Perfect Fools

This morning I read an article by Rod Dreher and was reminded of a post I wrote back in 2012. I thought I would re-post it today. This is the paragraph from Dreher that triggered the memory:

On the panel discussion, Catholic theologian Bo Bonner made an intriguing suggestion: that we need our Christianity to quit trying to conform to the world, and instead to “be a lot stranger.” His point is that if young people are given the choice between unbelief and a faith that puts a light God gloss on the same consumerism and materialism that everybody else lives with, then who can blame young people for rejecting it? Because that is not historic Christianity. The real thing is wild, and weird; it is not a set of ideas, but a way of life. There will always be some people — young, middle-aged, and old — haunted by the sense that there is something else there, a longing that cannot be anesthetized away. If the church stands true to itself, and doesn’t apologize for itself, then they will come.

This quote also reminded me of the reaction a graduate student at Florida State, who was from China, had when I told him what Catholics believe in regard to transubstantiation. With a guileless grimace he said, “Bizarre.” I think I said, “Yes, and there’s even more stuff like that if you have some time.”

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Last week at Mass, this line grabbed my attention

Let no one deceive himself.
If anyone among you considers himself wise in this age,
let him become a fool, so as to become wise. (1 Cor 3:18-19)

It reminded me of a book I read back in 2001, John Saward’s Perfect FoolsReading that book was one of those epiphanies in life that makes everything around you suddenly look different. It opened to me a way of looking at sanctity that I had previously never considered in a serious way: holiness, when it emerges within the cultures of any day and anywhere, can, and sometimes must, appear hopelessly off-beat, eccentric, wacky. But, Saward argues, the extreme and saintly cultural deviants are not the only ones who are called to bear the burden of oddity. All who have taken firm hold of the Kingdom’s Plow in the soils of their culture must be willing to bear this burden of holy folly and be ready to risk being glared at askance for refusing to genuflect to behavioral norms that deviate from the Gospel.

Saward, the author of this eclectic work, leads the reader by the hand from St. Paul’s talk of the “word of the cross” as sheer mōria (from whence we derive the word moron) all the way to the utterly “mad” tale of the 17th century exorcist Père Jean-Joseph Surin whose journey from demonic possession to radical holiness shatters the image of the plaster-perfect saint. We can also think of the prophet Isaiah 20:2-4,

at that time the Lord had spoken by Isaiah the son of Amoz, saying, “Go, and loose the sackcloth from your loins and take off your shoes from your feet,” and he had done so, walking naked and barefoot— the Lord said, “As my servant Isaiah has walked naked and barefoot for three years as a sign and a portent against Egypt and Ethiopia, so shall the king of Assyria lead away the Egyptians captives and the Ethiopians exiles, both the young and the old, naked and barefoot, with buttocks uncovered, to the shame of Egypt.”

St. Simeon, taken from citydesert.files.wordpress.com

Or we can recall the 6th century Syrian St. Simeon the Holy Fool,

…who decided to play the fool in order to mock the idiocy of the world and also to conceal his own identity as a saint. His behavior was eccentric and, of course, scandalous. During the church services, he threw nuts at the clergy and blew out the candles. In the circus, he wrapped his arms around the dancing-girls and went skipping and dancing across the arena. In the streets, he tripped people up, developed a theatrical limp, and dragged himself around on his buttocks. In the bath-house, he ran naked into the crowded women’s section. On solemn fasting days he feasted riotously, consuming vast amounts of beans – with predictable and hilarious results. In his lifetime, Simeon was regarded as a madman, as an unholy scandal. In spite of his seemingly strange behavior, Simeon the Holy Fool healed many possessed people by his prayer, fed the hungry, preached the Gospel, and helped needy citizens of the town. Many of Simeon’s saintly deeds were done secretly (from shipoffools.com).

An Odd Evangel

Saward is very clear in the book that this rare vocation should not be mimicked or conflated with mental illness (though this tradition makes clear mental illness is not irreconcilable with the call to holiness). But what I did find most useful about this book was its clear-sighted message for Christians who wish to evangelize the 21st century: fools remind us all that living the Gospel in any age bears a natural cultural dissonance that places one at risk of being mocked as a fool. Western culture continues to evolve into a post-Christian mindset, and among Millennials Christianity is increasingly not seen so much as an ideological enemy of atheistic and secularized mores, but as simply an odd and somewhat irrelevant relic of the past.

