Tragedy embraced, redeemed, Part I

The Cross left behind after the Twin Towers collapsed on 9/11. Taken from werismyki.com

Re-post from 2012 [with new video added at the end]

“I have said this to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33).

…The priest told St. Bernadette to offer pen and ink to the Lady with a request that she write down what she wished of the people, or at lest tell what was her motive in coming. It happened that Our Lady appeared to Bernadette that day, the third apparition of Lourdes. Bernadette obediently offered the pen, ink and paper to the Lady. Later Bernadette offered this oral report: “The Lady laughed. Then she said, ‘There is no need for me to write what I have to say. Will you do me the kindness to come here every day for fifteen days?’ I promised, and then she said, ‘I promise you happiness not in this world, but only in the next.'”

Our culture continues to grow increasingly averse to the inexorably tragic dimensions of life. By tragic I mean that in this life not all evils, disorders and disabilities can be overcome, nor can all sufferings be taken away. Unresolvable tensions always remain a part of life, and the art of being fully human in a tragic world requires of us the capacity to discover hope when facing an insolubly tragic state of affairs. Viktor Frankl, in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, coined the phrase “tragic optimism,” which for him is an attitude that empowers us to say “yes” to life in spite of everything. But for Christians, as Pope Benedict reminds us, hope is not simply optimism, which is, he says, “merely the ability to look at things with good cheer and move on.” Rather, hope is the ability to see in this present darkness the coming dawn, to be at peace in your storm-tossed boat with the knowledge that Jesus sleeps serenely in the bow. Hope is to rest in confidence that our provident “God works all things for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).

Yet increasingly we Westerners wish to keep open all options for eliminating the tensions of tragedy by any and all means available, including the deconstruction of moral prohibitions that sustain certain tragic tensions (e.g. advocating for the moral status of same-sex sex and the legal status of same-sex marriage) or the elimination of tragic lives (e.g. in the U.S., following a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome, 92 percent of Down syndrome children are aborted). Someone recently captured this logic when, as we were debating the logic of aborting disabled children, she said: “Better to be dead than to suffer.”

Jesus does tragedy otherwise. The Christian Gospel proclaims that Christ came not to redefine or overlook evil, or to sanction the doing of evil to achieve good. Rather, Jesus freely chose to suffer a tragic death in obedience to the Father, trusting him to draw from it a greater good — the Resurrection! Christ invests tragedy with hope, confronts failure with mercy, suffuses pain with an infinitely redemptive power. The Paschal Mystery opens a new space for St. Siloan the Athonite to say, “place your mind and hell and despair not … for Christ descended into hell to break the chains of despair.” Pope Benedict, in his encyclical on hope, Spe Salvi, says:

It is when we attempt to avoid suffering by withdrawing from anything that might involve hurt, when we try to spare ourselves the effort and pain of pursuing truth, love, and goodness, that we drift into a life of emptiness, in which there may be almost no pain, but the dark sensation of meaninglessness and abandonment is all the greater.

“Christ is Risen!” is our exultant song of triumph, our secure claim to invincible meaning. “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:19). Only in the Paradise Jesus has prepared for us beyond the grave is every tear wiped away. Only in the Resurrection is every unresolved tension shattered, and the the Age to Come there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and he that sits upon the throne will say, “Behold, I make all things new” (Revelation 21:5). Only in Paradise will there be unadulterated happiness, though in this life we can know unadulterated joy, as joy is the fruit of our hope in love (cf. John 15:11).

Many years ago, a 80+ year old Trappist monk in Spencer, Massachusetts once said to me: “When you suffer long for God, you begin to learn what distinguishes joy from contentment. Contentment passes when its immediate object is removed. Most of our young spiritual life’s about contentment; like a child darting from toy to toy, bleeding out of each all its pleasures. But joy, joy increases the more distant and inaccessible God seems. Joy comes with waiting and watching.” I said, “How’s that?” He answered, “Because God’s absence is his presence in the form of yearning, and yearning in us makes us desire him. And joy is the really the delight of yearning, of aching, of longing for a certain love that we have and don’t yet possess. We pray in our doxology that we love the ‘One who is to come.’ I am the stretching of Psalm 63. Even in heaven I believe we will infinitely long, though there every longing will be satisfied, only to awaken a new longing. ad æternum.” I looked Psalm 63 up:

O God, you are my God, for you I long;
for you my soul is thirsting.
My body pines for you
like a dry, weary land without water.
So I gaze on you in the sanctuary
to see your strength and your glory.

