“Allow yourself to be at the Jordan River.”

“Allow yourself to be at the Jordan River.”

The Confessor I went to on retreat said this to me, in his thick German accent, after I had revealed my sins. He expanded on his words,

You are working so hard to please God, and this is good. And you have failed, and have shared this openly with God. Now you can know His mercy, and when you know His mercy you know something about God even the angels cannot know — the Father’s tender compassion for you as His son. Remember before anything else, you must always go down with Jesus into the water of forgiveness and receive the Father’s tender words, ‘My beloved son.’

Jesus went to the Cross to allow you to hear these words.

But if you don’t allow these words to enter you and define you, you will cling to other identities that will leave you wanting. No matter what happens, no matter how you fail, no matter how others fail you — the Father always, always loves you.

Then he told me to allow St. John the Baptist to take me down to the Jordan, to lead me to Jesus. “He is the forerunner, he prepares the way and is a great saint for leading us to the Father by leading us to Jesus.”

I did, and my takeaway was this: “Become a more loving father by knowing your identity as a beloved son, by allowing yourself to be loved by the Father.” So simple, so basic, so fundamental, so profound, so easy to forget. All I could think of throughout the afternoon was a line from St. Ignatius of Antioch’s letter to the Romans,

There is within me a water
that lives and speaks,
saying to me inwardly,
‘Come to the Father.’

That water of baptism, first sanctified in the Jordan, contains within it the whole mystery of life and death. St. John the Baptist, lead me in to taste there of the Father’s tender mercy. There I can learn to be the father my children deserve.

Heaven in a Wild Flower

Cathedral vault

My cathedral

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour. — William Blake

I am on my annual retreat this week at a new location for me, somewhere in the Heartland. Whenever I choose a place to retreat, it is always a spot lost in meadows, forests or otherwise uninhabited seashores. Preferably far from noise and light pollution. Always a silent retreat, with time governed only by liturgy, meals and the Spirit’s unforeseen surprises.

Yesterday the rain came. Heavy, sustained. Low rumbles of thunder. Once the ground even shook. A man on retreat took a long walk in the rain and returned, drenched. I saw him coming in the door and said, “Caught in the rain?” He replied with an impish grin, “Nope, singin’ in the rain! Makes me feel alive again.”

After Vespers, I walked along the rural road straddling the monastery and saw an enormous rainbow in the east as the black clouds retreated. I sprinted up a grassy bluff to watch it blaze, then fade away. I could almost hear the words whispered,

I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.– Gen. 9:13

Last night I went out in the middle of the night to catch an earful of the nighthawk’s rhythmic cry descending and the ceaseless chorus of crickets rising. I was not disappointed, as both filled my soul beneath a softly waning moonlight that broke, now and again, through the racing altocumulous clouds. Out in the dark night, prayer is so easy.

I will bless the Lord who gives me counsel,
who even at night directs my heart. — Psalm 16:7

This morning shortly after sunrise I went out into a grove of spruce trees to pray my rosary and sat down on a still-crispy bed of damp needles. I dubbed it ‘my cathedral’, built on an altar of sodden earth and splintered boughs, with the highest soaring vault one could imagine. It is my favorite space to offer the logikē latreia, “rational worship” (Rom. 12:1) of my body, readying for the Holy Sacrifice which followed.

I found myself surrounded in this cathedral by the most marvelous avian menagerie — among them, robins, wood thrushes, house sparrows, phoebes, mourning doves, chipping sparrows, a catbird, a flicker and barn swallows deftly navigating the sky above catching (hopefully) all the mosquitoes bloated with my blood. All these gave each Glory be a whole new sacrificial power.

Even the sparrow finds a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself
in which she sets her young, at your altars,
O Lord of hosts, my king and my God. — Psalm 84:4

And the spruce fragrance was totally overwhelming. Made me breathe deeply and regret exhaling. Reminded me of when I was a child and would sit in the white pine patch near our home each Spring just to smell the fresh sap oozing from the enlivening trees and feel the soft new candles shooting heavenward. Actually, I put my hand on a white pine today and my hand was sticky from the sap. Hallelujah!

After the rosary, I joined the monks in their chapel for the morning Divine Office. It was all so seamless. Daniel 3:57-88 came to mind as I left the chapel, stirring in me the fire to extend again my priestly duty throughout the day.

Let the earth bless the Lord;
let it sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever. — vs. 74

The flowers here are endless in variety. Both cultivated and wild. Too many to name, but I especially love the expanses of white clover covered with industrious honeybees and the sprawling crownvetch dotted with sprightly skippers.

