On Another’s Sorrow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++++++++++++++++

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

Holy Artwork, Part I

This still shot (taken from the Russian movie, Andrey Rublyov) of Saint Andrei Rublev for me captures the quality that made this legendary Orthodox iconographer a saint. His vocation, as for all of us, was to shoulder the terrible burden of bringing the Beautiful Kingdom into the grey ruins of a violent, loveless, fallen world. Carrying that out heroically made him a saint. Taken from liturgieapocryphe.com

2013 repost

Anyone who reads this Blog knows that I am passionate about the lay call to holiness in the secular world. How many lay Catholics are aware that serious sanctity awaits them right where they are, in the midst of worldly cares? When the lay faithful are evangelized, catechized, sacramentalized and sent out into the world embracing their unique call to perfection, a fresh communion of thoroughly secular lay saints can be canonized for their genius:

Laicis indoles saecularis propria et peculiaris est, “What is proper and peculiar to the laity is their secular genius.” — Lumen Gentium #31

Vatican II proposed as a most effective response to atheistic secular humanism a Christian humanism that is thoroughly secular, i.e. one that affirms created, “worldly” goods as essential to human fulfillment in the Kingdom of God. Much of our historic spiritual tradition is built around a vision of holiness appropriate to consecrated religious and clerical states of life, severely marginalizing the importance of engaging secular reality. But the Council sought to restore the rightful place of the “secular” by locating the world, and its myriad temporal concerns, at the very heart of the lay vocation to holiness. As Bl. Paul VI once said,

And it is in this sense that the Church, and especially the Catholic laity, confer a new degree of consecration upon the world, not by bringing specifically sacred and religious signs (although in certain forms and circumstances the latter are also desirable), but by coordinating it to the kingdom of God by carrying on the secular apostolate through faith, hope and charity. “Qui sic ministrat, Christo ministrat”; he who serves his neighbour in this way, serves Christ, as St. Augustine says in one of his noble pages. It is holiness, that spreads its light over the world and in the world. This is, or rather may this be, the vocation of our times.

Such a vision of a world-consecrating laity fully immersed in secular concerns gives rise to a spirituality not content with mere negations, providing strategies for avoiding “worldly temptations,” important as this can be. Like Christ, who has redeemed the world on a cross outside the Temple walls, the layperson intentionally abides in the midst of the world’s secular affairs while working “for the sanctification of the world from within as a leaven” (LG #31). Or, as Lumen Gentium #38 has it, the laity “must be to the world what the soul is to the body.” The laity belong in the heart of the world. But in order to be the world’s “soul,” laity require a spirituality that empowers them to be fully alive as Christ’s disciples in the world. “In the world, but not of the world,” they can enliven culture and society around them by infusing social and cultural realities with a thoroughly Catholic vision of life precisely because they have internalized that vision. Catholic social teaching, which is all about how one “does the world” according to the mind of Christ, thus becomes for each of the lay faithful their “Way of Perfection.”

Christian Kulturkampf

Lay holiness finds its home, in a particular way, in the midst of human culture. To engage human culture in society, with all of its constitutive institutions, is the privileged means to intimate union with Christ for the lay faithful. By cultivating a truly Christian culture, which is a truly human culture, the lay saint extends the Incarnation of God into every aspect of life. Engaging the social, economic, political, legal, educational, agricultural, business world with the mind of Christ, calling down the Spirit on every moment of one’s day, consecrates the secular world itself to God.

But what does the the Incarnation have to do with secular culture? When God became flesh in Christ, he did not just assume a human body and soul, but drew into his divine life the whole world that was his “home” as a Jew living under Roman occupation. In Jesus, it was God Himself who worked, cooked, ate, slept, sang, danced, laughed, played, walked, argued, learned, taught, wore clothing, developed friendships, cried, suffered and engaged in every other aspect of human culture. All of that worldy “stuff” was, so to speak, swept up into God’s life and became part of the “divine culture” that subsists in the Trinity. (Pause: that thought requires me to catch my breath) Then, at Pentecost, Christ’s Spirit gave birth to the Church (us!) and offered to the whole culture of mankind the opportunity to be taken up into Christ’s Body. In Christ’s mystical Body culture is transfigured and redeemed in and through Christ’s faithful, we who are joined to Christ in Baptism.

Orthodox baptism, taken from ryanphunter.files.wordpress.com

Further, I would argue that the Eucharist itself proclaims this divine plan in a most striking way. What is it that the Holy Spirit transubstantiates in the Mass? Artifacts of human culture, bread and wine! In the Eucharist the gifts of human culture, the work of our hands, are taken up into the Body and Blood of the risen Christ. Therefore, Holy Mass teaches us, engaging human culture, or any aspect of temporal reality, can never be seen for Christ’s faithful as a spiritually neutral act. As cultural beings, culture is for us a unique sacramental medium for entering into transforming union with God in Jesus. And the laity, in a way “genius” to them, embody a distinctive “cultural mysticism” which permits no aspect of secular life to escape the influence of God’s sanctifying Spirit.

