St. Bonaventure was a great poet, theologian, and really a second founder of the Franciscan Order. He was the theologian who gave institutional staying power to the charismtic revolution begun by St. Francis himself. So it’s appropriate that we should look to him for very practical concrete advice about daily faith. I found such yesterday in The Office of Readings:
We must come with pure faith to the Father of light and acknowledge him in our hearts. We must ask him to give us through his Son, in the Holy Spirit a true knowledge of Jesus Christ, and along with that knowledge a love of him. Knowing and loving him in this way, confirmed in our faith and grounded in our love, we can know the length and breadth and depth and height of sacred Scripture.
Lots of people tell me they want to learn more about the Bible. It’s a beautiful thirst on their part. But Before one can dive into Scripture study or any growth in the life of faith, really, we have to pray simply -as St. Bonaventure suggests- putting the whole enterprise in the hands of the Lord who is himself the origin of all faith.
It’s like a child learning to play the piano: he won’t be Beethoven overnight. Even before the chords and arpeggios, there’s that most basic step of entrusting oneself to the guidance of the teacher… and isn’t that where, so often, we miss a step? I know it is for me.
Just in the last month, living in a new parish with new challenges and very little staff support, I’ve had to carefully discipline myself to learn new processes, skills etc… The first step is always asking for help from a neighboring pastor, from the central office, from friends and professionals who’ve gone through it all before. The hardest part is picking up the phone to make that call, but let me tell you it’s worth it.
Aquinas reminds us that virtue is not in the dreaming, in the intention “I want to be a Scripture scholar… I want to be Beethoven… I want to be a good parish priest…” but in the doing. So I suppose my witness this morning would be this: all of Catholicism begins by getting on our knees and asking for help… “Just do it!” You’ll be grateful you did.
Walking around the city today a very mundane sight caught my attention: a building site on the 1700 block of M Street, NW… One building is in the process of being demolished between two others (see photo).
Do you notice what I noticed? The adjacent building has hardly been scratched by the destruction! It may not seem like much, but if you’ve ever worked with a sledge hammer you know it’s not exactly an instrument of finesse.
I marveled at the work crew’s achievement for a moment then walked on. I’m sure the destruction will be matched eventually by equal feats of construction. It’s all very impressive… but it pails in comparison to God’s achievements in nature. Whether it’s me strolling the city or any of us being self-impressed, a dose of humility never hurts the avid humanist. I was reminded as much when I sat down later with this verse from Bl. John Henry Newman:
Man goeth forth with reckless trust upon his wealth of mind, as if in self a thing of dust creative skill might find; he schemes and toils; stone wood and ore subject or weapon of his power.
By arch and spire, by tower-girt heights, he would his boast fulfill; by marble births, and mimic lights – yet lacks one secret still; where is the master hand shall give to breathe to move to speak to live?
What do Toulouse-Lautrec, The Feast the Presentation and a doctor of Canon Law all have to do with one another? No it’s not the start of a bad pulpit joke, it’s just my day today.
Today is, after all the feast of the Presentation. It happened at the end of the days of purification; Mary and Joseph took the newborn Jesus to the Temple to present him to God the Father according to Law and custom. Why? Because they needed to? Certainly not. The eternal Jesus was already well-acquainted with his co-eternal Father… and Mary certainly needed no purification, having been preserved from original sin. So why? Because the Law was a beautiful thing, a gift from God beautiful in and of itself, worthy of observation…. in the same way that Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan to fulfill all righteousness. It wasn’t “necessary,” it wasn’t “useful,” but it was worth doing. Here we stumble upon the concept of aesthetics: doing the beautiful simply to do the beautiful.
