Monday, April 30, 2012

Mystagogy or Madness?

Believing is not an act of the understanding alone, nor simply an act of the will, not just an act of feeling, but an act in which all the spiritual powers of man are at work together. Still more: man in his own self, or of himself, cannot bring about this believing at all; it has of its nature the character of a dialogue.
Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith, 24

Reflection – ‘I will believe in God when sufficient evidence is given to me to prove it is true.’ ‘I will make myself believe, even though I understand nothing and my emotions are nil.’ ‘I believe because I feel in my heart that God is real and Jesus is real.’

These are the three isolated approaches to faith that Ratzinger critiques here. Faith as strict intellectual assent to a credible hypothesis, or as a teeth-gritted, knuckles clenched act of will to what we neither understand nor feel to be true, or as a joyful plunging into a tide of emotionalism and enthusiasm.
All three fall short, and even any two of the three taken together fall short. And as he points out quite insightfully, even all three together fall short of the full reality of faith.

It may well be for most of us that we experience faith more in one or two of these aspects than the others. For me, faith is strongly an act of will with a heavy dose of intellectual understanding. My emotions play little role in my faith life, not because I don’t have them but because I know how unreliable they are!

Others may have very little intellectual capacity for theological understanding, but have strong emotional attachments to God and to Jesus, and deep will to believe. I suppose some may have strong emotional and intellectual faith, but have to battle against their weak will, although I have never encountered that particular configuration.

Our whole humanity, though, is taken up into the act of faith. It is our whole person that is engaged in the task of belief. We will to accept what we have been given; our minds seek to understand it as best we can; our emotions dance in and out of this relationship of faith; and even our bodies are called to faith, as what we believe is lived out in concrete actions of worship and charity, and this commitment to action strengthens and builds the faith we have.

But as Ratzinger points out, there is something more here. Rather, there is Someone Else involved in this faith dynamic. The very nature of faith is not ‘I believe this,’ but rather ‘I believe you.’ There is this strange and mysterious Other who we encounter… how? Where? Those who do not have faith begin to suspect the mental health of us who do have faith at this juncture. Do we have an invisible friend? Are we hearing voices? What is this Other who we have chosen to believe?

Well, there is Scripture and the strange Presence we encounter there. And there is Sacrament and the mysterious Action done to us thereby. And there is personal prayer—not a matter of hearing voices, but for me at least of insight being given, understanding and direction received, not achieved. Something that happens that I, anyhow, cannot account for by my own human capacities.

There is this… Other. For those who don’t have faith, this will always sound like mystagogy or madness. For those who do have faith, you probably know exactly what I’m talking about. For those who don’t have faith, but maybe would like to have it, I recommend a simple course of action: every day for the next six months, ask ‘God’ (if He, you know, exists) to show Himself to you in some way you can receive it, and every day for the next six months, read a short passage from the Gospels.

In six months, you will have faith. Will it come on a cloud of emotion, a piercing moment of intellectual insight, or simply a shift in your will? Or will this Other simply communicate to you that He is Real, and that He is Present? Any and all—faith is a total meeting of the total you and Totality Itself. And it is ours for the asking, ours for the seeking.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Indestructible Power

All serious and upright human conduct is hope in action. This is so first of all in the sense that we thereby strive to realize our lesser and greater hopes, to complete this or that task which is important for our onward journey, or we work towards a brighter and more humane world so as to open doors into the future. Yet our daily efforts in pursuing our own lives and in working for the world's future either tire us or turn into fanaticism, unless we are enlightened by the radiance of the great hope that cannot be destroyed even by small-scale failures or by a breakdown in matters of historic importance.

If we cannot hope for more than is effectively attainable at any given time, or more than is promised by political or economic authorities, our lives will soon be without hope. It is important to know that I can always continue to hope, even if in my own life, or the historical period in which I am living, there seems to be nothing left to hope for. Only the great certitude of hope that my own life and history in general, despite all failures, are held firm by the indestructible power of Love, and that this gives them their meaning and importance, only this kind of hope can then give the courage to act and to persevere.

Spe Salvi 35

Reflection – What are you hoping for right now? What are the 'lesser and greater hopes' that fill your mind and heart? It’s good to consider that question, isn’t it? And of course, the answer can be found by looking at what we are doing, what we are working at, where our serious efforts are being expended. ‘All serious and upright human conduct is hope in action.’

So right now I’m hoping that the book I wrote which is being published in October finds a readership, so I’m working on the final editing and other arrangements for it; I’m hoping that the book I’m just starting to write is a good book, so I’m working hard on the research for it; I hope my directees, those who come to me for spiritual direction, become saints, so I work (and pray) to help them move God-wards; I hope Madonna House flourishes in every good way, so I work each day towards that flourishing.
Those are my hopes. And you could easily identify your hopes in a similar fashion. What do you work towards each day?

But then, what if my books bomb, all my directees walk away from God/the Church/my direction, and Madonna House falls apart? Any of which could happen, of course. We are not in a world where everything just works out lovely all the time, to put it mildly.

This is why this other greater hope has to run through all our lesser hopes. This strange hope, wholly supernatural in origin and goal, this theological virtue of hope which holds and perfects all our human hopes. The Pope puts it so very well here: “It is important to know that I can always continue to hope, even if in my own life, or the historical period in which I am living, there seems to be nothing left to hope for. Only the great certitude of hope that my own life and history in general, despite all failures, are held firm by the indestructible power of Love, and that this gives them their meaning and importance.”

Our lives and our actions in life are held by the indestructible power of Love. So if I am at least trying to love, if I am trying to do something because it is a good thing to do, a service to my brothers and sisters, an offering to God, then even if the immediate action ‘fails’ according to my human observation and reckoning, the love within it does not fail.

Love never fails. Not because human love is some all-powerful force, but because human love is met by divine love. God comes to us, to each of us, and wants to take up our little human efforts and works and plans into His divine, perfect, and eternal plans and works.

This is the whole path of faith in the world. Faith that God is real, present, active and alive and faithful; faith that God desires our happiness; faith that bears fruit, then, in hope that our lives will not fail, not fall short, not end in tragedy and despair. And so we can keep loving, keep going, no matter what is happening in our lives. God is with us, and so we always have hope, even if the sky should fall and everything around us crumble into dust, even if our hearts are broken and all our dreams shattered.

We have hope, because God is with us and His heart has already been broken, and out of that broken heart flows streams of light, love, and mercy renewing the whole universe from His broken heart. Christ is risen from the tomb, and so no ‘tomb’ of human failure can hold us, so long as we hold onto Him.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

An Easy Game and a Hard Road

The last keyword that I should like to consider is “zeal for souls”: animarum zelus. It is an old-fashioned expression, not much used these days. In some circles, the word “soul” is virtually banned because – ostensibly – it expresses a body-soul dualism that wrongly compartmentalizes the human being. Of course the human person is a unity, destined for eternity as body and soul. And yet that cannot mean that we no longer have a soul, a constituent principle guaranteeing our unity in this life and beyond earthly death.

And as priests, of course, we are concerned for the whole person, including his or her physical needs – we care for the hungry, the sick, the homeless. And yet we are concerned not only with the body, but also with the needs of the soul: with those who suffer from the violation of their rights or from destroyed love, with those unable to perceive the truth, those who suffer for lack of truth and love. We are concerned with the salvation of men and women in body and soul.

