Friday, September 30, 2011

The Sustaining Forces of Reality

We must not in our day conceal our faith in creation. We may not conceal it, for only if it is true that the universe comes from freedom, love, and reason, and that these are the real underlying powers, can we trust one another, go forward into the future, and live as human beings. God in the Lord of all things because he is their Creator... freedom and love are not ineffectual ideas but rather they are the sustaining forces of reality.

In the Beginning, 28-9

Reflection – One of the most unfortunate aspects of the culture wars that have raged in the past decades has been the effect it has had on certain necessary conversations. Take this one, for example: these days, as soon as a Christian mentions faith in creation, it is almost automatically assumed to be a faith in the literal-six-day-creation-story-in-Genesis-1. God planted the dinosaur bones as a test of our faith, and all that stuff. You know the drill. None of which has anything to do with authentic Catholic doctrine and reading of Scripture.
Meanwhile, the theory of evolution is held up as definitively disproving all that nonsense of a Creator God (hint: it doesn’t). And so all discussions of these matters tend to founder very quickly on mutual misunderstandings, ignorance, and disdain. Especially discussions on the Internet, which are prone to that anyhow.
But the doctrine of creation is at the very heart of our Christian understanding of reality, and Ratzinger in this passage, and indeed in this entire book, describes beautifully just how central it is. That the universe is the product of love, not chance, a Father’s care, not a cosmic accident, a free choice and not a determination of physical laws—it all means that love and freedom are at the very heart of reality.
And so we can, as he says, go forward into the future in that spirit of love and freedom. Creation is the ground of action, mission, service, sacrifice. Without the clear and abiding sense of God as Creator and creation as thus good, we are deeply compromised in our ability to throw ourselves into life with generosity and joy.
And we can throw ourselves into it in such a way because we know that God our Father is meeting us on the other side of that choice, that He will catch us, and that in His love and care for us, his creative work will not be in vain.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Letting The Chips Fall

Reform is ever-renewed ablatio—removal, whose purpose is to allow the nobilis forma, the countenance of the bride, and with it the Bridegroom himself, the living Lord, to appear… this path alone allows the divine to penetrate and brings about congregatio, which as both gathering and purification is that pure communion we all long for, where ‘I’ is no longer pitted against ‘I’ and self against self. Rather, the self-giving and self-abandonment that characterize love becomes the reciprocal reception of all that is pure and good. Thus, the word of the kindly father who reminds the jealous older son what the content of all freedom and the realization of utopia consist of becomes true for every man: ‘all that is mine is yours’ (Lk 15:31).’

Called to Communion, 142-3

Reflection – Well, this is a mouthful! The Holy Father is talking in this book about the reform of the Church, the whole project that has taken up so much of the energies of Catholics, especially clergy and religious, in the past 50 years or so.
His reference to ablatio is a bit obscure (the surrounding context of the quote explains it). He is using here the image of the sculptor who ‘sees’ the statue in the block of marble and merely chips away everything that is not part of it.
This is crucial, though, both in the reform of the Church and in our own personal Reformations, big and small. The point is that the Church already exists, not as our creation or as any kind of product of human ingenuity, but as a creature of God, indeed the most noble creature there is, for it shares in a wholly supernatural way in the life of Christ who is God.
So our efforts to ‘reform’ the Church, which are perfectly legitimate and necessary (ecclesia semper reformanda-the Church always in need of reform) have to proceed from that understanding. What has God made? Who is this Bride, this Body? What has been established from the beginning, what have we understood over the millennia as being proper to the life of the Church? Only from that can we ‘chip away’ at things that should not or do not need to be there.
So the reformer who talks about eliminating Confession or changing the nature of the priesthood by allowing women’s ordination or jettisoning the indissolubility of marriage or… well, we all know the drill. Throw everything out that offends modern sensibilities. But this proceeds from the idea that we are the ones determining what the Church is. There is no ‘Church’ that is given from the hands of God – only our making and fashioning.
There is a deep principle at stake here, even deeper in some ways than the specific controversies which get most of the media play, important as they are. Is God the author of reality? What is human creativity? Who am I? Who are you? Do we create ourselves? Or are we co-creators with God? What is my path of self-reformation? Making myself up out of thin air, or beholding within myself the image of God already there, and ‘chipping away’ at what doesn’t belong to that? Very deep questions.
And it is fascinating (this quotation from Ratzinger is rich, rich, rich!) that he links it to communion. Of course he’s talking about the Church, and that is the whole substance of the Church’s life, but again the deep point he makes is that communion between people comes from living in truth. When the truth of my being and your being emerges from all the falsehood we have to ‘chip away,’ then we can live both in that open receptivity towards God (the image of the Bride), ‘all that I have is yours,’ and from that a happy receptivity towards one another.
I could go on and on about this, but this post is long enough. It’s worth meditating on, though. What is my ablatio today? What chips of marble are keeping me from you, from God, from happy communion? And what tool will remove those chips? (Hint, it starts with ‘Cr’ and rhymes with ‘boss’!)

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Unpredictable, Unprecedented, and Dramatic

The real novelty of the New Testament lies not so much in new ideas as in the figure of Christ himself, who gives flesh and blood to those concepts—an unprecedented realism. In the Old Testament, the novelty of the Bible did not consist merely in abstract notions but in God's unpredictable and in some sense unprecedented activity. This divine activity now takes on dramatic form when, in Jesus Christ, it is God himself who goes in search of the “stray sheep”, a suffering and lost humanity. When Jesus speaks in his parables of the shepherd who goes after the lost sheep, of the woman who looks for the lost coin, of the father who goes to meet and embrace his prodigal son, these are no mere words: they constitute an explanation of his very being and activity. His death on the Cross is the culmination of that turning of God against himself in which he gives himself in order to raise man up and save him. This is love in its most radical form. By contemplating the pierced side of Christ (cf. ), we can understand the starting-point of this Encyclical Letter: “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8). It is there that this truth can be contemplated. It is from there that our definition of love must begin. In this contemplation the Christian discovers the path along which his life and love must move.
Deus Caritas Est 12

Reflection – This passage from Pope Benedict’s first encyclical follows in a natural and beautiful way from the one cited in the previous post. The path of love, the mystery of love, the challenge and call to love—all of this only gets translated from either the realm of theory (let me draw you a schematic diagram of love!) or of lofty ideal (oh, wouldn’t it be nice if we could live like that… sigh) when we come into a relationship with Love Itself, which is not an idea or an ideal, but a person.
And this person cannot be someone who lived a very long time ago and who we read about it a nice book encrusted with jewels and gold leaf. He has to be someone real who we can meet somehow, somewhere, and truly draw life from. And so we have the Eucharist, which in a most literal and almost shockingly practical way gives ‘flesh and blood’ to the concept of love. Love poured out on every altar, love patiently awaiting us in every tabernacle, every monstrance, love coming into the depths of our bodies, souls, minds, and hearts to make love a living reality in our own life.
It is this unpredictable (who could ever have invented the Eucharist?), unprecedented (there really is nothing quite like this anywhere else), and dramatic (in other words, an event that occurs in real time and history, both the historical Incarnation, Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ and the ongoing event of the sacraments in the Church) activity of God which can alone translate love, real love, perfect love into an actual reality in our lives.
Deus Caritas Est – God is Love, and this love is poured out onto the world continually in the offering of Christ. And it is here that we both see and come to understand the way of love, and that way is made available to us as a real path we can walk on, if we choose. If we want our lives to reflect that kind of love.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Only Way to Be Satisfied