There are cultural mystics all around us, mostly hidden, who become Christ’s hands, feet, smile, heart in the world…

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

Taken from media.philly.com

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

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

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

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

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

Peter Kreeft commented on this,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cathedral building

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

O Fortunate Ruin

{This is an old post from summer of 2012}

The other day I was speaking on the phone with someone who has worked for a few decades in a Catholic institution, and in the course of the conversation they related some painful job-related difficulties. In the course of the conversation this person said in exasperation, “Sometimes I wonder if Jesus has anything to do with the work we do.”

It set me wondering.

Solus Christus

Having worked within the Church Institutional for the last ~24 years, I have noted that original sin is alive and well in its unoriginal hosts.

The bumps, bruises and blows I have endured, and have doled out, over the years have served to reinforce in me a bedrock truth upon which I have tried to build my own work and protect my inner joy: the Church is, in the final analysis, Christ’s and not mine or ours. Further, the Church rests on an unstable paradox: the Church’s one foundation is the terrifyingly unjust execution of the divine Creator and the Creator’s terrifyingly merciful re-creation of his human executors. She’s built on human sin and divine grace, human violence and divine peace, human rage and divine compassion. Human infidelity is built into the Church’s very founding event, making sin into a strange fountain in our midst that upwells with superabundant grace (cf Rom. 5:20).

Take this into prayer and allow the Spirit to weave it into your soul and watch the transformation happen — the way you will see powerful divinity appear in weak humanity.

Cleave

Back in 1989, I met an elderly priest (probably in his 90’s) at a Lourdes Grotto in Emmitsburg, Maryland. He randomly grabbed my arm and said to me, “Son, the secret to a lifetime of priesthood is found in Jeremiah 17:5 and Psalm 146:3. Look them up.” I went and looked them up as spoon as I was able.

Thus says the Lord:
Cursed is the man who trusts in human beings,
who makes flesh his strength,
whose heart turns away from the Lord. — Jeremiah 17:5

Put no trust in princes,
In mortal men in whom there is no help. — Psalm 146:3

After I read them I thought, “Cynical.” I was sad to think at his age that that was where he was ending.

But now, I get it.

From the vantage of faith, success in life isn’t determined by the absence of hardships or difficult people, but on how tightly one has cleaved to Christ in all things. Only in that way can the ups and downs of life open up into so many singularly graced opportunities to sink my anchor deep into the only Rock.

I love you, Lord, my strength,
my rock, my fortress, my savior.
My God is the rock where I take refuge;
my shield, my mighty help, my stronghold. — Psalm 18:1-2

Long learned wisdom

If I had to name those men and women of faith that I most admire, all of them, as I call them to mind right now, are people who have suffered hardships and disappointments within the Church, but have refused to succumb to bitterness, cynicism or flights from reality. An old priest I know and greatly admire not long ago said to me (and consented that I share these words), referring to his lifelong ecclesiastical tribulations,

I’ve been through hell, but it’s taught me heaven. In the blackness of my worst pain, I have caught a glimpse of St. John of the Cross’ stanza:

O night that led me true,
O night more fair than morning’s earliest shining,
O night that wrought from two
lover, beloved entwining
beloved and lover one in their combining!

Had I not gone there, I would never have come here. Jesus. Jesus. It’s all Jesus.

You see, for me it’s people who have been “through it” that have something to say, and who can, like Jesus, “speak with authority.” And though I myself cannot yet speak with such authority, I can share with you the hard-won wisdom of those who do.

Italian-American theology

Let me leave you with the well-known words of the late Italian theologian, Carlo Carretto, who here starkly expresses this paradoxical vantage, and the words of Frank Sheed, brilliant American lay Catholic theologian/author of the mid 20th century, who captures the same tension.

Carlo:

The Church has the power to make me holy but it is made up, from the first to the last, only of sinners. And what sinners! It has the omnipotent and invincible power to renew the Miracle of the Eucharist, but is made up of men who are stumbling in the dark, who fight every day against the temptation of losing their faith. It brings a message of pure transparency to God but it is incarnated in slime, such is the substance of the world. It speaks of the sweetness of its Master, of its non-violence, but there was a time in history when it sent out its armies to disembowel the infidels and torture the heretics. It proclaims the message of evangelical poverty, and yet it does nothing but look for money and alliances with the powerful.

Those who dream of something different from this are wasting their time and have to rethink it all. And this proves that they do not understand humanity. Because this is humanity, made visible by the Church, with all its flaws and its invincible courage, with the Faith that Christ has given it and with the love that Christ showers on it.

