Our yearning for strength, for guidance, for confidence

I guess I’ve been on a bit of a translation kick lately, but it’s rocking my prayer life in a really good way!

Meditating on the psalms of Morning Prayer today I came across a phrase that always sticks in my mind… and beautifully so:

“This is what causes me grief, that the way of the Most High has changed…” (Ps. 76 [77]:11)

Now that’s the English Translation in the Breviary.  Both the vulgate and the neo-vulgata Latin render the verse thus:

Et dixi “Hoc vulnus meum, mutatio dexterae Excelsci.
And I said, “This is my wound/my vulnerability, a change in the right hand of the Most High.”

The modern English isn’t bad… there’s certainly a legitimate understanding that the Right Hand of the Lord guides things in his way… but simply saying “the way” of the Lord removes from this Psalm so much beautiful color!

The right hand of the Lord is his strength… the saving strength that brought his people out of Egypt.  That right hand has lifted us up with paternal strength and tenderness.  If it goes… it’s not just that his way has changed, but that God is no longer capable… his strength is gone… and so we are made vulnerable… Vulnerability is grief, to be sure, but it’s a specific kind of grief: personal, visceral, at the level of survival.

This beautiful little verse is all about CONFIDENCE in God’s ability to be God.  That sense is only confirmed as we read on “I remember the deeds of the Lord, I remember your wonders of old, I muse on all your works and ponder your mighty deeds.” By going back to the good old days, the Psalmist’s confidence is renewed, and with it his faith.

At a time when Pew reports that American’s confidence in the Pope’s handling of sex abuse-related issues has plummeted… and likewise when confidence in the US Bishops is at an all time low… when many fear for the unity and sustainability of the Church… the right reading of the Psalms lifts me up and gives me what I need this morning to go forward.  If you’re feeling vulnerable… turn to the right hand of the Lord… it’s always been there for us and it always will.

On the power of being listened to…

We hear a lot lately about being a “listening Church.”  And so we should.  To be a listening Church has some wonderful practical ramifications… it helps us to address reality by constructing [we hope] an accurate picture of that reality from the data we gather.  There is another side to being a “listening Church:” People like being listened to.  It makes them feel respected, acknowledged… and in some ways we may even say it helps people feel hope.  To be listened to means you are not alone, and THAT – I would argue – is the beginning of hope.  

I’ve felt this in my own life recently.  There’s nothing worse for a preacher than to look out over his congregation and see faces that are utterly disengaged.  Conversely, there’s nothing better than to look out and see people actively listening.  I’ve been blessed to have “listening” congregations.  Recently, in the wake of all the sad news being revealed/revisited by the Church, I’ve noticed this dynamic present among my brother priests.  The crisis spurred several listening sessions wherein clergy were totally free to express their worries, concerns, critiques etc. about the present moment.  The men felt listened to… and it gave them a sense of hope.  This in sharp contrast to the frequent conversations we have about how we don’t always feel listened to or like there’s even a place for dialogue to happen with our superiors.

Listening is important.  

That’s why a seemingly spare phrase in this mornings Office of Readings really hit me during my holy hour.  Psalm 17(18):36.  In the Ordinary Form Psalmody it reads,

You gave me your saving shield;
You upheld me, trained me with care.

‘sounds fine, right?  But here’s the Ordinary Form Latin (neo-Vulgata) with my own translation based on a simple dictionary search:

Et dedisti mihi scutum salutis tuae          You gave me your saving shield
Et dextera tua suscepit me                          and your right hand lifted me up
Et exauditio tua magnificavit me            and your generous
                                                                             hearing/understanding
                                                                             glorified me

I then consulted the Vulgate (Extraordinary Form) Latin

Et dedisti mihi scutum salutis tuae            You gave me your saving shield
Et dextera tua suscepit me                            and your right hand lifted me up
Et mansuetudo tua educavit me                and your clemency/gentleness
                                                                               led/taught me

I’ve been diving into Latin as part of my assignment at St. Mary’s in DC.  We celebrate the Extraordinary Form of the Mass and the Ordinary Form side by side quite harmoniously.  But had I not been here… had I not begun this study, I never would’ve known this morning that God HEARS me… and that his hearing is qualified by his clemency, his gentleness… and further that he desires me to be lifted up in the same way that Mary’s soul lifted up praise of him (Magnificare).