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. — Matt. 6:28-29

Then there are these enormous black ant mounds, streaming with worker ants excavating the earth and bringing in fresh catch for the queen and her brood. Like a sacrament, the mound conceals deep within a vast hidden world teeming with a common life marked by selfless giving, each living for the sake of all.

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. — Acts 4:32

This is, in fact, what transpires ever-always in the recesses of the Holy Trinity. I felt it pulsing in that mound.

Eucharistic Prayer IV was used at Mass, “…with them we, too, confess your name in exultation, giving voice to every creature under heaven…”

Okay, I must stop as it’s time to pray again.

But when is it not?

Filthy, Smelly, Sweaty Liturgy

[re-post 2015]

The liturgy is nothing more nor less than the Body corporate of Christ Jesus, suffused with his Spirit and assembled in time and place, doing its best by doing the world as the world issues constantly from God’s creating and redeeming hand. What the liturgical assembly does is the world.

This is a frightful ministry carried on with trembling hands and a dry mouth, for the world stops being cute when told it is morbid.

In [Jesus], and according to his example and no other, the Christian assembly is obliged to do its best. It was in the doing of his own best that he laid down his life for the life of the world–not in cynical disgust or in limp passivity before the Human Problem, but for love of those who caused the Problem in the first place. His Church can do no less. — Fr. Aidan Kavanagh

“Doing the world God’s way,” this is liturgy. From lēitos, “public” and ergos, “working,” liturgy is God’s public invitation for is to join His working of creating and redeeming. Liturgy is doing the world with God-with-us. In fact, we could succinctly say that Liturgy is Christ, who is God doing the world His way, with us, by sending His Spirit into the world, synthesizing our labors with His.

The liturgy is Mass, the Sacraments, the Hours. And going to church to do such things is deadly serious business, as is being Baptized, which makes you a portable and wholly unpredictable liturgy.

Liturgy is where we priestly people transact between heaven and earth, effecting with power what we agree to under oath — “Amen!” — to execute by our lives every time we pray the Our Father:

Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.

This prayer Jesus have us is an extended covenant oath, and is especially daunting when we consider that earth, shackled by the Enemy of God, is not at all happy about heaven’s full-scale invasion. Of which we, the laity, stand as the front lines.

If we go to Mass on Sunday thinking, “What can I get out of this?” — we settle at best for mild inspiration, warm feelings, pleasant fellowship and light entertainment. Consumer liturgy.

But if we go to church thinking, “How can I drag as much of the dross-laden gold of this world into the blazing Furnace of the God-Man’s heart, drenching it in Spirit, so it can be refined, prepared as worthy material for the construction an everlasting Kingdom?” — imagine the difference in approach not only to the Mass itself, but to the whole week we spend assuring heaven’s conquest in dredging up the contents of creation for up-Offering — by “doing our best.” Divine liturgy.

And, per Kavanagh’s above quote, “best” refers always to Jesus’ exemplary sacrificial death in the face of the worst the world had to offer Him, i.e. hatred, brutality, death.

A naked and dying God, gurgling out words of pardon and love, is humanity at its best.

The Orthodox priest at my Dad’s Russian church back in 1989 celebrated a 2.5 hour Divine Liturgy on a sultry summer day when the AC in the church was not working properly. His hair and beard were dripping with sweat, and he smelled ripe. Afterward, my Dad and I commented to him, with admiration, on the hardships of that celebration. He said without hesitation,

Yes, yes, I’m completely exhausted. But this is meet and right! Divine Liturgy is divine labor that overthrows the Powers and Principalities, redeems the cosmos. It’s supposed to leave me worn down. The Son of God’s liturgy left Him filthy, smelly and sweaty! But us? Clean and new.

Ah! Toiling and laboring unto exhaustion through every future liturgy, let’s give the world our very best — with God, God’s way…

 

The Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ

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[this is a wildly meandering meditation on the Eucharist, so brace yourself]

When [Jesus] wanted fully to explain what his forthcoming death was all about, he didn’t give them a theory. He didn’t even give them a set of scriptural texts. He gave them a meal. — N.T. Wright

Tomorrow we will continue to contemplate the aftermath of Pentecost as we celebrate the Mystery of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. Last week’s Trinity Sunday was a liturgical proclamation of who God, fully revealed in Jesus and His Spirit, is. Tomorrow, though, we are confronted by God’s unimaginable invitation to masticate and swallow the Flesh and Blood of the slain and risen Son of God. Invited to ingest the One in whose resurrected body creation has passed over (been trans-substantiated) into an entirely new order of existence, i.e. the new creation.

