Holy Artwork, Part I

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

2013 repost

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

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

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

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

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

Christian Kulturkampf

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

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

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

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

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

Perfect Fools

This morning I read an article by Rod Dreher and was reminded of a post I wrote back in 2012. I thought I would re-post it today. This is the paragraph from Dreher that triggered the memory:

On the panel discussion, Catholic theologian Bo Bonner made an intriguing suggestion: that we need our Christianity to quit trying to conform to the world, and instead to “be a lot stranger.” His point is that if young people are given the choice between unbelief and a faith that puts a light God gloss on the same consumerism and materialism that everybody else lives with, then who can blame young people for rejecting it? Because that is not historic Christianity. The real thing is wild, and weird; it is not a set of ideas, but a way of life. There will always be some people — young, middle-aged, and old — haunted by the sense that there is something else there, a longing that cannot be anesthetized away. If the church stands true to itself, and doesn’t apologize for itself, then they will come.

This quote also reminded me of the reaction a graduate student at Florida State, who was from China, had when I told him what Catholics believe in regard to transubstantiation. With a guileless grimace he said, “Bizarre.” I think I said, “Yes, and there’s even more stuff like that if you have some time.”

+ + + +

Last week at Mass, this line grabbed my attention

Let no one deceive himself.
If anyone among you considers himself wise in this age,
let him become a fool, so as to become wise. (1 Cor 3:18-19)

It reminded me of a book I read back in 2001, John Saward’s Perfect FoolsReading that book was one of those epiphanies in life that makes everything around you suddenly look different. It opened to me a way of looking at sanctity that I had previously never considered in a serious way: holiness, when it emerges within the cultures of any day and anywhere, can, and sometimes must, appear hopelessly off-beat, eccentric, wacky. But, Saward argues, the extreme and saintly cultural deviants are not the only ones who are called to bear the burden of oddity. All who have taken firm hold of the Kingdom’s Plow in the soils of their culture must be willing to bear this burden of holy folly and be ready to risk being glared at askance for refusing to genuflect to behavioral norms that deviate from the Gospel.

Saward, the author of this eclectic work, leads the reader by the hand from St. Paul’s talk of the “word of the cross” as sheer mōria (from whence we derive the word moron) all the way to the utterly “mad” tale of the 17th century exorcist Père Jean-Joseph Surin whose journey from demonic possession to radical holiness shatters the image of the plaster-perfect saint. We can also think of the prophet Isaiah 20:2-4,

at that time the Lord had spoken by Isaiah the son of Amoz, saying, “Go, and loose the sackcloth from your loins and take off your shoes from your feet,” and he had done so, walking naked and barefoot— the Lord said, “As my servant Isaiah has walked naked and barefoot for three years as a sign and a portent against Egypt and Ethiopia, so shall the king of Assyria lead away the Egyptians captives and the Ethiopians exiles, both the young and the old, naked and barefoot, with buttocks uncovered, to the shame of Egypt.”

St. Simeon, taken from citydesert.files.wordpress.com

Or we can recall the 6th century Syrian St. Simeon the Holy Fool,

…who decided to play the fool in order to mock the idiocy of the world and also to conceal his own identity as a saint. His behavior was eccentric and, of course, scandalous. During the church services, he threw nuts at the clergy and blew out the candles. In the circus, he wrapped his arms around the dancing-girls and went skipping and dancing across the arena. In the streets, he tripped people up, developed a theatrical limp, and dragged himself around on his buttocks. In the bath-house, he ran naked into the crowded women’s section. On solemn fasting days he feasted riotously, consuming vast amounts of beans – with predictable and hilarious results. In his lifetime, Simeon was regarded as a madman, as an unholy scandal. In spite of his seemingly strange behavior, Simeon the Holy Fool healed many possessed people by his prayer, fed the hungry, preached the Gospel, and helped needy citizens of the town. Many of Simeon’s saintly deeds were done secretly (from shipoffools.com).

