The Bright Side of Mortification: More than DC Spin

Life in downtown DC is often marked by spin… as in putting a positive spin on everything, no matter what.  It’s become a tired tool of politicians, a nuisance to the average citizen. Looking at spin through eyes of faith though… one can draw some redeeming qualities from the concept.  In my last post, “When autumn leaves fall,” I mused on a classical concept of the spiritual life: mortification.  Yesterday, in the readings for mass, St. Paul advises the Romans (8:13), “if you mortify the ways of the flesh through the power of the Spirit, you will have life.”  In a seemingly curious pairing, the Gospel then has Jesus admonishing the synagogue leaders that it is indeed acceptable to heal on the sabbath (Lk 13:10-17).  Understanding the pairing of these two readings can help us find a healthy positive spin on mortification.  

The Jewish authorities we encounter in the Gospel had become cynical, jaded, and afraid.  I don’t think any of them woke up each day and decided to be that way.  Actually, if you think of it, there were lots of very natural, understandable reasons for it.  They had been, for centuries, a subjugated people.  First the Babylonians, then the Persians, the Greeks, then finally the Romans. While they had their own local “king” (Herod), he was a turncoat and Roman puppet.  As if being a conquered people wasn’t enough, their province was one of the poorest, most backwater regions of the Roman Empire.  Had God abandoned them?  Even in the leadership classes, daily existence must’ve been marked by fear, anxiety, cynicism and a host of other negative emotions.  And isn’t that precisely what Paul is referring to as, “the ways of the flesh” (opera corporis).  Typically, readers see that phrase and think of sexual morality, but it’s really broader than that.  The Knox translation of Romans actually phrases it, “the ways of nature,” which helps us gain a broader understanding.   

For human beings, bound to this earth, mortal… fear, anxiety, the “fight or flight” mentality is indeed the way of nature/the flesh… and this is the limit, the chain, from which Jesus came to set us free!   If that’s what was motivating the synagogue officials, then despite all their observances of the law, they weren’t really practicing mortification.  During Lent, one of the authors in the Office of Readings reminds us that the true goal of fasting must always be heaven itself; and likewise all forms of mortification.  Put another way: consider today’s Psalm 37 in the Office of Readings, “Do not fret because of the wicked; do not envy those who do evil: for they wither quickly like grass and fade like the green of the fields… If you find your delight in the Lord, he will grant your heart’s desire.”  Saint Paul continues the lesson in today’s mass reading (Rm 8:18), “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory revealed for us.”

In my own life, I find that certain fears and anxieties can be paralyzing, even tortuous.  They must be defeated if I’m going to move forward on the pilgrimage to heaven.  Most recently this came up with regard to a report I had to send downtown about our parish budget.  It was an honest statement about the cost of deferred maintenance on our grounds, and the current state of finances.  Worrying about it wasn’t doing me any good, wasn’t changing the situation… If anything it was hurting me: each time I tried to game out the possible outcomes it was like a lash on my back.  So I forced myself not only to send the report but to go over it with the whole parish council.  It was so liberating.  I don’t know what the outcome will be… probably much more bland than any of my fears would’ve suggested… but whatever happens, the monkey is off my back and I’m free to pray, and rejoice now, no matter what may come tomorrow.  I’ve got some other things rolling around in my prayers, long term stuff that’s been a weight on my shoulders for a couple of years actually.  I’ve always assumed these issues were crosses, but if Jesus carries the cross for us, then maybe the weight I’m feeling isn’t so much the cross as the fears and anxieties I’ve been holding on to.  Maybe mortification looks like, “letting go, and letting the dice fall where they may” (another phrase that’s been coming to me in prayer lately).  As with so much of the spiritual life, the answer is… “we’ll see.”

Is all of this DC Spin from a DC priest?  I don’t think so… I think it’s the Lord leading me to look at a classical Christian practice with renewed eyes of faith.  I hope you find it helpful.

As Autumn Leaves Fall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does the Freer Have to do with Laudato Si?

