Divine ecology, writing and seed-casting

Sunset during the Willwoods Gala cocktail hour — “Tom, look, you need to get a picture of that and write a Blog on it!” I love challenges.

[Another busy week this week so probably no posts till the Triduum.]

I have no idea where this entry will go. Enjoy the ride…

Saturday night, my wife and I were invited to attend the Willwoods Sixteenth Annual Gala. Willwoods is a NOLA Catholic ministry that serves, among other things, the work of strengthening and supporting marriage and family life.

Patti and I love events like this because it’s kind of a “who’s who” in the world of NOLA Catholic culture on-the-move, with laity and clergy who invest their energy and love and faith into a unique aspect of Catholic life. Aided by an open bar, we had lots of lively conversations with a number of people, some of whom we had never met, but now are connected with — which is our favorite part. As I sat early Sunday morning reflecting on that night and the conversations we had had with quite a number of people, I began to think of the way many those people have reshaped me, my worldview, my marriage and my family’s life.

How marvelous is the interconnectedness of humanity! How astounding it is that we, as persons made for each other, are wholly defined by our relationships — for better or for ill. Many of the people I knew at the Gala I would consider people who strive for holiness, who have labored strenuously to permit God’s grace to shape their lives and, through them, influence the lives of those they interact with every day.

All of this reminded me of a conversation I had a few weeks ago with a priest I know, whom I quoted in yesterday’s post. He’s a remarkable man who has an unusual depth of compassion. By that I mean that he possesses a sustained and genuine interest in entering into others’ worlds and allowing them to enter into his. Not to simply accomplish some useful goal, or as a superficial formality, but in order to allow a meaningful human relationship to emerge. It is only, he believes, within such authentic human encounters that Christ can truly enter and reveal His life-enriching glory. It is a marvel to behold the fruits of his approach in others’ lives, mine included. In fact, the most frequent comment I hear said of him is: “He is so caring.” 

Such an approach to life and ministry takes discipline, intentionality and repeated acts of patient love. It comes with a high price tag. You might say his approach lacks a certain product-oriented “efficiency” which demands many — or even most — relationships be functional and goal-oriented. But from what I have seen and heard, the resulting quality-over-quantity “product” he produces bears the sweetest and most enduring of fruits on which alone — he would argue — genuine Christian community can be built.

It certainly was Jesus’ methodology.

As we sat together eating our meatless salads on a Lenten Friday, he asked me to describe the process that goes into my writing posts for this blog. “Where do the insights come from?” Here is roughly what I said:

The vast majority of posts begin with something I read, a conversation I have, a sunset I watch, a billboard I see, an insight that appears while I pray in the waiting room of a car repair shop. Something about this or that experience I have in a particular moment sparks something in me, like a flash of light, which then somehow gets caught up, in my mind, into the matrix of Christ — with it casting light on Him or Him casting light on it.

Then I will feel compelled to jot down the essence of whatever insight I’ve had on a receipt in my wallet, or speak a voice-to-text sent to my email address, or ask my wife if she wouldn’t mind pausing our evening conversation for three minutes while I type an explosive idea I just had into my blog drafts. Bless her heart, she’s so patient with her manic husband.

I have hundreds of drafts sitting in my wordpress account, waiting for me to have time on my hands and a Muse stirring in my imagination.

The amazing thing about writing, for me, is that when these insights detonate inside and I write them, they come alive inside of me. Like, really alive. The whole of my perspective is altered, shifted, expanded, troubled, deepened, stretched, inhabited by something new, something living, something vital that, once released into my thought-world, continues to work on everything I see and do and hear and touch and taste and reflect on and love and pray.

It’s like the ideas I get are living, not simply dead facts or bits of data added to a mental fact sheet. They trouble the waters of my mind until everything else adjusts to their presence. Which is why I love the song, “Wade in the Water,” which captures the “feel” of what goes on inside me as I theologically reflect on some wierd thing that caught me by surprise.

