Thursday, August 16, 2012

On Vacation, and On Hiatus

Well, I was going to write some super-duper-ultra-profound blog post today, but was felled last night by a nasty stomach bug. Nothing eliminates spiritual profundity quite like little bugs wreacking havoc in the intestinal tract, I have found!
The reason I wanted to be extra-super-duper profound today is that this is my last blog post for the month of August. I am going on vacation tomorrow, and have decided that the blog is due for a vacation, too.
Writing a small theological essay every morning is actually quite enjoyable for me - a challenge to my writing skills - but it does take its toll, and I'm not sure of my ability to keep the quality up indefinitely. So I have decided to give it a rest for a couple weeks.
I will be back and blogging normally September 3. Talk to you then!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Meaning of the Assumption

Happy Feast Day! This is truly one of our biggest celebrations in Madonna House, next to Christmas and Easter. A day of joy and gladness in the company of the Mother of God, radiant in God’s glory.
I thought today I would simply give you an excerpt from my book She is Our Response, on the Virgin Mary in the writings of Joseph Ratzinger, the book that was the genesis of this blog in the first place. It’s a bit long, but hopefully not too technical. Enjoy!

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

A Call to the Action of Grace

Mariology demonstrates that the doctrine of grace does not revoke creation; rather, it is the definitive Yes to creation. In this way, Mariology guarantees the ontological independence of creation, undergirds faith in creation, and crowns the doctrine of creation, rightly understood… Mary is the believing other, who God calls.

Mary, The Church at the Source, 31

Reflection – In the early decades of the 20th century Catholic theology was very much taken up with a debate about the relationship between nature and grace. Writers such as Karl Rahner and Henri de Lubac challenged the existing neo-Thomistic orthodoxy which emphasized nature and grace as two separate realms, two distinctly delineated modes of existence with their own proper functioning, rules, integrity.

Without going into all the details of the debate, which would be impossible to do justice to in a blog post, Rahner and de Lubac attempted in different ways to show more of a continuity between nature and grace, to show how God’s grace completes nature or how nature is ‘by nature’ open to grace and incomplete without it, while preserving the utter gratuity of God’s action of grace.

It is a complex debate, perhaps notable in our day and age for the intensely Catholic and faithful way in which it was conducted. There were no full-page ads in the New York Times, no petitions circulated, no pressure groups formed (Call to Action of Grace!), no manifestos published. All the players involved in the debate were faithful Catholic men and conducted themselves in just that way, while opening doors to new theological insight that are still being explored today.

That is the underlying theological context (part of it, anyhow) behind this quote from Ratzinger today. And so we see in this quote how Mary is, in fact, the one who shows us both the reality and beauty of creation, since she stands before God as wholly other, as ‘not-God’ and at the same time wholly beloved of God, wholly in dialogue, in encounter, in commuion with Him.

Creation is not at war with God. Humanity is not at war with God. So many Enlightenment thinkers held that God and man are in conflict, that God is a threat to human autonomy, freedom, dignity. Mary smiles at all that.

The queen of heaven and earth does not need Nietzsche to teach her about human dignity and power. The one who freely said yes to God and freely walked the way of that yes through the years of Nazareth, to the foot of the Cross, and ultimately to heaven itself does not need Sartre to teach her about freedom.

Mary shows us that humanity is made free and confirmed in royal dignity precisely by its openness to God and to His grace. Creation—nature—is an open space for God. Its ‘ontological independence’ (big words!) is precisely for that: to be something real, something that exists, not without God exactly, but truly as not-God,  so as to receive God as a guest, to extend hospitality if you will to the Most High God.

What a dignity! This is what our freedom is for, that something real, something existing, can say to Existence Itself, Reality Itself, “Hello! Come in! Welcome! I love you!” Mary did it, and she shows us that this is what we are to do, what God wants us to do.

