Walking with Mary during Lent

Well, it’s here.  Tomorrow we begin our yearly observance of Lent.  The following are some reflections I offered to our parish Sodality about walking with Mary during Lent.  I hope you find them edifying:

March 2017

Dear Sodalists,

Peace!  I’m writing with gratitude and encouragement for your good works in our parish of St. Francis Xavier.  As we enter the holy season of Lent, the witness of your devotion to Our Lady takes on special meaning for our community.  Walking with our Lord toward the Cross and Resurrection, we so need for Mary to be with us at each step of the way.

In life’s general challenges, we might think of Mary during the hidden years at Nazareth.  Nearly every painting made of our Lady shows – to the surprise of most viewers – a serious or even sad look on her face… even as she holds the Christ child in her arms.  The cross was part of her existence even then.  Recall Simeon’s prophecy, “and you yourself a sword shall pierce.” (Lk 2:35).  So even through the events of daily life, perhaps  even before Jesus himself grew to understand the sacrifice that would be required of him, Mary had to bear the weight of a shadowed future.  We can be assured that Our Lady will be sympathetic to our pleas as we deal with the cross in daily life.

In the actual and most intense moments of challenge, when we walk with Jesus up the via dolorosa on the way to Calvary, the one face in the crowd we know we can count on is Mary.  She is the Mother who never forgets her child and in a uniquely maternal way shares with us the pains of our sacrifices.  It is precisely in that sharing, in that solidarity that we find hope; we are not alone.

Finally, after the sacrifice has been made, as we gather in the Upper Room with the Apostles, we learn from Mary how to wait… how to wait patiently, faithfully, upon the coming of Resurrection Life and Light.  How often would we completely collapse were it not for the warm embrace of a loved one saying, “it’s OK, just a little longer and everything will be all right.”  Such is the love our Blessed Mother gives in that quiet time after the immediate pain has passed and all we can do is wait.

All my prayers and encouragement go with you this Lent as you direct our parishioners and neighbors to the maternal embrace of Mary directly in prayer and mirrored in the life of our Holy Mother the Church.

Your parish priest,

Fr. De Rosa

Love among the catacombs

Surrounding Washington are a series of beautiful places that most people never pay much attention to: cemeteries.  Like Rome before, Washington’s cemeteries are on its peripheries.  Historically, dead bodies were always interred outside city boundaries for reasons of hygiene.  As a result, however, they take on their own sort of civic identity, becoming necropolises, “cities of the dead.”

Visiting cemeteries is an important part of Christian existence.  It helps us keep up a real relationship with those who have gone before us: each visit to a loved one’s grave is a little sacrifice we can offer up for their sake, contributing to their journey to heaven.  Such visits can also serve as important reminders of our own mortality… a reality many prefer to ignore.  And those reminders aren’t just a help to our own [hopefully] distant judgment, but to our daily lives here and now.  St. Philip Neri told the faithful of Rome,

“An excellent way of keeping ourselves from relapsing into serious faults is to say to ourselves every evening, ‘tomorrow I may be dead.'”

Philip’s suggestion is full of a typically dark Roman humor, but I’ve found it very practical.  He certainly had taken time to consider the Last things (death, judgment, hell and heaven).  For the first few years after St. Philip’s arrival in Rome, he spent considerable time walking among the catacombs outside the city walls.

It was an odd practice.  The old cemeteries had not been mapped at that point.  Grave robbers and other unsavory types were known to seek refuge in the catacomb tunnels.  There was no light save the candle St. Philip brought with him, and the tunnel paths were far from stable.  It should also be mentioned that unlike today’s well preserved and clean pilgrimage sites, the catacombs in Philip’s day were filled with dead bodies!  Despite all that, Philip felt drawn over and over again to visit these holy sites, to commune with those who’d gone before, especially the martyrs.

