The Pregnant Virgin, c. 1410 A.D.

In all the dioceses of the United States of America, January 22 (or January 23, when January 22 falls on a Sunday) shall be observed as a particular day of penance for violations to the dignity of the human person committed through acts of abortion, and of prayer for the full restoration of the legal guarantee of the right to life. The Mass “For Peace and Justice” (no. 22 of the “Masses for Various Needs”) should be celebrated with violet vestments as an appropriate liturgical observance for this day. –General Instruction of the Roman Missal, no. 373

In an annual recognition of the Roe v. Wade anniversary, our U.S. Bishops have made January 22 to be a penitential “Ash Wednesday” of sorts in which we are required as Catholics to wrap our prayer in penance as we beg for God’s mercy to pardon the slayers of the pre-born, to awaken the consciences of all to the inviolable dignity given by God to each human being at the moment of conception and, as the quote above says, to restore legal protection that guarantees the right to life.

We pray for the hastening of the day when a prominent civil rights activist will write in an article marking the anniversary of this court decision,

As we recall that there once was a time when we, under the pretext of civil liberties and human rights, defended the chemical burning, dismembering, evacuating and poisoning of pre-born human beings, let us reaffirm this day our unrelenting commitment to be a voice for the voiceless and a defender of the defenseless. Let us reassert our resolve to labor and give birth to a world wherein every child conceived is welcomed by their mother, their father and — even if such is not the case — by the human family united by the bonds of love, compassion and justice. May we never again fail to see in each pre-born human life a living witness to the fragile web of our interdependence and the primordial sign that we are our brother’s and our sister’s keeper…

Two vantages, one reality

I will leave you with two quotes — one that reflects on the need for truth and the second on the need for compassion. The first quote is by a pro-choice feminist Naomi Wolfe, written in the October 16,1995 edition of The New Republic, in an article called “Our Bodies, Our Souls: Rethinking Pro-choice Rhetoric.” The second quote is by Bl. John Paul II, and is taken from his March 25, 1995 Encyclical, Evangelium Vitae #99.

“So what will it be: Wanted fetuses are charming, complex, REM-dreaming little beings whose profile on the sonogram looks just like Daddy, but unwanted ones are mere “uterine material”? How can we charge that it is vile and repulsive for pro-lifers to brandish vile and repulsive images if the images are real? To insist that the truth is in poor taste is the very height of hypocrisy. Besides, if these images are often the facts of the matter, and if we then claim that it is offensive for pro-choice women to be confronted by them, then we are making the judgment that women are too inherently weak to face a truth about which they have to make a grave decision. This view of women is unworthy of feminism. Free women must be strong women, too; and strong women, presumably, do not seek to cloak their most important decisions in euphemism.”
– Naomi Wolfe

“I would now like to say a special word to women who have had an abortion. The Church is aware of the many factors which may have influenced your decision, and she does not doubt that in many cases it was a painful and even shattering decision. The wound in your heart may not yet have healed. Certainly what happened was and remains terribly wrong. But do not give in to discouragement and do not lose hope. Try rather to understand what happened and face it honestly. If you have not already done so, give yourselves over with humility and trust to repentance. The Father of mercies is ready to give you his forgiveness and his peace in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. To the same Father and his mercy you can with sure hope entrust your child. With the friendly and expert help and advice of other people, and as a result of your own painful experience, you can be among the most eloquent defenders of everyone’s right to life. Through your commitment to life, whether by accepting the birth of other children or by welcoming and caring for those most in need of someone to be close to them, you will become promoters of a new way of looking at human life.” — Bl. John Paul II

MLK & St. Basil the Great

Archbishop Iakovos of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese
and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I am a huge fan of the scholar of religion in the U.S., Albert Raboteau, whose work on African slave religion in America had a deep impact on me in my grad school years. When I taught a course in the history of Christian thought/culture at Florida State University, I would use his collection of essays  on the history of the African-American religious experience, A Fire in the Bones, to think about the intersection of faith and culture. He is a convert to Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and you can read the enlightening story of his journey to Orthodoxy here.

Professor Raboteau

In honor of MLK Day, I will share with you a portion of one of his essays and maybe whet your appetite for seeking out more of his work.


