In Summary…

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This icon, when I posted it in 2013, was by itself (with no commentary) a complete daily Blog post titled, In Summary. The day after I posted it, I received an email from a long time friend. His reaction so moved me that I asked if I could post his email anonymously. I felt his reaction demonstrated eloquently the very point I was trying to make: the image of Jesus crucified surpasses all of my words, because it is truth, goodness and beauty perfectly fused into the one “word of the cross” (1 Cor 1:18).

Here’s what my friend’s email said:

My dear friend!

I habitually open your blog when I feel hungry for inspiration in the morning. This morning I am preparing for a hard meeting amid a series of other difficulties that have made me cry out to God, “Basta! Enough!” out of dryness.

When I saw your simple post of the cross this morning my raw reaction was to let out an an expletive.

Then I started laughing. Then I started crying.

Ave crux, spes unica! Hail the cross, our only hope!

Keep teaching me from afar!

His email brought to mind the Peruvian St. Rose of Lima’s impassioned proclamation of the word of the Cross. She taught me through her words that the Cross is not only to be the supreme beauty that informs our contemplative gaze, but is to become the beauty that informs our whole existence. Here are her words, taken from the Divine Office for her Feast Day:

Our Lord and Savior lifted up his voice and said with incomparable majesty: “Let all men know that grace comes after tribulation. Let them know that without the burden of afflictions it is impossible to reach the height of grace. Let them know that the gifts of grace increase as the struggles increase. Let men take care not to stray and be deceived. This is the only true stairway to paradise, and without the cross they can find no road to climb to heaven.”
When I heard these words, a strong force came upon me and seemed to place me in the middle of a street, so that I might say in a loud voice to people of every age, sex and status: “Hear, O people; hear, O nations. I am warning you about the commandment of Christ by using words that came from his own lips: We cannot obtain grace unless we suffer afflictions. We must heap trouble upon trouble to attain a deep participation in the divine nature, the glory of the sons of God and perfect happiness of soul.”

That same force strongly urged me to proclaim the beauty of divine grace. It pressed me so that my breath came slow and forced me to sweat and pant. I felt as if my soul could no longer be kept in the prison of the body, but that it had burst its chains and was free and alone and was going very swiftly through the whole world saying:

“If only mortals would learn how great it is to possess divine grace, how beautiful, how noble, how precious. How many riches it hides within itself, how many joys and delights! Without doubt they would devote all their care and concern to winning for themselves pains and afflictions. All men throughout the world would seek trouble, infirmities and torments, instead of good fortune, in order to attain the unfathomable treasure of grace. This is the reward and the final gain of patience. No one would complain about his cross or about troubles that may happen to him, if he would come to know the scales on which they are weighed when they are distributed to men.”

Spiritual Virtuosos

“Wisdom and her three daughters: Faith, Hope, Charity” Icon by Karp Zolotaryov, c. 1685. wikimedia.org

As I’ve read and re-read the Pope’s new encyclical, I’ve come to a deeper appreciation of the role played by the virtuous life in developing an authentic vision for the right stewardship of creation. No matter how convincing are the arguments for moral principles, without virtuous people to incarnate them no lasting difference can be made in the world. Only when we possess the virtues — which are really various facets of charity, the “soul of the virtues” — are we able to rightly relate rightly to neighbor, self, all of creation and God. Hence virtues, which are habitual and firm dispositions to do the good, are a big deal in Christianity.

The pope notes throughout Chapter Six that at the heart of an authentic spirituality stands the life of virtue. So often in (post)modernity, spirituality is equated with subjective states of consciousness or self-centered notions of personal fulfillment. Such a spirituality gives rise to a god who is really the self, writ-large as an all-affirming deity blessing my preferences and canonizing my worldview. The God of Israel, on the other hand, judges all such gods to be idols and calls idolaters to repentance and reform, i.e. to the life of virtue based on the Law. For Christianity, what especially distinguishes authentic spirituality are the “hard” virtues that Christ evinces in their perfect form; virtues such as prudence, justice, charity, temperance, mercy, chastity, obedience and fortitude in the face of suffering. The truly “spiritual” are the truly virtuous, and the surest measure of spiritual growth is not the heightened experience of a refined or ecstatic consciousness, but the increased ability to freely forgive harm done to you or cheerfully give alms to the undeserving.