An Odd Evangel

Saward is very clear in the book that this rare vocation should not be mimicked or conflated with mental illness (though this tradition makes clear mental illness is not irreconcilable with the call to holiness). But what I did find most useful about this book was its clear-sighted message for Christians who wish to evangelize the 21st century: fools remind us all that living the Gospel in any age bears a natural cultural dissonance that places one at risk of being mocked as a fool. Western culture continues to evolve into a post-Christian mindset, and among Millennials Christianity is increasingly not seen so much as an ideological enemy of atheistic and secularized mores, but as simply an odd and somewhat irrelevant relic of the past.

In such times it’s easy for people of faith to either succumb to assimilate, minimizing the differences between a dominant culture and faith, or isolate, over-identifying with those differences and avoiding constructive engagement. Catholics flee extremes and hang in the tense middle, like Christ on the cross, suffering the discomforts that attend the refusal to abandon the faith or abandon culture.

In times like these, Saward contends, we need among the more culturally comfortable holy figures who fit nicely into some of the dominant cultural scripts some ragged, frayed exemplars of holiness who demonstrate, especially to other Christians, the Christ difference. In the tradition of folly for Christ, these holy exemplars must not merely vanish from society into safe seclusion but need to remain in the midst of things. As Joseph Conrad put it:

Their vocation to edify laymen requires promoting their spiritual message in the secular sphere instead of withdrawing from the world…“The holy fool” is always defined by his relationship to a particular community, leaving the ascetic life of the deserts and wilderness to play the fool in the wider community of the cities of the Eastern Empire, “aiming at the mortification of one’s social being” by living in society, yet not of society itself, as the ascetics in the desert were in the world, yet not of it.

However, Saward is equally clear that being off-beat for Christ was not equated in this tradition with simply being an awkward social misfit. Rather, the wild men and women of Byzantium, Russia and Ireland, or the “merry men” troubadours of the Middle Ages like St. Francis, were seen by the faithful as radical citizens of the redeemed City of God. And this City, built on the social and ethical order of the Gospel, starkly contrasts with the order that characterizes the ego-maniacal City of Man. Sainted fools were in those days seen as neon signs pointing upward toward the Age to Come. Such holiness was distinguished from mere madness by the fool’s total embrace of the Gospel, by his or her’s mostly secret life of heroic virtue. Foolish saints, Saward says, were glowing embers flung into the world from the fires surging from God’s Throne (cf Daniel 7:10); a fire Jesus himself longed to cast into the world (Luke 12:49).

All saints are wild at heart, open to the divine Whirlwind, but the fools for Christ are more wild than the rest. Such fools, as Aidan Kavanaugh might have said it, are not well-camouflaged suburban bourgeois, but stand-out urban citizens of the New Jerusalem, that City from whence angels hurl burning incense to earth (Rev. 8:5), martyrs cry out to God from under the altar’s blood-basin (Rev. 6:9), six-winged and many-eyed cherubim sing (Rev. 4:8), and harlots contend with virgins in a war for peace (Rev. 17).

Now we are more comfortable with saints who were social reformers and active servants of humanity. But, Eamon Duffy says, we must also retrieve that crazier category of saints who break open the rules of nature and of our dysfunctional social conventions in order to make room for the in-breaking Kingdom that is coming in power:

In the past, especially the distant past, the saints were venerated as prodigies, miracle-workers, intercessors, protectors. The more they were unlike the rest of us, the better. They brought the majesty and otherness of God down to earth and allowed ordinary men and women to see and touch the divine. Hence the importance of relics. The body of the saint was the locus of supernatural power.

Francis and Paul, fools for Christ

From a 13th century account of the life of St. Francis of Assisi by Thomas of Celano:

“When he was brought before the Bishop, Francis would suffer no delay or hesitation in anything; indeed, he did not wait for any words nor did he speak any, but immediately putting off his clothes and casting them aside, he gave them back to his father. Moreover, not even rationing his trousers, he stripped himself completely naked before all. The bishop, however, sensing his disposition and admiring greatly his fervor and constancy, arose and drew him within his arms and covered him with the mantle he was wearing. He understood clearly that the counsel was of God, and he understood that the actions of the man of God that he had personally witnessed contained a mystery. He immediately, therefore became his helper and cherishing him and encouraging him.”