Martin Luther King Day memorials tend to celebrate King the Civil Rights leader, stressing his activism on behalf of interracial equality and reconciliation. We slight his emphasis on the link between racism and poverty and so neglect King the advocate of the poor. At the time of his assassination King was participating in the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ struggle to achieve a decent wage while simultaneously planning the Poor People’s Campaign. King’s sermons, speeches and writings echo ancient Christian teachings on poverty and wealth, which may still serve as a resource for the contemporary struggle to overcome economic inequality. He was a 20th century exemplar of a very old tradition.

Princeton Historian Peter Brown argues convincingly that “a revolution in the social imagination occurred between 300 and 600 C.E. closely associated with the rise to power of the Christian bishop. For the Christian bishop was held by contemporaries to owe his position in no small part to his role as the guardian of the poor. He was the ‘lover of the poor’ par excellence.” The 4th century bishops, St. Basil of Caesarea, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Gregory of Nazianzus elucidated this novel virtue and its centrality to the community life of Christians. In 369 a severe drought followed by famine prompted Basil to preach a sermon on the parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:16-18), the man who decides to tear down his barns and build new ones to hold his surplus grain. “But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be? So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.” Basil elaborates:

“Who, then, is greedy? — The one who does not remain content with self sufficiency. Who is the one who deprives others? The one who hoards what belongs to everyone. Are you not greedy? Are you not one who deprives others? You have received these things for stewardship, and have turned them into your own property! Is not the one who tears off what another is wearing called a clothes-robber? But the one who does not clothe the naked, when he was able to do so — what other name does he deserve? The bread that you hold on to belongs to the hungry; the cloak you keep locked in your storeroom belongs to the naked; the shoe that is moldering in your possession belongs to the person with no shoes; the silver that you have buried belongs to the person in need. You do an injury to as many people as you might have helped with all these things!”

Basil enacted the Christian social vision he preached by establishing a hospice and soup kitchen for the famine victims and later developed a large complex to house the poor, tend the sick, and where the poor who could work were employed or trained in various trades. Around 369, St. Gregory of Nyssa preached on almsgiving: “Do not look down on those who lie at your feet, as if you judged them worthless. Consider who they are, and you will discover their dignity: they have put on the countenance of our Savior; for the one who loves humanity has lent them his own face, so that through it they might shame those who lack compassion and hate the poor.” In a sermon on the Last Judgment scene in Matthew 25:31-46, in which care for the poor is the standard of judgment “for in as much as you did it [or did it not] to the least of these you did it to me.” St. Gregory of Nazianzus warns that we should fear condemnation if we “have not ministered to Christ through those in need … Let us take care of Christ, then, while there is still time: let us visit Christ in his sickness, let us give to Christ to eat, let us clothe Christ in his nakedness, let us do honor to Christ in his needy ones, in those who lie on the ground here before us this day.” .

In 1956, King preached a sermon that echoed Basil’s condemnation of greed: “God never intended for a group of people to live in superfluous, inordinate wealth while others live in abject, deadening poverty. God intends for all of His children to have the basic necessities of life, and He has left in this universe enough and to spare for that purpose. So I call upon you to bridge the gulf between abject poverty and superfluous wealth.” In 1962, King preached, “I see hungry boys and girls in this nation and other nations and think about the fact that we spend more than a million dollars a day storing surplus food. And I say to myself ‘I know where we can store that food free of charge – in the wrinkled stomachs of the millions of people in our nation and in this world who go to bed hungry at night.'”

In 1961, preaching on the same text from Luke as Basil, King linked racism and poverty, “You see this man was foolish because the richer he became materially the poorer he became spiritually…. This man was a fool because he failed to realize his dependence on others… Now this text has a great deal of bearing on our struggle in race relations… For what is white supremacy but the foolish notion that God made a mistake and stamped an eternal stigma of inferiority on a certain race of people; what is white supremacy but the foolishness of believing that one race is good enough to dominate another race?…And there was a final reason why this man was foolish. He failed to realize his dependence on God…because he felt that he was the creator instead of the creature.”

