What I saw on the metro inspired me

Often times friends will tweet about how Metro disappoints them.  Admittedly, delays, track work and lack of funding are… problematic… but I’ve always tried to look at the Metro through eyes of faith!  It’s a fascinating petri dish of human interactions where one can see so much human drama and divine inspiration at work.  Three things I saw on the Blue Line this weekend inspired me:

1) A young man, perhaps an intern boarded the train.  Shirt tails untucked, hair bedraggled, his backpack clung for dear life to the crushed shoulder of his blue blazer.  This young man was DONE for the day.  At the next stop, two women, one of them pregnant boarded.  They were laughing, carrying on about something in the way colleagues do after work… the exact opposite of our disheveled intern.  And yet… in the midst of the crowd, this young fellow got up and sacrificed his seat for the pregnant woman.  He stood clinging to the overhead bar (another type of petri dish characteristic of Metro) for another five stops!  Young sir, I salute you.  (PS: this was at the other end of the car from me or I would’ve offered my own seat, of course)

2) A gentleman boarded the same train… seemingly coming from his workout routine.  Now, had this been me, I probably would’ve passed out drooling then and there, but not this man.  He sat down and pulled a book from his back pack.  It wasn’t a soft cover novel.  It was clearly something heavy… study for work or graduate courses maybe.  The man dove into his work with gusto making margin notes as he read… and whenever he looked up his eyes were curious, clearly scanning the faces of his fellow commuters.  Catholic author Matthew Kelly says he can tell if a business will succeed if he sees employees constantly taking notes, developing ideas they get on the fly… I saw something of that in this gentleman’s discipline and constant engagement with his surroundings.  Most inspiring.

3) Last and best of all, a family of tourists boarded the train at the Smithsonian stop: a mother, father and their toddler.  The little girl begged for and received a piece of fruit.  Before gnashing on her snack, she pulled a quality control sticker from the skin of her apple.  Her father explained that the sticker mean the fruit was “approved” for eating… at which point the girl pushed the sticker on her dad’s forehead, hugged him and said, “I approve YOU.”  Cute as this was, my inspiration came from the father, who dutifully left the sticker on his brow while his daughter ate her apple.  He never flinched, continued conversing with his wife and smiling benevolently at his littler girl.  Love doesn’t care about appearances… Love parses out the meaning of real dignity from superficial honor.  Bravo sir!

Just three things I saw on metro.

Mary Magdalene: God’s mercy and our desires

Bless the Lord, my soul;Giovanni_Bellini_Mary_Magdalene
all my being, bless his holy name!
Bless the Lord, my soul; 
and do not forget all his gifts,
Who pardons all your sins,
and heals all your ills,
Who redeems your life from the pit,
and crowns you with mercy and compassion,

For as the heavens tower of the earth,
so his mercy towers over those who fear him.

As a father has compassion on his children,
so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him
For he knows how we are formed,
remembers that we are dust.
As for man, his days are like grass;

But the Lord’s mercy is from age to age…”

The excerpts above are from Psalm 103, found in today’s Office of Readings and ideal to today’s saint, Mary Magdalene.  Mary has quickly become a favorite of mine.  Her relationship with Christ was so human, so visceral; I have an easy time relating to it.  In the psalm, the author begins on a very positive note, “Bless the Lord, my soul; all my being bless his holy name!”  The reason for his joy is how the Lord has treated him.

First and foremost on the author’s mind is mercy… and isn’t that so true for us?  Note: I don’t say that first and foremost on God’s mind is mercy, but the psalmist is certainly concerned with it… and indeed he has perceived God’s mercy present in his life.  Likewise Mary Magdalene.  She is introduced to Jesus when the crowds bring her before him.  They throw her in to the dirt of humiliation exposing her sin to Christ against her will.  And Jesus says, “…neither do I condemn you.  Go sin no more.”  Mercy.

Mary’s experience continues to follow the psalm with healing and redemption.  Jesus sends away her accusers as he raises her up, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”  In this moment of compassion and mercy he redeems (literally, “buys her back,” “re – emptor” … redeemer) her from them.  Again, from Ps. 103, “Who pardons all your sins, heals all your ills, Who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with mercy and compassion.”

