“Without Sunday, we cannot…”

[this post was written in 2016, and after receiving a request today to “post a draft to break up ur week off and don’t bother editing it”. I won’t!]

In Abitene, a small village in present-day Tunisia, 49 Christians were taken by surprise one Sunday while they were celebrating the Eucharist, gathered in the house of Octavius Felix, thereby defying the imperial prohibitions. They were arrested and taken to Carthage to be interrogated by the Proconsul Anulinus. Significant among other things is the answer a certain Emeritus gave to the Proconsul who asked him why on earth they had disobeyed the Emperor’s severe orders. He replied, “Sine dominico non possumus” [without Sunday we cannot]. That is, we cannot live without joining together on Sunday to celebrate the Eucharist. — Pope Benedict XVI

Sunday is the golden clasp that binds together the volume of the week. ― Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

One of my children asked me the other day, “What’s the best way to explain why we go to church every Sunday?” I offered three points — one from my memory of a theology class lecture (the notes of which I later retrieved to post here), one from an immigrant Siberian woman and one from a granddaughter of Italian immigrants.

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My dogmatic theology professor back in 1992 once said, according my fresh rendering of those choppy class notes:

One of the most crucial points of that very orderly 7-day creation story in Genesis, and really of the whole Torah, is that God not only organizes space in the way He wishes, but He also organizes time. God gets to decide when, where and how we are to enter His presence and worship Him. The Book of Leviticus delves into this ‘ordo’ in excruciating detail. In other words for both Jews and Christians the who-what-when-where-why-how of worship is not a personal choice or a style preference — “I have my own way of worshiping God.” Rather, worship is revealed to us by God wrapped in a command. The Eucharist is supremely that, instituted and commanded by the God-Man.

To engage with God on God’s terms is a terribly weighty matter for Jews. Man-made religion is the stuff of pagans with their hand-crafted idols. God-made religion is the stuff of Jews, the people He chose to shout to humanity: you are God-etched images whom God set in the world to teach the world God’s Way; to love the world God’s Way; to cultivate the world God’s Way; to bless the world God’s Way. Again, the Jews go out of their way to make absolutely clear: ours is a revealed religion, not the product of human ingenuity but surprisingly disclosed and reluctantly discovered inside a divine Furnace burning on Mt Sinai during an earthquake.

It’s why the Church has always been at pains to organize the liturgical year according to the pattern shown her in the divine economy. All of it. Every feast day, every holy season reflects some aspect of God-writ salvation history; reflects the way that God has organized His own ‘oikos,’ His cosmic home that He designed for us to live in with Him, i.e. Emmanuel.

So, Jesus rose from the dead and sent down the Fire of the Spirit on a Sunday, re-creating the creation, dawning creation’s Eighth Day, the Lord’s Day. Therefore Christians worship on Sunday. Period. If, that is, they want any part in His new creation. Or they can skip Sunday Eucharist and opt out, sleep in, watch TV and miss out on eternity. This is why so many Christians early on, and throughout the centuries, were willing to risk the loss of biological life rather than renounce their commerce with eternal life that Sunday offered.

And this is why the Church makes Sunday a grave obligation: it is the Day on which all time hinges, when Christ’s Body gathers as one, the Day when Christians do their priestly work of transacting between heaven and earth, singing the songs of the free, giving thanks for all things, offering up six days worth of sacrifices, and eating and drinking the Flesh and Blood of God.

If that doesn’t get you out of bed and to church, I don’t know what possibly could.

And as wonderful a gift as daily Mass is, it should never be allowed to overshadow the preeminence of the Sunday Eucharist. As they say in the Eastern Churches of Sunday: “This chosen and holy day is the first of the Sabbaths, the queen and lady, the feast of feasts, and the festival of festivals.” It is the apex and axis of time. God gives the faithful Monday through Saturday, six days to engage in their priestly preparation of gifts, for wheat-and-grape crushing. But He gives us one Day for the Great and Holy Oblation, the Awful Sacrifice, when those gifts are gathered up into the joying House of the dancing Father by the ascending Christ through the Wind and Fire of the falling Spirit. No sleepy church allowed in this whirling perichoresis!

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Back in the late 1980’s I met a Siberian woman at my dad’s Orthodox parish. We were talking about her flight from the Soviet Union to the U.S. and she was hacking and coughing. I mentioned to her how impressed I was that she came to church even when she was very unwell (even as I wondered if she thought about how contagions travel!). She said:

It is nothing. In my country people go to the gulag or die for going to church, so what is it if I come to church sick? This country was established so you could go to church freely, but once people tasted freedom they used it for other things and stopped going to church. To me that’s a slap in God’s face. People stopped using their freedom for God and use it on themselves. So when I am tired or sick I think of the people home who risk their lives to go each Sunday and then for me it is nothing. It is a blessing.

I was stunned speechless. I thought of the interconnection of the Eucharist, with its core of “this is my Body broken, Blood shed” sacrifice, the command at the end of Liturgy to “Go!” and the willingness to live this whole furious mystery in the world outside the church. If freedom in the Inside Church is defined by sacrifice, freedom in the Outside Church must be likewise.

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Years ago I asked a woman to give a personal testimony to parents of children preparing for First Holy Communion. She had earlier shared a story that knocked my socks off so I wanted the parents to hear it as well. It went something like this:

When I was growing up, my maternal grandparents were the hub of our family. Their home was like a warm hearth, full of love. Almost every Sunday of the year, we had to go to their house after morning Mass for a family gathering and feast. My grandparents were Italian so food was a huge part of life. And everyone brought something. The house was packed with immediate and extended family, and occasionally some random stranger my grandmother invited. Before lunch began everyone always had to gather in the den, packed like sardines, and listen to Papa tell some fantastic story from our family history. I am sure now his stories were a mix of fact and fiction, which my grandmother would confirm any time she stepped into the room as she would immediately correct some detail or say, “Papa, stop exaggerating.” Everyone would laugh and he would sing this line from Gigi, “Ah yes, I remember it well!” Sometimes he would get choked up as he told a story, other times he would tell funny stories, laughing harder than anyone else; and still other times told stories that were meant to teach us kids something about our family’s core values. Honesty, integrity, patience, courage.

