Liturgizing into faithful love

Children, let us love not in word or speech but in deed and truth. — 1 John 3:18

My grandfather once wrote me a letter when I was in college that had in it what I considered at the time to be a strange piece of advice. He said,

If you want to be good, to acquire virtue, you’re going to have to fake it for a while before it can come from the heart.

I recall thinking, how can it be a virtue if it’s fake? But man, he was right on.

Spousal Sagacity

My wife really gets this with our kids. Her philosophy goes something like this. If we’re going to instill in them an appreciation for the value of hard work and shared responsibility, then give them consistent chores. If we’re going to instill in them an appreciation for patience as a virtue, give them tedious tasks to accomplish. If we’re going to instill in them an appreciation for the virtue of gratitude, then have them write thank you notes or call their grandparent to say “thank you” for every gift they receive.

Me? I say, talk about it. I am more likely to give a lecture on the etymology of the word respect to my child who has just disrespected a sibling, while she says, “Give him push ups! Have her clear his place and wash his dishes!”

And she’s unquestionably right.

Eating with Love

I grew up in a family that generally did not practice the together at table family meal.  As a result, I liked to eat alone, fast and quickly move on to the next thing. Eating was utilitarian. I recall my grandmother chiding me for “scarfing and running,” and calling me to slow down, appreciate the food that was “made with love,” and enjoy the company and conversation at table. For me as an adolescent, such an idea was pure torture.

When Patti and I married and had our first child, she introduced me to the nightly “family meal.” This novelty was for me a daily inner thrashing. I wanted to “scarf and run,” though I was never quite sure where I was in such a hurry to go. Then we had our second, third and fourth child, and the tradition grew and continued on relentlessly. It was, for nearly ten years, like a daily beating having to sit in place, be a model of paced eating and patient conversation for, and with, my children. But slowly, ever so slowly, I noticed a change in myself. The urge to flee lessened, and a certain delight began to seep in.

One evening, nearly ten years into this daily ritual, I recall siting down for dinner and — to my amazement — feeling no inner resistance at all. It was like the back of my inner loathing was broken and my heart of stone had become a heart of flesh. Now nine years after that day, I can say I have never once again felt the urge to flee, and now love the family meal. I was saved as a father by doing the will of my heavenly Father, healed by the baptism of sweat (cf Matthew 7:21). I have my wife to thank for inspiring that change, for challenging me to perseverance, for being the Sacrament of grace for my conversion to table fellowship. And my children one day will have her to thank for shaping in them from the very beginning the beauty of mingling food and family fellowship; the habit of communion. And I will add here that I am convinced one cannot really “get” the joy of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass if one cannot “get” the joy of the sacrifice of a family meal.

Atheists who pine for God

Another story that again makes my grandfather’s point.

I watched a documentary years ago on Pope John Paul II, and at one point they interviewed a woman who grew up Catholic, but had later in life become an atheist. She was reflecting on her Catholic upbringing in the 1950s, the nightly family rosary, the devotions, and especially the Sunday High Mass and Sunday evening Benediction that marked her family’s weekly routine. Then she recounted a remarkable experience she had while on a business trip to Moscow. She said she was touring the various historical sites, and happened into a Church where Vespers was being sung. As she walked in, she found herself overwhelmed by the sweet haze of billowing incense, the bright blaze of colors splashed on the icons and the rich harmonies that resonated deep in her memory.

I found myself lost, forgetting where I was and even who I had become over the years. I was again a child bewitched by this alien world that took me away from my godless life. When I came to my senses, I looked down to see that my shirt was sodden, drenched with tears as I had been weeping. I had no idea! And strangest of all, I found myself aching, pining for a God I didn’t even believe in. It was disconcerting, but I just couldn’t shake it. I was so close again to faith, it was etched from my youth into my body. But when I woke up and remembered who I was, where I was, I knew I still could not believe. And it hurt, because how I wish I could…

Sticky Faith

How much of a whole parenting philosophy is found in this view! And a whole school of catechesis that refuses to succumb to a hyper-intellectualized pedagogy or apologetics, but rather incorporates and even privileges the performative and embodied aspects of formation over the cognitive and conceptual. Not setting them at odds, or succumbing to dumbed down faith, but setting belief in a regime of homey and doable praxis that infests the details of life and the center of the guts. You can’t just give someone a book or a CD or a podcast. You have to give them a way of life, a way of doing, a strategy for being in action. Jesus is not so much the Truth about the Way to Life, but the Way to the Truth that gives Life. It’s why, as a elderly priest once said to me,

If you’re going to get people to stick to the faith you have to give them a faith that sticks to their ribs and their guts. The practice of Catholic devotions like novenas, holy cards, the daily rosary, meatless Fridays, Stations of the Cross,  miraculous medals, patron saints, the sign of the cross, the morning offering, Eucharistic Adoration and Benediction were always the glue that kept people coming back and that injected their faith into the thick of daily life. They may have been sometimes sentimental and sappy, but they struck and made faith tangible. When we abandoned those and got too whitewashed, too heady and wordy, we also jettisoned the glue that makes faith stick. Pop culture also gets this need for “sticking power” ideas, though, instead of appealing to people’s better angels like we try, they too often call out the base passions to make not better people but better consumers. We have to be able to compete.

Heady and wordy? Sounds like me!

Liturgizing Faith

Let me leave you with my own written summary of a lecture on liturgy given by the Protestant cultural theorist, James KA Smith. It captures some very powerful insights and makes my point well.