Finally the psalmist crowns his meditation and Mary’s experience, “For [God] knows how we are formed, remembers we are dust… But the Lord’s mercy is from age to age.”  To see, know and truly understand a thing is to have empathy for it.  God, the author of our being, certainly treats us this way.  “At the sight of the crowds, his heart was moved with pity for them because they were troubled and abandoned,* like sheep without a shepherd.” (Mt 9:36)

This merciful, healing, redeeming, understanding love is the basis on which we are judged.  It also changed Mary Magdalene’s life in ways she never could’ve imagined.

While human beings are capable of such “all-giving love,” ( agape ), it is something properly divine.  We can only really give such love when it flows from God through us.  But Christ’s agape for Mary Magdalene solicits from her a properly human love which is a love filled with desire ( eros ).  In our simplicity/mortality we are fundamentally needy… we desire that which ultimately fills legitimate needs.  The most fulfilling thing in the cosmos is God himself.  This is the true, noble and original meaning of erotic (i.e. desire- / eros-based) love, which has been sadly twisted in contemporary parlance.

We see this all on display Easter morning at the tomb.  Mary the Mother of Jesus remains at home Easter Sunday morning.  She is confident in the faith she has in her Son.  Free from original sin she is, we might reflect, praying for his enemies, exercising an agape love proper to her immaculate nature.  Mary Magdalene on the other hand misses her Lord… she goes to the tomb early in the morning seeking him even before the Apostles themselves.  When she finds the body is gone, she confronts Jesus in the guise of a gardner.  Raging (as it were) that her love can no longer be fulfilled, she interrogates him, “What have you done?  Where have they moved him?”  The need the desire is so human, and because it is so purely for the Lord, it is beautiful.

Happy feast day of St. Mary Magdalene!

I’m so proud…

Yesterday an interesting dimension of city culture intersected with our faith life.  Three very loud individuals, one with a LOUDspeaker, stood on the sidewalk outside our parish church in the middle of the vigil mass.  They screamed at the facade of our building about all the disagreements they have with our understanding of divine revelation and the role of the clergy in the Church.  They were not protesting anything political.  These folks identified themselves as Christians.

Washingtonians know all too well of the sidewalk shouter.  We see them all the time outside the edifices of civil government, sometimes near financial institutions or even NGO’s (that’s non-governemtnal organizations for all those outside the Beltway).  It’s rare to see such demonstrations outside of a Church at Sunday worship… and I suppose it’s even rarer to see protesters outside a Church speaking about Biblical issues.  Nonetheless, there they were yesterday evening outside our front door.

What made me so proud was [obviously] nothing to do with the the people on the sidewalk, but rather our people.  Mass went on uninterrupted despite the blurred voice of a loudspeaker outside the walls.  Our prayer was, as always, peaceful and focused on offering the sacrifices of the last week to the Father in union with Chirst on the altar.  That’s us, that’s the Church… a joyful, peaceful, sacrificial people who go about our Gospel business unhindered by the chaos of the world.  It reminds me of St. Thomas Becket ordering the doors of his Cathedral opened for Evening Prayer even though he knew his assassins waited just outside… or Blessed Oscar Romero heroically preaching a peaceful middle way between two sides of a civil war raging around the Church.  The Church is so beautiful in her constancy… her fidelity to her mission no matter what is going on outside.  Yesterday, in a small but beautiful way, our people experienced that; they lived it out.  I’m so very proud of them.

After mass ended the folks on the sidewalk eventually stopped.  Perhaps their voices had grown horse.  Perhaps their loudspeaker battery died… whatever the cause, when it was all over the bells of our tower rang the Angelus as they do every day at six: a beautiful, sober, constant tone reminding all that the living of Christ’s life goes on unabated by the storms of the world.  I’m so proud!

There are other ways of thinking about this…

Washington has changed so quickly.  Even in the short [sixteen] years that I’ve called it home whole new neighborhoods have been redeveloped, become safer, revitalized.  There’s lots of verbs to be used… one particularly vexing one is, “re-gentrification,” as if somehow gentle people don’t live in economically depressed areas.