And as priests of Jesus Christ we carry out our task with enthusiasm. No one should ever have the impression that we work conscientiously when on duty, but before and after hours we belong only to ourselves. A priest never belongs to himself. People must sense our zeal, through which we bear credible witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Let us ask the Lord to fill us with joy in his message, so that we may serve his truth and his love with joyful zeal. Amen.

Homily, Chrism Mass, 2012

Reflection – And so the Pope, as he wraps up the Chrism Mass homily, calls his brother priests to this very high standard: the zeal for souls that is to consume us and make us lay down our lives for Christ, his Gospel, and his people.

Well, you know, I know, and the Pope knows that we priests are a pretty ordinary bunch of guys for the most part. And, as a bunch of ordinary guys, some of us work harder, some of us less, some of us (seem to) care more, some less, some are bursting with enthusiasm and energy, some lag. Just the ordinary range of human virtue and weakness, capacity and incapacity, sprinkled here and there with genuine examples of holiness and supernatural virtue and love.

One of the great temptations of Catholics, I have noticed over my years as one, is to find faults with whatever priests one has been given. Let’s face it, it’s an easy game to play. It’s not exactly “Where’s Waldo?” Most priests have pretty glaring flaws, one way or another.

But we (and, yes, I do mean ‘we’ – once you’re ordained it’s not like that particular habit stops), need to ask ourselves why we do that. For that matter, why do we criticize anybody? Why this delight in finding faults, in tearing down, in pointing fingers?

Every one of us, priest or lay, is called to a very high standard of Gospel love and zeal. Every baptized Christian is called to ascend a very steep and high mountain, a path filled with perilous cliffs and dizzying heights. Is it to be wondered that all of us stumble, hesitate, turn back, falter on this path?

Are priests called to an even higher ascent? I’m not so sure about that (holiness is holiness, after all). Certainly our ministry makes us more visible, more prone, therefore, to the critical view of others.

But why do we criticize? Why not… oh, I don’t know, pray? Or… help one another? Pray for your priests. If you don’t see the zeal for souls you would like to see in them, pray for them. If they are not preaching the Gospel as you would like it preached, pray for them. If they seem to you to be living lives not in accordance with the way of Christ, pray for them.

And be a friend to your priests. It can be a lonely life, and is getting more so as the numbers diminish and the responsibilities increase. Help them. Have them over for supper. If you can help in the parish, do so. If you can’t, find some other way of expressing your support and care.

And pray for us. The priesthood is a wonderful vocation, a rich rewarding joyous way of life. But it is challenging, as is any real commitment to Christ and the Gospel. Let’s help one another to do it, and not tear each other down with judgment and criticism and gossip. Sound good to you? It sounds good to me.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Will I Die For Her?

All our preaching must measure itself against the saying of Jesus Christ: “My teaching is not mine” (Jn ). We preach not private theories and opinions, but the faith of the Church, whose servants we are.

Naturally this should not be taken to mean that I am not completely supportive of this teaching, or solidly anchored in it. In this regard I am always reminded of the words of Saint Augustine: what is so much mine as myself? And what is so little mine as myself? I do not own myself, and I become myself by the very fact that I transcend myself, and thereby become a part of Christ, a part of his body the Church. If we do not preach ourselves, and if we are inwardly so completely one with him who called us to be his ambassadors, that we are shaped by faith and live it, then our preaching will be credible. I do not seek to win people for myself, but I give myself. The CurĂ© of Ars was no scholar, no intellectual, we know that. But his preaching touched people’s hearts because his own heart had been touched.

Homily, Chrism Mass, 2012

Reflection – So what if you disagree with the Church? What then? What if you have carefully considered a matter (say, contraception), have looked into it to the best of your ability, and have concluded that the Church is wrong? What then?

If you are a priest, in a sense the answer is relatively simple, if not easy. We promised at our ordination to teach not our own opinions but the teaching of the Church. When I stand up in a pulpit, the people of God have a right to hear from me the Catholic faith, not Fr. Denis Lemieux’s opinions about the Catholic faith. I do realize that many of my brother priests struggle mightily over this (I honestly do agree with the Church’s teachings on all matters), but for us clergy it is a question of the right of the our people to receive Catholic doctrine from their priests, and our solemn promise to repect that right.

But I realize that priests make up a small percentage of my blog readers. What about the rest of you good people? What if you don’t agree, really and sincerely do not agree, with this or that Church teaching? Is the right attitude to just chuck it, then? Become an Episcopalian/Anglican, or perhaps just do whatever you think is right and show up in the communion line regardless?

These are not simple questions—I do realize this. While I consider the Church’s teachings in matters of sexual morality to be beautiful and life-giving reflections of God’s Eternal Wisdom (and by the way, let’s face it – most of the dissent from Church teaching is around sexual issues), many and possibly most Catholics in North America do not see it that way.

I have no wish to excommunicate or anathematize people. I am not, temperamentally, an Inquisitor. No thumb screws in my desk drawer! My whole formation in Madonna House is to seek and work towards unity and community of love.

It seems to me that the current state of division and disunity in the Church is a call to all of us, whatever our own ‘private opinions’ are, into the passion of faith. We are all called, the ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’ alike (oh, how I loathe those labels!), to really ask ourselves how much we belong to Christ.

To what extent am I not my own? To what extent have I allowed Christ to truly be my Lord and Master, to truly have access not just to my theological opinions but to my inmost heart? To what extent am I living, not out of my calm-or-not-so-calm assurance that I am right and they are wrong, as if that matters, but out of the mercy of God, a mercy that calls me into such a depth of mercy that my own heart is broken open by love?

I don’t agree with Joan Chittister. But am I willing to die for her? I really don’t agree with what those priests in Austria did with their ‘Call to Disobedience.’ But am I willing to kneel down before them to wash their feet?

It seems to me that there is not going to be a quick resolution to the current crisis of theological dissent and disunity in the Church. Am I willing, not to get mad, not to get all arrogant and superior, but to weep for my own sins and the sins of my brothers and sisters? To listen to the woman who feels called to be a priest, not with scorn or contempt, but really listening to her, meeting her with love, even if I sincerely believe her sense of call is misguided? Am I willing to do that? Are you?

And is the ‘liberal’ Catholic willing to listen to the ones who they might be tempted to reject—the rosary-clacking, baby-foot-pin wearing, Pope-loving traddy types, to bring that same compassion and true listening spirit to the ones they may dislike and certainly disagree with?

If we cannot—well, the Church will just go on being a big disunified and disedifying mess, and so much of the energy we should use to preach the Gospel to the nations will be dissipated in quarreling and wrangling. There is indeed a need for real dialogue, real education, real theological exploration and expounding of Church doctrines. But there is a much deeper need for mercy, for listening, for tears of repentance and compassionate hearts. Without this, we can be as ‘orthodox’ as we please or as ‘progressive’ as we desire and it will avail us nothing.