In such times it’s easy for people of faith to either succumb to assimilate, minimizing the differences between a dominant culture and faith, or isolate, over-identifying with those differences and avoiding constructive engagement. Catholics flee extremes and hang in the tense middle, like Christ on the cross, suffering the discomforts that attend the refusal to abandon the faith or abandon culture.

In times like these, Saward contends, we need among the more culturally comfortable holy figures who fit nicely into some of the dominant cultural scripts some ragged, frayed exemplars of holiness who demonstrate, especially to other Christians, the Christ difference. In the tradition of folly for Christ, these holy exemplars must not merely vanish from society into safe seclusion but need to remain in the midst of things. As Joseph Conrad put it:

Their vocation to edify laymen requires promoting their spiritual message in the secular sphere instead of withdrawing from the world…“The holy fool” is always defined by his relationship to a particular community, leaving the ascetic life of the deserts and wilderness to play the fool in the wider community of the cities of the Eastern Empire, “aiming at the mortification of one’s social being” by living in society, yet not of society itself, as the ascetics in the desert were in the world, yet not of it.

However, Saward is equally clear that being off-beat for Christ was not equated in this tradition with simply being an awkward social misfit. Rather, the wild men and women of Byzantium, Russia and Ireland, or the “merry men” troubadours of the Middle Ages like St. Francis, were seen by the faithful as radical citizens of the redeemed City of God. And this City, built on the social and ethical order of the Gospel, starkly contrasts with the order that characterizes the ego-maniacal City of Man. Sainted fools were in those days seen as neon signs pointing upward toward the Age to Come. Such holiness was distinguished from mere madness by the fool’s total embrace of the Gospel, by his or her’s mostly secret life of heroic virtue. Foolish saints, Saward says, were glowing embers flung into the world from the fires surging from God’s Throne (cf Daniel 7:10); a fire Jesus himself longed to cast into the world (Luke 12:49).

All saints are wild at heart, open to the divine Whirlwind, but the fools for Christ are more wild than the rest. Such fools, as Aidan Kavanaugh might have said it, are not well-camouflaged suburban bourgeois, but stand-out urban citizens of the New Jerusalem, that City from whence angels hurl burning incense to earth (Rev. 8:5), martyrs cry out to God from under the altar’s blood-basin (Rev. 6:9), six-winged and many-eyed cherubim sing (Rev. 4:8), and harlots contend with virgins in a war for peace (Rev. 17).

Now we are more comfortable with saints who were social reformers and active servants of humanity. But, Eamon Duffy says, we must also retrieve that crazier category of saints who break open the rules of nature and of our dysfunctional social conventions in order to make room for the in-breaking Kingdom that is coming in power:

In the past, especially the distant past, the saints were venerated as prodigies, miracle-workers, intercessors, protectors. The more they were unlike the rest of us, the better. They brought the majesty and otherness of God down to earth and allowed ordinary men and women to see and touch the divine. Hence the importance of relics. The body of the saint was the locus of supernatural power.

Francis and Paul, fools for Christ

From a 13th century account of the life of St. Francis of Assisi by Thomas of Celano:

“When he was brought before the Bishop, Francis would suffer no delay or hesitation in anything; indeed, he did not wait for any words nor did he speak any, but immediately putting off his clothes and casting them aside, he gave them back to his father. Moreover, not even rationing his trousers, he stripped himself completely naked before all. The bishop, however, sensing his disposition and admiring greatly his fervor and constancy, arose and drew him within his arms and covered him with the mantle he was wearing. He understood clearly that the counsel was of God, and he understood that the actions of the man of God that he had personally witnessed contained a mystery. He immediately, therefore became his helper and cherishing him and encouraging him.”