Read other essays at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/albert-raboteau

Alessandro, Requiescat In Pace

John Allen, in a January 13 article, shared this story:

In late December, a 63-year-old homeless man named Alessandro died during a particularly cold night in Rome, on a street near the Vatican. In itself there was nothing unusual about it in that the streets around the Vatican attract a high population of homeless, and every year, a few pass away during the winter cold.

What followed, however, amounts to another index of the “Francis effect.”

Students at the Urban College, a residence for seminarians from the developing world located on the Janiculum Hill across from the Vatican (and next door to the North American College, where seminarians from the United States reside), heard of Alessandro’s death and decided they wanted to do something.

They asked authorities at the university for permission to celebrate a funeral, and the idea landed on the desk of Cardinal Fernando Filoni, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, the Vatican’s missionary department, which oversees the Urban College. Filoni signed on, and the Vatican official responsible for the pope’s personal charitable projects, Polish Archbishop Konrad Krajewski, agreed to celebrate the funeral Mass.

On Friday, Filoni, Krajewski, 200 students, and a score of Alessandro’s homeless friends in and around the Vatican filed into the chapel at the Urban College to mourn his loss.

Krajewski downplayed his presence: “I’m a bishop of the streets,” he said. “It’s normal that I would do this.”

Still, the press by the students at the Urban College to organize a last gesture of tenderness for a man basically forgotten during life is one indication that the “Francis effect” is reaching down into the next generation of priests and future church leaders.

What a witness and challenge this recent Vatican story is to the universal Church, to the local Church, to the parish Church, to me.

I think here of Galatians 2:10, where Paul, seeking hand-clasping confirmation of his Gentile mission from the Apostolic Pillars, Peter, James and John, receives from them only one very specific injunction: “Be mindful of the poor.” “Which,” Paul adds, “is the very thing I was eager to do.” It’s worth noting that shortly after his election as Supreme Pontiff, Francis remarked,

During the election, I was seated next to the Archbishop Emeritus of São Paulo and Prefect Emeritus of the Clergy, Card Cláudio Hummes, a really close friend. When things got a bit dangerous, he comforted me. When the votes reached two thirds, the Cardinals began to applaud because a pope had been elected. Card Hummes hugged me and said, ‘Don’t forget the poor!’ That struck me.

The poor, the poor! As I thought about them, I immediately thought about Saint Francis of Assisi, about war, whilst the vote counting went on, until all ballots were counted. Francis was a man of peace, a man who loved and protected creation. In our times, our relationship to Creation is not that good, right?  He was the man who gave us a spirit of peace, a poor man … How much I would like to see a poor Church for the poor.

The Fifth Mark of the Church

This is the trademark of any authentic apostolic mission, of the core mission of the Church, whenever she is being herself. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s the argument that Francis Cardinal George made in his book, The Difference God Makes,

Being “simply Catholic” means starting with the poor. That’s the evangelical touchstone. You take a group that starts with the poor, and then you know that there’s evangelical motivation. There’s no power or anything else, because these people don’t have power. They identify with the poor, and then they say, things have to change for the poor. We have to see that the poor are better served in the name of Christ. The church will follow along, if they know that you’re changing the way that the world looks at the poor.

Every local Church must always, and even daily, undergo a re-formation in its communal and institutional priorities so that “the poor,” especially those close by (the primary definition of neighbor!), feel the warmth, nourishment and encouragement of her maternal and Christ-bearing love. But the poor are not merely detached recipients of a well-off and healthy Church’s ecclesial solicitude. Rather, they are the most treasured members of her Body, as the story of St. Lawrence the Deacon evidences when he declares the poor, the lame, the blind to be not the select beneficiaries of a wealthy Church’s treasures, but to be themselves the “treasure of the Church.”

When I worked at the Mother Teresa’s home for the homeless and dying in D.C., Gift of Peace, one of the residents referred to the house Chapel where we had a daily Mass for the residents, volunteers and sisters as “the Church of the Nobodies.” One of the sisters commented once that St. Matthew might add to that nomenclature, “…and theirs is the kingdom of the heavens…”