To change your heart, move your body. If it’s true that practice makes perfect, then it’s ritual repetition that perfects desire, it’s affectively, imaginatively charged liturgical praxis that fuels the pre-conscious momentum of your whole life toward some particular set of goods. It’s not the abstract ideas of a culture that form us in the guts as much as the habitual practices of our culture. Cultural praxis is a form of liturgy, and liturgy, broadly defined for our purposes, is a ritual that enacts our ultimate concerns, forms our loves, orients our deepest visceral desires. And these deep regions of human consciousness are what shape 95% of our waking decisions and actions; so if you want to redirect 95% of someone’s day give them new goods to desire by giving them a new set of habits, things to do, move their bodies toward that good. Nike’s right, Just Do It… to help give shape to a culture Christianity must propose a robust cadre of formative liturgies, both in church and away from church. If too much emphasis is placed on faith’s cognitive, cerebral data to be processed by means of critical, higher thinking and logic — crucial as these are — and not on setting the inner affective, pre-conscious, imaginative, intuitive, second nature compass, then most of life, which means most of our reflexive decisions, will be unaffected, unformed by faith. Christian liturgy’s power to form is not primarily focused in a twenty minute sermon that conveys a set of persuasive arguments, but rather in the rich panoply of idea-saturated sights, scents, sounds, movements that again and again and again infest our inner core, that bypass our abstract cognition and settle in our knee-jerk judgments, our instincts, our flesh and bones and carve out fresh neural pathways that lead straight to the Kingdom. Faith, and the myriad liturgies of faith, must offer a way of embodying belief in imaginatively rich, rhythmic, daily practices that relentlessly orient life toward God and his Kingdom at the deepest levels of consciousness. These must make one’s living faith feel just like that moment when you find yourself startled, arriving at home from work in your car and asking yourself: “How the heck did I get here?” The answer? Not because you thought carefully about it as much as you felt the fire deep in your bones; a fore that was kindled in the liturgies of life…

 

Pope John the Gardener

Christ as the Gardener encountering Mary Magdalene by Abraham Janssens. Taken from http://3.bp.blogspot.com/

As we approach the canonization of Vatican II’s “book-end popes,” Bl. John XXIII the Instigator and Bl. John Paul II the Interpreter, I came across an article on the historical significance of this remarkable dual act of sainting. The article included a quote from Good Pope John which stirred something deep inside me and sparked a flurry of disparate ideas. So, if I may, I will share a few select flakes from that flurry. Let me warn you, it’s eclectic and fragmented. But for me it was fun to write, which may tell you something of my mind’s natural state of disarray.

Garden of God

Speaking of the Church, Pope John said,

We are not on earth to guard a museum, but to tend a blooming garden full of life.

As someone who loves to garden (though my success at it in reality is questionable), this image is rich in personal meaning. For those of you who love to garden, imagine the many ways you could relate your love for gardening to the loving labor of making God’s Kingdom present in this world! I think here of the words of Vigen Guroian in his spiritually rich book, Inheriting Paradise: Meditations on Gardening,

The fruit of the garden is not restricted to what we eat. Every garden lends something more to the imagination – beauty.

Truly! Every garden I encounter, or that I cultivate, enriches my capacity to imagine beauty. The kaleidoscope of colors, textures, tastes and fragrances overwhelms and uplifts, and the garden seems almost to tear the celestial seam of Paradise from whence its transcendent loveliness bleeds out into our world.

As a theological metaphor, the garden is a veritable festival of beauty celebrated by our “priestly” imagination. By God’s design, the human imagination mediates at Heaven’s iconostasis, at the gateways of Paradise. From Adam and Eve’s Garden of Eden to the Good Thief’s Paradise (which in its Greek root means garden) of Luke 23:43, gardens populate our faith’s lexicon. But it is in Christ above all – he who was crucified, buried and rose from the dead in a garden (John 19:41) – that the garden is revealed as the supernaturally preferred habitat of God-with-us. God loves gardens.

Theological aesthetics

I love the image of theology as a blooming “linguistic” garden that, like an icon, manifests two intertwined beauties: God and his creation. Good theology is always beautiful theology. Not pretty theology, in a superficial sense, or a theology that makes one feel good. Theology is beautiful with the splendor of truth and the beauty of sacrificial love.

Theologians, called to journey back to Eden, must first cultivate, love and inhabit creation’s lush gardens so that their imaginations, elevated in the imagination of the Risen Gardener (John 20:15), might be illumined by the variegated colors, delighted by the sweet fragrances, intoxicated by the fermented fruits and nourished by the edible splendors. The lavish beauty of the bloom, which seductively reveals to insects and animals the nourishing nectar hidden within, must always give way to the conception and fruition of new life. Such beauty never exists for its own sake, but always in service to goodness, the selfless gift of new life.

Garden of Generous Love

The distinctive beauty of the garden is found in a collaborative and harmonious fusion of the nature’s ecology and human ecology. The garden is an artifact of human culture that renders the earth life-giving for man. The garden reflects an order imposed on creation by man as the “image of God,” as God’s co-creator. But that order is beautiful only inasmuch as it is founded in the ordo caritatis, the order of godlike love. Like Abel the Just, or Christ the New Abel, humanity rightly and justly returns earth’s fruits to God as a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving principally by sharing out the produce of their own garden with their brothers and sisters.

The garden is designed after the pattern of the law of the gift. Plants, with roots sunk deep in fertile soil, receive water and light from on high and transform these into nourishment for others. The generous love compressed in the seed-bearing fruit benefits both giver and receiver. While the flesh and blood of the fruit are consumed, the living seeds of new life are preserved and scattered abroad.

The garden is, in the words of liturgical blessing the priest speaks over the bread/wine, the “fruit of the earth/vine and work of human hands” that yields both nourishing food and mirthful wine for the life and joy of the world.

That makes me think of bread. It offers an unspeakably radical self-gift that renounces its own life entirely. Wheat is harvested and the seeds are winnowed and crushed, kneaded and then baked in fire. The gift is total, absolute, and its entire existence is dedicated to the good of the one who eats. It’s a sacrament, a visible sign, a mystical gesture toward the selfless love of the Creator who surrenders his life utterly to become Bread for the life of the world. More, he offers himself as life-giving Bread to the very ones who crush his life to the ground by violent malice, making the phrase “God is Bread” a stunning equivalent to 1 John 4:8′s “God is love.” This is dangerous food, for those who eat this Bread are themselves taken up into its self-giving logic.