When I was young, I did not understand why Jesus chose Peter as his successor, the first Pope, even though he abandoned Him. Now I am no longer surprised and I understand that by founding his church on the tomb of a traitor, He was warning each of us to remain humble, by making us aware of our fragility

How much I must criticize you, my church,
and yet how much I love you!
You have made me suffer more than anyone
and yet I owe more to you than to anyone.
I should like to see you destroyed
and yet I need your presence.
You have given me much scandal
and yet you alone have made me understand holiness.
Never in this world have I seen anything
more compromised, more false,
yet never have I touched anything
more pure, more generous or more beautiful.
Countless times
I have felt like slamming the door of my soul in your face
– and yet, every night,
I have prayed that I might die in your sure arms!
No, I cannot be free of you, for I am one with you,
even if not completely.
Then too–where would I go? To build another church?
But I could not build one without the same defects,
for they are my defects.
And again, if I were to build another church,
it would be my church, not Christ’s church.
No, I am old enough, I know better.

Frank:

We are not baptized into the hierarchy; do not receive the Cardinals sacramentally; will not spend an eternity in the beatific vision of the pope. Christ is the point. I, myself, admire the present pope (John Paul II), but even if I criticized him as harshly as some do, even if his successor proved to be as bad as some of those who have gone before, even if I find the church, as I have to live with it, a pain in the neck, I should still say that nothing a pope (or a priest) could do or say would make me wish to leave the church, although I might well wish that they would leave.

Acting with Christ

We pray standing, on the first day of the week, but we do not all know the reason. On the day of the resurrection, we remind ourselves of the Grace given to us by standing at prayer, not only because we rose with Christ, and are bound to seek those things which are above, but because the day seems to us to be, in some sense, an icon of the age which we anticipate. – St. Basil the Great, On the Holy Spirit. Taken from frjohnpeck.com

A time ago, a daily Mass communicant I know was standing outside of a local parish church shortly before daily Mass began. As I was walking toward the church she was walking away toward the parking lot. I said to her, “Aren’t you able to go to Mass today?” She replied, “No, I ate a late breakfast and so broke the Communion fast; and there’s no sense in going if I can’t receive.”

I kept walking, but was totally thrown off by that comment and was torn by a mixture of, “I know what she’s getting at,” and “That’s the only reason she goes to Mass?” So I turned around and said to her, “Hey, you can at least make a spiritual Communion, right?” She stopped, turned back and said, “Yeah, you’re right. Thanks for mentioning that. I’ll go.”

Over the next several weeks I thought long and hard about that comment, about what it presupposes and what more there is to it. So I thought I would share a few thoughts from those scattered thoughts.

Mass as liturgy

In Catholic lingo, the Mass is “liturgy.” The Catechism beautifully defines liturgy for us as “an action of the whole Christ (Christus totus).” So, when we participate in the celebration of the Mass we are participating in the action of the whole Christ, i.e. the Risen Christ and his Body, the Church, acting in unison.

When I hear that I say, I want in on that action! But then I have to ask myself, what exactly is that action?

Well, the Church captures the entirely of Christ’s action in a pithy phrase you’ll hear now and again in the texts of the Mass: the paschal mystery. The paschal mystery is the comprehension-exceeding mystery of Christ’s “Passover” from death to life, his death and resurrection. But in truth it encompasses the entire saving work of God in Christ, from his humble conception in the womb of the Virgin to his glorious coming in power at the end of the ages to judge the living and the dead and reveal the new creation. The liturgy, therefore, contains all of this like a cup overflowing.

Let me share with you the journal entry I wrote after this incident in which I tried to capture some of the immense dynamism of this divine liturgy we mere mortals are called to enter.

In the liturgy, Christ draws the totality of humanity into the fullness of a God who is a “consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29), forgiving us, healing us, sanctifying us, illumining us, giving us a share in the divine life and inviting us to cooperate with him in “storing up treasure in heaven” by gathering up – through faith, hope and love – the materials of the first creation into the new creation. In the liturgy, our small labors, kindled by love for God and enemy, feed the fire that streams from the Throne of God (Daniel 7:10); that fire that will one Day consume the whole cosmos in God’s absolute and saving judgment on all of history. In the liturgy, we mingle our voices with all the Powers of heaven who ceaselessly sing before God and the Lamb; and we fore-taste already now the coming Sabbath of time’s blessed demise. In the liturgy, we are immersed in a sensual sea of signs and symbols that tremble beneath the weight of Glory and blaze with the joys of Paradise. In the liturgy, the in-breaking of God into history transgresses the bounds of time and space and crashes into our unsuspecting present – oh my! In the liturgy, our sins are drowned in God’s mercy, our weaknesses suffused with Christ’s power. In the liturgy, we are, in the words of St. Hildegard of Bingen, “drenched in the speech of God” as God’s Word-made-text overspills the Scriptures into hearts of flesh, uplifted in wafting melodies while at once shattering hearts of stone. In the liturgy, our bodies, bound to the fleshy Word by the Heavenly Spirit, are offered up in Christ’s bloody at-one-ing sacrifice to the everlasting Father; and along with our bodies is taken up, into the Ascending Wounds, all that our faithfully hoping sacrificial love has consecrated in each moment of each hour of each day. In the liturgy, our thanks for the gifts of creation and redemption are united to the thanksgiving of Christ; and our supplications on behalf of the living and the dead are inserted into the ceaseless pleading of Christ before the Face of the Father for us and for our salvation. In the liturgy, the church becomes, in the words of St. Germanus of Constantinople, “an earthly heaven in which the super-celestial God dwells and walks about.” In the liturgy, every ritual gesture, every sacred song, everything consecrated for worship that is seen and heard and touched and smelled and tasted transacts the divine-human communion that burns deep in the Heart of Christ. Pope Paul VI called these the “presences” of Christ in the liturgy, affirming that from the moment we enter the church and douse ourselves in holy water to the moment – impelled by the command, Ite, “Go!” – we sprint to our car to speed off and proclaim the Gospel with our lives in the City of Man, gathering fresh materials for the next Mass, Christ assails us from every which way. No escape. Blessed captivity!

