“In this Music the World was begun; for Iluvatar made visible the song of the Ainur, and they beheld it as a light in the darkness.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion

The same day I’d written yesterday’s post on fatherhood, my daughter Maria shared with me a “music video” she and her friend made. When they came back to our house after making it, they yelled: “It was a total GOG!” At my daughter’s high school, that means, “Glimpse of God.” They were referring to the bright “sky art” that appeared around them as they recorded.

So today I, shamelessly proud dad, thought I would share it with you. I would share more of my children’s work here, but I am usually banned with severe looks of “don’t you dare.” But I am working on that.

If this is an emailed post, click on the post-title above. My daughter is the one with the hat. And if you “like” the youtube, or leave a comment, I am sure it would elicit a smile. Watch here:



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

Re-post from April, 2014. Just because it was a favorite to write.

Today is the Jewish Sabbath — in Hebrew, Shabbat — a day of ceasing from all servile labor. Today God’s people inhale the sweet fragrance of Torah and exhale a new song of praise and thanks to the Creator, who called all things from non-existence into being; and to the Redeemer, who “brought Israel out from the midst, for his love endures for ever” (Psalm 136:11).

The Sabbath is first commanded by God, in memory of creation’s seventh day, to unfetter sinful man from his idolatrous enslavement to work that he might worship the Creator. It opens a free space in time to joyfully receive the sheer gift of existence itself afresh from the Hand of God and offer it back to Him in thanksgiving. Sabbath observance also creates a sacred 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, breaks into time to save mankind and establish an everlasting covenant of mercy.

For Christians who celebrate the fulfillment of the Sabbath on Sunday — the eighth and final day of creation when the Spirit-breathing Christ rose from death — it is a day consecrated to liturgical worship and prayer. The Liturgy, by which Christ structures time and space, opens to each man and woman the gates of entry into the Sanctuary of Paradise, the eternal Sabbath that ever abides in the Heart of Christ (cf. Matthew 11:28-30). On Sabbath we are not just invited to come near to God, but to plunge (baptizein!) into Him, to eat and drink His Flesh and Blood and so share even now in the wedding banquet of the Bridegroom and the Bride (cf. Matthew 22:1-14). Sunday is our weekly foray into the Unthinkable, our raid on the Unspeakable. Holy Mass is where God runs to embrace us and lead us into the nuptial chamber of His Son’s Mysteries, only then to at-once send us out to “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind” (Luke 14:13) — the “treasure of the church” — to the Supper of the Lamb.

Not a bad reason to plan into your Sunday the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass as the heart of your day “set apart” for God.


An aside. Regarding the character of Sabbath as a day to be joyously grateful for the gift of existence, I had an insight recently that I’d like to share here. Here’s my journal entry from February 7, 2014:

I was praying this preface to the Sanctus in the “Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom” today, and it overwhelmed me with gratitude:

It is meet and right to sing of Thee, to bless Thee, to praise Thee, to give thanks to Thee and to worship Thee in every place of Thy dominion. For Thou art God ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, ever-existing and eternally the same, Thou and Thine only-begotten Son and Thy Holy Spirit. Thou it was who brought us from non-existence into being, and when we had fallen away, didst raise us up again, and didst not cease to do all things until Thou hadst brought us up to heaven and hadst endowed us with ‘Thy Kingdom which is to come. For all these things we give thanks to Thee, and to Thine only-begotten Son and to Thy Holy Spirit; for all things of which we know and of which we know not, whether manifest or unseen.

Such language leaves me breathless, overwhelmed with a terrible sense of unworthiness “for all things,” that resolves into a Mass text: laudámus te, benedícimus te, adorámus te, glorificámus te; “We praise you, we bless you, we adore you, we glorify you.” Hound of Heaven comes to mind, the stanza where God says:

And human love needs human meriting:
How hast thou merited—
Of all man’s clotted clay the dingiest clot?
Alack, thou knowest not
How little worthy of any love thou art!
Whom wilt thou find to love ignoble thee,
Save Me, save only Me?
All which I took from thee I did but take,
Not for thy harms,
But just that thou might’st seek it in My arms.
All which thy child’s mistake
Fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home:
Rise, clasp My hand, and come!’