I’ve been coming across more and more inconsistencies like this as I dive into the Scriptures using multiple languages (vernacular English, Italian, Spanish), comparing them with what is supposed to be their origin today (neo-Vulgata Latin) and our ancient Vulgate texts from St. Jerome.  It has so enriched my prayer… and it makes me thank God more and more for the new translation of the mass and other sacraments.  Folks get hung up on some of the seemingly awkward cadence of the new translations, but they’ll get used to that over time.  The richness of spirit that can come from being ever more true to the actual texts of Scripture is too good to pass up.  Among other things, that richness reminds me today that God is a listening God who has not left me alone… and it inspires me to be part of a listening Church.

Illumina oculos meos

Inspired by my friends The Suspicious Cheese Lords and their preparations for singing a motet and mass based on this text, I offer the following reflection:

Illumina oculos meos, ne unquam obdormian in morte,

Nequando dicat inimicus meus, “Praevalui adversus eum.” -Ps. 13:4-5

Illumine my eyes, that I sleep not in death.

Lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed against him.”

Have you ever walked into a really beautiful cathedral? Dappled light floods the space translated, sanctified by stained glass windows. Candles flicker, reflecting their humble light off mosaics and polished stone. It’s a different sort of light, the light that fills these hallowed spaces. It’s translated, enhanced, reengineered -as it were- for a special task; it lights not only the path of our five senses, it illumines the inner darkness, inspiring and empowering us to continue on the path to heaven. St. Paul strikes the right note when he writes to the Ephesians, “May the eye of your hearts be enlightened that you may know what is the hope that belongs to [Christ’s] call, what are the riches of glory in his inheritance among the holy ones.” (Eph. 1:18) The cathedral experience manifests the experience of the human person each and every day.

St. Gregory of Nyssa gives dramatic context to this moment. He describes our illuminative experiences in relation to Moses (Ex. 3). Called by God, Moses leaves his sheep to discover the famed burning bush. The wonder of the moment enthralls him: what is this bush burning yet not destroyed? And in the wonder of that moment he begins to speak with the Most High about the incredible direction his life would take. St. Gregory calls this precisely the, “illuminative phase,” of prayer… the first stage of our encounter with the God who is Love and Life. Unlike St. Ignatius who insists on a first “purgative” phase in which suffering clears our spiritual palate, Gregory suggests that it is first and foremost love and through wonder that inspire us to put aside all other cares in order to follow God. And isn’t this just the dynamic that St. John describes in his first letter (4:11) “In this is love, not that we have loved God, but that he loved us first and sent his son as expiation for our sins.” Such is the illumination the Father desires for our souls.

We experience this holy light, not only in the noble architecture of our columns, arches and galleries, but preeminently in the rites of sacred worship: that divine work on earth known as the liturgy. At holy mass we are transported from the earthly the to the heavenly. The triumphal procession of the ministers is not a triumph over earthly powers, but over death itself. The lights of the candles enter the sanctuary and us… A single cantor calls out, “Kyrie eleison”… that one voice pierces our awareness, inviting us to realize our sins and failings… to consciously invite more light into our hearts. Light does not hesitate; it explodes on the scene in the Gloria and… and as our inner eyes adjust to their newly bright surroundings they gradually perceive the Word in all its splendor, detailing in human terms the awesome contours of the Father’s merciful love for us. Thus emboldened by the light, the faithful dare to make a response: sacrifice. The mass of the catechumens gives way to the mass of the faithful as those who have learned the Love of God now make a return to him, offering up their lives, praying for yet more light and strength to press on toward heaven. On the Fourth Sunday After Pentecost that offering begins right where we began today, Illumina oculos meos, ne unquam obdormian in morte, nequando dicat inimicus meus, “Praevalui adversus eum.”