It was a monastic period in St. Philip’s life.  New to the city, he had disappointed his family’s hopes for his future in business.  Philip knew he wanted to serve God, but wasn’t sure how.  He earned his bread by tutoring the children of a local merchant, didn’t really know anyone.  His catacomb walks were, perhaps, distilled expressions of a deeper loneliness he experienced walking the streets of the living city, pondering his future. Nonetheless, from within that solitude a voice began to speak to St. Philip, the voice of God our Father.  He was directed to serve the needs of the poor and of pilgrims entering the city after long grueling journeys.  From among these good deeds a small cadre of disciples began to emerge surrounding St. Philip and evangelizing the city.  They became the Oratory: a loose family of priests and lay people bound together by charity and a commitment to the evangelization of culture.  They changed the history of Rome and so the whole Church!

In spite of the crowds that flow up and down DC’s avenues each day, so many people feel as if they’re walking among open graves… alone, scared, worried about falling into a pit at any moment.  It’s true, one can certainly look at an urban life’s journey that way… and given the trials and tribulations so man people face each day, I get it.  Even as a priest, I sometimes feel like I’m walking alone among the ruins.  But Philip’s experience reminds us that there is another way to use our solitude… to use it as a time of privileged listening for the Love of God.  Surely he’s calling each of us to a path like St. Philip’s, by which we do works contributing to the building up of something truly great.  This week, apropos as we approach Lent, consider visiting one of DC’s cemeteries… drive in, park your car and take a walk among the graves.  You may find a surprising clarity and approach things differently when you return to the city of the living.

“Who walked for so many years among the catacombs, pray for us!”
-from the Litany of St. Philip by Bl. JH Newman

The silver linings of cliches

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:

The Story of Jonah Lehrer

The Epic of Ed Gavagan 

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.

Toulouse-Lautrec: A Tradition Considered

Anyone who’s ever yearned to visit Paris will feel right at home in The Phillips Collection’s latest special exhibition, showcasing the work of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) because his work is literally the stuff that populates dreams of the Cit’s of Lights. In a relatively brief life, Toulouse-Lautrec documented and defined French popular culture in a way that still affects us today. It’s impossible to visit any of DC’s universities without running into the famed “Chat Noire” on a freshman’s wall.

The galleries and living rooms of Northwest frequently boast the artist’s work; his posters, once quotidian, now fall under the “vinatage” genre, a point of pride to collectors. Beginning to understand this artist, reflecting on his work has been an eye
-opening experience for me in several levels.

Each of Toulouse-Lautrec’s prints captures some facet of belle-epoque Paris. Author Charles Hiatt put it this way,

“For his posters are at once realistic and grotesque; they are delineations of life as seen by a man who, possessing the most acute powers of observation, is poignantly impressed by the incongruities of modern life.”

Personally impressed, Toulouse-Lautrec then pressed his perceptions indelibly into the modern medium of printing: preserving and diffusing far-and-wide a vibrant record of his age. In this, modern as he may have been, Toulouse-Lautrec was a man of tradition: he handed on what he had received. And not only from his own era. From time to time, he would borrow or carry over motifs from earlier prints (17-18th centuries), updating them for his day. This understanding of tradition, so critical to the Christian faith may be what’s so endearing to me about Toulouse-Lautrec’s work.

This image from “l’Artisan Moderne” is based on a 17th century print

What a wonder, to have all the world agree that in a few brush-strokes on paper you have captured the multifaceted living breathing reality of an entire society! And what a society!

Here we move beyond Degas’ dancers or Parisian women ironing. Toulouse-Lautrec descends from the wrought iron balconies of the Champs Elysees into the dirt and grit of Paris’ late nineteenth century demi-monde. Here we meet celebrated poets, clowns, dancers, and even prostitutes of the day.

They drew artists and tourists alike to the city Haussmann built… so strong was the attraction that even the Franco-Prussian war could not long slow Paris’ growth nor dim its glow.

This praise must be matched, however, with a certain mourning. If Toulouse-Lautrec’s capacity to preserve and hand on the Paris of his day is a joy to behold, the content of that day is certainly a cause for weeping. …and that’s no prudish judgment on my part. Look carefully at each of the exhibit’s posters. Do you see any happy people?