But I’ve noticed that it’s really only when I take these new insights and write them in my blog, or weave them into a talk or lecture I will be giving, that they come alive and begin to reshape the way I see and experience everything. They can’t just sit there, or they vanish. It’s only when I *intend* to give them away that they seem to have the power to re-define the way I see everything. This, it seems to me, is the fundamental difference between faith and knowledge. Knowledge is information added to my worldview, while faith is information, set in motion by love, that reshapes and defines my whole worldview; becomes bit by bit the way I see everything — others, yourself, the world, God. “I believe” means “I see.”

But it’s really when I take the new knowledge into my prayer-time that, like activated charcoal, purfies and enriches and affects everything else, in a strange way, resetting the the whole mess of my inner life.

That’s really quite odd sounding, isn’t it? It sounds odd as I never articulate this. Thank you for asking the question and listening so carefully.

After I finished sharing this, he shared with me a metaphor that floored me. In brief, it went something like this (I will do grave injustice to it here trying to sum it as his phrasing was so succinct and brilliant):

The image that comes to mind as you speak is of an ecosystem, with your intellectual thought being almost like an ecology of the mind. An inner culture. Ecosystems have a certain delicate balance in which each organism adapts to its native environment and learns to cohabit with other organisms in a vital interdependence and network of life which allows all to thrive in an organic web. But when a new organism is introduced, everything gets troubled, disrupted, and needs to realign and re-adapt to the demands of the newcomer introduced. And vice versa. The ecosystem needs to adapt itself and change to move toward a new equilibrium in which everything becomes different, even if only slightly.

This seems to be what you’re describing here. What you allow into yourself, through your senses or in prayer, finds an already established inner-ecology, Tom’s unique personal ecosystem with its worldview that then trustingly yet discerningly welcomes in various new organisms, i.e. a new face, a new idea, a new smell or sight or taste; or divine life. Everything then has to adjust. And it’s all alive, as you say.

And then when you write, it’s then that you actively reorganize your ecosystem to make a fitting place for the new living principles, whatever they might be. Like dreams do at night, defragmenting and reorganizing new information, writing does for you. [Tom: Which makes me a daydream believer? Us: haha] Maybe some new things you’ve taken in have to be chewed up and digested, while others must be expelled or others embraced, while still yet others — like divine grace — well, you have to allow them to consume and digest your ideas, feelings, desires; your soul and spirit … or even the whole of you. Like the Shema commands. So when you consume the Eucharist, as St Augustine says, Christ consumes you; metabolizes you; adapts you to His divine-human ecosystem. The whole Church is this adapted ecosystem, expressed and given birth to in those real symbols of theandric [God-man] biodiversity: Christ in the Sacraments. Saints are the embodyment of the whole Church in its radical adaptation of human life to God-life. Or maybe the other way around, too, if we believe St Irenaeus. [He was speaking of the Catechism #53: “St. Irenaeus of Lyons repeatedly speaks of this divine pedagogy using the image of God and man becoming accustomed to one another: The Word of God dwelt in man and became the Son of man in order to accustom man to perceive God and to accustom God to dwell in man, according to the Father’s pleasure”]

At the heart of your inner culture, Tom, your inner ecology — constituted by your own free act of faith — is the gift of divine love, the indwelling Spirit that is itself the womb of the ecclesial Supernatural Organism, with its own force and vitality and blows-where-it-will purposes. It gets into everything like leaven spreading resurrection through dough. All of which you welcome whenever you pray. Prayer exposes your inner ecology to that of Jesus, joins them.

So whatever enters into you throughout the day encounters not only “Tom,” but God active and living and sorting things out within you. Christ within is busy at work re-creating in you a new creation; a new Ecology; a new Garden. Holiness. Only then, through such saints, can He extend His divine-human culture and ecology into the various ecosystems around you and effect new changes in others’ lives and in the whole material world you inhabit. That’s holiness, and its progress is slow, uneven, filled with setbacks, death and rebirth.