Over the last few weeks, the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery has reopened after an eighteen month restoration.  The Washington Post’s Philip Kennicott has done a fine review of the museum’s renewal.  While the Freer and its sister gallery, the Sackler, are most known for their impressive collections of Asian Art, the Freer began as the home of Charles Lang Freer’s personal collection.  It was, in fact, the Smithsonian’s first museum dedicated solely to art.  I’m a big fan of all the works in this gem of a museum, but as a confirmed old occidental, I have a soft spot for the Euro-American pieces by James M. Whistler and John Singer Sargent.  

On a recent visit to the Museum, I got reacquainted with Whistler and Sargent’s elegant portraiture, their brilliant Venetian sketches and oils… and a new group of paintings: Whistler’s Nocturnes.  Painting in industrial England, Whistler captured classic subject matter at an historical turning point: the industrial revolution.  His river scenes, captured at twilight (hence the title nocturne ) are sometimes called “dirty” oils because they appear to be grimy, filthy.  

In fact, there’s nothing wrong with Whistler’s paintings.  He accurately captured the world’s first major manifestation of smog.  Doing so, the artist captures in oil something of what Dickens achieved with words… the deep sense that a certain corruption now obscures the beauty of old England.  Sun and moon try their best to pierce the gloom of the new world order testifying to the perseverance of hope as eloquently as Bob Cratchet, Oliver, or Joe Gargery ever did.  Whether considering Whistler’s paintings or Dickens’ words what comes through is the human toll of unbridled economic revolution.  

In their day, Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum spoke up for the needs of the suffering.  Today, we are blessed with Pope Francis’ moral encyclical Laudato Si reminding us that we’re not just talking about a few rivers in England or the US.  Trade and economics have vastly expanded the impact of today’s industrial/technological advances.  No corner of the world is free from the effects, and the number of the poor negatively impacted by new economies has grown at a geometric rate.  Many think that Laudato Si is primarily about climate change; it’s not.  The document is about putting humanity at the heart of economic planning… which necessarily includes environmental awareness.  Call it, perhaps, ‘Industrial Moral Theology.’  

I’d encourage anyone who loves art, history, or climate awareness to stop in to the renovated Freer.  You won’t be disappointed… and perhaps the lessons of Whistler’s time can help all of us to make healthy decisions in the future.

II Timothy, The Sequel As Good as the Original!

Over the last week or so, I’ve been called back, over and over again, to Paul’s First Letter to Timothy (see some posts below). What can I say? I wanted more. So this morning I began praying with II Timothy… and in an all too rare sign of wonder, the sequel was just as good as the original!  
Paul is nearing the end of his life. Imprisoned at Rome, he’s writing to one of his favorite disciples, Timothy… possibly the bishop of Ephesus. He identifies Timothy right off the bat as, “his well beloved son.” (1:2). The circumstances of the letter convey the deep movements of Paul’s heart… How beautiful, to peer into the heart of an Apostle!  
We’re also given a privileged look into the relationship between Paul, Timothy… and Timothy’s family, as Paul traces his disciple’s spiritual lineage through his mother and grandmother’s faith: 

“I long to see thee again so as to have my fill of joy when I receive fresh proof of thy sincere faith. That faith dwelt in they grandmother Lois, and in they mother Eunice, before thee.” (1:4-5). 

These verses give me hope for the life of the Church in our parish. In our neighborhood, traditional family structure has been eviscerated. That structure has been under threat in every parish where I’ve served, but here it’s different. It’s not just a matter of semi-isolated divorces, as elsewhere… or young people rationalizing a reticence to marry… Here there’s very often a total apathy toward relationships, a desperation that plays out in broken/frayed family structures… and all too often a violence both physical and psychological that destroys all the people involved. The result is that when families try to pass on any sense of faith, it’s usually through a grandmother and mother. Timothy’s circumstances might not have been quite so tinged by violence, but cynicism was surely there… marriages were bartered business arrangements in the Roman world. Irreligion was a factor too as traditional Olympian worship broke down into doubting syncretism. Men were largely out of the picture, but Paul, and later Augustine refer frequently to the role women play in handing on spiritual as well as physical life to the next generation. Maybe we can build on that here.  

