Monday, November 28, 2011

Monday of the First Week of Advent

Isaiah 2:1-5 / Matthew 8:5-11

Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof.

These words of the centurion in the Gospel we make our own at every Mass before we receive Communion. In fact, those of us in the English-speaking world will be able to do so even more manifestly in our new translation of the Mass, placing these very words on our lips. So, it is clear that the Church intends all the faithful to identify with this virtuous pagan whose faith excelled those of the chosen people in Israel.

Yet, in what way are we to take these centurion's words? It might seem, on the face of it, that we are to make ourselves more keenly aware of our moral failings, of the ways that we have cooled to the very fire of charity which is signified and effected by the Sacrament. Certainly, in light of St Paul's admonitions in the first letter to the Corinthians or receiving the Body worthily, this is sage and sound advice.

All the same, in context, sinfulness does not seem to be the principal concern. Rather, what the centurion attends to is the question of authority. The centurion, that is, says he is not worthy precisely because he knows one word from the Lord Jesus will be sufficient. Say only the word, and my servant shall be healed. As in the prophecy of Isaiah, the centurion is willing to go to the mountain of God to be taught and judged because he recognizes that there is a truth there to which he will happily submit, a truth that exceeds even his best efforts to do right by his servant. In fact, this latter truth makes clear to us that the centurion's acceptance of the authority of Christ is not about passive submission. Rather, he can recognize the authority of the God of Israel not merely because he is subject to others, but precisely because he knows what it means to have others subject to him. More specifically, it is his experience of exercising his authority on behalf of those who are subordinate to him, seeing to their needs and concerns, that the centurion is led to his confession of faith, professing the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

Advent calls us all to profess our unworthiness as the centurion did, that is, through recognizing more clearly the authority of Jesus Christ. Yet, it also asks us, as does every Mass, to recognize that authority not by mere submission, but just as much in our use of our own power and authority, however limited it may seem, on behalf of those who are placed in our lives and under our care. When Jesus returns, whose Advent we celebrate and await this season, may we too hear him say of us as he said of the centurion, In no one ... have I found such faith. 

Sunday, November 27, 2011

First Sunday of Advent

Romans 13:11-14 / Luke 21:25-33

When we find ourselves in times of distress, how do we feel when we see someone, especially someone we care about and who, we believe, cares about us, going about confident and undisturbed? Perhaps we find strength in such a witness. That is, we might be comforted to know that, whatever ills we are experiencing, at least those whom we love do not suffer them as well.

Even so, we might just as likely find ourselves both angered and hurt at their confidence, at our friends' not being downcast. Why, we complain, do they look up and lift up their heads? How can they be confident and unafraid when I am so troubled? Is it that they are unaware of my suffering, which would be a fault of theirs, for surely those who love me should be attentive to my distress as well as my joy? Or, is it that, even knowing my distress, they are unmoved, uncaring, revealing their love for me to be false?

Such protests are, of course, unfair, but they are nonetheless not unexpected. The truth that we can see more readily when things are going well is that we do not and should not desire our own sorrow and trouble to have a veto over joy. That those we love and who love us should care about our troubles is, to be sure, beyond dispute. Even so, to care deeply and still to have confidence in a deeper happiness, indeed to be able to care deeply precisely because of that unshakeable confidence, is precisely the best and proper way to respond to the pains and suffering of others.

So, it should come as no surprise that the Church in her collective observance of Advent, in her looking to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ not with fear or anxiety, but with joyful hope, finds herself critiqued both in her members who have not this confidence and in those who do. Those Christians disturbed by the events of the world — by the signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, by reason of the confusion of the roaring of the sea and of the waves: men withering away for fear and expectation of what shall come upon the whole world — become for the world of unbelief a justification to doubt the warrant for Christian hope. Yet, at the same time, those Christians who live in confidence and joy, awaiting the Son of man coming in a cloud with great power and majesty, joyful even in the midst of the troubles of the world because their redemption is at hand, are accused by these same critics of the Good News for being callous, being untroubled by real suffering, offering Bronze Age opiates to avoid the pains of the twenty-first century.

In all of this, we need not be disturbed or dismayed. We know that, in light of the Gospel, we need not, indeed cannot, deny the reality of the troubles of the world, for the one who will come in glory and power to judge the world still bears the scars of his Cross. At the same time, we know that those wounds are marks of love and not shame, of the triumph of mercy not the continuance or permanence of malice. We know better than others that death, pain, and troubles, while altogether real, cannot and will not have the final say, neither in our individual lives, nor for the whole of creation. Heaven and earth, Jesus reminds us, shall pass away: but My words shall not pass away.