For your love is better than life,
my lips will speak your praise.
So I will bless you all my life,
in your name I will lift up my hands.
My soul shall be filled as with a banquet,
my mouth shall praise you with joy.

On my bed I remember you.
On you I muse through the night
for your have been my help;
in the shadow of your wings I rejoice.
My soul clings to you;
your right hand holds me fast.

 

Taken from nd.edu

Wonder Rush

Another stupendous edition from “Letters to the Exiles” — Wonder Rush: Go to the Limits of Your Longing.

“Just keep going.” This meditation on early 20th century German author René Maria Rilke’s poem in the Book of Hours celebrates the irreducibly rich complexity of human life — both tragic and comedic elements — that constitutes the full human experience of being both created and redeemed by God. To say more would ruin its art, so just watch and listen to the whole 4:24 minutes:

Daring Seekers

I finally finished David Hart’s high-density theological/philosophical tour de force and refutation of naturalism, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. It’s an extraordinary exploration of the mystery of human consciousness and of the human quest for happiness, as well as an inquest into the problem of “existence,” i.e. why there is something rather than nothing

Today, I want to share an insight from the book that really helped me see Christian apologetics in a new light. In the last chapter (pp. 327-28), Hart offers a challenge to the serious atheist or agnostic who is willing to confront the evidence for God’s existence utilizing a methodology prescribed by theists: prayer.

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

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

+ + +

I heard a lecture yesterday by an eastern Orthodox theologian which contained a treasure trove of fascinating insights into the “spiritual not religious” (SNR) craze in the West. Too many insights to capture in this brief post, but his main argument went something like this.

The love of spirituality, when it is set in opposition to organized religion, usually revolves around two focal points: (1) SNRs usually abstract a sanitized and idealized “spiritual core” out of the messiness and specificity of a particular religious tradition. Religion, which includes all of the elements of faith embedded in an organized human community, is always an admixture of pure and impure, ideal and real, mystical and managerial, charismatic and institutional. As such it’s always subject to critique and reform. Like the Gnostics of old, SNRs seek refuge from the hardships of organized social groups that contain wildly diverse practitioners at various stages of “buy in.” (2) SNRs often seek out the primarily individual, autonomous and self-legislating modes of fulfillment. They also often construct universes emptied of hard ethical truths, commanded by a divine Legislator, that demand from the religious practitioner an asectical life of obedience, repentance and personal/social reform.

At the end of his lecture, he shared some advice he said he gives to SNR “seekers” who come to him to investigate Orthodox Christianity. He said they are often attracted to Orthodoxy initially because it seems to them exotic and, they hope, is sufficiently “mystical” to offer ample room in their quest for personal fulfillment. He went on to say that he is always willing to talk. But after years of noticing that most of those he spoke with never experienced any change of heart, he decided to make a change. He said, “One day I was speaking to a Russian starets [a venerable old monk] about this, and he said to me: ‘You cannot get someone to think themselves into God. They need to learn prayer, then He will reveal Himself to them.’ So I changed my tactic that day.” He went on to say:

When they come to me inquiring, I say: For six months, try this. Pray to God every day, even if you don’t know who God is, or if he exists. Simply say every day, in the space of five minutes of quiet, ‘O God, guide me.’ Then just listen. Show up here at church every Sunday for the Divine Liturgy and just stand there. Pay attention without analyzing or criticizing. Just attend to what’s happening. Read from the New Testament for at least 15 minutes every day, beginning with the Gospels, and read very slowly; again, without analyzing or criticizing. If you are presently involved in sexual activities apart from marriage, stop for these six months. The same goes for alcohol abuse or drug use. Give some alms to the poor so it hurts some. After six months, we can explore your questions. But they will no longer be the same ones you have now.

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

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

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

Orthodox priest hearing confession

The Beauty of the Time-worn Eternal Gospel

Re-post from 2013, with the addition of a 1 minute video a friend sent that relates to this post. But first, let me share with you a recording of my wife singing during yesterday’s Annunciation feast at our daughter’s all-school Mass. She is mortified when I do this, but that’s too bad. You see, I teach about God, but she sings to Him. She has the greater calling. Click here if you want to listen, and here are the words of the text:

Here am I, O God,
I come to do Your will
Here am I,
I come to do Your will

I’ve waited for you and you heard me, O God.
You have put a new song in my mouth.
A hymn of praise to the God of my salvation.

You opened my ear to your word, O God.
You take no delight in empty sacrifice.
To do your will, is my life and my delight, O God.

I sing of your justice, I sing of your peace.
I sing of your faithfulness and love.
I chant your praise in the midst of all your people.