The second theme that catches my attention today is the power of personal influence. Here, I’m not just talking about winning friends in high places or any other such networking skills. I’m referring to communicating a wholistic truth through the whole range of who each of us is as a person. Paul brings up the issue in 2:14-16 as he reminds Timothy how to deal with false preachers:

“Bring this back to men’s thoughts, pleading with them earnestly in the Lord’s name; there must be no wordy disputes, such as can only unsettle the minds of those who are listening. Aim first at winning God’s approval… Keep thy distance from those who are bringing in a fashion of meaningless talk…”

That first part about “no wordy disputes,” is also rendered “arguments with words.” In the Latin, “Haec commone testificans coram Deo verbis non contendere.” Here, verbis can mean “by, with or based on words.” Obviously Paul isn’t dissing the use of language, but there’s more to communication than words. Have you ever had a discussion that devolved into an argument and realized that you lost sight of the actual issue… that really, what you were pursuing was victory, or even just the adrenaline high that came from the argument? Such dialogues are the stuff of every undergraduate debate I’ve ever witnessed, and far too many on major news outlets. Paul is telling us: don’t even jump into that arena, or you will have lost. IF on the other hand, in all things we aim at winning God’s approval…. then our whole being will testify to the truth of his Gospel and convince others. We see this all the time in those members of our lives who seem to “be above it all,” who maybe we think of as really, “transcending,” the rat race of earthly arguments. When we see someone who really works every day for God’s pleasure and not human victories, that person is instantly attractive and wins souls for the Gospel without firing a single verbal shot. Blessed Cardinal Newman spoke of this so eloquently in his Parochial and Plain Sermon #5: “Personal Influence as the Means of Propagating the Truth,”. I highly recommend googling and reading it. One caution: I’m not saying… andI don’t think Paul is saying… that we should never use words. Goodness knows anyone who wrote as many letters as Paul could never suggest such a thing. And the famous phrase, “Preach and if necessary use words,” does indeed apply here… HOWEVER, that phrase has been used and abused as a cop out from ever having to actually discuss the Gospel with anyone… Don’t fall into the trap. Use words… but use all our other forms of communication as well.
This brings us to the final inspiration St. Paul gave me this morning: the power of vocation.  
“That is why I would remind thee to fan the flame of that special grace which God kindled in thee, when my hands were laid upon thee.” (1:6)

Paul is speaking specifically about Timothy’s ordination at his hands, but the issue is no less true for any of the baptized who receive gifts of the Spirit by the laying on of hands, anointing with oil, and pouring of water in baptism. Here, the inspiration comes, as do the gifts, from without. “You did not choose me, but I chose you…” Jesus tells us (Jn 15:16). The gifts are HIS power in us, not our fallible, ultimately mortal strengths. If we stir into a flame the gifts of our baptismal/married/ordained vocations, nothing can stop us. We can move through life’s challenges with peaceful confidence. Paul reminds Timothy of this -in a way- in chapter 2:
“God’s foundation stone stands firm, and this is the legend on it, the Lord acknowledges none but his own; and again, let everyone who names the Lord’s name keep far from iniquity.” (2:19)

Paul is referring to the Roman custom of marking the foundation stones of temples and other major public buildings with the builders’ original intent. The marking or “legend” (also rendered, “seal”) preserved the building from misuse, or ineffective use. Likewise us. If we rely on our own gifts, our own sense of self-determination, then we will be ineffective at best, harmful at worst. But if we turn to our identity as belonging to God, written on the foundation stone he laid when he made us (see also Jer. 1:5) then we can’t go wrong.

I saw this play out beautifully yesterday when a blessed a poor man’s house. He’s a lovely simple soul, but got lost through a lot of life. He’s also complained that something at home has been preventing him from doing good or growing. He’s baptized… and so when I went with a missionary to his home yesterday, we prayed over him and blessed him and his apartment with holy water. I charged him to remember that he belongs to the Lord and nothing can change that. I laid hands on his head and prayed over him. When we finished, he was like a new man. He actually became light on his feet… sort of danced in place a bit and smiled. What happened was a two-fold action of blessing from without… and reminding from within… a visit down to the basement of the soul to re-read the foundation stone and rise up more confident and peaceful than before.  

