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…

 

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.

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.

 

Our Wild God

God Appears to Moses in Burning Bush. Painting from Saint Isaac’s Cathedral, Saint Petersburg, Russia. Taken from http://upload.wikimedia.org

A friend of mine shared with me a story last weekend about a malapropism that found its way into the pre-Mass announcements at a parish one Sunday morning. The opening song for that day was that wonderful hymn, written by 19th century British composer Fr. Frederick Faber, There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy. The lector, who is quite excellent, got up before Mass began and read the opening announcements. When she got to the end, she proclaimed in a loud and confident voice:

Please join us in singing our opening song, “There’s a Wilderness in God’s Mercy.”

The choir cracked up.

Felix Culpa

After chuckling a bit myself, I began, predictably, to muse on the theological possibilities found in this happy mistake. I thought of the meaning of the word “wilderness,” which comes from the Old English wild-deor, “wild deer.” It refers to lands populated by untamed, undomesticated animals that escape the control of human beings, or, more generally, to the wider natural world that is unconcerned with the orderly concerns of human culture and enterprise. It is a world fraught with danger and mystery, strangely seductive to those who loathe the sleepy comforts of an overly-controlled suburban contentment that populates our more or less gated lives. Wilderness is where the sleepy must go if they are to awaken and escape from their binding attachments that turn comfort into an idol, safety into a prison, sameness into ossifying chains that keep suburbanites from soaring into the City of God. As Thoreau said in Walden,

We need the tonic of wildness…At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.

I have a friend who loves the to engage in period forays into the wilds, to trek outdoors where he loves hiking and camping, adores the discomforts of grunge and sweat and mosquitoes and unexpected downpours. He’s been hit by lightening (via the water his boat was floating in), bitten by snakes and attacked by hawks when he ventured too near their nest. By week, he’s a professional businessman. I asked him once why he felt so drawn to such things and he said,

It’s what keeps my soul from going stale. It’s where I see God most clearly, when all the clutter and busyness of life peels away. It’s where I can drop the Type A obsession with neatness and be messy in God’s order of things. Out in nature it’s like God’s saying to me: you humans, you’re so small, and you’re part of something much bigger than yourselves, a world you just can’t control. You don’t try to control it, you just find your place in the ecosystem, in an order not of your making. It’s got a beauty that’s way too easy to forget is already all around you all the time when your surrounded all day by concrete walls and papers and virtual media. It’s like the week that grows in the sidewalk crack, defying our claim to bend all nature to our utilitarian will. After I get back from being in the forests and swamps, I can see God much better in the paper and concrete; and in the people around me.

Wild at Heart

God created the wilderness and asked man to make of it a Garden, but Man, having rebelled, was expelled from the Garden into the wilderness. But our vocation remains, a vocation to transform the wilderness into a Garden or, maybe, to discover in the wilderness the Garden God is fashioning. Something like that.

In the Scriptures God, who is himself a wandering Nomad of sorts, has a certain affection for journeying with his chosen people into the wilds of a trackless and barren desert. It’s the place where God leads Israel when they’ve become overly controlled or controlling, enslaved in pseudo-worlds of their own making. These are worlds populated by false gods, or by a domesticated God fashioned into an idol, a work of human ingenuity that strips God of all his dangerous attributes that threaten to expose humanity’s injustices, deceptions, guilt or inhuman malice.

If there’s anything that true about the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, it’s that he is essentially wild, fearfully uncontrollable, and absolutely free from all necessity save the exigencies of his own divine nature (e.g. his truth, goodness, fidelity, mercy). Every biblical character who encounters God must be at once told, “Do not be afraid!” because to meet God is to be set off balance as unclean meets the All-Holy, injustice meets the All-Just, or some such juxtaposed contrast that shatters petrified hearts, refashioning them in the Potter’s free-wheeling Hands. Even in the Christian mystical tradition, one frequently hears the mystic describe the “shock” of encountering God with the stock phrase, “of sudden!” God’s coming, without warning, comes like a sudden squall, though, unlike the natural phenomenon, the divine Storm comes to wreak havoc only in order to recreate and restore the original order.

You might say that the essence of the covenant God makes with Israel, fulfilled in Christ, can be summed up as an invitation of God to us, and our affirmative consent, to allow “God to be God” as God with us. That’s what Emmanuel means, “God with us,” but on on God’s terms, not ours. That’s who Jesus was and is, God with us on God’s terms, even (and especially) in the face of our violent resistance and rejection — and there, crucified, God-with-us reveals himself to be, beyond all our wildest imaginings, unrelentlingly merciful. And one need only think of the resurrection appearances — strange, unexpected, terrifying, bewildering, awful, inducing worship — to sense that this revelation of God is ruinous for the preconceptions of sinful men and women who wish God to be God on their terms.

