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!

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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.

Postlude to Yesterday: Hopko eloquence

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I just happened to pick up a talk by Fr. Tom Hopko this morning for my morning prayer reflection, and was amazed at its resonance with yesterday’s re-post! I’ve quoted parts of it in this Blog before, but I think it’s worth revisiting. Here’s an excerpt of it:

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The Cross reveals who God is and why we say God is love, and therefore reveals what love is. Now, that’s also very important for us today, because not only does everybody talk about God, but more often than not they speak of the true God only by coincidence. Some of those TV preachers, when they say “God,” I don’t know what god they’re talking about, but it ain’t the one we contemplate, hanging on the Cross.

Who doesn’t want to love? Everybody wants to love. You see it on the stop sign: “Make love, not war,” “All you need is love.” Everyone will tell you they’re for love. Dr. Ruth is for love. I mean, who’s not for love? Who would be not for love, at least rhetorically? Who would get up and say, “I’m for hate; I’m for death”? No one. But the problem is: What is love? That’s the question. If I’m for love, what is love? If I’m for God who is love, who is that God who is love, and therefore what is love? If I find and fulfill myself as in the image and likeness of God who is love. Thomas Merton who was a famous monk said, “To know that we are made in the image and likeness of God who is love is enough knowledge to last us endless eternities.” You don’t need any more information. That’s enough. If you go on a need-to-know basis, that’s all you need to know: that we’re made in the image and likeness of God, who is love. But what you also need to know is that the love is realized and manifested and actualized and shown for what it is on the wood of the Cross and nowhere else. Ultimately, definitively, absolutely, that’s where it’s shown for what it is.

God 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.

The Cross tells us that this world, inasmuch as it’s fallen, 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 that all becomes incarnate in 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 cosmetized 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 he 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 bearing 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.

Give me wonder, O Lord

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Re-post from 2014

The innermost meaning of wonder is fulfilled in a deepened sense of mystery. It does not end in doubt, but is the awakening of the knowledge that existence is mysterious and inconceivable, and that it is a mystery in the full sense of the word: neither a dead end, nor a contradiction, nor even something impenetrable and dark. Rather, mystery means that a reality cannot be comprehended because its light is overflowing, unfathomable, and inexhaustible. And that is what the wonderer really experiences. — Joseph Pieper

Someone asked me recently, “What’s most important to you as a theologian? What’s your non-negotiable?” My spontaneous response was, “Wonder!” They replied, “What does that mean?” I proposed an answer of sorts, but here’s what I jotted down later on my journal:

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For me, theological wonder is permitting faith to get the mind stuck in amazement, surprise, marvel and openness to the unexpected answers found in a life shot through with the divine. Answers that set the mind off-balance, i.e. re-calibrating answers.

In wonder there’s also an astonished gratitude over the sheer gratuitousness, the undeserved gifted-ness of everything. As the German philosopher Martin Heidegger put it, I experience myself as “being thrown” into existence. I was not, I never asked to be, but then found myself suddenly here. I am. I always find my “first person” vantage completely mind-blowing: what does it mean that I am me and not another? I used to think of this beginning at the age of 7 or 8 — it was my first taste of this mystery’s conundrum that leaves your “why am I me?” faced with no better answer than, “Gift.”

My favorite philosophical question is closely related, “Why there is something rather than nothing at all?” None of this world had to be, but here it is. Wow.

Existence is a ceaseless wellspring of fresh insight. Every day is as freshly new into existence as the light that followed the words, “Let there be…”

Morning has broken, like the first morning
Blackbird has spoken, like the first bird

Wonder allows you to return to this “first” moment, which is not “back then” but now. If you allow yourself to receive existence as a new gift in every moment, it will regularly re-set the limits of your constricted horizons. I need a poem here to help me. Per Letters to the Exiles, Rilke’s “Go to the Limits of your Longing”:

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

Wonder is giving over your hand to God.