These are just a few thoughts, reading II Timothy and the experiences of life with eyes of faith. I hope you find them edifying and pick up the Letter for your own prayer. Peace!


In today’s mass readings, St. Paul tells the Romans, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”  (Cf. Rom. 4:1-8).  Later, the Lord warns his followers, “Beware the leaven – that his, the hypocrisy – of the Pharisees (Lk. 12:1-7).  How might we look with eyes of faith at these readings and daily life?  

To begin with, belief, even under the best of circumstances can be really hard.  …and I mean believe in anything.  The strongest beliefs usually involve an intense credibility between the believer and the person proposing the belief.  Such credibility usually comes after a long relationship with ups and downs.  Our own life stories/history complicate things, as does trying to peer into the future, “What will the consequences of this belief be for how I live?”  Belief is, perhaps, hardest when involves total lack of control… as in, “I believe that everything will turn out ok.”  So, indeed, the fact that Abraham believed God would bring him across the desert to the Promised Land… and give him a vast lineage in his old age… the fact that Abraham believed was truly credited to him as righteousness.  

At the other end of the spectrum are the Pharisees who had sold out.  Those who should’ve believed in, hoped for, looked for the coming of the heavenly Kingdom could not recognize it when they appeared in Jesus.  Rather, they sought a lesser peace, founded on fear, collaborating with the authorities of the Roman Empire.  Nowhere is this more obvious than the trial of Jesus (Lk. 22-23).  

Most of us exist somewhere between the Pharisaical fear and Abrahamic Faith.  I know that reading these texts this morning, I couldn’t quite place myself.  I really have no clue what the future holds for the parish where I serve, but I know God wants people there to get to heaven.  “Lord, how will we overcome our obstacles?  Lord, are you there?  Is there hope?  I do believe Lord… help my unbelief.”  

To avoid getting stuck in the challenges of belief, always contemplate… then act.  Today’s saint, Paul of the Cross, is a great example for us.  Paul founded the Passionist Fathers, whose yearly existence is instructive.  The Passionists spend several months each year living as contemplatives, observing a rigorous monastic schedule before returning to active ministry for the remaining months of the year.  What a witness!  A great example is Passionist father, Bl. Dominic Barberi.  Dominic was an Italian theologian fascinated by the beginnings of the Oxford Movement in the Anglican Church.  Traveling to England (which was not a terribly welcoming place for Catholics or non-English speakers at the time), Dominic began to learn about budding converts at Oxford.  Preaching one day in pouring rain, holding his passionis cross high in the air, he was spied by a young John Henry Newman.  Newman had set a little test for God.  He was so close to becoming Cathoic, but needed a little push to put him over the edge.  He said, “If I could but see a holy priest preaching with the cross, I would convert.”  Newman saw Fr. Barberi and was (along with two friends) received by him into the Church.  Barberi had no idea when he left Italy that his mission to England would not only enhance the Oxford Movement, but give spiritual birth to one of the greatest theologians of the last five hundred years.  Contemplation led to belief… belief to action… action to the fulfillment of God’s plan.  

Lord, I do believe… fill me with a contemplative Spirit… help my unbelief, and move me to be your instrument though another day. Amen.

What’s in an antiphon?

Usually, the inspirations I draw, “the Word I receive,” (to use a more charismatic turn of phrase) from the Divine Office come from the Psalms, or readings.  This morning, however, the Lord touched me through one of the antiphons… one of those refrains at the beginning and end of each section of the Office for the day.  While not the substance of the Office, the antiphons are, nonetheless part of the sacred text, and usually drawn from Scritpture.  When the Office was regularly sung, their tunes and words often became major sources of inspiration for the saints.