Is anyone thrilled or even positive about the glories of the belle epoch? The artist indeed captures incongruity: a society famed for joy and celebration seems absolutely dour… a people famed for their dedication to freedom seem trapped in sadness. They hold up a fetid bourgeois feast as the god of their idolatry, but what is there to praise. Elsewhere in the Phillips Collection you’ll always be able to find Renoir’s “Boating Party,” another iconic snapshot of belle epoch France. I’ll never forget my freshman art appreciation professor’s essay question “Are the characters happy?”

Often, Toulouse-Lautrec’s figures practically drip. In some cases their features almost resemble wax melting off a candle… a sign of the excess of the age. In other works, the artist’s reductionist approach yields lumpy broad-angled bodies.

No time, no care has been taken to move the figures beyond sketch-status. Is this a commentary on the regard in which people held each other? It would certainly fit wider themes of the Industrial Age from which atheist Marxism rose, reducing all people to angled cogs in the great machine. It’s telling that one of his last works was a print of model/actress Jane Avril, a representative woman of her time coiled in a serpent’s embrace.  “And his heart was moved with pity for them.” (Mt 9:36)

Reflecting on tis exhibition, questions naturally arise: how does this relate to life today? Are we, the great-grandchildren of the belle epoch, different? Better? Worse? I’m not sure… and there’s really no time for me to dive into it here and now, but the estimable work of this artist certainly lends credibility and merit to the questions… questions to be carefully examined with eyes of faith.

The signs are already there

I can’t stand driving in Northern Virginia… specifically on the roads running along the Potomac’s southern bank.  Granted, they’re beautiful, boasting some of the most scenic approaches to D.C.’s monumental core… but I wish the signs were bigger!

My running theory is that under the Parks Service the roads are beautifully kept, but the Parks Service signs stink.  They’re the same ones you see in all national parks: small white letters in quaint font plastered against a ubiquitous forest green background.  They work wonderfully driving at five miles per hour on a deserted road in Yellowstone… not so well at fifty miles an hour in a city where everyone is in a rush and in the same road as you all the time!  I want bigger signs, but if I’m honest with myself I have to admit… the signs are there.

Today’s mass readings are replete with a similar truth: Cain murders Abel jealous that God likes Abel more.  Nowhere does it say however that God didn’t love Cain, just that his plant sacrifices weren’t as impressive as Abel’s animal offerings.  Cain was beloved of God… even after his transgression, God did not allow anyone to kill him.  Note also, it was Cain’s decision to leave God’s presence.  Why couldn’t Cain see the signs that were there?

In the Psalm, we read,

“You sit speaking against your brother;
against your mother’s son you spread rumors.
When you do these things, shall I be deaf to it?
Or do you think that I am like yourself?
I will correct you by drawing them up before your eyes.”

The Lord himself promises to draw sins before our eyes so that we can correct them and grow beyond then.  Why do we have so much trouble identifying our sins?

Finally, in the Gospel, Jesus is tested by the Pharisees “seeking from him a sign from heaven.”  Were the miracles already done by Jesus not enough?  Even without miracles, wasn’t his manifest goodness enough to convince them at least that he wasn’t the bad guy they suspected?

A certain myopia seems to afflict our humanity.  To be honest I think the reasons are different for each person and circumstance, but the common lesson seems to be: pray for vision, pray for the peace where vision can do its work, and pray for the will to carry out what vision reveals.  Pray to see with eyes of faith.

A light that doesn’t die

Last week’s Sunday Gospel (Mt 5:13-16) spoke beautifully, warning us to keep our lights burning brightly before the world. It’s something of a theme taken up during the weekly Office of Readings in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. Having left them to continue his missionary journeys, Paul hears that the Galatians have fallen back into a dependence on earthly laws of the Old Covenant rather than a focus on faith and the New Law of grace. Nearing the end of the letter, the Apostle asks a question that touched me deeply,

“…you know that it was because of a physical illness that I originally preached the gospel to you and you did not show disdain or contempt because of the trial caused you by my physical condition, but rather you received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus. Where now is that blessedness of yours? Indeed, I can testify to you that, if it had been possible, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me.”

