suffering and seeds of new life

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The Pieta, the great work of Michelangelo’s youth… amazing, huh?  I mean how do you make something like that before you’re thirty and not think, “It’s all downhill from here”?  but I digress…  The Pieta last crossed the Atlantic for the 1965 World’s Fair.  It will probably never cross the ocean again in our lifetimes, but at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception – right here in downtown DC – one can find numerous depictions of the same sacred reality: a sorrowful Mary holds the body of her dead son.  In a Church committed to proclaiming the Resurrection, particularly during these spring weeks of the Easter Season, one might well ask, “Why is this morbid scene of such fascination?”  Let’s consider it a little through eyes of faith…

Jesus, and by extension Mary, has experienced the ultimate death.  (A) He’s God, he’s not supposed to die (B) He died in the prime of his life, pre-deceasing his own mother.  (C) He was murdered.  His executioners were all either liars (local authorities in Jerusalem), ignorant (the consenting crowds) or just apathetic (the Romans).  If this isn’t a perfect storm of human suffering, I don’t know what is… and in the Pieta, Mary holds the fruit of this whole experience in her hands.  One recalls the question of the great Lenten hymn, the Stabat Mater, “Can anyone’s suffering be as great as mine?”

Even in this moment, however, there is light.  Jesus and Mary willingly accepted this moment.  Jesus himself put up no defense, and Mary – far from running away from this moment – stays there to watch and embrace her son.  They will not allow death to be the last word.  Neither will they allow death to separate them form those they love nor from fidelity to their own missions.  In short, life goes on awash in pain for the moment, but living nonetheless.  The instrument by which Jesus and Mary hold on to life is faith in the Father… and by that tenacious faith in the Father, Resurrection dawns three days later.  Life and joy return more glorious than anyone could possibly have imagined at the foot of the Cross.

Way back at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, there’s a great line.  Simeon says to Mary, “and you yourself a sword shall pierce so that thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”  (Lk 2:35).  I never understood this line until I was at the National Shrine yesterday meditating on the Pieta.  In some ways, the experience of Jesus and Mary was obviously unique, but in some ways it was an “every man” experience revealing what goes on in all of our hearts.  In our daily life in DC the experience of Resurrection finds its seed in this moment of accepting suffering… the very fact that we are courageous enough to let the suffering happen and mingle with our faith is already an anticipatory experience of the Resurrection promised by God our Father.  In this we can rejoice even in the midst of great pain.  In the midst of spring, be sure to trek up to Catholic University and visit the National Shrine to spend some time with the Pieta.

Pieta in the National Shrine
Pieta in the National Shrine

the three-legged race of heart and head

Often enough, parishioners will approach me with one of two conundrums:
(a) I yearn so much to be good, to be holy, but I can’t figure out how.  OR
(b) I follow all the rules, do everything I’m supposed to, but I don’t feel any closer to God.

Another common variation on this themes substitutes “being good/ begin holy/ following the rules” with that sticky phrase, “being a ‘good’ Catholic.”  …still not sure quite what makes a ‘good’ Catholic, but I digress… 

Whatever nomenclature one prefers the issue comes down to this: the relationship between heart and head… feeling and will.  The false assumption at the root of my parishioners’ tension is that the decisions of the will and the satisfied feelings of the heart will (a) be simultaneous and (b) only be justified if they happen simultaneously.

Life experience proves however that such assumptions are, as I say, false.   Our pursuit of goodness is often more like the three-legged races the kids are currently running as part of field day… bound together, but more often than not quite clumsy.  Heart and head alternately lag behind, catch up or over compensate one for the other.  Don’t be alarmed, this is actually the norm for the spiritual life.  Consider St. Paul himself

 What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate. (Rm 7:15)

and again

If Christ is in you the body is dead because of sin while the spirit lives because of justice.  If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, then he who raised Jesus from the dead will bring your mortal bodies to life also. ” (Rm 8:10-11)

There’s always this sense of a lag between head and heart.  Chalk it up to the imperfections of our fallen world and move on.  In some ways its kind of nice having the two slightly out of sync… when one is weak the other can make up for it always keeping us on a forward moving path.  Writing to his brother Francis about his own spiritual life, Bl. John Henry Newman used this phrase, “It is my daily  and – I hope – heartfelt prayer…”  I don’t think Newman was being rhetorical, I think he was being quite realistic.  Sometimes the search for holiness is lead by the head and the heart catches up… sometimes the opposite.  Like the kids in the three-legged race who stumble left and right, the important thing is that we keep moving forward and rejoice in the interplay.