When my grandmother died and my grandfather went into a nursing home, our extended family started to unravel until my mom decided to take up the tradition and keep it going. She still does, though it’s not quite the same.

What I learned from this is that when you don’t have a regular place for family to gather, hear their stories, sing and laugh and cry and eat together, you forget who you are the rest of the week. My grandparents as good Catholics knew Sunday was a special day, a holy day, a day set apart to celebrate family and life and God’s gifts and to keep us close to each other so we could, each of us, stay strong. They thought that without family everything falls apart. On Sunday, we knew who we were as a family, and so I knew who I was, so the rest of the week we could then live up to our family name and our family tradition of hard work, generosity, love.

That’s how I think of Sunday and Mass and why making sure Sunday and Mass look like each other is a priority. It’s an obligation of love and not of guilt. Though there was always that if you missed, my grandmother was good at Catholic guilt!

I’ll end with this quote from the Bible that Father John used when my daughter made her First Communion. It made me realize that my grandmother knew that the feast of the Mass and the feast of home needed each other, made sense of each other. So: “Today is holy to the Lord your God. Do not lament, do not weep! Go, eat rich foods and drink sweet drinks, and allot portions to those who had nothing prepared; for today is holy to our Lord. Do not be saddened this day, for rejoicing in the Lord is your strength!” [Nehemiah 8:9-10]

Our local Archbishop has put restrictions on sports and certain other activities in Catholic schools and parishes to help return the focus of Sunday as a day of worship, of family, of rest, of outreach to the lonely and poor and suffering. I am so grateful for his courage and I know he has faced lots of resistance and criticism. But he has only created a space, a vacuum that now demands to be filled by us Catholics who’ve been gifted with the limitless creativity of our faith. It’s our mission to make Sunday into a day so extraordinary and so revolutionary that the rest of the world — presently consumed by endless work, addictive entertainment and restless consumption — may just decide to stop, look up and listen to our song of revolution: “Without Sunday, we cannot…” The list is endless.

Without Sunday, the day we remember that, in the end, all is gift:

Omitting and texting sins

pennsylvaniaduilawyersblog.com

[re-post 2014, updated]

Recently, my wife and I watched a documentary with our children on texting and driving, From One Second To The Next, that told the heart-wrenching stories of victims and victimizers whose lives were turned upside down by one person’s decision to text while driving. It withered any temptation I may have had in me to text while I drive.

It reminded me of a Sunday homily I heard several years ago by a priest who spoke of what he called, “the sins I am surprised I never hear confessed.” It was a sobering homily.

He highlighted two sins that are, he said, “especially conspicuous for their absence from Confession.” Here’s some of what he said (as I wrote in my journal later):

… Yet it’s crucial that we also consider, as we examine our conscience, the ways we have failed to do what we can or what we ought when circumstances call for action. For example, sometimes we’re obliged to speak up for someone as others bad mouth them when they’re not there to defend themselves. We often sin in this way through cowardice — we are afraid to face the heat, to get criticized or shunned. Or maybe it’s just laziness, just too much energy expenditure for us to be confrontational. Or maybe we want others’ approval and can’t stomach the thought that they might not think well of us; and this might even compel us to join in their toxic speech.

As people of faith, we confess it is, in those cases, Christ whom we deny, whom we slander or fail to shield. He is always joined to the victim of every sin and injustice, present in every person unfairly maligned. He awaits us, the members of His Body, to come to His defense. Christ takes very personally what is done, or not done, for the least of His brethren. The implications of Matthew 25 are much greater than feeding the hungry and giving drink to the thirsty. And according to Matthew 25, judgement is primarily about sins of omission. “You did not…did not…did not…”

There’s a wonderful poem by Studdert-Kennedy that powerfully captures this:

When Jesus came to Golgotha, they hanged Him on a tree,
They drove great nails through hands and feet, and made a Calvary;
They crowned Him with a crown of thorns, red were His wounds and deep,
For those were crude and cruel days, and human flesh was cheap.

When Jesus came to Birmingham, they simply passed Him by.
They would not hurt a hair of Him, they only let Him die;
For men had grown more tender, and they would not give Him pain,
They only just passed down the street, and left Him in the rain.

Still Jesus cried, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do,”
And still it rained the winter rain that drenched Him through and through;
The crowds went home and left the streets without a soul to see,
And Jesus crouched against a wall, and cried for Calvary.

Then the priest took a surprising direction in his homily, one I’d never previously heard preached. He said:

But one of the most surprising omissions in Confession is the sin of breaking traffic laws, reckless driving. Did you know the Catechism of the Catholic Church says:

“Those incur grave guilt who, by drunkenness or a love of speed, endanger their own and others’ safety on the road, at sea, or in the air”?

Grave guilt! Let me ask you — please, though, don’t raise your hand! — how many of you have sped, had too much alcohol and gotten behind a wheel, texted while you were driving, blown through stop lights or done other irresponsible things while driving? And how many of you have confessed this to the Lord in His Sacrament of Reconciliation?

This is, the Church tells us unequivocally, a grave matter. “Graviter” in Catechism’s Latin — which means it’s a serious matter, the matter for mortal sin. In fact, the Catechism takes it so seriously that it places this consideration under the 5th commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.”