+++

I have spent the last 3 years trying to complete David Bentley Hart’s book, Atheist Delusions. What great pleasure I take in reading his celebration of the English language that requires me to have my dictionary always at hand! I wish the book had no final chapter.

In any event, there was one quote (pp. 215-16) on the contribution of Christianity to ethical thought that I felt compelled to share here in its entirety. Brace and pace yourself for its density, but let me beg you to believe me when I say it’s worth the effort…

…In short, the rise of Christianity produced consequences so immense that it can almost be said to have begun the world anew: to have “invented” the human, to have bequeathed us our most basic concept of nature, to have determined our vision of the cosmos and our place in it, and to have shaped all of us (to one degree or another) in the deepest reaches of consciousness.

All of the glories and failures of the civilizations that were born of this revolution, however, everything for which Christendom as a historical, material reality might be praised or blamed, fades in significance before the still more singular moral triumph of Christian tradition. The ultimate power and meaning of the Christian movement within the ancient world cannot be measured simply by the richness of later Christian culture’s art or architecture, the relative humanity or inhumanity of its societies and laws, the creativity of its economic or scientific institutions, or the perdurability of its religious institutions through the ages. “Christendom” was only the outward, sometimes majestic, but always defective form of the interaction between the gospel and the intractable stuff of human habit.

The more vital and essential victory of Christianity lay in the strange, impractical, altogether unworldly tenderness of the moral intuitions it succeeded in sowing in human consciences. If we find ourselves occasionally shocked by how casually ancient men and women destroyed or ignored lives we would think ineffably precious, we would do well to reflect that theirs was-in purely pragmatic terms-a more “natural” disposition toward reality. It required an extraordinary moment of awakening in a few privileged souls, and then centuries of the relentless and total immersion of culture in the Christian story, to make even the best of us conscious of (or at least able to believe in) the moral claim of all other persons upon us, the splendor and irreducible dignity of the divine humanity within them, that depth within each of them that potentially touches upon the eternal.

In the light of Christianity’s absolute law of charity, we came to see what formerly we could not: the autistic or Down syndrome or otherwise disabled child, for instance, for whom the world can remain a perpetual perplexity, which can too often cause pain but perhaps only vaguely and fleetingly charm or delight; the derelict or wretched or broken man or woman who has wasted his or her life away; the homeless, the utterly impoverished, the diseased, the mentally ill, the physically disabled; exiles, refugees, fugitives; even criminals and reprobates. To reject, turn away from, or kill any or all of them would be, in a very real sense, the most purely practical of impulses.

To be able, however, to see in them not only something of worth but indeed something potentially godlike, to be cherished and adored, is the rarest and most ennoblingly unrealistic capacity ever bred within human souls. To look on the child whom our ancient ancestors would have seen as somehow unwholesome or as a worthless burden, and would have abandoned to fate, and to see in him or her instead a person worthy of all affection — resplendent with divine glory, ominous with an absolute demand upon our consciences, evoking our love and our reverence — is to be set free from mere elemental existence, and from those natural limitations that pre-Christian persons took to be the very definition of reality.

And only someone profoundly ignorant of history and of native human inclinations could doubt that it is only as a consequence of the revolutionary force of Christianity within our history, within the very heart of our shared nature, that any of us can experience this freedom. We deceive ourselves also, however, if we doubt how very fragile this vision of things truly is: how elusive this truth that only charity can know, how easily forgotten this mystery that only charity can penetrate.

Modern persons will never find rest for their restless hearts without Christ, for modern culture is nothing but the wasteland from which the gods have departed, and so this restlessness has become its own deity; and, deprived of the shelter of the sacred and the consoling myths of sacrifice, the modern person must wander or drift, vainly attempting one or another accommodation with death, never escaping anxiety or ennui, and driven as a result to a ceaseless labor of distraction, or acquisition, or willful idiocy. And, where it works its sublimest magic, our culture of empty spectacle can so stupefy the intellect as to blind it to its own disquiet, and induce a spiritual torpor more deplorable than mere despair.

All of which, as I take leave of this phase of my argument, raises certain questions for me. A civilization, it seems obvious, is only as great or as wonderful as the spiritual ideals that animate it; and Christian ideals have shown themselves to be almost boundless in cultural fertility and dynamism. And yet, as the history of modernity shows, the creativity of these ideals can, in certain times and places, be exhausted, or at least subdued, if social and material circumstances cease to be propitious for them. I cannot help but wonder, then, what remains behind when Christianity’s power over culture recedes?

Watch here:

GOG!

“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:

 

Shabbat

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.

To-be

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.

ChristStatue