Divided but undimmed

Spring is here and with it a familiar smell.  Laden with memories of late night conversations, laughter and so much more, we begin from time to time, block to block, to smell barbecues alight once more!  Friends from the south and from Texas will admonish, “They’re not real BBQ’s, all you have are ‘grills’…”  In NY (where I come from), if you burn stuff and cook over it, it’s a BBQ.  …’nuff said.   And in DC it’s not just BBQ’s burning nowadays.  Folks sit in their front gardens and back yards gathered around swiss chimneys, and firepits (which incidentally are not pits so much as elevated braziers, but again, I digress…).

All this pyro-centered social gathering has me thinking, examining the phenomenon through eyes of faith.   In the Church, we’re still celebrating the Easter season.  At our masses, the Easter (Paschal) Candle is still lit at all masses to remind us of the night when the light of Christ re-entered our experience at the end of Lent.  During that ceremony on Holy Saturday night, the new Easter fire is kindled, the candle lit, and then – from the one flame – hundreds of others spread as the faithful light their individual baptismal candles from the Easter candle.  The great hymn that captures all this has a great line, the flame is “divided but undimmed.”  That’s the great quality of holy light and holy joy… it can be spread without diminishing its beauty.

Likewise with people of faith… we can spread out across a hundred block parties, BBQ’s, happy hours ’round the fire pit, you name it… and bring the fullness of Christ to each of those encounters divided but undimmed.  He is present in our joy, our hope, our compassion and mercy for others and always our living of the Truth.

Pope St. Leo the Great said, “not in tis life, it is true, but only in eternity will God be all in all, yet even now he dwells whole and undivided, in his temple, the Church.”  That goes not only for the whole Church across the globe… not only for each individual parish tabernacle… but also for each of the faithful who become living tabernacles on the day of their baptism and each time they receive the Eucharist at mass.

As the light of springtime festivities spreads across Washington, let’s bring the light of Christ, divided but undimmed to each of those encounters and show the world how brightly the Church shines with the glory of his light!

What you do matters… Really.

What follows is my homily from the Easter Vigil (Holy Saturday Night).  The Vigil is the holiest night of the year, when all the adults entering the Church are received into the community by celebrating the sacraments of initiation.


What we do matters… An individual human life matters, so do its actions and its in-actions. Such, brothers and sisters, is the history of salvation: Adam and Eve’s actions mattered, Noah’s actions mattered, Abraham, Moses, David… their “yes’s,” their “no’s” were the hinges of salvation history leading up to the yes of Mary… and the individual human life that changed everything, Jesus. We heard his, “yes” yesterday in the Passion, “not my will, but thy will be done.”

Think about how awesome that is: that God has chosen for human actions to matter to the salvation of our own souls and indeed the return of all Creation to him in heaven.   And because the Father traced this course in Salvation history, leading up to the Passion Death and Resurrection of Christ – what we do tonight, the sacraments we do tonight – matter.  They have meaning.

He was baptized. He told us to “Go baptize all nations”… so we do baptism
He forgave sinners and told us “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven.” and “Unless you forgive seven times seventy you will not be forgiven.” So we do confession… we forgive sins.
He healed and “through the Apostle James commanded us ‘are there any sick among you let them send for the priests of the Church and let the priests pray over them annointing them…” So we do the Anointing of the Sick.
He went to marriages and called the Church his Bride… so we do marriage.
At the Last Supper he left of a priesthood to serve us so we do Holy Orders.
On that same night He left us his very Body and Blood as food for the journey…and so we do this in memory of him.