Like Moses, we can’t stay with the burning bush forever. We must eventually leave the comfort of illumination and return to the world. This, St. Gregory calls the purgative phase. With Moses we cross the desert and climb the holy Mountain surrounded by a cloud. The journey will be difficult. We will trip. Thorns may tear at our flesh, but for all the pain, we know that the cloud is precisely the manifestation of God’s presence… and when doubt assails us on the journey we can always return to that first illumination. It happened, it was real. The truth of it does not change. It keeps us going until we reach the fullness of God’s presence atop the mount, becoming one with him in the unitive phase. Illumina oculos meos, ne unquam obdormian in morte, nequando dicat inimicus meus, “Praevalui adversus eum.” And how apropos of the divine symmetry that what began with the light of the burning bush should end with Moses staring directly at the presence of God… a God who’s Love is so brilliant it illumines the prophet’s face… illumines it so much so that he must wear a veil the rest of his life lest he blind his fellow man… Illumination, Purgation, Unity manifest by a change/conversion of life. “Late have I loved thee, beauty ever ancient, ever new.” “Illumine my eyes O Lord!”

On personal gardening…

 

One of my favorite places in all of DC is Dumbarton Oaks.  The most recent owners of the famed Georgetown mansion and gardens were the Bliss Family who punctuated the gardens with their family credo, “Quod severis metes.” (What you sow you shall reap) in mosaics and even topiary throughout the property.  I’ve been thinking about that as I read this coming Sunday’s readings in both the Extraordinary Form (Latin) and the Ordinary Form (English).

In the Latin readings for this Sunday we hear, “For what a man sows in the flesh, from the flesh also will reap corruption.” (cf Gal. 5:25-6:10).  In the English readings we hear, “Humbly welcome the word that has been planted in you and is able to save your souls.” (cf Jas. 1:17-27).  Finally, in the English Gospel we hear, “Hear me, all of you, and understand.

Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile” (Mk 7).   Only the Word of Jesus… the Living Word preserved in Scripture and Tradition brings about unbounded life.  Anything that comes from me will always be corrupted, ultimately limited by my own human sinfulness.  Often today we lay blame for our  personal issues at the world around us, or at what other people may have done to us: “There’s just so much suggestive imagery out there, I couldn’t help it.” Or “Well, if you knew what my mom did to me as a teenager…”. Certainly our external circumstances – whether they be the images that surround us or the details of our past – have an immense effect on us.  But ultimately, if we want to be happy, we need to follow Jesus’ Word today, because all that is from outside can eventually pass through us… it’s what we choose to originate, or what we allow to fester for that matter, that determines whether we will be happy or not.  As Shakespeare put is, “The fault is not in our stars…” (Julius Caesar)

A couple of years ago I was in a very politically-charged parish.  Each week I’d inevitably get beaten up by a few parishioners for either being too strong or too soft on an issue.  Didn’t matter what the issue was you were always going to hear about it from someone.  I was down and my Pastor noticed.  He asked me what was going on and I told him.  His response, “That’s fine, but what are YOU going to do about it?”  In my prayer, I started focusing less on the outer circumstances and more on the inner… and not so much on my own feelings (though those were taken into account) but on what Christ was doing for me and with me each day… His Word planted in me.  Life became sunnier day-by-day, week-by-week and soon ministry opportunities were blossoming left and right and I was visibly joyous.  

We’re surrounded by a lot of outer circumstances in Church life right now.  What are YOU going to do about it?  Over the last week I’ve gotten some wonderful offers of help and volunteerism from folks.  We need more!!  A group of young professional men are getting together to form a men’s group to grow in their Catholic identity.  Amazing!!  A woman approached me about entering the Church and asked if her instruction could take place in the context of a small group with her and her friends.  ABSOLuTELY.  Jesus has planted a Word in each of these folks’ hearts… and he’s planting one in yours.  Water it, let it grow and let’s see what happens.  If each of us engages this process we can grow a joyful helpful and worshipful community here at St. Mary’s for our good, our neighbors’ and for the Glory of God!  

Your priest,

Fr. De Rosa

One Sunday, Two Homilies

This Sunday I preached at both or parish’s EF (Latin) mass with its readings, and our OF (English) mass with its.