Yes, the One who says, “See, I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:5).

The Eucharist is the divine invitation to participate even now in this new order of existence by consuming bread and wine that have, by God’s re-creating power, been “made new” in the new creation. Transubstantiation is neither a bizarre logic puzzle, “it’s bread and not bread,” nor mystic chemistry, nor an imperceptible magic trick. It is a re-creative act of the same Redeeming God who raised the lacerated corpse of Jesus to a new and immortal bodily life. Jesus’ disorienting resurrection appearances reveal a Eucharistic logic, displaying both a radical continuity and a radical discontinuity between the old and the new creations. The fact that He is not recognized by His closest friends until He makes Himself known shows that His risen body has become something of a sacramental sign that requires faith’s interpretation, as it now signifies, contains and communicates something absolutely new.

The transubstantiated bread and wine, having been assumed into Jesus’ risen mode of existence, “behave” like the Jesus’ risen body appearing during the 40 days. Already wholly defined by the law and order of the new creation — transubstantiated — they remain accessible, under the form of mystery, to us who live within the first creation.

In the liturgical celebration of the Holy Mass, the material elements of bread and wine pass over from this world to the Next as a transfiguring extension of the power of the Resurrection into our time and space. In the words of 1 Cor. 5:17, “the old has passed away (archaia parēlthen); see, everything has become new!” In the Eucharist, this is true here and now as the Spirit of Jesus changes the substance of this world, presented as a sacrificial offering, into the substance of “a new heavens and a new earth” (Rev. 21:1) that has arisen from the risen Jesus.

In this sense, the Eucharist is future glory crashing back into the present in order, is a reverb of the Resurrection’s Big Bang bathing the cosmos in lux aeterna, “eternal light.”

In the words of an Orthodox hymn, you “taste the Fountain of Immortality” when you eat and drink the “new wine” (Matt. 26:29) of the Kingdom. That’s utterly breathtaking. But what is even more amazing to me is when I consider that this wildly destabilizing dynamism we call transubstantiation (better a verb than a noun) was planted in me, in seed form, at Baptism (cf. Rom. 6-11; 2 Cor. 5:17).

The implication? The transformation wrought in bread and wine is meant to happen in me as well, as I become a new creation, drawn by the Spirit to be progressively sanctified, consecrated and empowered to join St. Paul’s crazed audacity: “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). The relics of the saints are material remnants of the wedding of heaven and earth that has been consummated.

The Eucharist exists not primarily to be adored as an object of veneration, but to be eaten and drunk by the Bride who longs to become one flesh and one spirit with her Bridegroom.

A last thought. The new creation is made of love, so how fitting it is that the Son of God chose to fuse His own self-sacrificial love for us with food and drink. Bread and wine are transformed beneath the force of the re-creative words of the God-Man as He inaugurates the second Genesis…. and God said,

Take this, all of you, and eat of it:
for this is my body which will be given up for you.
Take this, all of you, and drink from it:
for this is the chalice of my blood,
the blood of the new and eternal covenant.
which will be poured out for you and for many
for the forgiveness of sins.

The Eucharist is a stunning sign that the transubstantiation of this world into a new creation comes to pass under the form of sacrificial love. When humanity co-labors with God in feeding the hungry and giving drink to the thirsty, in being merciful, creation reaches its completion in being ‘divinized.’ Formed by the logic of Eucharist, we boldly profess that God is food and drink, which is simply a more concrete way of saying, “God is love.”

We say in the Creed that Father and Son are “consubstantial,” as the infinite divine substance of each Person wholly belongs to (an for) the other. That is the dynamism of love, the vocation of humanity.

Which all makes sense of why feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty — deeds of mercy — are the criteria for entrance into the life of the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 25:31-46; cf. 1 Jn. 3:17).

At a baptism I attended, the priest said to a deeply divided family, “If you do not plan to love each other, stay away from this water [pointing to the baptismal font] and do not eat from this table [pointing to the altar]. In these we partake of a Kingdom where love is the final word.”

I now gladly allow Annie Dillard the last word:

Why do people in church seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us to where we can never return.

