Through the recreation and leisure made possible by travel, people are restored and renewed, body and spirit. They return home to family and work with a new perspective and enthusiasm for life.” –St. John Paul II
A few rambling thoughts as I sit outside alone listening to the waves.
My family and I are on vacation at the beach, blanking out the rest of life for a time to focus with great intensity on nothing much. The word vacation comes from the Latin, vacare, which means “to be empty, free.” Early this morning I thought on that. Emptied of the cares and anxieties of life to recreate amid the carefree lilies of the field. Freed from toil and labor to find rest, refreshment and renewal. Freed from the strictures of efficiency wherein love is free to carry out its rebellion against the reduction of worth to usefulness. Emptied in order to be filled with wonder and gratitude for the sheer gratuitousness of existence. Emptied of stale routines to receive vibrant insights only to be had by stepping aside from the relentless flow of life. Freed from compulsive or addictive habits to play.
To play. Play is (I imagine) the ability to subordinate usefulness and purpose, pragmatism and efficiency to love, joy, laughter, music, beauty and spontaneous freedom bound only by limitless truth. Like art, play permits a freer expression of the human spirit’s limitless desire for the “fullness of being” than this life allows. Those who cannot play cannot pray, as prayer is consent to God’s unchained love, joy, laughter, music, beauty, freedom, truth, life. Which is why vacations should very naturally inspire prayer.
Josef Pieper famously said, “Leisure is only possible when we are at one with ourselves. We tend to overwork as a means of self-escape, as a way of trying to justify our existence.” On vacation with my family, I encounter the dignity of unjustified existence. Of existence justified by the gift of God alone. I am “at one with myself” only when I embrace this most fundamental truth of who I am: All is gift. That means that doing is always subsequent to the primacy of grace. Work, if it is not to become enslaving or dehumanizing, must freely flow out of gratitude, serving as my unique amplification of the gift.
I know a woman who prides herself on working seven days a week with very few vacations free from work. Once when we were talking, I complimented her on a quality she had. She said, “thanks, no offence but I just can’t believe that.” I was a bit stunned and asked her what she meant, and she just opened wide the floodgates.
She told me that it is very hard for her to receive a compliment or a gift. When she receives them, she said, she then feels even more burdened by a terrible debt to “earn” the compliment or “justify” the gift. They are more of a burden for her than a benefit, and, she said very candidly, she would rather not receive them at all. As we spoke more about this she said, “Tom, the reality is that underneath all of this I don’t feel worthy of anything good. I grew up in a high-achieving family where we were all judged by each other — who is better or worse at sports, smarter in school, harder working, tougher. I am burdened all the time by guilt and the need to prove myself to everyone. It’s all internal. I hate it, but I can’t seem to free myself. Even when I pray, since I feel that God is judging me the same way, is useless. Just makes it all worse, so I just say my prayers and don’t go too deep. So I figure it’s easier for me to wear myself down with work, shift the debt to others who then, I imagine at least, feel indebted to me because I exceeded their work and did more for them than they did for me. Better to wear myself down with work than to face the fact that I feel empty and worthless inside.”
She shed tears for most of the conversation. Then she said at the end, “And you know, Tom, you are free to share this with people if you think it would help.” I thanked her and asked if I could help her think through at least the spiritual part of her struggle. She said, “No, thanks so much. Because then I would be indebted to you. You see how sick this is?”
Today is the feast of St. Philip Neri, 16th century Italian reformer-priest who was known for his joy, sense of humor and offbeat spirit. Philip, patron saint of comedians, demonstrates wonderfully how sanctity preserves and amplifies, even as it purifies, the unique character of each person’s personality. I have always loved this saint and begged for a double-portion of his spirit.
He is the saint known for telling jokes in the confessional to break the tension, throwing picnics in the middle of the street between visits to churches, breaking out into silly children’s songs in the presence of stuffy cardinals, shaving off half his beard before a meeting with a wealthy Roman family, walking out of the Confessional laughing uncontrollably, kicking balls through the streets of Rome dressed in his cassock as he skipped and sang with his followers, carrying bouquets of flowers and distributing them as he went along, intentionally mispronouncing Latin words in the Mass in the presence of a gravely serious scholar-bishop, making a priest in his Order who took himself too seriously sing a dirge at a wedding breakfast, wearing red jerseys over his black cassock, giving out crazy penances (e.g. to a priest known for eloquence, Philip ordered him to give the same sermon six times in a row so people would think he only had one sermon) and tossing around like a frisbee the cardinal hat offered him by the Pope.
Thank God we have this saint!
But what made this man a saint and not simply a cut-up was his deep humility and his intense love for God and people. His humor was never used to knock down, cut or wound, but to build up and wake up a sleepy church. To thaw out the Frozen Chosen. He was a Fool for Christ whose prophetic mission was to remind the faithful that joy, as Fr. Chardin once said, is the infallible sign of the presence of God and the premier indication that your spiritual life is in good order. His jovial manner was lived in service to lifting hearts and leading others into a place of light, hope and conversion to the Gospel of joy. Above all, he wanted to free the Roman clergy from the shackles of cynicism, ladder climbing and dour seriousness that confuses solemnity with somberness.
Once while he was praying on the Vigil of Pentecost in 1544 a globe of fire appeared in front of him and entered his mouth. Afterwards, he felt his heart swell in his chest — without pain — and was so overwhelmed by an intense feeling of love for God that he fell to the ground yelling, “Enough, enough, Lord! I can bear no more!” It became immediately apparent to him that the superabundance of joy that filled him was meant to be given away, shared with all he would meet along the way. He had been commissioned to be “drunk with love” (Acts 2:13-15!) by the God whose love is joy, to permit divine joy to break into a world grown old, bitter, tired and angry in sin.
Philip the priest-saint is an electric sign to clergy. How desperately we need deacons and priests and bishops and popes who ingest Fire and are filled with joy, whose lives — uniquely — cry out to both church and world: Sursum corda! “Lift up your hearts!”
In the words of Pope Benedict addressing his fellow clergy:
It is really true: as we follow Christ in this mission to be fishers of men, we must bring men and women out of the sea that is salted with so many forms of alienation and onto the land of life, into the light of God. It is really so: the purpose of our lives is to reveal God to men. And only where God is seen does life truly begin. Only when we meet the living God in Christ do we know what life is. We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary. There is nothing more beautiful than to be surprised by the Gospel, by the encounter with Christ. There is nothing more beautiful than to know Him and to speak to others of our friendship with Him. The task of the shepherd, the task of the fisher of men, can often seem wearisome. But it is beautiful and wonderful, because it is truly a service to joy, to God’s joy which longs to break into the world.
Let us sing!
Jubilate Deo omni terra (shout joyfully to God all the earth).
Servite Domino in laetitia (serve the Lord in gladness).
Alleluia, alleluia, in laetitia!
Alleluia, alleluia, in laetitia!
To be a mother is a great treasure. Mothers in their unconditional and sacrificial love for their children are the antidote to individualism; they are the greatest enemies against war. — Pope Francis
Happy Mother’s Day!
For today’s reflection, I will not claim to pronounce my wisdom on motherhood but only share the witness of a few mothers I admire immensely.
I was sitting at lunch the other day at work and someone asked, “Who are the moms you admire most that you know personally?” Without hesitation I said, “My wife, my mom, my sister.” Later that night, I thought of a running list of others whom I have known over the years. Too many to recall. That night I wrote a rambling reflection in my journal:
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These women I think of here as I write — so many I have known! — are women with biological children, adopted children, foster moms and moms with ‘spiritual children’ whom they have taken into their care, their love, their attention, their heart, their prayer.These women, wildly diverse in so many ways, demonstrate the strength of tenderness and the ferocity of selfless love. They are each flawed and fall, grow weary and faint. No idealizing here. How many of them I have listened to share with me their own sense of failure and lament bitterly their own sins and failings. Suffer under the weight of inner trials and tortures of the mind. Yet each of them is, somehow, by indefinable grace, undaunted by their own fissures and fractures, making even of these channels of grace for others. Just like the song says: “I get knocked down, but I get up again; You are never gonna keep me down.”
Their very biorhythms are written in the language of life-giving sacrifice, of love that carries the weak, feeds the hungry, gives a home to the homeless. These women are nurturing and demanding, protective and encouraging. They inspire trust yet worry, demand their children get enough rest yet exhaust themselves, empty themselves out in order to fill, delay gratification to make sure needs get met. As with their bodies, their minds and hearts are always turned toward the well-being of their children. Circadian rhythms inscribed in waking love. They don’t seek accolades for the thousand duties they perform every day, but dole them out when appropriate to encourage their children in virtue. Their need to be liked by their children is superseded by their steely resolve to wade into the thickets of relentless resistance to raise virtuous children — the unsung martyrdom of tough love. Indeed, they undergo the trials and agony of gestation, labor and delivery throughout the entire span of each child’s life, and beyond.
Archbishop Romero’s words beautifully describe these women:
It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent
enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of
saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.
This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an
opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.
When I was 4 years old, my mom tells me, she was pulling me in a wagon and when she turned back to me and smiled, I said to her: “I love to look at your face.” Mothers are living sacraments of God’s highest attribute — His tender compassion, raham. In her face, the primal vision of God after birth. In her face, God renounces invisibility, refuses to hide His beauty and discloses His most secret countenance. There we are meant to rest. Psalm 131:2:
A weaned child on its mother’s breast,
even so is my soul.
When Patti had her first miscarriage, she suffered in body and in spirit in ways I cannot even hope to express worthily in language. All women who have suffered this – or the death of a child at any age — know this well. 2 Cor. 2:12: “I heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.” No facile words of piety can dull the pain of death in the womb, but can only make it redemptive. She cried out to God as she miscarried in a way, with a depth that I could never fathom. Only receive and echo. I know that this depth of prayer is reserved to mothers. Even Jesus, as New Adam, needed His Mother by the Cross, New Eve, to “fill out” His suffering and perfect His prayer of compassionate love crying out to the Father.
When Patti wailed aloud with heaving sobs, “Why?” … I could not speak, could not breathe, could not ease her pain, not fix. Could only accompany. I grabbed hold of the tassel of her prayer, I am saved in her childbirth. She labored our child into Life, the universe shook.
On her merits, womb of His merits, all my hope rests.
I asked four women I know to text me in a sentence or two what they love most about motherhood. I’ll let them have the last word:
Thank you for asking: To be not only an intimate witness to life unfolding, but to the Holy Spirit manifesting in a unique way in each child. It’s breathtaking, and incredibly humbling.
Hmmmm. I could say it’s picking out the chocolate in their Halloween bags to save them from themselves… It’s hard to put into words; for me, it’s being given the ineffable gift of a human being who is part of yourself and at the same time completely other and God’s and witnessing them becoming the sons and daughters the Lord loved them in to being to become, because of my being their mother and in spite of that too!
Being a mother is empowering in a way that no other thing in my life has allowed, empowering in the sense of “tikkun olam” – fixing the world on a the physical ground level. It is like the individual transformation that includes training and intuition, to find a lost child in a store and gather them to restore them to their mother (not creepy but motherhood); to tell any teenager, mine or random, “what are you thinking, that will kill you?!?” (not a meddler, but a mother); to tell young college students “is that worth losing your integrity over?” (not a moralist but a mother); to fuss over tired men & women who show up in my home-with food and rest (not a seductress, but a mother). It is not to say that these things cannot be done by women who aren’t mothers, but I can get to the business quickly without explaining while someone else simply says, “no worries, she’s a mom.” And that says it all.
I suppose one of the best parts of being a mother for me is being able to love so completely such amazing human beings and know that I had a part in their creation and formation. I am in awe of my children! Such sweetness, such glimpses of God himself, is so beautiful to experience as a mother.
I thought I would share yet another thread of texts from the iYeshiva, i.e. three friends of mine and I engaging in free-form theological texting exchanges that go on sporadically throughout the week — myself (me), two women (W1, W2) and a priest (Father). It’s an easy copy and paste post during this hectic week.
We have thousands of these texts from however long we have been doing this. This forum has, in a singular way, helped stretch my theological imagination in remarkable ways. What a gift! Below is a sampling from last week — 3 days. Lots of unfinished thoughts, abbreviated ideas, effusions with sudden zigs and zags. And I left out all of the interspersed quips, jokes and emojis. Hope it offers at least one spark of insight to each reader!
But if you find yourself reading our texts and saying this, that’s perfectly understandable:
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Father: This came to me while preaching on Joseph the Worker this morning: Christ didn’t learn the work of sacrifice apart from all the daily sacrifices Joseph made in his secular work. Joseph’s value of sacrifice through work is evident in the work we see in the cross. So too the sacrifices of the laity in secular work coheres with the work and sacrifice of the mass. The two halves of creation are united, heaven with earth. Saint Joseph the Worker, pray for us!
W1: What a brilliant and “real” insight and connection, [Father]. The essence of who we are and can be is exemplified in our Fathers
W2: It begins a line of thought on Joseph; it’s making me think. Joseph also is one in a line of people. Boaz was a kinsman redeemer, giving life to the line of Ruth’s dead husband and Naomi’s son, two women with essentially nothing. He cares for the widows. Joseph cares also for those who are not his, and in doing so, becomes the “father” of God, entrusted with the most treasured thing.
W1: Oh my gosh, [W2]; mind blowing. I will think about this all day.
Father: Whoa!! What a brilliantly inspired association of scripture! [W2], your gift with sacred scripture, weaving old with new, bringing different voices into a narrative conversation is a rare thing to behold. Yesterday’s gospel encapsulates your mission!!
Me: [Father]–love your meditation on this inner coherence of labor and sacrifice. And [W2], your master weaving from the sacred scriptures. Father, your meditation….The emergence of a fresh theology of the Mass that speaks to people’s *real time* experience in its richest forms is what I see as a major key in the Second Vatican Council’s liturgical reform that emphasized “participation.” Leaving behind those very superficial understandings of liturgical participation that followed the Council and moving into one that embraces a “total life” vantage, I think, will be revolutionary in the spiritual life of the lay faithful. Participation in liturgy is life, daily life, harnessed and brought to pinpoint focus at Mass, Pope JP2 says marriage is a ‘con-celebrated’ liturgical act. Baptism and confirmation make every move, every breath liturgical. laos-ergon, people-work; Theandric [God-man] mystery boiling over in every action carried out in faith, hope and charity. The lay apostolate: modernity’s “naked public square” is to be inhabited, through the lay faithful, by the naked godforsaken Christ who wishes to habitate every remaining dominion of hell, without remainder.
W2: Wow. I stepped away for a moment, and came back to super encouragement. Thank you all. It takes a village so to speak, the thought of one inspires the thoughts of another. I love our little village. Tom, will read and reread both your and [Father]’s text. Both so rich. I love that reality of Christ habitating every remaining dominion of hell, without remainder. Just fantastic. Thank you much [W1]!
Father: Amen!! Yes! The lay faithful transform the hollowed out public square by offering their work, their lives as sacrifices to the King. This is vital! The thoughts came to me as I was thinking about Joseph, looking at the wood of the cross in our sacristy, thinking about his life as carpenter, Christ choosing the cross to carry and offer himself for the world, the intermingling of work and sacrifice. I also believe that this vision of the lay apostolate, Tom, is mission critical for those finding no value, no charity expressed in their work. We must rethink the cosmic role of secular work.
Me: Stinking vgyhhdrdssdjkjedv. Blowing me up!
W2: So one of the newer fantasy series out there features a young woman. She is gifted with magic, it is intuitive, untrained, and certainly not what they do in the “scholarly realm” or what the experts like. But when the world comes undone, she is able to walk where the scholars cannot, and with her simple dress and country manners, and gentle spirit, she heals the corruption of evil, where it would never be open or visible to those of higher means. It is magic done in the fashion of what would be ordinary, in the style of a poor village girl. In the woods, along the paths, where animals and plants have been corrupted, broken, she wanders. But where these destitute would hide from the scholar, they come out to her, because those woods are hers, and they recognize her as one of the local people. Because of that, she is able to heal this part of the world. This to me is the laity.
Me: Just finished listening to a 90 minute lecture that reshaped every category I had of the ways that science and faith can mutually enlighten the other. Streaming ideas: extraordinary history of evolutionary biology, the “emergence of the divine image” in hominids 75,000-120,000 years ago lead to what biologists consider an evolutionary anomaly, a species fitted to nothing in particular and so, oddly, absolutely adaptable to everything; this sudden emergence created a fundamentally volatile unstable tension between animal nature and rationality as each jostles for supremacy; the “garden of eden” gifts of preternatural grace were meant to aid in the integration of these furious opposites but were immediately rejected by original man; salvation history itself is a type of continued evolutionary process that culminates in the emergence of the final man, Christ the new Adam, the real Man, as Pilate (“behold the Man”) proclaimed him; it was in this Final Man’s image that Adam was made. Like the Immaculate Conception, the incarnate Christ (re)creates before He becomes Man. In the first creation, biological life (bios) was the necessary foundation out of love which could emerge. No life, no love. While Christ, honoring the supremacy of love over bios-life on the cross, makes love the foundation of eternal life (zoe), destroying death and with it the cycle of violence that characterized the natural progress of biological life in the first creation (survival of fittest, etc), inverting the first order, swords into plowshares, and bringing it to perfection in the resurrection – which is the final “leap” in evolution, a leap which only a radical gift of grace (incarnation of God) could effect. This is why martyrdom is the seed of the church, the supreme act of love-over-life which re-founds life on love, in which we finally become human. Divinized=hominized and vice versa. Etc. etc. etc.
Father: Pardon me but holy mackerel that’s freaking great!! Pleeeez share podcast with me. Martyrdom: love over live.
Me: Fr. Austriaco coined this remarkable term “preteradaptive,” Which refers to a number of adaptations that happened very suddenly among hominids and that defy all empirical explanatory categories, as they do not adapt hominids to anything in the environment. So his point is that these adaptations capacitate hominids for something absolutely singular in nature — participation in the divine life. The extraordinary amount of evidence for this explosion of new capacities among hominids is just mind-numbing -Especially the development of the capacity for speech (Purcell’s Big Bang to Big Mystery’s a fun read on this)
Father: Speaking of incarnate words, this was what I preached on this past Sunday. I spoke about how first century Jews would have imagined themselves as actors in the story of sacred scripture. To imagine oneself contemporary w/ Moses, Elijah, Ruth. I then transitioned to the Austrian farmer, Franz Jagerstatter, whose correspondences w/ his wife reveal one who lived in the sacred story of salvation by way of their profound engagement in parish life and the feasts of the church. Franz at age 36 would be imprisoned and executed by the Nazis for refusing to enlist in the military. His heart must’ve been burning when Christ opened up the scriptures for him. May we become incarnate words like Franz and those disciples on their way to emmaus.
Father: Apologize for the length of this text but I must share this excerpt from a book I’m reading in Genesis. There’s probably a plethora of holes in Brodie’s hermeneutics but his vision of Genesis and scripture is inspiring. He reads scripture as unveiling a dialogical reality that must be engaged, not ultimately analyzed or figured out. He reads Genesis as three sets of dramas that interplay with each other, each drama contains multiple little dramas. Each story has two mirrors that face each other that he argues is evident in Hebrew poetry. He says, “One mirror gives a single image; but two facing mirrors give processions of images, resonating energy and depth.”
He argues that Genesis is a unitary book that spirals in its development from Creation to Joseph. Joseph restores God’s cosmos. A lot of Divine-Human interchanging going on. Anyhow, here’s a thought that floored me: “amid the confusion of history, religion brings reality into a certain order. Genesis is history, but history set in extraordinary order. The perspective of modern rationalism is single, linear. Reality is weighed and measured. But reality is more complex, and so is the mind. Even for physics, reality is elusive to the linear minded rationalist. Genesis had no idea of modern physics, but at some level it knew that reality is not solid but the mind and heart and soul need breathing space. God is not solid, not a wooden idol, but can be viewed and experience from diverse perspectives.”
All of this has me ablaze with this thought of our lives that become incarnate words as we find our existence interplaying with sacred scripture. The Word is living and dynamic, hence BXVI who argued that the lives of the saints are the primary interpreters of scripture. Or at least I think that’s what he said.
W2: This is beautiful, [Father]. It somehow reminds me of Passover. Until the celebration of passover is owned by the individual (through celebration) there is no community with the chosen people (IF you don’t celebrate passover, you are cut off). Similarly, at the end of it all, “we overcome by the blood of the lamb AND the word of our testimony.” Our communal and individual stories, how the word becomes a prism for our own lives, lives that we give in contribution to the overall experience of God, is essential. Thank you for sharing this. the thoughts will continue today I’m sure!
Yes, and that vivid, liturgical sense ancient Jews had of their participation with, contemporary with Moses and the Hebrew slaves.
W1: This is why there is no real word for history in Hebrew. Scripture, the Presence of God is always present, history is not past but part of the now and the future. Sacred Scripture is a part of the living testimony of both individuals and community. They are dependent upon one another. The 2 images facing each other remind me of the Prologue of John, of the Son “alongside ” the Father.
Father: Wow! [W1]. Yes! Scripture is Sacramental. Scripture is Presence! Living and true! Abraham Heschel pointed that out to me in the same way as what you’ve read has taken hold of you, the same way that [W2]’s and Tom’s observations and reflections same me, in a good way, to my marrow!
Father: I’ll stop here for now but Brodie makes the case that when read in this way scripture induces in the close reader a comparative mode of thinking that brings comprehension to the reality of the whole and it’s parts. That made me think of yesterday’s insight by Tom on how primary objective order opens up the richness of relativity or the parts. The two must be held in relation!
W2: Beautiful point [W1]. It makes me now want to spend the rest of the day reflecting upon what “remembering’ really means. I am that I am. The call and response. Holy, Holy, Holy, back and forth. This is all really cool. deep calls out to deep
Father: Brilliant! Glory to glory, light to light…
W2: Okay [W1], your thoughts are exploding here. The act of remembering, brings the past to present. The smells, the songs, that instantaneously bring shrink “history” and make it all present. The same present that will reach into the future and make the future present as well. A gift to all of humanity, that for those instances of remembering, we all our experience is present. Remember the Lord your God, your story, your “history” is no longer past, but now. and that is why we choose NOT to remember the typos, as by not remembering them, we can eliminate their very existence.
W1: Wish I had voice to text. I believe Anamnesis [remembrance] is a Jewish concept.
Father: It is Jewish. God’s Son undergoes it himself and takes it universal.
Me: Amazing insight into Genesis and history and memory and the Trinitarian structure of everything. That space between face to face is fraught with infinitely rich meaning; the space where ‘presence’ emerges. A bubbling over of thoughts from yesterday’s quote [Father] shared … Face to face mirrors opening up infinite depth, dimensionality, meaning; meta-ethics of interfacing (Emmanuel Levinas!); Genesis 2:22; Exodus 33:11; Hebrews 1:1ff; John 1:1 ‘pros theon’ as [W1] said; or whoa Mark 10:21; eikon/imago is the face, but mirror was shattered, progressively restored in interfacing covenant mirrors … remembrance is of the face. Patti and I went to dinner the other night in the French Quarter and this remarkable arrangement of mirrors was right next to us. But if I had read your quote and thought on this first I would’ve imagined it an analog for the evening of time Patti and I set apart to spend together remembering our covenant, and so His covenant, while feasting face-to-face late into the night. Thank you for all of this…
[this post was written in 2016, and after receiving a request today to “post a draft to break up ur week off and don’t bother editing it”. I won’t!]
In Abitene, a small village in present-day Tunisia, 49 Christians were taken by surprise one Sunday while they were celebrating the Eucharist, gathered in the house of Octavius Felix, thereby defying the imperial prohibitions. They were arrested and taken to Carthage to be interrogated by the Proconsul Anulinus. Significant among other things is the answer a certain Emeritus gave to the Proconsul who asked him why on earth they had disobeyed the Emperor’s severe orders. He replied, “Sine dominico non possumus” [without Sunday we cannot]. That is, we cannot live without joining together on Sunday to celebrate the Eucharist. — Pope Benedict XVI
Sunday is the golden clasp that binds together the volume of the week. ― Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
One of my children asked me the other day, “What’s the best way to explain why we go to church every Sunday?” I offered three points — one from my memory of a theology class lecture (the notes of which I later retrieved to post here), one from an immigrant Siberian woman and one from a granddaughter of Italian immigrants.
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My dogmatic theology professor back in 1992 once said, according my fresh rendering of those choppy class notes:
One of the most crucial points of that very orderly 7-day creation story in Genesis, and really of the whole Torah, is that God not only organizes space in the way He wishes, but He also organizes time. God gets to decide when, where and how we are to enter His presence and worship Him. The Book of Leviticus delves into this ‘ordo’ in excruciating detail. In other words for both Jews and Christians the who-what-when-where-why-how of worship is not a personal choice or a style preference — “I have my own way of worshiping God.” Rather, worship is revealed to us by God wrapped in a command. The Eucharist is supremely that, instituted and commanded by the God-Man.
To engage with God on God’s terms is a terribly weighty matter for Jews. Man-made religion is the stuff of pagans with their hand-crafted idols. God-made religion is the stuff of Jews, the people He chose to shout to humanity: you are God-etched images whom God set in the world to teach the world God’s Way; to love the world God’s Way; to cultivate the world God’s Way; to bless the world God’s Way. Again, the Jews go out of their way to make absolutely clear: ours is a revealed religion, not the product of human ingenuity but surprisingly disclosed and reluctantly discovered inside a divine Furnace burning on Mt Sinai during an earthquake.
It’s why the Church has always been at pains to organize the liturgical year according to the pattern shown her in the divine economy. All of it. Every feast day, every holy season reflects some aspect of God-writ salvation history; reflects the way that God has organized His own ‘oikos,’ His cosmic home that He designed for us to live in with Him, i.e. Emmanuel.
So, Jesus rose from the dead and sent down the Fire of the Spirit on a Sunday, re-creating the creation, dawning creation’s Eighth Day, the Lord’s Day. Therefore Christians worship on Sunday. Period. If, that is, they want any part in His new creation. Or they can skip Sunday Eucharist and opt out, sleep in, watch TV and miss out on eternity. This is why so many Christians early on, and throughout the centuries, were willing to risk the loss of biological life rather than renounce their commerce with eternal life that Sunday offered.
And this is why the Church makes Sunday a grave obligation: it is the Day on which all time hinges, when Christ’s Body gathers as one, the Day when Christians do their priestly work of transacting between heaven and earth, singing the songs of the free, giving thanks for all things, offering up six days worth of sacrifices, and eating and drinking the Flesh and Blood of God.
If that doesn’t get you out of bed and to church, I don’t know what possibly could.
And as wonderful a gift as daily Mass is, it should never be allowed to overshadow the preeminence of the Sunday Eucharist. As they say in the Eastern Churches of Sunday: “This chosen and holy day is the first of the Sabbaths, the queen and lady, the feast of feasts, and the festival of festivals.” It is the apex and axis of time. God gives the faithful Monday through Saturday, six days to engage in their priestly preparation of gifts, for wheat-and-grape crushing. But He gives us one Day for the Great and Holy Oblation, the Awful Sacrifice, when those gifts are gathered up into the joying House of the dancing Father by the ascending Christ through the Wind and Fire of the falling Spirit. No sleepy church allowed in this whirling perichoresis!
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Back in the late 1980’s I met a Siberian woman at my dad’s Orthodox parish. We were talking about her flight from the Soviet Union to the U.S. and she was hacking and coughing. I mentioned to her how impressed I was that she came to church even when she was very unwell (even as I wondered if she thought about how contagions travel!). She said:
It is nothing. In my country people go to the gulag or die for going to church, so what is it if I come to church sick? This country was established so you could go to church freely, but once people tasted freedom they used it for other things and stopped going to church. To me that’s a slap in God’s face. People stopped using their freedom for God and use it on themselves. So when I am tired or sick I think of the people home who risk their lives to go each Sunday and then for me it is nothing. It is a blessing.
I was stunned speechless. I thought of the interconnection of the Eucharist, with its core of “this is my Body broken, Blood shed” sacrifice, the command at the end of Liturgy to “Go!” and the willingness to live this whole furious mystery in the world outside the church. If freedom in the Inside Church is defined by sacrifice, freedom in the Outside Church must be likewise.
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Years ago I asked a woman to give a personal testimony to parents of children preparing for First Holy Communion. She had earlier shared a story that knocked my socks off so I wanted the parents to hear it as well. It went something like this:
When I was growing up, my maternal grandparents were the hub of our family. Their home was like a warm hearth, full of love. Almost every Sunday of the year, we had to go to their house after morning Mass for a family gathering and feast. My grandparents were Italian so food was a huge part of life. And everyone brought something. The house was packed with immediate and extended family, and occasionally some random stranger my grandmother invited. Before lunch began everyone always had to gather in the den, packed like sardines, and listen to Papa tell some fantastic story from our family history. I am sure now his stories were a mix of fact and fiction, which my grandmother would confirm any time she stepped into the room as she would immediately correct some detail or say, “Papa, stop exaggerating.” Everyone would laugh and he would sing this line from Gigi, “Ah yes, I remember it well!” Sometimes he would get choked up as he told a story, other times he would tell funny stories, laughing harder than anyone else; and still other times told stories that were meant to teach us kids something about our family’s core values. Honesty, integrity, patience, courage.
When my grandmother died and my grandfather went into a nursing home, our extended family started to unravel until my mom decided to take up the tradition and keep it going. She still does, though it’s not quite the same.
What I learned from this is that when you don’t have a regular place for family to gather, hear their stories, sing and laugh and cry and eat together, you forget who you are the rest of the week. My grandparents as good Catholics knew Sunday was a special day, a holy day, a day set apart to celebrate family and life and God’s gifts and to keep us close to each other so we could, each of us, stay strong. They thought that without family everything falls apart. On Sunday, we knew who we were as a family, and so I knew who I was, so the rest of the week we could then live up to our family name and our family tradition of hard work, generosity, love.
That’s how I think of Sunday and Mass and why making sure Sunday and Mass look like each other is a priority. It’s an obligation of love and not of guilt. Though there was always that if you missed, my grandmother was good at Catholic guilt!
I’ll end with this quote from the Bible that Father John used when my daughter made her First Communion. It made me realize that my grandmother knew that the feast of the Mass and the feast of home needed each other, made sense of each other. So: “Today is holy to the Lord your God. Do not lament, do not weep! Go, eat rich foods and drink sweet drinks, and allot portions to those who had nothing prepared; for today is holy to our Lord. Do not be saddened this day, for rejoicing in the Lord is your strength!” [Nehemiah 8:9-10]
Our local Archbishop has put restrictions on sports and certain other activities in Catholic schools and parishes to help return the focus of Sunday as a day of worship, of family, of rest, of outreach to the lonely and poor and suffering. I am so grateful for his courage and I know he has faced lots of resistance and criticism. But he has only created a space, a vacuum that now demands to be filled by us Catholics who’ve been gifted with the limitless creativity of our faith. It’s our mission to make Sunday into a day so extraordinary and so revolutionary that the rest of the world — presently consumed by endless work, addictive entertainment and restless consumption — may just decide to stop, look up and listen to our song of revolution: “Without Sunday, we cannot…” The list is endless.
Without Sunday, the day we remember that, in the end, all is gift:
I will not post again until next weekend as this is exam week, graduation week.
Today, “Shepherd Sunday,” is also the world day of prayer for vocations. Per the United States Bishops:
The purpose of the World Day of Prayer for Vocations is to publically fulfill the Lord’s instruction to, “Pray the Lord of the harvest to send laborers into his harvest” (Mt 9:38; Lk 10:2). As a climax to a prayer that is continually offered throughout the Church, it affirms the primacy of faith and grace in all that concerns vocations to the priesthood and to the consecrated life. While appreciating all vocations, the Church concentrates its attention this day on vocations to the ordained ministries (priesthood and diaconate), to the Religious life in all its forms (male and female, contemplative and apostolic), to societies of apostolic life, to secular institutes in their diversity of services and membership, and to the missionary life, in the particular sense of mission “ad gentes”.
We pray God raise up men and women to serve in these various states of life and ecclesial movements that serve a pivotal role in teaching, governing and sanctifying God’s People.
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Let me share a very simple anecdote that gives evidence of my immense gratitude for countless shepherds who have shown me and my family the way.
Several years ago, my youngest daughter was asked at the last minute to serve at Mass in a new capacity she had never been trained for. She was completely overcome with fear and tears, though I was unaware of all this as it happened across the church from where I was sitting. I suddenly noticed her sitting over in a pew wiping tears from her eyes, but before I could even get up the parochial vicar walked right over to her and knelt down next to her. She started to smile and he led her back to the sacristy. My heart was full and my eyes welled up. She came out for Mass fully confident and did very well. Later, when I asked her what happened, she said (after she told me what they asked her to do): “Father’s so nice. He made me feel better and showed me what to do.”
And she did it. She’s forgotten his homily from that day, but that encounter she still remembers.
Great summary of priestly ministry as an icon of the tenderness of Christ, whose love strengthens the weak and frightened, leading them to courageously walk in the way of God. For, as Pope Francis said recently:
Tenderness is not weakness; it is fortitude. It is the path of solidarity, the path of humility. Please, allow me to say it loud and clear: The more powerful you are, the more your actions will have an impact on people, the more responsible you are to act humbly. If you don’t, your power will ruin you, and you will ruin the other.
Let me end with two meditations on priestly leadership for this Good Shepherd Sunday, both taken from Popes.
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Many when they receive a position of ruling (i.e. priest) are on fire to tear their subjects to pieces. They demonstrate the terror of authority, and harm those they ought to assist. Because they have no love in their hearts, they are eager to appear to be masters, and fail to recall they are fathers. They change from a position of humility to one of pride and dominance; if they flatter outwardly on occasion, inwardly they rage. Truth says of them elsewhere: “They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves.” — Pope Gregory the Great, Homily on Luke 10:1-7
The pastor must be inspired by Christ’s holy zeal: for him it is not a matter of indifference that so many people are living in the desert. And there are so many kinds of desert. There is the desert of poverty, the desert of hunger and thirst, the desert of abandonment, of loneliness, of destroyed love. There is the desert of God’s darkness, the emptiness of souls no longer aware of their dignity or the goal of human life. The external deserts in the world are growing, because the internal deserts have become so vast. Therefore the earth’s treasures no longer serve to build God’s garden for all to live in, but they have been made to serve the powers of exploitation and destruction. The Church as a whole and all her Pastors, like Christ, must set out to lead people out of the desert, towards the place of life, towards friendship with the Son of God, towards the One who gives us life, and life in abundance. The symbol of the lamb also has a deeper meaning. In the Ancient Near East, it was customary for kings to style themselves shepherds of their people. This was an image of their power, a cynical image: to them their subjects were like sheep, which the shepherd could dispose of as he wished. When the shepherd of all humanity, the living God, himself became a lamb, he stood on the side of the lambs, with those who are downtrodden and killed. This is how he reveals himself to be the true shepherd: “I am the Good Shepherd . . . I lay down my life for the sheep”, Jesus says of himself (Jn 10:14f). It is not power, but love that redeems us! This is God’s sign: he himself is love. How often we wish that God would make show himself stronger, that he would strike decisively, defeating evil and creating a better world. All ideologies of power justify themselves in exactly this way, they justify the destruction of whatever would stand in the way of progress and the liberation of humanity. We suffer on account of God’s patience. And yet, we need his patience. God, who became a lamb, tells us that the world is saved by the Crucified One, not by those who crucified him. The world is redeemed by the patience of God. It is destroyed by the impatience of man.
One of the basic characteristics of a shepherd must be to love the people entrusted to him, even as he loves Christ whom he serves. “Feed my sheep”, says Christ to Peter, and now, at this moment, he says it to me as well. Feeding means loving, and loving also means being ready to suffer. Loving means giving the sheep what is truly good, the nourishment of God’s truth, of God’s word, the nourishment of his presence, which he gives us in the Blessed Sacrament. My dear friends – at this moment I can only say: pray for me, that I may learn to love the Lord more and more. Pray for me, that I may learn to love his flock more and more – in other words, you, the holy Church, each one of you and all of you together. Pray for me, that I may not flee for fear of the wolves. Let us pray for one another, that the Lord will carry us and that we will learn to carry one another. — Pope Benedict XVI