Stir up Thy power, we beseech Thee, O Lord, and come: that from the threatening dangers of our sins we may deserve to be rescued by Thy protection, and to be saved by Thy deliverance.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Saturday of the 34th Week (I)

Daniel 7:15-27 / Luke 21:34-36

However different our vision, however keen our eyes, things are generally most readily seen neither close up or at a distance, but rather in the middle ground. Hold something right up near the eye and it will either all be a blur or be so partial a view that we have no clue as to what it is we are looking at. Put something out at a distance and, even for a keen eye, it loses much of its specificity. In other words, when the focus is too close or too distant, we simply cannot say what it is that we are seeing. Sight is most comfortable at the middle distance.

We can see that our spiritual sight is not so unlike that. Unaided, the prophet Daniel was not simply perplexed by his vision of the future, but rather he found his spirit anguished within its covering of flesh, and he was terrified by the visions of his mind. What was to come was seen by him as terrible beasts with iron teeth and claws of bronze, as horns, one of which spoke in arrogance. It was only when one of those present ... made known to him the meaning of the things that Daniel could receive his vision of things far off as a message of hope and not a source of terror.

In the Gospel, we are warned against just the opposite tendency. Here, the Lord Jesus Christ reminds us of the dangers of carousing and drunkenness, and the anxieties of daily life. Whether pleasures or worries, these things share in common the fact of being immediate, of being experienced directly by us here and now. Yet, the Lord warns us that indulging in them will make our hearts become drowsy. Our vision will, like the eyes of a sleepy man, become blurry, and we will not notice the coming of the Day which will assault everyone who lives on the face of the earth. It is only in being vigilant, which is to say keeping our gaze beyond what is immediately around us, but looking up to see what it coming, that we will be able to stand before the Son of Man with fearful joy rather than loathing and terror.

How, then, to we find the right distance? How to we know where to focus? How do we escape the terror that comes from the unintelligible future on the one hand and the terror that will strike us from having been to caught up in the insistent present on the other hand?

The answer, which we knew all along, is to see through the eyes of the Scriptures as read in prayer from the heart of the Church. It is Jesus Christ who, like those with Daniel, is present to us, and it is his voice alone that can transform the terrifying visions of what is to come into Good News and a message of hope. Likewise it is Jesus Christ who, being more present to us than our own bodily pleasures, more pressing on us than our daily cares, who along can liberate us from the tyranny of the present and face the future coming without alarm. What our eyes cannot see for being too close or too far away, we nonetheless can see with clarity by keeping our focus on the middle ground who is the Lord Jesus, our Lord and God, who lives and reigns with the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit, for ever and ever. Amen.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Last Sunday of the Year

Colossians 1:9-14 / Matthew 24:13-25

There is, and has been for a few years, something of a mania for zombies, and with them fictional scenarios of the end of the world as we know it, in popular culture. Indeed, so supersaturated are we with these tales of the walking dead, implacable in their hunger for human flesh, vulnerable individually but beyond any human solution in their innumerable hordes, that we might easily fail to see that such stories are not, at their heart, about zombies at all. Whenever we consider what it would be like to endure, and indeed to survive, a great tribulation, such as hath not been found from the beginning of the world until now of which the best we can say of those who face them is woe to them, for unless those days had been shortened, no flesh should be saved, we are not really interested in whatever caused the tribulation — nuclear war, asteroids, global pandemic, zombie infections. No, what makes these stories compelling is a fundamental question: In the face of global and humanly irreversible disaster, when no offer of hope, no solution new or old deriving from our ingenuity can possibly save us, how shall we live? When kindness, charity, mercy, and solidarity leave us just as exposed, just as dead as self-serving egoism, cruelty, and crass individualism, when there is no visible difference between the fate of those who follow Jesus Christ and those who have refused the Good News, in short when miracles and wonders come just as readily from false Christs and false prophets insomuch as to deceive (if possible) even the elect, what ought we to do.