So, with that I will suspend my current theme of ecclesial obedience and leave it all in the deeper call to obedience to the Good Shepherd, to the one who lays down his life for his sheep and calls us to lay down our life for one another and for the world in that deepest unity of all, the unity of the martyrs and confessors, the unity, the communion, of the saints.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Doing Our Little Bit to Help

Dear friends, I would like briefly to touch on two more key phrases from the renewal of ordination promises, which should cause us to reflect at this time in the Church’s life and in our own lives. Firstly, the reminder that – as Saint Paul put it – we are “stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Cor 4:1) and we are charged with the ministry of teaching, the (munus docendi), which forms a part of this stewardship of God’s mysteries, through which he shows us his face and his heart, in order to give us himself.

At the meeting of Cardinals on the occasion of the recent Consistory, several of the pastors of the Church spoke, from experience, of the growing religious illiteracy found in the midst of our sophisticated society. The foundations of faith, which at one time every child knew, are now known less and less. But if we are to live and love our faith, if we are to love God and to hear him aright, we need to know what God has said to us – our minds and hearts must be touched by his word. The Year of Faith, commemorating the opening of the Second Vatican Council fifty years ago, should provide us with an occasion to proclaim the message of faith with new enthusiasm and new joy. We find it of course first and foremost in sacred Scripture, which we can never read and ponder enough.

Yet at the same time we all experience the need for help in accurately expounding it in the present day, if it is truly to touch our hearts. This help we find first of all in the words of the teaching Church: the texts of the Second Vatican Council and the Catechism of the Catholic Church are essential tools which serve as an authentic guide to what the Church believes on the basis of God’s word…

All our preaching must measure itself against the saying of Jesus Christ: “My teaching is not mine” (Jn
). We preach not private theories and opinions, but the faith of the Church, whose servants we are.

Homily, Chrism Mass, 2012

Reflection – Now the Pope is talking to priests here, remember. The Chrism Mass homily is traditionally thus: as the priests there present and priests around the world prepare to renew our commitment to our calling, the Holy Father offers us a word of encouragement and counsel.

But as I said a few days ago, don’t you laity tune out on that account! The life and commitment of the ordained priest is ordered to and at the service of the common priesthood of all the baptized. Therefore the specific commitment and shape of ordained priestly life actually illuminates what this common priesthood is about. What I am called to do at the altar, in the confessional, and at the pulpit is deeply connected to and sheds a powerful light on what you are called to do at the office, around the dinner table, and on the subway.

So here it is the solemn obligation of the priest to know his Catholic faith, love his Catholic faith, and proclaim his Catholic faith through the teaching office entrusted to him that is front and center. The catechetical failure of the past 40 years has indeed engendered a depth of religious illiteracy that we are all too familiar with.

Every year at Madonna House we offer our guests two courses: the Fundamentals of the Spiritual Life in the fall, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church in the winter. And we offer these courses because they are needed: the young people who come here are wonderful people, quite often deeply sincere in their commitment to being Catholics already when they get here… and they know very little about the faith, mostly.

So we do our little bit to help. And I do my little bit on this blog to help. And I hope every priest out there is doing his little bit of what he promised to do, which is teach the Church’s teachings and not his own private opinions. We all know that doesn’t always happen (to put it mildly) but that’s what we promised to do when we were ordained.

But the crisis of knowledge is so severe right now, and considering the vast numbers of people who are estranged from the Church and won’t come near a priest in consequence,  the munus docendi truly lies with all of us right now, according to what we are capable of. We all need to ‘up our game’ here, to learn more, to be more secure in our possession of our Catholic faith.

And in this we need to not just be immersed in the controversies, the ‘cut and thrust’ of debates and hot button issues. Often people can have the impression that all Catholics care about is abortion, women priests, and contraception. There is more to our faith than those issues, you know!

We need to really have a grasp of God’s truth, coming to us in His Word, His Tradition, and through the teaching office of the Church. The depths of ignorance and misunderstanding are profound right now; we all need to take on the great spiritual work of mercy of ‘instructing the ignorant’, according to our talents and opportunities.

Tomorrow I will return to a slightly more controversial vein, as I will look at this last paragraph at more length—teaching not our own private opinions, but Jesus Christ. But teach we must—the world is perishing for lack of knowledge.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Obedience and Renewal


Let us ask again: do not such reflections serve simply to defend inertia, the fossilization of traditions? No. Anyone who considers the history of the post-conciliar era can recognize the process of true renewal, which often took unexpected forms in living movements and made almost tangible the inexhaustible vitality of holy Church, the presence and effectiveness of the Holy Spirit. And if we look at the people from whom these fresh currents of life burst forth and continue to burst forth, then we see that this new fruitfulness requires being filled with the joy of faith, the radicalism of obedience, the dynamic of hope and the power of love.

Dear friends, it is clear that configuration to Christ is the precondition and the basis for all renewal. But perhaps at times the figure of Jesus Christ seems too lofty and too great for us to dare to measure ourselves by him. The Lord knows this. So he has provided “translations” on a scale that is more accessible and closer to us. For this same reason, Saint Paul did not hesitate to say to his communities: Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. For his disciples, he was a “translation” of Christ’s manner of life that they could see and identify with.

Ever since Paul’s time, history has furnished a constant flow of other such “translations” of Jesus’ way into historical figures. We priests can call to mind a great throng of holy priests who have gone before us and shown us the way: from Polycarp of Smyrna and Ignatius of Antioch, from the great pastors Ambrose, Augustine and Gregory the Great, through to Ignatius of Loyola, Charles Borromeo, John Mary Vianney and the priest-martyrs of the 20th century, and finally Pope John Paul II, who gave us an example, through his activity and his suffering, of configuration to Christ as “gift and mystery”. The saints show us how renewal works and how we can place ourselves at its service. And they help us realize that God is not concerned so much with great numbers and with outward successes, but achieves his victories under the humble sign of the mustard seed.

Homily, Chrism Mass, 2012

Reflection – The idea often is out there that obedience to the Church means turning your brain off, becoming passive, relapsing into a kind of ‘pay, pray, and obey’ mode where all the power and initiative of the Church lies with the clergy, while the laity are supine and essentially inert.

This is simply not the case. For example, the Church’s teaching about the male human being the necessary matter for the sacrament of ordination (i.e. ‘no women priests’), far from relegating women to the sidelines of the Church’s ministry, is sparking a whole new intellectual and spiritual movement of Christian feminism that is enlivening the faith and discipleship of many women, and challenges all of us to both develop and live out of a whole rich understanding of gender and its theological meaning. There is nothing passive about it.

At the same time, the Church’s sexual teachings, so difficult and painful for so many people I realize, have sparked in the past thirty years one of the greatest theological revivals of our history. Blessed John Paul II’s ‘theology of the body’ presents the eternal vision of human sexuality in the light of Christ in a way that has renewed and deepened the faith of millions. And this theological renewal is largely driven by lay theologians and evangelists, for the most part married men and women.

And of course what Pope Benedict is referring to here is precisely the new movements and communities (MH being one of them, and among the oldest!) that have re-vitalized Christian faith and culture all over the world. These are little-known in North America for the most part, but their influence is huge in Europe, Latin America, and Asia.

Obedience and its challenges provoke growth, not passivity. I said yesterday that I would never have come up with the ‘no sex outside marriage’ law on my own. And this is true: I am child of the sexual revolution, and left to my own devices would have gone down that road, not exactly happily, but certainly with alacrity.