Here’s an an insight it seems that the Lord has given me about the “all things” for which we give thanks in that Orthodox prayer. It was for me an opening into a certain — can I call it? — “mysticism of being” (or maybe an “ontological mysticism”) that has claimed within me an irrepressible and moment-by-moment joying gratitude over … the “surplus of meaning,” the superabundant beauty that impregnates Genesis 1:31’s καλά λίαν, “very good.” I am. The raw fact of existence itself, that I even exist at all, is utterly astounding. When I was a boy, I would lay in bed at night and think, with wonder and not despair, “Why do I exist? Why am I me?” Heidegger taught me, Why something rather than nothing. I break into thanks even before I see particular values, meanings, goodnesses or discernible purposes embedded within the āctūs, “act” of being. So, before I ever see any particular goods like my health, the birth of our children, a lovely dew-drenched rosebud, the Passion of Jesus … already meaning, goodness and purpose — wholly worthy of praise — are found. Simply and without qualification, there in that very fact of esse, “being” itself, is cause for praise:

Laudate Dominum omnes gentes
Laudate eum, omnes populi

O praise the Lord, all ye nations:
praise him, all ye people. — Psalm 117

Even if there is more, who needs more? “If only for the fact that I am, O Lord, I need nothing more to voice praise!” Regardless of particular existential colors that life presents in any given moment, just “to-be” suffices to evacuate all boredom and meaninglessness from every moment. I am the reception of pure-gratuity, of God’s self-diffusing, creating Act. I earned nothing of it as I was called into being. Every moment of my be-ing must be received by a “eucharistic heart.” Sursum corda! Lift heartfelt thanks on high! It is right and just. Better: simply the return of love. “…et de plenitudine eius nos omnes accepimus et gratiam pro gratia,” John 1:16. Worship, liturgy is nothing other than creation reflecting back the glory shone, mixing our voices with the ceaseless Seraphic hymns — holy! holy! holy! May I be caught up into imperishable eternity, deathless liturgy. Liturgy is Christ, He who is the Creator-creature in an immortal act of eucharist. The Lord said Eucharistēsas, Luke 22:19, once in old Jerusalem, but forever now for us in New Jerusalem. @ Divine Liturgy Christ utters this twice to the Father: for his eternal generation, genitum non factum, “begotten not made;” and on behalf of ex nihilo, “out of nothing” creation which he took on ex Maria Virgine, “of the Virgin Mary” when he became flesh. This, for me, breaks open Meister Eckhart’s devastatingly simple saying: “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is ‘thank you,’ it will be enough.” 

It’s become in me a revolution within a revolution within a revolution; an eternal return to the first moment of Genesis 1:3 — fiat lux, “let there be light…” 

How appropriate it was a Jewish professor of Talmud at the University of Hartford who first introduced me to this thought: “How can you young people be bored, when all around you is a world that didn’t have to exist at all, but does? ‘Something rather than nothing.’ Living at the threshold of G-d speaking the world into life – that’s enough to get you stuck on ‘wow’ for a thousand years! Or get stuck with Jeremiah [1:6] stuttering, ’ă·ḏō·nāy ’ă·hāh!”

At every moment, in every breath, to re-receive the primordial gift I was given. The foundation of every other gift: my existence. The self-subsistent Eternal, who could in an instant annihilate the entire cosmos with a word, sustains me in being at every moment and has pledged me, in his unfathomable mercy, immortal existence in a new creation. This first creation would have been enough, O Lord.

How lovely now to me are these words of Bl. John Paul II: “Our existence is already a gift, the first gift of the Creator to the creature.”

