The Beauty of the Time-worn Eternal Gospel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Watch here:

Stinking, rotten, evil

Fr. Tom Hopko. Taken from pravmir.ru

This past Thursday, Orthodox theologian Fr. Thomas Hopko, who was one of the most important theological influences in my life, fell asleep in the Lord. What profound sadness I have felt since then. May God grant him eternal rest. To honor him, and to reflect on Jesus’ metaphor for the Cross in today’s Lenten Gospel (“unless the grain of wheat falls to earth and dies”), I will share some transcribed excerpts of vintage Fr. Tom. His words here reflect four things I love most about his theological style — it’s starkly engaging, it’s homey, it’s really gritty and it’s centered on the Cross of Jesus as our only hope. Thank you, Fr. Tom, for being a blazing light in the darkness! Enjoy:

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The answer to all of this is God who is love, revealed in the Cross, and us taking up that Cross together with him, because what we believe about the Cross — from God’s side — is that God tells us on the Cross many things. He tells us that he loves us and loves us and loves us to the end, and our whole life is defined by his love for us. The content of our life is his love for us. That we can never escape his love for us. That even hell will be the futile attempt to even try to escape his love for us, because he chases us even into hell. He takes the hell on himself on the Cross, becoming sin, becoming curse, becoming dead—for us, not for himself. He didn’t need that. For us. So he tells us that we are loved, and that’s the foundational metaphysical reality for sane existence. We are insane if we do not know in our gut that we are loved, and we are loved by God. By God! And there’s nothing that we can do that will stop the love of God for us. That’s what the Cross tells us.

However sinful, stupid, ridiculous, criminal, I don’t know, the Auschwitzes, the gulags, the abortion centers of this world, will not stop the love of God for us. He takes it all on himself. He identifies with it all. And all we have to do is want it, say yes to it, and then it’ll become ours, and it’ll work in us. There’s nothing we can do to respond to it. We can only take it, receive it, say Amen to it. But that being-loved, boundlessly and unconditionally, this is what the Cross is telling us. As I said earlier, whether we like it or not, we are loved.

One of the hardest things to do in life, because of our human pride, because of our rebellion against God, much harder almost than loving, is to allow ourselves to be loved, to let God love us, to let godly people love us. But this love of God is what the Word of the Cross is: boundless, unconditional love from God’s side.

How is that love expressed? It’s expressed not in denying the sin of the world, not saying, “Oh, you’re nice anyway.” I heard a tape the other day of a Methodist named Stanley Hauerwas—highly recommended—and he said, “I’m a Methodist. We Methodists have deep belief in God. We believe God is nice.” Then he said, “And that has heavy implications. We should be nice, too.” But it’s not just being nice. And one of the things about being nice, people think one of the things about being nice is never to say that anything’s wrong. Never to admit that there’s real evil, real sin, real tragedy; we just kind of “pretend” it’s not there, put it away. But God doesn’t do that.

The Cross tells us that this world is stinking, rotten, evil. That’s what it tells us. That the world isn’t nice—exactly. That the world hates light, hates love, hates truth, hates justice, and when that all becomes incarnate the presence of Jesus the Messiah, they say he’s a Samaritan and has a devil and they’ve got to get rid of him. It’s not nice.

God doesn’t deny all that. He doesn’t look down and say, “Oh, you’re really nice.” He doesn’t. He says, “You’re all sinners, rotten, and there’s no, not one righteous, no, not one, but I love you anyway. And to prove that I love you anyway, I take all your rot on myself.” And that’s what love is. Love is to identify with the one who’s really bad, really evil.

One of the things that we’re going to talk about is: if we’re going to imitate God in that, we have to admit the evil that’s around. Some people have a very hard time admitting evil around, in themselves and in other people, and in other people as well as themselves, especially their family members. Other people are only too happy to admit evil around, in everybody! Sometimes even themselves: “I’m a sinner!” All right, that’s part of it. But the admission has to be there.

But then the Cross says, “You must admit it. You must say: ‘It is no good. It is not God’s way. Things are not right. There is evil. There is the devil. There is sin. There is death.” And these things have to be faced. They can’t be cosmeticized over, stuck in a corner. People get sick. People have cancer. People die. Airplanes crash. People blow them up. People get thrown out of their countries. People get victimized by other people. They get victimized by the sin of their parents. They get victimized by all kinds of stuff, and all that is real. And God on the Cross faces all that and says it’s real.

