Lent Comes to Washington

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The holy season of Lent begins this Wednesday.  All over Washington, in federal offices, universities, hospitals, parks, everywhere you’ll spy Catholics walking around with ashes to mark their renewed work at self-denial and self-gift for the sake of Christ. The ashes are an odd thing to see, but often a very positive one.  If nothing else, they’re a great conversation starter!  People start talking about faith at work… shock of shocks!  If you find yourself getting into such a water cooler conversation you might find the following reflection on this Sunday’s second reading a useful way of summing up the season for your fellow Washingtonians.


 

“Whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.”  The coming season of lent is about precisely this… it’s about our yearly pilgrimage, our yearly return to doing everything for the glory of God.  But what is the glory of God… it’s a phrase we throw around alot, but what does it mean?  St. Paul gives us some clues.  The glory of God is about seeking not my good, but the good of the many.  Self-gift for the sake of others.  Hence, in a focused way during Lent, we follow the Lord’s command to give alms to the poor… as a symbol of the larger self-gift that characterizes all our acts of service, mercy, and kindness.  Seek the benefit of the many that they may be saved.   The glory of God always has a heavenly orientation.  Our Father desires us to be with him in heaven, we need to turn our full selves, we need to convert (to turn) the whole orientation of our lives toward the next world.  That’s why during Lent we follow the Lord’s command to fast and abstain from the good things of this world… to remind ourselves neither the pains nor the pleasures of this world matter compared to the good that we seek in heaven.  Be imitators of me as I am of Chirst.  Christ is the only man ever to go body and soul to heaven… and it is only by joining ourselves to him that we can hope to find heaven.  Thus, be imitators of Christ… be Christian’s… Be “other Christs” in the world, for the world.  This is why we follow the Lord’s Lenten command to pray… so that our hearts can speak and become one with the heart of the Son himself, Jesus Christ.

Do everything for the Glory of God – be a gift to others, turn toward heaven, be Christ for the world.  Only one thing stands in the way of this – sin.  We all sin… If we want to do everything for the glory of God, we need to get out from under our sins brothers and sisters… Ironically, sins are self-imposed weights around our necks, but we are incapable of letting go of them on our own… it takes a higher power to let us know that we are truly forgiven… that these sad choices are truly relegated to the past.  If we want to do everything for the glory of God, we need to take advantage of the sacrament of Confession.

Brothers and sisters, Lent can be such a beautiful time of new beginning… It’s a time when we focus on the fact that our Father delights in us… and we do everything we can to free ourselves from this world’s cares in order to fully enjoy that delight.  A pilgrimage through the desert, yes… but ultimately a pilgrimage toward paradise!

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.

eyes of faith even on vacation

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O the wonders of the quick getaway… a day trip, overnight… even  two days.  It can be so great to just get out of Dodge… especially when “Dodge” is DC.  I love our city… and calling it home frames our sense of who we are as citizens, neighbors, workers, politicos, whatever.  Ironically, the very place that fosters our identity can also make us forget who we are.  Pressure from work, commuting, even the rigors of keeping up with our own social lives… We can get overwhelmed.

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Writing from a quick vacation of my own to the Eastern Shore, I’m amazed at what just two days away can do.  The weather’s been cold but bright.  The scenery is beautiful (see the included photos), and the food is great.  I expected all that.  The surprise has been that the staff here at the hotel remember my name.  In the dining room, sitting in the library to read, or just walking down the hall past a porter; it’s nice to be known, but also gets me thinking about a very Biblical question, “Who am I?”  The Bible is replete with people being named, by their parents, by God.  Sometimes people get new names to match a new mission.

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Catholics are invited to think of one name before all others: the Holy Name of Jesus… and He is LOVE, totally self-sacrifiial LOVE.  That’s important, because it is the love of Christ filling us which fills our names with their greatest meaning.  We are the beloved of God.  Our response to that love is the stuff of our lives as parents, priests, professionals… our response to that love gives meaning to our names.  Sometimes, going away from home, even for just two days offers the space to actively receive God’s love in a renewed way.  Recharged by that love, our names take on renewed meaning making it easier to return to and enjoy our home.

In the midst of our citadel

 

 

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The Dome of St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Downtown DC

From Psalm 48

Great is the Lord and highly praised
in the city of our God:
His holy mountain,
fairest of the heights,
the joy of all the earth,
Mount Zion, the heights of Zaphon,
the city of the great king.
God is in its citadel,
renowned as a stronghold.

Sometimes we need little reminders that God is near us… our city’s churches are great examples of such reminders.  If you ever feeling down or out of touch with the divine, take a walk down any street in DC and you’ll find a spire to raise your spirits back to the heights.