Cahill’s Shabbat

I recall reading Thomas Cahill’s fascinating book, The Gifts of the Jews, and being deeply moved by his insights on the Jewish Sabbath. It made me more keenly aware of the tragedy that Christians have largely abandoned this “pearl of great price” they have to offer the world. Listen to what Cahill says:

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

This post has become obscenely long.

Did you know? John Paul II wrote a whole letter on the meaning and celebration of Sunday (click here). It’s a mini-catechism on Sunday and is well worth reading. And it’s filled with many practical ideas for keeping the Sabbath “holy.” I’d like to end today with my favorite two paragraphs. It’s a tad long, but, I believe, worth your time. Imagine the seismic impact of 2+ billion Christians living this out every seven days. Pledge to take just one small step to move from imagination 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 behavior 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 neighborhood 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.


Imagined grace

I went to a symposium last weekend in Denver, Colorado. It was held at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary and was sponsored by the Institute for Priestly Formation. The topic was, of course, priestly formation and focused on the relationship between the human and spiritual dimensions of priestly identity and ministry. In my work serving the formation of future priests I sometimes think, “How did they let me in here?” It’s such a privilege, even as it’s also challenging work.

The seminary chapel was lovely, and having a Mass celebrated by 50+ priests is always an extraordinary experience. After Mass on the second day of the symposium, I walked around toward the narthex of the chapel and was overtaken by this beautiful bronze statue of Christ in the throes of his Passion. I stood in prayer before him and couldn’t help but think of St. Teresa of Avila’s experience,

By this time my soul was growing weary, and, though it desired to rest the miserable habits which now enslaved it would not allow it to do so. It happened that, entering the oratory one day, I saw an image which had been procured for a certain festival that was observed in the house and had been taken there to be kept for that purpose. It represented Christ sorely wounded; and so conducive was it to devotion that when I looked at it I was deeply moved to see Him thus, so well did it picture what He suffered for us. So great was my distress when I thought how ill I had repaid Him for those wounds that I felt as if my heart were breaking, and I threw myself down beside Him, shedding floods of tears and begging Him to give me strength once for all so that I might not offend Him.

I had a great devotion to the glorious Magdalen and often thought of her conversion, especially when I received Communion for, knowing that the Lord was certainly within me then, I would place myself at His feet, thinking that my tears would not be rejected. I did not know what I was saying; but in allowing me to shed those tears He was very gracious to me, since I so soon forgot my grief; and I used to commend myself to that glorious Saint so that she might obtain pardon for me.

But on this last occasion when I saw that image of which I am speaking, I think I must have made greater progress, because I had quite lost trust in myself and was placing all my confidence in God. I believe I told Him then that I would not rise from that spot until He had granted me what I was beseeching of Him. And I feel sure that this did me good, for from that time onward I began to improve.

That made me think of how very important sacred images are in the spiritual life, and how God can use them to sanctify our senses and stir both contrition and virtues to life within. Especially in a culture so supersaturated with sensual images, we desperately need to allow God to pour his grace into our senses by praying with beautiful and sacred artwork. As Cardinal Ratzinger said it in a 2002 lecture,

Being struck and overcome by the beauty of Christ is a more real, more profound knowledge than mere rational deduction. Of course we must not underrate the importance of theological reflection, of exact and precise theological thought; it remains absolutely necessary. But to move from here to disdain or to reject the impact produced by the response of the heart in the encounter with beauty as a true form of knowledge would impoverish us and dry up our faith and our theology. We must rediscover this form of knowledge; it is a pressing need of our time.

The Passion of Jesus is the most beautiful form in the whole of creation, as it reveals the self-wasting love of God, “the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now made manifest to his saints” (Colossians 1:26). As I looked at him, I prayed that I might place all my confidence in God.


“For now we see in a glass darkly, but then face to face.” — 1 Corinthians 13:12

CTA Digital iPotty with Activity Seat for iPad. Taken from media.boingboing.net

The question of what is the most genuinely human engagement with the daily explosion of new technologies is no simple question, but for those of us who are pioneers in raising children as members of the iGeneration it’s a necessary conversation that must be had often. So much good, so much bad, and even more ambiguities that haunt the space between the two. Let me share just one example of that conversation here.