Our brothers and sisters who have completed the RCIA process have all been touched by God in one way other another and perceiving his love compelling them they did something about it. They prayed and learned and now they celebrate the Sacraments because they know that doing this tonight…and living sacramentally every day of their lives matters to them and to those they meet…and indeed to Christ himself.

I’m harping on this doing of stuff because it may not be as obvious as we think. The dominant culture of our time even within some quarters of Christianity implicitly tells us that nothing do matters.

Consider death… the one thing that affects absolutely every human being… practically speaking most people think that either we die and nothing happens (in which case life has no meaning) or we die and everyone goes to heaven… Hell is reserved to Hitler Stalin and maybe one or two other people …but everyone else -no matter what- goes to heaven regardless of who they were what they believed or how they lived… in other words nothing they did in this life had any affect on the next.

On the flip side there are fundamentalists who will say that yes there is a well populated heaven and a well populated hell, but your actions have no influence on where you’ll go, it’s all decided by the whim of God… again, the message: what we do doesn’t matter.

So brothers and sisters what we celebrate tonight is three-fold:

That Resurrection is real and that God desires it for us.
That our catechumens and candidates… and all the rest of us… have been touched by this hope and responded by doing something about it… immersing ourselves in the sacraments…living each day sacramentally.  And finally, that in the best tradition of Catholic humanism the physical things we do… the sacraments, our actions leading up to and coming down from them… what we do matters and has a real affect on our eternal lives and the eternal lives of all.

The Seven Churches and The Pilgrimage of Life

It’s a frequent topic of conversation: DC’s transient population.  Young adults flood the city’s universities.  The ebb and flow of Congress brings with it aides, lobbyists, staff, family members and more.  And of course even if you’re not new to the city, there’s no guarantee that you’ll live in the same apartment for an extended period.  Rents change, buildings get bought for redevelopment, neighborhood dynamics shift… and then there’s that wonderful thing called marriage whereby your simple thousand-dollar-a-month efficiency just doesn’t cut it anymore.

At its most exalted, we call this culture of movement, “dynamic,” but when the rubber hits the road on moving day it’s just burdensome.

Iconic of all this… I was walking one day, and discovered a moving box rental company… I can’t say that I’d have much confidence in preowned cardboard boxes, but I digress…

In demographic terms, we refer to a constantly shifting population as transient (such a sad sounding word), but might we look at this especially DC phenomenon through eyes of faith?

In “Meditations of the Christ,” Father Romano Guardini (see previous post) describes Jesus as always being “in passage.”  It’s true.  The Lord was always moving about, slipping in and out of crowds, developing his ministry to its ultimate goal: the Passion Death and Resurrection.  Using the widest angle lens possible, we say that Christ was always on a pilgrimage back to the Father in heaven.

Our most ancient authors, especially St. Paul, speak beautifully about this sense of a life-pilgrimage to heaven:

“So we are always courageous, although we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight.  Yet we are courageous, and we would rather leave the body and go home to the Lord.  Therefore, we aspire to please him, whether we are at home or away.” (II Cor. 5:6-9)

Seen in this light, a culture of frequent moves doesn’t have to be quite so daunting… It’s just one more reminder of the reality that we’re invited to somewhere greater – heaven.

Yesterday, a group of intrepid Washingtonians took part in a beautiful exercise meant to remind all of us that every day of life in our city is part of a larger pilgrimage to the City of God… Our Young Adult Ministry, (www.DCCatholic.com) engaged in the Seven Church Walk.  Started in Rome by St. Philip Neri, the Seven Church Walk was a pilgrimage to the holiest basilicas of the Eternal City.  The faithful pray at each stop, but along the way they find Christ in each other through conversation, laughter, song, and food.  Some years ago this venerable tradition came to Washington.  Each year the faithful trek to 7 different historic parishes of our fair city… with the added bonus of tweeting, instagraming and facebooking the experience as they go!  Since I was occupied with holy week activities at my own parish I took great inspiration from the social media version of the pilgrimage!