The Fruits of Toil

The garden outside of Eden is also wild, unruly and rebellious, and love’s order is in disarray. Gardening is toilsome, sweaty, weedy. The gardener’s love must be redemptive, patient, forgiving, long-suffering. Gardening is hard, wearying. The labors of Christian life are hard, wearying. The ground is hard, the weeds are prolific, the birds of prey are ravenous, the rain cycles are unpredictable, the sun is hot. But the paschal Gardener is with us: tilling the hard soils with us by our practice of virtue; spreading the seeds of his truth by our pondering and proclaiming his Word; watering the earth by our prayer; feeding, healing and strengthening us by his Sacraments. When we consent to join him in his gardening, and in his Garden, he makes our lives produce abundant fruits. And, as with the garden itself, the fruits of our lives – charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, chastity — exist to nourish others.

I remember years ago one of my children asked me, “Daddy, are you happy?” I said, “Yes, of course. Why do you ask?” They said, “Because if you’re happy I feel safe and secure.”

I thought a new thought at that moment: the greatest joy that comes from my own happiness has to be the knowledge that it can give my child the gift of safety and security. If my happiness were just for me, what a useless and dead happiness it would be. It made even clearer to me the meaning of the Latin philosophical axiom, bonum est diffusivum sui, “the good gives itself away.” And, may I add to that, pulchrum est diffusivum sui, “beauty gives itself away.”

At least in my garden it does.

Thank you, God, for gardens.

 

Garden

In my garden next to Our Lady

Risen to play

Resurrection (Noli me tangere) by Giotto, 1304 Taken from http://vultus.stblogs.org

As I read the Resurrection narratives in the liturgies of these days of Easter Octave, and especially in today’s “hide and seek” interchange between Mary Magdalene and Jesus, I cannot help but see in them all a beautiful and playful innocence. The sheer surprise and joy, spontaneous expressions of affection and astounded amazement, or the sometimes disoriented fear that springs alive during the Resurrection appearances makes me think that somehow God enjoys the childlike wonder that His deed of surpassing love has awakened in a world grown old and jaded in sin.

Playing Jesus?

The other day just before Mass, my youngest daughter was looking at the Triduum readings and asked me why Jesus is always so solemn in the Gospels, so seemingly grave. “Like,” she said, “why does he always begin sentences with, ‘Amen, Amen’? Who speaks like that?” I replied very confidently, explaining as best I could the “Amen, Amen” comment and then relied on some of Fr. James Martin’s examples in Between Heaven and Mirth, arguing that of course Jesus had a lighter, more playful side and had a sense of humor. But my brief argument, bolstered by a few examples of first century Semitic humor in the Gospels, did not convince her. She said,

I mean, you don’t hear that Jesus had fun — except of course when he was a kid; and you just never hear anything like, “And Jesus went out and played with his disciples.”

It took all my power to not burst out laughing. Not because I thought her point was silly, but because it was so deep and said with a grave earnestness that formed a new and surprising insight in my mind about what a “playful Jesus” would even mean in the Gospels.

Then, as I was reflecting on all of these Resurrection Gospels, I got a vivid sense that the Risen Jesus – and so the whole New Creation — must be filled to overflowing with the innocence of God’s eternal childhood that has been restored to humanity in Jesus; with God’s desire to joyfully play with man again. I think here of that Proverbs 8:30-31 passage I’ve quoted before that gives whimsical voice to God’s creative Wisdom (using here that lovely Douay-Rheims Bible rendering):

I was with him forming all things: and was delighted every day, playing before him at all times. Playing in the world: and my delights were to be with the children of men.

In today’s Gospel when Jesus tells Mary – who, like a child, tries to wrap her arms tightly around him – to stop holding on to him because he has not yet ascended to the Father, I don’t hear in his voice a kill-joy scold. Rather, I hear a sprightly voice saying, “Just wait till you get to the New Garden I’ve made for you where we can play and dance and laugh for sheer joy for unending ages!”

And that’s an exegesis I could never have come to without my children having first taught me, who have grown old in sin, how to see the world again through a child’s eyes.

Quotables

As I often do here, I will leave you with some quotes from others that sprang to mind as I wrote this. Not sure they directly argue my point, but they at least allude to it. The first is by G.K. Chesterton, the second by David Bentley Hart. Enjoy.

It might be true that the sun rises regularly because he never gets tired of rising. His routine might be due, not to a lifelessness, but to a rush of life. The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy. A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.

To see the world in the Christian way — which, as I say in the book, requires the eye of charity and a faith in Easter — is in some sense to venture everything upon an absurd impracticality (I almost sound Kierkegaardian when I say it that way). But, as I was writing the book, I found myself thinking again and again of a photograph I had seen in the Baltimore Sun. The story concerned the Akhdam, the lowest social caste in Yemen, supposedly descended from Ethiopians left behind when the ancient Ethiopian empire was driven out of Arabia in the sixth century, who live in the most unimaginable squalor. In the background of the photo was a scattering of huts constructed from crates and shreds of canvas, and on all sides barren earth; but in the foreground was a little girl, extremely pretty, dressed in tatters, but with her arms outspread, a look of delight upon her face, dancing. To me that was a heartbreaking picture, of course, but it was also an image of something amazing and glorious: the sheer ecstasy of innocence, the happiness of a child who can dance amid despair and desolation because her joy came with her into the world and prompts her to dance as if she were in the midst of paradise.

She became for me the perfect image of the deep indwelling truth of creation, the divine Wisdom or Sophia who resides in the very heart of the world, the stainless image of God, the unfallen. I’m waxing quite Eastern here, I know, But that, I would say, is the nature of God’s presence in the fallen world: his image, his bride, the deep joy and longing of creation, called from nothingness to be joined to him. That child’s dance is nothing less than the eternal dance of divine Wisdom before God’s throne, the dance of David and the angels and saints before his glory; it is the true face of creation, which God came to restore and which he will not suffer to see corruption.