Today at the Phillips Collection, I’ll be getting a sneak peek at their new exhibit “Toulouse-Lautrec Illustrates the Belle-Epoque” The drawings of this famed French illustrator were not exactly high art in the vain of Michelangelo, but they are said to have captured the spirit of their time and place. Like so many other works of, let’s call it “day-to-day” art, Toulouse Lautrec’s illustrations are still with us because they have a certain beauty all their own, irrespective of any usefulness. One enjoys looking at them just for the sake of saying, “Wow, there are beautiful things in the world and man is part of them.” Indeed, art – as an extension man – is an extension of the only creature on earth created for its own sake. Man serves no useful purpose. God did not need to make us to praise him. He made us purely from love as an act of unadulterated non-utilitarian beauty.
Later in the day I’ll go to a mass of thanksgiving and farewell celebration for a friend of mine, Father James Bradley who departs these shores for his native England, doctorate of Canon Law in-hand. Father Bradley is a master artist when it comes to music and his awareness the Church’s most sublime musical form, chant. During his time in Washington, he’s brought a really luminous enthusiasm to so many masses, days of recollection and countless other encounters he’s been part of. It’s not the kind of stuff we use on a daily basis… and in that sense not, useful… but to have been touched by it is to have experienced something of heaven. I’m so grateful for my friend, his discipline and zeal. Utilitarian, perhaps not (at least not by post-modern standards), but I feel closer to heaven for having experience his love of beauty for its own sake.
Looking at the world with eyes of faith, how much time do I spend experiencing beauty for its own sake?
Earlier this week our school had a two hour delay because of some winter weather. Children whose parents didn’t get the message came to our morning mass to get out of the cold, and -as they are wont to do- fell into chattering and giggling in the pews. After mass, we had a little chat.
It’s hard for kids to understand the value of silence, the importance of calming the stormy sea. In today’s Office of Readings, Paul gives his famous command to the Thessalonians (I Thess. 5:16), “Joy be with you always. Never cease praying.” But why? As he alludes to throughout the rest of the Letter, this Christian life of ours, guided by prayer, opens us to a deeper wisdom, an ability to follow the Truth who is Jesus. Bishop Diadochus of Photice puts it beautifully in his treatise, “On Spiritual Perfection,” also in today’s Office, “The light of true knowledge makes it possible to discern without error the difference between good and evil. … Therefore we must maintain great stillness of mind even in the midst of our struggles.” He goes on, “No fish can hide in a tranquil sea and escape the fisherman’s sight. The stormy sea, however, becomes murky… the fisherman’s skills are useless.” As much as anything else, prayer is us calming the seas of our heart so the Christ the fisherman can do his work. As an aside, this reminds me of one title for my favorite saint, Philip Neri: “Piscator fluctuantiam,” Fisherman of the Wavering… such a great image.
In today’s Gospel (Mk. 6:1-6), Jesus returns to his native land but can do very little there because the people are so agitated by his words. Their hearts were not calm and opened to the goodness directly in front of them. So today’s lesson isn’t just for kids… it’s for us adults too. Indeed, in my community, I hear more and more each day about adults whose hearts, disturbed by the winds of the world simply can’t comprehend the goodness possible in the life of the Church. They’re always on the defensive, worried about self-image, past sins, even the possibility of some person or circumstance irreparably harming them. So we’re going to work to make our parish a haven, a safe place where their inner sea can find calm once again… so that Jesus the fisherman of souls can do his work.
In today’s Morning Prayer we hear from Psalm 144:
“Lord what is man that you care for him,
mortal man that you keep him in mind;
man, who is merely a breath,
whose life fades like a passing shadow.”
Reading those words (which I’ve read thousands of times) my mind turns, not to the abstract sense of death, but rather to my day, yesterday.
Monday is “get the wheels moving day” in every parish I’ve ever served in. Voicemails from the weekend need to be processed, people begin calling the office with questions and issues that came up Sunday at parish meetings, or in the normal course of parish life. Plus, of course, it’s Monday! After the beauty of Sunday worship there’s always a come-down as mundane Monday strikes again. Monday’s not “bad,” per se… it’s just work. Yesterday seemed particularly disjointed. I couldn’t really dig in at my desk. Interruptions kept coming, as well as unexpected requests. I really felt like my life was but a breath or a passing shadow.
