“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…

 

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.

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.

 

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