I don’t know about you, but that suffices to get me to Mass, Communion or not.

Enter the whole paschal mystery

Yes, worthy reception of Holy Communion is a solemn and supremely graced moment in the Mass when we “unite ourselves to Christ, who makes us sharers in his Body and Blood to form a single body” (CCC#1331). But, as I have argued above, the grace of the liturgy is far more than that one moment. The entirety of the celebration teems with divine life, is rife with singular opportunities to participate in the paschal “action” of Christ re-creating, redeeming, healing, transfiguring, transforming, sacrificing the whole universe in God, beginning with your heart.  So never ever think that participating in the liturgy when you cannot receive the Body and Blood of Christ is somehow “not worth it,” and when you do receive, receive with “fear and trembling,” making the words prayed before reception of the holy Eucharist by Eastern Christians your own:

I believe, O Lord, and I confess that thou art truly the Christ, the Son of the living God, who didst come into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief. And I believe that this is truly thine own immaculate Body, and that this is truly thine own precious Blood. Wherefore I pray thee, have mercy upon me and forgive my transgressions both voluntary and involuntary, of word and of deed, of knowledge and of ignorance; and make me worthy to partake without condemnation of thine immaculate Mysteries, unto remission of my sins and unto life everlasting. Amen. Of thy Mystic Supper, O Son of God, accept me today as a communicant; for I will not speak of thy Mystery to thine enemies, neither will I give thee a kiss as did Judas; but like the thief will I confess thee: Remember me, O Lord, in thy Kingdom. Not unto judgement nor unto condemnation be my partaking of thy Holy Mysteries, O Lord, but unto the healing of soul and body.

Hymn of the Universe

Let me leave you with an extraordinary quote written by Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, (1881-1955), who was a French Jesuit theologian and scientist renowned for his pioneering field work in paleontology. Though some of his work was censured by Rome and he was prohibited from publishing theological works, he was obedient and he produced some extraordinarily creative insights. In quoting him here, I share the sentiments of St. Vincent of Lérins who, when quoting the condemned heretic Origen, famously said, “Who would not rather be wrong with Origen than right with anyone else?” This quote is taken from a long prayer Fr. Chardin wrote while working in a remote part of China. As he did not have what he needed to celebrate Mass one day, he instead offered himself and the world to God. Its profound sentiments have inspired my own ability to enter into the Mass with a greater capacity for offering than a mere tithe check or a few weakly collected sentiments.

Since once again, Lord — though this time not in the forests of the Aisne but in the steppes of Asia — I have neither bread, nor wine, nor altar, I will raise myself beyond these symbols, up to the pure majesty of the real itself; I, your priest, will make the whole earth my altar and on it will offer you all the labors and sufferings of the world.

Over there, on the horizon, the sun has just touched with light the outermost fringe of the eastern sky. Once again, beneath this moving sheet of fire, the living surface of the earth wakes and trembles, and once again begins its fearful travail. I will place on my paten, O God, the harvest to be won by this renewal of labor. Into my chalice I shall pour all the sap which is to be pressed out this day from the earth’s fruits.

One by one, Lord, I see and I love all those whom you have given me to sustain and charm my life. One by one also I number all those who make up that other beloved family which has gradually surrounded me, its unity fashioned out of the most disparate elements, with affinities of the heart, of scientific research and of thought. And again one by one — more vaguely it is true, yet all-inclusively — I call before me the whole vast anonymous army of living humanity; those who surround me and support me though I do not know them; those who come, and those who go; above all, those who in office, laboratory and factory, through their vision of truth or despite their error, truly believe in the progress of earthly reality and who today will take up again their impassioned pursuit of the light.

