For a great new morning radio show, “Morning Glory” on the EWTN global radio network.
For those who don’t know, EWTN is the Eternal Word Television Network, begun by Mother Angelica, a Catholic Nun. The Network had humble beginnings but has grown by leaps and bounds to bring eyes and ears of faith to the airwaves. By way of witness: I wasn’t always a fan of EWTN. As a kid I thought “Church TV” was about as lame as you could get. Over time though, my own tastes, my own media needs, and the quality of the programming all grew. I’m a big fan of the contribution that this great team of people are making to faith-filled culture. I hope you’ll consider checking out this Friday’s (9/11/15) radio show using the link above and tune in regularly for all the good material they’re broadcasting from right here in Washington, DC!
When Moses came down Mt. Sinai with the Ten Commandments he was surprised to discover his people worshipping God in the form of a golden calf. They weren’t worshipping a false god (lower case “g”). Traditional readings of this scene tell us that the Jewish people had not abandoned the Lord… but they were in a hard place and had a hard time conceiving of how they could relate to their shapeless God. So the people, in an act of desperation, in the shaking of their faith made a golden calf, a containable image of God. At its best this was the people’s attempt to more easily perceive the living God. At its worst, this was the people making the living God into something they could manipulate. In all cases, God “contained” in a human creation is an oxymoron. Compassion for the people’s situation doesn’t change this reality.
In a recent letter (12 June 2015) on the nature of Catholic worship, Cardinal Robert Sarah (Prefect of the Congregation for the Divine Worship and the Sacraments a.k.a. protector and promoter of the Church’s worship practices) raised a concern about contemporary worship: “We run the real risk of leaving no room for God in our celebrations, falling into the temptation of the Israelites in the desert. They sought to create a cult of worship limited to their own measure and reach…” Hence, all too often, the criteria for our public worship is, “Wouldn’t that be nice?” or “Wouldn’t it be popular if…?” or “People would like mass more if…”
NOTE: This post is NOT about liturgy, but Cardinal Sarah’s comments and the experience of the Jews teaches us an important lesson about life with the living God – It’s not always easy, and earthly comfort is not the primary goal.
Speaking with someone today about the jailing of Kim Davis I was told, quite firmly, that the Supreme Court’s recent rulings about same-sex marriage represented the definitive end of all conversation and Ms. Davis should’ve quit her job rather than disobey in protest of the law… End of discussion. The truth was to be neatly boxed in a space just large enough for the comfort of society at this particular moment in history… A new golden calf. But Truth… and Truth’s author, the living God cannot be contained like that, not even by the highest court of the Land. The Court once ruled that “separate, but equal” was legal. Did that make it true? The Constitution once determined, by popular vote of the Convention no less, that slavery was (a) legal and (b) that slaves = 3/5 of a person. Did the legality of those laws make them True? No. The truth cannot be manipulated by human beings… only discerned and appreciated. Furthermore that discernment is something that should be always ongoing. For even the most certain truths will only be known fully in heaven. Indeed, the great philosopher Josef Pieper described the virtue of hope precisely as the constant state of our lives as “in via,” always on the way, never content to stop and settle for where we’re at. One could saythen that to abandon the discernment of truth, to box up God is to limit or even smother hope.
Such ongoing discernment necessitates a degree of discomfort… call it our sacrifice in honor of the Truth. It also necessitates ongoing, open, honest, and NON-violent dialog. Such discourse shows respect for everyone on all sides… and above all shows our mutual respect for Truth… but it’s not easy and its rarely comfortable. A great book on this subject is Ratzinger’s Truth and Tolerance I highly recommend it. I also recommend a re-reading of the St. John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor and of course, the Catechism. Interestingly, the Church does not command the faithful to unflinchingly assent to all her teachings… Rather she invites Catholics to an ongoing exploration of Truth marked by the humility of simply saying, “I might not know everything at this point in my life.”
Building the golden calf was all too easy… Living in a dynamic, developing relationship with our Father is tougher… but ultimately more satisfying. Let’s keep the conversation going. Peace.
Talking with some parishioners after mass yesterday, I learned about several “Screens on the Green” – outdoor film initiatives here in DC (for more info, check out this LINK). What really excited me was not the possibility of strolling over to Lincoln Park to see Casino Royale (July 16)… No what really enthralled me about this young couple was their excitement about going to see the film together… and with a touch of elegance. They were planning out their picnic, looking forward to selecting some meats, cheeses and maybe even a little vino to compliment the evening. It reminded me of a line from Hello Dolly, “We’ve got elegance. If you aint’ got elegance, you can never hope to carry it off.”
Elegance has very little to do with living in a ritzy manner, per se. It’s more about acting on our best impulses. The concept goes back to the Greek understanding of beauty, “kalon.” For the Athenians, the beauty of nature was characterized by kalon or “elegant order.” So when human beings live elegantly, it means that we bring a certain degree of purposeful order to bear upon a given activity. Put another way – as St. Thomas Aquinas might say – “virtue is in the action… the living-out of the idea.”