At the EF mass we meditated on serving the One True God and not the false gods of our passions.  In the present moment that means channeling those passions through the lens of our prayer and our reason to address needed reforms in the Church in positive effective ways.  I also discussed practical concrete considerations and examples:

At the OF Mass I talked about how Jesus invites us into nuptial relationship with him, whether through the sacrament of marriage or celibate Holy Orders.  The witness offered by both forms of nuptial giving is an essential witness to hope for the world… demonstrating -on the one hand- the Trinitarian love of God hasn’t abandoned us… and on the other the infinite possibilities of original solitude wherein God is the spouse of the soul.  Both forms of nuptial love remind us that with God ALL things are possible… and to lose either form of love in the life of the Church would be to limit God’s capacity to help us.

On the Assumption: How do we touch hope…

Midway upon the journey of our life
  I found myself within a forest dark,
  For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
  What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
  Which in the very thought renews the fear.

So bitter is it, death is little more…

Dante’s opening to his epic Divine Comedy … it’s something of a spiritual autobiography, but it’s also an every man’s tale of rediscovering hope.

What does hope look like?  Today’s Solemnity of the Assumption offers us a useful key to perceiving, understanding, and touching hope.  Like Dante we discover through today’s feast that hope springs first and foremost from the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead.  But Christ’s resurrected glory is so astonishing… so beautiful mere human faculties cannot fully embrace it… they can only know it’s real and stand in awe.  Like Moses before the face of God, we cannot look him in the eye… we can only bask in the radiance as he passes by… and even this leaves us changed, radiant forever.

But thanks be to God in Christ Jesus – his hope… our hope cascades from the unapproachable empyrean into the realm of things we might dare to touch and that might even embrace us…

Because in light of what her Son would one day do, Mary was preserved from sin… From the first moment of her earthly existence she was defined by hope.  As a result of this, when her earthly life ended Mary was assumed into heaven… again a vehicle of hope… where our queen has lead we know… we hope… we may one day follow.  

Revelation confirms and enshrines this historical reality.  She reigns now with Christ, enthroned, the moon at her feet, 12 stars crowning her.

But if Mary, the vehicle of our hope… one who is like us and has gone before us into the heavenly homeland… if Mary’s assumption permanently secluded her in heaven, our hope would remain still distant… and this in the midst of the Church’s ongoing spiritual combat on earth.  Thanks be to God… His gift of hope does not stop with her… the cascade flows further…  The ancient hymn of the Church for this feast points the direction:

O woman who subdues hell and death,
From the side of Christ, eagerly watching over us;
Heaven and earth glorifies
Their mighty queen.
But the terrible serpent persists
In threatening the people now given to thee;
Merciful Mother, come to our aid,
And break the necks of the malignant.
Protect the followers of the divinely inspired faith;
Lead those who go astray back to the holy sheepfold:

And what mother… hearing the cries of her children could remain in heavenly seclusion.  Throughout history Our Lady continually appears two us in two ways… each allowing us to touch hope on earth:

She literally appears to us: At Carmel, at Pompeii, at Knock, Lourdes, Fatima, Guadeloupe, LaVang… even now in Michigan at our Lady of Good Help…and innumerable other places.  Hope has not left us… one like us appears to us from her heavenly throne that we might touch hope through our faith…

But that’s still not the end because Our Lord did not come to heal the healthy… to give hope only to those who were already people of faith… he leaves a door open for all people to come through him beginning even with their human faculties… 

And so hope cascades… from our Lord in unapproachable light… to our Assumed Lady who leads the way… to her apparitions so dear to people of faith… to her blessed daughters in consecrated life throughout the history of the Church… who we have known, seen, heard, touched.  And Among these I’d like to touch hope in just a few… not just the existence of hope… but also the how… the how of how they teach us to live hope:

St. Hildegard von Bingen – the medieval abbess, prophet, visionary, musician, and apothecary.

St. Catherine of Siena – a genius of spiritual theology and church reform.

St. Therese of Lisieux – the tiniest spiritual giant who ever lived.

And finally… dare I say… Mother Angelica of Birmingham Alabama.