As Catholics observe the start of Holy Week, we’re literally walking with Christ toward the Cross and Resurrection.  Never forget that whether it’s Holy Week or the Seven Church walk, all of this is a microcosm of how we can understand each and every day of our lives… moving, from apartment to apartment, job to job ever closer to God and our final goal, Heaven itself!

The social life of… an alleyway??

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During our last snowfall… and I do hope it was our LAST snowfall, I stayed with brother-priests for my day off.  Their rectory backs up on something quintessentially urban… an alleyway.  At first blush so what; most homes in downtown DC backup on an alleyway, but there’s more here than meets the eye.  Alleys are, in the first place – to be sure – places of utility.  They’re built so that  city residents have access to parking, and so that garbage trucks, repair crews and other day-to-day workers can access homes without blocking street traffic.  Reading in the morning light of my third-floor urban aerie, I noticed another side to alleyways: they’re places of great social interaction!

If a front garden is the outdoor drawing room of a townhouse, the back yard is the den where Washingtonians really let their hair down.  How interesting to watch a retired resident thoughtfully sipping hot coffee on a chill morning.  Small children in another yard pelt each other with snowballs.  In still other precincts young adults with the world on their shoulders clear off cars for a day’s work.  Taking out the trash, homeowners enjoy a shared moment, talking over everything and nothing all at once.  An old woman receives groceries from a helpful neighbor… And everyone engages in a cautious industrial waltz backing cars in and out of their garages, carefully giving way to one another, venturing out for another day contra mundum.  They alleyway is also, in a certain sense, a place of safety, “Yes… I’ve made it through Washington Circle alive once again!”  They’re the entry ways to that special reality called HOME.

Speaking about evangelization and urban life, Pope Francis has this to say in Evangelium Gaudium,

“God’s presence accompanies the sincere efforts of individuals and groups to find encouragement and meaning in their lives.  He dwells among them, fostering solidarity, fraternity, and the desire for goodness, truth and justice.  This presence must not be contrived, but found, uncovered.”

If this isn’t what I saw going on in a DC alleyway last week, I don’t know what is.

Seeing through eyes of faith in Lent

Last Wednesday, a beautiful reading came up in the Liturgy of the Hours.  It’s an excerpt from the writings of St. Theophilus of Antioch.  In it, the saint exhorts us to do whatever we must to “open the eyes of our mind and heart.”  He’s talking, of course, about seeing through eyes of faith.

First, an important realization – It’s not an automatic thing; seeing through eyes of faith.  It takes work.  Some argue that anything that isn’t automatically inbred in ourselves ends up being just smoke and mirrors, a sort of self-deception imposed by hostile outside forces (in this case, a Judeo-Christian society).  Proponents of such a position will suggest that the most natural thing is just to let our eyes roam, assigning equally good value to everything.  Such ocular non-discrimination is the most natural thing in the world, we’re told.

I’m not quite sure about such a position.  After all, some of our greatest assets are learned… for example: speech, writing, art.  None of these are automatic at birth but by disciplining ourselves, directing our innate talents, we flourish through our words and our artistic creations. The way we use our eyes is no different.  Indeed, as St. Theophilus suggests, the greatest good we can possibly imagine (contact with God) comes through disciplining the senses:

[The senses] distinguish light and darkness, …proportion and lack of proportion, elegance and inelegance, excess and defect… So it is with the eyes of our mind in their capacity to see God.

God is seen by those who have the capacity to see him, provided that they keep the eyes of their mind open.

How, concretely, can we keep our eyes open to see God, particularly as we approach Easter?

Again, St. Theophilus offers a suggestion:

A person’s soul should be clean, like a mirror reflecting light.  If there is rust on the mirror his face cannot be seen in it.  In the same way, no one who has sin in him can see God.

