The Christmas Comforts of Formality

Growing up I remember visiting the homes of friends of our family, many of whom were (even in the 1980’s) off the boat Italian immigrants. There were so many characteristics to our visits. There were torrents of hugs and kisses from which you could not escape. There were heavy accents and unfamiliar terms thrown around in our Neapolitan dialect. There were mounds of brightly colored candies, tiny bottled fruit drinks and other imported delicacies fresh from the local salumeria (Italian deli). There were also, most amazing of all, TWO of every room in the house. There was the regular entrance through the garage or back door, and there was the formal entrance that no one ever seemed to use. There was the day-to-day kitchen, often in the basement, and there was the formal marble clad, top of the line equipped kitchen upstairs… that we never went to. There was the rickety dining table and well-worn couch downstairs in front of the TV, and there was the formal set upstairs… a wedding gift from years ago never to be sat on, wrapped (think “Everyone Loves Raymond”) in clear plastic slip covers to preserve the damasked cushions. As Ray Romano once quipped, “Everything in my mother’s house is for an event that will never happen. She’s waiting for either the Pope, Frank Sinatra, or Tony Danza to visit.”

Years later I learned that this wan’t the whole story. The formal rooms were used a few times a year: Christmas, Easter, family events like weddings, etc. They were aspirational rooms that proclaimed, “We have arrived, and on our best days this is who we are.” There is something strangely comfortable about the formal.

All this came flooding back as I walked the streets of Charleston two weeks ago. For those here in DC: Charleston is like a genetically enhanced version of Georgetown. Rambling cobblestone streets go on for blocks without end… beautiful waterfront vistas, and gardens that easily overflow their appointed boundaries… all these characterize this elegant place. So does this: formal classical architecture. Everywhere there are Greek columns, church steeples, fine wrought iron gates. If the Roman Forum ever moved to the South, it could be Charleston. For all the formality, though, Charleston is a very comfortable city to walk around. I’d even go so far as to say that it is a comforting city to explore. I found myself relaxing more and more with each step. How can the formal be comforting?

Basic Platonic philosophy tells us that the material world we inhabit draws its structure and being from a spiritual realm of “forms.” If I draw a circle on paper, my imperfect rendering is based on the perfect “form” of a circle that exists in the “formal” realm. There are no perfect dogs on earth, but all dogs participate in the common and perfect “form” of dog ever present in the “formal” realm. Any given thing on this earth will be happiest as it more and more deeply participates in its ideal form. So the more carefully I draw a circle, the better and the happier it will be. A strong, healthy, more perfect dog will be happier than a fat, lazy one.

Aristotle and Aquinas showed that Platonic philosophy has its limits, but from this topic of “forms,” I think we can all draw some useful wisdom. I’d propose that Charleston is a “happy,” comfortable and comforting city because it strives to incarnate forms. Charleston didn’t have to be built on neo-classical Greco-Roman forms. They could’ve built a city of gothic forms or Buddhist forms, but the great efforts of the city fathers to fulfill their chosen forms as perfectly as possible makes the buildings, streets, and maybe even the people happy as they bask in the reflected glow of the forms… a taste of heaven on earth. Likewise all those wonderful Italian families in their “formal” sitting rooms. On those special days when they worked extra hard at being the best versions of themselves they could be happiest, most at ease in “formality.”

Philippians 2:6 tells us that Jesus is the “form of God” (L. Forma Dei). Indeed we know from the whole Gospel that he is the fullness of the Revelation of the Father (Jn 14:9). Insofar as we are made in the image and likeness of God, Jesus is our form. Even Pilate stumbled on this truth when he proclaimed “behold the man.” (Ecce homo) (Jn 19:5). At Christmas all of Creation rejoiced as the perfection of human form took flesh and dwelt among us. What does all this teach us? It teaches us that for the Christian, formality doesn’t have to be about staid discomfort. It can be about a closer and closer resemblance to heaven, in which we revel in a deeper and deeper relationship with Jesus, thus becoming better, happier versions of ourselves until one day our bodies are raised with his, “in a more glorified form,” to be one with him forever. This we call conversion. This we call the beauty of the forms.