There’s something gravely dangerous, disconcerting, about surrendering to God’s uncontrolled nature, especially inasmuch as our fallen nature, fashioned originally in his image, has marred the divine likeness by attempting to seize control of the divine image by fashioning idols, staging a coup to overthrow God and, ultimately, plotting to slay him. Those who choose thus set themselves at odds with God, against his Face and his wildness, suddenly discover that he appears, to the reprobate, to be wrath. As God has not changed, and cannot change, we discern that it is our posture toward him that has altered. But God, whose justice is ever-rife with prodigal mercy, reveals to us the way back, draws us by “bands of mercy” (Hosea 11:4) toward the path of life, which is life lived in concert with God’s untethered, unstrained and pity-full love. When the author of Hebrews 10:31 says, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God,” we might read there not only divine wrath but, for those willing to repent of their deadly coup, God’s far more fearful mercy. It is an unyieldingly, mercilessly relentless mercy that effects in the willing a total and complete remedy that heals our sins to the deepest roots.

St. John of the Cross speaks so powerfully of this “labor of mercy” in the Dark Night. There he argues that those who consent to permit God’s unchained mercy a free reign in their deepest depths feel simultaneously out of control and absolutely secure as God, the absolutely trustworthy Divine Surgeon, sees to the death of death within us. Here, John says, prayer becomes challenging as we sense that God is remaking us within, deconstructing our sins and distortions, and recreating within us the Kingdom of God. Those who pass through this final purifying “night” discover within them the Dawn’s rising, and they themselves become wild with the folly of the Risen Christ, wise with the wisdom of the Cross, are propelled to and fro by the freely blowing Spirit, drunk with divine love’s madness and freed (as Augustine says) to love and do as they will. But none of this can be had until they have been freed from self-will, from illusions and flights of fantasy, grounded in the Commandments and the virtues, for there is no true freedom until one’s will has been chained to the divine will by obedience. Those who seek freedom without obedience worship themselves and seek a false wilderness that leads to death and the land of illusions.

Wild in Mind

A last meditation on the “Wilderness in God’s Mercy.” In our theological tradition, we affirm that human language has the capacity to reveal the truth of God’s transcendent nature (called kataphatic, or “saying” theology), but we also affirm that human language is very fragile in is capacity to comprehend God’s nature (called apophatic, or “unsaying” theology). Theologians try to balance these two in “the ascent of the mind to God,” climbing an analogical ladder that we are at-once climbing and being lifted up on. Our knowledge of God, as we grow in intimacy with him, increasingly enters into contact with this unstable tension between “saying” and “unsaying,” stammering and singing our way into the mystery of what Meister Eckhart called the “vast and silent desert of Divinity.” God is vast beyond our every capacity to “think big” about him, which, for the theologian should not stand as a reason to despair but rather as a reason to give thanks! In the words a small child in Iowa who once misspoke at Mass, miming the proper liturgical acclamation that follows the biblical readings, “Thanks to Big God.”

It’s a tension that elicits with the theologian (or any person of faith) humility, wonder, desire, longing, terror, dizziness, joy and ecstasy, widening our horizons and making us evermore capax Dei, capable of God. It’s why theologians must also be men and women of prayer, as we strive to experience the Mysteries we explore and render ourselves vulnerable to suffering the coming of the real God, the true God, the living God, and not the God of our puny imaginings or warped desires. In other words, theologians are those whose hearts, having been purified, can see God under the form of an inchoate glory and called to share our vision with the Church. Or, for those of us who know we are far from that purity, at least give voice to those who have seen thus.

Saints of God, come to our aid!

Let me end this already too-long post (which I will give you rest from tomorrow with a post-less day) with some fav quotes from two of the great Masters of God’s wilderness, St. Gregory of Nyssa and Ps-Dionysius.

St. Gregory:

The feelings that come to a man who stands on a high mountain peak and looks down onto some immense sea are the same feelings that come to me when I look out from the high mountain peak of the Lord’s words into the incomprehensible depths of his thoughts. When you look at mountains that stand next to the sea, you will often find that they seem to have been cut in half, so that on the side nearest the sea there is a sheer drop and something dropped from the summit will fall straight into the depths. Someone who looks down from such a peak will become dizzy, and so too I become dizzy when I look down from the high peak of these words of the Lord: Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. These words offer the sight of God to those whose hearts have been purified and purged. But look: St John says No-one has seen God. The Apostle Paul’s sublime mind goes further still: What no man has seen and no man can see. This is the slippery and crumbling rock that seems to give the mind no support in the heights. Even the teaching of Moses declared God to be a rock that was so inaccessible that our minds could not even approach it: No-one can see the Lord.

To see God is to have eternal life – and yet the pillars of our faith, John and Paul and Moses, say that God cannot be seen. Can you understand the dizziness of a soul that contemplates their words? If God is life, whoever does not see God does not see life. If the prophets and the Apostle, inspired by the Holy Spirit, attest that God cannot be seen, does this not wreck all the hopes of those who seek his Face?