Reminders… way more than just sticky notes

This past Thursday was a day curiously full of reminders.  I don’t mean the sticky notes that frame my computer screen.  No, I’m speaking of something more personal.  Three examples:

First – Something in The Washington Post caught my eye early in the morning.  “Georgetown chimney produces strange find: a 19th-century cannonball” by, Clarence Williams.  Oddly the article was placed under the Crime section of the Local news page… but I digress.  It seems a family in Georgetown wanted to use a long-dormant fireplace.  Prudently calling a chimney sweep to make sure the hearth was safe, they discovered the reason it hadn’t been used in so long: A cannonball lodged in the flu!  The article doesn’t specify to whom the munition belonged (U.S., British, Confederate), only that the family made an interesting conversation piece out of it.

Second – Later on Thursday I found myself at Strathmore Music Center with a colleague.  We attended “An Evening With Jason Alexander,” (a.k.a. George from Seinfeld).  It was a great night.  Constant laughs and familiar tunes from my childhood made the event a great walk down memory lane.  Among the music performed that night, the BSO presented the overture from Peter Pan, one of the first musicals I ever saw (albeit on VHS).

Finally – Coming home from Strathmore I knelt before a relic of St. Philip in my study.  It’s one of the treasures I was blessed to bring back from studies in Rome.  It was a great way to end the day in prayer and contextualize everything that had happened in terms of Christ.

Reminders can be tremendously important for us as people… not just to make our appointments but to remember who we are and where we’re going.  Sometimes the reminders are solemn, even painful.  The Georgetown cannonball was an instrument of war (Did I mention, it had to be taken away for army analysis to ensure it wouldn’t explode).  Someone shot it with the intention of killing another human being… not something we like to remember, but it’s part of who we are.  Hopefully it reminds us to pursue peace in our future.  Other reminders are more affirming.  The music at Strathmore brought me back to childhood, to memories of musical performances with my cousins and gifts from grandparents… a nice reminder that I come from a family, and a loving one at that.  Finally there are sacred, eternal reminders: my relic of St. Philip.  Macabre as it might seem to the uninitiated, these [literal] pieces of history are a beautiful way to aide and enhance the faith of the present generation in handing on our way of life to the next.

Catholics have a beautiful veneration for the past.  The relics we keep remind us of our history, help us to remember who we are, and guide us in charting a future course.  I feel sad for people who don’t have such a foundation.  It’s hard to imagine navigating my life without such a constellation of reminders to guide me.  Ultimately these reminders liberate us to move into the future with confident steps… and that’s a joy.

What’s in a Name: Heavenly Patrons

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Thus it was Vincent’s body that suffered, but the [Holy] Spirit who spoke.  And at his voice, impiety was not only vanquished but human frailty was given consolation. -St. Augustine

Today is the feast of my patron saint, Vincent, Deacon and Martyr.  While serving the third-century Church in Zaragoza, Spain he was captured during the persecutions of the Emperor Diocletian. Refusing to give up the location of the Church’s  holy books (Scriptures, liturgical texts, sacramental rolls, etc.), Vincent was tortured to death with a ferocity that shocked even the early Christians, already so accustomed to witnessing martyrdom.  His name, which means “to conquer” took on special significance as he prayed for his persecutors to the end.

If you were to consider Vincent’s martyrdom only human endurance, the his act is unbelievable.  But first recognize the power to be from God , and it ceases to be a source of wonder
-St. Augustine

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I feel afloat in the ocean of the world.  Washington moves so quickly around us, life takes on an almost tidal force.  It’s an awkward feeling, no floor beneath your feet, nothing to grab on to.  Steadiness, direction, definition are not necessarily givens.  One starting place especially dear to Catholics is our names.

Names define.  Names, connect us to our families and launch us forward in the context of their hopes for us.  Names can also connect us to heavenly patrons: saints whose examples we strive to emulate and who’s intercession before God aides our earthly cause.  Preparing for today’s feast, I’ve been thinking about St. Vincent and taking as a daily motto, “Today’s another opportunity to conquer my life with Christ.”  It’s been a great spiritual exercise that’s helped me over the last few days and lets me look with optimism toward the future.

Whether you’re Catholic or not, the saints love you and are there for you.  Just about every name in the western lexicon has some connection to a saint.  If yours doesn’t, that’s OK, pick a saint and start a relationship with him/her.  You’ll be amazed at how the ground rises to meet you as you journey one with greater confidence than before.  St. Vincent, pray for us.

Wise words for enlightening culture

Bringing light to big city culture has been a constant theme in the life of the Church, whether we’re talking about Jerusalem, Rome, or our own Washington, DC.  And while the times and places change there  are certain constants of how to approach ever-new evangelization.

Reading about Bl. John Henry Newman this morning, I found an amazing observation of his.  He was applying the teachings of St. Philip Neri (16th century Rome) to his own circumstances (19th century Birmingham/London)… teachings that hold no less true in 21st century DC… check this out:

[St. Philip] preferred to yield to the stream, and direct the current, which he could not stop, of science, literature, art and fashion, and to sweeten and to sanctify what God had made very good and man had spoilt…  He perceived that the mischief was to be met, not with argument, not with science, not with protests and warnings, not by the recluse or the preacher but by mean of the great counter-fascination of purity and truth…

Stay positive… meditate on the beauty around you… share that with others and baptize culture for Christ!  Peace.