 “I will sing to you O Lord.  I will learn from you the way of perfection.”  Today’s antiphon for the first psalm  exclaims.  Lord, the last few weeks have been trying… and will continue to be, but you ARE present in the midst of it all, teaching me a way of perfection.  On me retreate you blessed me, showing me the way to forgiveness.  There was someone I’ve had a hard time forgiving… literally for years at this point, and YOU Lord, your Spirit finallly led me to forgive.  Maybe I couldn’t actively do it myself, but in the silence of stepping back, you did in me, what I could not do myself.  You showed me a way of perfection.  

Coming home, I entered into a swirl of activities that physically and mentally exhausted me, but Lord, we got through it.  You showed me a way of Peace… a way of surrender to let you manage everything I could not… and somehow the sun kept on rising, until things calmed down… it happens every morning when I sit before your Blessed Sacrament in a way of silence, peace and perfection.

We are short staffed, short of funds, but you sent Fr. Michael to tell me about that book he read by Archbishop Kurtz about a “theology of abundance.”  Kurtz reminds us that we do have everything we need for mission in a given circumstance… ‘reminds me of St. Teresa of Avila who said, “Why do you assume the riches God gives you aren’t exactly what you need?”  And indeed, over the last week some new people have showed up for prayer, for blessings, for mass.  They were not touched by buildings or by riches, but by your Word of Hope.  Will they come back?  I don’t know, but maybe that wasn’t the task this week.  Maybe the task was to touch their lives just once here.  St. Philip reminds me that we are to be a small reinforcement at just the right time in just the right place that contributes to winning the battle.  A way of abundance, a way of perfection.

“Lead kindly light” in the way of perfection until one day I pray I might reach the perfection of eternal rest in you.  -Amen

A Glimpse of Life and Hope in Southeast DC

Being Led by the Blind
A Personal Witness

Rev. Vincent J. De Rosa

“Dramatic contrasts can evoke dramatic responses,” I think as a single tear wells up rolling down my face.  “I’m in the shower for goodness sake.  I’m at home… at rest after a morning of visits around the neighborhood.  Why the tear?”  I ask, almost rhetorically, because I think I know the answer.  My bathroom in the rectory was cleaned this morning.  The air is crisp with bleach and fabric softener.  Black and white tiles are cool and smooth to the touch.  A newly opened bar of soap is fresh as only a brand new bar can be.  At the sink, steam rises from my shaving bowl.  It’s scented with eucalyptus from the shaving soap.  With every stroke of the blade my skin feels cleansed but my heart is heavy.  Dramatic contrast evokes dramatic responses.

As I mentioned, I spent the morning visiting some of our neediest neighbors.  They’re lovely people I’ve met through a group of young Catholic missionaries here in the parish.  Normally I get home feeling tired, but renewed by the process; today renewal is taking longer.  I’ve been amazed by the warm, hospitable response from these good folks when I – a total stranger – arrive at their homes.  Taking my cues from the missionaries who’ve been at this for years, I help carry simple groceries or other sundries.  Usually, I carry holy water for house blessings, a small New Testament in my pocket for Scripture reading.  Other than that all we bring is good will and prayer.  Today we visited a woman I’ve met a few times.  I omit her name as a matter of discretion.  She lives in what can only be described as squalor.

Tenement Neighborhoods in DC before WWII

Approaching her semi-basement apartment, we never enter through the front door/hallway.  Whenever I ask why, the missionaries just tell me, “Trust us, it’s better this way.”  We go around back to the sliding door.  You have to climb over a safety rail and down into the submerged patio, the descent eased with the help of a broken down aluminum folding chair standing in for a ladder.  “Sliding glass” door is somewhat of a misnomer, so jammed are its tracks, its window so obscured by neglect.  Vertical blinds, once pearl white, are stained an acrid yellow.  What furniture there is doesn’t so much “sit” in the apartment as it “remains…” the couch veritably collapsed on itself.  Generations of stereo speakers pile high in the corner behind mysterious bags of clothing and household goods long since ruined by flooding and vermin infestation.  With a smile… a genuine smile… our hostess welcomes us to her home.