It is the Lord who sustains our floundering hope, just as he sustained Peter when he was floundering in the water, and made the waters firm beneath his feet. If the hand of the Word stretches out to us as well, and sets us firm in a new understanding when these speculations have made us lose our balance, we shall be safe from fear, held safe in the guiding hand of the Word. Blessed, he says, are those who possess a pure heart, for they shall see God.

Ps.Dionysius:

How then can we speak of the divine names? How can we do this if the Transcendent surpasses all discourse and all knowledge, if it abides beyond the reach of mind and of being, if it encompasses and circumscribes, embraces and anticipates all thins while itself eluding their grasp and escaping from any perception, imagination, opinion, name, discourse, apprehension, or understanding? How can we enter upon this undertaking if the Godhead is superior to being and is unspeakable and unnameable?

Shabbat

from sd.keepcalm-o-matic.co.uk

Today is the Jewish Sabbath, the Shabbat, a day of ceasing from all servile labor in which God’s people breathe deep the sweet fragrance of the Torah and exhale on high a new song of praise and thanks to their Creator and Redeemer.

The Sabbath, commanded by God to shatter man’s slavery to unrelenting work, creates a free space in time for joyfully and thankfully receiving the sheer gift of existence itself afresh from the Hand of God. It also creates a space for us to remember the mirabilia Dei, “the wonderful works of God” that have taken place in history as the eternal God again and again broke into time to save humanity and establish with us an everlasting covenant of mercy.

For Christians who celebrate the fulfillment of the Sabbath on Sunday, the 8th and final day of creation, the day the Spirit-breathing Christ rose from death, the Sabbath is especially a day consecrated to liturgical worship and prayer. Liturgy is, you might say, the God-designed manner by which each man and woman enters into the restful Sanctuary that abides at the thrice holy Heart of the life-creating Trinity. On Sabbath we are not just invited to come near to God, but to plunge into Him, to eat and drink of His immortal life and love. Sunday is our weekly foretaste of that entry into the Unthinkable, the Unspeakable, and Holy Mass is where we amble into the veiled threshold of Mystery.

Not a bad reason to plan your Sunday trek to Mass as a day “set apart” for God.

To-be

As an aside, regarding the character of Sabbath as a day to be joyously grateful for the gift of existence, I had an insight in February that I’d like to share here. Here’s my journal entry from February 7th (which I won’t indent to keep the italics):

Here’s an an insight it seems that the Lord has given me about the “everything” for which we give thanks – an opening into a certain “mysticism of being” (or maybe an ontological mysticism) that claims within me an irrepressible and moment-by-moment joying gratitude over the surplus of meaning, the superabundant beauty that impregnates the Genesis 1:31 “very good” fact of existence itself, i.e. that even before meaning and goodness and discernable purpose are located by us within in distinct āctūs, “acts” of being (e.g. my health, the birth of a child, a lovely dew-drenched rosebud), meaning and goodness and purpose worthy of laud are already/always found simply and without qualification in that fact of esse, of “to-be” itself, regardless of the particular existential colors being presents in any given moment. Just “to-be,” as a reception of the pure-gratuity of God’s eternal-creating Act, should suffice to vacate all boredom and meaninglessness from every moment. And every moment of to-be that is this received within such a “eucharistic heart” wells up through us, blended with Seraphic hymns, into imperishable eternity.  This point is what for me gives such force to Meister Eckhart’s catastrophically simple saying: “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is ‘thank you,’ it will be enough.” It’s been a revolution within a revolution within a revolution for me.

Cahill’s Shabbat

I recall the day I first read through Thomas Cahill’s fascinating book, The Gifts of the Jews. I was bowled over in particular by his insights on the Jewish Sabbath. These insights made me grateful in a new way for this singular gift the Jews bequeathed to the world and to the Church, and it made me more keenly aware of the tragedy of a Christian people who have largely forgotten what a precious pearl they have to offer the world. Here’s the quote that really took me:

No ancient society before the Jews had a day of rest. The God who made the universe and rested bids us do the same, calling us to a weekly restoration of prayer, study, and recreation (or re-creation). In this study (or Talmud), we have the beginnings of what Nahum Sarna has called ‘the universal duty of continuous self-education,’ Israel being the first human society to so value education and the first to envision it as a universal pursuit – and a democratic obligation that those in power must safeguard on behalf of those in their employ. The connections to both freedom and creativity lie just beneath the surface of this commandment: leisure is appropriate to a free people, and this people so recently free find themselves quickly establishing this quiet weekly celebration of their freedom; leisure is the necessary ground of creativity, and a free people are free to imitate the creativity of God. The Sabbath is surely one of the simplest and sanest recommendations any god has ever made; and those who live without such septimanal punctuation are emptier and less resourceful. Those people who work seven days a week, even if they are being paid millions of dollars to do so, are, in the biblical conception, considered slaves.

JP2, We  You

One last point, to avoid making this post obscenely long.