For most of DC’s new residents, it’s all been very positive… summed up perhaps by the phrase, “Isn’t this a great place to live!”  and from my own point of view I’d agree.  But there are other ways to think of this.  Last week, Perry Stein examined once such case  in the Post, “A D.C. resident hopes these yard signs can save his neighborhood from gentrifiers”  I was immediately interested because the article concerns Brightwood, a neighborhood where a friend of mine serves as a priest.  My initial reaction was based solely on my own experience, “Who would oppose improvements in a neighborhood.”  Likewise at dinner recently, friends and I discussed market forces and what a great deal longtime residents are getting as they sell homes to new arrivals in DC.  Then I read the Book of Kings in today’s Office of Readings…

“Naboth… had a vineyard in Jezreel next to the palace of Ahab, king of Samaria.  Ahab said to Naboth, ‘Give me your vineyard to be my garden… I will give you a better vineyard in exchange, or, if you prefer, I will give you its value in money.’  ‘The Lord forbid,’ Naboth answered him, ‘ that I should give you my ancestral heritage.’ ”  (cf. I Kings 21)

There are other priorities in people’s lives besides the force of the market, the value of money and the easy availability of yoga studios and organic markets.  As Naboth references, things like family legacy, personal memories, history… who’s to say that all these things aren’t just as important as what new arrivals in DC value?  To be clear, I’m not judging the values on either side… but reading this passage, as well as some of Pope Francis’ recent comments in S. America compels me to at least consider sets of legitimately human values other than my own as I, along with my fellow Washingtonians,  think about how  our city sees itself and changes over time.

Just something to think about through eyes of faith.

Screen on the Green and a Little Elegance


Talking with some parishioners after mass yesterday, I learned about several “Screens on the Green” – outdoor film initiatives here in DC (for more info, check out this LINK).  What really excited me was not the possibility of strolling over to Lincoln Park to see Casino Royale (July 16)… No what really enthralled me about this young couple was   their excitement about going to see the film together… and with a touch of elegance.  They were planning out their picnic, looking forward to selecting some meats, cheeses and maybe even a little vino to compliment the evening.  It reminded me of a line from Hello Dolly, “We’ve got elegance.  If you aint’ got elegance, you can never hope to carry it off.”

Elegance has very little to do with living in a ritzy manner, per se.  It’s more about acting on our best impulses.  The concept goes back to the Greek understanding of beauty, “kalon.”  For the Athenians, the beauty of nature was characterized by kalon or “elegant order.”  So when human beings live elegantly, it means that we bring a certain degree of purposeful order to bear upon a given activity.  Put another way – as St. Thomas Aquinas might say – “virtue is in the action… the living-out of the idea.”


These two young adults, planning their movie-night were so excited to DO something about their love for each other… their commitment became manifest in a plan that they are actually going to carry out and live… and that dear friends, is very elegant.  It’s not so much about whether you’re buying a bottle of wine or a six-pack of diet coke… It’s about carrying out our desires to live as the best version of ourselves.

If we take our meditation a step (maybe a small leap) farther, we find that this concept of the elegant even touches on the sacraments.  Christ left us things to do and to do beautifully as the most clear living-out of his life among us.  Thats why parishes where sacraments are well celebrated are so much more satisfying than places where they are not… because the community sees itself doing something about realizing its highest aspirations.  Just as a girl might reasonably question a boy, “If you love me so much why didn’t you bring me flowers?  Why didn’t you do something about it?”  Christ will ask us, “Did you care for my little ones?  [c.f. Mt 25] Did  you celebrate the sacraments I left you when I said, ‘Do this in memory of me.’?  And did you do it in a slipshod or an elegant manner?” [c.f. Mk 14:15]  …just something to consider.

What does it take?