Theological wonder also requires and gives birth to humility. The first stance of everything is not grasping and dominating and doing, but absolute receptivity. I am in every moment receiving from God the act of being. And, by humility, I know how much I don’t know. I know that I never, in any final sense, will arrive at the end of knowledge. There’s always more, a surplus of meaning to be sought after. This gives rise in me not to shame or despair or frustration, but to hunger and thirst. Desire. Love.

Knowledge without love is data, knowledge with love is wisdom. By wisdom I see how love coheres all that I know. By wisdom we can see that everything is a gift of love given for the good of all. The universal destination of goods. “What have you that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?” (1 Cor. 4:7). All I am and have is meant for the good of all. I contemplate in order to share the fruits of contemplation. I am bright so I might enlighten. I learn in order to teach and give all I’ve learned away. Wonder makes the teacher’s greatest joy not being called wise but making wise.

I want to remain restless, unfinished. Though I wish to be grounded firmly on the rock of truth, I never want to ossify. I desire certitude, not hubris. While certitude confidently raises up its wide-rimmed chalice to be overfilled, hubris builds up roundabout itself an impenetrable fortress to remain safe.

I long to remain open to learning from anything and anyone, without prejudice. I aspire to listen closely, to look closely, carefully, with discernment. I hope to greet in each new day the feast of Epiphany; to live in a perpetual wow, imprisoned there, permitting faith to inflict serial shock on my mind. Leading me up a Mountain that admits of no zenith, Christ.

Faith-drenched minds seek what keeps all our liturgical orations so hesitant to “wrap it all up” — their codas are fearful of ending: in saecula saeculorum, “unto the ages of ages.” St. Gregory of Nyssa uses the verb epektasis as a refusal to punctuate the quest into mystery. Epektasis means something like “upward striving.” Mountain climbing with Moses. St. Paul uses a form of this verb in Philippians:

Forgetting those things that are behind, and reaching forth [epekteinomenon] unto those things which are before, I press towards the mark (3:13).

How thrilling.

Theology boils up from within the open Heart of the God-Man, gushing out into all faith-disposed minds. Boiling faith inhabits understanding, stretching its present borderlands.

Faith stays in me the surge of sardonic cynicism that can so easily overtake Church-insiders (like me) who are well aware just how terribly awful baptized humanity (like me) can be. A theologian is preserved from cynicism only in the childlike mind of Christ. Guileless. His wonder poured from the cursèd Cross and filled the bowels of Hell, where He descended. He could not but preach God’s ebulliant [from the Latin ebullire “to boil over”] Gospel of joy and hope to Hell’s prisoners (Lk. 4:18; 1 Pet. 3:19).

So we get Christ-minded saints like Silouan the Athonite: “Keep thy mind in hell, and do not despair.” And we get Popes like Benedict XVI:

Christ descended into “Hell” and is therefore close to those cast into it, transforming their darkness into light. Suffering and torment is still terrible and well- nigh unbearable. Yet the star of hope has risen—the anchor of the heart reaches the very throne of God. Instead of evil being unleashed within man, the light shines victorious: suffering—without ceasing to be suffering—becomes, despite everything, a hymn of praise.

Theologians are called to offer their living witness of hope in the midst of the Church. Their life should shout:

The farther you sink into the mind of Christ, the better, more joyful, more loving and hope-filled human being you become.

May it be so for me and all of us called to be theologians. Amen.

Confirmed in Fire

Coptic Egyptian icon of Pentecost. squarespace.com

Re-post from 2013

On the Feast of Pentecost, I thought I would offer a simple reflection on the Sacrament of Confirmation.

Do you know when you were Confirmed? If not, contact the parish where you were Confirmed and they will tell you. It’s a revered practice in our tradition to honor the anniversary of sacramental celebrations — baptism, holy communion, marriage, holy orders.