And tomorrow’s feast, about which I will have more to say tomorrow, shows us that this openness, this hospitality, this utter giving over of ourselves to God, leads not ultimately to the Cross, to suffering, to sorrow and death, but to glory, glory, glory. Creation (you and me, if we will) opens up to its Creator, and the fruit is a beauty, a joy, a life that is radiant and eternal beyond our wildest imaginings. And Mary teaches us that, too.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Getting Sorted Out

The salvation brought about by the triune God, the true center of all history, is ‘Christ and the Church’—Church here meaning the creature’s fusion with its Lord in spousal love, in which its hope for divinization is fulfilled by way of faith… Mary’s motherhood becomes theologically significant as the ultimate personal concretization of Church. At the moment when she pronounces her Yes, Mary is Israel in person; she is the Church in person and as a person.
Mary, the Church at the Source, 30

Reflection  - Mary is at the heart of the mystery of salvation. This is why she is so important, why we cannot just ignore Mary and go to Jesus directly, as Protestants and others are always telling us to do.
Mary is not the savior, but she reveals to us the nature of God’s saving work. And she embodies for us, and helps lead us into, our own part in that saving work. Salvation is not just God forgiving us our sins, not just some loving action of God that causes an effect for us. It certainly is that, but it’s not just that.

Salvation draws us into a life, a way of life in which our whole person is transformed by grace. When Mary said ‘yes’ to God, her whole being was transformed. Her womb was filled with the presence of God incarnate by the work of the Spirit; her whole being—body, soul, spirit—centered upon this new life, this mysterious presence in her of the divine.

This is a model for us of the Church and of our own personal entry into the life of the Church. The Church is not in essence institution or function or social ministry or even mission. Before all of that, the Church is Mary: humanity receiving the life of God in a real, concrete way, and bearing that life into the world of man in a real, concrete way.

Mary, then, answers the question ‘why the Church?’ Why the institution, why the social action, why the mission? We have received God really, and we must give God really. There is no other purpose, no other end, to the life of the Church. Any other end introduced into the Church’s life is idolatry which needs to be purified. Of course we all know that this purification is an ongoing and painful reality. Ecclesia semper reformanda (the church always to be reformed) is not just an elegant Latin maxim, but an excruciating and humiliating experience these days.

But the reform is always into the form of Mary. That’s why she’s so important. She not only models for us the pattern of Church life, but it is in our devotion to Mary that we become conformed better to this pattern.
She helps Jesus make us saints—that’s all. When I see someone with a lively and deep Marian devotion (which in Madonna House is a fairly common sight!), I don’t worry too much about that person spiritually. They may be a mess psychologically, socially, economically, and those areas are real and important, but spiritually I know Mary and Jesus are sorting this person out.

So as August 15, the great feast of Mary’s assumption into heaven draws near, let us allow her to sort us out today, tomorrow, and ongoingly.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Biology is (Theological) Destiny

We must avoid relegating Mary’s maternity to the sphere of mere biology. But we can do so only if our reading of Scripture can legitimately presuppose a hermeneutics that rules out just this kind of division and allows us instead to recognize the correlation of Christ and his Mother as a theological reality.

Mary, the Church at the Source, 29

Reflection – Well, August 15 is coming up, the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into heaven, and it seems timely to do another series of reflections on Mary, her meaning and role in our lives.

Ratzinger is, in this slightly dry technical passage, making a very basic point about all that. Namely, that there is a tendency to reduce Mary to a simply biological role in Christ’s coming-to-be. This would be the general approach in Protestantism, for example. Mary is Jesus’ mother simply in the physical sense, or at best in the sociological, relational reality of motherhood.

No deeper significance to this fact, then. It’s just the case that God chose to come into this world as a man, and so some woman somewhere had to be his mother. Now I’m not quite sure what Ratzinger means about hermeneutics and reading of Scripture—I don’t have the book at hand where this quote is from, and it’s been awhile since I read it. The underlying point is clear, though—we see Mary’s maternity as a theological reality, not simply as a biological one.

This means that Mary’s mothering of God in the Incarnation reveals something very profound about God and his ways with us. God could have come into the world in any number of ways—an adult Christ could have sprung from the earth fully formed, for example. God could have saved the world in any number of ways—it is a good exercise in theological imagination to think of a few.

He chose to be born of a woman. This means something. Mary means something. He is showing us something, revealing something to us in this choice of His. The relationship of the unborn child to his or her mother is unique, intimate. Literally, the child takes flesh from the flesh of the mother, grows within the womb of the mother. That which is the mother’s own being, her body, her physical self is given to become the physical self of the child.