In this line of thought, that means the Cross embodies the event of God introducing Himself into a human ecosystem that has organized itself against, and to the exclusion of, His life. While His love compels Him to risk entry and deadly rejection in our hostile ecosystem, even while He remains long enough (to the end of time!) for that living system to gradually adapt itself to His presence and organize its life around and in and with His life. The Cross is the symbol of God’s willingness to pay an immense cost in order to enter our world and achieve a symbiosis with us. Divinization by hominization. Restructuring our micro and macro cultures according to the omnipotent principle of divine-human love. Jesus. He is the ecosystem of God introduced into the ecosystems of creation, through the consent of a Virgin who welcomes God into our world. 

Something like that.

I said: “What just happened?”

We went off in stunned silence to retire for the night. He showed me where the tea was for the morning. My heart was on fire with this new metaphor. And I could not get out of my mind that night a chilling scene from the movie, Risen, that contains a dialogue between a blind woman and the Roman tribune, Clavius, who is trying to crush the new “Jesus is risen” movement. They are discussing her claim to have encountered the risen Jesus. Listen:

Hopefully in ten years I will have a better way to explain its power.

 

 

Theological Threading

geeksundergrace.com

A blessed Holy Week to you!

I have three friends — two women and a priest — with whom I have been friends for many years. We are all theologically minded geeks. Years ago, when we all lived in the same city, we were able to meet for coffee to talk for hours and hours about how everything imaginable related to Christ. Sadly, we have been apart for years. But not long ago, we came up with a wonderful idea: Group-text threads of limitless and unending theo-dialogues.

We have had many remarkable theological exchanges, filled with deepest profundity and lol humor, and I always come away filled with new insights and with joy and challenge. It convinces me even more how absolutely imperative it is for people of faith to be connected to other people of faith, with whom they can talk about how everything and anything is affected by our faith in Jesus. The story of Jesus meeting the disciples on the road to Emmaus, and entering a vigorous debate with them, is the model of how faith moves from confused and searching to burning like a raging fire.

In fact, this Blog, which is for me a transcript of my life’s ongoing dialogue with countless people, authors, nature, God, and you all has been for me a gift of inestimable value for growing my faith, hope and love. I am most sincerely indebted to those who read here, who draw from me visions that never would have come to me without you. Thank you. Deo gratias.

We call our group iYeshiva — Yeshiva is a Jewish school/seminary. All Christian theology is at heart Jewish.

I asked the group today if I could post a selection of our exchange just from this week. They graciously agreed. I thought: If people are able to endure what I write here at N.O., they will enjoy what we text about! So here it goes. I name the priest “Father,” the women “W1, W2” and myself “Me.” W2 is not as prolific here as she usually is in our threads, but she is the real sage of our group, cutting through marrow to the core.

Though I did not edit our grammatical missteps or typos, I cut out lots of the funny little quips here and there so as to not make this too long! I hope you enjoy.

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Father: Today’s gospel reveals how provocative Jesus identity is. The lengthy interchange between Jesus and the Jews in the temple begins with them described as believers and then ends with them attempting to stone Jesus. That which is revealed from above destabilizes human constructs, reputations, religious perception and so unleashes untold Cain-like hatred. The glory of the Father unveils a new paternity into our world through the Son exposing human pride as concealed hatred for God.