If Jesus says to harbor hateful anger against your brother in your heart is already murder, the Catechism adds this: Reckless driving contains an implicit consent to murder. So it can, in this sense, already be considered murder. Whether you get caught by the cops or a camera, or not, is absolutely irrelevant.

I beg you, as your father in Christ, respect life by driving safely. Be a witness to temperance and justice, call others to be accountable and responsible. Maybe put a “Choose Life” bumper sticker on your car so that you become more conscious of being a witness to others. If someone sees you texting and driving, and then sees your bumper sticker, they may wonder: “Whose life are you choosing?”

You are your brother and sister’s keeper, a disciple of Christ the giver of life.

There’s a stunning bumper sticker I’ve seen, “Honk if you love Jesus! Text if you want to meet Him!” [congregation laughter]. But I would add, on a much more serious note, that for me, personally, I would not want my last deed before entering the presence of Christ the Judge to be the violation of the 5th commandment. Destroying lives, all to send a stupid text.

It’s a very powerful human skill to rationalize sin away. And especially to rationalize reckless driving away. I am exempt; I can handle it; just this once; nothing’s gonna happen. The families of victims of traffic accidents caused by texting or drinking or disregarding traffic laws would have much to say to you in reply. As would the Lord.

So I encourage you: Go to Confession if you haven’t and unburden your sins before our merciful Lord, the Lover of life. And then, choose life every time you get behind the wheel.

This short film was made in 2013, so the texting and driving problem since then has grown exponentially. It’s almost ubiquitous. Just yesterday, a woman with children in her van was texting as she drove down I-10. I noticed she was texting because she was weaving in and out of her lane. And voice to text unquestionably makes the illusion of justification even more seductive. Here’s some stats:

Texting While Driving Causes:

1. 1,600,000 accidents per year – National Safety Council
2. 330,000 injuries per year – Harvard Center for Risk Analysis Study
3. 11 teen deaths EVERY DAY – Ins. Institute for Hwy Safety Fatality Facts
4. Nearly 25% of ALL car accidents

Texting While Driving Is:

1. About 6 times more likely to cause an accident than driving intoxicated
2. The same as driving after 4 beers – National Hwy Transportation Safety Admin.
3. The number one driving distraction reported by teen drivers

Texting While Driving:

1. Makes you 23X more likely to crash – National Hwy Transportation Safety Admin.
2. Is the same as driving blind for 5 seconds at a time – VA. Tech Transportation Institute
3. Takes place by 800,000 drivers at any given time across the country
4. Slows your brake reaction speed by 18% – HumanFactors & Ergonomics Society
5. Leads to a 400% increase with eyes off the road

If you can, the ~35 minute film is worth the watch. With your family, friends. But it is graphic.

Saved? Watch this…

“If one were to do a cursory read of the Synoptic Gospels, one would get the impression that we are saved by giving alms” (Dr. Nathan Eubank)

I was speaking with someone the other day and mentioned that I taught theology. He was a devout Evangelical and taught bible study in his church. We got into an energetic conversation and asked me about the Catholic view of salvation. He said, “You Catholics believe you’re saved by your own works, right? But we believe God saves us and makes us righteous. That we’re saved by faith in the blood of Jesus.”

I thoroughly enjoyed our exchange and was unusually clear of mind that evening, I said something like this (meaning these very general points that I later amplified in my journal). It kind of runs all over the place, but that’s how it went.

No, not really. For us, to be saved is God’s work. Just like it was God’s work to create us, it’s God’s work to re-create us. Which is what salvation is, right? Being re-created, becoming a new creation. God’s love is such that after we fell away, sinned, died and rotted in the grave, God’s righteous justice was overcome by his love intensified into mercy — which is really love on steroids. [He liked that] God’s response to our rebellion wasn’t just to end our rebellion and make us good and righteous servants again. It’s this love-mercy, far beyond justice, that drives God to justify, sanctify and glorify us.

In addition to restoring justice, He chose to raise us up from being servants to being beloved sons and daughters, made us into his Temples, gave us a share in his own divine life by allowing us to eat the Flesh and drink the Blood of his Son. Hopelessly in love with his own enemies, us. We talk about a prodigal son, but really God’s the prodigal Father. Way excessive in his response to our waste of his gifts. Destroy and squander my gifts? Okay! I’ll give you a thousand more!

Yes, for us Catholics it’s God who saves us. But when God saves us, we believe, he doesn’t just “do it all” for us, like he did when he created us out of nothing. He’s made us in his image and likeness, which means that we resemble him. We resemble him, for example, whenever we practice justice, mercy, compassion, humility, forgiveness, love, sacrifice, fidelity. We’re living, breathing icons he’s painted with all the colors found on the palette of his beauty. And as his image we are also his priests, the nexus of God-creation, which means whenever God acts in this world justly, mercifully, compassionately, humbly, etc., we, his image always get caught up in his work and brought into the act. When God acts, we get activated. If we act in concert we’re saved, if we act contrary, we’re judged. And baptism only sinks us deeper into God’s action, our priesthood and makes us not just like him but, in Jesus, unites us with him.

In his letters, St. Paul loves to use the Greek prefix syn all over the place, which means “with.” We are syn- with God, Paul says we are syn-ergoi, “co-workers” [1 Cor. 3:9]. Like the English, synergy. Always acting with God and God with us. Jesus is really God’s syn-, God’s permanent commitment to a syn- strategy. God desires to enlist us in his renovation project, salvation. Faith is our “in,” our free acceptance of this divine draft.