Reconciling Resurrection

When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” — John 21:15

“Forgiveness breaks the chain of causality because he who ‘forgives’ you–out of love–takes upon himself the consequences of what you have done. Forgiveness, therefore, always entails a sacrifice.

The price you must pay for your own liberation through another’s sacrifice is that you in turn must be willing to liberate in the same way, irrespective of the consequences to yourself.” ― Dag Hammarskjöld

To love means loving the unlovable. To forgive means pardoning the unpardonable. Faith means believing the unbelievable. Hope means hoping when everything seems hopeless. ― G.K. Chesterton

“To every person of good will, eager to work tirelessly in the building of a new civilization of love, I say once more: Offer forgiveness and receive peace!” — Bl. John Paul II

Hatred is not a creative force. Only love is. — St. Maximilian Kolbe

Grace in Rwanda

In case you did not see this article, I beg you to read it. This story is precisely why Christ died and rose from the grave.

Click here.

¡Triumph!

Christ is Risen! Indeed He is risen!

THE RESURECTION Taken from http://www.byzarticon.gr

At Mass this day we sing the “Paschal sequence,” Victimae paschali laudes, which captures the joy of Christ’s overwhelming victory over Darkness and allows Mary Magdalene to draw us into her dazed thrill that “her hope” is alive! Here it is:

Let Christians offer sacrificial
praises to the passover victim.

The lamb has redeemed the sheep:
The Innocent Christ has reconciled
the sinners to the Father.

Death and life contended
in a spectacular battle:
the Prince of life, who died,
reigns alive.

Tell us, Mary, what did
you see on the road?

“I saw the tomb of the living Christ
and the glory of his rising,

The angelic witnesses, the
clothes and the shroud.”

“Christ my hope is arisen;
into Galilee, he will go before his own.”

The Eighth Day of creation is complete. Hell has been vanquished, Heaven has been opened, hope has been restored, life has been revealed and the Son’s self-offering to the Father for humanity has been drawn up into Paradise as a fragrant offering and immortalized in Christ’s glorious open Wounds. The Church, soon to be revealed on Pentecost, will be tasked, as the Body of the Risen Christ, with an awesome mission: to extend God’s victory over sin and death to the whole human race and out into the entire created order. She will be called Catholic because her mission will not be to gather in a mere portion of creation, but the universal whole of humanity and the entire cosmos.

Cantare amantis est, “Only Lovers Sing”

Every year I post this video again as it, for me, sums up the spirit of surprise and joy that characterizes this feast. It’s an Easter flash mob at a Mall in Beirut, Lebanon. They sing the Paschal hymn (troparion) that every Eastern Christian knows by heart and sings ceaselessly throughout the Easter season:

Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down death by death,
And upon those in the tombs
Bestowing life!

The flash mob sings it in both Arabic and Greek, and each, respectively, runs like this:

Al-Masīh qām min baīni’l-amwāt
Wa wati’ al-mawt bi’l-mawt
Wa wahab al-hayāt
Lil-ladhīna fī’l-qubūr!

Christós anésti ek nekrón,
thanáto thánaton patísas,
ké tís en tís mnímasi,
zoín charisámenos!

Enjoy their joyful song and be sure to click “cc” for English subtitles:

 

In the silent solitude

“Descent into Hell” Taken from http://www.hongkongoilpainting.com/

Today Hades cries out groaning:
I should not have accepted the Man born of Mary.
He came and destroyed my power.
He shattered the gates of brass.
As God, He raised the souls I had held captive.
Glory to Thy cross and resurrection, O Lord! — Orthodox Vesperal Liturgy of Holy Saturday

Great and Blessed Sabbath

The second reading in the Breviary’s Office of Readings comes from an ancient (2nd century) Christian homily from Holy Saturday. It’s absolutely stunning in its eloquence. The first paragraph leads us in to the inner sanctum of this day of waiting and terrible silence:

What is happening? Today there is a great silence over the earth, a great silence, and stillness, a great silence because the King sleeps; the earth was in terror and was still, because God slept in the flesh and raised up those who were sleeping from the ages. God has died in the flesh, and the underworld has trembled.

The corpse of God lies asleep in the tomb on this Sabbath day, and the God-Man’s soul descends into the bowels of hell, as the Apostle’s Creed has it, descendit ad inferos. This descent, which is both the nadir of the “self-emptying” of God into the pit of humanity’s desperate plight and the beginning of His “harrowing” triumph over that plight, is also the descent of God into very roots of our history, into the “abode of the dead.”

In meditating on the rich meanings compressed into this liminal and often-overlooked feast, I have found Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s meditations to be most fruitful. That said, I ask you to kindly allow me share a portion of those meditations with you today for your own prayerful consideration. May your longing vigil through this day’s hours find you ready tonight to welcome the coming Risen One as He swallows up death in immortal triumph.

If a child had to venture out alone through a wood on a dark night, he would be afraid even if he were to be shown a hundred times that there was nothing to fear. He is not afraid of anything specific, to which he could put a name, but in the dark he feels insecure, an orphan, he feels the sinister character of inner existence. Only a human voice could console him; only the hand of a person he loves could banish the anguish, like a bad dream. There is an anguish – the true kind nesting in the profundity of our solitudes – which cannot be overcome by reason but only by the presence of a person who loves us. This anguish, in fact, doesn’t have an object to which we could put a name. It is the terrible expression of our ultimate solitude. Who among us has not felt the awful sensation of this state of abandonment? Who would not hear the blessed, comforting miracle worked in these circumstances by an affectionate word?

But wherever there is such solitude as to be inaccessible to the transforming word of love, then that is the place we call hell. And we know that not a few men of our time, so apparently optimistic, hold the view that every encounter remains superficial, that no man has access to the ultimate and true profundity of another and that, therefore, in the ultimate depths of every existence lies desperation, even hell. Jean-Paul Sartre expressed this poetically in one of his plays and at the same time he exposed the nucleus of his doctrine on man. One thing is sure: there will come a night when no word of comfort will penetrate the dark abandon, there will be a door which we must pass though in absolute solitude: the door of death. All this world’s anguish is, in the final analysis, the anguish generated by this solitude. This is why in the Old Testament, the word indicating the kingdom of the dead was identical to the word for hell: shêol. Death, in fact, is absolute solitude. But this solitude which can no longer be illumined by love, which is so profound that love can no longer reach it, is hell.