St. Paul:

For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, as though sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels and to mortals. We are fools for the sake of Christ, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. To the present hour we are hungry and thirsty, we are poorly clothed and beaten and homeless, and we grow weary from the work of our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we speak kindly. We have become like the rubbish of the world, the dregs of all things, to this very day. — 1 Corinthians 4:9-13

Get Perfect Fools through Inter-Library Loan (it’s very expensive to purchase) and give it a read. I think I will pick it up again.

St. Francis gathering his clothes for his father, from “Brother Sun, Sister Moon”

 

“His mercy endures for ever” — Psalm 136:1

From “The Passion of the Christ,” taken from bp.blogspot.com

One of the greatest and most awesome privileges that comes with working within the institutional Church is being made privy to countless stories of the human encounter with God, and on occasion I am given permission by some of those I meet to share their stories with others through my writing and my teaching. As yesterday was a day dedicated to overcoming the culture of death with prayer, penance and the witness of lived proclamations of the Gospel of life, I thought I would share the very personal and powerful story of a woman whom I also count as a friend. Though she will remain anonymous, her voice is clear and real and powerful and I have the honor of sharing it with you today. May it bear abundant fruit.

I had two abortions. I was young and unmarried. Though my boyfriend and I had taken every care with contraceptives, something went amiss. We didn’t really want the abortion but we didn’t want to move from our single life into the complexities of family life. We were fortunate to live in a state where abortion was legal. I remembered vividly my high school health class textbook. The section on abortion was illustrated with a shocking photo of a dead, naked woman lying in a pool of blood. That was what happened when abortion was illegal.

My fears were only about myself: that it might hurt, that I might be endangered by the surgery, that it would be embarrassing. I told no one besides my boyfriend. I went to the clinic alone. It hurt terribly and I cried in fear and pain. The woman assisting the doctor chastised me impatiently. “You wanted this, right? So what are you crying for? Settle down.”  I hated her. When the doctor was finished she held a dish by my head, so I could see that they had done the job. The fetus was too small or too damaged for me to recognize, but I nodded anyway.

The second time was like a bad dream revisited. Same boyfriend, same mysterious failure of contraceptives (now used with even more care, since that first accident). Same tears. Impatient words from the assistant: “You’re upsetting the other girls. Calm down. What are you crying for?” I hated her, too.

I did feel relieved after. The problem was solved. It was not unlike finally getting the mouse or bird out of your house: it’s not that you want to harm it. But it just can’t stay. The only way to get rid of it is to keep whacking at it with a broom or towel or call the cat in. Then it’s dead and it’s kind of gross and you feel bad, but at least the problem is solved.

I assumed I’d forget about it. I certainly tried to avoid thinking about it. I skipped any articles about abortion in the news and crossed the street if anti-abortion protestors were out. Though I eventually married I never had children.

Decades later I discovered that God existed. Through His gentle nudges I entered the Catholic Church. I was initially happy to be “mostly Catholic.” I turned my eyes and ears away from the harder words about the dignity of life. After all, lots of Catholics didn’t really buy into all the details. There was room to keep my own opinions, especially about my rights as a modern woman.

The problem was God didn’t share my agenda. I wanted Him. I loved Him with all my heart. I wanted to give Him every breath, every heartbeat, every ounce of my body and soul and mind. I still thought some of it was mine to give. But slowly I realized that it wasn’t. It was all His to begin with. I had no claim to my own life whatsoever. And as that sank in, the ghastly awfulness of what I had done so many years ago became clear.

The most profound expression of God’s love is His creativity. He cares for every hair on our heads, He draws each flower from its bud, He lifts each nestling from its egg, He brings each worm out of its mud-puddle. He loves his Creation. He made me. He loves me. I began to see that the ugliness in what I had done was not in the fact that it left me sad, or hurt, or was unpleasant and a bit shameful. The ugliness was that God had drawn life into my womb and I had spit in His face. He had given me a treasure crafted with the greatest care and I had thrown it in the trash.

My excuses were immaturity, ignorance, self-interest, financial woes, shame, anxiety. My excuses were a defensive maneuver. My excuses were a way of trying to protect myself from the pain of the truth. The truth was I had sinned so enormously that forgiveness was unimaginable. That was terrifying. I deserved an eternity in hell. God had given me my very own existence and the beautiful awakening awareness of His real presence in my heart. And I had despised Him. I was absolutely horrified. That newly recognized truth burned through me like invisible fire. I wept and prayed.

