The Meaning of Icons

I wanted to share the video recording of a lecture we had last Wednesday at Notre Dame Seminary, where I teach. It is of Fr. Maximos Constas speaking on The Meaning of Icons. It is brilliant, as Fr. Maximos always is. He gave our last annual Catholic-Orthodox lecture on St. Maximus the Confessor, and we loved him so much we asked him to return!

He’s the only rockin’ Athonite monk I know. A genius, a linguist, a theologian, a historian, a warm human being and a connoisseur of great art. The kind of man you could speak with for hours, and forget time passed. The kind of man who, when displaying his vast knowledge of nearly any subject, doesn’t make you feel stupid, but wiser. In other words, he’s a teacher.

My son Michael recorded and edited the video (note the cool way he inserted Father’s slides!). He said to say that the video is a bit grainy because Fr. Maximos wanted the light dimmed for the Power Point slides.

An Eschatology of the Secular

The laity’s unique vocation to consecrate the temporal order to God is senseless jabber if that same temporal order has no place in the age to come. — Jordan Haddad

A dear friend of mine, the A.B.D. theologian Jordan Haddad, has written a masterful article on something very near and dear to my heart: the lay vocation to consecrate the world itself to God unto a new creation.

I am convinced that the new evangelization awaits the full development of this vision for a “mundane mysticism” proper to the secular laity to finally emerge. This vision has the capacity to spiritually nourish lay “secular geniuses” who need not feel compelled to become ‘church mice’ or resemble world-renouncing monks in order to become radical saints in and for the world.

Thank you, Jordan, for this immense contribution and all future theological work you will do.

https://churchlifejournal.nd.edu/articles/an-eschatology-of-the-secular/ 

The whole thing is so bloody simple

From my Sunday journal entry:

I was helping my Mom out of the car so she could take hold of her walker and cross the street to head with me into the church for the 4:00 p.m. Vigil Mass. The sidewalk was uneven and tricky. It was hot, and she was feeling weak.

It was Ascension Day.

A kind friend caught sight of us and quickly came over to help complete this process. She was so gracious and gentle with my Mom. As the woman left us, Mom stopped walking and said to me, “I think she was an angel.”

As we got into our pew, Mom looked at me and whispered, “God planned that one.”

For whatever reason, that one sentence struck me like lightning. I thought: she summed up in a single phrase, drawn from reality, the entire mystery of faith, the whole purpose of creation and redemption. As I knelt down next to her to pray, I murmured in a low voice, “The whole thing is just so bloody simple. What I spend millions of words trying to say, she said. She was.”

During the Offertory, I thought: Jesus ascended into Heaven and hurled down the Spirit on earth to Mass-proliferate Heaven’s kindness and beauty on earth. Humble acts of great love are the real acts of the apostles. The whole work of God over the 14.5 billion year history of our universe — His “plan” — conspired toward that single encounter outside my car.

In each of such seemingly insignificant moments, opportunities which populate every person’s day, there is present in sign-language the whole of our humanity, the whole of eternity, and the holy, holy, holy of God.

And if it’s true that true wisdom is innocence regained on the far side of experience, which I believe it is, my Mom is supremely wise.

For we are his workmanship [poiēma], created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. — Ephesians 2:10

Okay, where did He go??

The Ascension of Jesus to the Father, forty days after the resurrection, is often lost on the Christian imagination. What exactly is it? Is it a mere dramatic exit from the stage of history for Jesus, who leaves us behind to now get our sea legs and fend for ourselves? Or is it Jesus’ escape from this world to go prepare a better place for us, so we too can also one day finally escape to heaven?

No!

The Ascension is the definitive rescue of creation from sin, corruption and death. The Ascension is the return of all creation, by Christ’s priestly humanity, to the Father as an ongoing event of liberation, thanksgiving and joy. The Ascension means that the human heart of God now forever beats in the eternity of the Trinity! In fact, countless human hearts now ever beat there, since Christ in the Ascension brings back to the Father something He did not have when He first “came down from heaven” — our humanity. Christ brings us back with Him as members of His risen Body.

The Ascension brings all history to its final End. You see, in Scripture the drama of history can be summed up very simply: all things come from God, and all things will return to God. Like it or not, believe it or not, this is an inexorable law.