She’s happy for the company and looks forward to us reading the Bible to her.  We have to read it to her because she’s blind.  Born with sight, she lost her vision after multiple drug-involved abusive relationships with men from the area.  It’s been a long road for this lady so simple and pleasant.  Over time I discover that things have settled down for her.  She pays her own rent, supports her grandchildren as best she can and, “trusts all to Jesus” (her words).

A vista from Southeast DC today

From the back of the apartment I hear something stir.  A young woman emerges.  Dressed in hip-hop apparel, she never glances up from her phone.  Our hostess tells her that we’ve come to visit and read the Bible.  The young woman isn’t a niece, or grandchild.  She’s a city-sponsored in-home aide.  Excusing herself the aide slips out the sliding glass door, up the chair to the parking lot and her car.  There she sits in the passenger seat, heavily reclined, phone-in-hand, spending the next twenty minutes smoking weed; a sinuous yellow cloud carries on the breeze into the apartment where we read the Gospel.

After the reading and some prayers, we find out that our hostess’ mom is in the hospital.  We offer to drive her there for a visit.  Our hostess is happy for the opportunity.  Shuffling into her room, she sits on the floor… a carpet that was once – I think – blue, now charcoal grey with stains… There she digs through piles of boxes and bags for her shoes.  She doesn’t want help.  There’s nothing unusual about this for her, why would she need assistance?  With surprising ease, she ascends the folding chair and climbs over the safety rail to reach our car waiting for her in the lot.  Calling to the aide, several cars over, she tells her where she’s going.  The aide is still occupied, a burning cigarette in one hand, a young man now in the other.  They are not to be disturbed.

On the way to the hospital I prodded a little to find out what our hostess’ care arrangements look like.  She began a long catalog of in-home-aides who have abused her verbally, or simply by neglect.  Likewise her landlord.  Over the last several months a macabre menagerie has been discovered: mice behind the oven, birds in the HVAC, roaches under the carpet… and all of them dead.  It has been – I discover – six months since a pro-bono lawyer began legal proceedings against the landlord…. and longer than that, I’m confident, since the situation reached so sad a depth.

Even the alleys on Capitol Hill (2 miles from SE DC) are treated better than people’s homes here.

Entering the United Medical Center in SE DC is like walking into most other hospitals with one marked exception.  Instead of kindly volunteers greeting you at the desk, you find armed …and armored… police checking your ID.  On the way in, I’m greeted by several local Catholics who see my collar. One grabbed my hand.  She resisted my initially frightened recoil.  A split second later I was glad for her grip.  She hugged my hand close to her cheek and put it on her head. “Pray over me.  Bless me,” she begged.  She wasn’t crazy, she truly wanted Jesus’ blessing.  Catching up with my friends, we found our hostess’ mother.  I’d met this kind old woman several times in her own home.  We prayed together. I recited some verses of comfort from the Scriptures and blessed her.  I asked both women how they were feeling.  Their response surprised me, “Blessed.  We know Jesus is with us.”  When I asked them how they knew that, the answer almost knocked me over, “because y’all ‘always visitin’ us.”  We left the two women to themselves, and departed: my missionary friend to his work, me to the Rectory, where a pile of emails waits for me even as I recount this story.

I had to clean up when I got home…to rinse the smell of marijuana from myself… but as I stared in the mirror, a stainless steel razor gleaming in my hand, I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed by the contrast.  Dramatic contrasts can evoke dramatic responses.  Our parish survives on very little.  I’ve sliced the budget every way I can to make ends meet supported by our tiny community (150 people / Sunday), but even amidst that simplicity, everything here is clean.  People are respectful of each other and of strangers.  They greet each other with a smile, an embrace.  Here, as the Psalmist says, the Lord has strengthened the bars of our gates and blessed the children within us, established peace on our borders and fed us with finest wheat (Cf Ps 147).  Most of the people I meet on these Friday visits will never escape poverty.  The more I see here in Southeast, the more I am convinced that you could give everyone in Wards 7 and 8 a pile of money and within a short time they’d be back where they started.  What I’ve also seen is that whether or not they join us sacramentally (I’m currently working with a few people who’ve expressed real interest in conversion), they know by our missionary work that God has not abandoned them, and so they are not afraid.  Having received that hope, whether they know it or not, they pass it back to me with each visit…  To me, that exchange is what St. John Paul II was all about when he said, “Be not afraid!”  It’s what Pope Benedict had in mind when he penned, Spe Salvi, and certainly what Pope Francis has in mind as he directs us to the margins of our all too disposable society.  So, for as much as I helped lead a blind woman today, I find myself led by her as well.