A mighty abbess, a lay-dominican, a humble Carmelite, and a simple nun who wanted to spread Jesus’ Eternal Word:  What did they all have in common… what can we learn about the transmission of hope?

First – hope isn’t based on earthly circumstances… they knew it was based on a firm relationship with Jesus Christ… and so hope can never be defeated…

Second this relationship must be nuptial… whether through marriage or vowed celibate life, or baptismal chastity… the Church manifests hope to her neighbors through healthy nuptial self-sacrifice of Jesus Loving his Church and the Church pouring herself out for him.

Third – hope comes from courageous prophetic witness… sometimes that prophecy manifests in spit-fire preaching… but more often through the courage to quietly experience an inner death and hand that up to God as a worthy sacrifice.  Sacrificium Dei spiritus contribulatus…

Finally – It is not enough – even in charity – to point out the world’s failings or the Church’s… though we MUST.  For Hope to spread we MUST be DOERS of the word… they must see us joyful… they must see us peaceful… they must see us loving… A lifetime of good and humble works gave Hildegard the credibility to stop wars before they could start with a single word… a lifetime of perseverance in good gave Catherine the credibility to humble cardinals and even the Pope himself into admitting they were wrong… a lifetime of quiet service gave Therese the credibility to renew the spiritual life of France and the world… and the fruit… the physical tangible fruit of blood sweat and tears gave Mother Angelica the credibility to stare down unholy men and prove them wrong.  By their fruits you will know them.  If you would be prophets of hope… be doers of Love and Humility.

We began with Dante… wandering midway through life’s journey seeking hope and direction… and like him we can follow a trail of sanctity… from our lives… through the lives of the saints… to the Assumed Mary Immaculate to her Son the source of all our hope.  At each stage hope’s reality is confirmed… by our senses, by our faith, by revelation… and at each stage we should take from this feast day the inspiration and confidence to continue to be a Church of Hope for all peoples.  Amen.

Dinner with the Cheese Lords

It was a dark stormy night…. No, really it was.  DC has been underwater for the last several days, and another deluge was in the works as my uber pulled up to the chunky dimensions of a grand DC townhouse.  Could this really be it?  A parishioner invited me to join him and some friends for a rehearsal of their choral group.  What a nice invite… but this edifice, this great old keep… could this really be where a bunch of guys were gathering to sing among friends?  

It was indeed the right place.  My friend had bought the home years ago and was slowly, painstakingly restoring its former glory.  In the meantime, he hosts frequent rehearsals of The Suspicious Cheese Lords a group of ordinary DC guys who sing works from the West’s great treasury of Renaissance wonders.  Even more intriguing, the Cheese Lords only sing works that have never been recorded!

I touched the front door knob.  As the door gave way, so did all the tensions of a new place and stormy night.  Inside was warmth and a carefully assembled potluck of meat, potatoes and wine to warm hearts and minds before rehearsal.  The Cheese Lords are a quirky smily agglomeration of musicians, federal workers, scholars… it’s all very DC… and it’s WONDERFUL.  I was instantly at ease with the joyful band and we laughed our way through dinner before they set down to the evening’s work: singing.  Sheet music shuffled around the group, some of it ending up in my hands.  I started to hand it back, when my hosts questioned, “aren’t you going to sing with us?  We heard you sing.”  

I was amazed and a little nervous; I hadn’t sung polyphony since seminary.  But slowly, it came back: first the beat, then the notes and slowly the sense of the music… of fitting into a harmonious hole… What can I say but, “Wonderful!”

The Suspicious Cheese Lords are what music, and in a special way sacred music is all about: hearts and minds bound as one through the Love of a music and a message greater than themselves.  Into the hands of that music they surrender their voices so that they can transmit a transcendent Word.  “Are they all Catholics?” You may ask… I don’t know… and I’m not sure it matters.  Their music witnessed to me that Jesus is Lord… and no one can say that unless the Holy Spirit is at work in them (cf I Cor. 12:3).  One might also assume that these are all classically trained experts, but they’re just ordinary Joes.  Transcendence doesn’t flow from our expertise, but from God’s… that’s why it’s transcendent.  What is required of us is a little humility and a lot of love.  I got to experience all of that last night, for which I say, “Thank you Lord.” And thank you to the Suspicious Cheese Lords.