Moving into a new parish, lots of people want to tell you lots of things.  Happily, here at St. Peter’s the vast majority of things have been so positive my head spins more from euphoria than confusion!  Another angle to all this is that I’ve begun to get my very first questions.  I’ve only been on the ground two days, but already someone called to ask, “Should I give 10% of my income to God before or after earthly expenses?”  I don’t know who the parishioner is – I received the question via voicemail from the secretary – but what a neat first question to get!  I started thinking about it… Classically, Biblically, we are invited to give 10% off the top… before expenses… With the caveat that God desires no one to abandon their natural obligations to the support of children, spouses etc.  So please do feed your family and then give to the collection on Sunday.

Corollary to this, particularly here on the Hill where our young adult population is booming, it got me thinking, what should a young adult be giving.  It’s hard starting out in life, especially in a city as expensive as DC.  Many more ‘veteran’ parishioners (not just here but in any parish) will comment “Young people today don’t give…”  I’m not sure that’s entirely true… but in any event, I did a little number crunching after prayers this morning.

Average individual income in DC is about $80k.  Divide that by 52 weeks/year and  you get about $1,500/week.  10% of that is $150 dollars per week.  If everyone in the Church gave that amount regardless of their salary we’d have so much money to serve the community we wouldn’t know where to start!  That said, it’s REALLY hard to figure out how your average  young adult could sacrifice that much per week without cutting into essential expenses… So, I thought to myself… “What would it take to give 5% of an average income each Sunday?”  Here’s one quick calculation of things your average young adult in DC could give up  easily to put $75/week in the collection:

1 Cocktail on a date or out with friends (including tax/tip) = $20
3 Starbucks coffee based drinks (latte, frappe. etc) = $15
1 Sixpack of beer (Budweiser from Walmart in DC ) = $7
1 Pack of cigarettes (in DC approx.) = $7
1 iTunes video rental of a new release = $6
Various midday snacks / munchies  = $20

Even this was a challenging number to arrive at, but here’s a few encouraging thoughts.  First, I can tell you from experience that my prayer life and my life walking out on the streets is infinitely better when I’m actively tithing.  I contribute to the parish and to the poor right at the beginning of the month so the money isn’t there for me to spend and somehow God makes it all work!  Second, it’s ALWAYS been hard, even in Biblical times.  For a first century shepherd in Judea to send his first 10% to the Temple was a tremendous sacrifice on his part… but here’s the key: He sent it “as a sacrifice to the temple.”  It was an investment… a gift to the Almighty for which God was sure to reward him with grace.  Here in Washington the funds our parishioners give end up building up beautiful parish communities where the poor are served, the sick are cured, and the whole of the community can rejoice to see each other in worship and  fellowship… In short, we manifest the Kingdom of God by our giving. When you put all of that together, the sacrifices necessary to give up the list above gets put in perspective.  Finally, even taking all that into account, I know… all your priests know… it’s hard.  We’re in it with you.  God our Father calls us to “heroic virtue,”  and believe me when I tell you that I look at the generous fidelity of our parishioners as truly heroic!  Peace!

Living in Close Quarters

I’ve just finished moving into my new parish assignment, St. Peter’s on Capitol Hill .  One of the things you have to learn quickly when living in a new situation with several people is how to move in close quarters.  When three priests are preparing their lunches at the same time in a small kitchen there can be a lot of bumping into each other until you get used to each others movements, foibles etc.  The learning curve is necessarily quick and steep because, after all, you love the people you’re living with and want things to go harmoniously.  Reaching for the mustard at the same time quickly turns into “No, please you go first.” until sharing space becomes second nature.

I observed some of the same dynamic at work in Le Pain Quotidien (7th and Penn., SE) yesterday.  I’m sure the managers of the chain designed the chairs to be tiny so as to fit LOTS of them into a small space for greater profit… but the sociological result is people eating in close quarters.  It’s really a microcosm for all of Washington.  At restaurants, in the metro, park spaces, you name it, we all live near each other.  The awkward, “No, please you go first” develops into a second nature rules (e.g. On escalators Stand on the RIGHT!! Walk on the LEFT).  But the beautiful thing about it all is that at the root of our customs and expectations is a desire to leave harmoniously together.