A Catholic theologian from 1600 years ago, named St. Augustine, said: “God made us without us, but he will not save us without us.” So we Catholics don’t say we are saved by our own works, as if God is somehow so impressed with our amazing-ness that he rewards us with an eternal Pat on the Back. But we would say that doing good works IS what saved people do, the fitting sign that salvation is at work in us. “By your fruits you will know them” [Matt. 7:16]. We are being saved in doing good works and we are saved in order to do good works. Doing good works is exactly what an image of God DOES, in imitation of the good-working God [who even works on  the Sabbath! John 5:17]. Being saved is not simply an escape route, is not just about getting out of punishment or drawing a get out of jail free card. It’s about becoming human in the way God made us to be. That’s Jesus, who yesterday, today and forever IS the way humans are meant to be. Being saved is about doing life the Jesus-way, giving way for Jesus to live is us so we can finally be human again.

And the New Testament is unanimous: to be human in the pattern of Jesus means to love while carrying a cross for the sake of the one who placed the cross on your shoulder. That’s nuts! That’s love on steroids. To be human God’s way is to live selflessly, to love enemies, speak well of detractors and bless cursers. In shorthand, Jesus died on the cross to save us so we could look like Jesus on the cross. We’re saved by the blood of Jesus SO we can become blood donors, life-givers, martyrs of charity. These saved are the saints made worthy of imitation [1 Cor. 11:1], who love with the love with which God loved us in Christ on the cross.

St. Paul in Galatians [5:6] said: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.” The better way to express this as a Catholic would be to say not that we are “saved by good works,” but that we are “saved by faith working through love.” Faith without love is dead, and love without works is hollow. Working love saves [Matt. 7:21]. Loveless works of the law are clashing symbols and don’t save, but once you inject works with love, which is the premier sign that God is in you at work [1 Jn 4:16], all your works are saving and saved [1 Pet. 4:8].

Especially love for the poor, which is heaven’s chosen means for all eternal treasury deposits [Luke 18:22].

Open-handed, he gives to the poor;
his justice stands firm for ever.
His head will be raised in glory (Psalm 112:11).

That’s what we believe, in a nutshell.

We talked for a bit more and exchanged business cards to talk more again. I hope we do!

If I had access to wifi for my phone at that moment, I would have saved lots of words, skipped all of that theologese, and simply said, “For Catholics, being saved means this” — and then hit play:

“Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12)

Screen Face. baristanet.com

[these are loosely joined reflections on some ‘temptations of new media’ that I wrote about last Lent. I decided to post them now after I happened on an article that seemed to offer a perfect coda]

Today the modern media, which are an essential part of life for young people in particular, can be both a help and a hindrance to communication in and between families. The media can be a hindrance if they become a way to avoid listening to others, to evade physical contact, to fill up every moment of silence and rest, so that we forget that silence is an integral element of communication; in its absence, words rich in content cannot exist. — Pope Francis

I think I can speak for most parents with younger children when I say that one of the greatest struggles these days is how to manage — and teach them to manage — their use of digital technologies and new (especially social) media. Just a very few thoughts on this today.

It’s ubiquitous, what my wife and I call the “screen face.” That blank zombie-like stare, bathed in a dim glow, that eloquently captures the existential state of a child (or adult) caught in the act of tuning out their immediate surroundings in order to enter into a virtual world mediated through silicon chips and LED screens. More and more studies are uncovering the deleterious effects the over-use of screen time can have, including the rewiring of brains in a manner that inverts virtual and real worlds or that produces effects in the brain similar to heroine addiction. Yes, of course, immense good can be accomplished through the medium of screens. This blog I am typing right now betrays too harsh of a protest. And, as Pope Benedict said, “Do not be afraid of new technologies!” I’m presupposing that. But then there’s an insidiously addictive, dissociating effect that over-exposure to phones, laptops and tablets can produce that causes Patti and me — and so many others we know — terrible parenting anxiety.

What to do? When I am asked that, I say that we’re figuring it out with every other parent who has had this challenge thrust upon them from every direction, including school. I will share a very few, mostly general, musings. And all personal examples I use first received permission for anonymous sharing from the main characters.

First, parents must themselves model healthy, balanced, disciplined habits of technology use. What I call techno-asceticism (asceticism refers to habits of discipline that help one achieve self-mastery in pursuit of excellence). Your words mean nothing at all if you are abusing your own rules, or worse, if you have no rules at all and leave technology use to whim. And I don’t mean abusing only when children are around you, watching you, but always, because in the spiritual world every action, even the most secret and interior one, affects all; and especially affects those entrusted to your care. In the realm of the spirit there is no such thing as a purely private sin or vice, as the “butterfly effect” obtains in that unseen realm 24/7. As Fr. Tom Hopko often said, “One secret lustful or hateful thought poisons the whole universe. That’s why we confess those dark secrets aloud in the light of Confession. But just the same, every virtuous act perfumes the world.”

Limits, limits, limits. Strong and smart limits, which include time-use, space limits (e.g. never a phone used at a meal) or content limits with age-appropriate parental supervision & the use of good filters. Our household motto: never never ever allow your child to use devices after bedtime. Sleep should be a screen-free time zone. I know a parent who fairly recently told me that she did not feel she could ever take the phone away from her teenage daughter, even at night, because she feared her daughter would resent her and shut down. But as a result, she said, her daughter is continuously sleep deprived and lost her faith by becoming deeply involved (at night) in a goth-atheist reddit community. I asked her, “What first prevented you from taking the phone away at night?” She described to me her daughter’s reaction when she first took the phone away from her one night. She said, “She screamed and threatened to kill herself. It really terrified me because she seemed to act like a drug addict being deprived of a hit. I felt paralyzed and just gave in because I was afraid of facing those threats, or what was beneath them. I regret it now. I feel guilty about it. But I feel it’s too late.” I said, “It’s never too late.”