W1: I love this reference to Cain. It also reveals the trappings of knowledge that go all the way back to the garden of Eden. “We know who our father is.” – no you dont. Knowledge is once again a stumbling block that keeps them from recognizing God.
Me: It really reveals the fact that the Gospel contains an irreconcilable instability that always requires a critical distance between the Kingdom and the progress of history. The Church is stuck restlessly in the middle of the consecration hoping it will finally transgress the bounded bread and wine and finally confect the whole of time and space. It’s when the Church tries to relieve those incomplete tensions by seeking  compromised assimilation or sectarian isolation that she’s dead in the water; so to speak:) Or some other such esoteric interpretation of what you said
W2: You mean we have to feel like we’re in charge?
Me: Semitic economy of expression (you), Hellenic prolixity (me)
Father: Ahh, so the Church, too, must journey through the wilderness of temptations where her Lord dared to tread
W1: Doing some work on Bathsheba, and came across this quote by John Berger (artist/poet). “You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her. Then you put a mirror in her hand and called the painting “Vanity” thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure.”
Me: As I shared with you before, [W2], it is why I find Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah so troubling (as much as I find it an aesthetic masterpiece); the way it portrays Bathsheba as the one who brought David down. Certainly was not prophet Nathan’s take! She didn’t break his throne, he broke her home
Father: Whoa! This could have come from Oscar Wilde. How often moralists exonerate themselves of their forbidden desires by condemning others. It’s called displacement and it’s damage is unquantifiable
Me: And I often think how marvelous it is that God chose the descendent of David, [St.] Joseph, who was absolutely powerless as kingdoms go — to raise his Son to the throne of David. And who treated his bride with such justice, love and dignity, not exposing her to shame.
Father: Amen. And he begins in part by freeing the woman at the well and the woman about to be stoned. What a repudiation of power abused. My last text tonight is this canticle of love from St Francis of Assisi that I discovered while putting together this week’s Stations:
“I’ve given all for love alone,
Bartered the world and self away;
Were all created thing my own
I’d yield them up without delay.
And yet by love I’m outdone,
Where I’m led I cannot say.
By love I’m outdone,
Counted a fool by all;
For, having sold my all,
My worth is wholly gone.”
W2: What a moving way to cap the evening.  Thank you.
Father: This morning’s gospel reminded me of Tom’s brilliant text on the Church’s place amidst consecration. What does it mean for God the Father to have consecrated the Son and send him into the world (which we hear in today’s Gospel)? Christ, our high priest, sacrificed outside the city gates, crucified among criminals, praying for the forgiveness for all. Christ consecrating humanity, confects, assembles, brings together a new creation from out of the old.
Ah, the things that come to mind at the altar.
Me: As my daughters would when they are wowed by something:  FhdR&gdQhkgff€hkIYF¥DCB•
Again and again I repeat that this forum of exchange between us is absolutely singular and graced. Thank you, Father!
W1: So interesting! Ive always thought of the “outside the gates” as the ultimate rejection. But in the logic of God, the place where Christ is sacrificed is now sanctified as the holiest of holy places. That which is “outside” the holy city is now holier than the city itself. (eg.Do you swear by the gold or the altar which sanctifies). By their rejection of the holy one, they sent him to the “outside” never again able to confine salvation to those already in the holy city!
Great altar reflection, Father! Thank you for sharing those glimpses from your vantage point at the eternal portal. Its really amazing.
Me: Yes! Awesome, [W2]!!
And now that the human body has become the locus-temple of the divine Spirit, the naos, the interior castle, the altar, priest and sacrifice, in which are the roads to Zion, there’s no telling what will get consecrated in the course of any given day as these unmoored temples meander outside the city walls into Twenty One Pilots concerts, prisons, classrooms, soup kitchens, slums, offices, mortuaries, Barnes, Black Dog Café or – gasp! – the Eucharistic Table where the whole un-bloody, life-gathered material of offering gets taken up and deposited in Heaven at the hands of Alter Christus so the exalted Lord can finish preparing a place for us.
Utterly awesome.
Thank you for your hands, Father!
Father: Singular and graced for me as well. Delighted I have dear friends to share with.
Right, [W1]: the irony that as the Father sent the Son into the world for its redemption, so Israel sent him outside the gates to be sacrificed for the world, though unwittingly.
And…Yes, Tom!!! Beautiful! The altar, the sanctuary as a Penn Station of sorts.
W1: Tom, that was AWESOME. A piece of poetry. Loved that. Even fish Fridays, a point of “fasting” as we prepare for the Passion, anticipates in the before, the provision of the risen Christ, preparing food on the shore for His weary disciples. The symbolism is really everywhere. Happy Friday to you all.
Me: [teaching recently] I tried to use the line in John’s Gospel when Jesus says, “Abraham rejoiced to see my day” as a key for linking all of the Genesis encounters with God and his providential action with the Paschal mystery. And then tried to use real life stories to illustrate how people of faith can discover and reveal to others God “laboring to love them” by prayerfully internalizing the Genesis and holy week stories. And the longer I prayed and thought about it the more I thought about the limitless connections. Obvious, I know! But I am slow:) Although I didn’t develop it, I was especially blown away by the connections between Joseph [in Genesis] and Jesus. Joseph, seemingly the only faithful monogamist male in the entire Old Testament, is typology-packed! The Fathers really exploit that. I meant Joseph is the only monogamist we hear the whole life story of “till death does he part” [from his Egyptian wife, Asenath].
W2: We are a sum of our whole history even as that history continues to be made. We can’t help but not bring the OT forward in our selves. We belong to Christ and his history is of old.
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And in honor of the iYeshiva:

Catholic vantages on Evolution

Fr. Nicanor Austriaco. news.providence.edu

Today, more than a half-century after the appearance of that encyclical, some new findings lead us toward the recognition of evolution as more than an hypothesis. In fact it is remarkable that this theory has had progressively greater influence on the spirit of researchers, following a series of discoveries in different scholarly disciplines. The convergence in the results of these independent studies—which was neither planned nor sought—constitutes in itself a significant argument in favor of the theory. — St. John Paul II’s 1996 Address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences

But the big problem is that were God not to exist and were he not also the Creator of my life, life would actually be a mere cog in evolution, nothing more; it would have no meaning in itself. Instead, I must seek to give meaning to this component of being. Currently, I see in Germany, but also in the United States, a somewhat fierce debate raging between so-called “creationism” and “evolutionism,” presented as though they were mutually exclusive alternatives: those who believe in the Creator would not be able to conceive of evolution, and those who instead support evolution would have to exclude God. This antithesis is absurd because, on the one hand, there are so many scientific proofs in favour of evolution which appears to be a reality we can see and which enriches our knowledge of life and being as such. But on the other, the doctrine of evolution does not answer every query, especially the great philosophical question: where does everything come from? And how did everything start which ultimately led to man? — Pope Benedict’s 2007 Meeting with Clergy

Recent studies indicate that the Church’s pastors have not been effective in communicating and leading this mission. In her 2015 study “Catholicism and Science,” sociologist Elaine Ecklund notes that 62% of high-attendance Catholics think that the Bible and science can be in conflict, indicating a lack of awareness that, in the words of John Paul II, “The theological teaching of the Bible, like the doctrine of the Church which makes this explicit, does not seek so much to teach us the how of things, as rather the why of things.” This is especially true of younger Catholics; according to the National Study of Youth and Religion, 72% of 18-29 year-old Catholics see science and religion in conflict, and 78% of 18-29 year-old lapsed Catholics cite the “conflict” of science and religion to account for their departure, despite the teaching of the Youth Catechism that “there is no insoluble contradiction between faith and science” (#23). This data suggests that in order to effectively catechize and evangelize this and subsequent generations, Catholic priests must be prepared to address scientific topics in a way that weds faith and reason. — Dr. Chris Baglow, author of Faith, Science, and Reason Theology on the Cutting Edge

That last quote is by my colleague and dear friend, Dr. Baglow, introducing the timely importance of a course he offered this Spring at our Seminary called, The Emergence of the Image: Human Evolution from Scientific, Philosophical and Theological Perspectives. I wish I could take it! It offers seminarians the opportunity to become part of the solution to the crisis these statistics evidence.

Recently he invited microbiologist Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, O.P., who teaches biology and bioethics at Providence College, to give a series of lectures on evolution. Fr. Nicanor received his Ph.D. in Biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his doctorate in Moral Theology at the University of Fribourg.

One of his class lectures on “why would God choose to create through evolution” was recorded, and he wonderfully gave me permission to post his lecture for public consumption. I am so grateful! It’s over two hours long, the audio is not perfect, but I think it’s well worth your time. Enjoy…
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Sex, semiotics and society

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you

Ask, seek, knock

“God instituted prayer in order to lend to His creatures the dignity of causality.” — Blaise Pascal

“We pray not in order to change the divine disposition but for the sake of acquiring by petitionary prayer what God has disposed to be achieved by prayer.” — St Thomas Aquinas

“When we share in God’s saving love, we understand that every need can become the object of petition. Christ, who assumed all things in order to redeem all things, is glorified by what we ask the Father in his name.” — Cathechism of the Catholic Church #2633

A number of years a go, a Catholic school teacher asked me why we ask God for things if He already knows everything we need. I wrote her a brief email later that I will share part of here.