I finally found the courage to tell my confessor. I did not do the clever trick of going to a big city cathedral where the priest wouldn’t know me. I told the priest who knew me. He had heard my many piddling confessions in the past.  I went to him for spiritual direction regularly.  He took confessions in his office, face to face. I got straight to the point, already in tears, hand over my face in shame. He cut me off after the kind and number so I wouldn’t have to go into painful details. I wasn’t the first woman to confess this in his many years of priesthood. We prayed together. God heals.

The fullness of the healing was not instantaneous, but it started that day. It is one thing to know that God forgives, and another to accept His tender touch.  My heart is still wounded. I expect it will be forever, and that seems right and just, as does any reparation my Lord deems fit to require of me. Other women I know who had abortions carry wounds in their hearts, too. I have never met a woman (or man) who found abortion forgettable. Even in old age they remember and regret. What seems possible, through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, is a healing of the relationship with God, so that in honest acknowledgement of our sin and pain we are brought closer to Him instead of driven away from Him.

In hindsight – after the dust settled and I saw with clearer eyes – I realized there was something unexpectedly beautiful that came out of that difficult confession. We don’t often let ourselves be so broken down. I’m sure it must be similar for those struggling with any mortal sin. It’s so very frightening to drop the justifications and admit how deeply we have offended God. That, truly, must be the transformative moment: not the fear that Father Smith might cringe inside and think poorly of us, but the horror at having offended our Lord and Savior. That is, I think, the acceptance of God’s judgment. God’s agenda, recognized as superior to our own, means a raw reassessment of all our values and priorities. Especially the ones we’d rather not sacrifice.

When we surrender our defenses, give up our pride and throw ourselves in desperation and shame upon His mercy, I think He must weep with joy. My conversion opened the door to go into a terrible darkness I had avoided for many years. Once graced with the courage to go in, the way out was illuminated, and led to the discovery of such an in-pouring of mercy and forgiveness and love that words hardly do it justice. I am so very grateful for that. It has been a few years since that confession, and I am still moved to awe and wonder when I reflect on it.

Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy.

Wade in the Water

 Re-post from past.

“Baptism of Christ,” Andrea del Verrocchio, 1475, taken from trinitylewisham.files.wordpress.com

Today is the Feast of the Lord’s Baptism in the river Jordan. It’s a feast of great theological density that, among other things, celebrates the first “public” manifestation of the mystery of the Holy Trinity to Israel.

As Jesus wades with St. John the Baptist into the muddy, sin-cleansing waters of the Jordan river, the voice of the Father thunders in well-pleased joy over his beloved Son. Joy! And, as St. Mark tells us, the heavens are “torn open” as the messianic Spirit descends to anoint the Body of Jesus for his mission to proclaim good news to the poor, freedom for prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, and to proclaim the jubilee “year of favor” from the Lord. The dove of peace Noah once released from the ark has finally returned to herald the coming of the Spirit of Peace into a violent and war-torn world.

In the Eastern Church this feast would be called the Theophany, the “manifestation of God.” Jesus, by stepping into the filthy river waters, reveals God as shockingly merciful — St. John was taken aback! — as He is ready not merely to pardon humanity’s sins, but to identify himself with the “sins of the world” as a scapegoat Lamb of God (cf John 1:29). This is the feast of the sinless One freely choosing to be submerged in the sullied waters of repentance that empty into the Dead Sea. It’s an act of humility that anticipates the Cross and Resurrection, as does the Spirit’s first work after the baptism: to drive Jesus into the desert to confront the ancient Tempter of humanity (Mark 1:12).

By stepping into the waters of the Jordan, Jesus sanctifies all waters, rendering them capable of bearing within them the cleansing and re-creating flood of God’s limitless mercy. Every time you dip your fingers in the holy water font to receive a fresh splash of grace, remember how they first got holy.

Orthodox baptism, taken from blessedcelebration.com

Cantare amantis est, “Those who love, sing” — St. Augustine of Hippo

Let me offer yet another, even more beautiful, window into this feast’s beauty and power: my wife.