Today’s Solemn Feast concludes the Easter season and is, in real sense, the memorial feast of your Confirmation. Catechism #1302:

It is evident from its celebration that the effect of the sacrament of Confirmation is the special outpouring of the Holy Spirit once granted to the apostles on the day of Pentecost.

Confirmation is a sacrament of Pentecost, as the whole mystery that unfolded Pentecost morning in Jerusalem mystically irrupts (not erupts) in your body and soul through the conferral of Sacred Chrism on your forehead. Chrism is sacramental oil, and in the Eastern Churches it is revered with a piety akin to that connected with the Eucharistic presence. Once in my Dad’s Orthodox parish some Chrism was spilled on the ground and the priest bowed down to the ground to worship Christ present there as the Deacon cleaned it up with sacred linens. I was in awe!

I attended a Confirmation eight years ago, and the Archbishop gave a really dynamic extemporaneous homily offered to about 70 teen confirmandi. I later that night jotted down as much as i could recall from memory. Here’s a portion of what I wrote:

If God gave to your eyes right now the ability to see the spiritual world, you would see this church enveloped in wind and flame. Why? Well, at this very moment the Holy Spirit is eagerly awaiting for you to receive Him, to ignite the kindling wood of your faith. Only through you can He set the world on fire!

You all have faith, right? [he walked over to individuals and asked four or five this question, much to their chagrin!] If not, tell me now. This isn’t magic. Like all the Sacraments, this is a Sacrament of faith. You gotta have faith! Faith means you believe in a talking God, a God who reveals Himself and wants to talk with you, personally, individually. Whenever you pick the Bible up to read with faith, it’s alive! He’ll talk to you in those words.

And faith means God has something to say that requires action. You gotta do your faith. Get out there and show you believe, show what belief looks like in real life. In fact, I believe that our faith only grows when we do. When you step out in faith and talk about Jesus. When you step out in faith and forgive an offense. When you step put in faith and put yourself second and others first. When you step out in faith and don’t get drunk, tell dirty jokes, sleep with that boy, take those drugs. Step out in faith when you make time to pray every day, even when it’s really hard to pray and really easy to do something else.

And faith means we cling to God when things go south. We trust Him absolutely, in the best and the darkest of times, to be with us. Faith really means something when it’s all we have, when all our props and crutches fail. We have to have a tough faith in a world of doubt and unbelief! Am I wrong?

And let me just say, anyone who says faith is a crutch doesn’t know what faith is. A crutch to do what? Deny yourself, pick up your cross and do good in the face of every temptation to not do good? If I’m going to choose a crutch, that’s not the one I would choose!

Those cowardly disciples came out of that Upper Room on Pentecost, Spirit-filled and hearts burning, filled with trust. Filled with fearless courage, joy and enthusiasm. They ran out into the streets of Jerusalem like madmen! They ran out to tell some crazy news to the same people who had shouted only weeks before: Crucify him! Crucify him! There they were telling these Passover pilgrims, to their faces: this Jesus you crucified is now King of kings and the highest Lord of all creation. What?

Jesus thrust his disciples out into a place of dissonance and confusion so they could bring out into the world the Spirit’s harmony. Jesus sent them out as a demolition crew tearing down the tower of Babel by speaking in all tongues the faith of Jesus. This is all coming to you in a few minutes when you get Confirmed. Are you ready? You’re squirming now, aren’t you? How do I get out of here?

You see, Jesus is not leaving you orphans, not leaving you to face this all alone. He’s sending His Spirit to fire you up, give you courage, firmness in your faith — Con-firm-ation, right? Be ready tonight to break open those church doors when this Mass is over. Get ready to rush out into the world to shout, by your words and actions, the word of the Cross and tell everyone you meet by the way you speak and act: Christ is the meaning and measure of life! He’s the best Way to be human!