It’s Tuesday and now, and with a good night’s sleep, some hind sight and the help of the Psalmist I’m thinking, “Maybe Monday wasn’t so bad.” Jesus’ own life was like a breath… a passing shadow. He only lived thirty three years. Of those, only three comprised his public ministry, and those were tumultuous. Nonetheless, God deigned to take on our passing shadow life… He embraced it, clutched it close to himself and brought forth from it new Resurrection life. It doesn’t mean that human life is easy or that the tumult doesn’t sometimes exhaust… or even hurt us; Jesus himself cried out on the Cross. But for those of us who look on this life with eyes of faith, there’s a happy ending in store. Amen.
Today, the Church in the US marks Epiphany, that beautiful day when the Magi arrived in Bethlehem to adore the Infant Lord. Libraries of books could (and have) been written expounding on the meaning of the event. For myself, one dimension sticks out this year: Epiphany is a sign on earth that points us to the heavens. ‘makes sense, really for isn’t that what the ministry of Jesus was all about? He came as a man to conduct men to the heavens. Such is also the meaning of each of the miracles. In Gospel Greek, the “miracles,” were called “semeia,” “signs” in English… and a sign never points to itself, it points to a destination yet to be reached… The sign keeps us going on the way. We’ve encountered a number of these signs in the readings lately.
Earlier in the week John the Baptist pointed Andrew to Jesus, “Behold the Lamb of God.” Andrew then leads Peter to Christ. Together Andrew and Peter lead Nathaniel. Each becomes a sign pointing to Jesus… and Jesus points us to the Father in Heaven. Friday we read about the Baptism of the Lord, when the Father and the Spirit testified to the Son, “You are my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.” Saturday, Jesus testifies to himself by performing his first miracle at Cana. So many signs, all telling us, “There is something more to this world than meets the eye. Keep going.”
I’ve arrived at my new parish assignment, St. Francis Xavier Parish in Southeast DC. The first three days have been VERY full, exhausting actually. Priests have to move into wholly new surroundings, learn the lights, locks and locations of a new property all while shepherding the life of that new place forward without missing a step. The devil tempted me to despair at several points. Before arriving I found out that the music program had been cut. The day I arrived I discovered that my 3-day-a-week volunteer secretary had decided to retire, the organ doesn’t turn on and… well, you get the idea.
I prayed in chapel first for music. The Church teaches that music is a constitutive part of the mass… it’s not really an option. “Lord,” I said, “you want music at your mass. Help me.” and he did! My friend Luca came forward and announced out of nowhere that he is a classically trained organist / pianist. “Lord,” I said, “I need an electrician to make the organ work.” Sure enough, a parishioner came forward in conversation and revealed that his brother is an electrician! He’ll be here Tuesday. Finally, I asked the Lord for someone to answer the phones in the office, and sure enough, a woman presented herself to volunteer hours at the desk. Finally, just today, I woke up without a voice… a developing sore throat turned into laryngitis just in time for my first Sunday mass. kneeling before the altar, I begged the Lord to make mass happen… and wouldn’t you know it… I got to my chair, opened my mouth and found my voice again! It promptly cut out again after the last mass.
Small signs, perhaps, but for me they’ve done the trick… they’ve kept me walking, sacrificing on the way to heaven. Another thing about these Epiphany signposts is that they tell us “Jesus is here, not there” In a unique way, Christ is fully present in the Catholic Church. That’s a message worth sharing with others. That’s truly Good News. There are so many in my new parish who need the hope of that message, who need an epiphany. So I’m inviting all of the parishioners to work toward that goal… to announce the Good News to everyone we know… but particularly to all the homes of our neighborhood. How we do that will be a subject of discernment over the coming months, but the epiphanies I’ve received so far are enough to convince me that we can do it together in Christ. Happy Epiphany!