Not long ago I was speaking with a parent and we were talking about this question. She shared their family struggle over the use of technologies in the home and had some really stirring thoughts. She gave me permission to share her general thoughts. I share her comments because her struggle is so real and honest. She and her husband have given lots of thought to this question and have devised their own plan over the years to try to create in their home a healthy balance. But they find that balance hard to strike and elusive. Her comments went something like this:

We keep telling them technology’s just a part of their life. Fat chance they’ll buy that line, huh? But my teens of course are the worst. My daughter, once she came right back at me and said, “No, Ma, it IS my life. It’s all my friends’ life. You just don’t get it because you’re old.” Once she said to me, “Why are you so strict? It’s ridiculous. NOBODY else is so strict.” I said to her, and I was ticked, “Because if we didn’t set limits you’d never get off!” She came right back at me, like a good teenager, “I get my work done. It’s how I stay connected with my friends; it’s how we talk; so you obviously don’t want me to have a life.” I said, “That’s not true! You don’t see it, but I do, your Dad does. When you’re on that stuff too much you get isolated and pull away from your family. You get like a zombie. And even when you’re with us for dinner or over at grandma’s or your uncle’s, you’re somewhere else; wishing you were on your iPhone.” … I didn’t sign up for this. Never imagined when we had kids in the 1990s that this would be our biggest parenting struggle. It’s everywhere. All the crap out there, trying to protect them. Get them self-control. It’s only supposed to be part of life, not life. The hardest part is that it feels like we’re the only family of our kids’ friends we know who draws these hard lines. So we look like wacko extremists. … I tell my kids, “When I was your age” — you know they roll their eyes when they hear that — I say, “When I was your age, I visited my friends’ houses. We’d sit in the bedroom and talk for hours. I would read books. I’d help my Mom pick herbs and veggies in the garden and helped make dinner.” They roll their eyes. “That’s real stuff,” I tell ’em, “not virtual. Real” I tell ’em, I was a normal teen and rebelled over this or that; and got bored with family stuff; but when I was home I was home. Like, face-to-face home.” It’s really hard to explain and they ALWAYS have something to say back about social media being realer and better because they can be friends with tons of people. But it’s different. It’s hard to explain to them, but I see it’s different. They look like bloody addicts when you take them away from their gadgets. Once when I was feeling very emotional, I put my hands on my daughter’s cheeks and pulled her face up from her iPhone and said, “See my face? It’s real. And I love looking at your face.” I put her hands on my face and said, “I love you. This is where life really happens. Skin and tears and kisses.” I kissed her and said, “Remember when you were little and we’d just snuggle in our bed in the morning and talk about everything? Why can’t I have you back again?” It was one of those rare times I dropped the “angry Mom” thing and let my guard down. We both cried and cried. It’s just so hard. I wish it wasn’t like this. Nobody prepared me for this. We’re the first ones to deal with an iPhone generation, right? No instruction manual.

Pope Benedict XVI once shared a thought on this struggle:

The new technologies allow people to meet each other beyond the confines of space and of their own culture, creating in this way an entirely new world of potential friendships. This is a great opportunity, but it also requires greater attention to and awareness of possible risks. Who is my “neighbor” in this new world? Does the danger exist that we may be less present to those whom we encounter in our everyday life? Is there is a risk of being more distracted because our attention is fragmented and absorbed in a world “other” than the one in which we live? Do we have time to reflect critically on our choices and to foster human relationships which are truly deep and lasting? It is important always to remember that virtual contact cannot and must not take the place of direct human contact with people at every level of our lives.

I’d also like to promo a book written by a friend and colleague, Dr. Daniella Zsupan-Jerome, who shares some profound insights on this conversation from the heart of the Church: Connected Toward Communion: The Church and Social Communication in the Digital Age.