Despite his limitations, Paul’s first preaching must’ve been so full of life and hope. The zeal of his former days transformed into an evangelism that clearly shined for the Galatians. So excited were their souls that they would’ve torn out their own eyes; such a vivid, if macabre image. What happened to them? What happens to us that dims the zeal of beginnings hiding our light under a bushel basket?

Sometimes I notice it my own life. Ministry becomes routine. A dense fog of paperwork, politics and policy clog the air threatening to drown my excitement, my hope. Even those who first preached the Gospel to me seem far off, burdened perhaps by their own fog. And I hear Paul’s question, “Where now is that blessedness of yours?” Then… just as things seem darkest a new light…or rather a re-newed light sparks. It happens in my morning prayers each day. It doesn’t come from earthly preachers, nor any other secular circumstance but from the Truth and the Love that I have known; his name is Jesus. Whatever happened to the sower, the seed seed has sprouted and is now autonomous within me. My relationship with the Lord can be ever old and ever new… and no one can extinguish it.

The month of February was once explicitly dedicated to preparation for Lent, such was the wisdom of the old church calendar. There’s no reason for that not to be the case today. Pray! Pray during this month to prepare for the warfare of Lent. Renew your zeal. In winter’s coldest weeks pray for new warmth and light! So that we can enter into Lent with our lamps held aloft, guiding us all to new heights of holiness.

Tying it all together

One beautiful but challenging consequence of the reforms of Vatican II is that on a daily basis any member of the faithful can be totally immersed in Scripture. It’s not even 8am and already I’ve been exposed to: six psalms, an excerpt from Galatians, Genesis and the Gospel of Mark, and various commentaries on all of them… and that’s just from saying the Office of Readings, Morning Prayer and Mass. It’s a little overwhelming actually. How does one tie it all together?

Well, there’s no one rule on how to make connections between the readings. Certainly whatever links one makes have to be reasonable and coincide with Teaching. I couldn’t, for example, read the Bible and come to the conclusion that it’s ok to say… falsely accuse my brother… because that would contradict the Commandments. That caution aside, what is the average Catholic to Do?

I find it helpful to have a theme for whatever period of time I’m reading the Scriptures. During Christmas and the Epiphany-centered month of January my theme was “getting to know Jesus”. Everything I read or heard in church got channeled through that appropriately seasonal theme. Having been introduced to Jesus in January, February is my month for prayer…since prayer is the vehicle for my ongoing friendship with the Lord. As I figure it, on this year’s calendar anyway, that should set me up nicely for the start of Lent on March 1… and forty days’ meditation on salvific suffering. As you can tell, I like using the Church calendar to guide my prayer. Other guides might include the lives of the saints: “what would saint. (____) say about these readings?” The Holy Father’s preaching (daily masses Wednesday audiences and Sunday angelus) can also be a good guide.

What all these guides… any guide really… have in common is that they are an objective boundary to keep our subjective thoughts and meditations from going off in wild or unhealthy directions. Some local mega churches in the D.C. area have begun preaching a “prosperity Gospel” that teaches: God will reward good behavior with wealth. Any look at the actual objective words of Jesus reveals this to be nonsense… likewise the lived experiences of faithful Christians across the centuries. Guides are limiting, its true… they limit us to following the right path all the way to heaven. As we look with eyes of faith at the vast quantity of Scripture available to us today, seek out a good guide. You’ll be glad you did.

Catholicism: Just Do It

St. Bonaventure was a great poet, theologian, and really a second founder of the Franciscan Order.  He was the theologian who gave institutional staying power to the charismtic revolution begun by St. Francis himself.  So it’s appropriate that we should  look to him for very practical concrete advice about daily faith.  I found such yesterday in The Office of Readings:

We must come with pure faith to the Father of light and acknowledge him in our hearts.  We must ask him to give us through his Son, in the Holy Spirit a true knowledge of Jesus Christ,  and along with that knowledge a love of him.  Knowing and loving him in this way, confirmed in our faith and grounded in our love, we can know the length and breadth and depth and  height of sacred Scripture.