“Descended into hell” – this confession of Holy Saturday means that Christ passed through the door of solitude, that he descended into the unreachable and insuperable depth of our condition of solitude. This means, however, that also in that extreme night which no word penetrates, when we will all be like children, banished, weeping, there will be a voice that calls to us, a hand that takes our hand and leads us on. Man’s insuperable solitude was overcome from the moment He entered it. Hell was beaten from the moment love entered the region of death and the no man’s land of solitude was inhabited by him. In his profundity, man does not live by bread. In the authenticity of his being he lives by the fact that he is loved and is himself given the faculty to love. From the moment there is the presence of love in death’s sphere, then life penetrates death: life is not taken from your faithful, O Lord, but transformed, the Church prays in its funeral liturgy.

In the final analysis, no one can measure the portent of the words: “descended into hell”. But if at some time it is ours to draw near to the hour of our ultimate solitude, we will be given to understand something of the great clarity of this dark mystery. In the hopeful certainty that when the hour of extreme solitude comes we will not be alone, we can already, now, presage something of what will happen. And in the throes of our protest against the darkness of the death of God we begin to be grateful for the light that comes to us from this same darkness.

Crucifixus est

Matthias Grünewald, “The Crucifixion” Taken from http://www.ibiblio.org/

Crucifixus est Dei Filius, non pudet, quia pudendum est, “The Son of God was crucified: there is no shame, because it is shameful.” — Tertullian

The Cross is an endless wellspring of wisdom which, for the Christian, should remain the heart of prayer and the soul of action. St. Thomas Aquinas said, “The cross exemplifies every virtue.” For all the years I have endeavored to become a theologian, the Cross of Jesus has remained unquestionably the organizing center of my every quest for deeper understanding of divine Revelation. In particular, for reasons I am not quite certain of, the above painting by Matthias Grünewald, in some way or another, colors and gives shape to my every theological idea. So this day is, for me (and for the Church!), the day of supreme theological beauty; the day of divine glory. However, today I will defer to the greatness of others who have spoken of the Cross to hopefully illumine your prayerful meditations with their borrowed light. May these quotes help lead you farther into the depths of the Mystery that, once hidden in God, has been laid bare for all of creation to see: Christ, and him crucified.

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Today is hung upon the cross, He who suspended the Earth amid the waters. A crown of thorns crowns Him, who is the King of Angels. He, who wrapped the heavens in clouds is clothed with the purpose of mockery. He, who freed Adam in the Jordan, received buffetings. He was transfixed with nails, who is the Bridegroom of the Church. He was pierced with a lance who is the Son of a virgin. We worship your passion, O Christ. Show us also your glorious resurrection. – Matins of Great Friday in the Orthodox Church

On Good Friday last year the SS found some pretext to punish 60 priests with an hour on “the tree.” That is the mildest camp punishment. They tie a man’s hands together behind his back, palms facing out and fingers pointing backward. Then they turn his hands inwards, tie a chain around his wrists and hoist him up by it. His own wight twists his joints and pulls them apart…Several of the priest who were hung up last year never recovered and died. If you don’t have a strong heart, you don’t survive it. Many have a permanently crippled hand.
― Jean Bernard, Priestblock 25487: a memoir of Dachau

Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. At the end all his disciples deserted him. On the Cross he was utterly alone, surrounded by evildoers and mockers. For this cause he had come, to bring peace to the enemies of God. So the Christian, too, belongs not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the thick of foes. There is his commission, his work. The kingdom is to be in the midst of your enemies. And he who will not suffer this does not want to be of the Kingdom of Christ; he wants to be among friends, to sit among roses and lilies, not with the bad people but the devout people. O you blasphemers and betrayers of Christ! If Christ had done what you are doing who would ever have been spared. ― Dietrich Bonhoeffer

We have never preached violence, except the violence of love, which left Christ nailed to a cross, the violence that we must each do to ourselves to overcome our selfishness and such cruel inequalities among us. The violence we preach is not the violence of the sword, the violence of hatred. It is the violence of love, of brotherhood,the violence that wills to beat weapons into sickles for work. ― Oscar A. Romero

The merciful precepts of Christ will at last suffuse the Code and it will glow with their radiance. Crime will be considered an illness with its own doctors to replace your judges and its hospitals to replace your prisons. Liberty shall be equated with health. Ointments and oil shall be applied to limbs that were once shackled and branded. Infirmities that once were scourged with anger shall now be bathed with love. The cross in place of the gallows: sublime and yet so simple. ― Victor Hugo

The cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise godfearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. ― Dietrich Bonhoeffer

He deserves to be called a theologian who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross. — Martin Luther

The Cross reveals who God is and why we say God is love, and therefore reveals what love is. Now, that’s also very important for us today, because not only does everybody talk about God, and any coincidence to the real God is coincidental… Some of those TV preachers, when they say “God,” I don’t know what god they’re talking about, but it ain’t the one we contemplate, hanging on the Cross.
So you can say “God,” and it can mean anything. Some people say, “Oh, it doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you believe in God.” But what God? How God? What does God do? Those are very important questions, the answer of which for us is given in the Cross, and all theology is about the Cross. The Word of the Cross is the Word about God; the Logos tou Theou is the Logos tou Stavrou. The Word of God is the Word of the Cross. It tells us who God is, but if we say, “God is love,” then the Cross tells us what love is, and that’s very important, because everybody’s a lover…

…if we’re going to imitate God in that, we have to admit the evil that’s around. Some people have a very hard time admitting evil around, in themselves and in other people, and in other people as well as themselves, especially their family members. Other people are only too happy to admit evil around, in everybody! Sometimes even themselves: “I’m a sinner!” All right, that’s part of it. But the admission has to be there.