As a family we have, for the last 9 or 10 years, practiced “Screen-Free Sundays.” That means extremely restricted use of all screens, limited to communication necessity, family movies, sports on TV. But because negation itself is not sufficient to cultivate character and joy, we work hard to make Sunday a creative, fun, meaningful day with interactive activities like family Mass, cooking, eating out (rarely), board games, feeding the homeless at a local shelter, outdoor activities, zoo, fishing, walking, biking, drawing, painting, visiting with friends. And all homework that requires computers must be completed by Saturday evening, which teaches time management and advance planning.

Once every 4 months or so we have Sunday Mass in our home, inviting our children’s friends and various other people to join us for an afternoon of food, fellowship, secular and sacred music ending with the celebration of Mass on our dining room table. We invite different priests each time to come and share their vocation story and offer some catechesis. We are so grateful for these priests’ generous gift of time and faith to do this!

I have to say with great gusto that the whole screen-free thing is a liberating practice, and my wife is the genius behind it.

Face to face relating with people and things, we insist to our children unto irritation, always remains the Queen, while virtual relating with people and things through screens remains the Queen’s Handmaiden. The temptation is immense to drift off into an online fantasy world to escape immediate life commitments and relationships. Even if it’s called FaceTime or Facebook, it’s not the same as the faces of flesh and blood.

Sacraments are all about “real” presence, about encountering God through the material world and flesh-and-blood neighbors. It’s why Sacraments can never be done through the Ethernet or the Internet. Or why Mass on TV, which does offer enormous benefits for the home-bound, can never equal Mass in person. Spiritual Communion, though marvelously efficacious, always begs for consummation in bodily ingestion of the Flesh and Blood of God. Icons, which allow us to see into the Age to Come through a “mirror dimly,” always lead us toward a face to face and embodied encounter with the Realities they mediate. Otherwise they become idols and illusions, keeping us at a safe distance from Christ and His Mystical Body.

Living at the speed of life. Digital technology too easily gives us the false impression that life, dislikes or boredom can be clicked or swiped away, and that only interesting, entertaining and pleasurable things that I like are worth engaging and hold my attention. This can quickly become a whole worldview. This digital-culture A.D.D. makes it difficult to live life at its real pace, which is an uneven pace. A culture of swipe also makes it really tough to love the people we’re stuck with, people who take time and patience and sustained attention to love. Digital A.D.D. can make it agonizing to listen, in un-skippable silence, to a slowly revolving world that only gradually yields its deep secrets to those who wait long and listen closely.

A college student once asked me to give him spiritual counsel. We met several times and I quickly discerned he was a digital media junkie. So I asked him to spend 10 minutes every morning in total silence, repeating the Jesus prayer. When I met with him the next month and asked him how it went, he said: “Torture. I hated every moment of it. I’d rather have my eyes plucked out.”

Suffering life’s coming at each moment is essential to being human, and our culture of escape, of entertainment-on-demand, of binge-watching, of deletion and x-ing out or scrolling down is no friend to the real work of living, loving, working and growing in wisdom, charity, heroism and faithfulness amid the often droning dull daily duties that are the substance of lasting joy and penetrating sanctity.

One dad I know at our parish told me that one of his ‘tweenage’ sons once said to him, while he was in the middle of trying to explain to his son a consequence he was imposing, “Man I wish I could x you out.” Well, let’s just say that the next month for that child was 100% screen free, and the child had to work out a plan with his teachers of how to do his homework without a computer. #dadpower

Okay, I’ll just stop here and end with (1) an excerpt from an article last week in the Times-Picayune by Laura A. Jayne and (2) a cool video on this topic:

Parents use the devices to keep children entertained during errands and long car rides. OK, whatever. But now they hand the phone over to a child at home so they can make dinner without listening to the kid whine. Listening to your child whine is a time-honored part of parenting. It makes you glad they (you hope) eventually move out on their own. And now children are playing electronic games at parades. We have to decide something is wrong with just turning over a smart phone to a child any time he or she wants it.

I teach at Loyola University, and it can be a challenge getting students to listen in class and ignore their phones. And we are fascinating here! (As fun as Nyx!) So it’s no surprise that researchers also have found that high use of mobile devices is linked to anxiety in college students. Anxiety to stay on top of things. Anxiety that they are missing out. Anxiety when the phone is lost or broken. I see it. We know our kids are using phones too often for too much – but while we complain about the usage of our teenagers, we are handing the phones over to our toddlers. By the time they come to college, the phone is a security device.

Do we want to be a nation of anxiety-ridden adults incapable of enjoying the world around us? No, we do not. So, take the smart phone away from your kid. Relish the boredom.

Sex, semiotics and society

The conception of the Virgin Mary, aka Joachim and Anne making love. vatopaidi.files.wordpress.com

[A plenary indulgence if you make it through this opening quote into my post. It’s a long post, but really fun to write for me! Or text…]

Jesus was a sign-maker of a disturbingly revolutionary kind. And Christian culture echoes his sign-making. This communal sign-making is, for Christians, the most authentically basic bit of culture. Is it just another bit of human culture? Yes and no: for here, we believe, the true myth is performed, the fullest meaning is made.

On what grounds do Christians affirm the ideal of lifelong monogamy (and also the ideal of chastity)? Is it that God dispenses a few non-negotiable rules, one of which is the wrongness of casual sex? No, the legal paradigm is inadequate; it doesn’t help us through the inevitable grey areas.

The Christian should approach the question of sexual morality by means of communication, sign-making. The sexual impulse invites us to semiotic anarchism: casual sex hints at huge meanings that we don’t mean; it is not safely “meaningless”, but is meaning-shaking. Miraculously, the tables can be turned on the semiotic anarchism of sex: a disciplined approach to it (which does not deny but affirms its goodness) is perhaps the loudest communicative tool available to us. Sex is redeemed. — Theo Hobson

[semiotics is the study of how cultural “signs” work]

A friend a few weeks ago asked me a really seraching question that I will do injustice to its sophistication here. He asked me, what is so wrong with pre-marital sex if the couple intends genuine love and feels the need to make certain, as they do in every other area of their relationship before marriage, they are sexually compatible. I mean, there are horror stories out there about couples who marry and find out in sex they just don’t jive. What makes a sexual act before marriage so — or always so — sinful?