According to [1 Cor 6:12-19], receiving the Eucharist means blending one’s existence, closely analogical, spiritually, to what happens when man and wife become one… the dream of blending divinity with humanity, of breaking out of the limitations of a creature—this dream, which persists through all the history of mankind and in hidden ways, in profane versions, is dreamed anew even within the atheistic ideologies of our time, just as it is in the drunken excesses of a world without God—this dream is here fulfilled. Man’s promethean attempts to break out of his limitations himself, to build with his own capacities the tower by which he may mount up to divinity, always necessarily end in collapse and disappointment—indeed, in despair. This blending, this union, has become possible because God came down in Christ, took upon himself the limitations of human existence, suffering them to the end, and in the infinite love of the Crucified One opened up the door to infinity.
Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith, 101-2
Reflection – The passage Ratzinger refers to here is the one about being a temple of the Holy Spirit, about our bodies becoming one with Christ’s body in the mystery of grace and love, a mystery that Paul goes on to say in the letter is most profoundly realized in the Lord’s Supper.
It is lovely how Ratzinger weaves together so many things here: the mystery of love, embodied in a particular way in the vocation of marriage, the yearning of the human person to break out of the limitations of our humanity, the tragedy of secular ideologies and all other human projects to attain this superhuman transcendence, and the action of God in Christ to do in us what we cannot do of ourselves.
And yet… we know, don’t we, that it’s all a rather messy, difficult business. After all, man and woman in marriage don’t exactly become one in totality from their wedding day onward. I have worked with many, many married couples in my Madonna House life, and all testify that it is a long hard road to unity.
And so it is with our union with Christ. Here too Ratzinger shows his understanding, as he refers to this union, this transcendence of humanity to the divine level, as being one with the way of the Cross. It was the path of suffering love, not a triumphal victory march, that opened up for us the glorious divine life we yearn for.
And as with the Head, so with the Body. Our path to union with Christ and with the Father in Christ is the via crucis, the Way of the Cross. But it is, indeed, the way of love, the way of abandoning ourselves to the mystery, the challenge, the excruciatingly difficult task of love, moment by moment, turning to Christ, crying out for mercy, falling down and getting up, and again and again partaking of this Bread, this Wine, this food and drink where He comes to us and makes it possible to start over with Him each day.
This is how human beings become divinized – not some mystical mountain top or some esoteric prayer practice or some New Age-y neo-Gnostic head trip. It is dying with Christ so as to rise with Christ. This is the only way the deepest desire of our hearts will ever be satisfied.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Catholic Guilt

The ability to recognize one’s guilt is an essential element of man’s psychological makeup. The guilt feeling that shatters a conscience’s false calm and the criticism made by my conscience of my self-satisfied existence are signals that we need just as much as we need the physical pain that lets us know that our normal vital functions have been disturbed.

Values in a Time of Upheaval, 80

Reflection – Oh, that Catholic guilt! That’s what everyone knows about Catholics, right? Guilt ridden, shame-filled neurotics, one and all!
I don’t know. I’m Catholic (in case you didn’t know…) and I can’t say I’ve been overly troubled with neurotic guilt in my life. Growing up in the 70s and 80s, in a Church climate where little moral instruction was given us (frankly), and the fear of God’s judgment and Hell was virtually non-existent, I’ve actually had to spend much of my adult Catholic life working on developing my conscience and having a proper sense of sin.
Maybe I’m weird. But I really don’t think so. When I hear Catholics of my generation or younger going on about their neurotic Catholic guilt, it makes me wonder, really. Where does that come from? Because it doesn’t come from the kind of instruction we received in our parishes and schools, for the most part. The corner of the Catholic Church I grew up in was a pretty conservative backwater in my day (I mean that in a nice way), and even so there was precious little indoctrination about sin and hell there.
I guess the bigger question might be where guilt, period, comes from, Catholic or otherwise. And is it always neurotic? Is there a proper place for guilt feelings, and what might it be, and what are we to do with them?
This quote from Ratzinger is very helpful, in a nice concise way. By comparing it to physical pain he helps us see what guilt is for. None of us would like to be unable to experience physical pain, I would imagine. We all know that pain is nature or God’s way of giving us immediate information that something has gone wrong in our bodies, so that we can do something different or take care of ourselves in whatever way we need to.
Guilt is a form of pain, but not a bodily pain that tells us our physical plant has gone wrong. It is a moral pain that tells us we have done or are doing something wrong.
Now with physical pain, what do we do? We analyze the pain. We try to figure out what is causing it. We evaluate how serious it is. If we are unsure, we consult an expert (a doctor). And we decide if it’s just something we have to live with or if there is something we can do differently to feel better.
The moral pain of guilt is the same – we are to use our minds to evaluate this feeling. What have I done or not done? Is it truly wrong? How serious a wrong is it? Do we need to consult someone about it? And then, the magic question, ‘what am I to do differently’? In other words, what do I need to repent of?
Guilt can be misplaced or exaggerated or erroneous in some other way. And if we are always suffering from misplaced or exaggerated guilt, we are indeed neurotic, whether we’re Catholic or not! But, as we know not to ignore physical pain (lest we end up prematurely dead), we shouldn’t ignore or stuff down our guilt, either, lest we end up spiritually dead. The feeling of guilt means something has gone wrong in our lives, pure and simple. So, let’s make it right.

Friday, September 23, 2011

A Short Cut to the Kingdom?

The blessed person is not the one who is a blood relative of the Lord but the one who has ears to hear: the one who is not locked into the narrow world of flesh and blood, the narrow world of the self-centered and earthly; the one who knows how to listen to God’s word. Elizabeth’s greeting to Mary tells us in advance that the Lord’s later correction of the woman in the crowd does not deny Mary the praise that is due her but simply points out the real basis for such praise.
Dogma and Preaching, 110

Reflection – We’re all looking for an ‘in’, aren’t we? What’s the secret (or The Secret, if that kind of self-help book is what appeals to you). What are the rules (or The Rules, if that kind of… well, you get the idea).
Whether we think of it in terms of God and eternal life, or some kind of more secular strain of salvation, there is a deep human urge to find the way in, the VIP entrance, the short cut.
That is what this whole business in the Gospel is about where Jesus seems to rebuff his mother and brothers. ‘Blessed is the womb that bore you.’ ‘Rather, blessed are they who hear the word of God and keep it.’ ‘Your mother and brothers are waiting for you.’ ‘These are my mother and brothers. Whoever hears the word of God and keeps it…’
Painful… if you happen to be the mother or ‘brother’ of the Lord. What is this Gospel passage about? Jesus, I maintain, is here closing off the idea that there is can be any path to intimacy with him except the path of faith. There is no short cut, no ‘in’, no secret, no rules, no VIP entrance into the kingdom.
No esoteric knowledge, no purely formalistic religious initiation, nothing of that sort can bring us to the kingdom of heaven.
The only entrance into the kingdom is the path that leads us out of our ego, our self-enclosed, self-defined little world into the broad and beautiful expanses of the Lord. And this path is faith—to accept the word of the Other and base our life on this word. And this was Mary’s path to the kingdom too. Not for her is the claiming of some privileged access to God based on physical relationship. She is blessed not because she bore Christ in her womb, but because she surrendered her entire being to him in faith and obedience.
If there is a ‘short cut’ or an ‘in’ to the kingdom it can only be this: to put ourselves at the feet of Mary and ask her to teach us how to do this, too, in all the big and little events of everyday life. And this is what we try to do, day by day, at Madonna House.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Persistent 'Perhaps'