As any middle school student can tell you, the scientific method is a bedrock of modern thought. It observes sensible data, compares it to known truths, and eventually arrives at reasonably certain conclusions. Applying this process to contemporary life, one can reasonably say, “Our society, our culture, is dying.” Consider just a very few bits of evidence,observed in the papers this last year:
-Hollywood, which generates so much of our popular cultural output, is dominated by sequels, re-makes and series-films that are themselves just screen versions of pre-existing literature. What’s happened to our imaginations?
-The number suicides in the military (traditionally a bastion of lively self-confidence) is up.
For the first time in recent memory, the population of the United States has actually contracted… meaning that even including immigration, we are not generating enough life to replace those who die.
-And, of course, among those who are conceived far too many are terminated by abortion before they even have a chance to breathe; their mothers told by the richest society in history, “we cannot find the resources to support you and your child in this hour of need.”
-All of this in the midst of a particularly acrimonious, utterly cynical election cycle wherein those standing for office on all sides promoted themselves as our “saviors.” Right…
We see evidence in the Church too: In most of the parishes in which I’ve served, children no longer know all the words to traditional Christmas carols, nor to patriotic hymns. Asked to sing, even at a school play or concert, they will stare at their feet in muted embarrassment. The number of baptisms and weddings continues to drop, even in places where vibrant efforts are made (and may be slowly succeeding) at growing the number of adult converts to the Faith. Most of my priesthood has been spent in the suburbs. There, another phenomenon – itself an attempt at life – speaks to the state of culture. How many of us have been to a predominantly white, “anglo” parish where the choir or more often the choir/liturgy “director” foists upon the rest of the congregation hymns from a gospel tradition or lively music in Spanish… despite the fact that neither of those cultural expressions has ever been a part of the parish in question. It comes from the best of intentions: seeing a moribund congregation, the worship leader tries to draw from what he/she perceives as a more lively culture… and yet, the mixture, well-intended though it may be, really doesn’t work. Culture can’t be forced.
We might well be tempted to despair, but for the power of history: We’ve been here before. The Roman world of the 1st century had a lot in common with us. As devotion to the Olympian cult waned, people became very cynical. Attempts were made to patch together a new religious observance from the corners of the empire, but patch-work religion rarely generates real life. Peoples crushed under the boot of the legions watched as their heritage was subsumed and repackaged to serve the needs of the imperial state. Husbands and wives were traded in transactional marriages the resembled the horrific slave markets of the time, and fathers had the right to execute children born with defects by exposing them to the elements. Into this scene entered the author of life and culture, Jesus the Christ.
Jesus’ birth began a re-birth for the human soul, and from that re-birth flowed a new life-giving Christian culture that spread, not by the sword but by the compelling force of life’s own attractive beauty. It all began in a stable at Bethlehem… and it ca begin there again. Let’s consider for a moment those who gathered at the foot of the Infant Lord.
His mother and foster-father – Mary and Joseph- found themselves in a very irregular situation. Betrothed but not yet fully married, Mary was pregnant with someone else’s child, traveling by donkey as her due date approached. Why was she traveling? Because the conqueror of her people demanded that her husband register to pay taxes in the town of his birth. How would the child be born? How would he be explained? Would this first-century carpenter and his wife be good parents in the midst of a village of wagging tongues? Impossible questions for any human being to answer alone, but at the foot of the manger embracing the newborn King, they found in his love the ability to rejoice and proceed forward in hope.
The Shepherds – rejected by the polite society of towns and cities, shepherds scratched out a living in the provinces. They were uneducated, crude, and given how they were usually treated we may well suppose them to have been among the more cynical/purely practical members of an oppressed society. And yet… at the foot of the manger – one of their own feed stalls, by the way – looking at new life in Christ, somehow they found the joy and renewal needed to go out and proclaim truly good news to their neighbors.
The Magi – As Pope Benedict points out in Spe Salvi, the Magi represent the rationalistic pagan establishment of the time. They had followed the natural signs in the sky to a supernatural end. Gazing at the child in the manger, they were converted from philosophers to theologians, finding in him a message of joy and hope to bring back to their neighbors in pagan lands.