Albums by The Suspicious Cheese Lords are easily available on iTunes.  I highly recommend checking them out.  They also have a website: http://www.suspiciouscheeselords.com

We become what we worship… morning reflections on Psalm 134 and Isaiah

Since coming to St. Mary’s in Chinatown, I’ve been engaging in something of a bi-ritual existence… paying attention to the two forms (Extraordinary Form in Latin and Ordinary Form in vernacular) of expressing the one Roman Rite of the Catholic Church.  It’s been an interesting challenge studying two sets of readings and prayers, sometimes multiple saints, each day… but it’s been enriching, as I hope my morning meditation will show…

Praying this morning from the EF breviary, I was struck by this line from Psalm 134:

“Similes illis fiant qui faciunt ea: et omnes qui confidunt in eis.” 

Who make idols will become like them, and likewise those who place trust in them.

Words of wisdom, to be sure.  Put another way, “You are what you worship.” And if the thing you worship is a blind, deaf, dumb, inanimate thing, then that’s what you’ll begin to resemble.  We can extend the idea beyond the classical motif of the static graven image: Who worships greed, will become greedy.  Who worships anger and hate will be an angry hate-filled person.  We might even draw connection to another bit of Biblical wisdom, “Who lives by the sword shall die by the sword.” (Mt. 26:52)

When man becomes a “technologist” when he builds things out of self-reference and self-reverence, those things will be limited by the bounds of his own mortality.  If he becomes so self-impressed that he effectively worships these things then – in an ironic twist of fate – they become his God and the created controls the creator.  It’s the oldest sin: the desire and attempt to “be like gods.” (cf Gen. 3:5)

Better to be an artist… to perceive and appreciate something much larger than us and to participate in it, in something immortal.  If we worship that then rather than being limited by our own mortal bounds, we become liberated by the infinite Being of the divine.  You are what you worship.  This better path, this humbler artist’s way is summed up in the laudes antiphon for Ps. 134, 

“Laudate nomen Domini, qui statis in domo Domini.” 

Praise the name of the Lord all who stand in the Lord’s house.

It’s appropriate to note that the Lord’s name – particularly his Holy Name as revealed to Moses (Ex. 3:14) – is the only name in the world not generated by man.  Everything else it was our privilege to name, but God’s name is not of our making, nor is his house.  

In today’s OF Reading for Mass (Is. 7:1-9), Isaiah warns that even as the northern kingdom (Israel/Ephraim) gathers allies for an assault on the southern kingdom (Judah/House of David), they are spelling their own doom because their obedience to pagan practice is now complete.  They have literally bowed to the outside [false] gods of Syria, preparing the way for the Babylonian exile.  Judah would not fare much better in the end, but they would ultimately be brought back to rebuild and renew true worship of the One True God… to praise the Name of the Lord in his house.

St. John Paul II wrote and preached frequently on these topics throughout his ministry.  Under Soviet domination, he could see the deadly effects of an atheist regime that [practically] worshipped human achievements only.  He strenuously critiqued the development of nuclear weapons and other WMDs pointing out that they (man’s creation) had come to dominate their creators determining so much of how we live hope and fear.  As the Soviet Union fell, his social encyclicals began to warn us of the dangers of capitalist triumphalism and the worship of the dollar… and haven’t we seen some of those warnings come true today.

More locally, consider: societies that effectively worship their phones become enslaved by them.  Do you spend more time looking down, chained by your phone’s tiny screen, or do you spend more time looking up to limitless heaven?  Do you know friends/colleagues whose absolute adherence to contraceptive culture has led to difficulty conceiving when they do want to start a family… or worse… has obedience to porn led to hollow relationships and ultimately loneliness?  How many of us can truly say we feel free from the constraints of this world?

We become what we worship folks… take every chance you get today to liberate yourself from adoring the things of this world… you’ll find yourself happier and more fulfilled for the effort.