St. Teresa of Avila, in describing the different states of active and passive prayer in The Way of Perfection as different means of gathering water, argues that the real purpose of prayer is to grow the virtues: “The water [the graces of prayer] is for the flowers [the virtues].” Union with God, she contends, is not some ethereal union or rarefied state, but rather natural and theological virtues in sync with God’s will and attributes. We are in union with God when our justice harmonizes with His Justice, our charity with His Charity, our patience with His Patience, our mercy with His Mercy, our purity with His Purity, our generosity with His Generosity, et cetera ad infinitum.

So, the Pope says, if you want to be spiritual, be virtuous. And if you want to be virtuous, work with and pray for grace. Let me let the Pope speak for himself…

Christian spirituality proposes an alternative understanding of the quality of life, and encourages a prophetic and contemplative lifestyle, one capable of deep enjoyment free of the obsession with consumption. We need to take up an ancient lesson, found in different religious traditions and also in the Bible. It is the conviction that “less is more”. A constant flood of new consumer goods can baffle the heart and prevent us from cherishing each thing and each moment. To be serenely present to each reality, however small it may be, opens us to much greater horizons of understanding and personal fulfilment. Christian spirituality proposes a growth marked by moderation and the capacity to be happy with little. It is a return to that simplicity which allows us to stop and appreciate the small things, to be grateful for the opportunities which life affords us, to be spiritually detached from what we possess, and not to succumb to sadness for what we lack. This implies avoiding the dynamic of dominion and the mere accumulation of pleasures.

Such sobriety, when lived freely and consciously, is liberating. It is not a lesser life or one lived with less intensity. On the contrary, it is a way of living life to the full. In reality, those who enjoy more and live better each moment are those who have given up dipping here and there, always on the look-out for what they do not have. They experience what it means to appreciate each person and each thing, learning familiarity with the simplest things and how to enjoy them. So they are able to shed unsatisfied needs, reducing their obsessiveness and weariness. Even living on little, they can live a lot, above all when they cultivate other pleasures and find satisfaction in fraternal encounters, in service, in developing their gifts, in music and art, in contact with nature, in prayer. Happiness means knowing how to limit some needs which only diminish us, and being open to the many different possibilities which life can offer.

Sobriety and humility were not favourably regarded in the last century. And yet, when there is a general breakdown in the exercise of a certain virtue in personal and social life, it ends up causing a number of imbalances, including environmental ones. That is why it is no longer enough to speak only of the integrity of ecosystems. We have to dare to speak of the integrity of human life, of the need to promote and unify all the great values. Once we lose our humility, and become enthralled with the possibility of limitless mastery over everything, we inevitably end up harming society and the environment. It is not easy to promote this kind of healthy humility or happy sobriety when we consider ourselves autonomous, when we exclude God from our lives or replace him with our own ego, and think that our subjective feelings can define what is right and what is wrong.

We are speaking of an attitude of the heart, one which approaches life with serene attentiveness, which is capable of being fully present to someone without thinking of what comes next, which accepts each moment as a gift from God to be lived to the full. Jesus taught us this attitude when he invited us to contemplate the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, or when seeing the rich young man and knowing his restlessness, “he looked at him with love” (Mk 10:21). He was completely present to everyone and to everything, and in this way he showed us the way to overcome that unhealthy anxiety which makes us superficial, aggressive and compulsive consumers. (#222-224, 226)

Soft, hard violence

“The Slaying of Abel” by Pietro Novelli, c. 1640. Taken from canvaz.com

Repost 2012

Today’s Gospel [March 9, 2012] about the vineyard leased to murderous tenants led me to reflect on the mysterious role that violence plays in the coming of God’s Kingdom to humanity. From the time of Cain, man, created in the image of God, has sought to banish the divine image from the world and put in its place idols of our own making. The grotesque logic of the crucifixion of Jesus plays out to its full the logic of sin, as on the Cross humanity is finally given the opportunity to slay the rejected Image; and so reject the Archetypal Father. I’ve always thought that was the meaning of the enigmatic saying in Revelation 13:8, that describes Jesus as “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” Man, and the seducer of man, sinned “from the beginning.” All sin is an attempt to slay the rejected divine Image, the Son of God (cf. Colossians 1:15). Jesus came into the world to “reveal man to himself,” and by so doing to illumine our disfigurement that he might reconfigure and transfigure us into his own glorious Image: self-giving love.

“The Image of God,” by Eugène Delacroix, c. 1850. Taken from lib-art.com

But alas, “every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed” (John 3:20). Man is a great mystery, a tortured blend of beauty and filth. As Blaise Pascal memorably said it is his Pensées:

What a chimera, then, is man! What a novelty! What a monster, what a chaos, what a contradiction, what a prodigy! Judge of all things, imbecile worm of the earth; depository of truth, a sink of uncertainty and error; the pride and refuse of the universe!
Who will unravel this tangle? What, then, will you become, O men? Know then, proud man, what a paradox you are to yourself. Humble yourself, weak reason; be silent, foolish nature; learn that man infinitely transcends man, and learn from your Master your true condition, of which you are ignorant. Hear God.