+ + + +

There are lots of reasons Christians and Jews give for why we petition God for various things. The core theological principle behind this practice is what I might call God’s proclivity for “shared governance,” i.e. that the eternal God, who created us in His image and likeness, wishes us to freely and actively participate in the unfolding of His providential care for creation.

Because God is not simply raw power, but is love, it is His nature to include in His unlimited power a “space” for our free cooperation (or free rejection) in that power’s exercise. And when the Son of God became man, He enshrined this “space” and made “shared governance” constitutive of all His action by eternally sealing human freedom to His own divine freedom. This blows my mind: In Jesus, God does nothing apart from human free engagement, and all He does is ordered toward evoking love from His free creatures. That said, we must keep in mind that God is always the initiator, and we are the co-operators. Which is why we never would ask God for anything opposed to His will. His governance, our sharing. That’s why we always submit our requests to His final disposition: “God, here is what I would like to see happen, I know you heard me and take it very seriously, but your will be done. Do as you see fit.”

That’s really the whole Our Father in a nutshell, which is really one long string of petitions! (Obviously God digs petitionary prayer is that’s the model He gave us!) The use of “Father” at the start of the prayer reminds us that He’s out for our good and treats us not as slaves but as children. The first three petitions (sanctify your name, your kingdom come, your will be done) simply reiterate: God, it’s all about what you want; do your thing. Then the last four petitions spell out the kind of things God wants to do with us (feed, forgive, don’t let us break under pressure, free from evil). The Our Father sets our “shared governance” mindset for all other petitions.

But there’s something really astonishing in this whole teaching that we cannot take for granted. There’s a priestly dignity the infinite God has given us that we should not take lightly, and should exercise with great reverence and love. Fear and trembling! St John of the Cross says that when we enter into the “union of love” with God, He “loves you with supreme humility and esteem and makes you His equal.” Equal! Not to become another, rival god, but to be allowed to share in everything He is. His life and love and power and beauty and mercy and kindness and fidelity and patience and purity and on and on and on. Even His omnipresence, as bi-location shows us! (I could use that one, God)

One way to show reverence and love for this astonishing privilege of equality expressed through “shared governance” is to utilize it! We should be constantly asking for good from God on behalf of all and for all, all the time. Ceaselessly. If God is invisible light that wishes to be made visible in His infinite colors, then we are the prism He made to reveal to all creation His splendor. If God is invisible water vapor who wishes to water the earth and raise from it food to feed all, then we are the cloud that condenses His life-giving water and sends His rain on the earth. We do these by our lives and by our prayer! That’s a little strange, I know, but it gets at the general idea. 🙂

To not petition God is to sinfully ignore our responsibility and privilege as His co-workers, as His active instruments, and to deny creation the good and mercy and justice and life and every other good thing He planned for others and all to receive through us. Parents who don’t pray for their children (living and deceased) by name every day should mention that in confession. Beginning with our loved ones and extending out to our enemies and everything else. Ask, seek, knock! beg! Plead! Relentlessly! The Scriptures are clear: perservere in petitioning God long and hard, with tears and sweat and sleeplessness. And the more our prayer “costs” us, the greater our capacity becomes to receive what he wishes to give, both for ourselves and on behalf of others. An Orthodox Rabbi I met in Connecticut said to me, as we discussed the meaning of Advent: “We Jews get praying with patience for God to fulfill His promises. Three thousand years praying for Messiah to come, and still we wait.”

And pray big, like St Isaac the Syrian asks us:

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 with without measure in a heart that is in the likeness of God.

O Come, Emmanuel

Quid mirum si non comprehendis? Si enim comprehendis, non est Deus. “Why wonder that you do not understand? For if you understand, it is not God.” — St. Augustine

I’ll never forget when my dogmatic theology professor quoted this text the day he introduced us to “apophatic theology.” Apophatic is another way of saying that everything we say about God we must at once also un-say (the literal meaning of the Greek word apophasis) to make it clear God infinitely transcends the confines of every analogy drawn from finite human experience.