The strange intervention of God in my life (which is another story) which put me on the path of ecclesial obedience and obsequium fidei has really forced me to deepen my understanding of God, the human person, the body, the passions, the mystery of love, the theology of the Cross and the eschatological hope of resurrection. Sexual libertinism (which is where I would have ‘naturally’ gone) is banal and shallow and takes us nowhere but to the wasteland of self-indulgence; the call to chastity has pushed me into spiritual and human depths I would never have reached otherwise.

Obedience is renewal and evangelization and deepening of faith and life, in other words. And this is what Pope Benedict means as he invokes all these saints and their example. The renewal of the Church has never come from political activism and agitation; it always comes from men and women who plunge into the passion of faith and the imitation of Christ, the obedience of the Son and the way of the Cross.

And again, this is plenty for one day’s blog post. I realize that keeping these posts to a manageable length while treating such complex issues may mean that I raise more questions than I can answer. But we have to start with the basic call to obedience and the basic foundation by God and by Christ of his Catholic Church as teacher and guide to us. If we don’t start there, we are not starting from a Catholic place at all. We will continue to discuss this tomorrow, God willing.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

A Question of Faith


Recently a group of priests from a European country issued a summons to disobedience, and at the same time gave concrete examples of the forms this disobedience might take, even to the point of disregarding definitive decisions of the Church’s Magisterium, such as the question of women’s ordination, for which Blessed Pope John Paul II stated irrevocably that the Church has received no authority from the Lord.

Is disobedience a path of renewal for the Church? We would like to believe that the authors of this summons are motivated by concern for the Church, that they are convinced that the slow pace of institutions has to be overcome by drastic measures, in order to open up new paths and to bring the Church up to date.

But is disobedience really a way to do this? Do we sense here anything of that configuration to Christ which is the precondition for all true renewal, or do we merely sense a desperate push to do something to change the Church in accordance with one’s own preferences and ideas?
But let us not oversimplify matters. Surely Christ himself corrected human traditions which threatened to stifle the word and the will of God? Indeed he did, so as to rekindle obedience to the true will of God, to his ever enduring word. His concern was for true obedience, as opposed to human caprice.

Nor must we forget: he was the Son, possessed of singular authority and responsibility to reveal the authentic will of God, so as to open up the path for God’s word to the world of the nations. And finally: he lived out his task with obedience and humility all the way to the Cross, and so gave credibility to his mission. Not my will, but thine be done: these words reveal to us the Son, in his humility and his divinity, and they show us the true path.

Homily, Chrism Mass, 2012

Reflection – So now we dive headfirst into controversy. Oh well… it is worth noting here that the Pope is not putting words into the mouths of these Austrian priests: their letter was in fact entitled “A Call to Disobedience.” And of course this is the section of the homily that got all the media coverage, mostly saying the Pope had ‘railed’ or ‘thundered’ or ‘denounced’ these priests. I challenge anyone who has ever heard Pope Benedict’s mild voice and gentle demeanour to picture him ‘thundering’ about anything!
Mind you, he speaks strongly and clearly. And he calls us to obedience. I suppose that is a radical enough concept today that the very idea of it is thunderous.

To obey the Church—how hard this seems to be for us today! I have to admit here, that for me personally I happen to agree with the Church’s teachings on all matters of faith and morals, and so my own obedience is no great virtue, perhaps. Mind you, I don’t think it would ever have occurred to me that, say, sex outside of marriage was morally wrong, if the Church had not taught me so. And it was very long time ago indeed that I did make a fundamental choice to be taught by the Church in these and all matters.

And it seems to me that this is the issue. Are we willing to be taught? The Church, in relation to its non-infallible teachings, asks its members to practice the attitude of obsequium fidei. The Latin word does not sound attractive to us—the English equivalent ‘obsequious’ has strong negative connotations of servile, cringing toadyism.

But the Latin sense is precisely this: to be willing to be taught by the Church. To be docile, to accept to be led. The opposite attitude would be to insist that the Church prove by strict logical argument every one of its positions before we will sign onto them, to insist that the Church meet every need of ours for certainty and emotional satisfaction before we will consider (maybe) conforming our life to what it tells us are God’s laws.

It is a question of faith, ultimately. Is this Christ’s Church? Did He establish it? Did He bestow His Spirit upon it? Did He give to its apostolic leadership real authority to teach?

If he did these things, should we not trust Him by letting the Church guide us in our moral decision-making? Oh, I can hear the objections already: but the Pope is a sinner! The bishops covered up sexual abuse! The Pope tortured heretics in the Middle Ages! My bishop is a jerk! The Pope… etc., etc., etc.

I repeat: is it Christ’s Church? Did He establish it? Did He bestow his Spirit upon it? Did He give to its apostolic leadership real authority to teach? Not authority to live morally perfect lives themselves, but to teach. What is our answer to these questions? If we answer ‘no’ to them, then (congratulations!) we are Protestants. And there are all sorts of Protestant denominations we can go to if that’s what we decide we are. But if we are Catholics, then we are Catholics, and obedience is our call.

And it is a call, the Pope reminds us, that we share with Christ. His obedience led him to the Cross. Our obedience may and probably will lead us to some suffering. We have to be clear about the deep connections between these two realities. Ecclesial obedience may not ‘feel’ good, may ‘feel’ like we are being done in. Having nails driven through hands and feet also did not ‘feel’ good. Who are we following? Who is our Lord? What is our idea of life and how it should unfold, what a good life is and how we are to get there?
Well, that’s enough for one blog post. The Pope will continue to reflect on these matters, and I will continue to reflect along with him. See you tomorrow!

Update: Welcome, Shea readers! When I sent Mark my links on this series on obedience, I forgot to send him this one on Obedience and Renewal, which is actually a pretty important part of the Pope's homily and my reflections on same. So there it is...

Sunday, April 22, 2012

There's Something We Need to Talk About...


At this Holy Mass our thoughts go back to that moment when, through prayer and the laying on of hands, the bishop made us sharers in the priesthood of Jesus Christ, so that we might be “consecrated in truth” (Jn 17:19), as Jesus besought the Father for us in his high-priestly prayer. He himself is the truth. He has consecrated us, that is to say, handed us over to God for ever, so that we can offer men and women a service that comes from God and leads to him. But does our consecration extend to the daily reality of our lives – do we operate as men of God in fellowship with Jesus Christ? This question places the Lord before us and us before him. “Are you resolved to be more united with the Lord Jesus and more closely conformed to him, denying yourselves and confirming those promises about sacred duties towards Christ’s Church which, prompted by love of him, you willingly and joyfully pledged on the day of your priestly ordination?”

After this homily, I shall be addressing that question to each of you here and to myself as well. Two things, above all, are asked of us: there is a need for an interior bond, a configuration to Christ, and at the same time there has to be a transcending of ourselves, a renunciation of what is simply our own, of the much-vaunted self-fulfilment. We need, I need, not to claim my life as my own, but to place it at the disposal of another – of Christ. I should be asking not what I stand to gain, but what I can give for him and so for others. Or to put it more specifically, this configuration to Christ, who came not to be served but to serve, who does not take, but rather gives – what form does it take in the often dramatic situation of the Church today?

Homily, Chrism Mass, 2012

Reflection – Well, this will be the last of the Holy Week/Triduum homilies I will be going through this year. It’s also the one that got all the headlines, if you pay attention to that kind of thing. We’ll get to that section of the homily next time. As usual, the media was inflammatory, inaccurate, and ill-informed. Hence, this blog!