But then the Cross says, “You must admit it. You must say: ‘It is no good. It is not God’s way. Things are not right. There is evil. There is the devil. There is sin. There is death.” And these things have to be faced. They can’t be cosmetized over, stuck in a corner. People get sick. People have cancer. People die. Airplanes crash. People blow them up. People get thrown out of their countries. People get victimized by other people. They get victimized by the sin of their parents. They get victimized by all kinds of stuff, and all that is real. And God on the Cross faces all that and says it’s real.

And when he faces it and says it’s real, he weeps over it. He grieves over it. He is appalled by it. But he is not victimized or paralyzed by it, and he doesn’t let it poison him. So no matter how bad it is—and it’s as bad as you can get, especially if you’re crucifying the Son of glory—and according to St. Paul, any sin crucifies again the Lord of glory, because that’s why he came… So it’s as bad as it can get, but being however bad it can get, he says, “You’re forgiven.”

“Like it or not, you’re forgiven.” Proud people don’t like to be forgiven. In fact, proud people would rather burn in hell and think they deserve it than to [hear] “You’re forgiven.” “Me, forgiven? For what?” But the forgiveness is there, and, more than the forgiveness, is the identification, the baring of the burden of the sin of the other, without acting in an evil way in return. This is what the Word of the Cross tells us.

And that the only way that you will redeem the other, the only way that you will help to heal the other, the only way that you can expiate the sin of the other, is to take it on yourself, but not in a sick way, not in the “Oh, I’m suffering for the other” way, but in a way of sovereign freedom, in total dignity, in an absolutely voluntary act of love, so that it’s literally impossible that the evil will be victorious. It can’t be because you don’t give it an inch. And one of the ways that you don’t give it an inch is not by denying it, but by disclosing it, by seeing it for what it is. That’s why the Cross is the great clarification. The Cross is the great illumination of things the way they really are. — Fr. Thomas Hopko

Lord Jesus Christ, at the hour of your death the sun was darkened. Ever anew you are being nailed to the Cross. At this present hour of history we are living in God’s darkness. Through your great sufferings and the wickedness of men, the face of God, your face, seems obscured, unrecognizable. And yet, on the Cross, you have revealed yourself. Precisely by being the one who suffers and loves, you are exalted. From the Cross on high you have triumphed. Help us to recognize your face at this hour of darkness and tribulation. Help us to believe in you and to follow you in our hour of darkness and need. Show yourself once more to the world at this hour. Reveal to us your salvation. – Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger

Christ’s moment of most absolute particularity – the absolute dereliction of the cross – is the moment in which the glory of God, his power to be where and when he will be, is displayed before the eyes of the world. When the full course of Christ’s life is completed and is raised up by the Father, his “hiddenness” is shown to be a different kind of substantial presence, one that is only in being handed over in love, surrendered, and given anew; thus his “hiddenness” is in fact that openness with which his presence is embodied in the church’s practices, the exchange of signs of peace, the sacramental transparency of the community of the body of Christ. The church exists in order to become the counterhistory, nature restored, the alternative way of being that Christ opens up: the way of return. It is in this sense, principally, that the Word assumes human nature (as Irenaeus understood): by entering into the corporate identity of the body of the old Adam, the body of death, to raise all humanity up again in his body of glory. – David Bentley Hart

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Finally, as an appendix to these meditations, I will share a somewhat strange thing. It’s a poem I wrote in 2006 for a Lebanese friend of mine that reflects on the Divine Liturgy and its intimate connection to the Cross. He translated it into Arabic and gave it to me. Unfortunately, I don’t read Arabic, and I lost the English version of the poem. But I thought I would post it today in case anyone out there reads Arabic and might derive some small benefit from its paschal imagery.

الذبيـحة الإلـهـيّـة

من القـبر ينبثـق شـعاع نورٍ باهر

حيث بالمخاض الكون يـلِـد

مذبـح صـليـبٍ وأيقـونة حشـا

مياهـاً دافقـة من أرض حدْث العَـدَن

في سـناءٍ سـماويٍّ لمجد الأرض

يتألّـه الليل بتأنُّـس الألحـان الإلهيـة

وبـطرْف قـدرة الله يتعلّـق الإيمـان

والخبز ينزف دم التاريخ الفصحي

Love of enemy and other odd thoughts

A few scattered, odd thoughts as we stand at the threshold of this most solemn Three Day event, the sacred Triduum.

Stat crux dum volvitur orbis

As I mentioned Sunday, these days are the true axis of time, days when the sanctuary veil that partitions time and eternity thins out, collapses, tears open.

All of their brutality and glory, their beauty and horror, their splendor and terror has been forever caught up into the eternity of God, shaping the very manner in which Son and Father interrelate through the eternal Spirit (Hebrews 9:14). That thought alone suffices to sustain awe and wonder for a lifetime.

These days beat at the heart of the Church’s Spirit-laden memory, are the wellspring of her divinized identity and soul of her Pentecostal mission. Every minute detail of these Three days inhabits the deathless liturgies of heaven that have now broken into our world. God’s glory gleams with crimson hues, colored with the Blood of the Lamb.

The Cross, the adorable Cross, stands at the center of this axis as the unshakable foundation of the New Creation.

We speak in Good Friday’s liturgy with seemingly idolatrous excess:

Ecce lignum crucis, in quo salus mundi pependit.
Venite adoremus.
“Behold the wood of the cross on which hung the Savior of the world.”
“Come let us adore.”

These 2 stanzas from Venantius Fortunatus’ 6th century Latin poem, Vexilla Regis, express this adoring voice well,

Arbor decora et fulgida,
ornata Regis purpura,
electa digno stipite
tam sancta membra tangere.
Beata, cuius brachiis
pretium pependit saeculi:
statera facta corporis,
praedam tulitque tartari.