 

Most Holy Trinity

“Holy Trinity,” El Greco. allart.biz

In making the sign of the Cross, therefore, we not only remember our baptism, but we affirm that liturgical prayer is an encounter with God in Jesus Christ, who became incarnate for us, died and rose in glory. — Pope Francis

[re-post 2016]

Today’s feast of the Most Holy Trinity celebrates, in the wake of last week’s feast of Pentecost, that God has been fully revealed to humanity in the death and resurrection of the Son of God and in the coming of the Holy Spirit.

What about God has been revealed?

That God is One, but not solitary. That in divinity, unity is found in an eternal community of Persons-in-relation, because “God is love” (1 John 4:8).

But the fact that this mystery of divine love was only fully revealed to us in and through the Paschal Mystery, above all on the Cross, tells us something else about God. Something absolutely stunning. It tells us that to-be-God means emptying, outpouring, expending oneself for sake of the beloved. Belief in the Trinity is belief in a God who is eternally emptying, outpouring, expending.

We can easily think of the Creed as a static snapshot of God who is frozen in an eternally changeless irrelevance. But in fact the Creed has us profess belief in a living, infinitely volatile, overflowing divine dynamism that is ceaselessly boiling, and over-boiling, in God. In fact, when we profess the Creed in faith, we cliff-dive in a free fall into the limitless Mystery of God.

In our Creed we profess belief in a God from whom the visible and invisible creation, vast beyond measure, exploded in a wildly excessive divine choice of pure giving: “Let there be!”

In our Creed we profess belief in a God in whom a Son is eternally being begotten as “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God,” who took on human nature “for our salvation,” emptying Himself out in the most extreme manner, to the point of violent death on a Roman cross.

In our Creed we profess belief in a God in whom the Holy Spirit is eternally, like an infinite fountain, “proceeding from” both Father and Son; and is being poured out without measure to give life to the world.

So it is no mistake that whenever a Christian invokes the threefold Name of God, he or she traces that most extreme symbol of the divine self-emptying: the Sign of the Cross.

But note well, we trace this sign not outward up into the sky, pointing heavenward, but inward onto our bodies, pointing heartward. For the self-emptying God longs to dwell both in us and through us out into the world, by conforming our lives to Their emptying, outpouring, expending love.

My God.

So making the Sign of the Cross not only invokes God’s Name, but is the baptismal invocation of our oath to live lives worthy of the divine Name by living lives inscribed by the finger of our self-emptying God, whose love is strong as death, whose passion is fierce as the grave (cf. Song of Song 8:6).

May it be so in us this day and to the Day of Eternity. Amen. Amen. Amen.

Our Ascending Gardener

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[In the Archdiocese of New Orleans, the Ascension is celebrated today, which is why I waited until today to write a meditation on this Feast]

Christ’s Ascension means that he belongs entirely to God. He, the Eternal Son, led our human existence into God’s presence, taking with him flesh and blood in a transfigured form. The human being finds room in God; through Christ, the human being was introduced into the very life of God. — Pope Benedict XVI

All things come from God, and all things will return to God. This is an iron law, the great and inexorable movement of all existence, of all history. And in the Jewish and Christian traditions, it is humanity, fashioned by God as priest of the created order, that stands as the pivot-point between the outgoing divine gift of creation and the returning of all things in a sacrifice of thanksgiving to the Creator. The final judgment of God on creation, which is another way of expressing the moment of priestly “returning,” weighs heavy on the shoulders of man; on how he stewarded the gift upward (or not) and made creation “new” by his obedience to the will of the Giver.

Of course, the whole narrative of Sacred Scripture reveals man’s “fall,” how humanity catastrophically failed in this high priestly calling. Instead of stewarding the gift upward in obedience, praying, “For Thine is the Kingdom and the Power and the Glory!”, Adam and Eve seized hold of the gift and pulled it downward in disobedience, saying, “For mine is the kingdom and the power and the glory!” Instead of consecrating the world into a Garden filled with glory and life, man desecrated the world into a Graveyard filled with shame and death.

But Sacred Scripture is also the story of God’s rescue plan, His tireless pursuit of man down the ages, calling him back to his original priestly vocation to consecrate the world by the obedience of faith working through love. But humanity, so broken by their ancient rebellion, proved unable to carry out this call faithfully and lift creation out of the Graveyard.

So God himself became man, the Giver became the gift, the Master became the steward, the One who awaited the priestly sacrifice of thanksgiving became the High Priest who Gave Thanks. In order to heal and restore the original vocation of priestly-man, God, overcome with love for creation, obediently suffered desecration, entered the Graveyard, and rose again from the Tomb as the Gardener.

