Frozen Time

The Frozen Tidal Basin reflecting the Washington Monument

It’s been cold in DC this week… frigid really.  Walking along the river with my dog it took me a minute to realize that something was different… and then it hit me: the Potomac was frozen!  …not just frozen, but immobile.  When a city sits astride a river, the movement of the water gives a sense of the passage of time, but today time stopped.  It was cold, not many people out, quiet without birds chirping or traffic beeping.  The whole scene was actually rather monastic… just me, Annie (my dog), and all the silent time in the world to contemplate the Lord loving us.  Winter doesn’t often feel like a time for outdoor activities, but there are gifts to be received in the frozen landscape, if we look on it with eyes of faith.

The Potomac Frozen on New Year’s Day

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.

– Excerpted from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets (#1)

Praying for and with Peter

Yesterday’s feast of St. Thomas Becket is a great day for:

Thoughts about personal conversion – Thomas’ transformation from “BFF of King Henry II” to “staunch defender of the faith, man of prayer and servant of the poor” is legendary and beautifully portrayed by Richard Burton in “Becket.”

Cheering for the freedom of the Church – Thomas advocated for the freedom of the Church from the interference of the state, and it cost him his life.

Praying for and with Peter…

St. Thomas had a great affection for the Pope. On the one hand, one could easily say that his affection was out of political necessity: The freedom of the Church in England, threatened by the King, depended on the external power of the Pope to keep it safe. On the other, Thomas’ own words look to a deeper appreciation for the Petrine Office. “…the Roman Church remains the head of all the churches and the source of Catholic teaching. Of this there can be no doubt. Everyone knows that the keys of the kingdom of heaven were given to Peter. Upon his faith and teaching the whole fabric of the Church will continue to be built until we all reach full maturity in Christ and attain to unity in faith and knowledge of the Son of God.”

Praying with Thomas’ words yesterday, I️ was taken back to my own time in Rome, studying in the shadow of the dome. That Peter is the principle of unity within the Church cannot be doubted today anymore than in Thomas’ time. But that rock solid certainty doesn’t make the life or job of the Pope any easier. Indeed back in the twelfth century, even though Church authorities knew Thomas was right, they hedged… The Pope took a certain amount of politics into consideration and forced Thomas to negotiate… perhaps more than the saint would’ve on his own. Who was right? We’ll never know… Thomas’ martyrdom took care of that, fundamentally changing the equation. In the same letter quoted above (From Thomas’ Office of Readings), the saint goes on to say, “…many are needed to plant and many to water… Nevertheless, no matter who plants or waters, God gives no harvest unless what he plants is the faith of Peter…”. Peter is essential, but he does not exist in a vacuum. Others are needed to help by “planting and watering.” In Peter’s own time it was Paul, who corrected him about the place of Gentiles in the Church… Andrew his brother who no doubt supported him as only family can… John the fearless beloved who inspired… and Mary the Mother of Jesus who loved and forgave Peter in his weakness. Only by working together did the Church move forward under Peter’s guidance. In St. Thomas’ time the Church only moved forward through unity with Peter, the service of the other bishops, and Thomas’ own supreme sacrifice. Life really isn’t much different today. Peter is absolutely necessary, but it doesn’t make him perfect any more than St. Peter himself or the medieval Popes of St. Thomas Becket’s day. He needs our help and our prayers. In this way, we can all participate -in our own degree- in the collegiality so often called for by the Holy Father. Saint Thomas, pray for us, and for Peter!

The manger emerges

Friends from around the country will often – half jokingly – lead off conversations with me, “Now father, what you gotta do is tell those people in DC what it’s really like out here…” The assumption is that priests in DC spend most of their time hobnobbing with senators and secretaries from executive departments. Reality couldn’t be farther from the truth. That said, having served on Capitol Hill, I do run into a few familiar faces from the House now and then. All are hard working, remarkably normal people who are struggling just as much as anyone else in America to figure out this thing called life. I ran into one such leader a few days ago. I was happy to see him, and he seemed happy to run into me too. Approaching, however, I was taken aback. The first words out of this person’s mouth were an avalanche of commentary on the tax bills being considered by Congress. My heart was moved with pity. While our representatives in Washington need to be diligent about policy, they can only really do that if they are first and foremost human beings. I felt like my friend had been reduced to a machine-like state, his beautiful personality overridden by concerns of the day, the creator overrun by his creation. “Martha you are worried about many things…” It was a split-second thought process. Replying I Just said, “We’re all praying for you to have the gift of prudence. Now, how are your grandchildren?” His face flickered, something in his eyes changed. We talked for a few minutes; he was off to his next commitment, I to mine, but before we parted my friend said to me, “I’m just so scared.” I told him, “I know, but even if this all ends, it’s not the end.” We exchanged smiles and went our ways. In that moment of expressed vulnerability my friend was his normal self again. The man overrode the machine once more.