Now this homily is given by the Pope to the priests at the Chrism Mass, and so speaks very directly of the obligations and governing spirituality of the ordained priesthood. But don’t all you laity think you can just tune this out! The ordained priesthood is essentially different from but ordered to the common priesthood of the faithful. In other words, what I am called to live as a priest is directly tied to what you are called to live, or rather what we are all called to live, as baptized Christians.

Also, it’s good for the laity to know and reflect on what their priests are genuinely being asked to do and be by the Lord, so you can pray for us. It’s a very high standard indeed, and we are all (as you all well know) just ordinary men, generally no better or worse in our natural humanity than any other men.

‘To place my life at the disposal of another’ – this is the heart of it. This profound penetration into the mystery of the Church we find in that phrase is something we need to go into a lot more, something we need to talk about a lot more. It is so engrained in us to look on our lives as belonging to ourselves, as somehow being about ourselves, as somehow being ‘ours’ – with perhaps some acknowledgment of Christ and God somewhere in there, if that’s what we like, if that’s what matters to us.

This is not our Christian religion. It just… isn’t. ‘My life is at the service of the Gospel’, Paul writes. And that’s not just for Paul or for the ordained priest. It’s for you, too. To be at the disposal of the other who is Christ—this is what it means to be a Christian.

Paul Evdokimov wrote in his book The Struggle With God that every Christian is either a martyr or an idolator. In other words, Christ comes first and we lay our lives down for him, or we are worshiping some other God. Strong words, but I don’t see any other way to look at it, frankly.

And of course this disposing our life for Christ means disposing it for our brothers and sisters—love, service, apostolate. It also means existing in a certain relationship to the Church, and I hope to blog about this as the next days go on. A difficult and painful topic, perhaps, but let’s see where it goes. As always (these days) stay tuned…

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Message of the Garden


Lastly, we must also pay attention to the content of Jesus’ prayer on the Mount of Olives. Jesus says: “Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet not what I want, but what you want” (Mk 14:36). The natural will of the man Jesus recoils in fear before the enormity of the matter. He asks to be spared. Yet as the Son, he places this human will into the Father’s will: not I, but you.

In this way he transformed the stance of Adam, the primordial human sin, and thus heals humanity. The stance of Adam was: not what you, O God, have desired; rather, I myself want to be a god. This pride is the real essence of sin. We think we are free and truly ourselves only if we follow our own will. God appears as the opposite of our freedom. We need to be free of him – so we think – and only then will we be free. This is the fundamental rebellion present throughout history and the fundamental lie which perverts life. When human beings set themselves against God, they set themselves against the truth of their own being and consequently do not become free, but alienated from themselves.

We are free only if we stand in the truth of our being, if we are united to God. Then we become truly “like God” – not by resisting God, eliminating him, or denying him. In his anguished prayer on the Mount of Olives, Jesus resolved the false opposition between obedience and freedom, and opened the path to freedom. Let us ask the Lord to draw us into this “yes” to God’s will, and in this way to make us truly free. Amen.

Homily, Holy Thursday, 2012

Reflection – So here we come to the heart of the matter, the very nub and essence of Jesus’ experience in the Garden of Gethsemane and what it signifies for us. On a certain level it is obvious and well-familiar to us: “Not my will, but thy will be done, O Lord.” We all know that’s what Jesus prayed in the Garden; every child raised in a church-going family knows that.

But the Pope is contemplating with us the deep implications of this prayer of Jesus. And the implications do indeed go deep, deep, deep. There is the very heart of the Trinity being expressed here, the total union of being, of divine essence of Father and Son, which is at the very heart of the Godhead, which transcends and confounds all our human efforts to put words to it.

Right away, though, we see that at the very heart and summit of reality is not autonomy and self-assertion, but union in love, a union of wills. What in Madonna House we call sobornost – a unity of mind and heart in love. This is the Central Reality of all realities.

But we are made in the image and likeness of this Reality, and specifically made in the image of the Son who receives everything from the Father and can do nothing of his own accord, but only what He sees the Father doing (John 5: 19).

So then, our life can only truly consist in obedience. Our own divine ascent, our ascent to transcendent and glorious eternal life and splendor, can only happen when we obey God. Real freedom is to burst forth from the bounds of our human striving and its limits to live in the divine sphere, to love as God loves, to live as God lives, a life that can only be received, never achieved, but which God wants to give each one of us. That’s why He came, why He sweated blood in the garden and died on the Cross, after all.

Now, many people choose not to go this route. Many choose to remain in their human limits, their human level of being. And I would never say that we are doomed to hellfire if we do so. But let us not pretend that by doing so we are choosing to remain free or becoming freer. It is a diminishment of our being, not an expansion, that we choose.

Obedience to God (an obedience that, and I realize this is painful and contested by many, is mediated to us by obedience to the Church) is the path to freedom, to liberation, and to the deep truth of our humanity and our individual dignity and meaning. And this is the message Christ brings to us in the Garden of Gethsemane, kneeling to us on the hard stones, shivering with fear, sweating blood.

It is our own obedience, which may reduce us to such a state, such an abasement, such a travail of body and spirit, that becomes the exodus road, the path through the Red Sea, the gate of heaven. And it is Jesus who not only shows us this way but meets us on it, to draw us along and make it possible by his grace and his Spirit for us to follow Him to the end.

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Way is Always Open

Before reflecting on the content of Jesus’ petition, we must still consider what the evangelists tell us about Jesus’ posture during his prayer. Matthew and Mark tell us that he “threw himself on the ground” (Mt 26:39; cf. Mk 14:35), thus assuming a posture of complete submission, as is preserved in the Roman liturgy of Good Friday. Luke, on the other hand, tells us that Jesus prayed on his knees. In the Acts of the Apostles, he speaks of the saints praying on their knees: Stephen during his stoning, Peter at the raising of someone who had died, Paul on his way to martyrdom.

In this way Luke has sketched a brief history of prayer on one’s knees in the early Church. Christians, in kneeling, enter into Jesus’ prayer on the Mount of Olives. When menaced by the power of evil, as they kneel, they are upright before the world, while as sons and daughters, they kneel before the Father. Before God’s glory we Christians kneel and acknowledge his divinity; by this posture we also express our confidence that he will prevail.

Jesus struggles with the Father. He struggles with himself. And he struggles for us. He experiences anguish before the power of death. First and foremost this is simply the dread natural to every living creature in the face of death. In Jesus, however, something more is at work. His gaze peers deeper, into the nights of evil. He sees the filthy flood of all the lies and all the disgrace which he will encounter in that chalice from which he must drink. His is the dread of one who is completely pure and holy as he sees the entire flood of this world’s evil bursting upon him. He also sees me, and he prays for me. This moment of Jesus’ mortal anguish is thus an essential part of the process of redemption. Consequently, the Letter to the Hebrews describes the struggle of Jesus on the Mount of Olives as a priestly event. In this prayer of Jesus, pervaded by mortal anguish, the Lord performs the office of a priest: he takes upon himself the sins of humanity, of us all, and he brings us before the Father.

Homily, Holy Thursday, 2012

Reflection – So the Pope is sort of ‘on the way’ in this part of the homily to his primary point, which I will get to tomorrow. Jesus, as he has developed, has entered the darkness of our human condition and remained there in his communion with the Father. He has brought into the human reality of isolation, abandonment, and fear the loving unity of the Father and the Son, and made these dark human realities permanently open to the possibility of this unity and love.

Here, the Pope recognizes the fact that this was extraordinarily hard for Jesus. He was not play acting; He was not really just fine, and putting on some kind of show for his disciples. No. In his humanity, he truly experienced the horror and dread of what He was about to endure. In his humanity, he truly struggled, and this is such a consolation for us. This is really important.

We all struggle. When we are faced with the Father’s will and the strange unfolding of our lives and their circumstances, we struggle. When the Church’s teachings ask of us a difficult obedience or fidelity to the moral law entails suffering and sacrifice, we struggle. When painful losses and grievous failures come to us, we struggle. We all would like to be conquering heroes confidently striding from strength to strength. But sometimes we roll on the ground and sweat blood, and ask our Father in heaven if please, just this once, the cup could be taken away from us.

And Jesus is here, too. With us, for us, loving us. And this is tremendously consoling, isn’t it? It consoles me, anyhow. He really has penetrated into the real darkness of our human night, remaining without sin in it, but nonetheless, He is there. And so even at the worst of the struggle, in the pit of despond, the way is open to loving union with God, and this is where the Pope will take us tomorrow.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

What's the Difference?

The disciples, whom Jesus wanted to have close to him as an element of human support in that hour of extreme distress, quickly fell asleep. Yet they heard some fragments of the words of Jesus’ prayer and they witnessed his way of acting. Both were deeply impressed on their hearts and they transmitted them to Christians for all time.
Jesus called God “Abba”. The word means – as they add – “Father”. Yet it is not the usual form of the word “father”, but rather a children’s word – an affectionate name which one would not have dared to use in speaking to God. It is the language of the one who is truly a “child”, the Son of the Father, the one who is conscious of being in communion with God, in deepest union with him.
If we ask ourselves what is most characteristic of the figure of Jesus in the Gospels, we have to say that it is his relationship with God. He is constantly in communion with God. Being with the Father is the core of his personality. Through Christ we know God truly. “No one has ever seen God”, says Saint John. The one “who is close to the Father’s heart … has made him known” (1:18). Now we know God as he truly is. He is Father, and this in an absolute goodness to which we can entrust ourselves. The evangelist Mark, who has preserved the memories of Saint Peter, relates that Jesus, after calling God “Abba”, went on to say: “Everything is possible for you. You can do all things” (cf. 14:36). The one who is Goodness is at the same time Power; he is all-powerful. Power is goodness and goodness is power. We can learn this trust from Jesus’ prayer on the Mount of Olives.

Homily, Holy Thursday, 2012

Reflection – So we are journeying with the Pope through this strange event of the Garden of Gethsemane. In light of Easter and its joy and triumph, we look back to what came before it, what Jesus did that won this victory.

We have traced the reality of darkness, of night, and what it symbolizes for us; we have asserted that Jesus enters the night of our humanity and that this changed everything about it; we have spoken of this entering as ‘abasement’, as Jesus embracing lowliness, humiliation, the degrading condition of suffering victimization—all that good stuff.

Now the Pope starts to unfold what is really going on here, and how this strange act of Jesus actually changes things. It’s all about the Father and the Son. It’s all about the Son knowing the Father, and the Father knowing and loving the Son. It’s all about Jesus bringing this communion of love, which transcends anything human, which is wholly divine and beyond us, into our human sphere.

And not just into our human sphere in some general sunny way. He brings it into the night. That is, that place the Holy Father spoke of as symbolizing non-communication, isolation, abandonment, terror. That place where our humanity is most lost, most tortured, most frightened and alone. There, Jesus calls God ‘abba’. There, Jesus expresses his utter trust and surrender-in-love to the Father. And this, even as in his humanity he trembles in fear, prays that something else might happen, sweats blood.

In other words, Jesus was not play-acting. He really enters the night—really! He felt its cold, its sting, its fear. And at the heart of that darkness, the light he shed was his trust of the Father.

And this changes everything for us. What was hopeless is no longer hopeless. Where there was futility and failure, isolation and abandonment now a light has shone, and continues to shine.

And this light, this hope, this way through the darkness and way to live in the darkness so that the night truly is as light as the day, is made available to the whole human race, to every man and woman who is alive today and who has ever lived, because this man who shivered and sweated on the ground in the garden is God and has made it so. And that’s the difference Jesus makes.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Now That's What I'm Talkin' About

On the way [to the Garden], he sang with his Apostles Israel’s psalms of liberation and redemption, which evoked the first Passover in Egypt, the night of liberation. Now he goes, as was his custom, to pray in solitude and, as Son, to speak with the Father. But, unusually, he wants to have close to him three disciples: Peter, James and John. These are the three who had experienced his Transfiguration – when the light of God’s glory shone through his human figure – and had seen him standing between the Law and the Prophets, between Moses and Elijah. They had heard him speaking to both of them about his “exodus” to Jerusalem. Jesus’ exodus to Jerusalem – how mysterious are these words! Israel’s exodus from Egypt had been the event of escape and liberation for God’s People. What would be the form taken by the exodus of Jesus, in whom the meaning of that historic drama was to be definitively fulfilled? The disciples were now witnessing the first stage of that exodus – the utter abasement which was nonetheless the essential step of the going forth to the freedom and new life which was the goal of the exodus.

Homily, Holy Thursday, 2012

Reflection – Yesterday I talked about monsters under the bed and being afraid of the dark, and how Jesus enters the night and how this is the great mystery in every human life—the difference Jesus makes when he enters into the darkness of the world.

I ended with ‘stay tuned’, promising that the homily would explore that very difference, that strange penetration of Jesus, of Light, into darkness, evil, and death. And so now we have this new word introduced into the mix: abasement.

Well, that was… unexpected. The world is in a mess; I’m in a mess; darkness and chaos and violence on all sides, and even within my heart to some extent. And Jesus purports to come to work this new exodus, this new deliverance, this new liberation from ‘all that’. How? By being… abased?

Really, Lord? A man rolling around on the ground in the garden, sweating blood, trembling with fear, begging God that this cup should pass, while his closest friends doze off in the corner—this is our new Moses, our great liberator?

Abasement—boy, we don’t like this! Our idea of liberation, victory, conquest, is the marching hero with the sword launching the frontal assault on the enemy stronghold. Lots of explosions and death-defying, physics-ignoring stunts and CGI monsters being decapitated and busty heroines being rescued. That’s our idea of a savior; that’s what we’re talkin’ about.

Well. That’s not what God did. That’s not what He’s talkin’ about. There is held out for us a promise of final eschatological apocalyptic triumph; the book of Revelation indeed has Jesus coming with a sword on a stallion and enough CGI pyrotechnics to satisfy the geekiest action geek who ever geeked. But the path there leads us through Gethsemane, through the Praetorium, through Golgotha, through the tomb.

Abasement. Oh, we don’t like it, much. And we sure don’t understand it, much. What God is talkin’ about, what God has done, and the path to freedom He opens up for us in that. And how it is just that: freedom. How can this be, so contrary to all our human ideas and expectations and preferences?