I have been trying to respond for weeks, but part of my response ended up being a voice-to-text while sitting in an airport terminal waiting on a flight. It certainly drew interesting looks from other travellers who clearly found what I was saying into my phone a bit off-beat, shall we say. It’s certainly only the seed of an argument, and as a single brief post does not attempt to say everything necessary, but I thought it decent enough to post so I edited it into a respectable form for you here.

My main point in the text was to correct the American cultural over-emphasis on the experience of personal fulfillment in marriage at the expense of its broader social meaning; or the over-emphasis on erotic love at the expense of the demands of justice, etc. It teases out an intuition I have had for years but never took any time to think about in a focused way.

But I left it’s “text feeling” as much as I could, because that’s how it started. My hope is that it will help you, as it did me, to think ‘outside of the box’ on the likes of marriage, sex, contraception, abortion. In no way does this post intend to malign the beauty and heroism that can be part of single parenthood, nor mar the dignity of victims of divorce who struggle in its wake. Grace is everywhere. Rather, it is intended to reflect on the full meaning, beauty and implications of sex & marriage as the church says God intended it…in the light of which we all fall short, and require His everlasting mercies. That said, the church’s teaching always remains the fullness of beauty which mercy longs to reveal in all.

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I am writing this as a voice-to-text, stream of consciousness, so pardon any mistakes as we go!

I’ve been thinking about our conversation about various rationales for sex before marriage. I am waiting on my ride here in Des Moines, so here’s to entertaining the audience before me! Here it goes:

First, at the core of Catholic teaching on sex is the 2-fold meaning of the sexual act: unitive and procreative. Unitive=sex is good because it bonds the couple, knits them together and allows for the building and expression of intimacy and love and passion for each other.

Procreative=sex is good because every sexual act is oriented toward reproduction, conception, cooperatively (with God) bringing about a new human life made in the image of God. And here’s a key: each of those meanings strengthen the other, which is what makes every sexual act intrinsically *marital*.

The unitive meaning spiritually, psychologically, biochemically solidifies, seals and cements the marital union in mutual self-gift (which is in itself an end of marriage) SO it might serve well as a fortress, a garden, a home, a safe space and stable playground within which pro-created children can come into existence, grow, flourish, be sent on mission and return to that same safe space when needed.

I always imagine that the (theological) reason the sex drive is *so* powerful is because God placed in it His awesome command: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (Gen. 1:28). No wonder it’s so hard to contain and restrain, with that kind of apodictic divine command surging in my body! But that command was issued to a married couple, created “male and female”, by a God who also said, “that they may be one as we are one, Father” (John 17:21). Monotheism, monogamy and monogamous sex go together.

Even after the age of fertility, or with couples who are infertile, the sexual act remains oriented toward this same 2-fold end as children grow, grandchildren are born, new family members are added, adopted, welcomed into the Playground. On that last point, I’ve known couples who, though they could not have children themselves and did not adopt, were very engaged in social justice/charity outreach work, or offered tender maternal and paternal support to other families that flowed out of the fruitfulness of their own married love. i.e. their marital bond was fruitful for neighbors. The marital union needs to remain a solid and binding force in the extended family, church and society needs unitive cement to keep it fiery, dynamic, tender, passionate and unshakably stable as a center of family unity.

The love of each spouse for the other, so intensely beautiful in itself, also always exists for the sake of “communion” — in fact, the Sacrament of Matrimony is called a “sacrament of service to communion” because it exists in service to the extended family, the church and all of society.

And so sex has profound import in society. Sex binds strong a stable and permanant bond on which the social order depends, is built. Social order, social flourishing, social justice require such a binding stability, unwavering commitment to others’ welfare – which grounds of justice – as well as requiring the nuclear ethic of love and intimacy that originates in marital union. Sex can never simply be about orgasm, personal satisfaction. Every sexual act is massively sign-ificant. Every sexual act is also a social act, a familial act and, in an extended sense, a political, economic, cultural, etc. act. Because all of these things are interconnected, interwoven into the primal fabric of marital love, which serves as the foundation and stable center of human solidarity.

We share the powerful sex drive of all animals because we are rational animals, called to integrate all of the beauty of animal life into the beauty of the image of God that was stamped into homo sapiens at a certain moment in history. Biology is clear that the sex drive is so powerfully implanted in every living being to ensure propagation of species (procreative meaning). Biology also testifies to the unitive meaning, as sex creates powerful affective, biochemical bonds between man and woman. ESPECIALLY for the woman who bears the burden of child bearing and rearing, and requires the man to rightly raise the children.

It’s quite telling that those who engage in sex outside of marriage often intentionally sever the unitive meaning from its procreative meaning (contracept, abort) precisely because they recognize – even if only seeing it as a raw biological datum – that the sexual act is ordered toward a permanent bond made visible, incarnate in each family-making child born to them. Children conceived outside of marriage suffer an injustice because they lack the safety of the permanany, stable social bond (marriage) that should welcome them into a world of justice and love where they can grow up sorrounded by the full image of God, male and female, living in the image of His love, faithfulness, justice, kindness, patience, longsuffering, et certera.

Statistics testify powerfully to the link between children conceived out of wedlock and the breakdown of social order and the proliferation of social injustices. Sex indulged in apart from its deep-structural meanings, sex reduced to conceptions of fulfillment defined by radical autonomy and pleasure-defined utilitarianism, now dominate Western culture, stripping sex of its power to express the beauty of personhood, of communion made in the image and likeness of a Trinitarian God.