And when Jesus faces it and says it’s real, he weeps over it. He grieves over it. He is appalled by it. But he is not victimized or paralyzed by it, and he doesn’t let it poison him. So no matter how bad it is—and it’s as bad as you can get, especially if you’re crucifying the Son of glory—and according to St. Paul, any sin crucifies again the Lord of glory, because that’s why he came… So it’s as bad as it can get, but being however bad it can get, he says, “You’re forgiven.”

“Like it or not, you’re forgiven.” Proud people don’t like to be forgiven. In fact, proud people would rather burn in hell and think they deserve it than to hear, “You’re forgiven.” “Me, forgiven? For what?” But the forgiveness is there, and, more than the forgiveness, is the identification, the baring of the burden of the sin of the other, without acting in an evil way in return. This is what the Word of the Cross tells us.

The Word of God — ho logos tou theou — is always and necessarily the word of the Cross — ho logos tou stavrou. And we come to see that there is no theosis without kenosis. The almighty God reveals Himself as an infinitely humble, totally self-emptying and absolutely ruthless and relentless lover of sinners. And men and women made in His image and likeness must be the same. Thus we come to see that as there is no resurrection without crucifixion, there is also no sanctification without suffering, no glorification without humiliation; no deification without degradation; and no life without death.

And that the only way that you will redeem the other, the only way that you will help to heal the other, the only way that you can expiate the sin of the other, is to take it on yourself — but not in a sick way, not in the “Oh, I’m suffering for the other” way; but in a way of sovereign freedom, in total dignity, in an absolutely voluntary act of love, so that it’s literally impossible that the evil will be victorious. It can’t be because you don’t give it an inch. And one of the ways that you don’t give it an inch is not by denying it, but by disclosing it, by seeing evil for what it is. That’s why the Cross is the great clarification. The Cross is the great illumination of things the way they really are.

The Isenheim Altarpiece, Matthias Grünewald, 1512. Taken from conspiracyofjoy.com

Healing put to the test, Part II

Taken from meetville.com

As a follow up to yesterday’s introduction to Mario Sacasa’s blog posts on various faith-based healing ministries, I wanted to share some (hopefully) relevant personal experiences with evaluating some of the claims associated with these healing ministries — claims to private revelation, mystical graces or out-of-the-ordinary charismatic experiences. There’s so much to say, so many issues at stake! But I will limit myself to whatever comes to mind as I sit here in the Denver airport waiting for a delayed plane. I will take my inspiration from a woman across from me who just said to her child after he knocked over a drink: “Wise up and learn from your mistakes!”

I broke my thoughts into 2 parts. I will post the other part tomorrow. They are really unorganized thoughts which I do not have time to tidy up, but hopefully they will offer some light.

A personal story

Beginning in 1987, I became involved with prayer groups that identified themselves with the Catholic Charismatic Renewal. My early experiences were overall positive, mostly associated with humble parish-based prayer groups that would meet weekly for praise, worship, intercessory prayer and fellowship. Back then, I would have echoed St. John Paul II comment on the Renewal:

How many people have rediscovered their faith, a desire for prayer, the power and beauty of the Word of God, which is expressed in generous service for the mission of the Church! How many lives were deeply changed! For all of this I wish to praise and thank the Holy Spirit with you today.

But over ensuing years, I also have gotten involved with elements of the Renewal that are not so balanced, and some of them did me (and others I know) harm. In particular, those people who claimed to have gifts of prophetic knowledge and clairvoyant insight simultaneously asserted a certain divine authority to command unearned trust and wield unaccountable power. While there are certainly some saintly people out there who legitimately bear God’s power and authority for good, these people were not that. As a result of these troubling experiences, somewhere back around 1989, I received my first “wake up call” to the need for learning and practicing disciplined discernment in the face of such bold claims. By God’s grace, I had at the same time just begun gong to a first-rate spiritual director. 