It’s all so utterly astonishing to reflect on, and provides not only a window into our truest selves, but a dazzling portal through which we peer into the deepest character of a God who loves our mess. As St. Catherine would put it, God in Christ appears as pazzo d’amore; ebbro d’amore, “crazed with love; drunk with love.” And as it is with Christ, so it is to be with us.

We live in a world drenched in violence, even though it is often disguised by soft sounding virtues or lawless liberties that conceal bloodshed beneath clever and deceptive euphemisms. I need not name them, they are so obvious. If we can believe the redemptive crucifixion means anything, it seems to mean that God’s redeeming love prefers to encounter naked violence, violence that shows its true nature, rather than hiding itself beneath softly smiling apathy or murderous indifference. These are, in the words of Hannah Arendt, epiphanies of evil’s pathetic apogee: banality. George Studdert Kennedy’s poem, When Jesus came to Birmingham, captures this wonderfully:

When Jesus came to Golgotha, they nailed Him to a tree.
They crowned Him with a crown of thorns, red were His wounds—and deep.
For those were crude and cruel days, and human flesh was cheap.

When Jesus came to Birmingham, they only passed Him by.
They would not hurt a hair of His, they only let Him die.
For men had grown more tender, they would not wish Him pain.
They only passed down the street, and left Him in the rain—the winter rains that drenched Him through and through.

And when all the crowds had left the street.
Jesus crouched against a wall, and sighed for Calvary.

Taken from stuff.co.nz

“Hear me, O Lord! Hear me!” 1 Kings 18:37

Coptic Pentecost icon. Taken from youthirsty.org

The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre of pyre-
To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire. — T.S. Eliot, “The Four Quartets, IV”

“Through the Holy Spirit comes our restoration to paradise, our ascension into the kingdom of heaven, our return to the adoption of sons, our liberty to call God our Father, our being made partakers of the grace of Christ, our being called children of light, our sharing in eternal glory, and, in a word, our being brought into a state of all “fullness of blessing,” both in this world and in the world to come, of all the good gifts that are in store for us, by promise hereof, through faith, beholding the reflection of their grace as though they were already present, we await the full enjoyment.” — St. Basil the Great, “On the Holy Spirit”

Come, true light.
Come, life eternal.
Come, hidden mystery.
Come, treasure without name.
Come, reality beyond all words.
Come, person beyond all understanding.
Come, rejoicing without end.
Come, light that knows no evening.
Come, unfailing expectation of the saved.
Come, raising of the fallen.
Come, resurrection of the dead.
Come all-powerful, for unceasingly you create, refashion and change all things by your will alone.
Come, invisible whom none may touch and handle.
Come, for you continue always unmoved, yet at every instant you are wholly in movement; you draw near to us who lie in hell, yet you remain higher than the heavens.
Come, for your name fills our hearts with longing and is ever on our lips; yet who you are and what your nature is, we cannot say or know. Come, Alone to the alone. Come, for you are yourself the desire that is within me. Come, my breath and my life. Come, the consolation of my humble soul. Come, my joy, my glory, my endless delight. — St. Symeon the New Theologian, “Epiclesis”

“And what does this new and powerful self-communication of God produce? Where there are divisions and estrangement he creates unity and understanding. The Spirit triggers a process of reunification of the divided and dispersed parts of the human family; persons, often reduced to individuals in competition or in conflict with each other, reached by the Spirit of Christ, open themselves to the experience of communion, can involve them to such an extent as to make of them a new organism, a new subject: the Church. This is the effect of God’s work: unity; thus unity is the sign of recognition, the ‘business card’ of the Church in the course of her universal history. From the very beginning, from the day of Pentecost, she speaks all languages. The universal Church precedes the particular Churches, and the latter must always conform to the former according to a criterion of unity and universality. The Church never remains a prisoner within political, racial and cultural confines; she cannot be confused with states not with federations of states, because her unity is of a different type and aspires to transcend every human frontier.