Soon to be Pope St. John Paul II wrote a whole letter on the meaning and celebration of Sunday (click here), and it’s well worth reading. It’s theologically and historically rich, and is filled with plenty of excellent practical ideas for keeping the Sabbath “holy.” I’d like to end today with my favorite 2 paragraphs in the document. It’s a tad long, but worth the read.

Imagine a world of 2+ billion Christians carrying this out every 7 days. Now, let’s pledge to move from image to reality…

The Eucharist is an event and programme of true brotherhood. From the Sunday Mass there flows a tide of charity destined to spread into the whole life of the faithful, beginning by inspiring the very way in which they live the rest of Sunday. If Sunday is a day of joy, Christians should declare by their actual behaviour that we cannot be happy “on our own”. They look around to find people who may need their help. It may be that in their neighbourhood or among those they know there are sick people, elderly people, children or immigrants who precisely on Sundays feel more keenly their isolation, needs and suffering. It is true that commitment to these people cannot be restricted to occasional Sunday gestures. But presuming a wider sense of commitment, why not make the Lord’s Day a more intense time of sharing, encouraging all the inventiveness of which Christian charity is capable? Inviting to a meal people who are alone, visiting the sick, providing food for needy families, spending a few hours in voluntary work and acts of solidarity: these would certainly be ways of bringing into people’s lives the love of Christ received at the Eucharistic table.

Lived in this way, not only the Sunday Eucharist but the whole of Sunday becomes a great school of charity, justice and peace. The presence of the Risen Lord in the midst of his people becomes an undertaking of solidarity, a compelling force for inner renewal, an inspiration to change the structures of sin in which individuals, communities and at times entire peoples are entangled. Far from being an escape, the Christian Sunday is a “prophecy” inscribed on time itself, a prophecy obliging the faithful to follow in the footsteps of the One who came “to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to captives and new sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” (Lk 4:18-19). In the Sunday commemoration of Easter, believers learn from Christ, and remembering his promise: “I leave you peace, my peace I give you” (Jn 14:27), they become in their turn builders of peace.

 

Spent Love Wins

“Wastefulness is the original Christian attitude…The entire Passion occurs under the sign of this complete self-wasting of God’s love for the world.” — Hans Urs von Balthasar

A few scattered thoughts on a Lenten Friday.

I was recently talking to some seminarians about how Catholics view the Gospel of Prosperity, which (in caricature) essentially affirms that following Jesus leads to temporal surplus and worldly/physical well-being.

The Catholic view, which of course cannot be justly summarized in a quick phrase, might sound like this: following Jesus means that we will be given all that is necessary to carry out our personal vocations, to become the sort of saint God made us to be, and that any temporal surplus and well-being that may come our way is an evident sign of His love for all those whom He has placed in our sphere of beneficent influence. In a word, following Jesus means the Cross, which is the supreme symbol of human and divine life broken and poured out “on behalf of all and for all.”

The saint says with gut-level conviction: “My life is not my own. It belongs to God ‘and the children that God has given me’” (Hebrews 2:13), and those “children” refer to any and all whom God places under our care.

St.Paul refers to the blessings of prosperity this way,

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich…You are being enriched in every way for all generosity. — 2 Cor. 8:9; 9:11

Unworthy

Let me share a story that Fr. Tom Hopko referred to in a lecture he gave once on the Cross. It makes my point in a very startling way.

Mother Teresa was being interviewed by a reporter who complained that she (Mother) was healthy, while those she served were sick. The reporter said, “If God supposedly loves them so much, how is that fair that they are sick and you are well?” Mother replied, “If I am blessed with health, it is so that I can spend my health in caring for the sick.” The agitated reporter then went on to argue the unfairness of the general human plight of suffering. Mother attempted to respond by averting to the Christian story of the tragedy of sin and suffering, and God’s compassionate desire to share our sufferings in Jesus. “But,” the reporter interrupted her, “you, you yourself do not suffer. How is that fair? Why do they suffer but you do not?” Mother replied, “Yes, you are right. I am not worthy to suffer so near to Jesus as they do, but I have been made worthy to be near the suffering and love Jesus in them.”

Gasp.

Spent Love Wins

Worthiness. Suffering. Love. Compassion. Health, Sickness. All is gift, inscribed with a law of love and received in order to be given. All. Even the darkest elements of life, the worst of the worst, because of the Cross, the Tomb and the Resurrection become worthy offerings as darkness has been re-purposed by God and filled with a love stronger than death; a light blazing from the Body of Christ rising from death. God is love, and it is love alone that grants enduring worth to all things. Love, which is to will the good of another, “wins” in those who choose to love with the very love with which God loved us in Christ crucified.

The choice to love thus, super-human as it is, must always be preceded by the consent to be loved by the God of Jesus Christ. In fact, God desires to be allowed to love us. To turn a phrase from the old Baltimore Catechism, God made us so that He might “know, love and serve us in this life and be happy with us forever in the next.” Pray on that for a time. And only those who really and truly believe in, or, better, into this God can look and act like Him. As 1 John 4:10 says it,

In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also must love one another.