I’ll give St. James  the final word,

My brothers, show no partiality as you adhere to the faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ. For if a man with gold rings on his fingers and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and a poor person in ragged clothes also comes in, and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Sit here, please,” while you say to the poor one, “Stand there,” or “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil designs? Listen, my beloved brothers. Did not God choose those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that he promised to those who love him? But you dishonored the poor person. Are not the rich oppressing you? And do they themselves not haul you off to court? Is it not they who blaspheme the noble name that was invoked over you? However, if you fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law, but falls short in one particular, has become guilty in respect to all of it. For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not kill.” Even if you do not commit adultery but kill, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as people who will be judged by the law of freedom. For the judgment is merciless to one who has not shown mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment. — James 2:1-10

Daring Seekers

I finally finished David Hart’s high-density theological/philosophical tour de force and refutation of naturalism, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. It’s absolutely extraordinary and left me re-filled with rekindled my sense of bewilderment over the mystery of human consciousness, amazement at the complex depths of the human quest for bliss, and wonder before the sheer, unexplained existence of the universe.

In particular, I fell in love with a quote near the end of the last chapter (327-28) in which Hart lays out a path for the serious skeptic to travel if s/he is to explore the problem of God:

In my experience, those who make the most theatrical display of demanding “proof” of God are also those least willing to undertake the specific kinds of mental and spiritual discipline that all the great religious traditions say are required to find God. If one is left unsatisfied by the logical arguments for belief in God, and instead insists upon some “experimental” or “empirical” demonstration, then one ought to be willing to attempt the sort of investigations necessary to achieve any sort of real certainty regarding a reality that is nothing less than the infinite coincidence of infinite being, consciousness and bliss. In short, one must pray: not fitfully, not merely in the manner of a suppliant seeking aid or of a penitent seeking absolution but also according to the disciplines of infused contemplation, real constancy of will and a patient openness to grace…no one is obliged to make such an effort; but, unless one does, any demands one might make for evidence of the reality of God can safely be dismissed as disingenuous, and any arguments against belief in God that one might have the temerity to make to others can be safely ignored.

That quote then reminded me of a post I had written a year and a half ago, which, for what it’s worth, I include below.

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I heard a lecture yesterday by an eastern Orthodox theologian which contained a plethora of fascinating insights into the “spirituality over religion” (SOR) craze in the West.

Too many insights to capture in this brief post, but his main argument went something like this. The love of spirituality, when it is set in opposition to organized religion, usually revolves around two focal points: (1) extracting and abstracting the spiritual life from the messiness of particularity that attends the real-time human quest to love God in a dysfunctional human community; (2) seeking out primarily individual, autonomous, self-legislating fulfillment in a cosmos devoid of inconvenient, hard ethical truths, given by a divine Legislator, that give ascetically honed shape to the life of a religious practitioner. In regard to the second point, he argued that the spirituality without religion movement prescribes thin, vague and soft ethical principles that are easily adapted to individual preference and radically relativize truth, while spirituality within religion prescribes thick, specific and hard precepts, counseling clearly defined virtues and forbidding clearly defined vices that challenge the individual to be shaped and informed by the given-ness of truth.

It was far more sophisticated than that, but that’s the gist.

Do Faith, then we’ll talk

At the end of his lecture, he shared some advice he gives to the market-place agnostic spiritual-but-not-religious “seekers” who come to him to inspect Orthodox Christianity — who are attracted to Orthodoxy initially, he said, because it seems to them exotic and, they hope, is sufficiently “misty” to offer ample room for their quest for an autonomous faith. He said that he happily entertains their interest, but will not engage in substantive “heady” conversations about the faith until they first agree to do what he asks. Listen to his spiel:

For six months, try this. Pray to God every day, even if you don’t know who — or if — he is, and simply say in the space of 5 minutes of quiet silence, ‘O God, guide me.’ And then listen. Show up here at church every Sunday for the Divine Liturgy and just stand there, pay attention without analyzing or criticizing. Read from the New Testament for at least 15 minutes every day, beginning with the Gospels, and read very slowly; again, without analyzing or criticizing. If you are presently involved in sexual activities apart from marriage, stop for these six months. The same goes for alcohol abuse or drug use. Give some alms to the poor so it hurts some. Then after those six months we can talk about what you experienced, and I will try to answer all your questions.

Otherwise, you’re not really serious in your quest and it’s all a game of the mind.

He said in his experience over 50+ years of priesthood he has never once seen the successful completion of this experiment fail to effect a radical change in opening the skeptical seeker to Christ and his Church.