St. Paul:

For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, as though sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels and to mortals. We are fools for the sake of Christ, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. To the present hour we are hungry and thirsty, we are poorly clothed and beaten and homeless, and we grow weary from the work of our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we speak kindly. We have become like the rubbish of the world, the dregs of all things, to this very day. — 1 Corinthians 4:9-13

Get Perfect Fools through Inter-Library Loan (it’s very expensive to purchase) and give it a read. I think I will pick it up again.

St. Francis gathering his clothes for his father, from “Brother Sun, Sister Moon”

 

Saved by Hope

St. Thérèse on her sickbed, taken from vultus.stblogs.org

An old post dusted off.

I was speaking with someone recently who had attempted suicide several years ago, and she gave me permission to share her insights. Everyone’s experience of depression and suicide is different, but it seems there are here some universal themes. I will offer just a few of those insights she shared.

She was and is a woman of deep Catholic faith.

Just love me

This woman had a number of catastrophic life crises happen to her in a fairly short amount of time and, as a result of the profound trauma, found herself withdrawing from her typically active life and self-isolating. She said it was a protective measure, as she could not talk about her pain with the many people who pressed her with well-intentioned questions and unsolicited advice. She said what she needed more than anything else early on was just silent, consistent, compassionate and non-verbal support. But, she said, most people found that too uncomfortable and maybe even too scary, as her inner world had grown so dark. Everyone wanted to fix her right away, tried to push her to verbalize everything. “I really get the purpose of mourning rituals now,” she said, “because they are pre-scripted ways to express your grief and hurt so you don’t have to talk; just do the rituals. But I had none of those then.” She said she wasn’t ready for fixing, or talking much. She just needed to know she was loved and supported, regardless. “And when I was ready to talk, I’d talk. It was hard for people to get.” The extreme pain was beyond words for her.

I thought to myself, what she really wanted was the “first response” of Job’s friends:

Now when three of Job’s friends heard of all the misfortune that had come upon him, they set out each one from his own place: Eliphaz from Teman, Bildad from Shuh, and Zophar from Naamath. They met and journeyed together to give him sympathy and comfort. But when, at a distance, they lifted up their eyes and did not recognize him, they began to weep aloud; they tore their cloaks and threw dust into the air over their heads. Then they sat down upon the ground with him seven days and seven nights, but none of them spoke a word to him; for they saw how great was his suffering. — Job 2:11-13

Her flight into isolation, she said, included God. She was always woman of daily prayer, but found herself unable to pray. She was numb. Angry. Confused. And soon, she said, she began to lose a sense of hope. “Hope,” she said, “for me, hope is my God anchor. God was always my rock. But God when seemed silent, absent, distant it was scary. When I lost sight of Him I lost my compass, my firm footing. My pain had no meaning without Him. Only He can make it all make sense in the end.” It was in this stretch of hopelessness that she first seriously contemplated suicide, simply as a way to end the pain. And were it not for a fortuitous encounter with a man of faith that helped her turn the corner, she said, she may very well have killed herself. A Christian co-worker gave her some passages from the Bible to read that related to her darkness. They pulled her back from the edge of the cliff. “I read them one day when I was alone in my apartment, and when I got to Romans 8:28, something in me opened; a light turned on.”

And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.

She was sure she’d heard these words before, but now they spoke to her, she said. “Jesus said them to me. I knew it was Him and that I wasn’t ever alone.” The message for her was clear: give me your pain, let me love you and I’ll restore your hope in my purpose for your life.

Saved by Hope

This made me think of Pope Benedict’s words in Spe Salvi,

We can try to limit suffering, to fight against it, but we cannot eliminate it. 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. It is not by sidestepping or fleeing from suffering that we are healed, but rather by our capacity for accepting it, maturing through it and finding meaning through union with Christ, who suffered with infinite love.

In this context, I would like to quote a passage from a letter written by the Vietnamese martyr Paul Le-Bao-Tinh († 1857) which illustrates this transformation of suffering through the power of hope springing from faith. “I, Paul, in chains for the name of Christ, wish to relate to you the trials besetting me daily, in order that you may be inflamed with love for God and join with me in his praises, for his mercy is for ever. The prison here is a true image of everlasting Hell: to cruel tortures of every kind—shackles, iron chains, manacles—are added hatred, vengeance, calumnies, obscene speech, quarrels, evil acts, swearing, curses, as well as anguish and grief. But the God who once freed the three children from the fiery furnace is with me always; he has delivered me from these tribulations and made them sweet, for his mercy is for ever. In the midst of these torments, which usually terrify others, I am, by the grace of God, full of joy and gladness, because I am not alone —Christ is with me…I write these things to you in order that your faith and mine may be united. In the midst of this storm I cast my anchor towards the throne of God, the anchor that is the lively hope in my heart”.