Two practical suggestions from a DC Faith and Culture point of view:

  1. If you’re Catholic, go to Confession, have a direct encounter with the divine physician speaking to you through the words of his priest, “I absolve you of all of your sins.  Go, you are free!”  All throughout the Washington area, in the weeks leading up to Easter, Confession is readily available at all our parish churches, especially in downtown.  Check out this link to the central website: http://thelightison.org  It’ll offer lots of tips, schedules and guides to confession throughout our area.

    If you’re not Catholic, you’re warmly invited into any of our churches to sit, and talk with God according to where you’re at in your journey with him.  Ask him to cleanse you of whatever needs cleansing and to make you ever-more ready to engage him in a relationship whose goal is heaven itself!  You might be interested in this recent effort by the Church in downtown DC, “Light the City,” opening our doors to anyone who wants to come and pray.  Check out the video on youtube: https://youtu.be/5mr_g-8SOzw

  2. For everyone in DC: LOOK UP… our city is so phenomenally beautiful.  The turrets on our row houses, cornices, small artistic highlights, the edifices of our federal buildings, the ingenious creativity of our modern architecture… All of it is soaked in the very best of the creative spirit God shares with the human race.  So often, our city-eyes are downcast avoiding puddles, loose paving stones and the like… and now thanks to our cellphones, we are all too often absorbed in a digital world that – while dazzling – can be so inhuman.  If you want to see through eyes of faith, LOOK UP… see God’s creativity at work in man’s city and then keep looking up to the heavens that he desires us to possess one day.

Faith Love and Black Ice

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The last few weeks have turned DC into – alternately – a snowy, muddy, icy mess.  And while I’d never event try to compare our situation to what my brother has experienced in Boston this winter, those of us accustomed to winters of warm(ish) southern comfort have been given pause over the last few weeks.  Last night in particular, I didn’t walk so much as skate down one of the streets.  It got me thinking…

One of the most common aspects of life for we Washingtonians, indeed city-dwellers everywhere, is our stoops.  You know, the stairs leading from the sidewalk up to our houses, apartment buildings etc. Stoops can be wonderful places.  In spring they’re points for congregation: impromptu barbecues on spring nights after work… cold beers and a neighbor’s guitar make for a great stoop-sitting conversation.  And who doesn’t love sitting out with friends after a summer day’s heat solving all the problems of the world before bed?  Right now, on the other hand, stoops are places of fear and trembling!  Ice and wrought iron… ice and granite… really, ice and anything turn a stoop from the glorious forum of summer life into a deadly precipice inviting catastrophe at every step.  I’m thinking in particular of the stoop we had at the GWU Newman Center on F Street.  It was high, steep and painted with thick, slick nautical paint to protect against the elements.  Every step was a risk in the winter.

What’s the point of all this?  As winter gives its last icy gasps, we might consider our stoops through eyes of faith.  Each day we try to do good loving acts in the world.  Whether we work for Congress, the Executive, an NGO or whoever, we in DC try to build a better country, a better world.  Even if we’re not overtly engaged in that project, our work supports our families, our social circles and so fosters life.  The prerequisite to all this is leaving our front door, which -in winter as we’ve seen- is a trickier proposition than one might think.  It takes a degree of faith to believe you’ll make it to the sidewalk alive.  Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman once preached that faith is needed before acts of true love can occur.  Might we see something of this in our ice-clad front steps?  Even when the weather gets warmer, might we consider saying a prayer, making an internal act of faith, committing our day and our acts of love to the protection of God trusting that he will bring them to happy fulfillment?  Just a thought.

Light From Without and Within

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Piero di Cosimo – Detail of St. Antony the Abbot from Visitation

 

Continuing a recent theme… Thursda was a day full of light and warmth.  No I’m not writing from vacation in Jamaica.  Even in the depth of winter I had an amazingly “warm” day through two encounters.  In the morning, I joined friends for a visit to the National Gallery.  We enjoyed lunch at the museum’s Garden Cafe, which – P.S. – has a reliably quality buffet for a reasonable price before enjoying the NGA’s newest exhibit: Piero di Cosimo: Painting in Renaissance Florence.  Cosimo’s works are typical of the time: numerous religious themes, fidelity to the Florentine school.  Unusual was the imaginative style with which he explored stories of pagan mythology, whose subjects he portrays in a wide range of characterizations from the beautifully sympathetic to the grotesque.  I’m not a huge fan of Olympian mythology, but it was fun to walk around inside the imagination of such an original artist.