But here’s a key point: God created us in His image to be the hinge, the point of return on which history pivots God’s gift of creation back toward Him as a grateful return. This is the deepest meaning of the priestly nature of humanity. I might say more specifically, our freedom is the real priestly hinge, the pivot (Heb. 10:5-10). And we are allowed by God’s majestic gift of freedom to either say Yes or No. Tragically, the Original depraved ingratitude of our No — of sin — crippled our freedom, unhinged the hinge, tilted the pivot off center, and plunged creation headlong into death by means of our stillborn priesthood.

But God, over-filled with compassion, became Man to rescue us, to empower us and to restore us with us! By becoming Man, by living, dying, rising as a Yes (2 Cor. 1:19), and establishing the Eucharistic Sacrifice as the new Hinge, new Pivot and everlasting Vocation of humanity, Christ reconstituted and perfected our priestly calling (John 19:30).

Then, by Ascending to the Father as the event of Final Return, and sending to us His fiery Spirit at Pentecost, Christ opened up His Priesthood — our priesthood — empowering us to co-fulfill this titanic Vocation with Him. Hallelujah!!!

When I see the heavens, the work of your hands,
the moon and the stars which you arranged,
what is man that you should keep him in mind,
mortal man that you care for him?

Yet you have made him little less than a god;
with glory and honor you crowned him,
gave him power over the works of your hands,
put all things under his feet. – Psalm 8:4-7

The Church, Christ’s Body, has been called and empowered at every moment to be uplifting, raising, dragging, offering Upward all of creation back to the Father through, with and in Christ in an ongoing Ascending rescue mission of Return (Phil. 3:14).

My God, it’s going on right now as you read. Can you feel it quaking in you?

But how can one see signs of that liberating, compassionate Ascension empowering humanity to say Yes and embrace her priesthood again? See Church….

Creation playing to an empty house: Never!

Photo my wife took while I was watching the sunset

We are here to witness the creation and to abet it. We are here to notice each thing so each thing gets noticed. Together we notice not only each mountain shadow and each stone on the beach but, especially, we notice the beautiful faces and complex natures of each other. We are here to bring to consciousness the beauty and power that are around us and to praise the people who are here with us. We witness our generation and our times. We watch the weather. Otherwise, creation would be playing to an empty house. — Annie Dillard

Not unlike many people who were children before the age of smartphones, my very first memories are connected with noticing things in nature that seemed to the adults around me hidden or unimportant — things like ants, bees, spiders, mites, butterfly eggs, tadpoles, damselflies, or the wildly complex ecosystems hidden under rocks and logs. My dad used to love to remind me that, when I was two or three years old, I would spend countless hours sitting beside ant mounds, transfixed in rapt silence. I do remember vividly, in fact, how I took the greatest pleasure in noticing the work each ant did in the colony, excavating grains of sand, dragging in freshly killed insects, or guarding the mound entrance from intruders.

I had (and retain) a deep seated drive to discover and rejoice in things that, I imagined, no one would ever notice if I didn’t. In each moment, it always seemed to me, there were a thousand million things around to notice, each more fascinating than the other. Never to pass this away ever again. So, until I lost this awareness in my teens, I never ever once remember being bored.

I also recall as a child hearing Matthew 10:29 read aloud at Mass, and thinking: that is my place in the world, my place with God.

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.

May I be never apart from the God notices, too. The God who notices, and who loves.

For you love all things that are
and loathe nothing that you have made;
for you would not fashion what you hate.
How could a thing remain, unless you willed it;
or be preserved, had it not been called forth by you?
But you spare all things, because they are yours,
O Ruler and Lover of souls,
for your imperishable Spirit is in all things! — Wisdom 11:24-12:1

Yesterday I was out at the beach with my family, and I waded out a few hundred yards into the shallow Gulf waters. In the silence of that vast space, I was unexpectedly overcome by prayer. More specifically, I was overwhelmed by an intense awareness that, as a priest of nature and of grace, it was my dignified office in that moment to look at creation with God’s delight and joy, and give voice to creation’s grateful delight and joy in God. Created God’s image, humanity alone on earth can offer logikēn latreian, “rational worship” (Rom. 21:1) to God on behalf of every non-rational creature. We alone can say to the Father, “Thank you for calling us from non-existence into being!”

Like a crazy man I shouted into the sky, over the waters — with fish literally jumping out of the water all around me! — a line from the Catechism (#1047) that I have memorized because of its mind-blowing beauty:

The visible universe, then, is itself destined to be transformed, so that the world itself, restored to its original state, facing no further obstacles, should be at the service of the just, sharing their glorification in the risen Jesus Christ.