Stay tuned…

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Monster Under the Bed

Holy Thursday is not only the day of the institution of the Most Holy Eucharist, whose splendor bathes all else and in some ways draws it to itself. To Holy Thursday also belongs the dark night of the Mount of Olives, to which Jesus goes with his disciples; the solitude and abandonment of Jesus, who in prayer goes forth to encounter the darkness of death; the betrayal of Judas, Jesus’ arrest and his denial by Peter; his indictment before the Sanhedrin and his being handed over to the Gentiles, to Pilate. Let us try at this hour to understand more deeply something of these events, for in them the mystery of our redemption takes place.

Jesus goes forth into the night. Night signifies lack of communication, a situation where people do not see one another. It is a symbol of incomprehension, of the obscuring of truth. It is the place where evil, which has to hide before the light, can grow. Jesus himself is light and truth, communication, purity and goodness. He enters into the night. Night is ultimately a symbol of death, the definitive loss of fellowship and life. Jesus enters into the night in order to overcome it and to inaugurate the new Day of God in the history of humanity.

Homily, Holy Thursday, 2012

Reflection – Having looked at the Easter Vigil homily these past days, I want to jump back to Holy Thursday and see what Pope Benedict had to say there. He talked about light at Easter, the light of creation, the light of the resurrection, the light of the Church in the symbolism of the Paschal Candle.

Here he begins, since we’re back in the Triduum and its more somber tone, by talking about darkness. It is such an elemental symbol, a basic human experience. Every small child can tell you about the dark and what it holds. Night terrors, the monster under the bed, the crack of light under the door which is much too far away to bring any solace—I remember it all too well. We laugh about it when we outgrow that stage, but it was no joke at the time.

Darkness and what it holds. In a season of light and beauty (Easter, yes, but also the beauty of a Canadian spring and all that entails) we carry something of that dark within ourselves. There is incomprehension and non-communication in our minds; there can be evil growing in our hearts; there is certainly death in our lives, even in the radiant light of an April day and amidst the chanting of Easter alleluias. The monster under the bed doesn’t so much lapse into non-existence when we turn eight; he merely takes up residence in our hearts and bides his time there.

So it is good to hold onto the one salient point in all this. Namely, Jesus enters the night. He enters it, and himself takes up residence there. And so, as we sing at Easter, the night becomes as bright as the day, while remaining night nonetheless.

Deep mysteries here, deep elemental mysteries. We all know about darkness and night; we all know about the plain light of day, the ‘little light of mine’ that does shine for a time. But this strange plunging of Light into The Dark, this strange penetration of Night by Day that leaves the night dark still but beginning to pulsate with a new radiance—this is deep stuff here.

And this is the deep stuff we are invited to contemplate in the Easter season. Jesus has come; He has plunged into the deepest darkest dankest bowels of the night and the death it brings to us. He has confronted the monster under the bed. And he has done something there—and that is the great mystery that each human being must enter. What has Jesus done there? How has he conquered and tamed my monster? And how am I to live in the night that has become as bright as the day, while remaining night yet? Stay tuned…

Monday, April 16, 2012

This Little Wax of Mine

I would like to add one more thought about light and illumination.  On Easter night, the night of the new creation, the Church presents the mystery of light using a unique and very humble symbol: the Paschal candle.  This is a light that lives from sacrifice.  The candle shines inasmuch as it is burnt up.  It gives light, inasmuch as it gives itself.  Thus the Church presents most beautifully the paschal mystery of Christ, who gives himself and so bestows the great light.  Secondly, we should remember that the light of the candle is a fire.  Fire is the power that shapes the world, the force of transformation.  And fire gives warmth.  Here too the mystery of Christ is made newly visible.  Christ, the light, is fire, flame, burning up evil and so reshaping both the world and ourselves. 

“Whoever is close to me is close to the fire,” as Jesus is reported by Origen to have said.  And this fire is both heat and light: not a cold light, but one through which God’s warmth and goodness reach down to us.

The great hymn of the Exsultet, which the deacon sings at the beginning of the Easter liturgy, points us quite gently towards a further aspect.  It reminds us that this object, the candle, has its origin in the work of bees.  So the whole of creation plays its part.  In the candle, creation becomes a bearer of light.  But in the mind of the Fathers, the candle also in some sense contains a silent reference to the Church.  The cooperation of the living community of believers in the Church in some way resembles the activity of bees.  It builds up the community of light.  So the candle serves as a summons to us to become involved in the community of the Church, whose raison d’ĂȘtre is to let the light of Christ shine upon the world.

Let us pray to the Lord at this time that he may grant us to experience the joy of his light; let us pray that we ourselves may become bearers of his light, and that through the Church, Christ’s radiant face may enter our world (cf. LG 1). Amen.
Easter Vigil Homily, 2012

Reflection – We were all quite happy this year to see the bees restored to the new English translation of the Exultet. The light of the candle is once again “fed by melting wax, drawn out by mother bees to build a torch so precious.”

What an extraordinary image this is, what a poetic genius the anonymous Latin author of this hymn was, and what a powerful interpretation Pope Benedict gives it in this Easter homily.

When you look at the Paschal Candle in your church, do you think of it as a summons to become involved in the community of the Church? I have to admit, that thought has never remotely crossed my mind… but it will now.

‘This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine…’ That’s a catchy and very sweet song, but the theology in it is lousy, you know. The light is not mine. It would be better to sing ‘This little wax of mine, I’m going to let it burn.’ Or, ‘This little life of mine, I’m going to let it die….’ so that Christ’s life in me may shine out.

And that all our little waxes may melt together to create, not just  flickering flame that burns for a minute and then dies, but a torch, a fire, a blazing firebrand illuminating the night of the world not for a minute but for millennia. This is the Church.

Each of us is a ‘mother bee’ (yes, I know that only the queen bee is literally a mother in the hive), bearing in our lives that little bit of wax, that little contribution of sacrificial love that goes into the Candle. To each of us, in ways impossible to understand, predict, or control, the light and fire of Christ comes. We grow warm, we melt, our lives are taken up into this light and fire. We become part of the light of Christ shining into the darkness. This is our Christian faith; this is Christianity.

I was serving at a retreat this past weekend where a speaker challenged the retreatants, “What does it mean to be Catholic?” My own answer, which I gave in my homily yesterday, was that it means we believe that Jesus is alive, that He gives His life to us by the gift of the Spirit, and that this life given to us is one of love and mercy for the whole world.

This little light of His – I pray that it may shine, may it shine, may it shine, may it shine. There – I fixed the theology, even though I ruined the rhyme. Can’t have everything.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Two Poems

Just getting back from a lovely Divine Mercy retreat weekend that I assisted with at a nearby retreat center…

No time or energy for original blogging today, but two of my favorite commentors left poems on the previous post Light Pollution and I was so taken with both of them I thought I would do something I haven’t done before: front page the comments to share the poems with all the blog readers.

