all good. He’s given us so much… not only material resources, but each other… souls capable of loving each other and building each other up for the good. More than this, he’s given us his very self so that we might be re-created in Christ over and over again. G.K. Chesterton put it this way, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried” Pope Francis has counseled “encounter” over and over again… an encounter where we exercise our God-given potential to make a decision to build up our neighbors in love. The only thing stopping us from building up that mountain of good with our God is our own fascination with our grief. We could remain fascinated… but what good has that done us?
Looking on this 4th of July with eyes of faith, perhaps we might exercise our independence from grief our independence from sadness by striving to build up something positive and new… a more perfect union of neighbors celebrating the goods they freely share.
People beginning to look on our city with eyes of faith face a challenge: where do I fit in to this picture. It’s not just a matter of taste-based preferences, “I’m a vegetarian. You eat meat.” “I like jazz others prefer rock.” Reading the world through eyes of faith can sometimes lead to marginalization, even outright rejection. One of our teens shared this on retreat. He had been touched by a parish youth group experience and began to pray at different points in the day… including grace before lunch at school; a act that one the strange looks and even jeers of his classmates. It’s not just in public schools either. Students at Catholic schools will often face an uphill climb to speak openly among more secular peers about how they see the world. As we approach Independence Day, such situations beg the question, “In the American City on a Hill where does a person fit who sees with eyes of faith?”
Turning to the Sunday readings, we hear “Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad because of her.” God’s people had been released from exile in Babylon, sent home to rebuild the holy city and live in renewed freedom and right relationship with God. It was a time of excitement and hope. It was the same hope-filled anticipation that the first european settlers of this land experienced when they heard the cry, “LAND!” Whether it was the pilgrims at Plymouth Rock, the party of Lord Baltimore arriving at St. Clement’s Island just down river from DC, or the first settlers of Jamestown… this land promised a chance to live in right relationship with God by living in right relationship with each other. Thus did John Winthrop (Massachusetts Bay Colony, 1630) appropriate Biblical language to define this new land as the city on the hill. President Kennedy would later recall that language (1961):
I have been guided by the standard John Winthrop set before his shipmates on the flagship Arbella three hundred and thirty-one years ago, as they, too, faced the task of building a new government on a perilous frontier. “We must always consider”, he said, “that we shall be as a city upon a hill—the eyes of all people are upon us”. Today the eyes of all people are truly upon us—and our governments, in every branch, at every level, national, state and local, must be as a city upon a hill — constructed and inhabited by men aware of their great trust and their great responsibilities. For we are setting out upon a voyage in 1961 no less hazardous than that undertaken by the Arbella in 1630. We are committing ourselves to tasks of statecraft no less awesome than that of governing the Massachusetts Bay Colony, beset as it was then by terror without and disorder within. History will not judge our endeavors—and a government cannot be selected—merely on the basis of color or creed or even party affiliation. Neither will competence and loyalty and stature, while essential to the utmost, suffice in times such as these. For of those to whom much is given, much is required”
As Catholics the new Jerusalem is not primarily an earthly conception, but a vision of the heaven that awaits us. For us the gates of the new Jerusalem are opened by the sacrifice of Christ offered on the cross and perpetuated through our own sacrifices offered in union with his here in the mass. We are called to that sacrifice to get ourselves to heaven… to free souls waiting in purgatory to enter heaven… and to let our neighbors on earth taste of the goodness of heaven in the hopes that they too may join their efforts to Christ’s and find heaven’s fulfillment after death. “I boast only in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ… for neither does circumcision matter nor does uncircumcision by only new creation.” (cf. Gal. 6:14-18) Our focus is heaven.
I was excited to see that focus clearly at work in the high school students with whom I spent this last week. They discerned how Jesus has touched their lives… and how they can spread each of their stories through different evangelization tools. They learned about different opportunities to serve their neighbor… they learned how to put together and give a witness talk… and, particularly exciting: they learned to transfer that whole experience to social media using the net to spread the joy of being on their way to the new Jerusalem.