But, he added, the majority of those whom he confronts with this challenge “walk away sad” as they are unwilling to invest the effort. Like Herod, they want to be titillated by a quick fix, not converted.

“I dare you,” he once said to a young woman, “give Christ a try.” “She did, and,” he said, “she met Him.”

Orthodox priest hearing confession

St. Innocent, pray for us

My very favorite historical theologian, Aidan Nichols, O.P., offered in his fascinating and little noticed book, Christendom Awake, a new ‘liturgical’ approach to the intractable debates over abortion.  An approach that draws its inspiration from today’s Feast of the Holy Innocents.

He suggested that the Church, in a single and dramatic act, canonize as “martyrs of innocence” the countless millions of brutally and unjustly aborted children.

He examines the many debates that have surrounded this proposal, especially the challenge of finding real precedent in the Catholic Tradition for canonizing the pre-born, or those whose death is not explicitly endured out of odium fidei, “hatred for the faith.”

One important effect of such an act would be, he argues, that Catholic Christians who formally cooperate in direct abortions would suddenly find themselves ranked not with the “noble army of martyrs,” but rather with that ignoble perpetrators of martyrdom.

In any event, we turn today to these powerless Innocents who suffered as scapegoats for the Lamb of God, and seek their powerful intercession.

Today’s Mass Collect: O God, whom the Holy Innocents confessed and proclaimed on this day, not by speaking but by dying, grant, we pray, that the faith in your which we confess with our lips may also speak through our manner of life. Pour forth, we beseech you, O Lord, your grace into our hearts, that we, to whom the Incarnation of Christ your Son was made known by the message of an Angel, may by his Passion and Cross be brought to the glory of his Resurrection. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

Then was fulfilled what had been said through Jeremiah the prophet: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, sobbing and loud lamentation; Rachel weeping for her children, and she would not be consoled, since they were no more.’ (Matt. 2:17-18)

“… share your food with the hungry” Isaiah 58:7

In line with our Pope’s passion for calling the Church to face poverty with the ferocity of the self-emptying God of mercy, in preparation for tomorrow’s feast of that lover of the poor St. Nicholas, and in concert with Advent’s special focus on joy-bearing alms, I thought I would share a collage of relevant quotes from our sacred Tradition.


When someone strips a man of his clothes we call him a thief. And one who might clothe the naked and does not — should he not be given the same name? The bread in your board belongs to the hungry: the cloak in your wardrobe belongs to the naked, the shoes you let rot belong to the barefoot; the money in your vaults belongs to the destitute.

– St. Basil

It is not with your own wealth that you give alms to the poor, but with a fraction of their own which you give back; for you are usurping for yourself something meant for the common good of all. The earth is for everyone, not only for the rich.

– St. Ambrose

Do you think that kindness toward your neighbor is not something essential but voluntary; not law but a recommendation? I would wish and think that it were so, were I not frightened by the possibility of being numbered among the goats on the left hand of the Sovereign Judge who will hurl his condemnations; and this not because they have robbed or committed sacrileges or adulteries, nor because they have done something forbidden. Nothing of the sort attracts condemnation on them except their having failed to care for Christ himself in the person of the poor.

– St. Gregory Nazianzen

Do not make your longing for prayer a pretext for turning away from anyone who asks for your help, for love is greater than prayer.

– St. Symeon the New Theologian

Human beings have accumulated in their coffers gold and silver, clothes more sumptuous than useful, diamonds and other objects that are evidence of war and tyranny; then a foolish arrogance hardens their hearts; for their brothers in distress, no pity. What utter blindness!… Attend not to the law of the strong but to the law of the Creator. Help nature to the best of your ability, honor the freedom of creation, protect your species from dishonor, come to its aids in sickness, rescue it from poverty… Seek to distinguish yourself from others only in your generosity. Be like gods to the poor, imitating God’s mercy. Humanity has nothing so much in common with God as the ability to do good.

– St. Gregory Nazianzen

Feeding the hungry is a greater work than raising the dead.

– St. John Chrysostom

You just need to look at what the gospel asks and what war does. The Gospel asks that we feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the homeless, visit the prisoner, and perform acts of mercy. War does all the opposite. It makes my neighbor hungry, thirsty, homeless, a prisoner and sick. The Gospel asks us to take up our cross. War asks us to lay the cross on others.