And from the entrance of the open Tomb, He calls to each of us by name, cries out into our tombs, “Rise!” and bids us cleave to Him in His upward, priestly Ascension to the Father. And by filling us with the power of His Holy Spirit, He empowers us to be holy, co-consecrating earth with heaven by cultivating it faithfully, plowing it with the Wood of the Cross He has given each of us to carry.

Thus having consecrated the world as a culture of life and civilization of love, we can at last gather up our sacrifice and sing to God with the Ascending Christ a priestly song as we toil in the Vineyard: “Thine own of Thine own, we offer unto Thee, on behalf of all and for all!”

The Ascension is not the exit strategy of Jesus to abandon this broken world for the glories of heavenly bliss, but His completion of what was our task from the very beginning: to receive the gift given in gratitude, and then return it to the Giver by giving it away as gift to the ungrateful.

This is why the Holy Spirit would not come to us until this cycle of giving and returning, descending and ascending was complete. The Spirit comes to restore our priesthood, and to empower us in Christ to co-create the new creation one act of love at a time.

Come Holy Spirit!

…like this…

We Didn’t Start the Fire

[Please excuse this 2nd interruption today. I will still be back ~May 7, but after watching Pope Francis’ May Prayer Intention just now (that made me cry with joy), I just had to re-post this post from February]

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“The laity have a secular genius which is properly and peculiarly theirs..”                                                        — The Second Vatican Council

Last month, I presented a talk on the lay vocation at the Gulf Coast Faith Formation Conference. My audience was made up of people who work in and for the Church, in ecclesial ministry. Like myself.

I thought I would share here my opening lines from the talk.

The best part of what I am going to share this afternoon with you [church ministers] is that I have great news: You don’t need to do a single thing to kick-start this extraordinary and world-shaking mission of the lay faithful that Vatican II said is ‘where it’s at’ for the ~1.2 billion Catholics worldwide.

This mission is already happening, already in motion everywhere, all around you. In fact, that mission is what built this Convention Center we are in, made the clothes you are wearing and the food you ate for lunch, the technology I am using, the vehicles that got you here, the fuel that powered those vehicles, the roads those vehicles drove on … and on and on and on. I could go on and on!

The mission of the laity is civilization building, culture making. What theologian Fr. Aidan Kavanaugh loved to call “doing the world as God would have us do it.” This worldly mission is what Catholics call not ministry, which is focused churchy-inward, but apostolate, which is focused worldly outward. Apostolate means apostle-ing, “being sent.” And for the laity this means being sent out by Jesus into the world to do the world God’s way. The apostolate of the laity is to reveal the sacred in the secular by so-loving the world with God the Redeemer.

Praise God, we church ministers don’t need to start up, create a strategic plan for, incite or organize this mission. Look! It’s already pulsing all around us, now, always and everywhere – burning, raging, pressing forward at every moment of every day. Turning the earth into a cultured Garden, into a City for God and man to dwell in together.This is the perennial human endeavor written into our spiritual DNA.

We ecclesial ministers serve well when we leave these secular laity feeling that theirs is the greatest of missions, and that our ministry exists to serve their mission. We serve well when we allow our best church-energies to spotlight and empower their mission to “do the world” as God intended.

[How did God intend the world to be done? See Christ.]

We ministers exist to enable lay men and women to become secular saints; become co-workers with God, called to join in His mind-blowing work of creating and redeeming this good and broken world one day, one deed, one prayer at a time.

You see, we didn’t start the fire. God set creation afire the moment He fashioned humanity in His image and likeness, entrusting His fire to us.

God set us in the world to become fire-casters, and how He longs to see it burn.

Okay, let me share a song that brilliantly illustrates the irrepressible dynamism of this world-mission. Watch how humanity rages, roars, presses on, for good or for ill, with or without us…

Let’s make it “with us”!

The Church exists as an outpost of God’s Kingdom planted in the world to infuse into culture and civilization the love of God given to us in Jesus. The Church’s very best energies, and the core focus of all her ministries, must be to harness the energies of this secular mission and allow the world to be consecrated to God.

To be “consecrated,” just as in the Mass, simply means bringing every aspect of day to day secular life into harmony with the inner structure of Jesus’ self-offering, “This is my Body given up for you, my Blood shed for you.” A consecrated world, symbolized by bread and wine, has been placed in service to love and offers no resistance to its final consecration on the Altar of the Kingdom.

So laity, let’s roll…