“Otherwise God’s name will be ill spoken of…”

The end of this week brings us to the end of I Timothy, Paul’s beautiful and practical letter to one of his successors, St. Timothy, about how to be a bishop.  Chapter 6 picks up on some themes I considered two posts ago from Philippians 4:

I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry, of living in abundance and of being in need.  I can do all things in him who strengthens me.

 But I Tim 6 touches on these themes in a way that may not makes us very comfortable.

Those who are bound to slavery must treat their masters as entitled to all respect; otherwise God’s name and our doctrine will be ill spoken of.

Is this a tacit endorsement of slavery?  By no means… Ironically, it’s actually Paul and the early Christian community laying hold to true freedom!  

Paul knows that whether the issue is slavery, food, physical health, persecution… whatever, wide open… there will always be something making this world a valley of tears.  In the end it must be so.  Even if we built a perfect city on earth, there would still be death.  And if that basic axiom of science, “All living things die,” is to be believed, then the larger issue is, “how do we deal with death?”  And that is what Christian doctrine is all about.  That is why Paul admonishes slaves to treat their masters with respect: because in their given state of life, however horrible it may be, that is the ultimate sacrifice and thus the one worthy of being joined to Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, the path to true eternal freedom in heaven.  Paul speaks to his heavenward orientation a little further on.  He warns us about false preachers who puff themselves up, using “speculation and controversy”  and lose track of the truth (cf I Tim 6:3-5).  Religion, they think, will provide them with a living.  And indeed, religion is ample provision for life, though no more than a bare sufficiency goes with it.” (I Tim 6:6-7).  That distinction between making “a living,” (read “salary”) and providing for “life,” (read: “the existence of the soul”) is what it’s all about.

If Jesus is indeed, the Risen Lord… and he is… and if that’s is the kernel of what he came to achieve for us: Resurrection.  Then whatever our state in life (no more Jew or Gentile, no more slave and freeman, no more male and female; you are all one person in Christ Jesus Gal. 3:28), we are called to embrace total sacrifice with him, “otherwise God’s name and our doctrine will be ill spoken of.”  Or, put another way: we will have made a liar of God… Material circumstances, the world, the saeculum, will have won; and our souls, and the souls of many others, will fall for lack of belief in his Hope.  Preferisco Paradiso!

Which people will I be part of today?

Washington has been abuzz this week with talk of the MLB Playoffs.  Our Nationals played, and lost, against the Chicago Cubs.  It was a fine series by any account, and there’s no shame losing in game five.  All the adversarial talk that has come up… all the “Us vs. Them” conversations… and of course the larger context of, “Is DC as championship team?”… All of this comes to mind as I read the first reading for today’s mass.  It’s from the first two chapters of the Book of Joel.  As a plague of locusts ravages the Kingdom of Judah, Joel sees in their arrival portents of a larger struggle: the end of the world.  A brief excerpt from Chapter 2 follows:

Blow the horn in Zion, sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming! Yes, it approaches, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of thick clouds! Like dawn spreading over the mountains, a vast and mighty army! Nothing like it has ever happened in ages past, nor will the future hold anything like it, even to the most distant generations.

What struck me was the simile at the end, “Like dawn spreading over the mountains, a vast and mighty army.”  Now, that’s the Lectionary translation.  The New American Bible says, “a mighty people,” closer to the Latin, “populus multus et fortis.”  Who are these people?

Normally when we read prophecy, we associate ourselves with the prophet’s audience; a natural association given we are listening to him.  But… there’s nothing to say we can’t change… or better yet, convert.  Indeed, isn’t that what every prophet dreams of: that his listeners should listen well and convert?  Will we be part of the conquered, destroyed, judged, people on whom this “populus multus et fortis” marches like the dawn?  Or will we be on God’s side today?  