– Servant of God Dorothy Day

While fasting physically, brethren, let us also fast spiritually. Let us loose every knot of iniquity. Let us tear up every unrighteous bond. Let us distribute bread to the hungry and welcome into our homes those who have no roof over their heads so that we may receive great mercy from Christ our God!

– First week of Lent, Wednesday Vespers

Musical character

Cantare amantis est, “To sing belongs to lovers” — St. Augustine

As yesterday was the feast of the patroness of sacred music, St. Cecilia, I wanted to re-post two quotes I shared here two years ago on the immense power of music to form, or deform, our moral imagination.

After my first child was born, a seasoned grandfather once gave me this piece of advice on parenting: “The best recipe for raising good kids is good books, good music, good friends and your good marriage.”

The hardest “control factor” in our children’s lives has in many ways been the music piece. It’s an endless struggle to wade trough the sea of cultural kitsch and find what is at least acceptable, if not preferable. Though I will not here attempt to share personal reflections on my experience of this struggle here, suffice to say to that all parents should be keenly aware that the music your children listen to is never morally/spiritually neutral, the lifestyle of the musicians is not incidental, and the words/message of the lyrics are not peripheral in significance (belying of the oft repeated phrase, “I just ignore the lyrics and enjoy the tune”). Beyond the simple years of Baby Einstein CDs, choose wisely the music your children imbibe and, while not going ghetto in a posture of cultural isolation, always think: what shape does this music impress in the soft wax of my child’s soul? What character does it conjure? What associations of emotion, thought and behavior doe sit forge?


Here are the two quotes — the first, written 2300 years ago by Plato in The Republic; the second, written by Allan Bloom in the 1980s in a book, The Closing of the American Mind, that seriously shook my worldview when I first read it in 1997.

Let me write the songs of a nation – I care not who writes its laws.

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Picture a thirteen-year-old boy sitting in the living room of his family home doing his math assignment while wearing his Walkman headphones or watching MTV. He enjoys the liberties hard won over centuries by the alliance of philosophic genius and political heroism, consecrated by the blood of martyrs; he is provided with comfort and leisure by the most productive economy ever known to mankind; science has penetrated the secrets of nature in order to provide him with the marvelous, lifelike electronic sound and image reproduction he is enjoying. And in what does progress culminate? A pubescent child whose body throbs with orgasmic rhythms; whose feelings are made articulate in hymns to the joys of onanism or the killing of parents; whose ambition is to win fame and wealth in imitating the drag-queen who makes the music. In short, life is made into a nonstop, commercially prepackaged masturbational fantasy.

This description may seem exaggerated, but only because some would prefer to regard it as such. The continuing exposure of rock music is a reality, not one confined to a particular class or type of child. One need only ask first-year university students what music they listen to, how much of it and what it means to them, in order to discover that the phenomenon is universal in America, that it begins in adolescence or a bit before and continues through the college years. It is the youth culture and, as I have so often insisted, there is now no other countervailing nourishment for the spirit. Some of this culture’s power comes from the fact that it is so loud. It makes conversation impossible, so that much of friendship must be without the shared speech that Aristotle asserts is the essence of friendship and the only true common ground. With rock, illusions of shared feelings, bodily contact and grunted formulas, which are supposed to contain so much meaning beyond speech, are the basis of association. None of this contradicts going about the business of life, attending classes and doing assignments for them. But the meaningful inner life is with music.

This phenomenon is both astounding and indigestible, and is hardly noticed, routine and habitual. But it is of historical proportions that a society’s best young and their best energies should be so occupied. People of future civilizations will wonder at this and find it as incomprehensible as we do the caste system, witch burning, harems, cannibalism and gladiatorial combats. It may well be that society’s greatest madness seems normal to itself. The child I described has parents who have sacrificed to provide him with a good life and who have a great stake in his happiness. They cannot believe that the musical vocation will contribute very much to that happiness. But there is nothing they can do about it.  — The Closing of the American Mind, 74

Consuming God on Black Friday

Black Friday 2011

This year’s Black Friday push-back into Thanksgiving evening, 7:00 p.m. has caused a stir as many people feel that something is amiss. But exactly what is it that’s amiss?