Ottorino Respighi, Composer
Ottorino Respighi, Composer

Yesterday’s second experience, also with a brother priest, was a visit to the Music Center at Strathmore to hear the BSO.  Under the baton of Marin Alsop, the BSO is always in good form, but they were especially so last night, the tenth anniversary of the opening of their Montgomery County venue, Strathmore.  The orchestra presented excited  listeners with Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano concerto and Respighi’s Roman Tryptic.  Both played at the heartstrings of the audience.

Three levels of light pervaded the day.  Most superficially, the sun itself.  DC was its usual beautiful self under low-lying winter sun light.  In the middle of February that should be enough to lift anyone’s spirit, but there was other light too.  Piero di Cosimo’s canvases seem to radiate the light of sacred realities portrayed.  It was almost as if the gallery’s track-lighting wasn’t necessary.  Likewise, the BSO’s performance of Respighi.  I was transported back to warm walks along the Janiculum Hill, admiring the Pines and fountains for which Rome is so famous.

So there’s the external sunlight of the present and an artistic light from the past… The last level of light I experienced was the light of friends… and unlike the first two, this illumination is internal.  Beautiful friendships illumine us from within helping us to discover different parts of ourselves, helping us to heal parts of ourselves, and also helping us to celebrate parts of ourselves.  Maybe that’s why in darker times of year, the light of the local pub is so welcoming: it presages the joy of friendship within.  Looking at your DC experience with eyes of faith, where are your light sources, and what characterizes them?

Where do I find light in my life?  To what degree is that light satisfying?  How do I chase after illumination with ever greater conviction?

“Let there be light”…Illumination in DC’s Streets

“The spiritual man who has been thus illumined does not limp or leave the path, but bears all things.  Glimpsing our true country from afar, he puts up with advertises; he is not saddened by the things of time, but finds his strength in God.  He lowers his pride and endures possessing patience through humility.  That true light which enlightens every man who comes into the world bestows itself on those who reverence it, shining where it wills, on whom it wills and revealing itself according to the will of God the Son.” -John the Serene, Bishop

There’s been significant chatter lately about “pop-ups” in DC; townhouses that have been expanded upward to increase square footage available for rent/sale.  Opinions about these outgrowths of contemporary architecture are divided.  Of course they raise an ever present question in our fair metropolis: what to do about the height restrictions?

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Compared to most major American cities, Washington is relatively low-rise.  This limits the number of people who can live, work …and pay taxes… in the city.  Popular legend tells us that no building may be higher than the statue of Freedom over the Capitol Dome.  That’s not entirely true.  Most buildings in Washington are actually limited by a ratio between their height and the width of the street on which they’re built.  Consequently, broad avenues have taller structures than more narrow side streets.  The goal of the restrictions: “Let there be light!”

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I love DC’s short stature.  Structures exist on a human scale.  Residents can enjoy the clear light of day shining in blue skies.  …and if the humility of our local buildings exalts the dignity of our national Capitol, well that’s not such a bad thing either.

As someone who’s lived in both New York and Washington, I can tell you that having access to natural light and the blue sky in DC has a significant effect on my day.  It does more than lift my spirits.  It contextualizes my city experience.  In New York, sky scraper canyons dominate and contain citizens.  In Washington, the presence of light and greenery integrally woven into our street-experience connects the city to a wider world that serves man rather than oppressing him.

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Light forms a huge part of Catholic spirituality.  Jesus is himself described as the light of the human race (Jn. 1:4-ff).  Likewise, Catholics are called on to be the light of the world (Mt 5:14).  Cities should be places of light; the light of art, music, learning and bright smiles exchanged between citizens.  It’s a complex thing to increase that light, but a good place to begin might be the presence of the sun gracing SHORT buildings, filling our streets and daily experiences.