Let me end with a fun video of a little girl and her parents engaging in the kind of “bedroom communion” the Mom I spoke with longed for:

Holy Artwork, Part II

Part II of 2013 repost on culture and holiness:

Salvador Dali painting “Crucifixion,” taken from amazonaws.com


A last thought. Among the nearly infinite variety of cultural expressions native to human beings, the Church has always placed a special emphasis on the arts. Pope St. John Paul II, who himself was a talented artist, wrote a beautiful letter to artists in 1999. In that letter he said,

My hope for all of you who are artists is that you will have an especially intense experience of creative inspiration. May the beauty which you pass on to generations still to come be such that it will stir them to wonder! Faced with the sacredness of life and of the human person, and before the marvels of the universe, wonder is the only appropriate attitude.

People of today and tomorrow need [your] enthusiasm if they are to meet and master the crucial challenges which stand before us. Thanks to this enthusiasm, humanity, every time it loses its way, will be able to lift itself up and set out again on the right path. In this sense it has been said with profound insight that “beauty will save the world”.

Beauty is a key to the mystery and a call to transcendence. It is an invitation to savour life and to dream of the future. That is why the beauty of created things can never fully satisfy. It stirs that hidden nostalgia for God which a lover of beauty like Saint Augustine could express in incomparable terms: “Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved you!”.(26)

Artists of the world, may your many different paths all lead to that infinite Ocean of beauty where wonder becomes awe, exhilaration, unspeakable joy.

May you be guided and inspired by the mystery of the Risen Christ, whom the Church in these days contemplates with joy.

May the Blessed Virgin Mary be with you always: she is the “All-Beautiful,” portrayed by countless artists, whom Dante contemplates among the splendors of Paradise as “beauty that was joy in the eyes of all the other saints”.

“From chaos there rises the world of the spirit”. These words of Adam Mickiewicz, written at a time of great hardship for his Polish homeland, prompt my hope for you: may your art help to affirm that true beauty which, as a glimmer of the Spirit of God, will transfigure matter, opening the human soul to the sense of the eternal.

Is that not the true soul of the lay saint? Called to “transfigure matter, opening the human soul to the sense of the eternal.” We laity are iconographers of culture, co-creating with Christ a civilization writ beautiful by the coming of God’s Kingdom in and through us;

a Kingdom of truth and life,
a Kingdom of holiness and grace,
a Kingdom of justice, love, and peace.

JP2 Artists

Let me leave you with a 3-minute video featuring young artists reading selections from the Pope’s Letter to Artists. May his intercession raise up a laity who will, as Jim Keating once said, “suffer well” the dismissal rite: Ite, missa est, “Go, be sent.”

See here:


Holy Artwork, Part I

This still shot (taken from the Russian movie, Andrey Rublyov) of Saint Andrei Rublev for me captures the quality that made this legendary Orthodox iconographer a saint. His vocation, as for all of us, was to shoulder the terrible burden of bringing the Beautiful Kingdom into the grey ruins of a violent, loveless, fallen world. Carrying that out heroically made him a saint. Taken from liturgieapocryphe.com

2013 repost

Anyone who reads this Blog knows that I am passionate about the lay call to holiness in the secular world. How many lay Catholics are aware that serious sanctity awaits them right where they are, in the midst of worldly cares? When the lay faithful are evangelized, catechized, sacramentalized and sent out into the world embracing their unique call to perfection, a fresh communion of thoroughly secular lay saints can be canonized for their genius:

Laicis indoles saecularis propria et peculiaris est, “What is proper and peculiar to the laity is their secular genius.” — Lumen Gentium #31

Vatican II proposed as a most effective response to atheistic secular humanism a Christian humanism that is thoroughly secular, i.e. one that affirms created, “worldly” goods as essential to human fulfillment in the Kingdom of God. Much of our historic spiritual tradition is built around a vision of holiness appropriate to consecrated religious and clerical states of life, severely marginalizing the importance of engaging secular reality. But the Council sought to restore the rightful place of the “secular” by locating the world, and its myriad temporal concerns, at the very heart of the lay vocation to holiness. As Bl. Paul VI once said,