I was listening to a talk radio show the other day, and they were interviewing people in a Mall asking them what they thought of the incremental encroachment of sales and store hours into the sacred space of Thanksgiving Day evening – a process they dubbed “Black Friday creep.” Many said they think it’s a shame that stores just won’t leave family time alone. Others offered a more pragmatic view and said that an earlier opening Thursday evening allows people to not feel they have to stay up late into the night to take advantage of sales. One Corporate rep from a store that will open early said “it gives consumers a choice they’ve never had before. It diversifies their options, which is what drives the market and keeps our economy healthy.”

The fact is, consumerism unrestrained by a “thick” ethical and theological worldview (like that articulated in Caritas in Veritate) spares nothing in its ravenous appetite for more, insidiously, relentlessly commodifying persons and placing the core values that undergird marriage, family, childhood, adulthood, sexuality, religion, leisure, or the meaning of the “feast” (e.g. the Sunday Sabbath, Thanksgiving or Mardi Gras) at the service of the market.

On that last point, Josef Pieper powerfully argues in his book Leisure: Basis of Culture that the authentic role of leisure and the feast is to guard those God-given foundations upon which all human dignity lies: truth, goodness and beauty. When the market does not serve, but overtakes these three “transcendentals,” truth becomes a market-driven statistic, goodness a market-driven appetite, and beauty a market-driven advertising ploy.

David, Take it Away

But let me not waste any more time here trying to say poorly what David Hart, yet again, says so incisively. This is taken from his latest book, which I am also wading through with great joy, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss.

Late modern society is principally concerned with purchasing things, in ever greater abundance and variety, and so has to strive to fabricate an even greater number of desires to gratify, and to abolish as many limits and prohibitions upon desire as it can. Such a society is already implicitly atheist and so must slowly but relentlessly apply itself to the dissolution of transcendent values. It cannot allow ultimate goods to distract us from proximate goods. Our sacred writ is advertising, our piety is shopping, our highest devotion is private choice. God and the soul too often hinder the purely acquisitive longings upon which the market depends, and confront us with values that stand in stark rivalry to the one truly substantial value at the center of our social universe: the price tag. So it really was only a matter of time before atheism slipped out of the enclosed gardens of academe and down from the vertiginous eyries of high cosmopolitan fashion and began expressing itself in crassly vulgar form…In a sense, the triviality of the movement is its chief virtue. It is a diverting alternative to thinking deeply. It is a narcotic. In our time, to strike a lapidary phrase, irreligion is the opiate of the bourgeoisie, the sigh of the oppressed ego, the heart of a world filled with tantalizing toys. (313-14)

Compassionate with God


I have made the point in this Blog on a number of occasions that our society’s ever-increasing inability to see and accept that there are “tragic” dimensions to life that admit of no ethical resolve “this side of Paradise” leads to such unthinkable and unethical “solutions” to real-life’s painfully tragic limits as the creation and destruction of human embryos to remedy infertility, the redefinition of marriage to canonize same-sex sex, the intentional killing of the terminally ill, or the extermination of 90% of pre-born babies diagnosed (rightly or wrongly) with Down Syndrome (see here).

The Christian story of the Passion of Christ bears within it all of the tensions of human tragedy which find resolve in re-creating, redeeming, tear-wiping Triumph only after the awful finality of agony, torture and death; only after the Tomb is sealed by a lifeless stone and the humanity of God descends headlong into the deepest chasms of Hell.

Spe salvi. In hope we are saved, and hope-bearing Christians would never choose to face the tragic elements of life with a will bent on wrongful compromises with evil in order to alleviate and eradicate the tragic elements of this life. That said, the Samaritan Christian, bearing within the light of Resurrection already now, does all in his or her power to raise up the fallen, to shine the paschal rays of the rising Dawn into every dark Tomb, and to face the tragic elements life in manners that move with the grain of God’s justice, love, mercy and will that all be saved. Just as the martyr’s unwillingess to do evil that good may come of it implicates him or her in a fatal embrace with a tragic fate, so the Christian, ever-called to live such martyrdom, sees in every tragedy a moment of Christian witness, a call to imitate the Master, an encounter with the tragic love of God in Christ that has embraced our disfigured world so that, with Him, we might participate in the ultimate transfiguration of every human story in a new creation where “there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order has passed away. ‘Behold, I make all things new.'” (Rev. 21:4-5)