I asked the same question in prayer about two weeks ago when the Church was listening to the words of another prophet, Ezekiel… in the Office of Readings I think, it was… the prophet warns the wicked shepherds of Israel about their selfish neglect of the sheep.  Paralleled by St. Augustine’s Sermon on Pastors warning the priests of the Church, it’s hard to read such prophecies, such warnings and not feel accused.  To be sure, a priest, a shepherd has to tend his flock… must always grow in that vocation… But then I read Ez. 34:11-12 “For thus says the Lord God: I myself will look after my sheep.  As a shepherd tends his flock when he finds himself among his scattered sheep, so will I tend my sheep.”  On the one hand I am a shepherd, but I’m also one of God’s sheep… and he promises to support me, care for me, just as much as any of the rest.  AND… if I recommit myself to being one of his sheep, maybe, just maybe he’ll give me what I need to be a better shepherd.

Reading the Old Testament prophets, it’s worthwhile to ask the question, “Which people will I be part of today?”

Paradise and the missing verses

Gospel simplicity and poverty have been on my mind lately.  A few significant expenses in September reduced our operating account to a level that… well, let’s just say it doesn’t inspire much confidence.  Over and over, in conversations with the parish accountant, both of us utter the refrain, “There’s really not much more we can cut.”  Meanwhile, a parish employee has indicated a need to step back from work for a time, throwing the delicate balance of our rectory’s functioning into a degree of uncertainty. It’ll sound strange, but the thing that worries me the most about this employee’s absence is, “who will be here to receive UPS packages.  It may seem odd, but sometimes these are essential items, documents etc. that require signatures lest they go back to their senders.  On how little can a modern parish function?  There are some good things beginning to happen here: the growth of our outreach to the poor, students in our school are doing well, as it enrollment… so much potential that, with just a little more help might come to great fruition.  

Lord, is this a test?  Not just of me your poor servant, but of our community… of the very concept of trusting in you, rather than in our own plans??  …and yet Lord, you have made us cooperators in your own plans.  Surely our thoughts and input must figure in to the mix somewhere?!?!

Preparing for Sunday’s masses (28th week, Ordinary Time) I read from Philippians 4:12-14, 19-20.  I wondered what the missing verses said.  Here is the whole quotation, with verses 15-18 included in italics:

I know indeed how to live in humble circumstances; I know also how to live with abundance. In every circumstance and in all things I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry, of living in abundance and of being in need.  I have the strength for everything through him who empowers me.  Still, it was kind of you to share in my distress.  You Philippians indeed know that at the beginning of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, not a single church shared with me in an account of giving and receiving, except you alone.  For even when I was at Thessalonica you sent me something for my needs, not only once but more than once.  It is not that I am eager for the gift; rather, I am eager for the profit that accrues to your account.  I have received full payment and I abound. I am very well supplied because of what I received from you through Epaphroditus, “a fragrant aroma,” an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God.  My God will fully supply whatever you need, in accord with his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.  To our God and Father, glory forever and ever. Amen.
For me, this morning, the missing verses do a few things.  First, they intensify the sense of Paul’s total reliance on and confidence in God.  Second, these verses educate us all about what generosity is all about… It’s about taking part in making an “acceptable sacrifice to God,” that, “accrues,” as Paul says, to our benefit in heaven.  
Whether it’s my own people giving, or a new revenue stream/donor being found, today’s missing verses remind me that ultimately, keeping our parish up and running (in the traditional sense) is only a means to a larger end: getting to heaven.  And if those revenues don’t materialize, and I need to do with less staff, less AC/Heat in the Rectory, or whatever the case may be be, then that too will become a gift, a “fragrant aroma,” acceptable to God for the salvation of parishioners’ souls… and maybe even my own.  

So Lord, it’s all in your hands.  And we forsake all other possible destinations and stops along the way, preferring a direct road to heaven itself.  “Preferisco paradiso.”