Why bother to be better?

Some months ago, I attended a funeral at another parish. The Pastor reminded congregants and visitors that at the end of time, all of Creation will be recapitulated to God in in Christ; that is to say everything will be part of God again after “passing inspection” with Jesus. Jesus will, in that judgment-moment send on to his Father all that has been purified, and he will burn away anything that refuses the goodness of God. He will present to the Father a “spotless bride,” (cf. Revelation). The Pastor’s assessment is right in line with yesterday’s readings for Christ the King. Consider these words from Ezekiel 34, “I myself will give them rest, says the Lord GOD. The lost I will seek out, the strayed I will bring back, the injured I will bind up, the sick I will heal, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy, shepherding them rightly.” He’s not “thinking” about doing it. He’s not saying, he “may” do it… He “will“. It’s going to happen. Using somewhat more apocalyptic terms, the second reading (I Cor 15:20-28) reinforces the point. What that means for those who try, those who give him an inch, is that there is great hope of making it into purgatory: that state of being wherein Jesus purges us of all that is unworthy of the image and likeness of God to which we are called. Throughout the Gospel, but especially in yesterday’s reading (Mt 25:31-46) we learn how to do that purging here on earth where (believe it or not) it will actually be easier on us: feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit/free the captive. In short, be a people of radical self-donation. Here we face a challenge: Why bother to grow? Granted, the experience of the saints tells us that purging ourselves during our relatively short stay here on earth is easier than that indeterminate time afterwards… but humans are disposed to ignore such warnings, aren’t we? After all, if I only need to give Jesus an inch on earth so that he’ll do the rest later… why bother?Our Protestant neighbors came up with a solution to this quandary: they got rid of purgatory. Be good on earth…or else. More precisely: be perfect on earth… or else. Therefore, don’t drink, don’t dance, don’t even consider fornicating… or else. It’s a simple formula. It conforms to basic human logic… and taking concupiscence into account it seems to make sense… for a moment. After all, who can be perfect on this earth? Who, in the midst of fallenness can be worthy of heaven? It’s an impossible standard. It also presents God as fickle: I will be your God and you will be my people… unless you make a single mistake… in which case, maybe I’ll forgive you. Ultimately this view cracks up under the weight of of its own inconsistencies. It is unworthy of Scripture, unworthy of the God who self-defines as LOVE and MERCY… leaving us with the same question: why should I bother to grow/improve on this earth?The answer presented us by Christ the King is this, “Love.” When you saw that special someone across the gymnasium floor at your high school dance… that someone whose name you couldn’t stop reciting… that someone to whom you wrote silly poems or for whom you saved up money for flowers… you didn’t do all that because the whips of hell compelled you. You did it because her beauty drew you to change, drew you to work harder, drew you to be worthy of her. Jesus our King, the lover of our souls, is no different. Looking upon the Cross, perceiving the beauty of his self-gift for our sake… Or, likewise, looking on him in the crib at Bethlehem, considering his supreme humility, “God became a vulnerable baby.” Aren’t our hearts bowled over by the beauty of it… Doesn’t it make us desire to change? It’s about love, it’s about beauty. These are the conquering tools by which Christ becomes our King, until the Theo-drama of life reaches its longed for end in the fullness of his Kingdom, heaven. As we come to the end of Ordinary Time and begin Advent next Sunday, look often upon the Cross, look often upon the crib, and you won’t need to be beaten into heaven… You’ll find yourself running their with all your might.

The Integrity of Travel

What is it about travel that is so liberating?