Mary gave Jesus his flesh, and his flesh is what hung on the Cross for our salvation. Mary gave Jesus his flesh, and his flesh is the life of the world, our true bread and true drink. Jesus is the savior, not Mary, but she is intimately involved in his saving work. This is a simple fact tied up in the reality of maternity, the reality God freely chose in his saving plan for us.

There is something being communicated about the role of the creature, the human being, in the drama of salvation. Mary’s own unique once-and-for-all role, for sure, but she is revealing to us (or rather, God is revealing to us through Mary) something of the inner meaning, purpose, action, and dignity of the creature and of the human person.

God is the savior, the creator, the redeemer, the great love of mankind… but Mary has a role to play, and this role is vital, real, necessary. And in this we see that we are not just passive recipients of salvation. We receive salvation, but in that are called into an active, vital role, a necessary task, a giving over of our flesh to Him, a conscious choice to enter into his work and his love for the world.

All this Mary reveals to us in the simple biological fact of her maternity. Biology and theology are made one, and no longer is anything ‘merely’ physical, since the physical itself has become the place of divine life and divine love. ‘My flesh is the life of the world,’ says the Lord.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Healing the Wound

[With legal abortion] one becomes blind to the right to life of another, the smallest and weakest person involved, one without a voice. The rights of some individuals are affirmed at the cost of the fundamental right to life of another individual. This is why every legalization of abortion implies the idea that law is based on power.

Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures, 62-3

Reflection – As I have said here before, abortion is one of the hardest topics to write about well. (It’s easy to write about it badly…). The evil at the heart of it is so monstrous that words fail to express it. At the same time, there is so much real pain and anguish surrounding every abortion—the horrible fears and truly tragic circumstances that so often drive women in crisis pregnancies to abort, the breakdown in relationships that an abortion both manifests and quickens, the emotional fallout of anger, hurt, guilt, depression that so many women (and some men) experience afterwards… abortion is a gaping open wound in our society.

I would argue that it is in fact the wound at the heart of our civilization, a wound that (I am convinced) will be the death of us if it is not staunched eventually. Ratzinger here in typical mild understatement puts his finger on it. Abortion means that in the end power is what counts in this world. An unborn human being is the most powerless creature—invisible, voiceless, largely immobile—and by virtue of that is denied protection under the law. Therefore, the possession of rights is linked to the possession of power.

The truth of the humanity of the unborn does not matter. The manifest goodness, obvious to everyone this side of serial killers, of respecting the right to life of a human being does not matter. The beauty that emerges when truth and goodness are honored is torn asunder. Abortion is an ugly evil lie, and the heart of that lie is that truth, goodness, and beauty are not the ultimate realities in this world.

Power is, instead. And from power, violence. And from violence, death. We say that love is stronger than death, and everyone wants to believe that. But with abortion, death has the last word, trumping whatever love was present in the situation. We sing, along with the Beatles and a thousand other sentimental songs, that ‘all you need is love,’ but apparently we also need to be able to kill at will the unborn children that arise from love’s embrace.

Abortion puts to death, not only the child, but all our sentimental notions about love and its supremacy. It is power, violence, and death that conquer all, not love. All the romantic songs begin to ring a bit hollow after a few decades of this.

And so what are we to do? Repent, of course. I realize that almost everyone who reads this is already pro-life by conviction. But, you know, the infection of power, violence, and death is a deep and insidious one. Pro-life people need to be vigilant about this. Do I disregard the powerless one, the disadvantaged one, the poor one? And don’t forget that poverty has a million faces and aspects beyond the obvious material one.

Do I gravitate to the powerful ones, the ones who can help me, the ones who have something to offer me? Do I despise, subtly perhaps, those who cannot or have not? Whenever we do this, our pro-life convictions are belied by our inner attitudes. We have to guard against this.

The ugly evil lie is that what makes a person valuable is their power, their ability, their strength. The beautiful radiant truth is that what makes a person valuable is the love of the Father poured out upon them from the moment of their creation. Let us strive to live in that love ourselves, and strive mightily to see each human being in our life today in the light of that love and that truth. It is the only way that the open, gaping, festering wound of abortion will be healed in our world.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Breaking the Spell

[After Kant], the thing to suffer most has been the reliable certainty that man can press, by solid intellectual argument, behind the realms of physics to the being of things and to their ultimate cause… there is thus no point at which faith can any longer link up securely with human thought.
Faith and the Future, 53

Reflection – Now, I have to start here by saying that I am no expert on Kant. In fact, I have always found Kant’s thought somewhat elusive. He is not an easy writer. All of that is to say that, if any smart person is reading this who actually knows Kant better than me, and I happen to put a foot wrong in this post, be nice to me and correct me in the comments.