The Catholic vision of the new Jerusalem, and the historic American vision of the city on the hill are complimentary. Under Gospel inspiration we desire to serve the common good of our nation – our neighbors – peacefully, prayerfully, through work and civil discourse. The students on retreat modeled this desire so beautifully for me. Under Christ’s inspiration we are invited to serve all even when our hard work is rejected by those same neighbors… even if – as was the case for Jesus – those same neighbors nail us to the cross. This too, our high school students have experienced. They persevere joining Christ on the cross… trying to give a taste of the new Jerusalem on earth… but aiming ultimately to reach it in heaven. It reminds me of something Cardinal Ratzinger said in his homily for the opening of the conclave that would eventually elect him Pope:
“Our ministry is a gift of Christ to humankind, to build up his body – the new world. We live out our ministry in this way, as a gift of Christ to humanity!”
I would like to be like these students each day of my own life.
As we offer up our sacrifices this Independence Day Weekend, the words of President Lincoln beautifully capture our mission as Catholic citizens of these United States:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
On this eighth day of our novena to St. Philip we meditate on his care for the salvation of souls.
The concept of care for the salvation of souls is something largely muted in the contemporary Church. What does it mean to care for the salvation of souls? The short version is this: Taking their cue from God himself, Catholics desire all people to one day be in heaven. To that end, we exhort, teach, guide, assist others in living lives worthy of heaven. BUT… as we all know people have free will and don’t always listen, even to the best of advice. This is where care for the salvation of souls really kicks in. A person can offer sacrifice to God praying that the Lord break through to hearts that we have a hard time reaching on earth. Sacrifice can also be offered to speed the journey of those in purgatory who are ‘working off’ their venial sins on the way to heaven.
Care for the salvation of souls springs from the reality that God loved the world so much that he sent his only Son to redeem us (cf. Jn 3:16). Essentially, Christians are invited to imitate Christ in his own care for the salvation of souls, joining him on the Cross in the work of redemption. Why would such a beautiful teaching be muted in today’s ordinary parish experience? Well, the flip side of saving souls is that sometimes souls aren’t saved… a reality most people don’t like even to consider. The anxiety is understandable, but doesn’t change the reality that hell exists and on can go there as a result of one’s earthly (in)actions. A post-modern secular world that doesn’t believe in hell or the devil, has no reason to take up the salvation of souls as an issue… but St. Philip Neri certainly did!
Philip loved people… and he wanted all to experience the love of God that he himself had come to know. Every thought of his was bent toward the love of God and salvation of souls. His prayers, self-denials, humiliations, hardships… everything was ordered to the saving of souls. He had a special place in his heart for young people and the maintenance of their purity. Often he would invite them off the streets to play in what – today – we would call a safe environment. When they made noise, disturbing the local religious houses/observances, Philip was chided by his neighbors. His response says it all, “So long as they do not sin, they can chop wood on my back for all I care.”
Care for the salvation of souls is certainly not unique to St. Philip; all the saints had this same care. I think particularly of St. John Vianney and St. Therese of Lisieux. As we rely on their earthly example, now we can rely on their heavenly intercession to bring our souls back from the brink… and in this we rejoice. Consider Newman’s prayer for today’s novena reflection:
“Philip, holy Patron, who was so careful for the souls of thy brethren, and especially, for thy own people, when on earth, slap not thy care of them now, when thou art in heaven. Be with us who are thy children and thy clients; and with thy greater power with God, and with thy more intimate insight into our needs and our dangers, guide us along the path which leads to God. Be to us a good father; make our priests beyond reproach or scandal; make our children obedient, our youth prudent and chaste, our heads of families wise and gentle, our old people cheerful and fervent, and build us up, by thy powerful intercession, in faith, hope, charity and all virtues. Amen.”
On this seventh day of our novena we consider St. Philip’s patience.
Various authors link the virtue of patience with different parts of Philip’s life. All of them are right in one way or another.
Faber writes about Philip’s handling of the daily crosses of life, social, spiritual, physical.
Capecelatro wrote of how he was grossly misunderstood by the Inquisition, which – for some time – feared that he was a crypto-protestant of some sort. Nothing can hurt a priest more, the cardinal wrote, than to be called unfaithful by the very people who are supposed to be father figures and sources of delight to him. Nonetheless, Philip was both patient and obedient… and today he is venerated as a saint by the whole Church.
Newman focuses on how Philip was mocked by the Roman nobility, how he was a laughing stock in their palaces and suffered as his faith met their cynicism. …This may be the closest to our experience of faith in DC’s daily life. An excerpt from his prayer for patience may sum up today’s lesson well:
“Obtain for me the spirit of fortitude in all the adversities of life. Ah, what need have I of the virtue of patience, since I am frightened at every little trouble, and grow weary under every slight affliction; since I am irritated and resentful under the least contradiction, and do not know that the way to paradise is a way of spiritual afflictions..”