Surrounded by a horizon-less sea, I sensed so clearly that all is sheer gift, none of it is my possession. The universe, my body and soul, my family on the beach. All of it must be (and will be!) returned to God. But my calling is to do that in an act of absolute submission, with thanksgiving and praise, in trust, out of a non-possessive humility that acknowledges in every moment: existence is never deserved, only to be gratefully received and gratefully returned.

Only in returning all, letting go in a quite absolute way, can I receive all back. For only then is all no longer a possession, but all is gift.

I saw a dead horseshoe crab floating by me, and thought:

Death opens out into life only when it is offered Up in an act of grateful return, of non-possessive surrender to the Father from whom all blessings flow. This is what makes the death of Christ the consummate act of creation. His death on the cross is the only final and perfect return of all to the Father. And the Resurrection is the Father’s response to Christ’s priestly return. This is why the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is the fulcrum for our priestly service to all creation through, with and in Him.

So please, please, never be bored! For around you is a world that did not have to be, but is. A world that awaits your noticing, your rapt attention, your lifted voice, your bodily offering in creation’s name to its Maker, singing a new song of praise and blessing, of thanksgiving and joyful worship.

Look around you! The world is ablaze in divine fire! You only need stop, be silent, and notice that you are being Noticed.

Pope Francis gets all this so well:

The universe unfolds in God, who fills it completely. Hence, there is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor person’s face. The ideal is not only to pass from the exterior to the interior to discover the action of God in the soul, but also to discover God in all things.

Willing to say more than we can be

As theologians, we must say more than we can be, in the hope that others will make us more than we are. What is crucial is that we not write to justify the limits of our lives. — Stanley Hauerwas

Last Fall, I once told my students in a class I taught on prayer, “This class terrifies me, because I resemble little of it but aspire to all of it.”

This is the terrible beauty of teaching, writing and witnessing to our Faith: even as we give voice to its grand vision of life’s meaning and purpose, we find ourselves simultaneously judged before its impossibly high standards and lifted up by its exalted vision of who God wills us to be. Faith exposes us as both frauds and exemplars, as simul justus et peccator, “at once justified and a sinner.” St. Paul, Apostle to the Nations, expressed this tension wonderfully:

The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life.

One of my sons said to me recently, after we had spent over an hour talking about the heroism required to live Catholic sexual ethics in our culture, “Dad, is there anything the church teaches that you just don’t buy?” What an excellent and poignant question! It took us another hour to unpack. Though he and I have had many conversations about the reasonableness faith over the years, this was the most direct and personal question he had ever asked.

My answer was predictably a “yes and no,” with a mix of raw honesty and attempted nuance. We talked about squaring the depravity of clerical scandals with authoritative moral teaching, and then I shared my version of the Catholic “take” on the dialectics of faith and doubt, assent and dissent, as well as Catholicism’s use of philosophy as a way to submit faith’s claims to hard rational inquiry. We also talked about the role of prayer in exploring these questions. I said,

You can’t think your way into faith. Just as science demands observation, measurement, experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses in its empirical method, so faith demands a willingness to engage in a “contemplative method” that’s open to God acting directly in the mind and opening it to His mystery.

[He asked, “Why?”] Because faith, even though it’s open to reason’s hardest questions, is in the end a gift that God must give — because faith admits you into the deepest mystery of God, which is beyond all empirical scrutiny. Augustine says, “I believe so that I may understand.” Faith as a relationship requires an act of trust in the other first. Only with trust can you be granted access to the other person’s inner mystery, and prayer is access granted.

What made the conversation both terrifying and exhilarating for me was that it was my son who asked this. I had spent the previous 21 years, with my wife and many others, trying to create an environment in which he — and our other children — could experience the color, texture, sound, smell and taste of a world informed by faith. A space where his emotions, imagination, intellect and freedom could grow into a free assent to Jesus Christ as the definitive meaning of all existence.