“Walk with me”

When I lived in Des Moines, I had a young man walk up to me one day while I was reading in a coffee shop (my favorite pastime) and say to me, “I saw you make the sign of the cross. Are you a Christian?” I said, “Yes, I am.” He said with disarming bluntness, “I’m gay and I’m Christian, too. But here’s my problem. The churches I have wandered in and out of the last several years, since I came out, have either demonized or legitimized my orientation. And I feel lost in both those worlds. I don’t know you, and you’ll probably think I’m freaky, but I think God told me to talk to you. What I’m asking is that you don’t try to demonize my orientation or legitimize it. I just want to know if you’d be willing to walk with me?”

Needless to say, I was stupefied by his openness with a complete stranger, but even more by his willingness to face his profoundly painful personal history and inner struggles with such courage, and with a rare openness to living in ambiguity and uncertainty. I won’t reveal the rest of the story, but suffice to say his journey is a “way of the Cross,” marked by an abundant capacity to, as the Catechism words it, “unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition” (CCC 2358).


All this thought was provoked by an absolutely brilliant reflection of Caryll Houselander (early-mid twentieth century lay Catholic ecclesiastical artist, mystic, popular religious writer and poet in Britain) that I read in the Magnificat this last week.  She is a brilliant author, worth reading, and her insights always provoke new insights and convictions. Drink it in:

There are too many common sense Christians, afraid to spend themselves on anyone from whom they do not get visible results. They are ready with hard work for reform, they pour out good advice, they are proud to be realists who repudiate everything that seems to them to he impractical, including the poetry of Christ, but they have no use for those baffling human creatures who won’t—or can’t—play the game by their rules. These “realists” refuse to see that there are problems that can’t be solved, griefs which cannot be healed, conditions which cannot be cured. They are impatient with the suffering they cannot end; unable to accept its reality, they wash their hands of it, because they cannot, so they think, do anything about it. But we cannot make an end of Christ’s suffering, for as long as the world goes on, the Passion of Christ will go on in his members; and he will ask, not for his suffering to be mitigated, but for sympathy. In Gethsemane Christ tried to awaken his apostles, not because they could take away his agony, but because they could give him their compassion.

Pope Francis’ Compassionate Moment (ABC News)

A CEO and the Janitorial Staff

Today’s first reading from Romans ends with a potent line:

…do not be haughty but associate with the lowly.

I once heard a witness of a CEO in a Legatus meeting who shared his business practice of having lunch with the janitorial and maintenance staff once a month. “It’s not,” he said, “to rack up humility PR points, but to keep myself in touch with the real concerns of those who are often overlooked by those of us at the peak of the business pyramid. We at the top tend to gravitate toward those who are more visibly successful and influential. But the truth is, the most important work to be done in my company — and my personal life — is often done by those who are invisible, who don’t get accolades for their success or influence. Plus, it’s also a bit selfish on my part, since my general experience is that after spending 90 minutes with them my blood pressure drops 20 points. They help me adjust my perspective on what counts most, and they give me a perspective on my work that can be had in no other way.”

He went on to say that as a Catholic he looks to Jesus’ example of going out of His way to associate with the humble and outcasts of society. “Even His choice to embrace the most brutal and heinous form of death, the death of a slave or criminal, was His way of teaching us as God that we are to see ourselves as connected to all our fellow men, all children of one Father, equal in dignity and worthy of being looked at straight in the eye.” He added that the ever-present sinful human tendency to “unjustly stratify social groups” must be met consistently and intentionally by Christians with creative “going out of your way” gestures, expressions of justice and charity, that will help break-up those sinful strata and remind us of what the Catechism tells us: we are all made in God’s image and likeness and all redeemed by Christ.

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” he said, quoting Martin Luther King, Jr., “and to start today with our small corner of the world is where our call from God begins and where it ends.”

Now that’s the Gospel at work in the thick of things.

Pope Cerebrates Mass for Vatican Janitors, Gardeners