I’m away from DC, just for two or three days. Tomorrow I witness the wedding of a lovely young couple I’ve been working with. As many DC brides and grooms do, they’ve decided to wed in a place mutually inconvenient to both families, but thoroughly charming: Charleston, South Carolina. Late Thursday morning I threw my suitcase in the trunk, climbed into my car and sped up the B/W Parkway to the airport. The road seemed smoother under the wheels, the engine seemed to respond more intuitively than usual. Even the fall breeze seemed to cooperate blowing me up the highway to the airport. I say, “seemed,” because of course the road was just as pockmarked as ever by cracks, potholes and patches. The cosmos didn’t actually make the wind blow in my direction. Nonetheless, don’t you find that travel brings with it a wonderful sense of liberation? On the streets of Washington, speaking to strangers is a cautious exercise driven more by necessity than desire…and yet, waiting in line to board the plane it’s so easy. What’s going on?

When we travel we leave our cares (most of them, anyway) behind. My broken boiler is 457 miles away (I googled it). Certain issues, even in the age of mobile communications, just can’t reach you on the road. Travel is also somewhat purpose-based: “I need to get from point A to point B.” Focusing on one thing relaxes the mind. Achieving it gives satisfaction.

Looking at the experience through eyes of faith, it all adds up to a certain sense of integritas. As Bishop Barron explained to our priests last week, and he picking up on themes of St. Thomas Aquinas, integritas has to do with being about one thing…one core principle around which all others are harmoniously ordered. In common parlance we get shadows of this when we talk about integrity. A person of integrity organizes his behavior cohesively around a central idea like fairness, love, mercy…etc. While I wouldn’t recommend it, there is even a certain integrity to the stereotypical greedy corporate leader. It’s not pleasant, but one can reasonably predict his actions based on the principle of “greed first.” Everything orbits around that core.

In the Christian life a retreat or pilgrimage gives participants a concentrated dose of the integrity one enjoys while traveling. Travel gives a general sense of purpose… A retreat/pilgrimage specifies our purpose, the core of our integrity: “I am all about my relationship with Christ for these days of retreat/pilgrimage.”

Returning home we try our best to keep the high going. We resolve to live a greater sense of la bella vita like the Italians, or to slow life down like our countrymen here in the South. If we’ve been visiting family, we strive to bring back with us a sense that in DC we are not alone. There are folks back at home who love us. We hope against hope that each of these memories or resolutions will improve life by an order of magnitude. Usually, though, our growth is incremental. The wheel of fortune spins and we get dragged from the peaceful center back out to the chaotic edge… Well, maybe not quite all the way back out to the edge.

One final thought. I always keep this in mind on my day off, and it seems particularly appropriate here… I have to remind myself that people pay a lot of money and go to great efforts to visit Washington. We are a destination as desirable as Charleston or Paris. That means that others touch on that beautiful human integrity in our own home town just as we do in theirs. Might we be able to do likewise?

Why Get Huge When You Can Get Small?

I’ve heard it said that the gym, particularly regimented gyms like “CrossFit,” is the post-modern temple. It’s a communal entity that requires discipline aimed at human flourishing, and co-members will call each other on it if they’re not seen at their regular devotions. ‘Not a bad argument by any stretch, though it may credit a little too much altruism to gym-goers. Regular exercise at the gym does make us feel better… and -speaking at least from a male point of view- who doesn’t want to have a friend or colleague compliment, “Dude, you’ve gotten huge!” It’s a somewhat more Nietzschian view, but the gym-as-post-modern-church strikes me as a place where we overcome adversity by “getting huge,” whether that means simply getting an endorphin high, or exorcising our frustrations etc. on the bench press or treadmill. I’m not saying that there is no truly Christian approach to exercise, but given the secular circumstances in which we live, I think the gym as training ground for the uber-mensch isn’t so far off the mark. But… has “getting huge” ever actually eliminated a person’s frustrations?

Why get huge when you can get small?