The penetrating ‘perhaps’ which belief whispers in man’s ear in every place and in very age does not point to any uncertainty within the realm of practical knowledge; it simply queries the absoluteness of this realm and relativizes it, reminding man that it is only one plane of human existence and of existence in general, a plane that can only have the character of something less than final… there are two basic forms of human attitude or reaction to reality, one of which cannot be traced back to the other because both operate on completely different planes.
Introduction to Christianity, 40

Reflection – What a lovely phrase it is: the ‘penetrating perhaps of belief.’ We live, always, in a world of certainties: the various facts of science, geography, history, and the practical know-how one accumulates one the path through life. As one progresses in life, these certainties pile up: we know how things work, we know the way the world goes. And these certainties can become a prison surrounding us if we’re not careful. We are so sure of the way things are that there is little room in our lives for surprise, for delight, for something new and different to happen. The jaded cynic (and we all stand in danger of becoming that terrible creature) lives in a cramped prison cell of his own making.
So faith comes to us in this with its penetrating ‘perhaps’. Maybe, just maybe, there’s another reality beyond, above, around the ‘way things are’. There is something, or rather Someone, who holds all our known realities in being, and Who is ever-new, ever-young, ever-free in His holding.
The way things are is relative, then, in the light of faith. The way of the world, the unshakeable certainties about life and its operations is always being broken into by that Other reality, which is the grace of God. ‘Expect a miracle’, Catherine Doherty loved to say. Expect things to not be ‘the way they are’. It is faith that there is Something Else which opens us up to this perpetual freedom, this hope that God’s mercy and love can (perhaps) make things so much better.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Truth Will Make You Free

[Truth] purifies man from egotism and from the illusion of absolute autonomy… makes him obedient and gives him the courage to be humble… teaches him to see through producibility as a parody of freedom and to unmask undisciplined chatter as a parody of dialogue. It is victorious over the tendency to mistake the absence of all ties for freedom.

Nature and Mission of Theology, 39

Reflection – Well, this is a mouthful, isn’t it! A bit dense perhaps. What is Ratzinger saying here? Let’s unpack it a bit. ‘Producibility’ is the mentality or ideology that the goal of human life is to… well, produce something! To be an effective economic unit, to achieve so many ergs of work each day and have something external to show for one’s life.
Ratzinger says that truth liberates us from this. By saying this, he is not simply saying ‘it ain’t so!’ What he means is something a bit deeper. It is the reality that there is something called ‘truth’ – that truth is a meaningful word in itself, in other words that there is a real reality that presents itself to us and that our minds can receive and grasp and make it our own. This is the reality that frees us from the terrible slavery of having to justify our existence by producing something.
How so? Because in the knowledge of the truth, we see or begin to see that the primary movement of our humanity is receptivity. We receive reality… and then we shape it and do things with it. But reception comes first, and it is ‘truth’ as a concept that communicates that to us.
We’re talking about an intensely Godly reality here. God is the author of all creation, and the author of all truth. And the first movement of God’s creation is to say ‘it is good’… and to rest in that goodness. Before we are to move as his co-creators by the work of our hands, we must receive what he has done, see it, and call it ‘good’ with Him. And this is prior, both in time and in importance, to our own shaping of reality.
The same dynamic holds true with true dialogue as opposed to empty chatter, and the rejection of autonomy as a pallid parody of freedom. It’s all about the fact of creation, that God has made something (everything, actually) and that our words are to be held by his creative Word, our freedom a movement held in his free creative act.
This is deep stuff, and I can’t make it un-deep. But we see here why relativism is so destructive of our humanity. When there is no truth, no overarching reality holding our frail individual humanity, then we are trapped in a world where the only stability we have is our projection of our egos into the ether, whether by work or words, and any tie that binds us to any other reality is a threat to our freedom, since all other realities are themselves forcing their own being onto us.
It is truth that sets us free from this terrible competition of being, that makes us free and secure, and able to meet the other in a true exchange of hearts and minds.

Monday, September 19, 2011

A Hole in the Holy of Holies

During the exile, the Ark of the Covenant was lost, and from then on the Holy of Holies was empty. That is what Pompeius found when he strode through the Temple and pulled back the curtain. He entered the Holy of Holies full of curiosity and there, in the very emptiness of the place, discovered what is special about biblical religion. The empty Holy of Holies had now become an act of expectation, of hope, that God himself would one day restore his throne.

Spirit of the Liturgy, 65

Reflection – If there is one piece of Old Testament lore that is familiar to the general public in our time of biblical literacy, it is probably the business of the Ark of the Covenant. People who would not be able to list the Ten Commandments with any surety know that they were carried around in an Ark (whatever that is), and people who know little about David, Solomon, and the Temple know what treasure lay at its center.
Of course we can thank Stephen Spielberg and Indiana Jones for that. But the key thing about the Ark is precisely what the movie was called, and what Ratzinger refers to here: it is, indeed a Lost Ark.
More importantly yet, there was no ‘backup ark,’ no replacement ark. The Jewish people did not do what would be almost second nature for us to do. Oh we lost the ark – well, that’s OK, we have the plans here in Leviticus, so let’s just make another one, and we’ll carve out a couple stone tablets to put in it, some imitation manna (I Can't Believe It's Not Manna!)… and no problem!
No. The tablets were written by God. The manna was given by God. The ark of the covenant was, in some sense, the very presence of God in their midst. There would be no rebuilding, no replacement, no attempt to fill the hole it had left.
While the New Covenant of Christ has changed a great deal of how we who are Catholics think about things like temples, tabernacles, holies of holies, and the Presence of God in our midst, while there is a new and eternal Bread and a new and eternal Law which abides with us forever, nonetheless there is a deep point Ratzinger is making here which is just as relevant today and to us as it was 2500 years ago.
Namely, we do not ‘make’ God present. We do not control or determine the gift of the divine in our midst. We receive the Manna, receive the Presence. We must wait upon the One who is the center and heart of our lives.
The Holy of Holies is the Eucharist, but it is also the very gift of God in our own hearts. It is that which is the center, the source, the heart of our own personal heart… and we neither control nor manipulate nor own this center. If it goes away, we live with a hole in our holy of holies, and that's all there is to it.
The Song of Songs plays with the image of the Lover who comes and goes, who is present, and then must be sought. Our God who we are to build our life around is like that, although He is, of course, always present. But his presence is mysterious, and more often than not feels like absence.
C.S. Lewis, in the Narnia chronicles puts it another way. Aslan is ‘not a tame lion’ – he comes and goes according to his designs. And our lives, if they are truly centered on this Lover, this lion, this mysterious God who is ‘lost’ and found and lost again, must reflect this mystery.
Things happen to us, things that are mysterious, hard to accept, hard to fathom. Our lives take twists and turns that can be painful. Things do not work out the way we had hoped. There are exiles; there are persecutions; there are terrible losses. Always in these the question arises somehow – what is my Holy of Holies? What is at the center of my temple? Something I can control or generate or manipulate, which in the end shows itself to have no power to save? Or a mysterious emptiness, a promise of fulfilment, an expectation, a hope that will not disappoint? This is the key question of all of our lives.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Love is Indeed Ecstasy

It is part of love's growth towards higher levels and inward purification that it now seeks to become definitive, and it does so in a twofold sense: both in the sense of exclusivity (this particular person alone) and in the sense of being “for ever”. Love embraces the whole of existence in each of its dimensions, including the dimension of time. It could hardly be otherwise, since its promise looks towards its definitive goal: love looks to the eternal. Love is indeed “ecstasy”, not in the sense of a moment of intoxication, but rather as a journey, an ongoing exodus out of the closed inward-looking self towards its liberation through self-giving, and thus towards authentic self-discovery and indeed the discovery of God: “Whoever seeks to gain his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it” (Lk 17:33), as Jesus says throughout the Gospels (cf. Mt 10:39; 16:25; Mk 8:35; Lk 9:24; Jn 12:25). In these words, Jesus portrays his own path, which leads through the Cross to the Resurrection: the path of the grain of wheat that falls to the ground and dies, and in this way bears much fruit. Starting from the depths of his own sacrifice and of the love that reaches fulfilment therein, he also portrays in these words the essence of love and indeed of human life itself.

Deus Caritas Est 6

Reflection – What a great passage this is! Pope Benedict winds together so many images, basic biblical themes, theological insights, and connecting them in a few well-chosen words with the practical reality of love and the challenges and struggles of our daily life. He is at his best here, ‘firing on all cylinders.’
It is his connection of the dramatic language of the exodus, the profound spiritual image of the grain of wheat falling to the ground and dying, the Paschal Mystery of Christ, and your choices and mine this day to love or not love that is so striking.
It is ‘connection’ that counts here. It is when I realize that my choice to be generous or merciful or hospitable in some small everyday way is, in fact, another step in my ongoing journey out of Egypt and slavery into freedom, that I can find the grace to do it. Otherwise, it’s just an endless chore, a burden, a misery.
When I become aware of myself as ‘seed’, as a little hard thing that has little value or weight… but great potential, a potential only realized when it is broken, ceases to be a seed, becomes something quite different… well then, when the pressures of the heavy soil I am planted in begin to strain and crack me, I am more prone to remain there, rather than fleeing, shrugging off the commitment, the demands, shying away from the sacrifice it entails.
And when I finally get that every movement of my being, every moment of my life, everything actually going on in and around me and every conceivable future possibility is taken up, united to, and transformed by the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ, becomes in that a small movement in the Great Dance of Salvation… well, I am likely to find joy in the life he has given me, whatever pains and burdens it levies on me.
‘Without vision the people perish’, the Scriptures say. Pope Benedict has vision, and generously and beautifully shares this vision with us. And it is all tied up with the earlier part of the encyclical, the purification of eros into agape, the true meaning of ecstasy in the Christian mystery, the ongoing call not to merely lose ourselves in some intense Dionysian release of pleasure, but to freely and nobly give ourselves—through, with, and in Jesus—in a solemn act of selfless love, lived out here and now in the duty of each moment.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Who Will Do the Loving?

Concretely, what does this path of ascent and purification [of eros] entail? How might love be experienced so that it can fully realize its human and divine promise? Here we can find a first, important indication in the Song of Songs, an Old Testament book well known to the mystics. According to the interpretation generally held today, the poems contained in this book were originally love-songs, perhaps intended for a Jewish wedding feast and meant to exalt conjugal love. In this context it is highly instructive to note that in the course of the book two different Hebrew words are used to indicate “love”. First there is the word dodim, a plural form suggesting a love that is still insecure, indeterminate and searching. This comes to be replaced by the word ahabĂ , which the Greek version of the Old Testament translates with the similar-sounding agape, which, as we have seen, becomes the typical expression for the biblical notion of love. By contrast with an indeterminate, “searching” love, this word expresses the experience of a love which involves a real discovery of the other, moving beyond the selfish character that prevailed earlier. Love now becomes concern and care for the other. No longer is it self-seeking, a sinking in the intoxication of happiness; instead it seeks the good of the beloved: it becomes renunciation and it is ready, and even willing, for sacrifice.

Deus Caritas Est 6


Reflection – ‘Everybody’s got a hungry heart… I still haven’t found what I’m looking for… I can’t get no satisfaction…’ and so on and so forth. The annals of popular music bear witness to this reality that Pope Benedict so ably describes in this passage from his first encyclical. Dodim – searching love, hungry love, love that pursues, clings to, is moved by the beloved. We all know this, regardless of our state of life—it is intrinsic to the human experience.
In our modern world (and it may well be that this is no modern innovation, but a perennial human reality) the idea seems to be that we are hungry, we desire, we search, we pursue… and then the big happy ending is that we attain the object of our desire and are satisfied.
Pope Benedict points out quite wisely that this doesn’t really work. Catherine Doherty made the same point in a very different way. She had talked with many teenagers and young adults about their aspirations and dreams for life. Most of them wanted to get married, and when she asked them why, they mostly answered, “So I can be loved.” Her question was short and to the point: “And who is going to do the loving?”
If it’s all about ‘my hunger’ and my quest to have my desires met… well, where does that leave the rest of you? What about your hunger, your desire? There’s a deep question of our humanity at stake in all this. If we’re all just a bunch of hungry hearts running around looking for satisfaction… well, who’s going to do the loving? If it’s left there, doesn’t it all get turned into mutual using, mutual desiring, what one of our MH staff calls ‘the law of mutual gobbling’?
The Holy Father points out the way out of this ‘law,’ which in Scripture is really what is meant by the term ‘the flesh’ – what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours. Love is always about ‘the other’ – but immature love is about what the other can give me. Love is to be matured past that – the other matters because they matter – not because he or she gives me this or that, ‘satisfies’ me in one way or another (this is about much more than sex, you know – there are all kind of ways of both using the other and truly loving the other).
Pope Benedict will go on in the encyclical (and we will go right along with him) to show how it is that love is purified from use to a true caring for the other. It is the path of commitment, consecration, true gift of self to the other. It is, simply, marriage, whether the vocation of marriage between man and woman or the total consecration of the person to the True Other, the deep gift of self to God which is predicated on the deep gift of God to each. And this is the path each one of us is travelling on, the path of purified eros leading us to the heights of agape and self-gift. A hard path, but the only one that leads up, if you know what I mean.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Books For Sale

Hey, my publisher has my two books up on their website, so you can order them (if you haven't already...). The Air We Breathe is on Mary in the writings of Catherine Doherty, and She is Our Response is on Mary and modernity in the writings of Pope Benedict. And at the LOW! LOW! prices my publisher charges for their books... well, you can't afford not to buy them. In fact, you could buy multiple copies! Why not! So what are you waiting for? Click on those links and buy! Buy! BUY!
Oh, sorry. My inner huckster just broke loose there (back in your cage, you!).
Seriously, though, it's good value for money, and they've got loads of other great books available for equally low prices - check them out.
And oh yeah, while I'm shilling commercial products shamelessly, there's also my series of talks Fundamentals of the Spiritual Life available from MH Publications. Just think, ten hours of my mellifluous voice answering every question you've ever had about spiritual life...

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

An Obvious Point (sort of...)

The Church… has to bring men to Christ, and Christ to men, so as to bring God to them and them to God. Christ is not just some great man or other with a significant religious experience: he is God, God who became man to establish a bridge between man and God and so that man can become truly himself.

Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith, 292

Reflection – At first glance this quote from Ratzinger seems a bit… well, obvious, I guess. Of course the Christian Church has something to do with bringing people to Christ, and vice versa. What else would it be for? What is there to say about such a basic statement?
I think there’s quite a bit to say, actually. The mission of the Church can get wound up and bound up with lots and lots of different things, all of which are valuable and all of which are part of this large mission of bringing Christ to men and men to Christ.
But we can easily lose sight of the big picture in the details, right? Religion can be a powerful force of social change, for example, a view that can be found on both the left and the right. Urgent moral causes like the sanctity of life, the definition of marriage, or the alleviation of global poverty certainly are part of the mission of the Church… but only if they are understood as dimensions of bringing ‘Christ to men and men to Christ.’
Or the Church can be a place of social gathering, a force of cohesion and identity in society… again, not entirely illegitimate, but only if the force making us one is the Spirit of Jesus.
The Church and its mission can encompass all sorts of things: patronage of the arts and artists, of science and scientists, educator of youth, healer of the sick—all the social and corporal works of mercy are part of what the Church is for.
But if we lose the center of it all—bringing Christ to men and men to Christ—then it is all ultimately for naught. Some temporary alleviation of suffering, or various other temporal goods achieved for a time.
It is the intense Christ-centered nature of the Church’s mission that has to be returned to over and over. Only in Christ do human beings ascend to communion with God, and only in communion with God is our humanity healed and elevated to its supernatural end. Everything else is to be subordinated to this. In our times of social instability and uncertain future, we really have to dig deep into this—what does it mean? What does it look like? How are we to do it.
This is the mission of the Church. And remember, the Church is not the Pope, the bishops, the diocese, the parish, the priests and religious, not only. The Church is you and me. This is our mission, your mission. Your life and what it is for today.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Big Mama Sourpuss

Here… is the decisive reason for the abandonment of Christianity: its model for life is apparently unconvincing. It seems to place too many restraints on humankind that stifle its joie de vivre, that limit its precious freedom, and that do not lead it into open pastures—in the language of the Psalms—but rather into want, into deprivation… today it is a matter of the greatest urgency to show a Christian model of life that offers a livable alternative to the increasingly vacuous entertainments of leisure-time society, a society force to make increasing recourse to drugs  because it is sated by the usual shabby pleasures.
“Letter to Marcello Pera,” in Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, and Islam, 125-6.

Reflection – Ratzinger in this passage shows how very much in touch he is with the tenor of our times. Religion ruins everything, Christopher Hitchens sums it up quite succinctly. Religion: the global spoilsport, the sour nanny watching over all humanity and boxing our ears whenever we start having too much fun. This, sadly, is the image of religion in general, the Christian religion in particular, and the Catholic Church especially, for many many people.
We’ve all run across this picture of religion and the Church, right? And (do I know who’s reading this blog? No I do not…) maybe some of my readers have precisely this idea of it, too.
It is difficult to dialogue with this view of religion. For one thing, it is simply true that the Church does say ‘no’ to certain activities that cause considerable pleasure to those engaging in them (fornication, for example; also drug use). There is a virtue called temperance, which is the proper ordering and restraining of our boundless human appetite for sensual pleasure, whether for food, drink, sex, or any other body-pleasing activity.
A perfectly reasonable case can be made for such restrictions; certainly, when it comes to food and drink we all know that too much of good thing results in 'too much of me', especially around the middle, and probably far too little of me in terms of longevity. And, as I’ve been pointing out on this blog in multiple posts, unrestricted sexual activity has manifestly not led to great happiness in our society—clearly some kind of structure around sexual expression is needed, and this means having to practice self-control, continence. Just saying no, in other words, at least some of the time. All of this is perfectly reasonable.
But it is the nature of desire that the first thing it shuts down is sober logical analysis—and the stronger and more intense the desire, the quicker we become blind to reason and argument.
‘Sin makes you stupid,’ as Aquinas put it (it sounds more erudite in medieval Latin). ‘I want what I want when I want it’ – as long as that is the prevailing ethos in a person or society, the Church with its rules and regulations and lists of virtues is going to be Big Mama Sourpuss. And who needs that?
So, what are we to do? I think the deepest witness of Christians today is the witness of joy. People aren’t happy in general—modern secularism has not delivered on its promise by and large. To see Christians leading faithful obedient lives and possessing joy in this is more powerful a witness than a dozen rational arguments. And the witness of our lives opens the door to these arguments – when people see that we have something real, something that gives us life, they might just be willing to entertain the idea of temperance or chastity or obedience. And this is the challenge before us today.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Fundamental Things Apply

The true meaning of the teaching authority of the pope is that he is the advocate of Christian memory. He does not impose something from the outside but develops and defends Christian memory.

Values in a Time of Upheaval, 95

Reflection – In a recent Republican presidential debate Rick Santorum, a Catholic, was lectured by one of the moderators, also Catholic, on how holding the position that homosexual intercourse is intrinsically immoral was ‘bordering on bigotry’. When Santorum defended his position as being nothing else than the abiding moral teaching of the Catholic Church, the moderator (whose name I’ve forgotten and refuse to look up!) brushed that aside with a peremptory, “The world has changed.”
This is what Ratzinger is getting at here in his explanation of the role of the pope, an explanation that is part of a longer analysis of the relationship of truth, freedom, morality, and authority. I’ll be quoting bits and pieces of it here and there on the blog.
Our sensibilities about what is or is not moral are in constant flux, aren’t they? A few decades ago, drinking and driving was not considered such a big deal; now it is rightly abhorred. Just yesterday I went grocery shopping and was guilt stricken when I realized I had forgotten to bring any plastic bags with me: environment killer, j’accuse (or is that je m’accuse)! I wouldn’t have given it a thought ten years ago.
And obviously some of this changing sensibility is good, when it is based on new facts coming to light or becoming more obvious to everyone: e.g. drinking and driving is criminally dangerous. But when it is not that, when no new facts have come to light about a matter, when there is simply a change based on how we feel about something – well, that needs to be examined, doesn’t it?
What new facts have come to light about human sexuality to provide a rational basis for changing our moral understandings about it? And no, the Kinsey Report et al does not constitute new facts (or any kind of facts at all, actually – it’s been thoroughly debunked in every particular).
But fashion is a strong force, and wide-spread cultural shift is even stronger. It is almost universally assumed today that contraception is simply necessary. It is impossible today to have more than a few children, which comes as a great surprise to my friends with double-digit sized families. It is impossible today for teenagers to refrain from sexual activity, which comes as a great surprise to the millions of them who do just that, actually.
And apart from the controversial hot-button sexual issues, more and more today it is assumed that lying is OK and even necessary in some or even many circumstances, that stealing is OK as long as it’s from rich people or the government, that shady business practices are all right as long as ‘no one’ is hurt, whatever that means. And forget about the first three commandments of the Decalogue. OMG!
Against such shifts and swings in fashionable moral ‘thought’, if that’s not too strong a word for it, stands… well, the Pope, mostly. He stands for the memory of humanity, reminding us that neither God nor human nature has changed in the last forty years. Man and woman are still man and woman; human sexual love is still created as a reflection of the divine covenantal love from which all life and fruitfulness springs. A kiss is still a kiss, so to speak. And the same unchanging truths hold for matters of truth and integrity, worship and piety.
Nothing has changed; nothing of these essential fundamental matters of our humanity and how it is ordered to God ever will change. The Catholic Church cannot and will not change its moral teachings, because She remembers, and the voice of her memory is currently a little old man in Rome named Benedict XVI, who is the servant of the truth, not its author or its editor.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Don't! Stop! Thinking About Tomorrow!

[Abraham] gave up the present for the sake of what was to come. He let go of what was safe, comprehensible, calculable, for the sake of what was unknown. And he did this is response to a single word from God. He had met God and placed all his future in God’s hands; he dared to accept a new future that began in darkness… the center of gravity of reality, indeed the concept of reality itself, changed. The future took precedence over the present, the word heard over comprehensible things.

Faith and the Future, 30-31

Reflection – ‘The future took precedence over the present.’ Hey, wait a minute! Aren’t we always being told to live in the present? That ‘now’ is what matters – tomorrow’s not here yet, yesterday is gone, etc., etc.? And what about the ‘duty of the moment’ that Madonna House folk are always talking about, the call of Christ to encounter him, serve him, love him, obey him by paying attention to what is in front of us right now?

Has young Fr. Ratzinger (this book is from 1971) gone a little awry here? How can we say that the future is more important than the present, and what does this mean for our life?

Well, we can say it because it’s true, for starters! The future is more important than the present. What is the future we hope for? Eternal life in heaven with God. That is inherently more important than the few years we spend rattling around on earth – I don’t see how we can argue otherwise.

In medieval philosophy, the starting point for any discussion of human life and activity was to distinguish two ways of being human. Human beings are either viatores or comprehensors. In English, wayfarers or comprehenders. And all human modes of being and acting are affected profoundly by whether you are in one camp or the other.

You are (in case you’re unclear here) a viatore, as is every human being you have ever met, unless you happen to have had an apparition of Our Lady. The comprehensors are those enjoying the beatific vision, and most especially the Mother of God herself who enjoys this vision in her resurrected, assumed flesh.

But for us, we are on the way – we’re not there yet. And the whole dynamism of our life is towards our goal, towards that end. And so, yes, the future is more important than the present, because, like Abraham leaving everything to go to the promised land, all our actions and choices are meant to be a continual ‘leaving everything’ for the sake of the promised land to which we are headed.

What of being present to the present moment, then? What about the duty of the moment, and living in the now? Well, that’s how we leave everything to get to God’s future for us. To get to heaven, we have to stay on the path. And to stay on the path, we have to be deeply attentive to its twists and turns. And these twists and turns are the demands of love, now. The call of Christ, now. What’s in front of you to be done, now. But all is for the sake of the end of the road, the glorious ‘then’ to which all our little nows are bearing us.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

To Enter the Dance of Being

According to Sartre, human beings and things cannot have a nature. If they did, Sartre argues, there would have to be a God. If reality itself does not proceed from a creative consciousness, if it is not the realization of a design, of an idea, then it will always be a structure without firm contours, to be used as one will; but if there are meaningful forms in it that are antecedent to man, then there must also be a meaning that is responsible for their existence. For Sartre, the one unchanging certainty was that there is no God; therefore, there can be no nature. This means that man is condemned to a monstrous freedom; he must discover for himself with no norm to guide him what he will make of himself and of the world.

Principles of Catholic Theology, 72

Reflection – OK, so we’re done with the World Youth Day blogging, right? The Holy Father has the remarkable ability to speak of complex and deep matters in simple language, and this ability was on display at its heights at WYD in Madrid. But the man is nonetheless a world-class scholar, and so here we return to our ‘regular programming’ – which involves taking some of his heftier works and cutting them into small digestible pieces. You can thank me later.
So here he is grappling with Sartre and the whole rejection of ‘nature’ as a concept. Nature means, simply, ‘what something is’. The idea of human nature means that human beings are something specific, that there is a structure, a form to humanity that delimits us in some fashion.
It is crucial to note here that the reason Sartre and his followers (who are legion in the world today, even if they’ve never heard of the man and cannot name one of his works) deny nature is not based on any logical arguments. They deny nature because they want to do what they want to do when, where, and as they want to do it. The denial of God and nature is a first principle for them. Or to put it more accurately, the first principle they start with is that freedom is the highest value of man, and freedom can only mean doing exactly as you desire with nothing to stop you. From this first principle of action the rejection of God and human nature is the necessary first principle of theory.
If God exists, we cannot do just anything we please, not without violating something that is real. We do not live, if there is a God, with accountability and a responsibility to Being. Literally, we have a response-ability—we find ourselves in a world that exists, has a being which is structured, formed, purposed, meaningful, and we invited to and able to respond—we are response-able—to this reality.
To Sartre and so many post-moderns, this means we are not free. But, as Ratzinger points out in this passage, Sartre’s freedom is monstrous. We find ourselves in a shapeless bog of reality, no boundaries, no structure, total chaos, and our freedom consists in imposing our own will onto this chaos. The only freedom Sartre can recognize is the freedom God Himself enjoys: the earth was formless and void, and God said let there be light… this is for him the sole freedom. And what a burdensome and joyless freedom this is: Sartre’s major works have the cheery titles of Nausea and No Exit.
Ratzinger goes on to point out that there is another model of freedom possible for us—the freedom of cooperation, of entering into God’s reality, of embracing and uniting ourselves to the dance of Being already taking place.
It seems to me (and to Ratzinger) that these two models of freedom are mutually exclusive, and we really do have to choose between them. Either it means doing exactly what we want, or it means diving into the world as it is and shaping it, and ourselves, according to the truth, goodness, and beauty that is already present there. So take your pick: which is it?

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Deep Healing of the World

Nowadays, although the dominant culture of relativism all around us has given up on the search for truth, even if it is the highest aspiration of the human spirit, we need to speak with courage and humility of the universal significance of Christ as the Saviour of humanity and the source of hope for our lives. He who took upon himself our afflictions, is well acquainted with the mystery of human suffering and manifests his loving presence in those who suffer. They in their turn, united to the passion of Christ, share closely in his work of redemption. Furthermore, our disinterested attention towards the sick and the forgotten will always be a humble and warm testimony of God’s compassionate regard.
Dear friends, may no adversity paralyze you. Be afraid neither of the world, nor of the future, nor of your weakness. The Lord has allowed you to live in this moment of history so that, by your faith, his name will continue to resound throughout the world.

Homily, WYD Vigil Service, August 20, 2011

Reflection – The challenge of relativism – the idea that either there is no universal truth that binds our lives together, or that such truth is utterly unknowable and hence irrelevant to our lives – is a central theme in the life and works of Joseph Ratzinger, and thus has been a central theme on this blog devoted to his writings.
The direction he takes here, though, is an interesting one. He doesn’t tell the young people of the world to go and get doctorates in philosophy and theology, to sharpen their rhetorical skills and train as Catholic super-apologists so at to better crush the arguments of the relativists.
No – while all that may have greater or lesser value, he tells us here to bear witness to the saving power of Christ, not by learned arguments and syllogisms, but by taking care of the sick and the forgotten. I would extend that category of ‘the sick and forgotten’ to include almost everyone. Anyone can be ‘forgotten’ in some regard; we’re all sick in some dimension of our humanity. Everyone needs to be loved, everyone needs to be listened to, everyone needs to be healed, and the deepest healing is to know that you are loved and listened to by someone who really cares about you.
And this is the deep answer to relativism. How is that? Well, where does it come from, this relativistic passion of our times? Because it is a passion – the fervor of its most aggressive proponents is almost religious in force. Do not tell anyone what to do! This is the relativist creed (although it is self-contradictory, actually, since in promulgating it they are… well, telling us what to do).
But where does that come from? I think it comes from a deep fear, a deep sadness, a deep tragic sense of life where each of us in alone, trapped in our individual egos, with no heaven above us and no good earth under our feet. Floating in a hostile and meaningless cosmos, the only way to secure a little bit of life for oneself is to force one’s own ego, one’s own devices and desires, onto whatever little bit of the cosmos is within reach.
And so to love, to bend down and wash the feet of the other, to look someone in the eyes and truly listen to them, to receive, to welcome, to serve, to weep with the weeping and rejoice with the joyful—all of this addresses relativism, not in its intellectual formulation, but in the underlying spiritual malaise that drives it.
And the Holy Father goes on to exhort his young listeners to not be afraid of this task. This is so crucial—as he puts it, to not be afraid of the world, the future, or our own weakness. That the Lord has put us here, now, in the year 2011, in the place and with the people He has designed for us. We must not become paralyzed by the difficulties of life, and to not be thus paralyzed requires a living faith and communion with God in prayer.
But from that living faith, we are to look around us, see what is going on around us right now, ponder and pray about what we see, and then… do something. Something loving, something caring, something that serves in whatever way, big or small. And this is how the world is healed.

Monday, September 5, 2011

What's Your Ambit?

How can a young person be true to the faith and yet continue to aspire to high ideals in today’s society? In the Gospel Jesus gives us an answer to this urgent question: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love” (Jn 15:9).
Yes, dear friends, God loves us. This is the great truth of our life; it is what makes everything else meaningful. We are not the product of blind chance or absurdity; instead, our life originates as part of a loving plan of God. To abide in his love, then, means living a life rooted in faith, since faith is more than the mere acceptance of certain abstract truths: it is an intimate relationship with Christ, who enables us to open our hearts to this mystery of love and to live as men and women conscious of being loved by God.
If you abide in the love of Christ, rooted in the faith, you will encounter, even amid setbacks and suffering, the source of true happiness and joy. Faith does not run counter to your highest ideals; on the contrary, it elevates and perfects those ideals. Dear young people, do not be satisfied with anything less than Truth and Love, do not be content with anything less than Christ.
Homily, WYD Vigil Service, August 20, 2011

Reflection – In this passage, the Holy Father is confronting a certain subtle attitude that is common today. This is the attitude that religious faith somehow traps us some sort of  mediocrity or second-class life. We look at the ‘elites’ of our culture, and most of them do not seem to be people of faith, or at any rate often seem to shape their faith to serve their own purposes (which makes it no kind of faith at all, but that’s another story…). I am reminded along those lines of an interview I read recently with a certain venerable Hollywood actress who currently defines herself as a Christian, but is part of no church community, and instead contents herself with studying the teachings of Jesus which are all about tolerance and accepting everyone as they are (not sure what translation of the Bible she is using....).
But most of the really successful high achieving people who are presented to us as role models to emulate in our society do not seem to be terribly religious, or at least it’s rarely mentioned. And a certain sense can arise almost beneath the rational level that religion somehow cramps our style, that it gets in the way of going all out to achieve the top prize, the center podium, the corner office.
What becomes of ambition, if we give ourselves to Christ? Now the word ‘ambition’ is an interesting one. Of course it means extending oneself to one’s ‘ambit’ – the full length of what one can grasp, achieve, attain. Going all out, according to what you are capable of.
But read in the light of Christian revelation, doesn’t this whole idea of ambition change somewhat? What are we capable of, after all? Making a few million dollars? Having a really good body? Scoring lots of goals? Getting a doctorate?
All of that may be well within your ambit or mine… but is that really the full measure of our ambition? Man is capax dei, the Catechism tells us. We are capable of God, capable of attaining such an intimate communion with God that we transcend our humanity to become truly sharers of the divine life by grace. It’s a little bit better than a corner office, or even an Olympic gold medal or an Academy Award, nice as all those may be.
And all of those may be exactly what God wants for us… but only if they are in the service of this true ambition, which is expressed concretely in the life of faith, hope, and above all love. Christianity is not a religion of mediocrity. It is, however, a religion which subordinates all other achievements to the high call to love and be loved by God, subordinates any other work, goal, desire to the unity of the human person with the mission and life of Christ who is God. Christian greatness is expressed thus, and the highest ambition any person can have is to die with Christ, so as to rise with him, and reign forever with him.
I’m probably thinking of these things because we just finished burying Fr. Paul Bechard today at Madonna House, and I’m going very early tomorrow to the funeral of my aunt Alma Lemieux. Both were, in very different ways, simple ordinary people: no one you would read about in the papers, no corner offices for either of them.
But at the end of life, when we look back at what a person has lived (the little bits we know about, anyhow) we can see with the eyes of faith the greatness that truly did hang around them, the ways Jesus shaped this person into an icon of Himself.
And seeing that, we begin to see the transcendent beauty of a life lived, not according to our own human ambitions, but according to the Divine Ambition for us, to be with Him always.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Love Me, Love My Church (saith the Lord)


Jesus’ responds to Peter’s confession by speaking of the Church: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church”. What do these words mean? Jesus builds the Church on the rock of the faith of Peter, who confesses that Christ is God.
The Church, then, is not simply a human institution, like any other. Rather, she is closely joined to God. Christ himself speaks of her as “his” Church. Christ cannot be separated from the Church any more than the head can be separated from the body (cf. 1 Cor 12:12). The Church does not draw her life from herself, but from the Lord.
Dear young friends, as the Successor of Peter, let me urge you to strengthen this faith which has been handed down to us from the time of the Apostles. Make Christ, the Son of God, the centre of your life. But let me also remind you that following Jesus in faith means walking at his side in the communion of the Church. We cannot follow Jesus on our own. Anyone who would be tempted to do so “on his own”, or to approach the life of faith with kind of individualism so prevalent today, will risk never truly encountering Jesus, or will end up following a counterfeit Jesus.
Having faith means drawing support from the faith of your brothers and sisters, even as your own faith serves as a support for the faith of others. I ask you, dear friends, to love the Church which brought you to birth in the faith, which helped you to grow in the knowledge of Christ and which led you to discover the beauty of his love.
Homily, Closing Mass of WYD Madrid, August 21, 2011 

Reflection - We continue to reflect on Pope Benedict’s words to the WYD pilgrims. In the previous post, taken from the same closing homily, knowing Jesus Christ meant entering a life-long relationship, a communion which draws us into the depths of mystery and love. Now, we see that this same knowledge, this same relationship, and this same mystery of love is one with the mystery of the Church.
We cannot have Christ without his Church. Why not? Because he ordains it so. The head is not separate from the body, the shepherd from the sheep, the king from the kingdom, the bridegroom from his bride, Christ from his Church. To be in relationship with one is to be in relationship with the other, or we are not truly in relationship with the One.
This is difficult, admittedly. Not only is it difficult in our individualistic era, but always. The Church has always been made up of sinful human beings; some of the structures, policies and procedures of the instituational Church are of human origin, not divine, and are fallible, and all of the Church’s leaders are human beings, prone to fall short on many levels great and small.
All of this means that, as Flannery O’Connor put it, the Catholic has to suffer as much from the Church as for the Church. But this too is part of the mystery of Christ and our knowledge of Him. He died for the Church; we suffer from its human failures. And in this we are called to an ever-deeper intimacy with our Beloved.
And the Church itself in all its messy humanity invites us into a permanent overcoming, an ongoing thwarting of our ego, our self-enclosed ways and means and viewpoints. It’s not unlike getting married, or joining a religious community. You make the commitment, and then, there you are, and there is the other person or people. And they’re not going to change, particularly, and you have to deal with that. You have to find a way of living with that man, that woman, those folks. They are a constant and at times very painful  reminder to you that you are not God, not in control, not the one calling the shots about life (at times the reminder can be delightful and joyful, too!). But commitment to any vocation places us into that deeply humble position.
And our total commitment to the Church has the same effect. It strips us of any illusion that we are the center of reality, that we are the measure of all things. There is this Thing (as Chesterton called it) that Christ created, that He loves, and that He commands us to love and be in communion with. Our choice to obey his command places us, as nothing else does, in a deep place of humble crying out for grace, for help, for vision, for mercy. And so it is all bound up together – Christ, the Church, our own self – in the mystery of love, pain, and communion, a mystery that has it joyful, sorrowful, and luminous aspects, but which bears us day by day to a glorious consummation in the kingdom of heaven.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Knowing Jesus


There are many people today who feel attracted by the figure of Christ and want to know him better. They realize that he is the answer to so many of our deepest concerns. But who is he really? How can someone who lived on this earth so long ago have anything in common with me today?
The Gospel we have just heard (cf. Mt 16:13-20) suggests two different ways of knowing Christ. The first is an impersonal knowledge, one based on current opinion. When Jesus asks ‘who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ the disciples answer: ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ In other words, Christ is seen as yet another religious figure, like those who came before him. Then Jesus turns to the disciples and asks them: ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter responds with what is the first confession of faith: ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ Faith is more than just empirical or historical facts; it is an ability to grasp the mystery of Christ’s person in all its depth.
Yet faith is not the result of human effort, of human reasoning, but rather a gift of God: ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.’ Faith starts with God, who opens his heart to us and invites us to share in his own divine life. Faith does not simply provide information about who Christ is; rather, it entails a personal relationship with Christ, a surrender of our whole person, with all our understanding, will and feelings, to God’s self-revelation. So Jesus’ question ‘But who do you say that I am?’ is ultimately a challenge to the disciples to make a personal decision in his regard. Faith in Christ and discipleship are strictly interconnected.
Homily, WYD Closing Mass, August 21, 2001 

Reflection – ‘It’s not enough to know about God – we have to know God.’ These were among the first words I remember ever reading of Catherine Doherty’s, although I’m not sure where I ran across them. But they resonate with the ‘two ways’ of knowing Christ the Holy Father speaks of here. To know the historical facts, or even the doctrinal tradition and dogmatic definitions about Jesus is one thing; to know he is Messiah and Lord is another. To know and be able to intelligently discuss the ‘truth claims’ of the Christian religion is one thing (although it is an increasingly rare thing in our age of religious illiteracy, frankly); to know Jesus is another.
And this knowing of Jesus is no small thing. After all, do we really ‘know’ Jesus? In what sense? We’re talking about God here, after all, assuming the Christian faith is true. We know him, yes, but this knowing is not some brash confident certainty. It is, rather, a plunge into deep mystery, really a commitment to a lifelong journey of faith, of ever-deepening knowledge, but a deepening of knowledge that many times feels like a plunge into darkness and confusion. I often feel like I ‘know’ much less about the Lord than I did twenty years ago, and I fully expect to feel the same twenty years from now.
Pope Benedict here summons us to embark on this journey, the path of discipleship. The movement from the head to the heart it is sometimes called, from knowing about Jesus to a living relationship with Him which plunges out life into an adventure, a mystery, a perilous voyage into the heart of God which leads us into the hearts of men. It is the way of the Cross, true, but this itself is the deepest intimacy of knowing Christ. The cross is the marriage bed of Christ, as Catherine loved to repeat. And it is this nuptial union which alone brings us into the fullness of divine life which we are destined to share with Him.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Prayer Requests

Fr. Paul Bechard, beloved pioneer priest of Madonna House, died yesterday. He was 93, and had been failing for some time.
I also just got word from my family that my Aunt Alma died yesterday. She was the last one of my father's siblings; my mother was the last of her siblings... a generation passes away.
They were both good people, full of faith and prayer, but if you could spare a prayer for them and for MH and my family, that would be appreciated.

To Cultivate and Beautify Creation


In the reading which has just been proclaimed, we heard a passage from the Gospel which talks of welcoming the words of Jesus and putting them into practice. There are words which serve only to amuse, as fleeting as an empty breeze; others, to an extent, inform us; those of Jesus, on the other hand, must reach our hearts, take root and bloom there all our lives. If not, they remain empty and become ephemeral. They do not bring us to him and, as a result, Christ stays remote, just one voice among the many others around us which are so familiar. Furthermore, the Master who speaks teaches, not something learned from others, but that which he himself is, the only one who truly knows the path of man towards God, because he is the one who opened it up for us, he made it so that we might have authentic lives, lives which are always worth living, in every circumstance, and which not even death can destroy…
Of course, you know that when we do not walk beside Christ our guide, we get lost on other paths, like the path of our blind and selfish impulses, or the path of flattering but self-serving suggestions, deceiving and fickle, which leave emptiness and frustration in their wake… Indeed, there are many who, creating their own gods, believe they need no roots or foundations other than themselves. They take it upon themselves to decide what is true or not, what is good and evil, what is just and unjust; who should live and who can be sacrificed in the interests of other preferences; leaving each step to chance, with no clear path, letting themselves be led by the whim of each moment. These temptations are always lying in wait. It is important not to give in to them because, in reality, they lead to something so evanescent, like an existence with no horizons, a liberty without God.
We, on the other hand, know well that we have been created free, in the image of God, precisely so that we might be in the forefront of the search for truth and goodness, responsible for our actions, not mere blind executives, but creative co-workers in the task of cultivating and beautifying the work of creation.
Welcoming Ceremony for the Holy Father, Plaza de Cibeles, August 18, 2011

Reflection – One of the lovely things about World Youth Day for me was hearing the Pope presenting some of his most central and deepest insights, themes which I have studied at length in some of his most scholarly works, to the youth of the world. He has a gift, generally, for expressing profound theological truths in simple language; in Madrid, that gift was at its fullest expression.
In Spe Salvi he talks about the Gospel being ‘performative’ instead of merely ‘informative’; in Madrid, he simply says that the words of Jesus must take root and bloom in our lives. In many of his writings he analyzes the necessary unity of truth and freedom and their common root in God; there, he reminded the young people of the destructive path so many of their peers are on, living for the moment, making up their own rules as they go, a path that leads nowhere but to the death of both innocence and innocents.
It is the beautiful vision of true freedom, though, which is so captivating in this passage. We are not mere ‘blind executives’ (great image!) but creative co-workers with God. And our job is not to make up some form of reality from whole cloth, but to ‘cultivate and beautify’ the creation God has already made. It is such a positive vision given here, and this is what young people (and us not-quite-so-young people) need so much. What are we to do? What on earth are we to do with our lives? Pope Benedict knows, and he is happy to share his knowledge with us, in simple language accessible to everyone.
This is why I’ve started this blog, and am so grateful for the readers I have, and would like (pretty please) to have a few more readers. It’s not (please God!) for my own personal ego-satisfaction. Rather, this man truly has a vision which, if people read him, absorbed it, and made it their own, would truly solve the horrible anguish of our post-modern world, give a way out of the terrible darkness we have fallen into.
Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI knows the way out, knows where the path of light can be found, precisely for us post-moderns and the specific situation we are in. To be slightly (!) repetitive, I encourage you to read him.