Fr. John Flynn shares this one from William Davies:

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.
No time to turn at Beauty's glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

And Catherine shares this one from Rilke:

You, darkness, that I come from,
I love you more than all the fires that fence in the world,
for the fire makes a circle of light for everyone
and then no one on the outside learns of you.
But the darkness pulls in everything-
shapes and figures, animals and even myself.
How easily it gathers them powers and people,
and it is possible a Great Presence is moving near me.
I have faith in night.
So, there – you never know what’s going to show up on this blog next. Nothing (much) to do with Pope Benedict, but they’re lovely poems, and beauty is its own justification.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Light Pollution

But how is [God’s new day] to come about?  How does all this affect us so that instead of remaining word it becomes a reality that draws us in?  Through the sacrament of baptism and the profession of faith, the Lord has built a bridge across to us, through which the new day reaches us.  The Lord says to the newly-baptized: Fiat lux – let there be light. God’s new day – the day of indestructible life, comes also to us.  Christ takes you by the hand.  From now on you are held by him and walk with him into the light, into real life.  For this reason the early Church called baptism photismos – illumination.

Why was this?  The darkness that poses a real threat to mankind, after all, is the fact that he can see and investigate tangible material things, but cannot see where the world is going or whence it comes, where our own life is going, what is good and what is evil.  The darkness enshrouding God and obscuring values is the real threat to our existence and to the world in general.  If God and moral values, the difference between good and evil, remain in darkness, then all other “lights”, that put such incredible technical feats within our reach, are not only progress but also dangers that put us and the world at risk.  Today we can illuminate our cities so brightly that the stars of the sky are no longer visible.  Is this not an image of the problems caused by our version of enlightenment?  With regard to material things, our knowledge and our technical accomplishments are legion, but what reaches beyond, the things of God and the question of good, we can no longer identify.  Faith, then, which reveals God’s light to us, is the true enlightenment, enabling God’s light to break into our world, opening our eyes to the true light.

Homily, Easter Vigil 2012

Reflection – In this masterly little passage (he is a really good preacher!), Pope Benedict links Genesis, baptism, and light pollution to highlight one of his favourite themes. Namely, that technological ‘light’, the insight as to how the world works and how to make the physical world work for us, does not yield the deeper light—who we are, where we are going, what is truly good and valuable in the world.

This has been a common theme throughout Joseph Ratzinger’s career, and has been often featured on this blog. But you know, since we’re talking here about baptism, which is such a personal intimate reality for all our lives, I think it is worth considering this question from a slightly different angle than usual.

Generally, the Pope discusses this and I discuss it along with him in terms of scientific and technological advances that imperil human life and dignity, or perhaps in more theoretical terms of logical positivism and the spurious atheism that results from it—what Ratzinger has called the arbitrary self-limitation of reason to exclude all non-technical  or non-experimental questions.

But perhaps there is another form of ‘light pollution’ that is a bit more individual and insidious, but which no less blocks out the true light of faith and of God. I’m thinking of the times when we decide that life is, in fact, basically about getting what we want. Life is about building my city and lighting it up as brightly as I can. Life is about being in as much perfect control as I can be, in other words, of my circumstances and arrangements.

This is the scientific-technological attitude applied to the person and their life. And… we can no longer see the stars if we live this way. The illusion of control… and hey presto! God disappears from our ambit. God is irrelevant, if the whole idea of life is for me to get exactly what I want as I want it, or at least the nearest facsimile time and money can manage.

I think this is more common today than anything else. People are not wicked, and they’re not terribly stupid (well, not most of them). But people are (myself included) self-willed. We want what we want. And the more brightly we shine the light of self upon our world, the dimmer the stars become, the less we have any sense that there is any greater path or destiny or purpose to the world outside our own desires and designs.

This is why, while I wish no human being any ill or suffering ever, I think the coming difficult times we appear to be heading towards may be a blessing in disguise. We need to break out of this chokehold of banal self-will and self-limitation. We need a power failure, a blackout, so that the big world of God and his angels and saints may shine out at us, like stars to startled blacked-out city dwellers. We need to learn that our little lives and their little plans really aren’t where it’s at—God is opening for us a bigger reality.

We need to fail, so that God can succeed in us. We need darkness, so that He can be our light.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Why I Believe

The creation account begins symbolically with the creation of light.  The sun and the moon are created only on the fourth day.  The creation account calls them lights, set by God in the firmament of heaven.  In this way he deliberately takes away the divine character that the great religions had assigned to them.  No, they are not gods.  They are shining bodies created by the one God.  But they are preceded by the light through which God’s glory is reflected in the essence of the created being.

What is the creation account saying here?  Light makes life possible.  It makes encounter possible.  It makes communication possible.  It makes knowledge, access to reality and to truth, possible.  And insofar as it makes knowledge possible, it makes freedom and progress possible.  Evil hides.  Light, then, is also an expression of the good that both is and creates brightness.  It is daylight, which makes it possible for us to act.  To say that God created light means that God created the world as a space for knowledge and truth, as a space for encounter and freedom, as a space for good and for love.  Matter is fundamentally good, being itself is good.  And evil does not come from God-made being, rather, it comes into existence only through denial.  It is a “no”.

At Easter, on the morning of the first day of the week, God said once again: “Let there be light”.  The night on the Mount of Olives, the solar eclipse of Jesus’ passion and death, the night of the grave had all passed.  Now it is the first day once again – creation is beginning anew.  “Let there be light”, says God, “and there was light”: Jesus rises from the grave.  Life is stronger than death.  Good is stronger than evil.  Love is stronger than hate.  Truth is stronger than lies.  The darkness of the previous days is driven away the moment Jesus rises from the grave and himself becomes God’s pure light.  But this applies not only to him, not only to the darkness of those days.  With the resurrection of Jesus, light itself is created anew.  He draws all of us after him into the new light of the resurrection and he conquers all darkness.  He is God’s new day, new for all of us.

Homily, Easter Vigil 2012

Reflection – The battle between light and darkness is a cosmic one that occurs in all of our souls. In all of us there is a capacity and indeed a desire for truth, encounter, freedom, gift, goodness, and love. In each of us, alas, there is a capacity and a disordered desire to hide, to snatch, to steal, to lie, to deny, to isolate. Every human life bears the marks of this battle; every human life is shaped by the choices we and those around us make to live in light or in darkness.

Darkness and light—running through the heart and the life of each human person. It is no great wonder that so many of the most ancient philosophical/religious systems of thought we know of were highly dualistic, positing two these equal or quasi-equal forces contending for supremacy in the world. It is a most logical and even empirical theory to explain what we are all living.

The creation account explodes this dualism. ‘Let there be light’, and there is light, and light is good. God—the one truly cosmic power—is the maker of light, and so reality is entirely ordered towards light, goodness, truth, relationship, and love. And God in Christ plunges the Uncreated Light of the Godhead into the heart of darkness. ‘Let there be light’, and there is light shining at that very heart.

You know, I don’t often speak very personally on this blog (a little bit, but I’m not so much into spilling my guts, here or most anywhere!). But I would have to say very simply that I have faith in the Resurrection of Christ most deeply because over and over again in my life, in the darkest of dark hours, in times of great sadness or hopelessness or suffering (and yes, I have had them), there have been these… moments, you know? Hard to define, hard to describe, but all of the sudden Jesus shows up in the middle of it all, don’t ask me how.

And darkness flees. Or even if something of the suffering remains, it changes, dramatically, radically. Hopelessness flees. Despair despairs of me.

This has happened in my life more often than I could count. So here I am, a Christian, a Catholic priest even, by the strange grace of God. And I believe in the resurrection. I really do. ‘Let there be light’, and light has shone, alleluia. Such has been my experience.