Here is some of what he said that day, put through Neal Translate that turns bullet points into edible English (thank God I kept my class notes!):

God is intelligible to man, but never exhaustively so. He is absolute mystery, as opposed to a conditional mystery which can be solved. Mystery isn’t illogical, a mere violation of reason. It’s excessive, like a waterfall that transgresses limits. Mystery is always beyond our grasp, always more. The prefixes ‘supra’ and ‘hyper’ [over, above, beyond] should always be attached to every true conceptual claim about God. Apophatic theologians follow their profession of faith with, ‘Yes, true, but…’

Theologians should never dare pray without the humility implicit in those prefixes, should never convince themselves that their knowledge is adequate to God. 1 Samuel 5 is for all those theologians who think they can pray without the prefixes. We dare to speak of God in our language because He chose to speak of Himself in our language, but we can still never forget the infinite distance between God and creation

… In the mystical tradition, the saints say that it is love that takes us beyond the ideas about God, beyond even our un-saying of those ideas, into the Reality. Love itself, they say, is a form of knowing more profound than the intellect’s speculative powers. Love turns knowledge from a cold artifact into a fiery bridal chamber, and love alone effects union with the One who is known.

St. John of the Cross says that in the progression of spiritual growth, one should move from the dialectical rigor of scholastic theology to the contemplative rapture of mystical theology; which for him is evidenced by the move from prose to poetry to stammering to silence.

“Speech is the organ of this present world. Silence is the mystery of the world to come.” –St. Isaac the Syrian

If we risk exile from our self-imposed limits out into the borderlands of our longing, we will meet the living God; the true God; the Unchained Mystery whose surpassing beauty is ever ancient, ever new.

O Come, God-with-us, and lead us beyond the limits of our minds, beyond language, through the infinite longings of our hearts into the fathomless depths of your boundless Mystery…

 

O Church: Serve the Sacred Secularists!

bookony.com

One very big obstacle to getting a significant number of lay Catholics to participate in missionary formation is the fact that, when this formation is complete, there will be no “job” for the “graduate” to perform. The current lay ministry formation processes run successfully on the hopeful premise that after lay students complete their formation they will be employed or given meaningful work by a pastor, or a hospital or a prison or some diocesan office. There is no such incentive for formation in the lay apostolate. This is a real hurdle to overcome if we are to attract larger numbers of parishioners to a formation in a theology of the laity. In short, after any education in the meaning of lay life is complete (if it ever really is), one will simply remain, for example, a plumber, a doctor, a truck driver, and will continue in the vocation of marriage, with two children, a dog, and a house payment. The missing incentive of getting to do pastoral ministry (e.g., being an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist or a visitor to the sick), cannot in itself abrogate the necessity of finding a way to offer such formation. To neglect this task is to neglect our duty to fill the world with secular missionaries. — Deacon James Keating

I met with some colleagues yesterday to discuss lay faith formation. You know, my same ole’ trope. Here’s my journal entry from last night. A collage of thoughts:

Every diocese, and every parish and Catholic institution in every diocese, should communicate unambiguously that their best energies are in service to lay Catholics called to live and move and have their being in the world, doing their secular things, and learning how to do them God’s way. In service to helping the lay faithful discover, embrace and carry out their noble secular vocations. Their best energies in service to the work of formation, catechesis, preaching, cultivating small faith communities, etc. All geared toward adequately resourcing those 99% of Catholics not called to church ministry but called to be salt, light and leaven in the lay apostolate. All geared toward illumining the specificities of people’s professional lives; the specificities of their life as faithful citizens in the ordinary, local, day to day worlds they inhabit; the specificities of their married/family lives; the specificities of their engagement with culture.

Those called and gifted for church ministry, ordained or not, need to be all about the specificities of these secular missionaries, experts in the actual details of the real people they are called to serve in the parish, school, nursing home, hospital, etc. under their care.