After I shared with him what had happened, he asked me to immerse myself in St. John of the Cross’ two classic treatises on the spiritual life, The Ascent of Mount Carmel and The Dark Night (which are really one book in four parts). He said to me, “John offers you a safe path, Tom. If you embrace him he’ll teach you the secure and simple way of faith, hope, charity and the royal way of the cross.” That was a defining moment for me. Over the next several years, he walked me through St. John and taught me how to apply it. 25 years later, John’s vision has come to dominate my approach to matters of faith and discernment. Indeed, my journey into John’s works eventually led me to write a PhD dissertation on the Ascent-Night. As I have said before, I  see my theological vocation to be translating John’s spiritual vision for all walks of life. But I have so far to go! My thinking continues to evolve daily under St. John’s tutelage, and I will, hopefully, remain under his sway the rest of my life.

Testing

As a direct response to my bad experience, the first thing my director gave me to read was St. John’s letter to Nicholas Doria, who was at the time to superior of the Discalced Carmelite Friars. The letter draws on the doctrine John articulates in detail in the Ascent-Night regarding how one should discern the origin and meaning of extraordinary spiritual experiences, i.e. visions, locutions, special “prophetic” knowledge and so on. The letter was written after John had, in response to a request from Doria, completed an investigation of a Discalced Carmelite nun claiming to be the recipient of extraordinary spiritual experiences.

For John, the bottom line is that extraordinary experiences in the spiritual life are an inherently ambiguous affair, both in terms of origin (where they come from) and reception (what they mean, what one is to do with them). As Denys Turner memorably words it, for John most mystical phenomena are at best “experiential feedback” from the encounter of the soul with God, and are not God himself. They are like “distant echoes of the Word” that require decoding, and are not worth much fuss. John argues that even when these experiences are genuinely “of God,” answers to how one is to understand them, why they are given, or what one is to do with them once they happen are simply not self-evident. Mystical phenomena are easily distorted, misunderstood, misapplied or misused by credulous recipients who lack proper discretion and judgment; or by those who are still too fragile and immature to resist placing them in the service of their un-redeemed and needy ego. For example, he says in the Night 2.3.2:

This is the stage in which the devil induces many into believing vain visions and false prophecies. He strives to make them presume that God and the saints speak with them, and frequently they believe their fantasy. It is here that the devil customarily fills them with presumption and pride. Drawn by vanity and arrogance, they allow themselves to be seen in exterior acts of apparent holiness, such as raptures and other exhibitions. They become audacious with God and lose holy fear, which is the key to and guardian of all the virtues.

While it is of course true, John says, that God does grant extraordinary graces to his servants, it is also true that the same God commands us to put those gifts to the test — placing them in service to unseeing faith (cf. John 20:29) and subordinating them to the “still more excellent way” of love of neighbor (1 Cor. 12:31).

Diagnosis and Prescription

In the letter, John reviews his investigation and judges the nuns claim to gifts of a supernatural origin to be false. Among the signs of distortion, he highlighted four in his letter.

First, she had mucha golosina de apetito, “a very greedy appetite” for extraordinary experiences, and being attached to such experiences is, for John, an wise open door to deception. Second, she was overly confident in the truth of her interior experiences and was averse to submitting them to the judgment of others. “She has too much confidence,” he said “and too little caution about erring internally, which is not the sign of a good spirit. Everything she says about ‘she said to God and God said to her’ seems nonsense [parece disparate].” Third, she lacked discretion and was overly eager to speak and convince others of the goodness and truth of her extraordinary experiences. She was also eager for more such experiences which is, he says, a very dangerous thing. Finally, she was very resistant to John’s critical inquest into of her claims. Humility, he said, is infallibly the fruit of genuine spiritual experiences that have been rightly received. When the humble “receive great favors” they are always eager to submit to being tested by others, anxious to be exposed, by faith and sound reason, to the light of truth.

At the end of his letter, John recommended to Doria a “test” for this nun. She must not, he said, write about or publicize these experiences any longer or even speak about them with her confessor. Rather, pruébenla en el ejercicio de las virtudes a secas, mayormente en el desprecio, humildad y obediencia, “test her harshly in the exercise of the virtues, particularly in self-contempt, humility and obedience.” “And,” he added, “the tests must be good ones because there is no devil who will not suffer anything for the sake of his honor.” He says of the humility he hopes this test will produce in this nun,

Yet these humble souls, far from desiring to be anyone’s teacher, are ready to take a road different from the one they are following, if told to do so. For they do not believe they could ever be right themselves. They rejoice when others receive praise, and their only sorrow is that they do not serve God as these others do. They have an inclination to seek direction from one who will have less esteem for their spirit and deeds. Such is the characteristic of a pure and simple and true spirit, one very pleasing to God. Since the wise Spirit of God dwells within these humble souls, he moves them to keep these treasures hidden, and to manifest only their faults. God gives this grace to the humble, together with the other virtues, just as he denies it to the proud.

More tomorrow…

Healing put to the test, Part I

Taken from amazon.com

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are of God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world. — 1 John 4:1

Whether these charisms be very remarkable or more simple and widely diffused, they are to be received with thanksgiving and consolation since they are fitting and useful for the needs of the Church. Extraordinary gifts are not to be rashly desired nor is it from them that the fruits of apostolic labors are to be presumptuously expected. Those who have charge over the Church should judge the genuineness and proper use of these gifts, through their office, not indeed to extinguish the Spirit but to test all things and hold fast to what is good — Lumen Gentium 12

I wanted to share with you today a series of blog posts written by a friend, Mario Sacasa, LMFT (found here: https://mariosacasa.wordpress.com/). Like the recent letter published by the Fathers of Mercy (here), these posts address important concerns related to certain Catholic faith-based healing ministries. These ministries Mario refers to in his posts variously blend elements of psychology, demonology and mysticism/spirituality into a set of strategies for seeking healing from God. The concerns Mario raises I also share, and I am grateful he has made a serious contribution to a very important conversation.

Over the years, I  have had numerous interactions with Catholic faith-healing movements like the ones Mario describes. I have grown increasingly concerned over the last 20+ years with some of the directions that have been taken in those movements. I am grateful that Mario chose to engage publicly in a respectful and honest conversation, as these movements have public import in the Church as they continue to grow in influence. They require serious and ongoing discernment based on solid considerations drawn from both faith and science. Mario welcomes comments and dialogue on his blog.

I will share a few of my own related reflections tomorrow.

On Another’s Sorrow

“The Ancient of Days,” by William Blake, c. 1820, taken from burbanklodge.com

On January 30th, two days after the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, Fr. Michael Dodds, O.P. gave a lecture at the seminary on the question of God’s impassibility, i.e. whether or not one can say properly that God is capable of suffering, and if so, in what sense. If you’d like to hear the lecture, click here. I found it clear and insightful.

But what I wanted to highlight here today were the literary references he used to open and close his lecture. The first was a poem by William Blake called, On Another’s Sorrow. I had never heard it, but was taken with its deep intuitions of divine and human compassion. The second was a quote from St. Catherine of Siena in which she passionately puzzled over the tension between God’s dispassionate perfection and his impassioned desire for his creatures. So, today, I will simply share both of these with you.

Can I see another’s woe,
And not be in sorrow too?
Can I see another’s grief,
And not seek for kind relief?

Can I see a falling tear,
And not feel my sorrow’s share?
Can a father see his child
Weep, nor be with sorrow filled?

Can a mother sit and hear
An infant groan, an infant fear?
No, no! never can it be!
Never, never can it be!

And can He who smiles on all
Hear the wren with sorrows small,
Hear the small bird’s grief and care,
Hear the woes that infants bear –

And not sit beside the nest,
Pouring pity in their breast,
And not sit the cradle near,
Weeping tear on infant’s tear?

And not sit both night and day,
Wiping all our tears away?
O no! never can it be!
Never, never can it be!

He doth give His joy to all:
He becomes an infant small,
He becomes a man of woe,
He doth feel the sorrow too.

Think not thou canst sigh a sigh,
And thy Maker is not by:
Think not thou canst weep a tear,
And thy Maker is not near.

O He gives to us His joy,
That our grief He may destroy:
Till our grief is fled and gone
He doth sit by us and moan.
Can I see another’s woe,
And not be in sorrow too?
Can I see another’s grief,
And not seek for kind relief?

Can I see a falling tear,
And not feel my sorrow’s share?
Can a father see his child
Weep, nor be with sorrow filled?

Can a mother sit and hear
An infant groan, an infant fear?
No, no! never can it be!
Never, never can it be!

And can He who smiles on all
Hear the wren with sorrows small,
Hear the small bird’s grief and care,
Hear the woes that infants bear –

And not sit beside the nest,
Pouring pity in their breast,
And not sit the cradle near,
Weeping tear on infant’s tear?

And not sit both night and day,
Wiping all our tears away?
O no! never can it be!
Never, never can it be!

He doth give His joy to all:
He becomes an infant small,
He becomes a man of woe,
He doth feel the sorrow too.

Think not thou canst sigh a sigh,
And thy Maker is not by:
Think not thou canst weep a tear,
And thy Maker is not near.

O He gives to us His joy,
That our grief He may destroy:
Till our grief is fled and gone
He doth sit by us and moan.

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“O immeasurably tender love! Who would not be set afire with such love? What heart could keep from breaking? You, deep well of charity, it seems you are so madly in love with your creatures that you could not live without us! Yet you are our God, and have no need of us. Your greatness is no greater for our well-being, nor are you harmed by any harm that comes to us, for you are supreme eternal Goodness. What could move you to such mercy? Neither duty nor any need you have of us –but only love! Just as love constrained you to draw us from yourself, so the same love constrained you to redeem us when we were lost. You indeed showed that you loved us before we existed when you willed to draw us from yourself solely through love, but you showed greater love towards us when you gave yourself, enclosing yourself in our humanity. And what more could you give than yourself? Because of this you could truly say ‘what should I have done or what could I have done that I have not done?’”

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…

“…store up for yourselves treasures in heaven…” — Matthew 6:20

Taken from media.philly.com

Some sprawling, unfinished thoughts for today…tomorrow I’ll give you time to recover…

I was reflecting several weeks ago on the words of Pope Francis to the little boy who asked about his dead dog. The Pope’s words were far more measured than so many of the “All Dogs Go to Heaven” headlines that followed his comment.  The Pope said,

Holy Scripture teaches us that the fulfillment of this wonderful design also affects everything around us.

In other words, God’s plan to re-create all things in Christ affects not just humanity, but every quark of creation. Bl. Pope Paul VI made a similar point, though he was a bit more specific and daring in his language:

One day, we will see our animals again in the eternity of Christ. Paradise is open to all of God’s creatures.

Peter Kreeft commented on this,

The simplest answer is: Why not? How irrational is the prejudice that would allow plants (green fields and flowers) but not animals in heaven! Would the same animals be in heaven as on earth? “Is my dead cat in heaven?” Again, why not? God can raise up the very grass; why not cats? Though the blessed have better things to do than play with pets, the better does not exclude the lesser. We were meant from the beginning to have stewardship over the animals; we have not fulfilled that divine plan yet on earth; therefore it seems likely that the right relationship with animals will be part of Heaven; proper “petship”. And what better place to begin than with the already petted pets?

And when a friend said to me, what about mosquitoes and predators, I said a bit playfully,

What of mosquitoes?
That’s really easy if you take the biblical language at face value.
What does God do with viscous and predatory beings in the next life? He tames them.
Isaiah 11:6-9:

“Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat;
The calf and the young lion shall browse together,
with a little child to guide them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
together their young shall lie down;
the lion shall eat hay like the ox.
The baby shall play by the viper’s den,
and the child lay his hand on the adder’s lair.
They shall not harm or destroy on all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the LORD,
as water covers the sea.”

I find this conversation very exhilarating, not really because I am anxious to see the Church canonize animals, but because of some profound assumptions that stand behind this line of thinking.

“For we are God’s co-workers” — 1 Cor. 3:9

As I have said before in this Blog, I have fallen in love with paragraph 39 in Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes:

For after we have obeyed the Lord, and in His Spirit nurtured on earth the values of human dignity, brotherhood and freedom, and indeed all the good fruits of our nature and enterprise, we will find them again, but freed of stain, burnished and transfigured, when Christ hands over to the Father: “a kingdom eternal and universal, a kingdom of truth and life, of holiness and grace, of justice, love and peace.” On this earth that Kingdom is already present in mystery. When the Lord returns it will be brought into full flower.

Why do I find this so captivating? Because it intimately links our life in this world with that of the next in a way that, for me, opens a fresh and thrilling vantage on the meaning of life here on earth. We are charged by God with stewarding this creation into the New Creation, and the New Creation into this creation. What an exalted vocation and mission! The Council tells us in this paragraph that everything in this life that is “true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent or praiseworthy” (Phil 4:8), and the fruit of every virtuous labor and righteous suffering, will endure in God’s everlasting Kingdom. The bread and wine humanity produces, “fruit of the earth and work of human hands,” will serve, in the words of Gaudum et Spes 38, as “raw materials” for the Kingdom the Ascending Christ is ever at work building for us:

Now, the gifts of the Spirit are diverse: while He calls some to give clear witness to the desire for a heavenly home and to keep that desire green among the human family, He summons others to dedicate themselves to the earthly service of men and to make ready the material of the celestial realm by this ministry of theirs…

These “others,” specifically the laity, are those men and women called at their Baptism to consecrate the world to God, gather material and lift it up into the New Creation by living lives dedicated to secular concerns in the key of Christ. Lumen Gentium 31:

…the laity, by their very vocation, seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God. They live in the world, that is, in each and in all of the secular professions and occupations. They live in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life, from which the very web of their existence is woven. They are called there by God that by exercising their proper function and led by the spirit of the Gospel they may work for the sanctification of the world from within as a leaven. In this way they may make Christ known to others, especially by the testimony of a life resplendent in faith, hope and charity. Therefore, since they are tightly bound up in all types of temporal affairs it is their special task to order and to throw light upon these affairs in such a way that they may come into being and then continually increase according to Christ to the praise of the Creator and the Redeemer.

The vocation of the lay faithful! How sublime. Only in heaven will we fully appreciate their all-important mundane task when we see what was, and was not, offered up to God from the streets and offices, gas stations and hospitals, bedrooms and board rooms, theaters and construction sites, soup kitchens and sweat shops. Don’t get me started.

Cathedral building

Here I will stop writing and paste an email I sent some fellow theology-nerd friends in December after I read Pope Francis’ words. Though I tried to spruce it up a bit here, it’s still unkempt like an email. That said, I hope it offers you a bit of the fire I felt in my bones when I pondered yet again this magnificent mystery!

This comment by Papa Francesco is related to my argument (which is not really mine!) that the New Creation is “built” of material of the old creation (our present home!) transfigured through the liturgical mediation of priestly humanity — those of us living in Christ — consecrating the world to God and gathering, by their virtuous and arduous labors, “material” for the Coming Kingdom; knitting heaven and earth together as homo liturgicus. This reminds me of a story Peter Kreeft introduced me to: Two men were hauling stones through a muddy medieval street. One was cursing and the other was singing. A traveler asked them what they were doing. The curser replied, “I’m trying to get this damned rock to roll through this damned mud!” The singer replied, “I’m building a cathedral.”

We are called to sing as we gather living stones, dripping our sweaty sacrifices in our prayer and work. In Christ, God-made-human-laborer, humanity has been empowered to co-construct the New Creation, making, as St. Therese said so simply, even the picking up of a pin with love into immortal treasures. And so nothing-nothing-nothing of our lives that is good – or even the bad material if it’s sunk in divine mercy – will be wasted in building this immortal Cathedral of Paradise for the joy of all creation and the glory of God.

This stunning perspective transforms our view of this world from that of a mere “testing ground” or a “holding tank” where we await release into a “part two” better world. It prevents us from utterly disconnecting this world from what constitutes the Age to Come and reveals our lives lived “on earth as it is in heaven” to be quarrying of “material” gathered by collaborators with God. Our mission is to join Christ in building the Kingdom that is to come by lives that mend the breach, bridge the chasm. We are consecrated by the Spirit to con-celebrate with Christ the wedding of heaven to earth and extending the fruits of the Incarnation to the whole material universe in a living epiclesis [calling down the Spirit].

The Offertory at Mass thus becomes a crucial moment in this mystical transaction as we bind our personal oblation to that of all God’s People united in Christ and lift it up to the Lord with upright hearts. In the Consecration of bread and wine the Spirit seals this mystic transaction by “passing over” the material of this world into that of the Kingdom, causing the substances of bread and wine to collapse into absolute transparency, i.e. transubstantiation. Eucharistic transubstantiation does not imply the bread/wine’s substance is somehow invisibly “siphoned out” and replaced with Christ’s substance, leaving only a shell of accidents, but rather that the very being of those substances (which, as sacramental symbols, also contain in themselves all that we have offered of ourselves to God in the Mass) has passed-over into the new order of being that is the New Creation, i.e. they no longer belong to this order of existence, even though their material characteristics remain in this old creation. Wow, we get to consume that passed-over Food and Drink, the “medicine of immortality” as St. Ignatius of Antioch calls it.

This old-new tension is much like the utterly new Risen Body of Jesus that remained materially accessible for a short time before passing over wholly into the Kingdom, the New Creation, in the Ascension. For 40 days his Body was still tangible and visible, though elusive and difficult to identify even for close friends and clearly no longer obeying the laws of physics. St. Leo the Great says, “what was visible in our Savior has passed over into his mysteries.” Mysteries for him means Sacraments. The Sacraments, and all that is taken up into them, share in these sacramentalized characteristics of Christ’s Risen and Ascending Body that is ever at work drawing the whole of creation, via man, into the Kingdom of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

A related thought: all of the supposedly “nature law-breaking” signs and wonders – including the celestial Tilma of Our Lady of Guadalupe, acheiropoieta, “not made with hands” — are actually signs of the passing of this world over into the Next. In miracles, the being of this world, with its constitutive “natural” laws, is giving way to those that rule the Next. So miracles are not violations or suspensions of nature’s laws, but their transformation, transubstantiation, transfiguration and glorious perfection in the coming Kingdom of Christ for which all things were destined. In this sense, all miracles are “liturgical” in character, are boundary-events that tear at the Temple veil and transgress the boundary that, prior to the Parousia, still divides the two Creations.

Getting eschatology right is exceptionally important as it makes clear precisely why this life is so crucial and why the Paschal Mystery is the crown of God’s plan from the beginning. And why secular life, life in this world, possesses an essential role in God’s creative and redemptive plans. What extraordinary grandeur there is in knowing that God established this world so that humanity could participate in the (co)creation of the everlasting Age that we were destined to share with Him from the foundation of the world — “a kingdom of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love, and peace.” And ever life lived in this world, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, possesses eternal value and worth that will be known fully only in that Coming Kingdom prepared for those who love.

I also think here of St. Isaac of Syria’s beautiful comments on the God-loved dignity of this creation appreciated by those saints who already belong to the Next:

“What is a merciful heart? It is a heart on fire for the whole of creation, for humanity, for the birds, for the animals, for demons, and for all that exists. By the recollection of them the eyes of a merciful person pour forth tears in abundance. By the strong and vehement mercy that grips such a person’s heart, and by such great compassion, the heart is humbled and one cannot bear to hear or to see any injury or slight sorrow in any in creation. For this reason, such a person offers up tearful prayer continually even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of the truth, and for those who harm her or him, that they be protected and receive mercy. And in like manner such a person prays for the family of reptiles because of the great compassion that burns without measure in a heart that is in the likeness of God.”

Or that unspeakably beautiful liturgical Akathist hymn, Glory to God for all things, written by Fr. Petrov in 1940 as he sat rotting in a Soviet Gulag, that sings this world into the Next — here is just a sample:

Glory to Thee for the Feast Day of life
Glory to Thee for the perfume of lilies and roses
Glory to Thee for each different taste of berry and fruit
Glory to Thee for the sparkling silver of early morning dew
Glory to Thee for the joy of dawn’s awakening
Glory to Thee for the new life each day brings
Glory to Thee, O God, from age to age

That’s all for today. Thanks for enduring my esoteric prose. Let’s together, today, tomorrow, and to the end sursum corda, lift up our hearts, and with our hearts lift the whole of creation into that heavenly Kingdom that awaits those who live in hope of its certain coming.

In other words, let’s be like the bodily risen Virgin Mary, God-bearer, icon of all that we hope to be…

The Tilma of Guadalupe, taken from earthdancecircle.files.wordpress.com