Ignite

On this Lenten Friday, when we reflect on the infinite lexicon of love compressed into the “word of the Cross,” a lexicon we are called to master and employ by the eloquence of our lives, let me leave you with these words of Saint Ignatius of Loyola:

If God gives you an abundant harvest of trials, it is a sign of great holiness which He desires you to attain. Do you want to become a great saint? Ask God to send you many sufferings. The flame of Divine Love never rises higher than when fed with the wood of the Cross, which the infinite charity of the Savior used to finish His sacrifice. All the pleasures of the world are nothing compared with the sweetness found in the gall and vinegar offered to Jesus Christ. That is, hard and painful things endured for Jesus Christ and with Jesus Christ.

Matthias Grünewald, 1510

Christ the Serene

Recently [which was actually last summer as I just found and edited the draft of this post that I'd saved along with my many other still half-digested ideas] I was talking with several different Catholic couples we know who have children, and we all talked about the challenges of raising children who can hold in tension a strong Catholic identity and a sense of place in our contemporary culture. At home in the world, but not of the world.

Here are some scattered thoughts that surfaced from our wandering conversation…

Valuing Truth

We focused largely on the innumerable challenges posed by a postmodern culture that radically de-centers and devalues the claims of timeless truth by transforming truth into values. In postmodern parlance, values are not universally true and binding realities, but only present biases, cherished ideas given authority by a culturally-bound present generation that, at least for now, holds those ideas in esteem. One friend said it this way: While truth is discovered by the intellect and conformed to by the will (i.e. freely chosen because true, aka “Truth is Happiness”), values are created by the will and conformed to by the intellect (i.e. true because freely chosen, aka “Happiness is the Truth“). The truth becomes my truth, reality’s hard substance becomes soft plastic, and the meaning of happiness is entirely unmoored from any stable foundation.

Because the unifying dynamism capable of creating a moral consensus in a values-based society is no longer grounded in obedience to the given exigencies of “the True and the Good,” these irreconcilably diverse values must be guarded by the new meta-ethical truth, Tolerance and imposed by those whose will-to-power at any given moment bears the most weight. In addition, within our increasingly narcissistic, “selfie” culture, the erosion of a truth-based moral ground offers an intensely hostile environment for cultivating the hard virtues (e.g. chastity, self-sacrifice, marital fidelity) that all great societies require to maintain their productive vitality and cohesive strength.  As an aside on this point, one person remarked that the loss of cultural cache for the virtue of chastity makes the battle to end abortion nearly hopeless, since abortion, so intimately linked to failure of chastity, really becomes the henchman of tolerance, the gruesome guardian of sex-without-consequences.

Lastly, when you weld this moral earthquake to an unstable adolescent psyche that is already looking for permission to self-define over and against any sense of unyielding truth, and then hook them into a steady digital diet that mediates a chaotic and fragmented worldview, you have the perfect storm.

While there’s no way I can here propose a robust alternative (though I have already recommended as one idea Esolen’s new book), I can affirm what a mentor once said to me,

If you can help them acquire a serene and non-defensive confidence in their Catholic identity, they will be free to engage the rest of the world without fear. But to give them that, you have to get it first yourselves! So the first ingredient in the recipe of good parenting is good parents.

Another way that I have thought about this task of planting deep within my children the Catholic seed is Antoine de Saint-Exupéry well known line in Citadelle,

Quand tu veux construire un bateau, ne commence pas par rassembler du bois, couper des planches et distribuer du travail, mais reveille au sein des hommes le desir de la mer grande et large.

“When you want to build a ship, do not begin by gathering wood, cutting boards, and distributing work, but rather awaken within men the desire for the vast and endless sea.”

If the “sea” is our Faith, then our greatest parental task is to awaken in them desire for God by filling their imaginations with colorful portraits of truth, goodness and beauty, and by constructing a domestic culture, an economy of love, that evidences the joyful freedom that comes to those who stand firmly on the serene Christ.

Parental Shepherding

We agreed that parents cannot surrender their duty to intentionally and intelligently shepherd their children in a world filled with ravenous wolves eager round up shepherd-less sheep. Yes, we’re tired, busy, torn, challenged, weary. But can you conceive of a better recipe for greatness and holiness that does not require you to run off seeking a noble martyrdom in some far off land, like St. Francis once tried? Heroism is best achieved at home.

For this command which I am giving you today is not too wondrous or remote for you. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who will go up to the heavens to get it for us and tell us of it, that we may do it?” Nor is it across the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross the sea to get it for us and tell us of it, that we may do it?” No, it is something very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to do it. — Deut. 30:11-14

Busy, but never too busy

Parental shepherds, in addition to being informed by their faith, must have a well thought out plan, a “rule of life,” be consistent and steadfast, and make room for real time to get to know their children very, very well. I can affirm that the adage, children spell the word “love” T-I-M-E, is absolutely and infallibly true. I recall reading the stat from nearly 10 years ago that the average American parent spends less than 3 minutes a day in non-directive communication with their children, and thinking to myself: “Please Lord, not me!” It’s a struggle. But if we parents have any hope of wielding effectively the guiding staff and defending rod God has placed into our hands, we must take this role very seriously and throw a martyr’s love into our children’s lives. And waste lots of time with them.

1-7

I shared a quote from St Francis Xavier about those especially early years when the basic character patterns are set — “Give me the child until he is seven and I care not who has him thereafter” — and that sparked a lively conversation about what kind of formation those first seven years demand that will offer a child the basis for cultivating virtues. We agreed on the need to make virtue-building a priority, helping children gain self-mastery in age appropriate ways, rightly displacing self-esteem’s pride of place and supplanting it with self-respect, that inner rudder that roots self-confidence in moral character. The greatest graced gift we can help gain for our children is a stable moral character that orients them from within toward the Good God.

Saints of God, come to our aid!

It’s no easy feat, we fail often, but we muddle through it with confidence and perseverance. It must be done and it’s a work of pure grace doused with stinky sweat. Parents must beg God to have Joseph’s ability to dream, Solomon’s deft wisdom, Job’s “big picture” patience, David’s undaunted courage, Abraham’s driven single-mindedness, Moses’ bold meekness, Elijah’s fiery prayer and, above all, Mary’s trusting humility. Without such God-given, saint-witnessed virtues, splashed with copious grace to supplies for our own frailties in the face of so great a task, parents will falter. We need the mind of Christ to think our way through this world, and how grateful we should be that Christ has already shared his mind lavishly out with such a great cloud of witnesses!

Let me add at end this ramble one last point. Many of the “saints” we cling to as new parents aren’t the dead and canonized ones, but living ones in our midst. The many amazing parents and families my wife and I have been blessed to know over the years — I can see all their faces in my mind now! — have challenged us and given us great hope that, even in the midst of our culture’s septic swirl, a creative minority will arise threaten the New Normal with a New Abnormal; with children speaking into the future a Word that has been with us from the beginning. And serenely so.

 

St. Gianna Beretta Molla

“The Word was made flesh…” John 1:14

[This is a re-post from last year's feast (when the feast fell during the Easter Octave). I felt it was better than anything I could say presently in my busy state, so here it is. Happy Feast!]

As we pass over the Solemnity of the Annunciation today in silence (it’s transferred to after the Easter Octave), I have been thinking about the beauty of this hidden feast — the feast of God’s enfleshment in the womb of Mary. In Jesus, God has forever and ever made our body and soul essential to His existence. God will always have a human body, a human soul, a human will, a human intellect, a human heart, a human smile. In Jesus, God will always love in a human mode, always express His omniscience in and through a finite mind, always reveal His glory in those gaping and never-to-be-sealed Five Wounds that are our sinister handiwork become His merciful artistry. We humans, therefore, come to know, love, taste and see God in the depths of our humanity. Coming closer to God means becoming more human.

We can feel the electricity of Job’s overwhelming awe as he was given a glimpse of what was to come in the Risen Christ:

As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives, and that he will at last stand forth upon the dust. This will happen when my skin has been stripped off, and from my flesh I will see God: I will see for myself, my own eyes, not another’s, will behold him: my inmost being is consumed with longing. — Job 19:25-27

Absolutely astonishing. Sell your cleverness and purchase bewilderment.

Every Knee Will Bend

And all this very theological thinking made me recall the beauty and power of the human body as seen through faith, which in turn made me think of Malcolm X.

How so?

When I was an undergrad student, soon after my return to the practice of my Catholic faith, I had to read the Autobiography of Malcolm X. I found it very powerful.

For me, one of the most memorable scenes in the book was the moment of Malcolm’s final decision in prison to convert to Islam, which for him represented the agonizing choice to disavow a past filled with sex, drugs and violence. What struck me most in this scene was the role that his body played in his conversion. I remember setting the book down and thinking, “Wow, faith is even in the body.” It helped me appreciate anew the power of bodily ritual in Catholic worship that gives expression to and shapes our faith.

Here’s an excerpt from the scene:

The hardest test I ever faced in my life was praying. . . bending my knees to pray – that act – well, that took me a week. You know what my life had been. Picking a lock to rob someone’s house was the only way my knees had ever been bent before. I had to force myself to bend my knees. And waves of shame and embarrassment would force me back up. For evil to bend its knees, admitting its guilt, to implore the forgiveness of God, is the hardest thing in the world. It’s easy for me to see and to say that now. But then, when I was the personification of evil, I was going through it.