Lots of people tell me they want to learn more about the Bible.  It’s a beautiful thirst on their part.  But Before one can dive into Scripture study or any growth in the life of faith, really, we have to pray simply -as St. Bonaventure suggests- putting the whole enterprise in the hands of the Lord who is himself the origin of all faith.

It’s like a child learning to play the piano: he won’t be Beethoven overnight.  Even before the chords and arpeggios, there’s that most basic step of entrusting oneself to the guidance of the teacher…  and isn’t that where, so often, we miss a step? I know it is for me.

Just in the last month, living in a new parish with new challenges and very little staff support, I’ve had to carefully discipline myself to learn new processes, skills etc… The first step is always asking for help from a neighboring pastor, from the central office, from friends and professionals who’ve gone through it all before.  The hardest part is picking up the phone to make that call, but let me tell you it’s worth it.

Aquinas reminds us that virtue is not in the dreaming, in the intention “I want to be a Scripture scholar… I want to be Beethoven… I want to be a good parish priest…” but in the doing.  So I suppose my witness this morning would be this: all of Catholicism begins by getting on our knees and asking for help… “Just do it!” You’ll be grateful you did.

The artfulness of sledge hammers

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).

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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?

 

Beauty for its own sake

What do Toulouse-Lautrec, The Feast the Presentation and a doctor of Canon Law all have to do with one another?  No it’s not the start of a bad pulpit joke, it’s just my day today.

Today is, after all the feast of the Presentation.  It happened at the end of the days of purification; Mary and Joseph took the newborn Jesus to the Temple to present him to God the Father according to Law and custom.  Why?  Because they needed to?  Certainly not.  The eternal Jesus was already well-acquainted with his co-eternal Father… and Mary certainly needed no purification, having been preserved from original sin.  So why?  Because the Law was a beautiful thing, a gift from God beautiful in and of itself, worthy of observation…. in the same way that Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan to fulfill all righteousness.  It wasn’t “necessary,” it wasn’t “useful,” but it was worth doing.  Here we stumble upon the concept of aesthetics: doing the beautiful simply to do the beautiful.

Today at the Phillips Collection, I’ll be getting a sneak peek at their new exhibit “Toulouse-Lautrec Illustrates the Belle-Epoque”  The drawings of this famed French illustrator were not exactly high art in the vain of Michelangelo, but they are said to have captured the spirit of their time and place.  Like so many other works of, let’s call it “day-to-day” art, Toulouse Lautrec’s illustrations are still with us because they have a certain beauty all their own, irrespective of any usefulness.  One enjoys looking at them just for the sake of saying, “Wow, there are beautiful things in the world and man is part of them.”  Indeed, art – as an extension man – is an extension of the only creature on earth created for its own sake.  Man serves no useful purpose.  God did not need to make us to praise him.  He made us purely from love as an act of unadulterated non-utilitarian beauty.

Later in the day I’ll go to a mass of thanksgiving and farewell celebration for a friend of mine, Father James Bradley who departs these shores for his native England, doctorate of Canon Law in-hand.  Father Bradley is a master artist when it comes to music and his awareness the Church’s most sublime musical form, chant.  During his time in Washington, he’s brought a really luminous enthusiasm to so many masses, days of recollection and countless other encounters he’s been part of.  It’s not the kind of stuff we use on a daily basis… and in that sense not, useful… but to have been touched by it is to have experienced something of heaven.  I’m so grateful for my friend, his discipline and zeal.  Utilitarian, perhaps not (at least not by post-modern standards), but I feel closer to heaven for having experience his love of beauty for its own sake.

Looking at the world with eyes of faith, how much time do I spend experiencing beauty for its own sake?