During the Mass of the Baptism of the Lord my wife Patti, who is a music director at St. James Major parish in New Orleans, sang a duet of the “Negro spiritual,” Wade in the Water, with a popular local Gospel-blues artist, Cornelius “CC” Celestine. It was a post-Communion meditation. I caught them rehearsing before Mass in the church stairwell, and quickly pressed record on my phone. My wife hears all the flaws in this impromptu rendition, but I hear all the soul. You have to visit the Blog site to listen below, or just click here. Enjoy:

Happy Feast.

Jordan River

“How will you find anything in your old age?” Sirach 25:3

Below is a 2 year old post dusted off for reuse. As I re-read it, it reminded me of two things: (1) Pope Francis’ recent comments on old age and (2) a very moving video of John Fraley playing a song to his Mom who has Alzheimer’s. Here is the quote and then the video:

Harm can also be waged quietly, through many forms of neglect and abandonment, which are a real and true hidden euthanasia.

People need to fight against this poisonous throwaway culture, which targets children, young people and the elderly, on the pretext of keeping the economic system balanced, where the focus is not on the human being but on the god of money.

While residential care facilities are important for those who don’t have a family who can care for them, it’s important these institutes be truly like homes, not prisons, the pope said, and that their placement there is in the best interest of the older person, not someone else.

These retirement homes should be like sanctuaries that breathe life into a community whose members are drawn to visit and look after the residents like they would an older sibling.

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Sts. Joachim and Anna, taken from vultus.stblogs.org

With all of the Marian themes abounding in this liturgical season, I found myself reflecting on Mary’s agèd parents, Joachim and Anna, and more generally on the significance of old age in our Catholic tradition. I recalled especially the first reading from Sirach on the feast of the Holy Family, and this line in particular:

My son, take care of your father when he is old;
grieve him not as long as he lives.
Even if his mind fail, be considerate of him;
revile him not all the days of his life;
kindness to a father will not be forgotten,
firmly planted against the debt of your sins
—a house raised in justice to you.

That reflection called me back in my memory to two places. First, to a comment Mother Teresa made when she came to visit the hospice I was working at in Washington D.C. back in 1992. She said something like this:

I was asked once who were the poorest of the poor in the United States, and I said it was those elderly men and women in nursing homes. These are so often unwanted, unloved, forgotten, abandoned, and uncared for. Let us not make a mistake. We think of hunger for a piece of bread. The hunger of today is much greater: for love – to be wanted, to be loved, to be cared for, to be somebody.

Then my memory roamed back to a conversation I had while I was in Omaha several summers ago. I was chatting with an older, “late vocation” seminarian about his experience at a non-Catholic nursing home while he was on his pastoral assignment in his diocese. We’ll call the nursing home, “Sunset.” He shared with me a set of insightful and challenging perspectives on ministry to the elderly that knocked my socks off. I told him I had to share his thoughts at some point with others. To that end, here’s a summary of his perspective:

…Every month, a priest would come and celebrate Mass at Sunset. So many of the Catholic residents wanted desperately to go to Mass every Sunday at a local parish, but had no means of getting there. Most of the residents could not drive, of course. Some had children who were fallen-away Catholics, so never wanted to go to Mass anyway. Others found themselves simply alone in their last years, for whatever reason, though some — even many — I found out were estranged from their children, or at least had a terrible relationship. Some had not heard from their children in years, were just plain old neglected by their adult children.

I used to get angry and ask myself, “Why aren’t these local parishes organizing help to get them to Mass?” I understand people are busy, pastors are overloaded with endless ministry demands and that everywhere it’s always those same 10% of the people who do 90% of the work. But if we complain about Mass attendance dropping, let’s do all we can to get all “the willing” there!

We always talk in my diocese about the pastoral priority of youth ministry in our diocese, that the young church is the future church. True enough. But if you think about it, isn’t more true that the elderly are the real future of our church? I mean, eternal life is the church’s ultimate future, and they’re about to face death after having lived a whole life as Catholics. Many of them ask for me to help them die; they’re afraid.