This restless multitude, confused or orderly, the immensity of which terrifies us; this ocean of humanity whose slow, monotonous wave-flows trouble the hearts even of those whose faith is most firm: it is to this deep that I thus desire all the fibers of my being should respond. All the things in the world to which this day will bring increase; all those that will diminish; all those too that will die: all of them, Lord, I try to gather into my arms, so as to hold them out to you in offering. This is the material of my sacrifice; the only material you desire.

Our Wild God

God Appears to Moses in Burning Bush. Painting from Saint Isaac’s Cathedral, Saint Petersburg, Russia. Taken from http://upload.wikimedia.org

A friend of mine shared with me a story last weekend about a malapropism that found its way into the pre-Mass announcements at a parish one Sunday morning. The opening song for that day was that wonderful hymn, written by 19th century British composer Fr. Frederick Faber, There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy. The lector, who is quite excellent, got up before Mass began and read the opening announcements. When she got to the end, she proclaimed in a loud and confident voice:

Please join us in singing our opening song, “There’s a Wilderness in God’s Mercy.”

The choir cracked up.

Felix Culpa

After chuckling a bit myself, I began, predictably, to muse on the theological possibilities found in this happy mistake. I thought of the meaning of the word “wilderness,” which comes from the Old English wild-deor, “wild deer.” It refers to lands populated by untamed, undomesticated animals that escape the control of human beings, or, more generally, to the wider natural world that is unconcerned with the orderly concerns of human culture and enterprise. It is a world fraught with danger and mystery, strangely seductive to those who loathe the sleepy comforts of an overly-controlled suburban contentment that populates our more or less gated lives. Wilderness is where the sleepy must go if they are to awaken and escape from their binding attachments that turn comfort into an idol, safety into a prison, sameness into ossifying chains that keep suburbanites from soaring into the City of God. As Thoreau said in Walden,

We need the tonic of wildness…At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.

I have a friend who loves the to engage in period forays into the wilds, to trek outdoors where he loves hiking and camping, adores the discomforts of grunge and sweat and mosquitoes and unexpected downpours. He’s been hit by lightening (via the water his boat was floating in), bitten by snakes and attacked by hawks when he ventured too near their nest. By week, he’s a professional businessman. I asked him once why he felt so drawn to such things and he said,

It’s what keeps my soul from going stale. It’s where I see God most clearly, when all the clutter and busyness of life peels away. It’s where I can drop the Type A obsession with neatness and be messy in God’s order of things. Out in nature it’s like God’s saying to me: you humans, you’re so small, and you’re part of something much bigger than yourselves, a world you just can’t control. You don’t try to control it, you just find your place in the ecosystem, in an order not of your making. It’s got a beauty that’s way too easy to forget is already all around you all the time when your surrounded all day by concrete walls and papers and virtual media. It’s like the week that grows in the sidewalk crack, defying our claim to bend all nature to our utilitarian will. After I get back from being in the forests and swamps, I can see God much better in the paper and concrete; and in the people around me.

Wild at Heart

God created the wilderness and asked man to make of it a Garden, but Man, having rebelled, was expelled from the Garden into the wilderness. But our vocation remains, a vocation to transform the wilderness into a Garden or, maybe, to discover in the wilderness the Garden God is fashioning. Something like that.

In the Scriptures God, who is himself a wandering Nomad of sorts, has a certain affection for journeying with his chosen people into the wilds of a trackless and barren desert. It’s the place where God leads Israel when they’ve become overly controlled or controlling, enslaved in pseudo-worlds of their own making. These are worlds populated by false gods, or by a domesticated God fashioned into an idol, a work of human ingenuity that strips God of all his dangerous attributes that threaten to expose humanity’s injustices, deceptions, guilt or inhuman malice.

If there’s anything that true about the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, it’s that he is essentially wild, fearfully uncontrollable, and absolutely free from all necessity save the exigencies of his own divine nature (e.g. his truth, goodness, fidelity, mercy). Every biblical character who encounters God must be at once told, “Do not be afraid!” because to meet God is to be set off balance as unclean meets the All-Holy, injustice meets the All-Just, or some such juxtaposed contrast that shatters petrified hearts, refashioning them in the Potter’s free-wheeling Hands. Even in the Christian mystical tradition, one frequently hears the mystic describe the “shock” of encountering God with the stock phrase, “of sudden!” God’s coming, without warning, comes like a sudden squall, though, unlike the natural phenomenon, the divine Storm comes to wreak havoc only in order to recreate and restore the original order.

You might say that the essence of the covenant God makes with Israel, fulfilled in Christ, can be summed up as an invitation of God to us, and our affirmative consent, to allow “God to be God” as God with us. That’s what Emmanuel means, “God with us,” but on on God’s terms, not ours. That’s who Jesus was and is, God with us on God’s terms, even (and especially) in the face of our violent resistance and rejection — and there, crucified, God-with-us reveals himself to be, beyond all our wildest imaginings, unrelentlingly merciful. And one need only think of the resurrection appearances — strange, unexpected, terrifying, bewildering, awful, inducing worship — to sense that this revelation of God is ruinous for the preconceptions of sinful men and women who wish God to be God on their terms.