This is a letter from “Hell”. It lays bare all the horror of a concentration camp, where to the torments inflicted by tyrants upon their victims is added the outbreak of evil in the victims themselves, such that they in turn become further instruments of their persecutors’ cruelty. This is indeed a letter from Hell, but it also reveals the truth of the Psalm text: “If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I sink to the nether world, you are present there … If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall hide me, and night shall be my light’ —for you darkness itself is not dark, and night shines as the day; darkness and light are the same” (Ps 139 [138]:8-12; cf. also Ps 23 [22]:4). Christ descended into “Hell” and is therefore close to those cast into it, transforming their darkness into light. Suffering and torment is still terrible and well- nigh unbearable. Yet the star of hope has risen—the anchor of the heart reaches the very throne of God. Instead of evil being unleashed within man, the light shines victorious: suffering—without ceasing to be suffering—becomes, despite everything, a hymn of praise.

This woman added one last point that powerfully punctuated her witness: “Without faith in God, who’s love is never not there, it’s very hard to keep hope when life grows bleak. My message to all who struggle with these thoughts is: even while you get help from other people, cling to God and to His Word. He’ll never leave you.”

La Petit Fleur

To end, I’d like to share, without additional commentary, the words of St. Thérèse. Her sister, Mother Agnes, mentioned to her a week before she died how terribly she had suffered. Thérèse replied,

Yes! What a grace it is to have faith! If I had not any faith, I would have committed suicide without an instant’s hesitation (Last Conversations 22.9.6).

About a month earlier she said to her sister, Agnes:

Watch carefully, Mother, when you will have persons a prey to violent pains; don’t leave near them any medicines that are poisonous. I assure you, it needs only a second when one suffers intensely to lose one’s reason. Then one could easily poison oneself.

Again, another young sister who was helping to nurse Thérèse — Sr. Marie of the Trinity — later shared:

Three days before she died, I saw her in such pain that I was heartbroken. When I drew near to her bed, she tried to smile, and, in a strangled sort of voice, she said: If I didn’t have faith, I could never bear such suffering. I am surprised that there aren’t more suicides among atheists.

Words of St. Silouan the Athonite to a young priest who asked him how he might be saved, from keepcalm-o-matic.co.uk

 

Praying aright

PrayerChanges

Door hanging I saw the other day in a local nursing home.

 

Re-post from 2 years ago. 

Some stumbling, wandering thoughts evoked by these words of Bl. Mother Teresa:

Prayer is putting oneself in the hands of God, at His disposition, and listening to His voice in the depth of our hearts.

As I got lost in this thought I imagined prayer to be also God putting Himself into our hands; of a strange mutuality it seemed almost blasphemous to press too far. Yet, I pressed.

I then remembered a pastor of an Orthodox Church in New England who once said in a homily on 1 Peter 5:7, “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you”:

God has so designed creation that some good things will not be given unless they are sought in prayer. While He does not require our cooperation by strict necessity, as He needs nothing, by His compassion and love He has bound Himself to us as if He needed us. So present to God your every need, and seek all good things for yourself and for all. But never request any good thing from God that does not end with the phrase, “…if it be for the salvation of my soul, the glory of your Name and the salvation of all…” In fact, never do anything that would not count all three of these things as the immovable rudder of your life. When you are in a dilemma over what is right to choose, say aloud, “For the glory of God and the salvation of all I will…” If those don’t fit, don’t do it…The Lord’s prayer is our supreme model of all prayer, given by the Word Himself. Notice it begins the series of seven petitions with three that consent to what God wants done and not what we want done…but for humanity made in His image, what He wills is our joy and fulfillment.

Mind blown.

An all-powerful and eternal God’s plan not only permits a real place for our free contributions to the unfolding of His plan, but necessitates our cooperation. Why? Simpler is better. A Missionary of Charity sister at Gift of Peace home for the dying in D.C. once offered me a dazzling insight into this mystery. As she was explaining to me how to serve the sick and poor in a way that preserved their dignity, she said,

If you are going to serve them, you must love them. And they will never know you love them if they don’t see you as their equal. If they see you as their superior or feel you see them as your inferior, you will never be able to give them love, or receive their love.  Love makes the beloved an equal. Jesus is God’s love making us His equal. You are educated, strong, privileged, healthy; they are often uneducated, weak, underprivileged, and sick. First, remember, you are both human beings with the same dignity; made in God’s image and brothers of Jesus. You are both poor before God, equally poor. You both came from nothing and are nothing with out God. Look them in the eye, talk with them not at them; get to know them and let them get to know you. Don’t be afraid of feeling afraid with them. Help them, yes, but let them also help you. You’ll know how. Love reciprocates.

Verbum caro factum est

“Jesus is God’s love making us His equal.” That was the first time I had ever thought of the Incarnation that way. I thought: God’s stooping down to us is not simply a passing act of clemency offered to rescue pitiable man from his miserable plight, while God Himself remains unscathed. Rather, the Incarnation was the free decision of an all-holy God who chose to share fully in fallen man’s condition and wholly identify Himself with all that it means to be ignorant, weak, underprivileged and sick. All to save us. But more — dare I say more? — the Son came not merely as the One who lifts fallen man from the “dung heap” (cf Psalm 113:7), but also as the One whom man himself lifts up from the earth and offers back to His Father. “O admirabile commercium: O marvelous exchange!” (CCC §526)

Simon of Cyrene in “The Passion of the Christ,” taken from fartheroutnearerto.files.wordpress.com

[God] said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” Gen 32:26

Prayer is caught into this ineffable mystery, arising from deep within the Heart of Jesus. Prayer is where and when and how God and man are tightly bound one to another by love, human and divine wills vying to possess the other like Jacob who wrestled God in the night (Genesis 22:22-32); like Israel who wrestled a begging God. And in Jesus, man would forever refuse to let go of that begging God again, refuse to abandon Him before the rising dawn.

Gasp. St Catherine of Siena, help me out:

O eternal, infinite Good! O mad lover! And you have need of your creature? It seems so to me, for you act as if you could not live without her, in spite of the fact that you are Life itself, and everything has life from you and nothing can have life without you. Why then are you so mad? Because you have fallen in love with what you have made! You are pleased and delighted over her within yourself, as if you were drunk with desire for her salvation. She runs away from you and you go looking for her. She strays and you draw closer to her. You clothed yourself in our humanity, and nearer than that you could not have come.

“For we are his masterpiece, created in Christ Jesus” — Ephesians 2:10

A last thought. Though we must assert that prayer is in the end a submission to God’s supreme will, we also affirm that God’s will, in Jesus, is forever and inseparably bound to the will of humanity. God cannot will anything without the human will being engaged, and every movement of the human will engages God. And from this God-man synergy, from the entwining flames of human and divine love that flare up from the Cross, surging out into the vast cosmos, comes the most exquisitely beautiful art in the whole of creation; an art first born in prayer.

Take a look:

Taken from static.manoramaonline.com

Invading grace, how sweet the sound

Taken from bitrebels.com

Is there a place for the Lord, or only for parties, for shopping, for revelry? Is our soul open, as is Holy Mother Church and as was the Virgin Mary? Or is our soul rather closed, with a “Do Not Disturb!” sign hung on the door to it? — Pope Francis, Advent 2014

I once knew an African Methodist Episcopal pastor who, with a deep, raspy, booming and melodic voice would preface his sermons with this prayer:

O Lord, invade our stayed and steady space
With your raucous and unsteady grace!

At which point the congregation, accompanied by spontaneous chords pulsing from the organ, would jump to their feet, break into in-place dancing, like whirling dervishes singing with hands raised high united in a seemingly infinite variety of praise words:

Oh Jesus! Oh Lord! Glory! Yes Lord! Thank yuh Jesus! Father we praise you! We love yuh Lord! Oh Holy Ghost! …

After maybe a minute and a half, the people slowly settled down and the preacher, his face truly radiant with the unchained joy of that moment, began his sermon. Everyone at that point seemed ready to receive his words, which, as I recall, were very challenging.

This was something very new to me, “stayed and steady” New Englander that I am. And though I was able to marvel and be awed deep within at the uninhibited freedom of these faithful to express their love for God with such embodied expressions of joy, I stood nearly motionless. What I saw reminded me of a stanza from a poem by a personal favorite author, the 13th century Persian Sufi Muslim mystic, Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī:

Love is the dancing cry of the soul, calling the body to worship
Like a shining whirlpool, or a spinning mayfly
So is love lifted among the skies.

After the service I connected with the pastor to share with him my experience, and we talked about the role of song and dance in worship. Among the many things he said, one stands out in my memory. I’ll try to capture the phonetic beauty of his phrasings:

How can you worship in the Holy Ghost without gettin’ your body into it? Who can hold back when the Ghost comes? You have to move with the Him, lift your spirits with your hands, dance your joy like David danced with abandon before the Ark of God. And preachin’! Preachin’s gotta make me sweat, ’cause the Holy Ghost’s a’burnin’ in me. If our bodies stay too still, our spirits get tired, sleepy, lethargic. We don’t wanna just remember God’s Word with our minds, but we gotta let Him sink deep into our legs, our arms, our feet and our tongues or He ain’t gonna get in our hearts. That way we neeever forget Him when we a’walking through the rest of life. If you gonna open your heart to Him, you gotta open your arms and open your hands and open your mouth when you worship, so the grace of God gets deep inside; open up like a baby bird beggin’ her food from her Mamma.

Perichoresis

If you have never seen the dance-ritual elements of Ethiopian Orthodox liturgy, it’s quite extraordinary. See an example here.  When I see this, I am reminded of that magnificent metaphor the Greek Fathers used to describe the dynamism of “inter-indwelling” that pulses in the heart of the Trinity: perichoresis, which is a Greek word for a twirling form of dance.

While our own liturgical tradition is not friendly to the spontaneous eruption of dance or words of praise, our ritual is itself a tightly scripted choreography intended to allow the worshipping body of Christ to express and form an open posture before God. But we can’t allow the tight-script to bind our spirits and put them to sleep. We have to allow the movements, the words, the song, the sights and smells to join with a faith that is alive, possessed by love and open to permitting God to freely invade our overly-controlled lives with the unsteady vibrations of love.

I think of the stories Bl. Raymond of Capua tells of St. Catherine falling into ecstasy after receiving Holy Communion, or crying so much during the celebration of Mass that the celebrant would require her to sit far from the altar to avoid distractions. While I am not advocating disruptive or emotional theatrics during Mass, we still must enter worship in a spirit of radical openness to God who wishes desperately to rouse us from our boredom, re-awaken our wonder and awe and imprint His grace deeply into our bodies and spirits.

My AME pastor-friend fittingly commented on his first visit to a Catholic Mass at my parish,

You Catholics got it; you got all the right words and moves. You just gotta loosen up and give the Holy Ghost a little more room.

Take away the “Do Not Disturb” sign next time you go to Mass.

Ave crux, spes unica, “Hail the Cross, our only hope” — Part I

Taken from enlightened-spirituality.org

[N.B.: a friend gave me some good input and recommended I write shorter posts with fewer points. I will try this and if I happen to write a longer one, I will break it into multiple parts. This one is long, so today, Part I, tomorrow, Part II]

I recently gave an evening of reflection for priests, permanent deacons and seminarians on St. John of the Cross. Always a joy to have reason to return to St. John’s writings and yet again be set in the light of Christ and have all my darkness and shadows exposed for healing.

As I prepared for the talk, I found an older talk I had given on St. John and healing. I gave it to a group that was trying to discern their engagement with various faith-based healing movements. I thought for today’s post I would simply copy here some of my outline notes from that section of the talk for your own reflection.

I. Healing in Christ: “Power made perfect in weakness”

i. What is the core raison d’être of God’s healing? Healing grace removes all that encumbers us from love, i.e. the embrace of the cross of Christ

— Love the cross of Christ not masochism. Masochism distortedly loves the cross as a desirable end, while Christian love redemptively embraces the cross as a necessary means of loving God-neighbor-enemy in a fallen world. Sign for St. John that we have embraced the cross redemptively is our joy in the good our labors bring others and the glory they bring to God. Sign of an un-redemptive suffering is that they turn us in on ourselves. Genuine healing, which St. John refers to as “purgation,” frees us from our naval-gazing incurvature and leads us to forget ourselves, die to ourselves and become outward and upward facing lovers of God and others.