A brother priest and veteran pastor once told me, “When problems get big, we need to get small.” He was referring to a Theresian (of Lisieux) spirituality of doing the small things in front of you perfectly for God, and letting him handle the rest. After all, you can only do so much… control so much in your life. Put another way, St. Philip Neri used to say, “It is enough that you should avoid sin,” and “Be good, if you can.” Neither Philip nor Therese was suggesting a fatalistic approach… nor were they suggesting we resign ourselves to where we’re at, never to grow again… but sometimes getting back to basics, withdrawing from a battle in which we’ve lost our way, is the best way to win in the long term.  
I’m particularly inspired by this morning’s Office of Readings. The author, an anonymous second century priest, reminds us, “…in order to obtain eternal life, we must remain pure and keep the seal of our baptism undefiled.” Later, the Responsory pointed me to read Ezekiel 18, which reinforced the point beautifully. Sometimes continual unexamined growth (i.e. getting huge) goes wild… sends us in unintended even unhealthy directions. Returning to fundamentals makes us happier and equips us to move forward in the right direction.  
In some ways this is a participation in the evangelical virtue of poverty, on which I meditated a few posts ago. It was certainly the experience of St. Philip: unsure how to grow in his native Florence, he left home to “get huge” working for a wealthy uncle in Gaeta. But he found no real happiness in mercantile life. Disappointing his uncle (who had no heir) and shocking the rest of the family, Philip left everything and went to Rome. He returned to basics, cleared the decks… working for his bread, and praying with the Scriptures, he found Christ, the true compass of his life. Philip went on to become such an incredible evangelist that he was accorded the title, “Apostle of Rome,” shared with only two other saints, Peter and Paul! Why get, huge when you can get small?
For myself, this concept has become a daily guide. Priestly life has been topsy-turvy for reasons far beyond my control, so I’ve been trying to return to basics: pray, confess, celebrate sacraments, preach… and let God handle the rest. He hasn’t make me a vast community organizer, nor an engineer, nor a financial wiz… maybe he will one day, but for now he’s made me his poor servant and priest. The more I fulfill that tiny role the happier I’ll be and the more (in the end) I’ll contribute to the building up of his Kingdom.  

Staying at the Center of the Wheel

Yesterday, at our priest convocation, Bishop Robert Barron spoke beautifully on the theme of encountering Christ.  One image he used was of the Rota Fortunae, a medieval “wheel of fortune” image found in many gothic cathedrals.  The wheel typically has Jesus at its center.  Spinning around him is the image of a king who is variously “ruling,” “falling from power,” “mortified,” and “rising to power with ambition.”  The wheel is sometimes spun by an allegorical image of Fortune herself.  Bishop Barron reminded us that for all Christians, and especially for priests, the place to be is at the center, at peace with Christ.  The wheel portrays the foolishness of ambition (a king, it’s chosen character), but ambition isn’t the only thing that pulls us to that precarious outer edge of the wheel.  Anxiety can… losing perspective can.

A really crazy week last week had me pretty spun up.  Everything that happened was a good thing (a wedding, a funeral, traveling around the city giving spiritualdirection, spending time with the poor), but it was physically exhausting.  Then it happened: the church boiler decided to die just in time for the first 32-degree weekend of the year.  The great irony (and this is soooo like Jesus) is that getting freaked out about what this means for our parish is the least Christ-like thing to do right now.  Given the stories I hear from the needy of the neighborhood, from the unemployed guys sitting in the park, and even from the kids in my school, the challenges of moving mass into the school gym for a few weeks really isn’t that big a deal.  So I return to the chapel, chilly as it may be, and kneel before the tabernacle… comforted, quieted, and yes…even warmed by another encounter with Jesus. Preferisco Paradiso!

If you need some extra help, consider this prayer to my patron St. Philip Neri:

My holy Advocate, Saint Philip, thou whose heart was so serene in the midst of adversity, whose spirit was so devoted to suffering, thou who when thou wast persecuted by the envious, or calumniated by the wicked who sought to discredit thee, or sorely tried by Our Lord with many persistent and painful maladies, didst endure it all with an admirable tranquility of heart and mind; obtain for me also the spirit of fortitude in all the tribulations of this life. Thou seest how perturbed and indignant I become at every light affliction, how angry and resentful at every insignificant contradiction, and how unable I am to remember that the cross is the only way to paradise. Obtain for me perfect patience and readiness like thine in carrying the crosses which Our Lord daily gives me to carry, so that I may be made worthy to rejoice with thee in our eternal reward in heaven.

Why keep giving?  Because it’s what we are built for.

This past Sunday’s readings never fail to make priests quake in their boots.  Through the Prophet Malachi, and then directly in the Gospel, our Lord chides the priests of the Old Covenant for not keeping his ways, not giving glory to his name, and most of all for looking to their own status instead of the needs of God’s people.  In the Gospel, from Matthew 23, Jesus’ admonition comes as a last ditch effort call to conversion, just before his arrest and Crucifixion.  Since, under the new covenant we have not only a ministerial priesthood [of the ordained], but also a royal priesthood [of the lay-faithful], we all do well to listen to Jesus’ words.  

As I’ve mused before, the priests of Jesus’ day probably didn’t wake up with villainous scowls on their faces, thinking from first light, “How can we be selfish today?”  Nor do priests, nor do most lay people today in 21st-century DC.  If we’re going to learn and grow we need to look a little deeper than that simplistic image.  The religious leadership of Jesus’ time was deeply afraid: afraid of rebellion among their own people, afraid of Roman occupation, afraid of losing their own position or even their lives.   Can’t we see similar issues among our people today?  Among the priests, we do, we truly do ask the important questions, “How can I follow the heart of Jesus more faithfully today?”  “How can I introduce others to that Sacred heart?”  But it can’t be denied that other more terrestrial questions cloud our attention: “Will this Sunday’s collection pay the bills?”  “Will the government make life easier or harder for the Church?”  “Will the Chancery come down on me because of that homily I gave?”  Etc. etc….  For the faithful too, exercising their royal-priesthood in the world, there are fears and anxieties that threaten to drown out the more important stuff: “What effect will office politics have on my job?”  “Will I ever find Mr./Ms. Right?”  “How am I supposed to pay my bills and save while living with downtown expenses?” Etc. Etc…  Given that depression and anxiety are the two most commonly diagnosed psychological issues in America today, I don’t think I’m far off asserting that like the priests of old, we are afraid.  Maybe that’s why Jesus, and more recently St. John Paul II’s most common phrase was, “Be not afraid!”

Indeed, fear generates in us an autonomic physiological response.  Preparing us for fight or flight, the body secures its digestive system (hence you lose your appetite when fighting).  Excess waste is shed (i.e. The scared child who wets himself).  Muscles tense and adrenaline floods the brain shutting down higher functions like advanced planning.  Our bodies do everything they can to prepare us for battle/self-defense.  What you’ll notice is that none of these autonomic responses are disposed to generosity.  

Theologically, that disposition toward self-preservation could be described as a symptom of original sin… part of concupisence.  But that’s not the end of the story.  Man was made, after all, “in the image and likeness of God,” and God is all generous.  The Catechism reminds us of this right off the bat in paragraph #1: “God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to mak him share in his own blessed life.”  Gratuitous self-gift is part of our hardwiring as human beings.  Hence, human beings are theonly creatures on earth who can rationally choose to give their lives for the sake of another. That’s us at our best.  That’s us at our most God-like.  It’s also why St. Paul says all creation “awaits with eager expectation the revelation of the children of God.” (Rm. 8:19).  If self-preservation is a result of sin, then self-gift is a sign of redemption and of hope.  

Whether you’re an ordained priest, or a member of the lay-faithful offering up your own sacrifices each Sunday, I know it’s hard.  Struggling against he gravity of self-concern is a huge deal and it hurts sometimes.  It brought Jesus all the way to the Cross.  But it’s worth it.  Not just because of the good that is achieved… though that is a worthwhile end… but at an even deeper level, we strive to be givers because that is who we are meant to be.  Being a person of self-gift lays aside the old man (Eph. 4:22) and puts on Christ (Gal. 3:27), thus revealing -to the hope and relieve of all creation- the children of God in our midst. 

The Threefold Beauty of this Day

Three “Takes” on All Saints Day

Today’s Feast of All Saints is a favorite of mine.  I thought I’d share three takes or angles on this beautiful feast and its pastoral applications:

The Personal/Family Angle – I’ve always understood it as a day to remember not only the canonized saints, but all those whose names we either don’t know… or know only privately.  There are members of my family I’m convinced have arrived in the fullness of heavenly glory.  I can’t praise them from the pulpit.  No one will name churches after them, but today, the Lord touches our hearts to ask for their prayers in his heavenly presence.  “All you holy men and women of God, pray for us!”

A Day for Urban Ministry – The missal describes today as “the festival of [God’s] holy city, the heavenly Jerusalem, our mother.”  So in some senses All Saints Day is a great feast for those who love city life.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful to lift the entire population of Washington to heaven?  As God’s people in the city, that’s exactly what we are called to do.  I’ve begun working with a great group of Catholics called the Downtown Serra Club.  Part of Serra International, their mission is to help each other grow in holiness, and – as an act of thanksgiving to God – support the growth of priestly vocations.  The Serrans were a big part of our lives as seminarians, so it’s a pleasure to be their chaplain.  More than that, though, I’m excited to be reaching out to young professionals in our downtown parishes and offering them “mobile spiritual direction.”  Meeting them, literally, where they’re at to talk about what God’s doing in their lives.

A Day for Catholic Aesthetics – Today’s Morning Prayer reading is just two verses from Ephesians 1 (17-18).  Paul prays for the Ephesians, “May he who is the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father to whom glory belongs, grant you a spirit of wisdom and insight, to give you fuller knowledge of himself.  May your inward eye be enlightened, so that you may understand to what hopes he has called you, how rich in glory is that inheritance his found among the saints.”  The verse was so beautiful, that I went to the Bible to read the whole first chapter of Ephesians.  Just a few highlights (using the Knox translation of the New Testament):

“[The Father] has chosen us out, in Christ, before the foundation of the world, to be saints…” (Eph. 1:4) Jesus is the Revelation of the Father, the eikon (icon/image)  of God, the refulgence of the glory of God, the shinning forth of God… Jesus is, more simply  put, the beauty of God.  Insofar as we were made in the eikon (image) and likeness of the Father, we were created in light of Christ.  Likewise we find re-creation/redemption in him.  Insofar as we resemble Christ… insofar as we are beautiful we are saved.  All Catholic aesthetics is based on this truth.    The saints are those who heroically manifest Christ in the world… they radiate his beauty so clearly.  This harkens back to what St. Paul said yesterday to the Romans (8:18), “If creation is full of expectancy, that is because it is waiting of rot sons of God to be made known.”  All of creation waits for us to make Christ visible in the world!  Beauty is the mission of the Church!  It cannot be said often enough.

“So rich is God’s grace, that has overflowed upon us in a full stream of wisdom and discernment, to make known to us the hidden purpose of his will.” (Eph. 1:8) – God’s way is always the way of abundance!  of overflowing!  It is beyond mere efficiency.  Indeed, from the very beginning, the Catechism tells us, “God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life.” (CCC, 1)  He didn’t need to make us, he did so as a gratuitous act.  Beauty is rarely “useful” or “efficient,” it’s a mark of generosity, of taking things to the next level even though it’s not necessary.  Jesus himself says that he told us everything, “that my joy may be yours, and the measure of your joy may be filled up.”  (Jn. 15:11)  This abundance is on display whenever people marvel at the sheer number of canonized saints… and the fact that we’re still making more!

Finally, Paul identifies his role in this midst of all this… he is in awe: “…I too play my part; I have been told of your faith in the Lord Jesus… and I never cease to offer thanks on your behalf or to remember you in my prayers.” (Eph. 1:15)  Encountering beauty engenders awe in the heart of the beholder… which then inspires him to imitate what he has seen… to spread the beauty further.  It requires little explanation… no force or coercion… When beauty gets under your skin it is self-perpetuating.  This is what Paul experienced… this is evangelization!

Today, pray with those who’ve gone before us.  Pray for those in the city who still accompany us, and think on the immense beauty with which the Lord has graced the world.  Happy all Saints Day!