There’s something gravely dangerous, disconcerting, about surrendering to God’s uncontrolled nature, especially inasmuch as our fallen nature, fashioned originally in his image, has marred the divine likeness by attempting to seize control of the divine image by fashioning idols, staging a coup to overthrow God and, ultimately, plotting to slay him. Those who choose thus set themselves at odds with God, against his Face and his wildness, suddenly discover that he appears, to the reprobate, to be wrath. As God has not changed, and cannot change, we discern that it is our posture toward him that has altered. But God, whose justice is ever-rife with prodigal mercy, reveals to us the way back, draws us by “bands of mercy” (Hosea 11:4) toward the path of life, which is life lived in concert with God’s untethered, unstrained and pity-full love. When the author of Hebrews 10:31 says, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God,” we might read there not only divine wrath but, for those willing to repent of their deadly coup, God’s far more fearful mercy. It is an unyieldingly, mercilessly relentless mercy that effects in the willing a total and complete remedy that heals our sins to the deepest roots.

St. John of the Cross speaks so powerfully of this “labor of mercy” in the Dark Night. There he argues that those who consent to permit God’s unchained mercy a free reign in their deepest depths feel simultaneously out of control and absolutely secure as God, the absolutely trustworthy Divine Surgeon, sees to the death of death within us. Here, John says, prayer becomes challenging as we sense that God is remaking us within, deconstructing our sins and distortions, and recreating within us the Kingdom of God. Those who pass through this final purifying “night” discover within them the Dawn’s rising, and they themselves become wild with the folly of the Risen Christ, wise with the wisdom of the Cross, are propelled to and fro by the freely blowing Spirit, drunk with divine love’s madness and freed (as Augustine says) to love and do as they will. But none of this can be had until they have been freed from self-will, from illusions and flights of fantasy, grounded in the Commandments and the virtues, for there is no true freedom until one’s will has been chained to the divine will by obedience. Those who seek freedom without obedience worship themselves and seek a false wilderness that leads to death and the land of illusions.

Wild in Mind

A last meditation on the “Wilderness in God’s Mercy.” In our theological tradition, we affirm that human language has the capacity to reveal the truth of God’s transcendent nature (called kataphatic, or “saying” theology), but we also affirm that human language is very fragile in is capacity to comprehend God’s nature (called apophatic, or “unsaying” theology). Theologians try to balance these two in “the ascent of the mind to God,” climbing an analogical ladder that we are at-once climbing and being lifted up on. Our knowledge of God, as we grow in intimacy with him, increasingly enters into contact with this unstable tension between “saying” and “unsaying,” stammering and singing our way into the mystery of what Meister Eckhart called the “vast and silent desert of Divinity.” God is vast beyond our every capacity to “think big” about him, which, for the theologian should not stand as a reason to despair but rather as a reason to give thanks! In the words a small child in Iowa who once misspoke at Mass, miming the proper liturgical acclamation that follows the biblical readings, “Thanks to Big God.”

It’s a tension that elicits with the theologian (or any person of faith) humility, wonder, desire, longing, terror, dizziness, joy and ecstasy, widening our horizons and making us evermore capax Dei, capable of God. It’s why theologians must also be men and women of prayer, as we strive to experience the Mysteries we explore and render ourselves vulnerable to suffering the coming of the real God, the true God, the living God, and not the God of our puny imaginings or warped desires. In other words, theologians are those whose hearts, having been purified, can see God under the form of an inchoate glory and called to share our vision with the Church. Or, for those of us who know we are far from that purity, at least give voice to those who have seen thus.

Saints of God, come to our aid!

Let me end this already too-long post (which I will give you rest from tomorrow with a post-less day) with some fav quotes from two of the great Masters of God’s wilderness, St. Gregory of Nyssa and Ps-Dionysius.

St. Gregory:

The feelings that come to a man who stands on a high mountain peak and looks down onto some immense sea are the same feelings that come to me when I look out from the high mountain peak of the Lord’s words into the incomprehensible depths of his thoughts. When you look at mountains that stand next to the sea, you will often find that they seem to have been cut in half, so that on the side nearest the sea there is a sheer drop and something dropped from the summit will fall straight into the depths. Someone who looks down from such a peak will become dizzy, and so too I become dizzy when I look down from the high peak of these words of the Lord: Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. These words offer the sight of God to those whose hearts have been purified and purged. But look: St John says No-one has seen God. The Apostle Paul’s sublime mind goes further still: What no man has seen and no man can see. This is the slippery and crumbling rock that seems to give the mind no support in the heights. Even the teaching of Moses declared God to be a rock that was so inaccessible that our minds could not even approach it: No-one can see the Lord.