Forgiving in the flesh

That story in turn reminds me of a personal witness that a man shared in the context of a parish faith enrichment group. He gave me permission to anonymously share it here. The man, who had been married for over a decade, had cheated on his wife over a period of several weeks. Though he finally broke off the adulterous relationship, he carried the secret with him day and night for several more weeks. It was awful. As he put it,

After I had ended the fling, every morning I would rise early to read the newspaper and when my wife would come downstairs to greet me with her trusting and loving smile, and kiss me, I felt like acid was being thrown on my face. To look at her was to see the word “BETRAYAL” written on her forehead; my betrayal. I went to see my priest to confess and he counseled me to reveal to her my unfaithfulness and repair the damage I had caused. I did and it was utterly devastating.

She cried for days, could not speak with me, could not sleep with me. We tried to cover it up in front of the children, but we lived like we were a thousand miles apart. It was pain like I have never known. Day after day. Shame. Pain. Tears. Angry words. All because of my infidelity and I felt I deserved the worst treatment the rest of my life.

But one day she came downstairs on a Saturday morning and stood next to me in silence. I stood up and looked at her. I was afraid. She looked me in the eyes, put her hands on my shoulders and said, with the force of a hundred million atom bombs, “I forgive you.” I collapsed, literally collapsed to the floor. She joined me and we sobbed together. We embraced, we kissed. I looked at her and thanked her, and I can say I will never ever take her face for granted. To look at her face without shame, nothing is more beautiful.

The rest of my life is about rebuilding her trust. That will never go away.

Dragging My Body to God

A final story. I met a young man last year who told me that his conversion to Catholicism from Protestantism came about as a result of the “soul following the body.” Here’s my recollection of our conversation:

When I was still Methodist, I was dating a Catholic girl who loved to go to the Chapel and sit for an hour in front of a fancily enshrined piece of bread to pray. That’s how I described it when I was still Protestant. She invited me to join her to pray, and so, because I loved her, I went with her even though I didn’t “get it” at all. Week after week I would sit there with her, and though it was always a peaceful hour, it didn’t really mean anything much to me. But then…

One week she was out of town and she asked me to cover her hour, so I did. I sat down alone in the chapel and started to feel a little nervous without her, almost even felt afraid of being alone with that piece of bread. After about 30 minutes, I began to feel a somewhat disconcerting and real sense that Jesus was standing there, that his love was flowing from the bread, and suddenly, without knowing why, I found myself on my knees and crying. Thank God no one else was there. It was just this profound sense of being loved. I knew that this bread wasn’t just bread; it was living Bread; it was, as I later would come to find out, really Christ. But I can tell you this, I knew it was true before anyone ever explained it to me. What I now call transubstantiation is completely perfect for explaining my experience, because what lit up that room was substantial, real, in your face, was Jesus radiating from a very particular place in the chapel where he was present in a way he wasn’t anywhere else. Not a generic Jesus everywhere, but Jesus right there, present, pouring out his love all over me.

It’s like she dragged by body to God, and later my soul caught up.

+++

Let me end with a 600 year old eucharistic hymn, Ave Verum Corpus, that honors the life-giving Body of Jesus:

Hail, true Body, born
of the Virgin Mary,
who having truly suffered, was sacrificed
on the cross for mankind,
whose pierced side
flowed with water and blood:
May it be for us a foretaste of the Heavenly banquet
in the trial of death.
O sweet Jesus, O loving Jesus, O Jesus, son of Mary,
have mercy on me. Amen.

Quelle est la différence?

Gallup poll 2002

I once heard a homily at a legislative Red Mass that I will never forget. It was thoroughly Socratic in approach, first seducing us into a thought world through provocative questions before detonating the prophetic bomb in the depths of our conscience.

The Gospel that day was Matthew 25:31-46, the parable of the Last Judgment. Here was his message as I recall it:

Only the holy get into heaven, right? What does that mean? To be holy is to be ‘set apart,’ to be different, other. What sets us apart, makes us different and other? What’s our Christ-difference? How do we look different from our non-Catholic neighbors? What do the Gallup polls say? If people who worked with us were interviewed and asked, ‘What sets this person apart?’ what might they be able to say?

We should think like this. We should examine our consciences at night by saying, ‘What set me apart today; what made me identifiable as a son or daughter of God? As a disciple of Christ? Would people encounter Christ in the way I speak? By the way I act? By the way I spend my money? By the way I spend my time? By the way I respond to suffering and hardships? By the way I respond to insults or accusations or gossip? By the way I approach my sexuality?  By the way I pray before a meal in public? By my work ethic? By the way I choose to love, or refuse to hate? By the way I am faithful to my spouse? By the way I tell the truth with courageous love?’

There must be some discernible difference! If not, we are dead in faith and a scandal to the world.

Years ago I was in Ethiopia at the Catholic Cathedral in Addis Ababa, visiting as an envoy of solidarity from the U.S. representing the Catholic community. Just before a big Mass celebrated in honor of us visiting clerics from America, I was walking across the large public square in front of the Cathedral. There was a mass of pathetic humanity lining the path along which I walked, all of them begging and pleading for alms as I walked by; emitting a terrible chorus of grunting groans. I was told they were saying “mercy, mercy.” I was so uncomfortable and, I admit, fearful, that I walked in great haste past them, refusing to make eye contact for fear of being drawn into this vortex of human need. I quickly vested for Mass inside and we began the celebration in great splendor, with ethereal chant, the church filled with colorful garments and ornate vestments. The stench of body odor outside was forgotten in the deliciously sweet myrrh-laden incense that filled the church.