Of course, this question is no less relevant, no less pressing in what we naively take to be the ordinary, daily life we face. Moreover, the very fact that we are not unavoidably confronted with the question of our fidelity makes the seeming safety of our ordinary lives dangerous in its own way. After all, we are offered every day signs and wonders accomplished by those who do not accept the truth of Jesus Christ. We see fantastic accomplishments in technology, in the healing arts, in social organization and efficiency, all of which seem at least as able, if not more so, to address the human ills which we profess in faith to be ultimately only curable by the Lord Jesus Christ, however much we remain obligated to do the best we can to eliminate them by our own efforts. So, then, what ought the faithful to do?

St Paul, altogether aware of the faithfulness of the Church in Colossae, having no doubts as to their fidelity in a world on the one hand ignorant of, on the other refusing to acknowledge the Lordship of Jesus Christ, nonetheless would not cease to pray for them. What was his prayer? That they be not simply aware of salvation in Jesus Christ but filled with knowledge, wisdom and understanding; that they not simply have turned their lives to God in a fundamental way, but that in all things and in every good work they might please God; that they not simply be able to endure troubles, but that they be strengthened with all might according to the power of His glory, in all patience and long suffering with joy. In short, Paul sees that to have been made partakers of the lot of the saints in light through baptism and be made sons of God the Father, Who hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of the Son of His love, in Whom we have redemption through His blood, the remission of sins, is not the end, but the beginning of the Christian life. It is in the reception of a new life in Christ that we can finally, truly, start to live, to enjoy a life that passes through the most heart-breaking of tragedies and, without denying them, nonetheless is marked, or ought to be, by irrepressible joy.

This is what we Christian faithful ought to find ourselves doing. Whether faced with the most horrifying end-of-the-world scenario concocted by Hollywood or the daily challenges of holding fast to the Good News of Jesus Christ, our task remains the same. It is to live a life of thanksgiving, sealed with the radiant gladness, the abundant and glorious happiness that is the inner life of the Blessed Trinity. We, the baptized, already have a share in that gladness, that happiness, that deathless and eternal joy in the blood of Jesus Christ. May we cease not to pray for ourselves, and one another, to grow more and more, day by day, into the heart of the joy of God.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

St Albert the Great, Bishop and Doctor of the Church

Sirach 6:18-21, 33-37 / Matthew 25:14-23

Many of us know how hard it can be to learn a new language. After the initial novelty has worn off, learning a language can become a daily chore with no meaningful signs of daily improvement. We can, in our fear and frustration, be tempted not to speak to any native speaker, worried of the mistakes we will make. We may find ourselves avoiding the company of those whose language we are trying to learn, for fear that we will be asked to say something and find ourselves speechless.

Yet, when we stop thinking about ourselves and turn our attention instead to the daily discipline of study, when we seek out rather than avoid the company of others, when we take interest not in our own language acquisition but rather in other people and what they have to say — then, without our even noticing, our language skill improves, and in time, we may find ourselves to be fluent.

As it is with languages, so it is with acquiring wisdom. We might at first be tempted to hide and bury the small portion of wisdom we have been given by God. However, it is not in focusing on what we think the inadequacy of our share that we come to be wise. Rather, it is in seeking out ways to be fruitful, in taking real interest in the godly discourse of those we know to be wise, in being more willing to learn from others than in asserting what we think we know better, and most of all in the daily discipline of silence and devotion that, without noticing it, we find we have over time become wise. We discover that we have become fluent in the language of God that he speaks in the glorious diversity of the creation and in the more glorious splendor of revelation.

This is what St Albert the Great has to teach us. He is not a model of precocious youthful piety as were some saints, not of a passionate conversion from the world, nor even a splendid martyrdom. Albert's was a life of daily study, daily discipline, and daily prayer. His was a willingness to learn all he could from anyone and everything, taking passionate interest in the loftiest stars and in the lowliest toads and worms, in rocks, trees, and animals. He learned as happily from pagan philosophers, distant Christian mystics, and even from his own students. Above it all, Albert tells us that he learned more from prayer and devotion than from study.

Brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ, this is the path to wisdom, a path found not in spectacular drama, but in a mind eager and ready to learn, in eyes and ears open to receive, and in a heart made quiet by the discipline of silence and prayer. Do this, and the Lord himself assures us that he will enlighten your mind, and the wisdom you desire he will grant.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

On Lying

My brother in profession, Paul Byrd, O.P., who blogs over at Dominican Cooperator Brother, has raised the vexed question about the ethics of lying, especially in liminal situations in which the lives of others are at stake. Rather than clog up his comment box, I decided to put my thoughts here.

Paul raised a rather classic question in ethics, both in general and in the history of moral theology itself. I will say from the outset that I believe his resolution (viz. that it is at least on some occasions morally acceptable, perhaps even necessary or praiseworthy to lie) to be mistaken.

To begin with, we want to admit that the overwhelming tradition of moral inquiry in this matter has held lying to be, in and of itself and not merely circumstantially, an evil, one precisely forbidden by the eighth commandment. To help see why this is so, we can look to St Thomas Aquinas. For Thomas, truthfulness (veritas) is a virtue by which one is disposed to tell the truth, i.e. to speak and act in ways that are consistent with one's inner thoughts, to be "one in mind and heart" not merely with others but with oneself. While this is the principal object of the virtue of truthfulness, it also includes the inclination readily and easily to speak the truth at the appropriate time and in the appropriate manner.

For Thomas, the vice opposed to truthfulness is lying, by which one represents externally (by speech or action) what is contrary to what one knows or thinks within. All of the kinds of lying (e.g. simulation, hypocrisy, iactantia [exaggeration of one's merits], ironia [untrue minimizing of one's merits]) share this feature. What is important to note here is that, for Thomas, there is not a "right to the truth" which makes lying to be bad. Simply speaking, others do not have a right that we disclose to them what is true, nor even that we be truthful. Furthermore, lying is not bad principally because of the intention to deceive. For Thomas, even if one had no reasonable expectation he would be believed, he could still be guilty of lying through a seriously intended misrepresentation of his mind/thoughts through contrary external speech/acts. It is the deformation of the one who lies that is at stake, and with that deformation, the whole project of both personal and interpersonal flourishing that is at stake here.

It is worth noting that the definition of the Catechism published in 1992, i.e. "To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead into error someone who has the right to know the truth," was revised in the official edition of 1997 to remove the final phrase, viz. "someone who has the right to know the truth" precisely because of the problematic idea of the "right to the truth." The intention to deceive remains there, and a Thomist could readily accept that generally one lies in order to deceive, but this seems more a near universal circumstance, rather than getting at the essence of lying. Overall, the revision also helps ward off ultimately unhelpful approaches to the "difficult cases" often presented by, e.g. distinguishing, say, lies from "false speech" on the basis of the presence or absence, respectively, of either the intent to deceive or else of the recipient's relative "right" to the truth.

So, how have the hard cases been classically resolved? Thomas' solution, ultimately derived from Augustine, and developed later as the theory of "mental reservation", held that one could, legitimately, speak or act in such a way that, while not misrepresenting what was in one's own mind, nonetheless was possible, even likely, to mislead or misdirect the undesired, even wickedly motivated, inquiry (e.g. the Nazi looking for Jews in one's basement). While some versions of mental reservation have been rejected as hopelessly lax (i.e. saying what is clearly a material falsehood while adding a "corrective" phrase in one's head), the general theory understands that one can justifiably speak in a potentially equivocal but nonetheless truthful way. Moreover, one need not always say anything at all, nor is one generally obliged to tell the whole truth. ("I do not know if he is in," for example, is an acceptable response even when you just saw the person 20, or even 5 minutes ago. The fact is, you *don't* know that he is in. That the listener might conclude you have not seen him in some time is not your moral responsibility to correct. The circumstances when one is giving evidence in court, of course, alter one's moral obligations in the latter regard.)

While some may find this theory a bit too fine-grained, it is not actually a way to allow for lying. Indeed, it is quite the opposite of the proposal that one can morally lie. As tempting as such proposal seems, it tries to get at some ultimately passing good (even if one of great value) through the dissolution of one's own integrity. Even when done in small ways, this erosion of one's own authenticity is destructive of one's own self and, through that, of one's capacity to be personally related to others. This is the good truthfulness protects, and it is the good every lie, even "in a good cause", wounds or destroys.

As to Paul's other claims: (a) The case of lying is distinct from justifiable homicide for the reasons seen above. The claim that some people are authorized to kill (or justified to do so) is not rooted in the claim that right intention makes something otherwise evil nonetheless justified. (b) The cases from Scripture have a long, rich, detailed exegetical heritage. The *simplest* thing to note here is that nothing in the Scriptures requires (in fact much of the narrative disallows) the presumption that the acts of the patriarchs and matriarchs, of the kings and prophets, are all praiseworthy. That good that flows from their misdeeds comes from God's providence, not from the virtue of their deceptions (if, that is, these were not cases of mental reservation).  (c) One *cannot* justify the deliberate choice of evil on the basis that the sin is not mortal. Knowingly doing what is evil is knowingly to turn away from the love of God, and in doing so from love of neighbor and of self as well. This is why it is obligatory to avoid any sin at any cost. The world is not made in any way better by the lessening of divine charity within us, much less its being extinguished in our hearts. It is *never* furthering God's Kingdom to draw away from God. (d) See the CCC for what the Church universal holds, and which I note above [bearing in mind to use the revised version of 1997], as well as the Thomistic approach, which represents the longer-standing and majority approach to the question.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Feast of All Saints

Revelation 7:2-12 / Matthew 5:1-12

How many saints do you imagine you have met in your life? How many of the people you have spoken to daily — in school, at work, friends and family, rivals and adversaries — do you suspect are even now numbered among God's elect, signed with the sign of the living God ... in their foreheads? Who among those you barely notice — the cashier, the tollbooth attendant, fellow passengers on the bus or subway — who among those anonymous throngs we pass by without any notice will be find themselves standing before the throne and in sight of the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hand?

We just might, after all, have good reason to be optimistic that the number is quite large. While many, both those with exotic ways of reading Revelation and unbelievers alike, recall the hundred and forty-four thousand who are numbered there, they tend to forget that this is not an account of the full number of God's elect, but rather those who were signed out of every tribe of the children of Israel during the Last Days. In fact, mere verse away, Revelation denied to us any merely countable sum, but instead presents to us a vision of a great multitude which no man could number, of all nations and tribes and peoples and tongues, joined together in collective worship and common confession: Salvation to our God Who sitteth upon the throne, and to the Lamb, keeping company with the angels, the elders, and the four living creatures.

If we attend to the words of our Lord Jesus Christ in his Sermon on the Mount, we might more readily see how wide is the scope of holiness, of blessedness. Who are the blessed? The poor in spirit, the meek, they that mourn, they that hunger and thirst after justice, the merciful, the clean of heart, the peacemakers, they that suffer persecution for justice' sake, and, much to our surprise, even us, when people revile us, and persecute us, and speak all that is evil against us, untruly, for the sake of Jesus Christ. Can we read the newsfeed online, can we watch the television, peruse the newspaper, or for that matter even be minimally attentive to the street on which we live and not conclude that blessedness must be scattered far and wide? Is there not plenty of poverty, in spirit as much as in money? Are there not many who mourn or seek daily for justice which never seems to come? For all our cynicism, have we not known from those we have wronged real and unmerited mercy, or found from the object of our darker desires not an echo but rather the bracing and cleansing company of one truly clean of heart? Are there not more than we can remember who have brought peace where we could find none, as well as those who are ill treated merely for doing what is right? And, even if we are not attentive to it and it remains a story largely untold in the media of the West, can we be unmoved by the numbers of those daily persecuted for receiving the grace and name of Jesus Christ?

Yet, perhaps we rebel. Perhaps we see such multitudes and wonder whether we have made grace too cheap, have ignored the dire warnings of the Lord Jesus that the road to death is broad, and many those who walk by it, the gate to truth and life narrow, and few are they who find it. Even so, is not much of our anxiety not so much theological as existential? Does it not stem from two worries, namely that we know all too well the weakness, darkness, and rebellion that lives in even the best servants of Jesus Christ, and that we know even better our own? Is not our resistance to cheap grace a way to keep our feet to the fire, to disallow and easy resting spot for our own pilgrimage, our own conversio morum? Might we not be worried at the credibility of the Gospel, even of our own faith, if men and women such as these, such as ourselves, might actually be the means by which God proclaims his infallible truth and pours out his grace for the healing of the nations?

The is, and always has been, the mystery of the Church, the mystery of Christ's Body, from the incorporation of Adam and Eve, through the people of Israel, to the Church today. It has never been otherwise. The body of the elect always has been, and always will be, composed of sinners being made righteous through capital grace, the grace we receive a united to Christ our Head. We have undoubtedly met countless saints, and may indeed be well acquainted with the one we see every day in the mirror. These men and women with their sins, failures, and weaknesses, are the very stones with which God builds his holy Temple.

This is the mystery we proclaim today, and this is at the heart of all Christian hope and the cause for our rejoicing. O how glorious is the kingdom in which all the Saints rejoice with Christ, and, clothed in white robes, follow the Lamb whithersoever He goeth.