To see God is to have eternal life – and yet the pillars of our faith, John and Paul and Moses, say that God cannot be seen. Can you understand the dizziness of a soul that contemplates their words? If God is life, whoever does not see God does not see life. If the prophets and the Apostle, inspired by the Holy Spirit, attest that God cannot be seen, does this not wreck all the hopes of those who seek his Face?

It is the Lord who sustains our floundering hope, just as he sustained Peter when he was floundering in the water, and made the waters firm beneath his feet. If the hand of the Word stretches out to us as well, and sets us firm in a new understanding when these speculations have made us lose our balance, we shall be safe from fear, held safe in the guiding hand of the Word. Blessed, he says, are those who possess a pure heart, for they shall see God.

Ps.Dionysius:

How then can we speak of the divine names? How can we do this if the Transcendent surpasses all discourse and all knowledge, if it abides beyond the reach of mind and of being, if it encompasses and circumscribes, embraces and anticipates all thins while itself eluding their grasp and escaping from any perception, imagination, opinion, name, discourse, apprehension, or understanding? How can we enter upon this undertaking if the Godhead is superior to being and is unspeakable and unnameable?

Paschal Providence

I heard a really superb homily a number of years ago at a retreat, and it was on the mystery of suffering and evil as seen through the lens of faith in Christ. That’s a rare homily to hear anywhere, but it’s undoubtedly true that people of faith long to hear the “Gospel of Suffering,” as Bl. John Paul II dubbed it in his own post-assassination-attempt meditations published as an apostolic letter, Salvifici Doloris.

[As this post will not be a comprehensive exploration of suffering-evil’s “mystery,” let me recommend four readings if you want more: A. Nichols’ chapter on the philosophical-theological issues at stake; R. Shaw’s theological-existential reflections; Peter Kreeft’s concise summary of an apology on suffering; and D. Hart’s challenging musings on the deep structures of the theological problem of evil-suffering.]

It was the kind of homily that makes one search through their wallet for a piece of paper to write notes on. The quotes from the homilist I include here are all “glossed,” meaning I wrote them as an interpolation mixed with my own simultaneous insights. So it’s a hybrid homily.

The homilist made several excellent points, but I will only comment on two of them here (I’ll hit a third tomorrow).

Divine Providence, not Fate

First, he addressed the way Christians view divine Providence, or God’s wise governance of history. “Divine Providence,” he said, “is the key to finding meaning in life and history.” He noted that the Christian tradition (drawing from its Jewish heritage) rejected a pagan worldview which asserted that history, and even the gods, are governed by a universal and impersonal force called Fate, which is itself essentially blind to justice, terrifyingly capricious and ultimately unconcerned with humanity’s temporal or eternal well-being. Rather, he argued, Christianity proposed a radical Jewish view that all things and all history and under the sway of one Creator-God who is all-wise, all-powerful and all-good, and that the ultimate defining power that stands as judge and ruler over the cosmos is divine hesed-emet, “steadfast mercy.” And even more specifically for Christians, steadfast-mercy as it is revealed fully in Jesus crucified, dead and risen from the grave.

This, he said, was arguably among the greatest thought-revolutions of the ancient world, and one that, as a church history professor of mine once felicitously worded it, “elicited from pagan converts a collective sigh of relief,” i.e. so that’s what stands behind this worn and weary world. Deo gratias!

The homilist continued, saying that though the exact nature of how God governs a history marked by oscillations of good and evil without overriding creatures’ own natural freedoms is largely shrouded in mystery, there are some things we can affirm. One of them, he said, was powerfully stated by John Paul II in his superb book, Memory and Identity, where the pontiff said,

It could be said that human history is marked from the very beginning by the limit God the Creator places upon evil.

God’s Providence, therefore, guides history by limiting the progress of evil, which only advances as far as God permits. The space of this divinely limited permission is, he contended, a “safe space” where we can “hide,” as the psalmist says in Psalm 91, under God’s sheltering wings in absolute trust. This is really, he said, what the sixth and seventh petitions in the Lord’s prayer are about (“lead us not…deliver us”), and is what St. Paul has in mind when he says in 1 Corinthians 10:13,

God is faithful and will not let you be tried beyond your strength; but with the trial he will also provide a way out, so that you may be able to bear it.

The idea really runs through the entire biblical narrative and stands at the epicenter of the Paschal Mystery: the Passion, death, burial and descent into hell is evil’s farthest boundary, the edge of God’s No, while the resurrection, God’s Yes, is the sealing of that boundary’s Gate by which redeemed humanity passes into the Paradise of eternal well-being.