If  you’re going to live together as a community, there’s really no other game in town.  Speaking about a conflict in the early Christian community, Pope St. Clement put it this way:

“We should pray then that we may be granted forgiveness for our sins and for whatever we may have done when led astray by our adversary’s servants.  And as for those who were the leaders of the schism and the sedition, they too should look to the common hope.  For those who live in pious fear and in love are willing to endure torment rather than have their neighbor suffer…for it is better for a man to confess his sins than to harden his heart.”

Something to think about as we start another day!

Drawing in Silver and Gold at the National Gallery

“Born of a Virgin, he came forth from the womb as the light of the hole world in order to shine on all men.  His perpetual light that night can never destroy.  The sun of our daily experience is succeed by night, but the sun of holiness never sets, because wisdom cannot give place to evil.” -St. Ambrose

Print of a Woman by Rogier van der Weyden on display at the NGA

As another beautiful day dawns over Washington, keep you eyes open for the light coming into our world, Christ.  Seek him in the beauty of our daily experiences… and if you need some help consider stopping in at the National Gallery of Art for an incredible exhibition – Drawing in Silver and Gold: Leonardo to Jasper Johns.  The exhibit is a study of metal point drawing/printing.  Two quick thoughts…  First, the technical detail achieved by the artists in this exhibit is amazing considering they were scratching out images by hand on metal!  Second, these prints have an almost ethereal quality.  The images almost “materialize” as you study them… It’s all a consequence of the printing process but it reminds me of Christ’s light illuminating each of us a little at a time, making each of us more distinctly and more perfectly ourselves as we get to know him better.  ‘just something to think about as you pass through the galleries.

Print of a Dog by Albrecht Durer on display at the NGA
Print of a Dog by Albrecht Durer on display at the NGA

There’s always something deeper, isn’t there?

In spiritual life, especially in the city, it can be so tempting to judge superficially.  After all, there’s so much going on around us, so many activities, so many demands: emotional, professional, environmental.  Life is simply…MUCH.  Sometimes a snap decision is needed, sometimes even a snap judgment, but as today’s divine office demonstrates, we need to be so very careful when applying superficial thoughts to people or even ourselves.

“I will  put a curb on my lips when the wicked man stands before me.  I was dumb, silent and still.  His prosperity stirred my grief.” (Ps. 39)

At first glance, the psalmist seems caught up in a typical Old Testament encounter: the good (himself) vs. the evil (the wicked man)… but that line at the end, “His prosperity stirred my grief…” invites a deeper degree of meditation.  Is there perhaps some envy at the root of this encounter?  Is the psalmists problem really with the wicked man’s wickedness?  or is there something internal at work?  …a personal sense of lack?

The psalm goes on,

“O Lord you have shown me my end,  how short is the length of my days.”

Something about the wicked has spurred the psalmist to thoughts about his own mortality!  Later, having dived further into his meditation, the inspired author turns to God:

“And now Lord what is there to wait for?  In you rests all my hope.”  Bringing his inner turmoil before the Father, the psalmist finds a sense of resolution and peace, ending out the morning’s excerpt, “I will thank you [Lord] for evermore; for this is your doing.  I will proclaim that your name is good, in the presence of your  friends.”

I don’t know about you, but as a man, as a disciple, and perhaps particularly as a young adult, I’m tempted to assign so much blame for my own suffering to, “the wicked,” whoever that happens to be at a given moment…. but like the Psalmist, if I ask the question, “There’s something deeper here, isn’t there?”  The answer usually comes back as a resounding, “Yes,” and it usually has to do with some fear, some anxiety, some hurt particular to me.  This doesn’t negate that another person may be “wicked,” or that an external situation may be truly “unjust,” but it certainly clarifies my perspective.

Another angle is this: If I’m responding to my own hurts, my neighbor probably is too.  One of the most prophetic things I’ve ever heard from a friend is this, “90% of what we see people doing is a reaction to pain.”  The number might be a little high… but not much.  I hear the truth of that observation in the confessional and in so many pastoral encounters.  Our fellow Washingtonians are all hurting in various ways… All of us are, ultimately, grappling with the effects of sin and death/mortality in our lives… something to think about when we are tempted to make those snap decisions and judgments that – I know – make up much too large a part of my own life.