May 22 – On the sixth day of our novena to St. Philip Neri, we consider one of his most attractive qualities, cheerfulness. As usual, we’ll look at three aspects of this trait.
First – As with any virtue, cheerfulness/joy is not a matter of extremes. It exists as the middle way between two vices, in this case despair and what Bacci calls, “buffoonery.” Despair, we understand all too well. Buffoonery is not so much an unrestrained cheerfulness as is is an irrational cheerfulness. Imagine a group of middle school students on a sugar high late at night after a day at the amusement park… and you’ll be in the ballpark for understanding what buffoonery is. Cheerfulness, on the other hand, is reasonable. In the case of St. Philip, Bacci says, it was marked by a certain, “gravity,” or thoughtfulness. This gives cheerfulness longevity and purity so that we need never be ashamed of it.
Corollary to this, St. Philip’s cheerfulness was an evangelical tool of his Love. It was always sincere, but not always spontaneous. Sometimes, we can be sure from his biographies, it was a chosen response to great sadness. Philip often said that gloom is contrary to religion and to the Gospel. If we want to spread the Gospel in city culture, we need, sometimes to choose cheerfulness even when we don’t necessarily feel it. To this end, we might adopt a lesson from one of Philip’s favorite books, The Life of Blessed Giovanni Colombini by, Feo Belcari:
“It is my opinion that virtues are failing because we fail to speak enough of God, for I have seen an known that, as a natural consequence, the heart feels what the tongue utters; so he whose talk is of the world, grows lukewarm and worldly; he who speaks of Christ thinks of Christ.”
Because cheerfulness is a tool for evangelization, we should try to think of it as a gift to others… consequently, gloom may be thought of as a selfish indulgence.
Finally, the root of St. Philip’s cheerfulness was his constant faith that Divine Providence would bring him to heaven. If we believe in Providence and do our small part to maintain a good life, we will reach our goal one day. The more we think on that goal, the more our hearts cannot help but to leap with joy.
Bl. John Henry Newman’s Prayer for the Cheerfulness of St. Philip:
“Philip, my glorious advocate, who didst ever follow the precepts of the Apostle St. Paul in rejoicing always in all things, gain for me the grace of perfect resignation to God’s will, of indifference to matters of this world, and a constant sight of heaven; so that I ma never be disappointed at the Divine providences, never desponding, never sad, never fretful; that my countenance may always be cheerful, and my works kind and pleasant, as become ethos who, in whatever state of life they are, have the greatest of all goods, the favor of God and the prospect of eternal bliss. Amen.”
On this fifth day of the novena to St. Philip, we meditate on his tenderness of heart.
Reviewing the thoughts of Bl. John Henry Newman, the three “juh’s” that may help us understand what it means to be tender of heart after the model of St. Philip.
First, Philip’s tenderness was marked by Justice – Justice is that virtue by which we are disposed to give each person his/her due. The ultimate foundation for justice is our identity as children of God. That identity means that we are due absolute dignity, we are due love. Whenever Philip saw the lack of this, especially among the poor, the sick and imprisoned, his heart was moved with pity and he sprang to action. What’s the difference – one might ask – between “justice” and “sympathy” in this case? Justice brings an objectivity to sympathy… sometimes it moulds our sympathy to do the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Justice, in a sense, grounds sympathy in reality lest we get carried away to the point that no one benefits from our sympathy.
Second, Philip’s tenderness was marked by Generosity – When his cause for sainthood was being considered thousands of people came forward witnessing to Philip’s generosity. During a famine he gave away a day’s worth of his own food to the poor and fasted. When his own purse was empty he would assign penances to his wealthy penitents so that they would pay the dowries of poor girls who could not otherwise afford to marry or enter a convent. When others received credit for good works that he himself had done, Philip rejoiced and reinforced the misperception to give glory to others rather than himself. In these and a hundred other ways our saint imitated the generosity of God from whom all life flows generously.
Finally, Philip’s tenderness was Gentle – Philip’s preaching, his teaching and his general encounters were all in the context of his awe at the beauty of God and God’s Creation. For as much ‘building up’ as he did Philip’s demeanor was more that of one walking in awe through a beautiful structure. He was always humbled by the experience of being in the world ad this brought a gentleness and inspiration to even his most fervent preaching.