Jesus shows us what it means to be human. You don’t abuse the gift of sexuality, you don’t lie or cheat or steal and kill. You enjoy life in moderation, stay free of addictions, live lives of sacrifice to make others’ lives better. People will accuse you of being drunk, of having lost your mind, but you’ll know that you haven’t lost your mind. No! You’ve gained the mind of Jesus! You want to know who you are? Look at Him! Jesus is our looking glass: He reflects back to us what we’re supposed to look like, who we’re supposed to be. And when we look at Him, all those other facsimiles out there look dark, distorted, shattered and plain old crazy.

Confirmation is conformation of the mind and heart to Jesus. Not just thinking like Jesus, but letting Jesus think his thoughts in you. That’s prayer! You need to allow Him in to think with you about things. He’s a friend. You see, He’s alive! And that’s the Holy Spirit’s entire mission statement: opening YOUR minds to Jesus’ mind. Pray every day.

As Pope John Paul so often said to us, do not be afraid to be different, to put out into the deep, to be a sign of contradiction, to surprise your peers and parents with a new way of thinking. Revolutionary. It may cause an uncomfortable stir now and again, an uproar, laughter or snickering, but that’s the stuff saints and martyrs are made of. That’s the stuff your own patron saint was made of. That’s the stuff God wants YOU to be made of. Are you ready for the challenge? I can’t hear you! Are you ready….?

Come Holy Spirit:

Falling Fire

Pentecost is near. The Spirit is readying Paradise to empty its contents into the whole of creation; to mine the limitless Treasury burning in the risen Body of Jesus and expend Christ’s entirety (pleroma) on a humble group of Jews hidden in a locked room of Jerusalem. How marvelous that God always chooses to spend His riches on the poor and to be magnified in the lowly.

Two Pentecostal gifts for you today. First, there’s a powerful international initiative of prayer for the Spirit to come afresh on the Church with power on the eve of Pentecost. NOLA residents are invited especially to join in a marvelous prayer Vigil the eve of Pentecost at Divine Mercy Parish in Kenner, LA. Saturday evening from 9:00 p.m. to 12:00 a.m. Over 300 groups around the world have registered to host their own Vigil events on May 14, as well as over 250 people registered so far for the event in Kenner. See this video by Fr. Dave Pivonka, TOR, whose hyperbole is turned to good effect:

Second, 11th century Byzantine saint, St Symeon the New Theologian, who is revered in the Eastern Church for his teaching on the Spirit, wrote a lovely prayer to the Spirit and a poetic reflection on the effects of His coming. The last lines, as Russian theologian Vladimir Lossky once said, should make all theologians exercise great reserve in claiming the title “theologian” or speaking of the mysteries of faith too easily. Fr Tom Hopko said that the world-class Orthodox liturgical theologian, Fr Alexander Schmemann, would quietly go into the chapel after teaching — usually late at night — and pray to be made worthy to speak of such mysteries. May all of us retain that sense of awe when we speak of God, and pray that we might experience for ourselves the mysteries we think and speak on. Come Holy Spirit!

St. Symeon:

Come true light
Come eternal life
Come hidden mystery
Come nameless treasure.
Come ineffable deed
Come inconceivable person
Come endless bliss
Come un-setting sun
Come untarnishing crown
Come purple of our great King and God
Come crystal belt studded with gems
Come unapproachable sandal
Come royal purple and right hand of the King
Come you whom my poor soul has longed for, and longs for still
I give you thanks that you have become one single spirit with me.

God heard my cries
And from unimaginable heights he stooped down
And looked upon me.
Once more he had pity on me and allowed me to see
The One who was invisible to all,
A much as human kind can bear.
Seeing him I was astounded,
Me who was locked up in my tiny house of bone,
All surrounded by darkness…
I saw him in the midst of my tiny house,
So quickly had he entered in, complete,
Uniting himself to me inexpressibly
Joining himself to me inexpressibly
Suffusing himself in me unconfusedly,
Just as fire can permeate iron,
Or light shine through crystal.
So it was he made me become like fire itself;
Revealing himself to me as Light.