These two young adults, planning their movie-night were so excited to DO something about their love for each other… their commitment became manifest in a plan that they are actually going to carry out and live… and that dear friends, is very elegant. It’s not so much about whether you’re buying a bottle of wine or a six-pack of diet coke… It’s about carrying out our desires to live as the best version of ourselves.
If we take our meditation a step (maybe a small leap) farther, we find that this concept of the elegant even touches on the sacraments. Christ left us things to do and to do beautifully as the most clear living-out of his life among us. Thats why parishes where sacraments are well celebrated are so much more satisfying than places where they are not… because the community sees itself doing something about realizing its highest aspirations. Just as a girl might reasonably question a boy, “If you love me so much why didn’t you bring me flowers? Why didn’t you do something about it?” Christ will ask us, “Did you care for my little ones? [c.f. Mt 25] Did you celebrate the sacraments I left you when I said, ‘Do this in memory of me.’? And did you do it in a slipshod or an elegant manner?” [c.f. Mk 14:15] …just something to consider.
Moving into a new parish, lots of people want to tell you lots of things. Happily, here at St. Peter’s the vast majority of things have been so positive my head spins more from euphoria than confusion! Another angle to all this is that I’ve begun to get my very first questions. I’ve only been on the ground two days, but already someone called to ask, “Should I give 10% of my income to God before or after earthly expenses?” I don’t know who the parishioner is – I received the question via voicemail from the secretary – but what a neat first question to get! I started thinking about it… Classically, Biblically, we are invited to give 10% off the top… before expenses… With the caveat that God desires no one to abandon their natural obligations to the support of children, spouses etc. So please do feed your family and then give to the collection on Sunday.
Corollary to this, particularly here on the Hill where our young adult population is booming, it got me thinking, what should a young adult be giving. It’s hard starting out in life, especially in a city as expensive as DC. Many more ‘veteran’ parishioners (not just here but in any parish) will comment “Young people today don’t give…” I’m not sure that’s entirely true… but in any event, I did a little number crunching after prayers this morning.
Average individual income in DC is about $80k. Divide that by 52 weeks/year and you get about $1,500/week. 10% of that is $150 dollars per week. If everyone in the Church gave that amount regardless of their salary we’d have so much money to serve the community we wouldn’t know where to start! That said, it’s REALLY hard to figure out how your average young adult could sacrifice that much per week without cutting into essential expenses… So, I thought to myself… “What would it take to give 5% of an average income each Sunday?” Here’s one quick calculation of things your average young adult in DC could give up easily to put $75/week in the collection:
1 Cocktail on a date or out with friends (including tax/tip) = $20
3 Starbucks coffee based drinks (latte, frappe. etc) = $15
1 Sixpack of beer (Budweiser from Walmart in DC ) = $7
1 Pack of cigarettes (in DC approx.) = $7
1 iTunes video rental of a new release = $6
Various midday snacks / munchies = $20
Even this was a challenging number to arrive at, but here’s a few encouraging thoughts. First, I can tell you from experience that my prayer life and my life walking out on the streets is infinitely better when I’m actively tithing. I contribute to the parish and to the poor right at the beginning of the month so the money isn’t there for me to spend and somehow God makes it all work! Second, it’s ALWAYS been hard, even in Biblical times. For a first century shepherd in Judea to send his first 10% to the Temple was a tremendous sacrifice on his part… but here’s the key: He sent it “as a sacrifice to the temple.” It was an investment… a gift to the Almighty for which God was sure to reward him with grace. Here in Washington the funds our parishioners give end up building up beautiful parish communities where the poor are served, the sick are cured, and the whole of the community can rejoice to see each other in worship and fellowship… In short, we manifest the Kingdom of God by our giving. When you put all of that together, the sacrifices necessary to give up the list above gets put in perspective. Finally, even taking all that into account, I know… all your priests know… it’s hard. We’re in it with you. God our Father calls us to “heroic virtue,” and believe me when I tell you that I look at the generous fidelity of our parishioners as truly heroic! Peace!
By the time I finished marveling at St. Joan of Arc and the amazing vista from Meridian Hill Park, it was about time for a mid-morning break. Leaving the park I trekked down 16th St in search of sustenance.
16th Street, NW has an amazing history, bits and pieces of which are preserved in it today. Originating at the White House, it’s sometimes still known as the “Avenue of Presidents.” Just across from Meridian Hill Park, one can still see the retaining walls and foundations of the Henderson “Castle,” (ca. 1899) home to Sen. John Henderson, who drafted the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. The Senator’s wife was convinced that 16th street should forever be a palatial entrance to Washington. At a time when US expansion, and technological advancement seemed limitless, one can understand Mrs. Henderson’s enthusiasm. The concept never fully took root… too much at odds with American democratic sensibilities… but to this day, embassies and NGO’s occupy some stunning French and Italianate palazzi all along this stretch of 16th.