If the real job of the church is, in the end, to make saints, and death’s the time that finally happens or not, the church has to be there walking with them to the very end. And it’s especially these ladies I think about all the time — it bothers me — who gave so much of their time to the church volunteering over the years, passed the faith on to their children, and now, more than ever, they count on the church to help them in the last years of their life to help them prepare for death. I see them lose hope and cry over the lack of reciprocity. The church asked them all their life to pray the Hail Mary, “…pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death…” But just when “now” and “the hour of death” are about to fuse, they feel abandoned. It’s a crisis and we are just not responding as a church, I think. I feel God has given me this calling, you this calling. First to my own family and then out to others. We can’t make people think church is a NGO, a bureaucracy or programs or clerics who take care of business. It’s me and you. Jesus needs us to love these people; to touch them and smile at them and wipe their drool. Like St. Teresa says, “Christ has no body now but yours; no hands, no feet on earth but yours.”

I think the American church should put more pastoral energy into the elderly, and be a sign of contradiction to a cult-of-youth society that thinks of the elderly not as powerhouses of prayer, or as sources of wisdom, or as the generation owed a debt of gratitude by the younger generations, but as a burden and useless drain on resources due the young and the strong. Stop the rhetoric of words to fight euthanasia and start using the rhetoric of deeds. Sometimes I wonder if our particular way of placing emphasis on youth in the church is not as much a faith priority as it is a cultural one we have just swallowed like Kool-Aid. I think that if we as a church cultivated a culture of reverence, service and love for our elders, the youth would be far better served than by any youth-centered youth ministry program we could devise. I’ve seen it — when youth connect with the elderly it’s electric. God shows up.

It really hit me when one lady in her early 90s told me she used to be a devout Catholic, but was so frustrated by failed attempts to get spiritual support from the church. She said that some Pentecostal women, who used to visit a few of the residents, one day asked her if she’d like to pray with them. She was delighted. After praying with her, they asked if she’d like them to visit her several times a week. She said she would love that, and with two words she summarized what she saw as the difference: They did. They would bring her things she’d ask for — toiletries, her favorite candy — and eventually brought her to the nearby Pentecostal church most Wednesday nights and every Sunday morning.

How could she say no?

Bl. John Paul the Elder

I will give Pope St. John Paul II the final word here from his stirring Letter to the Elderly:

In the past, great respect was shown to the elderly. “Great was once the reverence given to a hoary head”, says Ovid, the Latin poet.(13) Centuries earlier, the Greek poet Phocylides had admonished: “Respect grey hair: give to the elderly sage the same signs of respect that you give your own father”.(14)

And what of today? If we stop to consider the current situation, we see that among some peoples old age is esteemed and valued, while among others this is much less the case, due to a mentality which gives priority to immediate human usefulness and productivity. Such an attitude frequently leads to contempt for the later years of life, while older people themselves are led to wonder whether their lives are still worthwhile….

…There is an urgent need to recover a correct perspective on life as a whole. The correct perspective is that of eternity, for which life at every phase is a meaningful preparation. Old age too has a proper role to play in this process of gradual maturing along the path to eternity. And this process of maturing cannot but benefit the larger society of which the elderly person is a part.

Elderly people help us to see human affairs with greater wisdom, because life’s vicissitudes have brought them knowledge and maturity. They are the guardians of our collective memory, and thus the privileged interpreters of that body of ideals and common values which support and guide life in society. To exclude the elderly is in a sense to deny the past, in which the present is firmly rooted, in the name of a modernity without memory. Precisely because of their mature experience, the elderly are able to offer young people precious advice and guidance.

In view of all this, the signs of human frailty which are clearly connected with advanced age become a summons to the mutual dependence and indispensable solidarity which link the different generations, inasmuch as every person needs others and draws enrichment from the gifts and charisms of all.