“O lovely and refulgent Tree,
adorned with purpled majesty;
culled from a worthy stock, to bear
those limbs which sanctified were.
Blest Tree, whose happy branches bore
the wealth that did the world restore;
the beam that did that Body weigh
which raised up Hell’s expected prey.”

The Word became Wood

The Cross was so intimately joined to Christ’s humanity that its Wood, being saturated with his blood (see Aquinas’ Summa, III, q. 25, a. 4), claims that singular dignity of commanding latria, worship which is due to God alone. The whole of creation, visible and invisible, worships. From its splinters spring the life-giving waters, “sparkling like crystal,” that flow from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the New Jerusalem (cf Rev 22:1-2). It is the new Tree of Life, and from its heavy-laden boughs heavenly Manna descends, spiced Wine gushes forth.

It’s all an astonishing paradox: the grotesque, heinous atrocities accompanying the crucifixion of God by his own creatures become for us, by a supreme act of divine power, the primal signs of beauty that brilliantly illumine the new heavens and new earth with the splendors of sacrificial love.

How is this that God works? He heals by refashioning the poison, brings peace by remaking the sword, reveals wisdom by reconstituting folly, transforms power by foot washing, tramples down death by death and reveals life by transfiguring the tomb into a womb. His saving economy is a liturgy of inversions, making of man’s tragedy a divine comedy.

As Fr. Aidan Nichols aptly sums up this bewildering economy,

Christ’s death was not a piece of ritual yet it was a cultic act (i.e., a deliberate act of adoration of the Father), albeit carried out for a unique end: the forgiveness of the infinite malice contained in the aversio of sin, a forgiveness that restored human beings to participation in the divine life, since at no time has God not willed for them grace and glory. Thus the circumstances in which the death was embraced — the betrayal by friends, the rejection by the religious leaders, the hostility, or cynical indifference, of the men of power — all of these purely secular conditions were taken up into an act of cult, a supreme act of worship, whose hidden fruitfulness made it the central event in the history of the world. Because Christ’s sacrifice was a supreme act of worship, it was capable of becoming the foundation of the Christian liturgy. Aquinas remarks that by his sacrifice on the cross, Christ inaugurated the cultus of the Christian religion. His sacrifice is the objective basis of our worship.

A naked and dying God revealing pure worship. The Mass flowing from the Word, “bleeding, dying, sealed in a stone-cold tomb.” The amazement stirs in me these words:

Wheat fallen, dying, risen from the dead,
becomes beneath fire our life-giving bread;
but on the Altar under a Wingèd Shadow
is of sudden re-made to its lowest ground:
creation is lost! Yet in truth has been found
by the Creator-Word of a God Most High
who stooped low into our starving misery,
stripped by human violence to naked Mystery;
Wheat fallen, dying, risen from the dead,
becomes beneath Fire our life-giving Bread;
O Bread soaked in God’s vintage Blood — Adored!
Lavishly, infinity, wastefully, lovingly outpoured
– O press your face to dusty earth! –
onto torn Flesh,
splintered Wood,
hammered Iron:
o’er-spilling Chalice
of unfettered mercy
set free by unfettered malice:
O Saving Mystery!

In Christ God reveals a strange, wonderfully strange world where Lambs conquer Dragons, the least are greatest, the most precious is the most despised, and where the supreme heights of godlike perfection are to be found in loving of enemies, in speaking well of detractors and in praying most fervently for those who wish us the greatest ill. It’s a world so other, so new, so radically fresh and different that it requires us to undergo rebirth, requires being born again of God, to see its grandeur and majesty. It requires death and resurrection. But more, to live its startling demands, it requires a new heart and a new spirit that render us susceptible to the Holy Spirit of this Unknown God, the Spirit who alone can make us co-artisans with Christ in fashioning this in-breaking Kingdom of God.

In a word, only the Spirit of the Crucified can make us saints carved from the Wood of his Cross.

Golden

Let me leave you with the words of the golden mouthed saint, John Chrysostom, who ever so eloquently unveils the stark newness of this New Creation:

It is certainly a finer and more wonderful thing to change the mind of enemies and bring them to another way of thinking than to kill them, especially when we recall that the [disciples] were only twelve and the whole world was full of wolves…We ought then to be ashamed of ourselves, we who act so very differently and rush like wolves upon our foes. So long as we are sheep we have the victory; but if we are like wolves we are beaten, for then the help of the shepherd is withdrawn from us, for he feeds sheep not wolves…This mystery [of the Eucharist] requires that we should be innocent not only of violence but of all enmity, however slight, for it is the mystery of peace. Imagine the vanity of thinking that your enemy can do you more damage than your enmity.

Hans von Tübingen, Crucifixion (1430) Taken from http://2.bp.blogspot.com/

Duty Bound

The other day I came across a line in Matthew Henry’s Evangelical biblical commentary that really struck me (note, it’s not a commentary I generally would recommend). In expounding on Philippians 2:12, which counsels us to “work out our salvation,” the commentator said,

Do your duty without murmurings.

I thought, how very simply put, but how much of life one could gild with Gospel gold just by faithfully executing this terse phrase in each and every moment!

To imagine a life characterized by loving attention to the innumerable procession of small details that constitute the existential contours of one’s vocational state in life is to imagine a life burgeoning with limitless opportunities for unsung heroism. Think of the rich and diverse opportunities afforded you for acts of patience, kindness, meekness, forgiveness, peacemaking, courage, temperance, chastity, prudence, justice, hope, faith, charity and a near-endless variety of other deeds of excellence! How terribly spoiled we are by a life overflowing with so many chances, daily offered to us in excess, to share in God’s greatest work of making us saints! It’s really quite embarrassing.

Liturgical Love Life

Even if I often live far from it in reality, I have come to think of life’s details as so many fragments of sacred ritual that fill out the bodily liturgy that is my daily life.

