Thoughts on moving…

On Friday I received word that I’ll be moving to a new parish in July.

Whenever a priest moves there are mixed emotions on all fronts.  People at both parishes are usually sad to see their local priest move.  Despite the many protestations of pop culture, I’m fairly convinced that most human hearts don’t jump at the prospect of change; not this kind of change anyway.

At the exact same time, one feels excitement.  The excitement of new challenges, new possibilities… even something as mundane and the opportunity to rearrange all your pictures in new quarters.  Like I said: it’s a mix.  And that’s before the priest even considers himself.  While priests are called on to think of themselves last, we do still have to think of ourselves.  In my case, moving is always a challenge because in my heart of hearts I yearn for stability.  Perhaps it’s God’s sense of humor that in ten years of priesthood I’ve lived in five places… six if you count the time I did emergency fill-in work for two months at a parish… living out of a suit case.

What’s a parish, and what are priest, to do?  How do all of us process these changes that must come at some point?  Below is my homily for Trinity Sunday. I hope you find it edifying, a helpful spiritual proposal for how to process such moments in the light of our Catholic beliefs about the Holy Trinity.

Please be sure to pray for my current parishioners at St. Francis Xavier whom I am sad to leave, and the people of my new parish, St. Mary Mother of God in Gallery Place who I am so very excited to meet… and if you think of it, offer up a prayer for me too.

 

The Music of Pentecost: the original Spiritual

Yearning is a big part of our religious existence… ultimately yearning for God, but by extension yearning for all the good things of this world.  I’ve written before about the positive power of yearning, about the eros-dimension of our love for God.  Yearning is front and center in the life of the Church as we “groan in expectation” (Rm 8:19) of what God promises, and never more so than on Christmas, Easter and Pentecost.  At Christmas we await his coming in the fullness of time.  At Easter, even though we know how the story ends, who can help but watch, wait and wonder with the Apostles on Holy Saturday, “What happens next?”  And at Pentecost we cry out, Veni creator Spiritus.  And Veni sancte Spiritus!  Come Creator Spirit!  Come Holy Spirit!  

The yearning of Pentecost is associated with it a particularly venerable musical tradition, enshrined in two hymns Veni Sancte Spiritus and Veni Creator Spiritus.  Their music comes from the middle ages (9th and 11th centuries), but their texts and their sentiment call forth memories of a more distant antiquity.  

As the Apostles prayed following the Ascension, we know that they awaited the coming of the Advocate, the Holy Spirit promised by Christ.  Huddled in the Upper Room they would’ve chanted the psalms together, as the Jews still do today at the Western Wall and in their synagogues, a musical expression of the heart’s deepest yearning.

We know that immediately following Pentecost the Church’s musical tradition began.  There are, in fact, many texts within the Gospels and writings of the Apostles that were most likely musical lyrics before they were ever enshrined as Scripture.  Indeed, in an oral tradition, music makes it much easier to remember and hand on information across generations.  The Magnificat is a great example of this, as is the Canticle of Zechariah.  

Both Christian and pagan imperial records tell us that during the Roman persecutions, Christians were famed for singing under torture, and in the arenas as they prepared for death in the mouths of beasts, or on the cross after the fashion of our Lord.  This music was particularly powerful: It witnessed to tens of thousands of onlookers the power of the Holy Spirit whose gifts of hope and fortitude filled the dying Christians.  That witness turned the dynamic of the arenas on its head so that the very events meant to crush the Church spread her message of hope to vast crowds.  By their musical witness, the blood of the martyrs became the seed of the Church.  

Through the dark ages, the droning chant of the monks preserved civilization like a low flame supported by the power of the Spirit flowing from their altars… I could go on and on… but I should fast forward through time and space to America and a dark chapter in our own history.  What was it that sustained enslaved peoples here in the US if not their nascent Christian faith expressed through… spirituals… This beautiful genre of music witnessed hope not only to successive generations of enslaved individuals, but also to those who would become their greatest advocates, the abolitionists.  Their work and prayer finally sent the Grand Army of the Republic marching to the Battle Hymn of the Republic to end slavery and preserve the union.  

One of the great things about Pentecost is that its gifts go on unchanged.  The gift of the Incarnation at Christmas ultimately ascends to the Father out of human sight.  The gift of the Resurrection happened once.  But the descent of the Holy Spirit continues unchanged to this day, if only you and I can see it with eyes of faith.  And the music of the Spirit is our great helper in that effort. 

Recommended Listening: Gustav Mahler’s 8th Symphony – based on the Veni Creator Spiritus 

The Beauty of Ascension Thursday

 

Baldassare Franceschini, Ascension – in the National Gallery of Art, DC

We’re in a season of really beauty… it’s not just the Washington is ablaze with roses, irises, and peonies.  It’s not just the broad smiles and easy laughter of college grads moving on to great things… It’s also a holy season.  We’ve just concluded the great cycle that began way back at the beginning of December with the first Sunday of Advent.  That flowed into Christmas, Epiphanytide, the preparation for Lent, Easter, and now finally, Ascension and Pentecost.  And these last two really do shine to match the natural beauty of the world around us.

I propose three ways in which the Ascension may be called beautiful: superficially, philosophically and theologically…

At Ascension Jesus rises Body and Soul into the glory of heaven, finally returning to the Father… and bringing with him something new, our humanity.  On the face of it, we may well say, “Wow, bright light, clouds, angels, how beautiful!” And we’d be right.  But there’s more!