Rome too has known many moments such as as these. One was 1527 and the decades following. The Holy Roman Emperor, in a spat with the Pope, had descended from Germany to sack the city. People at the time thought it was literally the end of the world. The Protestant Reformation had begun just ten years prior, and now Catholicism’s two principal leaders were fighting… Rome seemed to be burning. Incidentally, this historical moment was part of the inspiration for Michaelangelo’s Last Judgment. But from the ruins emerged great saints to restore the city and the Church. Philip Neri taught us to be hermits in the city, not to take ourselves too seriously and always to seek first the Kingdom of God. Ignatius and Francis Xavier turned our eyes to the world and missionary possibilities. Camillus and Felix refocused us on the needs of the poor. The list goes on and on, but eventually these holy heavyweights would rebuild the Church, restoring in her the image of Christ for all the world to see. Their effort hinged on that truth the Spirit spoke through me to my friend on the Hill, “even if this all ends, it is not the end.”

Hanging in the National Gallery of Art is an Adoration of the Magi by Sandro Botticelli. You’ll notice that, as often happens in such scenes, the simple wooden framework of the manger/crèche seems to emerge from classical ruins. As usual in renaissance art, this is not an accident. The artist wants to remind us that even as the old world falls apart around us, Jesus is ever and always building up the new world of tomorrow. New structures, fitted to the deepest needs of our humanity will rise from the ashes of the old… until the day when, “the heavens will pass away with a mighty roar and the elements be dissolved by fire.” (II Pt. 3). Until then, what can we do? Be builders!

Here in DC there are many. Our campus ministries and College Knights of Columbus Councils (especially at GW, CUA and UMD) are doing incredible evangelizing work among our student population. The DC Catholic Young Adult Ministry, The Catholic Information Center, Dominican House of Studies, Oratory and downtown parishes are building up the young professional class in Christ. Our parishes are havens of prayer and mercy healing and supplying the needs of all…. Again, the list goes on and on. There are so many involved in building up the manger in DC! For those of us living amidst the hazards of the manger construction zone there are anxieties to be sure… injuries to be sustained along the way. For us there is only St. Peter’s advice, “conduct yourselves in holiness and devotion” with your eyes of what matters most, our heavenly homeland, and our humanity. If we do that, we are assured that even if this all ends, it is not the end. Be aware! Keep watch! The manger emerges.

Annie, the Immaculate Conception and New Beginnings

It’s finally happened… I have become the perfect DC cliche: I am a 30-something professional living in the city with my dog. This past Sunday (on our parish’s patronal feast of St. Francis Xavier as it happens) I brought home a beautiful retriever puppy named Annie. So, just as the Church is beginning a year of new life in this first week of Advent, the Lord breathes new life into my personal story. It’s a new life for Annie as well. She’s a refugee from the hurricane season in Puerto Rico. I’m told that she was abandoned at about 1 month old, along with her brother, on the runway at San Juan airport as other animals were being loaded on a plane for transport to adoption centers on the mainland. Thanks be to God, the airport workers took pity on her. Our first week together has been a revelation as we get to know each other, and as I get to know the ways of canines generally. To this end, I highly recommend, “The Art of Raising a Puppy,” by the Monks of New Skete, NY. These Orthodox monks have become experts at breeding German Shepherds, and have written several excellent books on how to raise dogs. But back to Annie and me…

As I mentioned, this first week has been a revelation: plenty of care, plenty of discipline and self-surrender, and tons of joy! …and it goes both ways. Annie has been learning and thriving in her new life, and so have I. It strikes me as particularly appropriate that all this newness comes about as we celebrate the Immaculate Conception: a day totally dedicated to marking the new beginning of goodness planned by God from before the beginning of time. Man could never have imagined how God would prepare for his entry into the world in Christ. Today’s Office of Readings compares it to the building of the Temple. In Chronicles 17:1-15 David wants to build a house, a place for the Lord to come into the world… but God has other plans. He tells David that it is not he, but his son Solomon who will build the Temple. I never imagined, driving to the adoption event on Sunday that I’d be coming home with a dog! A friend who’s involved in dog rescues called me to tell me that Annie would be at this event. She said, “This dog is perfect for you, can you get out to Tyson’s Corner fast?” I told her that, providentially, I was already on my way when she’d called.” An hour later Annie and I were driving home.

Today, celebrate the Immaculate Conception. Take some time to ask, “Lord how are YOU sending new life into my experience?” It comes in the most unexpected of ways. I’d write more… and will write more, but Annie needs to… well you know… Gotta go!

The Christmas Comforts of Formality

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why bother to be better?

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

The Integrity of Travel

What is it about travel that is so liberating?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Get Huge When You Can Get Small?

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

Why get huge when you can get small?

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