And it is in this sense that the Church, and especially the Catholic laity, confer a new degree of consecration upon the world, not by bringing specifically sacred and religious signs (although in certain forms and circumstances the latter are also desirable), but by coordinating it to the kingdom of God by carrying on the secular apostolate through faith, hope and charity. “Qui sic ministrat, Christo ministrat”; he who serves his neighbour in this way, serves Christ, as St. Augustine says in one of his noble pages. It is holiness, that spreads its light over the world and in the world. This is, or rather may this be, the vocation of our times.

Such a vision of a world-consecrating laity fully immersed in secular concerns gives rise to a spirituality not content with mere negations, providing strategies for avoiding “worldly temptations,” important as this can be. Like Christ, who has redeemed the world on a cross outside the Temple walls, the layperson intentionally abides in the midst of the world’s secular affairs while working “for the sanctification of the world from within as a leaven” (LG #31). Or, as Lumen Gentium #38 has it, the laity “must be to the world what the soul is to the body.” The laity belong in the heart of the world. But in order to be the world’s “soul,” laity require a spirituality that empowers them to be fully alive as Christ’s disciples in the world. “In the world, but not of the world,” they can enliven culture and society around them by infusing social and cultural realities with a thoroughly Catholic vision of life precisely because they have internalized that vision. Catholic social teaching, which is all about how one “does the world” according to the mind of Christ, thus becomes for each of the lay faithful their “Way of Perfection.”

Christian Kulturkampf

Lay holiness finds its home, in a particular way, in the midst of human culture. To engage human culture in society, with all of its constitutive institutions, is the privileged means to intimate union with Christ for the lay faithful. By cultivating a truly Christian culture, which is a truly human culture, the lay saint extends the Incarnation of God into every aspect of life. Engaging the social, economic, political, legal, educational, agricultural, business world with the mind of Christ, calling down the Spirit on every moment of one’s day, consecrates the secular world itself to God.

But what does the the Incarnation have to do with secular culture? When God became flesh in Christ, he did not just assume a human body and soul, but drew into his divine life the whole world that was his “home” as a Jew living under Roman occupation. In Jesus, it was God Himself who worked, cooked, ate, slept, sang, danced, laughed, played, walked, argued, learned, taught, wore clothing, developed friendships, cried, suffered and engaged in every other aspect of human culture. All of that worldy “stuff” was, so to speak, swept up into God’s life and became part of the “divine culture” that subsists in the Trinity. (Pause: that thought requires me to catch my breath) Then, at Pentecost, Christ’s Spirit gave birth to the Church (us!) and offered to the whole culture of mankind the opportunity to be taken up into Christ’s Body. In Christ’s mystical Body culture is transfigured and redeemed in and through Christ’s faithful, we who are joined to Christ in Baptism.

Orthodox baptism, taken from ryanphunter.files.wordpress.com

Further, I would argue that the Eucharist itself proclaims this divine plan in a most striking way. What is it that the Holy Spirit transubstantiates in the Mass? Artifacts of human culture, bread and wine! In the Eucharist the gifts of human culture, the work of our hands, are taken up into the Body and Blood of the risen Christ. Therefore, Holy Mass teaches us, engaging human culture, or any aspect of temporal reality, can never be seen for Christ’s faithful as a spiritually neutral act. As cultural beings, culture is for us a unique sacramental medium for entering into transforming union with God in Jesus. And the laity, in a way “genius” to them, embody a distinctive “cultural mysticism” which permits no aspect of secular life to escape the influence of God’s sanctifying Spirit.

There are cultural mystics all around us, mostly hidden, who become Christ’s hands, feet, smile, heart in the world…

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.”

+ + + +

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”