Ascension participates in the classical philosophical definition of things objectively beautiful.  It is marked by three classical categories: Integrity, Consonance, and Clarity.  Integrity – Ascension is the fulfillment of all Jesus prepared us for.  He had to leave to complete his mission.  He alludes to this in the Last Supper discourses in John (ch. 14 and 15), and said as much overtly to Mary Magdalene: Jesus said to her, “Stop holding on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am going to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” (Jn 20:17).  Consonance – Jesus Ascension works not only within itself, but also in conjunction with all that came before and after it.  The Ascension fulfills Prophecy and corresponds with everything the the Apostolic age that followed.  It is a harmonious or consonant part of salvation history.  Finally, the Ascension is marked by clarity… by which we mean it is radiant, warming us and calling us to change are selves for its sake.  You see, the Ascension of Jesus finally means that the Church is his remaining Mystical Body on earth.  The Church is now called on to live his ministry: Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these, because I am going to the Father. (Jn 14:12)

The Ascension’s beauty is also seen in what it accomplishes as part of theology.  The event marks a very real beginning to what theologians call “recapitulation,” that process by which Jesus presents redeemed Creation to the Father… and the first thing to be presented is our humanity, restored by his divine presence.  It’s the beginning of him presenting the Church, Christ’s bride, to the Father as St. Paul suggests in Ephesians (5:27): that [the Lord] might present to himself the church in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.  A fallen world restored and presented to its Creator as worthy once more of heaven… Beautiful.

Up next…  a few thoughts on the beauty of Pentecost and the divine music it initiates.

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

Memories of Holy Thursday

In the readings for Holy Thursday, Moses instructs the people on how to slaughter the Passover Lamb and keep a memorial of the Passover each year thereafter.  For the Jews, to keep a memorial is not a matter of stale dates on a page… It’s a bit more like… ?time travel?  Because each time you memorialize an event, the realities of the original action become fully present again.  It’s no coincidence then, that Jesus, the sacrificial Lamb of the new covenant would instruct his disciples in how to keep a memorial of the event.  His instruction, understood in its proper Jewish context, testifies to the reality of Transubstantiation: our belief that bread and wine actually become the Body and Blood of Jesus in all their reality each time we keep his memorial (that is, at Mass).

So Holy Thursday is a day full of memory.  It’s not just the events of Calvary that we memorialize, but also the establishment of the Priesthood.  Jesus – the High Priest – hands on to the Apostles the capacity to offer His unique and saving sacrifice for the rest of human history.  The Apostles in turn hand that capacity on to their successors and assistants, the bishops and priests of today’s Catholic Church.

Now each time a memorial sacrifice is offered, among the many things that go on, two stick out: the offering of thanksgiving, and the offering of expiatory sacrifice (that is to say, sacrifice for the obtaining of mercy).  And so as we keep this Holy Thursday, I propose that we engage in memorializing the priesthood with thanksgiving and supplication.

We give God thanks for the High Priest Jesus Christ, who not only opened for us the doors of salvation, but also invited us to collaborate with him.  He gave us the ordained priesthood of the clergy to lead that process, but he also gave us the royal priesthood of the faithful to be the lived substance of that sacrifice visible to the world each and every day!  Thank you Lord for the Priesthood of Jesus Christ!  We also offer to the Father, the Body and Blood of that same High Priest asking his pardon for our sins, our many sins.

We remember and we give thanks for our priests here on earth.  Their presence in our lives is an enduring spark of hope in a world that is all too often so conscious of its own limits, its own mortality.  Think of the priests you’ve loved.  The priest who baptized, you… who excited you with a great homily… who hears your confessions week in and week out… the priest who visited you or a loved one at the hospital… the priest who ministered to your family at the death of a loved one… the priest who offers masses prayers and other sacrifices for our needs whatever they may be.  These good men give us hope in darkness.  Some shine more brightly than others, but the virtue common to all that ministry is HOPE… not just earthly optimism, but a real hope of heaven.

We also need to remember and ask mercy for the priests who have failed us. News headlines remind us all too often of the extraordinary cases, but for vast majority of us, priestly failure comes in the form of mediocrity.  When a priest becomes bound to the earth, he stops inspiring, stops giving hope of heaven.  And while that’s not a crime, per se, it’s a failure from which the faithful suffer terribly.

I remember the priest in my neighborhood parish.  For decades, he was there boring us all to death… a nice enough man, but there was nothing about him that made me want heaven.  I returned to my home parish after ordination, in cognito as it were, to attend one of his masses.  I thought that my new identity as a priest might make me more understanding, or help me to see him in a different light.  Sad to say… it didn’t.  I couldn’t believe that in 20 years NOTHING had changed.  When a new priest finally arrived, the parish began slowly returning to life.

I recently heard a true story of a priest in Southern Maryland, in the days of Jim Crow who ordered seminarians to knock over the headstones of African American Catholics.  It was a crime against the dead and against God.  It was sacrilege.  Nonetheless, if we’re going to be a better Church than that, we must pray and offer memorial sacrifice for his forgiveness.

Priests have no spouses, no children, no one to remember them after they’re gone.  The fate of their souls is in the hands of the faithful… and so whether horrible or mediocre, we need to ask the mercy of the High Priest for them… because Hell isn’t something we should wish for anyone, even a bad priest.

This Holy Week, keep the memory of the priesthood… of the High Priest Jesus Christ, and of his earthly servants, good and bad.  Pray that one day we may all be united at the wedding banquet of heaven there to contemplate his sacred countenance forever more.

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.