Coming to U Street, I initially thought to stop at the local Starbucks (U and New Hampshire), but thought better of it. Nothing against Starbucks, but there had to be a more “local” establishment. And there was! The Three Fifty Coffee Bar and Bakery is an ideal stop for a midmorning riposo. Located on 17th St, just south of U, the ambiance is charming, the espresso excellent and the croissants are freshly home made. See my earlier posting on “Espresso and Aspirations,” for more on the virtues of local coffee shops.
Trekking south on New Hampshire, U Street gave way to Dupont. The neighborhood is one of Washington’s nicest, to be sure. Initially, the architecture may conjure thoughts of Paris, or Mayfair in London… but there’s an element of restraint one doesn’t find in those cities. Dupont, like most of Washington is actually rather humble as capital neighborhoods go. Even at the peak of its 19th century growth, American wealth didn’t (generally) match the scale of European grandeur. Consequently Dupont is marked by a certain simple elegance, or noble simplicity that makes it equally inspiring and endearing to visitors. Too many people speed through the area, even on foot… on their way, I’m sure, to important jobs… but what a shame to miss the little gardens, ornamental statues and other unique touches that typify this part of DC. Note to self – slow down in life and pray for patience.
Georgetown marked the end of my trek. I met a dear friend for lunch there. The frontier between Georgetown and Dupont is marked out by Rock Creek and one of my favorite DC monuments: the Buffalo Bridge.
Standing sentry to this uniquely curving bridge are 4 massive bronze buffalos. They’re odd creatures, when you get close to them… See them live, by the way, at the nearby National Zoo… While their disproportionate and bulbous forms impose a degree of humility on these once masters of the American prairie, Buffalos harbor a quiet strength and confidence. They’re shapes are ideal for surviving freezing winters and ploughing through snow drifts. Getting a buffalo mad at you (I’m told by friends from the prairie states) is a very bad idea. Humble hardworking majesty… There’s something very ecclesial in that.
It was a great trek… the first of many, I hope, this season. Each time I get out for a long walk in our city the inspirations and aspirations I receive renew me. What a blessing to see Washington through eyes of faith!
“It is not the faith of cheerful fables that is demanded in these times, but rather a hard faith, for the softening and accommodating enchantment is falling away from all things, and everywhere the contradictions collide roughly with one another.” -Romano Guardini
By way of some recommended reading for the end of Lent and the beginning of Easter, two suggestions from one of the great fathers of late-twentieth century Catholic theology: Romano Guardini.
“Meditations Before Mass” and “Meditations on the Christ Model of All Holiness” both volumes are published by Sophia Press and make for great bite size reading before mass, on the metro commute or sitting with your espresso in the early morning (as I am now).
Guardini was born to an Italian family but grew up and studied in Germany. I like to think of him as a mutant, an “X-Man” among theologians combing all the beauty of Italian aesthetic theology with the undeniable power of German logic. His thought, joining together the best of our mystical and practical traditions, became a foundation for the Second Vatican Council… and consequently for the current New Evangelization ethic of the Church. Happy Reading!
I’m up in NY this weekend for a family funeral. It’s an unusual thing, being away from the parish on a Sunday, but the “unusualness” of it gives me a chance to look at things through fresh eyes of faith.
I could wax theological on the power of funerals to make saints. I could opine on the comforts afforded by the funeral rites to those of us who remain… but I’m not going to. It’s the early hours of Sunday morning and my parents’ packed house is, for the moment, still quiet. I’m home from DC, my sister and her husband have trekked north from the Carolinas, and my younger brother has dug his way south from Boston. Likewise in our extended family – many have made long journeys back to New York for tomorrow’s rites. Jammed together in close quarters again, whether it’s here at home or at the funeral parlor, what strikes me is this: We “get” each other. There’s no other group of people in the world who will ever “get” you like a loving family. The jokes make sense… the same old stories repeated for the thousandth time land with surprising comfort on the ear… There’s no need for background explanations in conversations. And perhaps best of all, you can hug each other unreservedly. Think of it: for all our friendly, fashionable embraces in DC (on sidewalks, at happy hours at office retirement parties)… all of them are so circumscribed by official, professional or social boundaries. That’s not to belittle those boundaries, but when you’re with family your embrace is all of “you” freely given, freely received. And there’s something really wonderful about trusting 100% of yourself to another person and knowing that it will be freely and fully received.
We have a lot of young adults in DC. We take great joy in our social scene and how “comfortable” we’ve become in a city where casual-fine-dining is the latest thing. Walking around downtown I notice a surprising number of smiles and laughs exchanged even among strangers. Laudable as all that is, is it family? Are our relationships marked by the “100%” nature of family? Would my circle of friends be there for me around my death bed? I’ve been privileged to know circles of friends who really have been family to each other. A dear old man I knew was single his whole life and found family among our college Knights of Columbus… He became like a father to the guys, and they became as sons to him. At his funeral, half the Church was grandees of the scientific community (there was even a British knight on hand), the other was all under the age of 25… impressive to say the least, but probably an exception to the rule. With each passing year, young adult Washingtonians become “less young” adult Washingtonians (myself included). Where does family fit in to our picture? It’s a worthy question to approach through eyes of faith. Meanwhile, I smell pancakes downstairs!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.