A SECOND POINT: as far as the question of having to experiment with potential partners first, or the challenges of having sexual relations for the first time after the wedding day and not before. Really? Come on! If you accept that cohabiting is also wrong by an extension of this logic — since cohabitation mimics the total sharing of life that is marriage (including sex) — you will also realize that after the wedding day a HOST of surprises await the couple as they learn about each other up close, day in day out, and have to slowly figure it out. The art of human love is complex, messy, progressive, requiring growth and learning and communication, and seeking counsel from experienced couples who’ve been through it. This reminds me of a gentleman from India who, speaking about arranged marriages in India, said to a priest I know:

I see you’re surprised about this as an American, and wonder how someone could ever have a loving and happy marriage if they did not fall in love with their spouse to be and choose to marry. Okay, let me share an analogy that might help you see my perspective. Think of marriage as a pot of water and culture as a pile of sticks. In your culture, marriage is a boiling pot of water steaming with passion, while your culture is a pile of cold, wet sticks. In our culture, marriage is a pot full of cold water, while the wood of our Sikh culture is ablaze with fire. So, while your boiling water sits atop the cold and wet sticks, it warms the sticks for a brief time but eventually the water cools and turns cold. When our cold pot of water is placed on our tight-knit culture burning with passion for lifelong marriage, the water slowly warms eventually to boiling. While both systems have their problems, from what I’ve seen of the state of American marriage, I’d choose our fire over your boiling water.

Also an acceptance of the fact that “great sex” in marriage means many things to many people, and is never going to match a culture that hyper-idealizes sex and links it with self-pleasuring hedonism (e.g. Cosmopolitan magazine) and not to selfless love, self-gift and sacrificial love.

“Marriage is not for me.” Because marriage is NOT essentially about the couple’s personal fulfillment, but about providing a stable foundation for just social order rooted in unifying love and self-gift. Sex always is understood to be the handmaiden and servant of this primary good. As I said, every sexual act is a marital act. Extra-marital sex has disastrous social consequences, many or most of which are not seen and felt by the couple fornicating. Short term gain, long term pain, you might say.

Extra-marital sex is sinful because it assaults justice and charity, exalts personal satisfaction above the common good, commits an injustice against children conceived outside of marriage (or banned from existence by contraception or abortion) and strikes at the foundations of a just and stable social order — a culture of life and a civilization of love. Extra-marital sex is more akin to masturbation than is the two-in-one-flesh marital act that images the divine-human covenant that binds humanity as one indissoluble family.

Something like that. That’s a stab. Gotta go! God bless!!

I sent this text to a priest I know, who has worked for years as a prison chaplain. Here was his text back to me:

Your linking sex with justice-charity-stability is brilliant and truthful. Faithfulness and trust creates the bond that allows sex it’s generative, intimate force. Covenant is the biblical expression of social bounds that allows life to flourish. I love your remark on how faithful, marital love creates the life ethos for children to play and encounter the goods of communion.

I might add that in most cases I’ve experienced, those with multiple partners have experienced a diminished capacity of trust. A cynical jadedness emerges regarding intimacy. This isn’t a fact so much as it is observed through wisdom.

As you know, I visit multiple incarcerated men every week who came from frivolous sexual relationships. Our nation’s great evil of slavery obliterated familial and marital customs for so many generations which continues to reap so much devastation. I have little tolerance for those who espouse sexuality as experimental. It is indeed an issue related to social justice

I will end with a song that I believe ties together beautifully my emphasis here on both the social-familial and personal-intimate dimensions of sexuality in marriage — Duet, by Penny and Sparrow.

I bet your shoulders can hold more than
Just the straps of that tiny dress
That I’ll help you slide aside
When we get home

I’ve seen you carry family
And the steel drum weight of me
Effortless, just like that dress
That I’ll take off

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you
And I’m not going anywhere

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you
And I’m not going anywhere

I bet your back can carry more than
Just the weight of your button-down
One by one, they’ll come undone
When we get home

I’ve seen you carry family
And all my insecurities
One by one, they’ll come undone
When we get home

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you
And I’m not going anywhere

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you
And I’m not going anywhere

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you
And I’m not going anywhere

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you

Jane Elizabeth, Orphan

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Jane Elizabeth

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Jane Elizabeth

Last year, on December 6th, I shared on this Blog an appeal from a colleague of mine at the Seminary, Dr. Jennifer Miller. See it here. She was asking for prayers and donations on behalf of an eight year old girl she met at an orphanage in Uganda. The girl’s name is Jane Elizabeth.

Dr. Miller asked me to share her gratitude to all who prayed and offered financial assitance, and share an update. Feel free to email her if you wish any further information: jmiller@nds.edu

Tom:

In regard to Jane Elizabeth, here is the latest update!

“Due to the generous support and prayers of all those who accompanied us through youcaring and on Facebook, the money for Jane Elizabeth’s travel documents as well as for the travel itself was raised. Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza, St. Padre Pio’s hospital, has secured the humanitarian aid to cover the medical expenses once she reaches the hospital, and Dr. Leonardo has scheduled her first medical exam for April 1!

At this point, we are working and praying to make sure that the passports and visas for Jane Elizabeth and the sister who will accompany her can be ready by this date. Sr. Mary Lunyolo is working on the details for the passports, and Fr. Zachary Oburu is securing the letters necessary for the consulate to issue a visa for medical care.

Please continue to accompany us with your prayers for a timely processing of all of these documents and for all those who are working to help Jane Elizabeth. May the Lord lead and guide them so that Jane will be able to receive the gift of improved health!

The day she sent me this update, someone emailed me this music video. I felt it was a beautiful overlay of themes!