Therefore, I beseech you brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies in living sacrifice, holy, well pleasing unto God, which is your rational worship. — Romans 12:1

St. Paul rightly calls this liturgy of life a “sacrifice,” which involves aspirants to holiness in a manner of living that is wholly-other focused. A self-less life, i.e. less self, more God-neighbor. Holiness is perfected Christ-like loving, and loving is willing the other’s good or the Other’s glory. For the disciple of Christ, love is not a laudable extra but an expected duty. Our duty is to love, which makes duty a noblesse oblige, the sweetest of obligations, an obligation that even God himself cannot escape!

O eternal, infinite Good! O mad lover! And you have need of your creature? It seems so to me, for you act as if you could not live without her, in spite of the fact that you are Life itself, and everything has life from you and nothing can have life without you. Why then are you so mad? Because you have fallen in love with what you have made! You are pleased and delighted over her within yourself, as if you were drunk with desire for her salvation. She runs away from you and you go looking for her. She strays and you draw closer to her. You clothed yourself in our humanity, and nearer than that you could not have come. — Catherine of Siena

Feelings, so much more than feelings

I might add here that it is enough at times to simply will to carry out faithfully the details of our daily duty, even when within our emotions rage against our will, though it is good to aspire and pray for the grace to do one’s duty out of heartfelt love; for the redemption of our passions. For me it’s a tremendous relief to know that fidelity to God’s will does not demand of me the harmonious cooperation of my emotional life. How often I must choose to love those around me when I am not “feeling it.” In fact, fidelity can actually be more meritorious when it’s carried out in spite of our emotions’ unruly or irrational rebellion. Certainly Jesus’ emotionally agonizing choice to embrace the Father’s will in the Garden of Gethsemane offers us an extravagant model of faithful obedience in the face of an inner riot.

St. Josemaría Escrivá expressed this balance of desire beautifully,

Put your heart aside. Duty comes first. But when fulfilling your duty, put your heart into it. It helps.

Hidden Martyrdom

I know someone who shared with me a beautiful insight in this regard, and thankfully they gave me permission to anonymously share it. This person, who has a sound character and deeply loves God, had long searched for radical ways to offer his life to God. He wanted God to give him the chance to suffer a painful martyrdom to witness to his love for Christ and bear the fruits of redemptive suffering for his loved ones’ salvation. Whether that would mean a bloody death or a terrible illness, he was willing to accept whatever hardship might come from the Hand of God. He expressed this desire to me with such a beautiful, childlike and disarming sincerity of love that it made me feel uncomfortable for its convicting power. “But,” he said,

once, when I was sharing this desire with a wise and trusted friend, she said to me, “You’re looking for big things here. You don’t need to ask for such extreme things. Just do your duty and that will suffice. God wants the sacrifice of a faithful will, not your pain. If pain comes, then offer it; but don’t overlook the treasure you already have to offer right in front of you.”

How insightful is that? Greatness in God is far more often homely than comely, unseen than obvious. Ever since he shared this story with me, “Do your duty” has become my prayer’s antiphonal refrain. But now I also add to it the coda stolen from Matthew Henry, “without murmuring.”

Bloom where you’re planted

I will leave you with one of my favorite quotes on sanctity through fidelity to daily life’s present demands from St. Francis de Sales. It’s found in the Breviary’s Office of Readings on the day of his Feast, and it never ceases to thrill me as often as I read it. He speaks here of “devotion,” which for him means not escapist piety, but love of God in the form of radical fidelity to the demands of one’s state in life.

When God the Creator made all things, he commanded the plants to bring forth fruit each according to its own kind; he has likewise commanded Christians, who are the living plants of his Church, to bring forth the fruits of devotion, each one in accord with his character, his station and his calling.
I say that devotion must be practiced in different ways by the nobleman and by the working man, by the servant and by the prince, by the widow, by the unmarried girl and by the married woman. But even this distinction is not sufficient; for the practice of devotion must be adapted to the strength, to the occupation and to the duties of each one in particular.

Tell me, please, my Philothea, whether it is proper for a bishop to want to lead a solitary life like a Carthusian; or for married people to be no more concerned than a Capuchin about increasing their income; or for a working man to spend his whole day in church like a religious; or on the other hand for a religious to be constantly exposed like a bishop to all the events and circumstances that bear on the needs of our neighbor. Is not this sort of devotion ridiculous, unorganized and intolerable? Yet this absurd error occurs very frequently, but in no way does true devotion, my Philothea, destroy anything at all. On the contrary, it perfects and fulfills all things. In fact if it ever works against, or is inimical to, anyone’s legitimate station and calling, then it is very definitely false devotion.

The bee collects honey from flowers in such a way as to do the least damage or destruction to them, and he leaves them whole, undamaged and fresh, just as he found them. True devotion does still better. Not only does it not injure any sort of calling or occupation, it even embellishes and enhances it.

Moreover, just as every sort of gem, cast in honey, becomes brighter and more sparkling, each according to its colour, so each person becomes more acceptable and fitting in his own vocation when he sets his vocation in the context of devotion. Through devotion your family cares become more peaceful, mutual love between husband and wife becomes more sincere, the service we owe to the prince becomes more faithful, and our work, no matter what it is, becomes more pleasant and agreeable.

It is therefore an error and even a heresy to wish to exclude the exercise of devotion from military divisions, from the artisans’ shops, from the courts of princes, from family households. I acknowledge, my dear Philothea, that the type of devotion which is purely contemplative, monastic and religious can certainly not be exercised in these sorts of stations and occupations, but besides this threefold type of devotion, there are many others fit for perfecting those who live in a secular state.

Therefore, in whatever situations we happen to be, we can and we must aspire to the life of perfection.

 

2 day break

Because of very busy life circumstances, I will take today and tomorrow off. Here’s a quote for your to ruminate on for these Holy Days:

We must carry Jesus in our hearts to wherever He wants to go, and there are many places to which He may never go unless we take Him to them. None of us knows when the loveliest hour of our life is striking. It may be when we take Christ for the first time to that grey office in the city where we work, to the wretched lodging of that poor man who is an outcast, to the nursery of that pampered child, to that battleship, airfield, or camp. – Caryll Houselander

“St. Christopher” Taken from http://holy-icons.com