Taken from pelorous.totallyplc.com

Art, 4 Art’s Sake

Yesterday I came across what is considered to be among the oldest icons of Christ, probably a 6th century painting that has been housed in St. Catherine’s monastery at the foot of Mt. Sinai for over a thousand years, and was overwhelmed by its beauty:

Taken from bp.blogspot.com

Icons, called “windows to heaven,” are at the heart of the Christian Gospel as they proclaim with vivid power the truth of the Incarnation of God, that God has bound Himself to the material world and rendered it capax Dei, “capable of God.” I shared this before, but several years ago I had an experience praying before a replica of this icon at the Cathedral in Omaha, Nebraska. Prior to that experience, I had always understood the “window” theology to mean the icon opened for me a portal to gaze into the Next World. But that experience, in which I was ambushed by Christ’s eyes, His gaze, whirled my understanding and allowed me to see that icons were windows by which Christ and His saints gazed on — or better, into — me.

This is a theology of grace, really. Every impulse to pray, to remember God, to repent for a sin or to do some good is always first and foremost a response, a coming to awareness of God’s penetrating gaze of infinite mercy that is always cast upon our inmost being. After I had that encounter with the Christ of the Icon, I found this (youtube) woman’s portrayal of the Woman at the Well to be a perfect summation of that brief glimpse I caught of His eternally knowing gaze:

Borrowed light, again

I must again allow some Greats to sing the praises of artists!

To all of you artists of the world, the Church of the Council declares through our lips: if you are friends of true art, you are our friends! This world in which we live needs beauty in order not to sink into despair. Beauty, like truth, brings joy to the human heart, and is that precious fruit which resists the erosion of time, which unites generations and enables them to be one in admiration. And all this through the work of your hands . . . Remember that you are the custodians of beauty in the world. — Pope Paul VI at the conclusion of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council on 8 December 1965

Man can live without science, he can live without bread, but without beauty he could no longer live, because there would no longer be anything to do to the world. The whole secret is here, the whole of history is here. — Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Saint Augustine, who fell in love with beauty and sang its praises, wrote these words: “Therefore we are to see a certain vision, my brethren, that no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived: a vision surpassing all earthly beauty, whether it be that of gold and silver, woods and fields, sea and sky, sun and moon, or stars and angels. The reason is this: it is the source of all other beauty” (In 1 Ioannis, 4:5). My wish for all of you, dear artists, is that you may carry this vision in your eyes, in your hands, and in your heart, that it may bring you joy and continue to inspire your fine works. — Pope Benedict XVI

Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once they grow up. ― Pablo Picasso

Oh, and here’s a sketch my oldest daughter is working on, i.e. almost complete.

photo (3)

 

 

 

When We Close Our Wombs

“The Visitation,” 15th century, Heimsuchung von Maria und Elisabeth. Taken from unbornwordoftheday.files.wordpress.com

The biological nature of each person is untouchable in the sense that it is constitutive of the personal identity of the individual throughout the whole course of his history. Each human person, in his absolutely unique singularity, is constituted not only by his spirit, but by his body as well. Thus, in the body and through the body, one touches the person himself in his concrete reality. To respect the dignity of man, consequently, amounts to safeguarding this identity of the man as “one in body and soul,” as Vatican Council II says. — St. John Paul II

I have a dear friend in Lafayette, Louisiana, Dr. Damon Cudihy, who is a radical witness of the lay vocation lived out under the form of husband, father and Ob/Gyn. He demonstrates daily how the synthesis of faith and life is not only possible but beautiful to behold, though its beauty has, for him, only been wrought by a steady dose of costly grace. I admire his kindness, his work ethic, his brilliant mind, his even-handedness and his joyful love of Christ, the Church and the people who cross his path every day. You can see more about his work here.

My main reason for referring to Dr. Cudihy today is to bring to your attention his recent response to an article by a theologically degreed Protestant Christian, Suzanne Burden, called, When We Close Our Wombs (see here). Her main point is summed up in the article’s final paragraph:

…most women will face many choices regarding their reproductive system in their lifetime, and many will face a decision about whether to end their fertility for health or personal reasons. Whatever choices we make, we should do so with reverence, care and the support of spiritual companions. As we do, we agree that our reproductive systems are a good gift from God. And we affirm that decisions about them should be filled with intention, care and the Christian hope that God will continue to bear his good fruit in us whether our wombs are open or closed.