Permitted in view of…

Then he noted, briefly but succinctly, that within those limits God permits evil and suffering only in view of the “greater good” he draws from it (again, think here Paschal Mystery as the interpretive lens). But he added an important qualifier:

We should not think of God’s permitting evil in view of some greater good as God somehow positively desiring evil things to happen to make even better things happen through them. No! Rather, God permits evil only inasmuch as He foresees greater goods can be drawn out of them by His Providential plan. While you might say God’s permission for evil is the “space” required for the evolution of finite freedom toward infinite perfection, you should not say that God wills evils in the same sense that he wills goods, or even in the same sense as He wills the goods drawn out of the permitted evils.

This is important because it means that God’s ordained will (i.e. what He directly and positively wills) and His permissive will (i.e. what He allows but does not directly/positively will) are both defined by His good-will, i.e. His love. He always and in all things desires and wills the ultimate and final good for all. That’s really important to remember if you’re going to have a place to drop your anchor in the storms of suffering; it’s where hope finds a sure hold, the rock of God’s good-will that’s backed up by an infinite power and wisdom by which He is able and willing to accomplish that good-will.

This, he said, is the rock-bottom foundation of our absolute trust in God’s provident care for us, and is what St. Paul meant when he said in Romans 8:28,

We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

And it’s for those “who love God” not because God is some sycophant who benefits only His devotees, but because such “lovers” alone are able to pattern their lives in harmonious accord with the patterns of Providence, which are the patterns of love. And that love looks like Christ, who is “the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully [revealing] man to man himself and [making] his supreme calling clear” (Gaudium et Spes 22).

Divine Providence, I.N.R.I.

I’ll try to keep this short for fear of excessive length). The second point he made (alluded to above) flowed from the first, and that is that God’s Providence, the divine care we entrust ourselves to unconditionally, is to be understood only through the lens of the Paschal Mystery, the death and resurrection of Jesus. God’s Providence is a “paschal providence.”

He quoted the Latin dictum, per cucem ad lucem, “through the cross to the light,” and said that we simply cannot comprehend the divine-human meaning of evil and suffering as a Christian unless we saturate our own “linguistic universe” with the “word of the cross” (1 Cor. 1:18) refracted through Christ’s traditional seven last words. This was a wonderfully new thought for me! He said,

The Seven Last Words of Jesus sum up, you might say, a Christian grammar of faith in the night of suffering; a faith that engages both a sinful, fallen world and a silent God in a very specific manner. This vision of faith is only intelligible, you might say, from the vantage of a dying God who, though struck down, looks up in trust and dies in the hope of “the joy that was set before him.” But the fact is that this language, these 7 words, apart from faith, are folly, absurdity, madness, scandalous. Those who make that language their native tongue will be seen as fools, even as they become capable of a hope and a love that are truly otherworldly; supra-human.

In case you are not familiar with the tradition list of those seven last words, let me share them in summary for here:

  1. Luke 23:34: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.
  2. Luke 23:43: Truly, I say to you, this day you will be with me in Paradise.
  3. John 19:26–27: Woman, behold your son. Behold your mother.
  4. Matthew 27:46 & Mark 15:34 My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?
  5. John 19:28: I thirst.
  6. John 19:29-30: It is finished.
  7. Luke 23:46: Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.

Horizon-stretching!

For me, those insights were earth-shaking, horizon-stretching ones that pulled together things I knew already in one way or another, but joined them into a new and fresh portrait. Seeing my whole life, my own (weak and fitful!) personal trust in God’s provision for my welfare through the translucent icon of a Crucified Christ through whom all of history finds its meaning, judgment and fulfillment, was, let’s say unsettlingly comforting. It also gave me a new theological lens through which to read a saying my very first spiritual director shared with me when I would fret about the twists and turns of my life,

Trusting God only means something when you’re suspended naked above Golgotha. No need for trust when you’re building tents on Tabor.

[These references, if they are not clear, are to the sites of Jesus’ crucifixion (Golgotha) and transfiguration (Tabor).]

When Divine Providence becomes our vision

I will end this unwieldy reflection with a quote I have shared before. It’s by the Russian saint-martyr, the eldest daughter of Czar Nicholas II, Grand Duchess St. Olga. Shortly before her murder by the Bolsheviks in 1917, she penned a prayer that reflects this brash trust in God’s “paschal providence,” and bears within it the refracted grammar of the dying Christ:

Send us, Lord, the patience, in this year of stormy, gloom-filled days, to suffer popular oppression, and the tortures of our hangmen. Give us strength, oh Lord of justice, our neighbor’s evil to forgive; and the Cross so heavy and bloody, with Your humility to meet.  In days when enemies rob us: to bear the shame and humiliation, O Christ our Savior, help us. Ruler of the world, God of the universe, bless us with prayer and give our humble souls rest in this unbearable, dreadful hour. At the threshold of the grave, breathe into the lips of Your slaves inhuman strength — to pray meekly for our enemies.

St. Olga Nikolaevna Romanova from http://upload.wikimedia.org