I remember when a reader of this blog 2 years ago wrote me and begged the church for this:

I am a cradle Catholic and a business owner. I have been very active in my parish for most of my adult life and I have had the benefit of having very orthodox priests and pastors in my life.

Here is my problem. A struggle every day with a whole variety of issues which challenge my ability to live my Catholic Faith in the business world, a world which is agnostic at it’s best and anti-Christian at it’s worst. I am dying for assistance on this, but what do I get at my parish? Homilies which deal with things too general to be helpful, from “do good and avoid evil” to immigration reform and abortion. Don’t get me wrong, I totally believe everything Mother Church teaches and I appreciate homilies which remind me of her teachings. But the Church also teaches us to live our Faith out in the world, and I am not getting any help on doing this.

So I beg you, Dr. Neal, to pursue your inspiration to find people who can speak to those of us in the secular world.

My business consultant friends tell me that if you want to find out how to improve service to your customers, you need to talk to the customers and ask how you can serve them. Even better, talk to former customers and find out why they left.

I’m not saying that the Church is a business, but I have never heard of a priest asking his parishioners for homily ideas. Actually, that is not quite accurate. I have heard many “church people” telling the pastor that he needs to deliver a strong message from the pulpit to the riff raff who show up late, are inappropriately dressed, leave early, etc. I’ve been on all the committees, so I know that the pastor is busy, but perhaps the pastor needs to talk to the riff raff to find out why they arrive late and leave early. And by “talk to,” I don’t mean send out a check-the-box questionnaire. I mean really get to know them, like a father knows his children.

Isn’t that how it is supposed to be?

I desire nothing more in my work as a theologian-catechist than to detonate this “lay apostolate” teaching of the Second Vatican Council in the midst of the ecclesiastical scene of America. I feel I am inept before such an immense task! I want to kiss the feet of those who are sent out into the world to live there, love there, work there, play there, witness there, struggle there, suffer there in order to bring every aspect of the secular life they inhabit into contact with the re-creating power of the living God.

The aggressiveness of anti-religious secularism begs for an equally impassioned religious secularism, an unleashing of the secular genius of the laity that does not withdraw into safe-zone ministries or world-renouncing enclaves insulated from society and culture, but a laity that boldly exits every Mass with a re-enkindled sense of their world-enhancing mission to imbue all-things-secular with the very earthy love of God.

In particular, two temptations can be cited which they have not always known how to avoid: the temptation of being so strongly interested in Church services and tasks that some fail to become actively engaged in their responsibilities in the professional, social, cultural and political world; and the temptation of legitimizing the unwarranted separation of faith from life, that is, a separation of the Gospel’s acceptance from the actual living of the Gospel in various situations in the world. — St. John Paul II

Those of us who are Baptized are living temples (1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:19), bearing within the fullness of a God who longs to take delight in His creation. As His image, we were created to be the locus of His delight in creation, the nexus of His love, the fire of His justice, the channel of His peace, the overflow of His mercy, a prism for the light of His Face to shine gloriously on all things He has made (Revelation 4:3). Man’s vocation is to reveal to all creation that His love for her transcends her finite longings. It is astonishing to think that it was by becoming man (John 1:14) that God chose to purify, reconcile (Isaiah 11:6-9), elevate, espouse (Isaiah 62:4) and reveal to all creation her final destiny of transfiguration in a New Creation where God will be all in all. The Incarnation was not just about us, but about the whole cosmos He entrusted to our care to cultivate and lift back to Him transformed and consecrated by means of our priestly hands (Romans 8:18-30; 12:1).

How God loves all He has made (Wisdom 11:24-12:1)!

St. Maximus says it beautifully:

…the Cause of all things, through the beauty, goodness and profusion of His intense love for everything, goes out of Himself in His providential care for the whole of creation. By means of the supra-essential power of ecstasy, and spell-bound as it were by goodness, love and longing, He relinquishes His utter transcendence in order to dwell in all things while yet remaining within Himself. Hence those skilled in divine matters call Him a zealous and exemplary lover, because of the intensity of His blessed longing for all things; for he longs to be longed for, loves to be loved and desires to be desired.