When I read it, I wrote Damon and said, “Would you comment on this?” He graciously did and, though his comment has not yet (as I write this post) been approved for viewing on the “her-meneutics” website where the article first appeared, I thought I would post it here for your edification.

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Dear Suzanne,

My heart goes out to you as it does to all my patients who suffer with infertility and the heart wrenching decisions to undergo procedures which result in their permanent sterility.  As a gynecologist who has dedicated his professional life to addressing the problems of female infertility, painful periods, and heavy menstrual bleeding, and as a fellow Christian, I’d like to offer a unique perspective for both you and your readers.

The symptoms of infertility and pelvic pain (menstrual-associated or otherwise) are the most common symptoms of endometriosis.  Despite the fact that this condition is typically treated with birth control pills, the best treatment for the pain and the only treatment that restores (or preserves) fertility is surgical removal of the endometriosis.  Unfortunately, however, in the age of using birth control pills as a cure all and of IVF as the answer to infertility, fewer and fewer physicians are able to provide a more specific diagnosis and treatment plan that actually corrects the abnormality.

Your situation sounds very similar to many patients I’ve treated over the years.  More specifically, the combination of tubal sterilization and endometrial ablation.  Since I don’t perform either of these procedures, they became my patients when they experienced a fairly common condition resulting from this combination known as “Post-ablation tubal sterilization syndrome (PATSS).”  This condition of intense menstrual pain results of blood becoming trapped in the tubes because of the sterilization occlusion on one end and the scarring of the uterus (caused by the ablation) on the other.  The best treatment for these situations is usually a hysterectomy (often, in retrospect, would have been the best treatment to begin with).

One of the medical principles I strive to follow is that of “first, do no harm.” Accordingly, when surgery is necessary, I do everything possible to do so in as minimally invasive a manner as possible. (Fortunately, modern surgical technology has allowed the once morbid hysterectomy to become one where the recovery period is much quicker and less painful.)  Because fertility is a healthy condition, I would be causing unnecessary harm to a woman’s body if I were to perform a direct sterilization.  By direct, I mean a procedure where the sole purpose is destroy her capacity to conceive children.  When I perform a hysterectomy for a genuine problem (i.e. intense pain, excessive bleeding, etc), the sterility that results is indirect—one that we accept as an unavoidable (yet accepted) consequence to the best treatment for her medical problem (diseased uterus, etc).  If a woman is in a situation where a future pregnancy in unadvisable for whatever reason, there are much better ways to avoid pregnancy that maintain a more complete respect for the woman’s body as created in the image of God.  For married women, this simply entails learning one of the various methods of Fertility Awareness (often derisively called the “rhythm method” by those unfamiliar with its actual effectiveness).  Among all creation, only humans have been granted free will.  Regarding sexual intimacy, this is why mutual consent is universally recognized as absolutely essential–even among atheists.  Using a Fertility Awareness Method to avoid pregnancy is as simple as learning to identify the fertile days in a woman’s cycle and avoiding marital intercourse on those days.  While at first this may sound like an excessively scrupulous method to obtain the same end, if we thoughtfully and prayerfully reflect on it further we can see why this is the best way.

Sadly, a contraceptive mentality as contributed to our increasingly hedonistic society.  When we fail to recognize children as the supreme gift of marriage, we see them instead as inconveniences, burdens, health hazards, or even enemies to be avoided at all costs.  No wonder then that our federal government has now codified law that literally regards fertility as a disease—one that all insurances must pay to cure. (On the contrary, the legitimate problem of infertility is never covered by insurance.)  Since we are a people following the one who is “the Way, the Truth and the Life” (John 14:6), we must be careful that our actions always reflect a reverence for our “bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit.” (1Cor 6:19).  In doing so we give witness to God’s plan for marriage and the essential good of children—even when, paradoxically, we suffer the cross of infertility.  Since we believe that God designed our bodies and commands us to “be fertile and multiply,” we should joyfully accept children as a gift from the Most High and should be careful that any means used to avoid or postpone new life is completely respectful of our bodily integrity and the truth that openness to children is an essential purpose of marriage.

In Christ,

Damon Cudihy, MD

 

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…