Angry for God?

sciencedaily.com

[re-post from 2015 in honor of today’s Mass Gospel]

A man who is angry, even if he were to raise the dead, is not acceptable to God. — Abba Agathon

In Matthew 5:20-26, Jesus gets to the heart of the matter, locating the root of murder in the passion of anger:

You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment…

Jesus is never about behavior modification alone, but about striking at the root of all desire from whence come our thoughts, words and deeds.

St. John of the Cross, master of religious psychology, reflects on the danger of a spiritualized form of anger that can emerge in those who have made significant progress in the spiritual life. He says,

Among these spiritual persons there are also those who fall into another kind of spiritual anger. Through a certain excess in zeal they become angry over the sins of others, reprove these others, and sometimes even feel the impulse to do so angrily, which in fact they occasionally do, setting themselves up as lords of virtue.

Still others, in becoming aware of their own imperfections, grow angry with themselves in an unhumble impatience. They become so impatient over these imperfections because they want to become saints in a day. Many of these beginners make numerous plans and great resolutions, but since they are not humble and have no healthy distrust of themselves, the more resolves they make the more they break, and the greater becomes their anger. They do not have the patience to wait until God gives them what they need, when he so desires.

What is key in his analysis is this: for these spiritually immature religious adepts, the life of faith remains self-centered, self-preserving, self-promoting, and has not yet made the commandment, “love your neighbor as yourself,” their rule of life. For to love the neighbor in this way is to see their welfare or woe as your own, and so whatever you seek for them you also seek for yourself. For these anger serves not love, but self-love.

Those whose religious or ethical zeal is fueled by a seething anger, bitterness and self-righteous fury are often the masters of sarcasm and snark, murmuring cynicism and biting wit. St. John says what is most insidious about these people is that, because their anger is clothed in spiritual, religious or moral language, they are easily blinded to the vice beneath the garb. They feel that the cause they espouse justifies the caustic rhetoric. But, John says, to place the highest things (like faith, truth, justice) in service to the most base things — by placing them in the service of pride, anger, greed, envy, etc. — is profoundly dangerous. The Old Testament prophets are unanimous on this point: the use of God, and the things of God, in service to sinful motives and behaviors, no matter how well-disguised they are, stands among the gravest of evils. Better to be an angry atheist.

God says to Isaiah:

Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and the calling of assemblies—
I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly.
Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them.
When you spread forth your hands, I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers, I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes;
cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression;
defend the fatherless, plead for the widow (Isaiah 1:13-17).

Anger can be a natural and healthy response to any situation where things are not as they should be, to injustice and evil. Anger is both a defense-reflex and a powerful motive for facing hardship or resisting evil with courage in the pursuit of justice. This is often called just or righteous anger. However, detached from mercy, which is love encountering and overcoming evil and injustice, anger turns into wrath. And it is wrath that is called a deadly sin. Wrath, unlike mercy, seeks not to overcome, redeem and heal evil, but rather to retaliate and destroy evil, inflict retribution.

This is why, for the Christian, justice can never be parted from mercy. Justice, when joined to mercy and bridled by patience, becomes remedial, restorative. Justice identifies evil, anger sets justice in (e)motion, and mercy, overcome with love for the evildoer, expends itself, not to destroy or malign, but to rescue, redeem and overcome evil with good. That is the logic of “the word of the cross,” as Jesus on the cross faced the full fury of the world’s injustice and evil with an omnipotent, non-violent merciful love.

The word of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God (1 Cor. 1:18).

When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” They cast lots to divide his clothing. (Luke 23:33-34).

What a vicious scandal it is when people of faith in Christ wage their merciless, destructive and angry warfare out in the midst of the digital public square for all to see. Facebook becomes a space not for revealing the Face of Christ, but for defacing the Gospel. Such a witness! “See how they despise one another!” Indeed. God needs no such favors done for Him.

I recall a number of years ago attending a workshop entitled “Justice for the Poor in the Gospel of Luke,” given by an Anglican Scripture scholar. During his lecture, he addressed this issue of anger in ministry. He said something like this:

There’s a sad irony in the fact that, in my experience, so many of us who have professed allegiance to the “justice and peace” movement are too often driven by anger against our ideological opponents. This, it seems to me, is a bit at odds with the meekness required of the reconcilers and peacemakers Jesus calls ‘blessed’ in the Beatitudes. Who are called to love their enemies, to settle on the way to court. We are our own worst enemies, friends, when we abuse and caricature our debate partners. Come on, just say it out loud: “Blessed are the pissed peacemakers.” This is not what Jesus wanted.

He was very much a sympathizer with the peace and justice movement, and his comment was meant to offer an honest self-critique. Ironically, one of the participants in the workshop stood up and shouted at the speaker: “Bullshit!” He went on to say that this accusation was an insult to the peace-activists’ righteous anger and an unfair assessment of the many people who have faced so much hardship over the years. The burden of unrighteous anger, the man said, rested squarely on the shoulders of war-mongering conservatives.

The biblical scholar replied in a calm voice, “Sir, your demeanor and words do little service to our cause.”

Pope Paul VI, in his 1975 Apostolic Exhortation on evangelization, Evangelii Nuntiandi, argues that it is those who have been freed from sin’s grip by God’s liberating grace who are able to bear the force of joy. I will leave you with his words:

Let us therefore preserve our fervor of spirit. Let us preserve the delightful and comforting joy of evangelizing, even when it is in tears that we must sow. May it mean for us an interior enthusiasm that nobody and nothing can quench. May it be the great joy of our consecrated lives. And may the world of our time, which is searching, sometimes with anguish, sometimes with hope, be enabled to receive the Good News not from evangelizers who are dejected, discouraged, impatient or anxious, but from ministers of the Gospel whose lives glow with fervor, who have first received the joy of Christ, and who are willing to risk their lives so that the kingdom may be proclaimed and the Church established in the midst of the world.