— What is included in the cross? The heart of the cross encompasses all hardships we must endure in carrying out our vocation to do the will of God, follow Christ, die to self, practice virtue, renounce sin, love imperfect neighbors, forgive, accept and offer-up unavoidable suffering and be faithful to all the demands of duty that come from one’s present God-willed commitments, i.e. love. Listen to St. Paul:

— 2 Cor. 12:7-10: “…to keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me; but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong.”

— 2 Cor. 11:23-30: “Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one–I am talking like a madman–with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I have received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I have been beaten with rods; once I was stoned. Three times I have been shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brethren; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant? If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.”

— When a reporter objected to the fact that Mother Teresa was healthy, while the people she cared for suffered terribly, Mother responded: “Yes, that is true. I am not worthy to suffer as they are; but God has made me worthy to walk with them as they bear the Cross of Jesus.” For Mother, suffering gave one the opportunity to love with cost, which is love with depth. An elderly Russian Matushka back in 1989 once told me, “You Americans are so shallow because you do not know how to suffer. If you do not suffer you cannot know God. We Russians know suffering well, and it makes us saints or demons, depending if we love or not. Under Communism there are many demons because God has been banished and there is no love.”

— Archbishop Fulton Sheen: “The modern world, which denies personal guilt and admits only social crimes, which has no place for personal repentance but only public reforms, has divorced Christ from His Cross; the Bridegroom and Bride have been pulled apart. What God hath joined together, men have torn asunder. As a result, to the left is the Cross; to the right is the Christ. Communism comes along and picks up the meaningless Cross; Western post-Christian civilization chooses the un-scarred Christ. Communism has chosen the Cross in the sense that it has brought back to an egotistic world a sense of discipline, self-abnegation, surrender, hard work, study, and dedication to supra-individual goals. But the Cross without Christ is sacrifice without love. Hence, Communism has produced a society that is authoritarian, cruel, oppressive of human freedom, filled with concentration camps, firing squads, and brain-washings. The Western post-Christian civilization has picked up the Christ without His Cross. But a Christ without a sacrifice that reconciles the world to God is a cheap, feminized, colorless, itinerant preacher who deserves to be popular for His great Sermon on the Mount, but also merits unpopularity for what He said about His Divinity on the one hand, and divorce, judgment, and hell on the other. This sentimental Christ is patched together with a thousand commonplaces. Without His Cross, He becomes nothing more than a sultry precursor of democracy or a humanitarian who taught brotherhood without tears.”

— H. Richard Niebuhr said of early 20th century liberalized Christianity: “They preach a God who, without wrath, brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.”

 

“The Compelling of Simon of Cyrene,” taken from coondleart.com

Diffusing $100

A simple post today.

My daughter recently sent me a youtube video, “How does a homeless man spend $100,” which many of you may have already seen. It made me think of the medieval philosophical axiom, drawn from neo-platonic metaphysics, that is meant to capture in a phrase the nature of God:

Bonum est diffusivum sui.

Loosely translated, it means “goodness gives itself away.” For medieval Christian theologians, it offered a marvelously simple manner of describing the Trinity of divine Persons, who eternally give themselves away to each other, and the Incarnation, which is God’s self-gift to creation.

Swiss Theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar expressed this well:

Wastefulness is the original Christian attitude. The entire Passion occurs under the sign of this complete self-wasting of God’s love for the world.

Humanity, made in the image of a self-diffusing good God, is called and gifted to go and do likewise. Personal fulfillment is only to be found in a life oriented toward the fulfillment of others.

So simple, so hard.

Fr. Anthony, my sainted (and now deceased) spiritual director once said to me in a rare moment of personal sharing:

My hope is to die poor, to spend all God has given me.

That’s a handy definition of holiness. The idea also appears in a framed quote hanging on a wall in what I consider to be one of the best movies ever made, It’s a Wonderful Life:

Okay, here’s the video. Enjoy: