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.
Bringing light to big city culture has been a constant theme in the life of the Church, whether we’re talking about Jerusalem, Rome, or our own Washington, DC. And while the times and places change there are certain constants of how to approach ever-new evangelization.
Reading about Bl. John Henry Newman this morning, I found an amazing observation of his. He was applying the teachings of St. Philip Neri (16th century Rome) to his own circumstances (19th century Birmingham/London)… teachings that hold no less true in 21st century DC… check this out:
[St. Philip] preferred to yield to the stream, and direct the current, which he could not stop, of science, literature, art and fashion, and to sweeten and to sanctify what God had made very good and man had spoilt… He perceived that the mischief was to be met, not with argument, not with science, not with protests and warnings, not by the recluse or the preacher but by mean of the great counter-fascination of purity and truth…
Stay positive… meditate on the beauty around you… share that with others and baptize culture for Christ! Peace.
It was a very DC moment… I was sitting on the National Mall admiring “The Dome.” Contemplating the US Capitol, ambition practically emanates from the building. It’s very name, spelled consciously with an “o,” reaches for antique splendor. It’s a reference to the “CapitOline Hill” center of the greatest empire in western history, Rome. But back to the 21st century… Ambition oozes from the place: the desire to serve our country, and all-to-often a desire to serve one’s career. Both of these desires typify life in our city. The fact the both these desires typify life in our city frustrates many, but it shouldn’t surprise. To be clear: this post isn’t about pointing fingers, judging, or apportioning good and bad desire to any group(s) of people. Rather, it might be good to look at the concept of ambition itself through eyes of faith. For this we turn to an old friend, St. Thomas Aquinas.
Thomas tells us (ST II.IIae q131 a1) that ambition is the seeking of honor, and that “honor denotes the reverence due to a person in witness of his excellence.” Not so bad, really. In fact it has a ring of justice to it. If I do something excellent, it ought to be recognized. That’s certainly what Aristotle thought in his Ethics. And if that’s where ambition ended it’d be a purely good thing… but as with most of life, ambition is more complicated than that. Why? Because: (a) We tend to take more honor to ourselves than our excellence deserves… and (b) If we become concerned only with taking honor to ourselves, we fail to give anything to anyone else (whether it’s honor, or basic necessities like food, or love). As always, Thomas talks about this twisting of ambition in terms of “inordinate” ambition. It’s not that ambition is always evil, but when we pursue it in “inordinate” ways it can ruin us and fail to serve our neighbors; everyone loses.
It’s something we all do… and I do mean ALL of us. St. Augustine talked about it recalling a childhood incident when he stole a pear. It wasn’t even a ripe pear (he tells us), so why’d he do it? In the end, he wanted to receive the praise and honor of his pals who watched the whole thing happen. One doesn’t have to work under the dome to understand ambition.
DC’s stoney edifices are sprouting evergreen boughs. Shop windows magically fill with gift ideas. Maybe all of us can use the signs of the season as inspiration to turn inordinate ambition back toward the generosity that characterizes us and our hometown at our very best.
Entering the Thanksgiving – Christmas season (known to Catholics as “Advent” because we await the “advent” or “coming” of Christ) I’ve had a number of inspiring experienes: (A) sitting on the Mall admiring the Capitol… yes, even with all the scaffolding on it (B) attending the wake of a Bishop who just died (C) meeting a student from Georgetown who’s majoring in “Social Justice.” Very diverse encounters to be sure, but they got me thinking about a major theme for this season and this town: desire. Over the next few days I’ll be posting on some different dimensions of desire in our life as Washingtonians:
The Desire for “Peace on Earth and Goodwill Toward Men”
“The Deepest Roots and Highest Aspirations of our Yearnings: ‘The Love that Moves the Stars’ ”
I hope you’ll find these musings both edifying and useful. Happy Thanksgiving!
Despite their gleaming finishes, you might easily miss these men. These are the Marconi monument (West side of 16th Street, NW in Mount Pleasant), and the African American Civil War Memorial (U St, NW). Multitudes of monuments mark our metropolis. Passing them routinely, we can become immune to their message, but they’re all worth thinking about.
Lately in ministry we hear a lot about being “intentional disciples” to improve the quality of our lives of faith. Our monuments (even little ones like Mr. Marconi ) can serve the same purpose. A call to intentional citizenship. We stand on the shoulders of those who went before us. Without the soldiers of the Union, we wouldn’t have a country. Without Marconi we might not have radio technology and I might not be able to blog!
Taking a minute to think about who’s memory I’m passing on the bus can be an inspiration to give my all and leave a better city for future generations of Washingtonians. How can I leave a good mark today?