From this, dear brothers, there derives a practical criterion of discernment for Christian life: When a person or a community, limits itself to its own way of thinking and acting, it is a sign that it has distanced itself from the Holy Spirit. The path of Christians and of the particular Churches must always confront itself with the path of the one and catholic Church, and harmonize with it. This does not mean that the unity created by the Holy Spirit is a kind of homogenization. On the contrary, that is rather the model of Babel, that is, the imposition of a culture of unity that we could call ‘technological.’ The Bible, in fact, tells us (cf. Genesis 11:1-9) that in Babel everyone spoke the same language. At Pentecost, however, the Apostles speak different languages in such a way that everyone understands the message in his own tongue. The unity of the Spirit is manifested in the plurality of understanding. The Church is one and multiple by her nature, destined as she is to live among all nations, all peoples, and in the most diverse social contexts. She responds to her vocation to be a sign and instrument of unity of the human race only if she remains free from every state and every particular culture. Always and in every place the Church must truly be catholic and universal, the house of all in which each one can find a place.” — Pope Benedict XVI, 2010

Ethiopian icon of Pentecost, c. 1391. Taken from armenianstudies.csufresno.edu

Acquire the Fire

Pentecost is still far off, but somehow I can already feel its approach. You can almost hear in the far distance an approaching roar from above. In today’s Gospel, the Lord says to his disciples during his final discourse at the Last Supper:

I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now.
But when he comes, the Spirit of truth,
he will guide you to all truth.

St. Seraphim of Sarov said that the entire spiritual life of the Christian can “succinctly be summarized thus: the acquisition of the Holy Spirit.” The mission of the Spirit, sent by Father and Son to re-create creation through the priestly mediation of redeemed humanity, is to make present and active in the world the limitless mercy of God that flows from the open side of dead-and-risen Christ. Intimacy with Christ begins in our intimacy with the Spirit who continues to incarnate the Word in us, Christ’s mystical Body.

Colleen Nixon once sang Cardinal Mercier’s prayer to the Holy Spirit, and since that day her voice has (blessedly) haunted my prayer. Listen to her here:

In honor of the Spirit, Treasury of All Blessings, I will leave you with the words of the “lyre of the Spirit,” St. Symeon the New Theologian. May God grant to all of us the grace of his Holy Spirit!

What is this awesome mystery that is taking place within me?
I can find no words to express it:
My poor hand is unable to capture it,
In describing the praise and glory that belong
To the One who is above all praise,
And who transcends every word…
My intellect sees what has happened,
But it cannot explain it;
It can see, and wishes to explain,
But can find no word that suffices,
For what it sees is invisible and entirely formless,
Simple, completely uncompounded,
Unbounded in its awesome greatness.
What I have seen is the totality recapitulated as One,
Received not in essence but by participation.
It is just as if you lit a flame from a live flame:
It is the entire flame you receive.
What point is there in trying to explain all of this to you,
Or trying to make you understand it all?
If you yourself have not felt it by personal experience,
You will be unable to know it.

Eating a Feeding God

Dorothy Day’s last arrest, age 74. Taken from jimandnancyforest.com

I happened on three quotes in succession today that all seemed to sing a harmonious canticle about the real-world impact of the Risen Jesus. I commented in my journal after reading them: “Jesus, by taking our flesh and blood up in the resurrection, makes clear that loving Him really always means loving our flesh and blood neighbors concretely. Bodily resurrection ruins our valiant attempts to evade our unlovable neighbor while aspiring to embrace our all-lovable God, or failing to feed our hungry neighbor while daring to eat the Bread of Life.”

Enjoy:

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Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger: The defenders of orthodoxy are sometimes accused of passivity, indulgence, or culpable complicity regarding the intolerable situations of injustice and the political regimes which prolong them. Spiritual conversion, the intensity of the love of God and neighbor, zeal for justice and peace, the Gospel meaning of the poor and of poverty, are required of everyone, and especially of pastors and those in positions of responsibility. The concern for the purity of the faith demands giving the answer of effective witness in the service of one’s neighbor, the poor and the oppressed in particular, in an integral theological fashion. By the witness of their dynamic and constructive power to love, Christians will thus lay the foundations of this “civilization of love” of which the Conference of Puebla spoke, following Paul VI. Moreover there are already many priests, religious, and lay people who are consecrated in a truly evangelical way for the creation of a just society.

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Stanley Hauerwas: Too often I think Christians think about the resurrection in terms of a story told by Soren Kierkegaard about a prince riding through his field. The prince sees a peasant girl gathering the crops. She is beautiful and the prince falls instantly in love with her. However, he is a noble prince and does not want to overwhelm her with his power and riches, so he dresses in peasant clothes and goes to work side by side with her.