I don’t know what the precise roadmap will look like to rebuilding our society and culture, but I know this isn’t the first time western civilization has found itself in this condition. Whatever a life-giving future looks like, we can be certain that it will begin at the foot of the manger where we are loved by the Infant, Incarnate Lord. Spend some time over the next weeks in prayer there. Visit your parish manger scene, or sit before the tabernacle to be loved by the Lord. Who knows what life-giving inspiration may come.
During the season of Advent, I’ll be posting weekly reflections to match the homilies I deliver each Sunday about renewing our awareness about liturgy and culture in Church. Check out the first one posted in the Weekly Reflections Page, or click HERE
Last week, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg took part in the Washington National Opera’s production of “Daughter of the Regiment.” A devotee of the opera, the Justice was hailed for a fine job in her cameo appearance. Reading about this happy and peculiarly DC moment I thought, “Wouldn’t that be fun?” This week, the Lord gave me an opportunity to take part in a much more moving human drama, a story of tragedy and triumph: the funeral of a parishioner, Maurice Hawkins.
Maurice was a regular at St. Peter, Capitol Hill. For a significant time he was homeless, and though I never knew details, it was obvious he had some sort of learning disability. Years ago, the Pastor of St. Peter’s, Fr. Michael O’Sullivan, helped Maurice to find decent housing and support. Nonetheless, as for many who’ve experienced homelessness, Maurice’s life seemed to be an ongoing series of assaults: medical problems, people trying to scam him, etc. But this beautiful simple man found his peace and his joy in something beyond the world’s many attempts to bring him down. Maurice knew that he was loved by Jesus Christ, and he loved Christ in return. His limited learning became perhaps his greatest asset as he lived without guile, giving himself completely to the love of Jesus.
Maurice prayed daily, helped out around the church grounds as best he could, and always had a smily greeting for his neighbor. Two of Maurice’s habits struck a special chord in my own heart: Each week, Maurice brought random articles to the parish priests to be blessed… rosaries, clippings from the newspaper, discarded toys, even bits of string. Strange as it may have seemed, I actually found this quite beautiful. In a St. Francis sort of way, Maurice always seemed concerned about bringing more blessing into the world. The second of Maurice’s habits that really touched me was his weekly request for holy water. Curious, I asked him why he always needed holy water. He answered, “…because I never know when I may die. I want to have the Lord’s blessing always.”
When Maurice died a few weeks ago, the community at St. Peter swung into action to prepare for his funeral. Many people chipped in to cover expenses. The body was treated with the utmost care, being brought to a proper place of burial at Gate of Heaven Cemetery. The church was fuller than I’ve seen for many funerals, and the music would make any priest envious for the same when his time comes. His life was a human drama of – dare I say it – “Biblical” proportions marked by struggle, tragedy, and -at least to earthly eyes- futility… but for those of us who, like Maurice, see with eyes of faith… this story is really about the triumph of Jesus’ love for us. It’s not often that I say this about the deceased, but Maurice’s holiness was imminently clear. He who suffered so much in this life and loved throughout will surely rest in peace. We should all be so blessed.
For further reflection, consider this Gospel passage, chosen for Maurice’s funeral (Lk 16:19-ff):
“There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen and dined sumptuously each day.
And lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores,
who would gladly have eaten his fill of the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table. Dogs even used to come and lick his sores.
When the poor man died, he was carried away by angels to the bosom of Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried,
and from the netherworld,where he was in torment, he raised his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side.
And he cried out, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me. Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am suffering torment in these flames.’
Abraham replied, ‘My child, remember that you received what was good during your lifetime while Lazarus likewise received what was bad; but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented.
Moreover, between us and you a great chasm is established to prevent anyone from crossing who might wish to go from our side to yours or from your side to ours.’
He said, ‘Then I beg you, father, send him to my father’s house,
for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they too come to this place of torment.’
But Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them.’
He said, ‘Oh no, father Abraham, but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
Then Abraham said, ‘If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.’”