But it was the homily that crashed on me like an oak tree falling, or a thunderbolt crashing into my mind; into my inner conscience. The homilist, a native Ethiopian priest, quoted St. John Chrysostom at length. It was nearly his whole homily, and it was in that moment a devastating indictment on my own inhumanity. It ran like this:

“Do you want to honor Christ’s body? Then do not scorn him in his nakedness, nor honor him here in the church with silken garments while neglecting him outside where he is cold and naked. For he who said: This is my body, and made it so by his words, also said: ‘You saw me hungry and did not feed me, and inasmuch as you did not do it for one of these, the least of my brothers, you did not do it for me.’ What we do here in the church requires a pure heart, not special garments; what we do outside requires great dedication.

Let us learn, therefore, to be men of wisdom and to honor Christ as he desires. For a person being honored finds greatest pleasure in the honor he desires, not in the honor we think best. Peter thought he was honoring Christ when he refused to let him wash his feet; but what Peter wanted was not truly an honor, quite the opposite! Give him the honor prescribed in his law by giving your riches to the poor. For God does not want golden vessels but golden hearts.

Now, in saying this I am not forbidding you to make such gifts; I am only demanding that along with such gifts and before them you give alms. He accepts the former, but he is much more pleased with the latter. In the former, only the giver profits; in the latter, the recipient does too. A gift to the church may be taken as a form of ostentation, but an alms is pure kindness. Of what use is it to weigh down Christ’s table with golden cups, when he himself is dying of hunger? First, fill him when he is hungry; then use the means you have left to adorn his table. Will you have a golden cup made but not give a cup of water? What is the use of providing the table with cloths woven of gold thread, and not providing Christ himself with the clothes he needs? What profit is there in that? Tell me: If you were to see him lacking the necessary food but were to leave him in that state and merely surround his table with gold would he be grateful to you or rather would he not be angry? What if you were to see him clad in worn-out rags and stiff from the cold, and were to forget about clothing him and instead were to set up golden columns for him, saying that you were doing it in his honor? Would he not think he was being mocked and greatly insulted?

Apply this also to Christ when he comes along the roads as a pilgrim, looking for shelter. You do not take him in as your guest, but you decorate floor and walls and the capitals of the pillars. You provide silver chains for the lamps, but you cannot bear even to look at him as he lies chained in prison. Once again, I am not forbidding you to supply these adornments; I am urging you to provide these other things as well, and indeed to provide them first. No one has ever been accused for not providing ornaments, but for those who neglect their neighbor a hell awaits with an inextinguishable fire and torment in the company of the demons. Do not, therefore, adorn the church and ignore your afflicted brother, for he is the most precious temple of all.”

That liturgy changed me. As I walked back across the plaza toward the car that would take us to the episcopal residence, I must have spent 30 minutes greeting these beggars; no, these men and women; no, these most beloved sons and daughters of God. I had nothing material to give them, but like Peter in Acts 3:6, what I could give them was Jesus; the healing love of Jesus that comes through eye contact; through touch; through my priestly blessings; through treating each of them as a human being, a child of God, infinite in worth and made in His image and likeness. Though I had come to bring from America the promise of material support for these people, I had forgotten love.

At the end of my pilgrimage through ‘beggar alley,’ I was a changed man. Humbled to the dust, but filled with ethereal joy, and not hellish shame. As Mother Teresa said so well, ‘The poor teach us how to love. They are our masters and we their servants.’

This amazing homily reminded me of the Aidan Kavanaugh quote I so often reference,

The liturgy, like the feast, exists not to educate but to seduce people into participating in common activity of the highest order, where one is freed to learn things which cannot be taught.

Quelle est la différence?

I will round out this powerful message with the text of a report given by a pagan Roman official, Aristides, to the Emperor Hadrian somewhere around the year 120 A.D. He was carrying out an investigation on the early Christian communities seeking justification to outlaw Christianity. Here’s the difference he found:

They never fail to help widows; they save orphans from those who would hurt them. If a man has something, he gives freely to the man who has nothing. If they see a stranger, Christians take him home and are happy, as though he were a real brother.

They don’t consider themselves brothers in the usual sense, but brothers instead through the Spirit of God. And if they hear that one of them is in jail, or persecuted for professing the name of their redeemer, they all give him what he needs. If it is possible, they bail him out. If one of them is poor and there isn’t enough food to go around, they fast several days to give him the food he needs.

This is really a new kind of person.
There is something divine in them.

Pop Gospel

You must set aside 8 minutes to watch this video (a friend sent me). Absolutely out of the box evangelism.

I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.  – Pope Francesco

Watch by clicking here.