Sainted Fools

Following up on yesterday’s post here’s a few sainted examples of folks her seemed foolish to everyone around them and found greater happiness than they could ever have imagined before.

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St. Francis – A medieval knight-warrior, heir to a wealthy family, Francis took life very seriously and it nearly killed him as a prisoner of war.  Following his release he did something very foolish: he gave up everything and seeking friendship with Christ in the poor.  He even stripped himself naked before the Bishop as a sign of his new poverty (WARNING: doing that in 21st century DC would be a BAD IDEA).  That one excess aside, he found an immensely happy life in which he could bear up with failures, mistakes, and eventually his own death.  Common ‘serious’ wisdom says he should’ve been miserable, but today he’s a patron saint of happiness.  Chesterton calls him a jongleur de Dieu (God’s court jester).  I like to think of Francis’ child-like simplicity as pleasing to the Father… Kids dance in front of their parents all the time and however foolish they may seem, they’re dancing brings a smile from mom and dad.  God’s no different.

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Another great dancer was St. Ignatius of Loyola… literally, he was a master dancer and ladies’ man at court when a canon ball hit him in battle.  Ignatius would never leap to another quadrille, but he soon started dancing to God’s tune, seeking to please him by giving up courtly ways and adopting a life of radical discernment and obedience to the will of his Father.  Ignatius lived out a  life of hard work and struggle, but also of great joy.  His disciples became the Jesuits and changed the world.

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In this country, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton found glimmers of joy in the Catholic faith of friends… Chasing after that joy, she abandoned her Anglican heritage, her social position, and her home in New York to educate children in the wilderness of Maryland… no easy task for a single mom in the early 1800s, but she loved her newfound mission with reckless abandon.  The order of nuns she went on to found (Daughters of Charity) built Catholic education in the U.S. for a century, helping all, and especially the poor to lift themselves by the light of knowledge.

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Finally, there’s St. Bernadette… Born to poverty she heard the parleyed with the Blessed Virgin, which might seem crazy enough, but then she followed Our Lady’s instructions to dig in the mud and drink the water that she found.  Everybody thought Bernadette was a total fool, but the spring she found was in a place called Lourdes, which has brought healing and hope to countless millions.  Bernadette herself lived out her days in a monastery where she found great peace and joy in Christ.

Taxi Cab Wisdom and the Search For Happiness

Taking a queue from my last post’s saint, Philip Neri, and a nice encounter two days ago,  I’m starting a multi-part reflection on joy in city life… I hope you’ll follow along:

It’s a basic tenet of nearly every school of human philosophy that happiness, true happiness is the universal goal of everyone… However one defines it, all of us seek to be “happy,” rather than, “sad.”  The Greeks called this eudaemonia – a happiness that is tied up with goodness and living out one’s divinely given purpose.  I’ve been praying about this search, and got input from an unexpected source this past week: my taxi driver.  Commenting on the dichotomy between DC’s beauty and the anxiety of its residents he remarked,

“What’s the good of having the good life if you don’t live it?  Seriously man, some people are never happy ’til they’re miserable.”

There’s something to the cabbie’s wisdom.  It’s not just the classic, “If only Americans would be more European; working to live rather than living to work.”  We take ourselves, our careers so seriously… as if they were eternal, galaxy-changing things.  In the midst we find ourselves sad.  Our dour demeanors might not be so bad if life promised  to respond with security for each of us, but that’s not the case is it?

 

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The most stone-faced pin-striped lawyer is just as likely to get caught in a smoke-filled metro tunnel as anyone else.  Plans thrown off, an important deal ruined as a result… Where did all his seriousness get him?  All of us know stories of friends who worked, planned, struggled for a promotion only to lose it, perhaps even a whole career, for reasons completely outside their control.  At the end of the day, such a person doesn’t even have happy memories to enjoy… only stories of struggle sadness and a tragic end.  Looking at the state of affairs through eyes of faith, what might we discern?

If gravity doesn’t necessarily get us happiness maybe a little foolishness, or at least some light-heartedness will?  Dont’ get me wrong, I’m not proposing anyone be foolhardy (which Thomas Aquinas defines as a vice)… this isn’t about ignoring real responsibilities in order to go on a round-the-world cruise… or going skydiving with a heart condition.  That’s just stupid.  But if we have a child-like trust in God our Father, our joys reman just as strong as ever while our stumbles don’t bruise us as they used to.  In tomorrow’s post we’ll consider some saintly examples of this lesson, but for now, consider praying about your own happiness… how’s it going?  Do you feel truly FREE to be happy in your life?

Tomorrow we’ll consider some examples of saints who discovered the wisdom of foolishness…