But now my son was, in effect, asking me: “Okay so, this world you created for me — Do you really believe it yourself? Do you ever doubt it? How do you reconcile it with the many other worlds out there?” We had taught our children that faith is to be fearless, that truth is one, and that the same God authored the mind and faith. So this conversation was exactly what I had always hoped for. And it was scary as hell, because it forced me to look through his eyes at the “I” that claims to boldly profess, “I believe in…”

I also realized in our conversation that such an honest exchange, such a vulnerable exchange, signaled another transition I had long hoped for: from father-son to brothers, from leader-led to companions on the journey of life, from guardian-guarded to friends (John 15:15). The same child who had long ago “ripped fatherhood out of me,” who taught me how to love in a way I could never known without him, had also ripped faith out of me and taught me to believe in a way I could never have known without him. His very existence — his face, his questions, his trust, his innocence, his doubts, his struggles, his sufferings — is the voice of Jesus asking me in every moment: “Thomas, son of Edmond, do you love me?” “Who do you say that I am?”

And a little child shall lead them — Isaiah 11:6

{This final story I will share is shared with permission}

Years ago, when we lived in Brandon, Florida, a man joined the RCIA program I was in charge of at the time. He was married with three children, was baptized Catholic, but was not raised in the faith. When he explained to me why he wanted to return to his faith, he said, “My daughter is about to receive her first holy Communion, and when she asks why I don’t go to church, I really don’t know what to say.” He went on to say, “But just last week, she asked me with the most sincere expression, ‘Daddy, do you love Jesus?’ I was frozen and just left the room. I told my wife later, I need to give her what she wants from me. And so that’s why I am here. I want to have faith for her.”

Just before his first Confession, he met with me to discuss his journey of faith over the last 8 months. Among many things, he said, “The best part has been that I came in to find faith for my daughter, but now found it for myself.”

As parents — like all Christians who risk giving public witness to personal faith — we must always be willing to say more than we can be, in the hope that others will make us more than we are. What is crucial is that we not simply live so as to justify the limits of our lives.

Being-taken

Sano di Pietro: St. Catherine of Siena drinking from the side wound of Christ, mid-15th century. wp.com

Beloved, let us love one another,
because love is of God;
everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God.
Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love. — 1 John 4:7-8

In today’s Mass readings, this selection from the first letter of St. John accompanies the Gospel account of Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the 5000. What a remarkable juxtaposition of themes.

Years ago, I was asked to give a talk at a parish on the meaning of eucharistic transubstantiation. I called the presentation, “Extreme Presence.” As I prepared the talk, I was struck by the fact that Jesus chose food and drink to transform into Himself. Yes, the Passover meal context is a clear rationale, but somehow the radical “substantial” identification of God with the act of feeding and drinking — nourishing — jumped out at me. It seemed to me to provide a whole new language for rendering St. John’s defining of God as love.

One night as I thought on this point, preparing for the talk, it occurred to me that the words of consecration begin with verbs: take, eat; take, drink. I wrote in my notes,

The Real Presence is not an immobile rock, a steady mountain, but a perpetual earthquake, a volcanic eruption, a streaming fire, a gushing geyser. In the Eucharist, God reveals Himself as feeding and giving drink. No, even more! As Godbeing-taken. Given up, handed over, broken. As the Real Presenting.

My God.

God isn’t a static noun, God is a verb, is actus purus, “pure action,” an eternal act of loving, appearing under the form of being-taken as food for the hungry and drink for the thirsty. God is sating and slaking.

What a magnificently earthy manner God has chosen to manifest divinity, offering to make us “partakers in the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4) by means of chewing, swallowing, digestion. Like a nursing mother, God is bonum est diffusivum sui, is “the good giving itself away.” God is not just Being, but Being-eaten, Being-drunk, Being-taken.

About six months after my return to the practice of the faith back in 1987, I was walking back to my apartment from Subway one evening with my footlong seafood sub. I had not eaten since breakfast and was really hungry. As I walked through the parking lot of my apartment complex, I saw a man in the dumpster rummaging about. I had seen him there before, and imagined he was looking for food. I felt the impulsion to give him my food, which he promptly scarfed down as we sat next to each other on the curb. I felt gratified by the exchange.

That night I had a hard time sleeping with the combo of hunger pains and an intense headache. The next morning I went to 7:00 a.m. Mass. After Mass I saw a friend of mine, and when he asked me how things were going, I said, “Well over all, but I feel like crap.” When he asked why, I told him the story about the homeless man, and ended by saying, “But man, I sure was hoping that God would have spared me the pain afterward since I did a good thing. Oh well!” David laughed, and said, “Isn’t that really missing the point?”