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.

If you have not discerned that the eye of your mind has been opened,
And that it has seen the light;
If you have not perceived the sweetness of the Godhead;
If you have not been personally enlightened by the Holy Spirit;
If you have not sensed that your heart has been cleansed
And has shone with luminous reflections;
If, contrary to all expectation, you have not discovered the Christ within yourself;
If you have not been stupefied, at your vision of the divine beauty;
Then tell me – how is it that you dare to make any statement at all about God?

The Law of Love

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I remember the day when I first heard love defined. I always imagined it was one of those fuzzy things that evaded definition.

It happened in my moral theology class. The professor, as I recalled in my journal, was responding to this question from a student: “In what sense can morality be said to be the science and art of love? The moral law seems too cold for love.” He replied by making a number of points about love:

Love means to consistently will and otherwise choose the true good of another, and morality specifies what the good is and how best to bring it about. Aquinas says it this way, “An act of love always tends toward two things: to the good that one wills, and to the person for whom one wills it; since to love a person is to wish that person good.” Law, which is the concrete expression of the demands of justice, grounds and guards love, and points the way “beyond” for love to go, since love always goes beyond justice, though never against it … To “love your neighbor as yourself” means you see their flourishing as your own. So St. Paul’s commands us in Romans 12, “rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep” and then tells us in 1 Corinthians 12, “If one member of Christ’s Body suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” And the Jews have a saying, “If you save one life you save the whole world” — because everyone’s salvation demands the salvation of all … But fulfilling the command to love God is somewhat different. It cannot mean willing and choosing His fulfillment, as He is purely actualized fulfillment. He always is everything He can be. Rather, to love God can only mean loving what God loves, willing what He wills. Which is, of course, the fulfillment of our neighbor, which brings us back full circle to the two commandments Jesus tells us are two halves of a whole.

I was absolutely ecstatic to have such conceptual clarity, and so much seemed to suddenly make sense. The connection between love and the moral law, love of neighbor and self, and love of God — all part of a symphonic unity. Christians must reclaim the word love so it does not remain simply an empty cipher susceptible to any meaning given it, and they must put it into action in their lives to show just how beautiful it is.

He went on to add an additional insight on love. He said, “The Second Vatican Council, under the influence of Karol Wojtyła, further enriched our understanding of love. He said that love is not simply the detached willing another’s good, external to ourselves, but the offering of the very gift of self to another.” Then he quoted Gaudium et Spes #24, adding that Wojtyła likely was a major inspiration behind its language:

For this reason, love for God and neighbor is the first and greatest commandment. Sacred Scripture, however, teaches us that the love of God cannot be separated from love of neighbor: “If there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself…. Love therefore is the fulfillment of the Law” (Rom. 13:9-10; cf. 1 John 4:20). To men growing daily more dependent on one another, and to a world becoming more unified every day, this truth proves to be of paramount importance.

Indeed, the Lord Jesus, when He prayed to the Father, “that all may be one. . . as we are one” (John 17:21-22) opened up vistas closed to human reason, for He implied a certain likeness between the union of the divine Persons, and the unity of God’s sons in truth and charity. This likeness reveals that man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.

Then he quoted 1 Thess. 2:8: “So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves [tas heautōn psychas], because you had become very dear to us.” That’s the essential meaning of communion and covenant: an exchange of selves offered in love sealed by a promise of trusting fidelity. It’s why marriage — as I often say — is the foundation of all social and ecclesial life, and the primordial icon of neighbor love in extremis, “in its most extreme form.” Society and the Church flourish only when marriage, and the family life built on it, flourishes.

Back in January a friend came to visit us from out of town for a few days and she showed us this 9 minute movie that knocked our socks off. It captures in such a moving way the heart of what Aquinas and Wojtyła convey with such abstract precision. I posted it the other day, but just in case you did not watch it before, I encourage you to watch it now. Again, it’s about 9 minutes long: