Friday, February 27, 2009

Friday after Ash Wednesday

Isaiah 58:1-9 / Matthew 5:43 - 6:4

Loose the bands of wickedness, undo the bundles that oppress, let those that are broken go free, and break asunder every burden

We might be inclined in light of the words of the Lord through the prophet Isaiah to rethink our classic Lenten fasting. In the scheme of things, is holding back from meat on Fridays really proportionate to crying needs in our world, as pressing today as they were for the prophets of old: Deal your bread to the hungry, and bring the needy and the harborless into your house: when you shall see one naked, cover him and despise not your own flesh. Indeed, God seems decidedly displeased with a weekly observance of fasting, giving preference to the works of justice for the poor. Is this such a fast as I have chosen, he asks, for a man to afflict his soul for a day? Does this mean that the progressive critique is right, and that our weekly Friday abstinence from flesh and fowl might be better replaced with a few hours volunteering at the local soup kitchen?

Perhaps, however, we need to attend a little closer to the labor, often hard, back-breaking labor, which brings food to our table. The relative ease so many of us have in acquiring more than our daily bread may easily blind us to the many people, some willing and happy to serve, others with little else by way of choice, who bring the food to our table. There are the workers at the market, of course, who shelve and sell us the food, the drivers and engineers and even captains who haul the food distances great and small, across land, sea, and sky. Closer to the earth are the farmers, who plan, and toil, and wait, and rise early for a hard day, always dependent on those same forces which elude us as easily as our ancestors of old: the sun, the wind, the rain and snow. All of this labor goes into every bite we take, even if that bite is of an apple or a carrot, a potato or zucchini.

Consider, however, the deeper sacrifice made by our companions on the earth, fellow sharers in the covenant made by God after the Flood, on whom God causes the sun to rise and the rain to fall even as he does for the sons of Adam. I mean, of course, the beasts of the earth. From the dawn of human society, these creatures have labored for our good. They have given their wool and skins for our protection as well as our comfort and yielded their milk for our nourishment. They have placed their greater strength under our yokes to pull the plows that serve ultimately not their needs, but to serve their masters. Finally, for some of them, many of them, and in the present day, far more for every son or daughter of Noah than in any time past, they have spilled their blood and given their flesh for us to eat.

Has God delivered them into our hands? Indeed, he has, from the dawn of time. Has the covenant with Noah not also delivered them to us for food? Indeed it has, even if only because of the waywardness of the human heart and at the cost of seeing in the eyes of the beasts wariness, pain, and fear more than happiness and delight, which if irrational is no less deeply felt. We have it is true been given the beasts both to work to serve our needs, and even their very lives to serve us as we require. This is the end for which they were delivered into our hands, and we ought not to blush in asserting our dominion.

Yet, is not the quality of lordship judged at least as much in how it exercises restraint as in the extent that it makes it rights known? Do we not love a king all the more, admire his power and virtue, when he behaves with clemency than with assertions of privilege? Our tables are set with the sweat of our fellow men and the blood of gentle beasts, and such is the way of the world since the loss of Eden and the cleansing of the Flood. We have, in the passing of years become coarsened to the cries of both. If we would learn to be merciful, truly merciful, with that same bounty as our Father in heaven, who makes His sun to rise on the good and the evil, and sends rain on the just and the unjust, then we must learn through an application of that mercy to those who cannot in any way speak for themselves and who are altogether under our dominion and subject to our power.

If only once every week, can we not afford a clemency for the beasts, our sharers in the covenant, who have labored so much for our good? Can we not, in our fasting, declare a general amnesty for the beasts and birds of our farmlands? Dare we to hope that in drawing back from what we can rightly and without fear of retribution claim as our own, we might grow closer to that love by which God bids us to love even our enemies and those who hate us? Might we not dream that this small act of kindness to the beasts of the earth will be echoed from the vaults of heaven? Then shall you call, and the Lord shall hear; you shall cry, and He shall say: Here I am. For I the Lord your God am merciful.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Thursday after Ash Wednesday

Isaiah 38:1-6 / Matthew 8:5-13

As a general practice, one should not judge the quality of another's confession. We may be our brother's keeper, but we are not his copy editor or speech writer for his most humble and abject moments before the Lord. Even so, one cannot help but find something off-putting about King Hezekiah's appeal to God when confronted in his illness by Isaiah the prophet. I beseech you, O Lord, he says, remember how I have walked before you in truth, and with a perfect heart, and have done what is good in your sight. Now, there may be many ways to return to God after we have gone astray, but asserting one's perfection is not typically one of them, nor protesting one's own goodness before the majesty of God. Yet, for all that, God heard Hezekiah's prayers, and not only was the king delivered from his illness, but the great city was also delivered, not from sickness but from the ravages of the Assyrians.

What this suggests is that we have mistaken what true repentence is. The error is actually not to hard to see. In presuming that Hezekiah ought to have spoken a litany of grave sins, we are thinking that the essence of returning to God is in self-accusation. But, surely that cannot be so. Our sins, however dark, are not themselves the source of illumination, and many a misguided penitent has made himself worse by fixing his mind on the wretchedness, imagined or real, of his sinful life. Sins must certainly be acknowledged, and not simply generically, but in their full specificity, without either exaggeration or diminution. Yet, we see not only the way that sin is wrong, but more crucially the way from sin back to God, not in the gloom of our infidelity, but in the radiant light of God's fidelity.

This is what makes sense of Hezekiah's prayer. This pious king knew of the promises the Lord God had made to his people Israel, and to the line of David, should they keep to his covenant. In asserting how he had observed God's holy Law, how he had zealously and vigorously preserved the true faith against the continuing temptation to lapse into an easy idolatry in imitation of his neighbors, Hezekiah is giving witness to God's faithful promise to protect the kings of Judah and the people they ruled. Note that, having asserted his own fidelity, Hezekiah wept with great weeping. In appealing to the righteousness of God in keeping his promises, Hezekiah knew the profound insufficiency of his own goodness. No amount of pleading his personal piety would be sufficient cause to hope that he and his kingdom might be saved. It is only in light of his faith that God might remain true where even the truest of men goes false, only in that light that he could make his appeal.

This same recognition that our restoration in God comes from God's faithfulness and not our own righteousness is the great faith which Jesus commended in the centurion. The centurion, after all, admitted his own unworthiness to have Jesus come under his roof, but not especially because he saw himself a wretched sinner. It was in his profession of Jesus as one who has supreme authority that the centurion made both his appeal and his confession of unworthiness.

As Lent begins, we would do ourselves a favor to remember that God is not impressed by our self-loathing. Lent is not a season for gloomy and morose recitations of our vice before the almighty. Rather, Lent prompts us once again to remember God's unwavering fidelity to his promises, and he has promised us nothing less than to feast with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. We have been invited, and God never revokes his promises. As we recall our own string of broken promises, it is good to remember at the start that he to whom we turn is not fickle or false. I have heard your prayer, says the Lord to each penitent soul, and I have seen your tears ... and I will deliver you.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Ash Wednesday

Joel 2:12-19 / Matthew 6:16-21

It is once again Ash Wednesday, and the Catholic faithful will again confront that perennial question: Do we wash the ashes from our face or leave them on for the day? In North America, where the custom prevails of applying the ashes to the forehead in a visible cross of lesser or greater magnitude, the question cannot be avoided. To wash, or not to wash.

Many of the faithful cannot avoid something of a twinge of guilt on hearing the words of the Word Incarnate in the Gospel today: But you, when you do fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not be seen fasting by men, but by your Father, who is in secret; and your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you. Could there by any command, any dictum of the Lord clearer than this? Those who disfigure their faces in order to appear to men as fasting are hypocrites who have received their reward, and the implication is that it is not a reward any would willingly seek. It sounds with the solid thunder of a syllogism, its logic as inescapable as any demonstrative proof. Those fasting ought not to appear to be so, the visible wearing of ashes does make one appear to be fasting, therefore those fasting ought not to be seen wearing ashes on their forehead. QED.

This would all be compelling if it were not for the overtly public character of repentance demanded by God through the prophet Joel: Blow the trumpet in Sion, sanctify a fast, call a solemn assembly, gather together the people, sanctify the Church, assemble the ancients, gather together the little ones and those who suck at the breasts: let the bridegroom go forth from his bed and the bride out of her chamber. Between the porch and the altar, the priests, the Lord's ministers, shall weep and shall say: Spare, O Lord, spare your people. This is no hidden fasting done in secret. This is no careful, private convocation, quickly erased by the judicious use of soap and towel, the discrete washing away of the signs of penitence as though nothing were different, everything just as normal. It is public, solemn, directed not only to the faithful within but to the whole world of unbelievers without: Why should they say among the nations: Where is their God?

There is of course a legitimate, indeed crucial, reason to worry about being too public in one's penitential disciplines. We engage the obsevances of Lent so that we might be converted, to restore ourselves to God, who has restored us to himself in Christ. To be concerned that others know of one's own fasting is fatally to miss the point. It means punishing the body and chastening the soul to be conformed to the world, and this is a failure on two counts. It is a failure spiritually since it is to Christ, and not the the fallen world, that we seek to be conformed. Yet, it is also a failure in worldly ways, since the sons of this age do not take kindly to those who refuse to revel in earthly delights. The publicly notorious penitent is an alien to God and the world alike, and has gained nothing for his trouble. He has received his reward.

All the same, there is another sort of worry, that we should try too hard to appear healthy and whole, self-controlled and self-sufficient, in no need of assistance, human or divine. The same logic which would confuse bleaching one's teeth with having them cleaned by the dentist, sweeping dirt under a rug instead of sweeping out the house, glib and clever answers in place of admissions of ignorance and the hard work of research, public shows of goodwill and solidarity rather than the honest if slow, painful, and difficult work of reconciliation — all of these can be just as deadly to the soul as a gross, public display a penitential viruosity. We gain nothing, and the world learns nothing, if confuse a desire to avoid vain glory with a different and all to common motive, the desire that no one should know our weakness, that no one should think we were in need of healing and conversion, that no one should doubt our own sufficient goodness and grace.

Only in a Church which can bravely and humbly show to the world its need for conversion and repentance can the healing grace of God serve as a sign to the world of the power of the Cross. Only in a frank display of our poverty and emptiness will the world learn of the abundance which flows from the Spirit to those reborn in the waters of life. This is why we wear our ashes in the presence of our coworkers, on the bus, in the market. We do not want a congratulation or reward. We do not seek anything for ourselves. Rather, we await the coming of Christ to save his people, and the glorious abundance his risen life will bring.

Behold I will send you corn and wine and oil, and you shall be filled with them: and I will no more make you a reproach among the nations, says the Lord almighty.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Quinquagesima Sunday

1 Corinthians 13:1-13 / Luke 18:31-43

Can we love without knowledge? We surely think so. Love, after all, is an affair of the heart. It is as true of infants at the breast and toddlers at their mother's knee as it is of doctors, lawyers, and ministers of state. Love, surely, is what can bind even the simplest of us to the most profound. Even the saints attest as much. We marvel at the depths of love in the Curé of Ars, but not the clarity of his theological acumen. We are dazzled by the charity of Frances Xavier Cabrini, but do not seek her correspondence to puzzle our way through difficulties in Biblical exegesis. There is much to be gained from patterning ourselves on the love of children, but the thoughts of childhood are quite another matter: When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I felt as a child, I thought as a child. Now that I have become a man, I have put away the things of a child. Love, it seems, can be without knowledge.

Can we know without love? Tragically, we think this, too, can be so. The long, sad, horrifying stories of techniques of terror used by regimes both liberal in constitution and tyrannical in vision, for both the politics of pragmatism and the zeal of ideology, can attest to the presence of knowledge without love. The technical marvel of the guillotine, after all, was a product of the march of knowledge in the eighteenth century. Even closer to home, on a less global and dramatic scale, we can walk by ravages of poverty and illness on our own street corners and, perhaps feeling a slight prick of our conscience, nonetheless walk on by, or seek material aid but utter not one word of genuine care. And if I have prophecy and know all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith so as to remove mountains, yet do not have charity, I am nothing. Knowledge, then, looks as though it can live, even if only fatally, without love.

Yet, as clear as this picture is, it does not get the case quite right. Love, after all, only makes sense if it is of something true, something known to be true. What divides the holiness of the marriage bed from the shadowy longings of the brothel house is, after all, the truth of what is going on. The passionate unmarried couple might profess that what they do is out of love, but in this they err. Their actions are false, and so their feelings, however sincerely professed, cannot be real love. The child who mocks her peer for dressing poorly, the mother who withholds kindness from a child who will not do as she asks, the husband who seeks to help his wife fulfill her vocation with the back of his hand — we assert that these are not love precisely because they are not true. Without knowledge of who the other person is, who he is not only for me and my desires, but in and for himself, and in his call by God, there can be no love, only sentiment.

This is how the crowd near Jericho goes wrong. Not knowing Jesus rightly, they abuse the blind man. Knowing Jesus falsely, they imagine that Jesus is served by keeping those who suffer from him. In their eyes, his calling out for healing is an offense, and in this they are gravely, potentially fatally mistaken. It is only in knowing him better by his merciful healing that they are able to move from accusation to praise, from malice to love. It is in coming to a deeper knowing of who Jesus is that they can honor him rightly, and come to see the man who now can see not as a nuisance and an obstacle, but as the privileged sign of God's compassion for a world blinded by ignorance and sin. Only in knowledge, do they come to love.

If love only makes sense if it is true, if it is of something known and known rightly, then we must remind ourselves, too, that we do not know anything rightly apart from love. To see the world from the eyes of another means not only to have the same senses and images in our head as in theirs. It means to know the world as they know it, but that means to see in things the value which they hold for the other. It is not enough to know that our brother loves the novels of Jane Austen; to know Jane Austen as he does means to love her books as he loves them, and to love them for his sake. All the more is this true of God. We cannot actually know the things of God, we do not really have prophecy and knowledge, if we do not see things the way God sees them. Anything else, of course, is a failure to see. However, the only way to see things as God sees them is to see with the love that God has, to love them as God loves them, and to love them for God's sake.

This is why we now see only through a mirror in an obscure manner. It is not for lack of revelation. In Christ and the apostolic witness, we have the fulness of all we ever need to know of God. Still, we do not love as we ought, and apart from that love, we really know nothing at all.

Brothers and sisters, our observance of Lent will begin in a short span of days, a pilgrimage to lead us from Jericho to Jerusalem, where all things that have been written by the prophets concerning the Son of Man will be accomplished. Where our love has grown cold, let us seek to know him better. Where our knowledge is dimmed, let us love all the more fervently. It is in knowing God better that we will be able to love, and in our loving that we will see him as he is. Now I know in part, but then I shall know even as I have been known. So there abide faith, hope and charity, these three: but the greatest of these is charity.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Thursday in Sexagesima

2 Corinthians 11:19 - 12:9 / Luke 8:4-15

Brethren: You gladly put up with fools, because you are wise yourselves.

It is important to stand up for yourself. Everyone learns at some time in his life — in a spat with a sibling, with a bully on the playground, accused falsely before a teacher — that the world, even those close to us, will step over us and our best interests. Every parent, at some moment in her life, will come face to face with that moment, with the child who fearfully turns to his mother or father, the one who has always had his interests at heart and defended them with outstretched arm and bared teeth. She will come to that moment and know that this time, she cannot come to his aid. This time, if he is going to grow to maturity and strength, if he is to learn the crucial lessons of fortitude, this time he has to make it on his own.

Not always, of course. Yet, there remains this unhappy feature of the world outside Eden, on this side of the flaming swords spinning to and fro, that we will be opposed. We know this is the case even for the friends of the world, for those who are worldly wise. We know to expect it for those of us who live as spiritual guest workers with residency permits, which is to say, to be in the world and not of it.

Then again, we know that sometimes, we need to let someone come to our help. We find ourselves faced with what is, for us, an insuperable challenge — from the child reaching for the apple on the counter too high for her to reach, to the college student whose roommate did not come through with the check and has no way to pay the rent, to the father whose undocumented and illicit presence in the country may tear him away from the family he has taken such pains to raise. It is at these times that, much as we flatter ourselves with tales of self-sufficiency, much as we pride ourselves that we have not been a burden on those whom we love, we need to be brave enough to seek a strength not our own. This, too, is fortitude.

So, this week, we have as our perfect model of fortitude in Paul of Tarsus. On the one hand, we have Paul the fighter, Paul who congratulates the Corinthians in their forbearance, their putting up with the abuse of the arrogant, but nonetheless cannot contain himself from a little sparring on their behalf. This is a man who is not afraid to seem conceited. He knows his credentials, he knows how he has suffered for the Gospel, he knows that he speaks not third-hand, an authority derived by hopes and hearsay, but as one who was caught up into paradise and heard secret words that man may not repeat. If the Corinthians in their holy meekness will not rise against those who would do them ill, then Paul of Tarsus is happy to do so on their behalf, without fear or trembling.

On the other hand, we see the man who knows his limits. In Paul we encounter a man who is confident that, but for one unnamed impediment, a thorn for the flesh, he could do even greater things for his Lord Jesus Christ. So sure is he that this weakness is an obstacle to his mission, that he not once, not twice, but thrice besought the Lord that it might leave him. Paul, the great Apostle, the fighter with no fear of men, turned to the Lord in his weakness, to have his weakness confirmed. My grace, the Lord told him, is sufficient for you, for strength is made perfect in weakness.

This is why the Church, during this week, has placed daily on our lips a prayer to call for help, and not just any help, but the aid of St Paul: O God, who see that we do not trust in anything that we do of ourselves; mercifully grant that by the protection of the Doctor of the Gentiles we may be defended against all adversities. Christian bravery means standing up with a strength not our own, and for that reason a strength we can trust all the more. Like St Paul, we need to be afraid that our witness to Christ is less sure because we have not the power to sustain it of ourselves. Gladly therefore I will glory in my infirmities, that the strength of Christ may dwell in me.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Wednesday in Sexagesima

2 Corinthians 11:19 - 12:9 / Luke 8:4-15

And those by the wayside are they who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their heart, that they may not believe and be saved.

It is a dreadful thing to be a victim of robbery. If you have been fortunate never to have had someone with malice, someone who has been observing you unseen and unknown for days, even weeks, make his way into your home, with only your harm in his thought, then count yourself indeed fortunate. Even when what it taken is ultimately of little consequence, although perhaps of significant value, even should you be so free of attachment to things, baubles, devices, toys, that their absence would impact you only in the least way, there is a special horror, a dread of invasion after the fact, in knowing that the private, intimate spaces where you live out your life have been the unwilling host to an ill-minded villain. The chair where you take your morning coffee, the table over which you dine and entertain, the sofa where you curl up with a favorite book, the bed where you entrust yourself and your safety to almighty God as you sleep — all of these places you know and which connect to those perhaps trivial but no less personal moments of our day have been handled, used, made sport of. It is a dreadful thing to be a victim of robbery.

Now, when our home has been the victim of burglary, we can at least know that what is ultimately of importance has not, indeed cannot be taken away. Standing in the pale of God's love just is not the sort of thing a robber can pilfer. So, all the more alarming is the warning of our Lord that the devil can take away the word from our hearts, and in so doing steal from us both our belief and our salvation. Surely faith, as a gift of God himself, and our salvation, which is in the end God's work in us, are immune from that kind of violence. Surely our hearts, where the Holy Trinity has made a home and come to dwell, can never, so long as we remain bound to God in love, is a place of safety, far removed from the dreadful intrusions of a burglar, be he a fallen angel or not.

Yet, we deceive ourselves if we imagine that the only enemies to our life in faith and our salvation are the ones which arise solely within our own hearts. Jesus warns us in the parable that, while there are certainly deadly tendencies internal to us which can choke the life of the Word, there are likewise external ones which can, in their own way, just as easily snatch it away.

On the one hand, there are those thoughts and ideas, suggested to us from without, whether by the wickedness of dark and twisted spirits or the carelessness of an incautious acquaintance, which it is better not to think. Some ideas, after all, are dangerous to think. It may be important, after all to know of the pathology of sociopathy, and it might even be important for some people, such as the police or forensic psychiatrists, to be able, after a fashion, to think as a sociopath would. However, to form one's mind to see the world with the eyes of a heartless murderer, to conform one's loves and delights to be as his, is quite possibly to deform one's own soul irrevocably. Indeed, this danger is as true of lesser, but in the long run no less poisonous, twistings of the mind and heart. To allow these in is as good as to let their author, the Prince of Lies, take away the good planted in us.

On the other hand, there is a kind of self-censoring, a worry about the forces external to us, that can also hand over to our assailant what we think we are protecting. Prudence in proclaiming the faith is indeed important, but there is a seductive offer, a siren's song which would call us to hold our tongue, to keep private our life in Christ, to learn to engage the world by living and seeming as one of the world. We ought not, the song tells us, to offend where offense may be taken. We should see where words like ours have been used not to heal but abuse, and so keep silent. Yet, as surely as those who opened their ears to the Siren of old found their ships dashed against the rocks and their lives forfeit, so also with the life of faith. To allow the worries of offense and past malfeasance to stop up our living in public witness to the Lord is in the end to hand away what we were given to nurture. It is to give to the devil without contest what he was threatening to take by force.

Can the Evil One take as his own the Lord's irrevocable gifts? By no means. But if we invite a known rascal into our home, or leave our house open and unguarded to avoid crossing his path, can we honestly be surprised to find that what we thought we valued had been taken away? If we had acted to carelessly or timidly about the seed of faith, did we actually want it in the first place?

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Blessed Reginald of Orléans, Confessor, Order of Preachers

Ecclesiasticus 31:8-11 / Luke 12:35-40

... he could have sinned but did not, could have done evil but would not, so that his possessions are secure in the Lord, and the assembly of the Saints shall recount his alms.

Reginald of Orléans was, by any ordinary estimation, doing very well for himself when he took the habit of the Order of Preachers. A young canon lawyer of great fame, Reginald enjoyed that prosperity that comes from a highly esteemed employment well lived. Indeed, there was nothing suspicious, nothing inappropriate, nothing demeaning of his life in Christ in the life he led before he was struck so terribly ill, and in that illness encouraged without by St Dominic himself, and within by the Blessed Mother, to take up the habit of the Order. It was perhaps in light of these circumstances that Matthew, his brother in religion, a man who had known him during his days of prosperity in the world, asked Reginald whether he ever regretted putting on the habit. To this, Reginald replied: I very much doubt if there is any merit in it for me, because I have always found so much pleasure in the Order.

There is a kind of moral rigorism which, while surely absent from our Brother Reginald, often makes his words its own. Pleasure, it seems to say, is a sure sign of wickedness. Where there is enjoyment, there must be a demon crouching in wait in the reeds, under every sweet smelling petal a deadly thorn, behind every moment of playfulness a well-oiled slope sure to send us plummetting to the depths of indulgence. Virtue, on this view, is hard work, and where there is no toil, no sweat, no grief of loss, then surely there can be no merit. Unlike the happy man of Ecclesiasticus, the man who seeks pleasure will have been tested by gold and come off, not safe, but seriously imperilled.

Yet, there is clearly something wrong here. Is the symphony spun from the deepest threads of a muscian's heart less worthy because in composing he finds life most delightful? Should we rather applaud the tortured composer who would rather do anything than harmonize another line, but in grim necessity sets his mind to the task? Is a mother's care for her child less lovely because she finds them delightful? Would we rather have it that she should prefer not to be a mother and love them regardless? Is this what we mean by virtue and merit? Do we imagine, after all, that the Virgin's happy acceptance, her glad Fiat, less worthy of praise, less meritorious, because it filled her with a joy beyond all telling?

Pleasure is, after all, the proper flowering of something rightly done. If we find ourselves distracted by pleasures from doing what we know must be done, surely this is no fault of pleasure itself. The delights of reading a richly textured novel, the pleasures of spending time in the company of a friend who cannot just now return our kindnesses, the thrill of sitting quietly in a dimly lit chapel, even with no petition to make and no message to hear, but to be at prayer with the One who loved us deeped than we will ever know from the gently hardness and pitiless mercy of the Cross — these are, to be sure, acquired tastes, and ones that do not come so readily as sweet chocolate on the tongue or a nice, hot shower. However, it is no good to hope that we will never find such things pleasurable. To be the sort of person who takes no pleasure in the things of God is no longer to be a friend of God. It is, for the sake of a mistaken sense of moral rightness, to have cast oneself willingly outside the sweet, savory feast where God would have us sup.

Is there merit in enjoying the things of God? This we know for sure. There is no merit is becoming so flinty and hard that the Gospel brings no delight. God redeemed us that we might have life. Do we imagine that, for those whom he has loved, he has intended that life to be dreaded or endured? Dare we hope that, like Blessed Reginald, even in the hardest tasks placed before us, we will find such pleasure in it, we will wonder if there was any merit in it at all?

Monday, February 16, 2009

Monday in Sexagesima

2 Corinthians 11:19 - 12:9 / Luke 8:4-15

And other seed fell upon good ground, and sprang up and yielded fruit a hundredfold

The evangelical reformer John Wesley, although a married man, surprisingly believed that the gift of celibacy was offered to all Christians. On his view, the voice of the Scriptures was clear; all things being equal, the life of celibacy was a better way to pursue the things of the Lord than the married life, which even at its best left the heart divided. Yet, he could not imagine that God might not grant the same gifts to all. The notion that God might love some with gifts of a more excellent sort, which might be more likely to yield the hundredfold praised by our Lord in his parable, was intolerable. So, on his view, whoever found himself unable to maintain celibacy in charity must have, at some earlier point, rejected the grace which would have made it possible.

While Wesley's views here may seem a tad unusual to Catholic ears, to ears more attuned to a rich plurality of graces, his notion is not too far from how many of us experience our own lives with the Lord Jesus. Looking at the example of the apostles, the martyrs, the doctors of the Church, the virgins and confessors, we wonder why our own lives have not produced the heroic fruits that theirs did. We imagine that, somewhere, some time, we must have refused an offered grace, a gift which would have made us as patient as Anthony of Egypt, as passionate as Catherine of Siena, as gentle as Francis de Sales. In other words, we imagine that the generating force, the source of fruitfulness that is God's Word, must of its own nature always produce the same yield. Any variety, any disparity, must be the fault, not of the seed, but a defect in the soil.

Now, defects, to be sure, there are, and we cannot always absolve ourselves for the paltry, shriveled crop harvested from the bitter earth of our hearts. Yet, as any vintner will tell you, the quality of a crop is not merely the result of getting out of the way of the seed. It is not as though the seed ought always to produce fruit of the same flavor, if only the earth had not obscured its true taste. Rather, there is the terroir, that special character of the soil, of the precise proportions of sunlight and shade, of the microclimate of rain and dew, of the other plants in the region, of the centuries of growth — all of these, rather than impeding, make for a beautiful variety from the very same plant. This is, after all, why the French know their wines not by varietal, but by vineyard. It is the terroir, and not simply the grape, that marks the yield.

So, too, in our lives of faith, there is a spiritual terroir, a "ghostly earthiness" if you will, that yields a bountiful richness from the same holy Writ. From the same call to leave all things and follow Christ, we have the lives of hermits, of monks, of friars, and of active apostolates. From the same counsel to love of neighbor we have both Martin of Tours' heroic refusal of the sword and Louis of France's equally heroic death bearing the same. Where Elizabeth of Hungary set aside affairs of state for the sake of the Kingdom, Karl of Austria bravely led his people through a war he wanted desperately to end, and refused to set aside his imperial and royal claims to serve his people, even if he was forced to set aside the exercise of those sacred duties. For each of them, it was their heart's terroir, that combination of gifts and trials, within and without, all guided by the loving hand of Providence, which made all the difference.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Sexagesima Sunday

2 Corinthians 11:19 - 12:9 / Luke 8:4-15

And that which fell among the thorns, these are they who have heard, and as they go their way are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not ripen

There is an episode of the 1980s television revival of The Twilight Zone ("The Curious Case of Edgar Witherspoon") which presents to us a man clearly free from the riches and pleasures of life. This otherwise harmless old man spends his entire day digging through the local garbage to seek not discarded things of value, but rubbish — a paper clip, a doll's head, a wire hanger. Nothing in his life seems to contribute at all to his personal comfort. He does not pursue any sort of worldly distraction. He neither chases after money nor indulges in money once gained.

Yet, Mr. Witherspoon is something of a public nuisance. While never overtly hostile or dangerous, this odd, old man has no time for pleasantries. He is cut off from any meaningful relations with his neighbors. He only has time for his unceasing and driving need for worthless, but always quite particular, articles of trash.

Why he does this, we later discover, is because he hears voices which instructed him to build a machine, a machine made from the cast-off trinkets in the garbage dump, to keep the world in balance and to ward off global disasters. Apply a doll's head just so, and an earthquake in Santa Barbara is averted. Knock something else out of place, and a tidal wave will wash away an island nation. And so, Mr. Witherspoon has no time for ordinary human interaction; the fate of the world is quite literally in his hands (and in his apartment). While free from the riches and pleasures of life, Mr. Witherspoon, kind as he may be, seems altogether choked by the cares of the world.

We who hold to the faith delivered once for all to the saints can easily fall into the trap of Mr. Witherspoon. Like this batty old man, we too know that there is important work that needs to be done. Scoured of impurities by the waters of Baptism and forged into a firm but supple instrument by the fire of the Holy Spirit, we respond, as we grow more fully into conformity with Christ by that same Spirit, to the slightest touch and prompting of God. We grow to see, as he sees, the cares and needs of the world. We come to love, as he loves, all those whom the heaviness of a world which longs to be set free threatens to crush and bury. So long as we keep this in mind, the riches and pleasures of life can be seen quite easily as goods, but distracting ones, and readily abandoned as inconsequential to our own happiness and our neighbor's flourishing.

Yet, with all of this insight, we can be drawn just as easily away from God's Word by these legitimate concerns as we can by the beautiful trinkets and baubles by which God has decorated it. Staring ever too closely at the darkness of the world's woes, our eyes can grow accustomed to the dim, and we might not feel any comfort with our fellows in the clear light of day. Indeed, such detachment from ordinary human interaction — a cup of tea on a quiet afternoon, a good book and a cold and rainy day, a walk with a friend through the park to see the setting of the sun, gazing at the stars with a child first awakening to the wonder of it all — not only dehumanizes us, it can be all the harder to resist precisely because we convince ourselves that it is a response to the hard demands of the Gospel.

But, resist it we must!

God indeed has assigned us a task, and there is plenty of work to be done. Make no mistake, this is no counsel to sloth. Even so, we are not made nor have we been redeemed for a life of drudgery, to lose what is enobling of human life in a grim determination to save the world, which, after all, God has already done in Christ. We ought rather to heed the words of Adam to Eve in the work of the great Puritan poet John Milton:

Yet not so strictly hath our Lord impos'd
Labour, as to debar us when we need
Refreshment, whether food, or talk between,
Food of the mind, or this sweet intercourse
Of looks and smiles, for smiles from Reason flow,
To brute deni'd, and are of Love the food,
Love not the lowest end of human life.
For not to irksome toil, but to delight
He made us, and delight to Reason join'd.
(Paradise Lost 9.235-243)

Brothers and sisters, the cares of the world are many, and will be there when you return. Are you ready to let God keep the world for a space, and enjoy a bit of leisure, the holy leisure in which God's Word will hold fast, and bear fruit in patience?

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Blessed Jordan of Saxony, Confessor, Order of Preachers

Ecclesiasticus 31:8-11 / Luke 12:35-40

It can be a tiring and wearisome thing to be always on watch. There is a reason, after all, that armed guards of palaces and city halls, museums and supermarkets, maintain something of a grim air of resignation. Apart from warning off a potential evildoer, those on watch just cannot afford to be affable. Keeping an eye out for what is coming, for any sign however small that something deserves our attention, seems to us generally incompatible with mirth. For us, to be enjoying ourselves generally means also not having to keep watch, not needing to mind our P's and Q's.

This is why, at first glance, one might see why enemies of the faith have accused Christianity as being the foe of joy. After all, Jesus himself describes, or rather commands, Christian discipleship to resemble and unending watch: Let your loins be girt about and your lamps burning in your hands and you yourselves like men waiting for their master's return from the wedding. Indeed, it is a watch we are advised may take longer than we think, and for that very reason, we can never allow our attentiveness to slacken. The bridegroom may well come not right away, but perhaps even in the second watch, or possibly even the third watch of the night, when we wonder whether the sun will dawn on a new day without his return, and without a moment's rest on our part.

How very different, then, such watchfulness appears in those whom God loves, how very far from grim resignation and anxious fatigue. In this, we have no better witness than Blessed Jordan of Saxony, successor to St Dominic as Master of the Order of Preachers, and one of the most tireless promoters of the Order's membership and mission in its earliest days. It is true, of course, that Jordan kept special vigils of prayer over and above his obligations to the Divine Office. Indeed, he is said to have prayed on his knees, upright with his hands clasped, for over two hours (the time it would take to walk eight miles, it was said), once after Compline and again after Matins, crying bitter tears all the while.

Yet, it was this same man blessed by God who was noted, not for a maudlin temperament, but for his gentleness and joy. It is said that, while on his many travels, when not in holy conversation with his fellow friars, Jordan would walk ahead of them a stone's throw, singing all the while one of his favorite tunes, the Salve Regina or the Jesu nostra redemptio. So filled with joy was he in these tuneful meditations, that he would wander off, and his brothers would have to go searching to find where he had finally gone. Needless to say, Jordan and his fellow travellers would not infrequently get lost, but rather than lose his patience, or seek to blame another, Jordan is reported to have said, especially to those who were upset or worried by the delay: Never mind, brothers, it is all part of the way to heaven.

What Jordan reminds us is that watchfulness for God is not just like the watchfulness of a security guard minding the door to a bank vault. Ours is not the task of keeping someone out, but of being ready to let someone in. To do that, we need not so much to have the house put in order and put on hold, as one might worry over what to do with the entrée when the guest of honor is late for a dinner party. Rather, our task is to become the kind of people who will find the coming of the bridegroom a reason for unmitigated joy. To be watchful for God, in other words, means to be just the sort of person who weeps over his own sins and the sins of the world, who weeps with gladsome anticipation for the return of our beloved bridegroom Jesus Christ, and who sings with happy distraction along the way.

It is in our tears, song, and words of gentleness to our brothers and sisters that Christ will find the most welcome home, will find just the place he would desire to recline at table.

Friday, February 13, 2009

St Catherine de Ricci, Virgin, Order of Preachers

Song of Songs 8:1-4 / Matthew 25:1-13

What is the difference between a daydreamer and a visionary? What separates the frenzied confusion of hysteria and the sublime coherence of holy passion? What marks the divide between the marks of abuse and the prints of love?

Determined to enter a Dominican convent at an early age, Alessandra (as Catherine was christened) was refused entry by her father, and she fell deathly ill, only to recover to full health when her desire was fulfilled. Adolescent hysteria or divine zeal? In her early years at the convent, Catherine seemed listless, inattentive, prone to dropping and breaking things, and was poised to be dismissed. Unfocused and careless or enraptured and visionary? From the age of twenty, and for twelve years to follow, Catherine experienced weekly, from Thursday through Friday, the wounds of Christ's Passion visibly in her own body, to the wonder and astonishment of her sisters and all who thronged to see her. Victim of a masochistic, world-hating piety or privileged and intimate partaker in the depths of the love of Christ, her Bridegroom?

We are odd creatures; wonderfully made, to be sure, but odd. God has made us to be metaphysical amphibians, born and first at home in one world (the physical), but made to stretch our minds and our hearts to another (the spiritual), without ever leaving the first world behind. Yet, even as the vast expanse of a swamp dwarfs the humble pond out of which a frog makes its first leap, so too the spiritual world in which we are made to live is immeasurably vast, grander and richer than anything physical could begin to describe. Yet, experience it bodily we must, for God made us not to be disembodied spirits, but creatures of flesh, blood and bone.

This is why the physical palette we have can only begin to reflect the depths of our inner selves. We cry when in pain and when in sorrow, when lonely and when angry, when nostalgic and when overjoyed, on parting and on meeting up again. So it is with everything of the body. Our bodies are beautiful and wonderful things, to be sure, but how could we begin to expect them to capture the subtle and delicate nuances of our spiritual lives? Even our most intimate desires for union with Jesus Christ must, by a necessity woven into us by Christ himself and therefore no cause of shame, be spoken by the words of the deepest, intimate union of our bodies: His left hand under my head, and his right hand shall embrace me.

Are we surprised, then, that the holy gifts Christ gave as dowry to his Bride Catherine should also resemble, in the least important but no less visible way, the signs of the dissolution of the body and the self? When we are seized by the Love which the world was made and which set the vault of the heavens spinning in rapt adoration, can our bodies do anything but tremble and threaten to burst open in imitation of a love they cannot, except by his enlarging grace, contain?

But in all of this, Catherine was not lost to herself or to others. Knowing her weekly Passions to distract herself and those who came to gaze, Catherine bid her Bridegroom to bring them to an end, which he happily did. Even during the period of these happy trials, Catherine was no less active in seeing to the needs not only of the sisters of her convent, but also to those many from the world outside who sought her counsel. Catherine's passions and ecstasies did not cripple her in the world, did not make her an alien to ordinary human duty and kindness. Throughout her life in the convent, she was ever the wise and never a foolish virgin.

What marks the difference between the marks of abuse and the prints of love? That those imprinted with love are not undone, that they live not broken lives of terror and confusion, of confused counsel and misleading visions, but a life of calm yet fervent hope for the coming of the Bridegroom, lived out in a life of abiding charity for all those whom he has espoused.

I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, that you stir not up, nor awake my love till she please

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Come & See Vocation Weekend (Feb 20-22, 2009)


Do you know a young man who you believe would make a wonderful Dominican? Have you told him you think so? If you are that man, have you talked to anyone but God, yourself, and your close friends (if even to them)? Religious vocations are not properly speaking natural. They stand outside the bounds of natural motivations, although in their own sense they fulfill them. Still, more than other vocations, such as the married life, which are sanctifications of a natural institution, being a living sign of the Kingdom through conformity to Christ in the evangelical counsels through living out of a charism in a public, vowed life is never an obvious next step!

So, if you, or someone you know, is willing to preach the Word of God for the salvation of souls, consider giving us a look! Call Andrew-Carl Wisdom, O.P., at (312) 243-0011, ext. 36, or visit the website.

Where's Blessed Reginald of Orléans, O.P.?

Servites? I thought this was a Dominican blog? Shouldn't we be celebrating the Memorial of Blessed Reginald of Orléans today? [grumble, grumble, murmur, murmur ...]

Hold your horses and cool your jets, as they say. Reginald will have his due, but next week, on the 17th. Why? Well, one of the goals of this blog, as a personal project, was to acquaint myself more deeply with the heritage of the Order of Preachers through an encounter and engagement with the cycle of readings in the Dominican missal. The older cycle presents some interesting challenges from a homiletic perspective, at least for those of us familiar with the lectionaries in use for Mass since 1970. For the ordinary form of the Mass, the cycle of readings is largely uninterrupted, and so on the memorials of saints, one generally reads the lessons of the day. This allows for the interesting encounter of the saint whose feast is celebrated and passages from Scripture which may have no obvious connection with the life of the saint. Moreover, since the date of the memorial moves through the week from year to year, and since there are two yearly cycles of readings, this allows for an interesting variety and set of perspectives from the Scriptures to enlighten or be enlightened by the saint whom we celebrate.

For the older cycle of readings, the challenge was and is different. Here, the readings for saints, even for memorials, is fixed, and will remain the same whatever day of the week the feast is celebrated. There is also a smaller array of lessons for the whole number of saints, which means that, ceteris paribus, the same Epistle and Gospel will be read for saints of the same type (i.e. martyrs, virgins, abbots, etc.) even though the saints themselves differ. Indeed, when there is not the feast of a saint, the lessons will, outside of Lent and a some other occasions, simply be drawn from the preceding Sunday. This situation calls for different strategies for preaching. If the virtue of the cycle for the ordinary form is its variety and mutability from year to year, calling on a kind of broad creativity to prevent the celebration from seeming arbitrary, then the virtue of the extraordinary form seems to be precisely its sameness and stability, calling on a richness of vision and attentiveness to deeper meanings to prevent a (in a negative sense) repetitive encounter with God's Word.

Well, that's what I think now in any case. We'll see as the project progresses.

In the meantime, if you have celebrated Bl. Reginald today, give the Servites their due. If you have not honored Reginald, you'll have another chance next week, on the 17th, where the older date of his memorial falls.

The Seven Holy Founders of the Order of Servites, Confessors

Ecclesiasticus 44:1-15 / Matthew 19:27-29

Some of them have left behind a name that is remembered to their praise; but of others there is no memory, for it perished when they perished, and they are as though they had never lived, they and their children after them.

It is hard to aim at greatness when the bar is placed so high. Sometimes nothing prevents a work from being started more than the knowledge that someone, somewhere has done it, or will do it, better, with greater impact, wider effect, and more lasting good. Members of families may feel this way; for members of a religious order, it is nearly a way of life. Day after day one hears of the men of renown, from a generation just past, or many years ago, in whom the Lord has wrought great glory through His magnificence. No doubt the Servites feel that sense, knowing the holiness of not one, but seven holy founders, all from noble families of Florence, each of which could itself claim to have been rulers of earth by their authority, men of renown for their might, or counselors in their wisdom. Certainly as a Dominican, the cycle of the year reminds me, month after month, how so many of my brothers in the past, from the remotest times to the recent, have been recognized by the whole Church for their holiness. Indeed, with the fame of Thomas Aquinas alone, it is hard to see what there is left for a Dominican to say which is not a mere footnote.

Now, if by keeping our aim level we are trying to respect the gifts we actually have, to admit humbly that what we have is good as far as it goes, and can do the good God wills it to do, then we have not erred. We would no doubt have kept ourselves from culpable self-promotion, from a foolish overreaching, from pride and a search after vainglory. We are content with the simple gifts we have been given, confident with the conforting words of Ecclesiasticus. Even those whose deeds were not heroic, whose names go unremembered, in whose families no one boasts to be a member, these nonetheless also were godly men whose virtues have not been forgotten; their wealth remains in their families, their posterity are a holy inheritance, and their seed has stood in the covenants. In short, the goods that I experience are not simply the work of the heroes of the past, the stars who shine brightly and whose gifts deserve the universal acclaim of the people of God. What I enjoy of the faith is also the direct inheritance of those wonderful, holy men and women whose virtues, whose love, was no less than to be found in the ranks of the canonized, however smaller their fame.

However, while all of this is true, is it not an excuse for aiming low. Indeed, it is a compelling argument for the reverse. If I aim high so as to have renown, then in truth I seek after wind. But, if I aim for the heights so as to do great and glorious things in God's power, to serve with holy abandon not in small ways but in marvellous ways, the effects of which will be lasting and great even if no one knows it was through me that they were accomplished, then I am on the right path. God, after all, is not impressed by the pusillanimous, the narrow souls who seek to "get by" and do just enough to avoid fault. God wants to call us to magnanimity, to a greatness of soul, a greatness which seeks only the best for those whom we love, for God and those redeemed by the blood of the Lamb.

Even unnamed and unremembered, we are called by God to do the best we can, and to seek a return not double or triple, but a hundredfold. Beloved in Christ, we seek nothing less than to possess everlasting life. For a goal such as that, what wouldn't we be willing to do?

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary Immaculate at Lourdes

Revelation 11:19 - 12:1, 10 / Luke 1:26-31

Prior to the publication of his novel Lourdes in 1894, Émile Zola was interviewed by the novelist, poet, journalist and biographer Robert H. Sherard. Zola explained in his interview the genesis of his novel, his accidental coming to the village of Lourdes during a holiday in the Pyrénées. There the skeptic was impressed by the site of the masses of pilgrims thronging to the site of the Virgin's appearance. No believer himself, indeed overtly hostile to the faith, Zola could not avoid being moved by this witness to hope in he midst of suffering. All the same, Zola said: Lourdes, the Grotto, the cures, the miracles are, indeed, the creation of that need of the Lie, that necessity for credulity, which is a characteristic of human nature. ... But Lourdes grew up in spite of all opposition, just as the Christian religion did, because suffering humanity in its despair must cling to something, must have some hope; and, on the other hand, because humanity thirsts after illusions. In a word, it is the story of the foundation of all religions.

To be sure, there is a kind of mind which presumes an inverse relation between the attractiveness of something unseen and the probability that it exists. It's too good to be true, we might say. We would like for such a thing to be the case, but in our fear of being disappointed — of feeling twice the fool, once for believing and again for being wrong when we knew we ought not to have believed in the first place — we draw back from the delightful hope dangled before our eyes. We do not prefer the dark, brutal, painful, grim, hysteria which Zola asserts is, sadly, the true story of the human race. But, better the devil you know ...

Surely even Zola would have to admit the captivating beauty of the Virgin in her glorious appearing. Whether as the woman clothed in white before young Bernadette, or the woman clothed with the sun, and the moon ... under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars, or the humble maid in Bethlehem who has found grace with God, chastely pondering in holy fear what manner of greeting this might be. Is it no surprise that the image of the Virgin is so compelling that she has moved not only the greatest artists, composers, architects and poets of Christendom, but even inspired the Buddhists of China to change their image of the bodhisattva of mercy from that of a man to a gentle woman with a child? Who wouldn't want to believe in such a woman? Who would not hope to get even a slightest glimpse of that woman in whom we see, beyond any other of those whose earthly life has been completed, the salvation, and the power and the kingdom of our God; and the authority of His Christ?

So, have we been duped? Ought we to draw back from our hope of the Virgin's gracious apparition to Bernadette, and her merciful intercession for countless suffering pilgrims of the years at Lourdes? Should we be all the more cautious because Our Lady of Lourdes is all fair, the glory of Jerusalem, the joy of Israel, the honor of our people?

Zola's error, and one we must guard against, was to presume that because something fulfills a wish, it must not be true. A man might be rightly regarded as painfully deceived if he sought to escape a burning building by sprouting wings and flying away, but does his hope of rescue by helicopter or ladder suggest we ought to doubt the existence of a fire department? A man who is thirsty surely yearns and hopes for water. If he seeks it where those whom he loves, and who he knows love him just as dearly, have told him it can be found, do we call his travelling there a seeking after illusion? So, too, our thoughts about God and his holy ones may indeed be projections, but just because something is a projection does not mean that what is projected does not also really exist.

We have good reason to hope in the Virgin under her title Our Lady of Lourdes. We have certain hope in her intercession under any terms whatever. Calling after her whom we have not seen is not to pursue the Lie. The Lie would be to deny that our longing for spiritual beauty and healing is altogether justified. We need not fear to be made the fool. She, who appeared to Bernadetter in the clefts of the rock, in the hollow places of the wall, is as ready to appear to us. Through her God has indeed visited the earth and plentifully watered it; he has enriched it in many ways.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

St Scholastica, Virgin

2 Corinthians 10:17-18 / Matthew 25:1-13

When shall we three meet again?
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?

It is a case of two thunderstorms. The one on a dark and terrible heath in Scotland. The weather is ominous: So foul and fair a day I have not seen, remarks the ambitious lord Macbeth. The ladies there are terrible and foul as the storms which herald their appearance. They seek to converse with Macbeth, and to draw from him what perhaps he would otherwise not do, to slay and overthrow the rightful king.

The other thunderstorm is on the rocky hills to the southeast of Rome. The weather there too, once fair, turns ominous, with thunder, lightning, and rain. There is a lady there as well, the nun Scholastica, and like the Weird Sisters with Macbeth, she also seeks to draw the man in her company, her brother Benedict, to do what perhaps he would not otherwise do, to remain outside the monastery in the guest house with his sister all night.

How very different, though, the import of these storms. In the first, there is only to be found chaos, bloodshed, deception, and loss. Listening to the Sisters, and yielding to his own dark and hidden counsel, Macbeth is enticed to put into action a terrible plot that leads to the death and downfall of many, not least himself. In the second, there is a love beyond all telling, a final chance to share on earth what they both long to enjoy forever in heaven. Listening to his sister, and prevented from following his own best counsel, Benedict enjoys a full night in the company of a woman not only his beloved kin by blood, but a chaste virgin to Christ whose charity was so deep that her desire to draw her brother closer to her one spouse was able at the slightest prayer to call down a tempest from heaven.

So, how is one to know? How are the dark and terrible tempests in our life to guide us? When should we, like Benedict, yield to impeding circumstance even against our own better judgment? When instead should we, like Macbeth's companion Banquo, hold the promises offered in the dark storms of life as suspect, untrustworthy?

But 'tis strange:
And oftentimes, to win us to our harm,
The instruments of darkness tell us truths,
Win us with honest trifles, to betray's
In deepest consequence.
(Macbeth 1.3.128-132)

While the answer is not simple, and we are never absolved from discerning spirits, from judging in wisdom and prudence what to do, we are not without some guidance. We know, even now while it is light, while the weather is calm and fair, how to tell between the seductive temptations of our darker desires and the holy foolishness that draws us beyond being sensible to the divine jealousy of love for God and for all those whom God loves. It is now that we can trim our lamps, now that we can take the oil of sound teaching, of clear counsel, of good company. It is in our preparedness when things seem clear, and the darkness far off, that we will be able to see well and clearly whether the figure approaching in the gloom is the terrible spirit who wishes our woe, or the bridegroom, whose return overcomes our fear with unfathomable delight.

Monday, February 9, 2009

St Cyril of Alexandria, Bishop and Doctor of the Church

2 Timothy 4:1-8 / Matthew 5:13-19

For there will come a time when they will not endure the sound doctrine ...

Does all that theological precision really matter? After all, we are talking about the mysteries of God, and surely mysteries cannot be so easily exhausted by formulas, especially not by formulas derived not from the inspired Scriptures but from the genius of the human mind. In light of the scandal of division in the body of Christ, ought we not to set aside our worry about the soundness of our doctrine and worry more about the authenticity of our witness? The world is supposed to note how Christians love one another; does this mean they need to agree with one another?

Now, at this point, any right thinking, which is to say orthodox believer will rightly be annoyed. St Paul's words to Timothy could not be clearer. We are to preach the word in season and out of season. We need to show care for those who turn away their hearing from the truth and turn aside rather to fables. Right teaching matters! We cannot direct ourselves to love a God, or anything else, we do not know. Love requires knowledge, a knowledge of the truth. The point is not that agreement is the goal. The goal is a unity in love, but there is no unity in love where there is not the same object of love, loved rightly, loved in accord with the truth.

Even so, rightly minded believers require due caution here, lest for the sake of a seeming adherence to the truth, we divide needlessly and tragically from our brothers in the faith. Consider, for example, the great confession of St Cyril of Alexandria. For him, the truth of coming in flesh of the Son of God is best expressed is the formula mia physis tou theou logou sesarkomene, "the one Incarnate nature of God the Word." Now, as good sons and daughters of the Latin West, something in this expression sounds not quite right. One nature? Do we not confess two natures? Is that not the very teaching of the Gospels, as repeated by Pope St Leo I and held up by the Council of Chalcedon? What is a Doctor of the Church doing espousing one nature in the Incarnate Word?

Of course, to Cyril, and to the Oriental Orthodox, the in duabus naturis ("in two natures") so dear to Latin orthodoxy was and is just as worrisome. This formula, after all, was used by Nestorius and other like-minded teachers to assert that the man Jesus and the Son of God were not the same person. They held that "Christ" was only one in the way two people intimately bound in will and love are one, but that, ultimately, it was the man Jesus who died on the Cross and rose from the dead, not the Son of God.

The fact is that the Church admits, since the Council of Chalcedon, that Cyril and Leo are in agreement, and thus it is, oddly enough, both true to say one nature and to say in two natures, and true to worry about each of these expressions. The sense here is not one of a broad, theological pluralism. The claim is not that each of these Doctors has his "own" Christology, and thus there is a legitimate plurality of incompatible understandings of the apostolic faith. Rather, what the Council Fathers in the fifth century knew, and what has been made explicit to Christians East and West in the twentieth, is that what Cyril taught is the same as that handed on by the apostles, as much as what Leo taught is the handing on of Peter's confession. What this also means, then, is that one can have "rightly worded" expressions of the faith which fail to communicate Catholic truth, even as one can have historically legitimate, but verbally incompatible strategies of expressing that same faith.

What then are we to do? Paul's answer to us is clear, and we knew it all along. On the one hand, we are not to accept any odd-sounding teaching as truth simply because of its credentials and degrees, but we are to be watchful in all things. At the same time, we must be ready to endure a little bit of suffering with our sisters and brothers who at least seem to differ with us, and with kindness and charity bear with tribulation patiently, even if that means working harder at understanding than being understood. In the end, we are to pray, pray that where there is true error it will be taken away, so that all those who love His coming may rejoice even in this life in the same Jesus Christ, who will judge the living and the dead by His coming and by His kingdom.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Septuagesima Sunday

1 Corinthians 9:24-10:5 / Matthew 20:1-16

Shouldn't generosity count? That was the question I was posed some years ago by a student less than pleased with the grade she had earned on her paper. The paper was, to be sure, altogether mediocre, and even in the middle of her tears and protests, she never disputed the point. It was not a good paper. Still, what stung her so much was that her friends — those friends with whom she had discussed the assignment, those friends whose papers she had proofread and critiqued — those friends had done well on their papers. Where in her grade could anyone see how much she had poured herself out for others? Should not her generosity have counted for something?

In one sense, to be sure, this student was altogether in the right. In the scheme of things, the goods of friendship and generosity are superior to those of academic achievement. In another sense, however, she had misconstrued what made her kindness to her friends something worthwhile, something meritorious and commendable. On her view, virtue in one regard (helping her friends with their work) balanced against a failure on her part to do the task at hand, namely, to write the best paper she could. On her view, the great good of friendship absolved her from what had brought her to the class in the first place, and her failure to achieve should somehow be overlooked.

Now, this student's mistake is hardly uniquely hers; the notion that the good that we have done elsewhere in our life frees us from attending to the labors before us is widespread. After all, it was this very problem which animated St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians. I chastise my body, he writes, and bring it into subjection, lest perhaps after my preaching to others I myself should be rejected. The Apostle is altogether aware that his generosity in preaching the Gospel freely, while certainly a great good, does not "count" against his own failure to live in accord with the very good news he proclaims. Good Jew that he is, Paul knows all too well that fidelity to God in one respect does not erase or blot out a more fundamental rejection of God in another matter. He knows that the people of Israel might well have protested to God that he ought to overlook their having turned to other gods upon entering the Promised Land. After all, they might have said, were they not all under the pillar of cloud? Did they not pass through the sea at God's command? Were they not fed and given drink daily by God's generosity? Shouldn't any of this count?

As we begin our preparation for the Lenten season, God is warning us, as Paul warned the people of Corinth and Jesus his disciples, about the sin of presumption. Through presumption we imagine our goodness so worthy of God's praise that we fail to attend to whatever in our life still draws us from God. Through presumption we consider ourselves entitled not to worry over the "little things" — our idle gossip over lunch at work, our "lifting" of a few reams of paper or boxes of pens to use at home, our second or third cocktail when perhaps we may have been just as happy with none, our second hour at the computer without having spent more than five minutes of conversation with our wife, our brother in religion, our lonely neighbor. We have, we assure ourselves, labored long in the Lord's vineyard. We have prayed morning and night. We have given generously even in difficult times. We have not let our eyes wander to linger over what is better left unseen. We have kept to faith even when we knew it might be easier to give in to pressure and slide effortlessly into unbelief. We have labored since the first hour, we protest. Surely a generous God has to let that count for something!

Before we begin our Lenten devotions, our daily attendance at Mass, our fasting and our almsgiving, God wants us to attend to what we know the Gospel demands of us. Have we, in these days far from Christmas but not quite Lent, been attentive to the needs of our neighbor? Have we spent time, an hour, even a few minutes, every day in silent prayer? Do we attend to the Scriptures, in reading or preaching, or avail ourselves of the sacramental graces so freely available in Penance and the Eucharist?

Or, do we let ourselves coast spiritually? Are we riding on the now quite feeble wave of Christmas generosity, as forgotten as the tree with its tinsel? Are we instead storing up for a grand show of devotion in Lent, and so not troubling ourselves now, waiting to catch the swell that comes with fish and ashes?

Now, when nothing seems too much at stake, when it would be easy to presume in favor of the good we have done or intend firmly to do soon, now is the time to run the race. So run as to obtain it.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Giving it a go

I set up this blog over a year ago and never did anything with it. It seemed a shame to leave it empty, so I've returned to give it a try.

My present goal is homiletic. Specifically, I am going to attend to the lectionary of the Dominican missal in use before 1969. I may post other things along the way. Who's to say? In any event, I'm giving it a go.