Kierkegaard notes that what holds our attention as such a story is told is our curiosity about when the prince will show his true identity. We know the prince and the peasant girl will fall in love – after all, she is beautiful and he is noble so we know they will love one another. But we want to know when and how the prince will reveal to his beloved that she has fallen in love with the prince himself. We let our imaginations run. Perhaps one day they share a lunch during which he tells her of his love. She confesses she also loves him and suddenly he rips back the peasant clothes and reveals the purple. Or perhaps he will wait until the wedding itself. They exchange vows at the end of which he tears away his rough clothes to reveal that through this marriage she has become the queen of the land. If we are really letting our imaginations run, we might think he waits until the wedding night itself.

Kierkegaard uses this story to suggest that we think the resurrection must be like a prince who has been hiding the purple under his rough clothes. The resurrection reveals the purple. However, Kierkegaard notes the only problem with this way of thinking about the resurrection is that Jesus has no purple under his flesh. Jesus is peasant clothes, flesh, all the way down. He is not playing at being a human. He is human all the way down.

The resurrected Christ is the crucified Christ. Only such a Christ, moreover, can save us. For Jesus is the Christ, being for us this particular man making possible a particular way of life that is an alternative to the world’s fear of one like Jesus.

Christians have no fantasy that we may get out of life alive. Instead we have a saviour who was in every way like us, yet also fully God. Jesus is not 50% God and 50% man. He is 100% God and 100% man – he is the incarnation making possible a way to live that constitutes an alternative to all politics that are little less than conspiracies to deny death.

Such a saviour does not promise that by being his follower we will be made safe. Rather, this saviour offers to free us from our self-inflicted fears and anxieties. Jesus does so not by making our lives “more meaningful” – though we may discover our lives have renewed purpose – but by making us members of his body and blood so that we can share in the goods of a community that is an alternative to the world.

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Fr. Aidan Kavanagh: Genesis says that we began in a swamp teeming with life, but that something went vastly wrong one evening at dinner. Apocalypse says that the difficult was finally resolved into something called the Banquet of the Lamb. Hebrews tells us how the resolution was accomplished, not in an orchard set in pleasant countryside but in a butcher shop located in the city’s center. The World’s story from beginning to end pivots upon this resolution, a resolution the faint of heart, the fastidious, and the squeamish find hard to bear. Suburbia prefers its meat wrapped in plastic, all signs of violence removed so as to reduce the necessity of entering into the dark and murderous transaction with reality which one creature giving up its life for another entails.

This means that in a Christian assembly’s regular Sunday worship, a restored and recreated World must be so vigorously enfleshed in ‘civic’ form as to give the lie to any antithetical civitas–especially to one raised on the slippery footing of Pelagian optimism and the sovereignty of the individual to whom oppression is thought to come only from without. The assembly is not a political party or a special interest group. But it cannot forget that by grace and favor it is the World made new; that creation, not the state, is a theocracy; and that the freedom with which all people are endowed by the Creator is something which by our own choice is prone to go awry.

Along with the blood-bought right of Christian orthodoxia to celebrate creation root and branch, there goes an obligation to exorcize continually its human inmates’ lust to do their own thing no matter what, especially as doing their own thing blinds them to the risks, duties, and nobility of being creatures of creation’s Source and friends of creation’s Redeemer. This is a frightful ministry carried on with trembling hands and a dry mouth, for the World stops being cute when told it is morbid. The Christian assembly is equipped for such a frightful ministry with no more nor less power than that with which Jesus the Christ came to the same ministry in the days of his flesh. It is what his Body corporate is here for. In him, and according to his example and no other, the Christian assembly is obliged to do its best. It was in the doing of his own best that he laid down his life for the life of the World–not in cynical disgust or in limp passivity before the Human Problem, but for those of those who caused the Problem in the first place. His Church can do no less.

The Church doing the World as God means it to be done in Christ is the greatest prophecy, the most powerful exorcism, of all. The Church is seen and felt by all to be doing its best most overtly and accessibly in its steady, regular round of what I have called orthodoxia, a life of ‘right worship’ which is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. It is a life whose enactment is festive, ordered, aesthetic, canonical, eschatological, and normal. The liturgy is nothing more nor less than the Body corporate of Christ Jesus, suffused with his Spirit and assembled in time and place, doing its best by doing the World as the World issues constantly from God’s creating and redeeming hand. What the liturgical assembly does is the World. Where the liturgical assembly does this is the public forum of the World’s radical business, the Thingplatz of a restored and redeemed creation. When the liturgical assembly does this is the moment of the World’s rebirth–the eighth day of creation, the first day of the last and newest age. Nothing less rides upon the act of the assembly, determines its style, lays bares its service and mission for the life of the World.