The whole problem of Kant and his massive influence on philosophy is precisely in the area of epistemology, or the theory of knowledge. If I get him correctly, Kant holds that merely the phenomena of things present themselves to us—raw sensory data. The resolution of these phenomena into known objects comes entirely from our own minds, as we impose our own categories of meaning and truth onto what are otherwise jumbles of meaningless data.

This means that the real world is certainly out there, but there is no correspondence between the real world (things as they really are) and the contents of our minds (things as we know them to be). In other words, reality is inaccessible to our minds, and all we have is our internal mental acts.

Anyhow, Kant is complex and blogging is supposed to be concise, so let’s leave it at that for now (again, apologies to the philosophy majors reading this!). The problem with Kant and the post-Kantian world, of course, is that we are cut off from any real intellectual contact with the world and its deep truth. Questions of meaning, goodness, God become not matters of intellectual discussion and questing, but at best expressions of emotion, feeling, and at worst literally meaningless nonsense.

And this has indeed been the trend of philosophy since Kant. The shying away from metaphysics as a subject with any validity, the concentrating on language’s structures and rules apart from any considerations of truth, the flight into political theories of praxis and radical critique of society (i.e. Marxism and associated fields)—all of this flows from a sense that reality in itself is inaccessible and so all that remains is the human project of imposing meaning onto the world.

Of course this has terrible effects on Christian theology. Our whole religion is based on the possibility of our having a real relationship to God and to the cosmos as it truly is. We are a ‘reality-based’ religion—a Christianity that is seen as simply a projection of human meaning onto an indifferent universe is not the Christianity of the Bible, the Fathers, the saints, or the Church. Kant, whether he intended this or not, makes the whole notion of revelation and genuine encounter with God impossible.

But Kant’s philosophy, and the subsequent developments, in fact lock each one of us in the prison of our minds. We have no way out, no way to really encounter real reality. We have only our radically subjective experiences, our imposed ‘truth’ on a world that hides its true face from us. Again, I’m not sure that Kant fully intended that, but this has been the influence of Kant on human intellectual development.

It is important, then, to question just how persuasive Kant is. His influence has been immense; is that really warranted? Is Kant king? Why? His philosophy closes so many doors to us, doors that even the most irreligious of us may not want to be so firmly shut. Doors like inter-personal relationships… or human community… or a binding moral law… So many things that Kant and his followers decree to be off limits. On what authority? By what compelling argument? Who sez?

By breaking the Kantian spell on the modern mind, we can break through to the world, to one another, and the door is opened to the possibility of God and the knowledge of God. Those of us who would like to have a real relationship with the world and each other and have this possibility of God need to shake off the Kantian chains that bind us, and get on with the task of thinking about reality, its meaning and purpose, its goodness and truth.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Something Worth Watching

The technical and scientific attitude has produced a certain kind of certitude… this has give humankind a certain freedom from anxiety and superstition, a certain power… but now there is a temptation to view as reasonable and therefore as serious only what can be corroborated through experiment and computation. This means that the moral and the holy no longer count for anything.

In the Beginning, 61

Reflection – Science and technology work. That is a principle argument, as I grasp it, of the New Atheists as they first (falsely) oppose science and religion, and then come down on the ‘side’ of science on that basis.

It works. Scientific experimentation leads to discoveries that translate into inventions and medicines that do what we want them to do. And so science is true. And because religion does not produce inventions and medicine, it is not true, or at least there is no reason to consider its truth claims seriously.

I think I’ve done justice to the New Atheist position there. If I have not, I am committing the logical fallacy of the straw man, which is the bane of the internet and much public discourse today: misrepresenting your opponent’s position and then critiquing your misrepresentation.

It is difficult for me to give a fair accounting of atheism, as I have little natural sympathy for the position. There’s not much atheist in me, and one of the hardest thing to do is give a fair rendering of a position that you have little respect or liking for.

At any rate, I think I did OK here. But the New Atheist position is so illogical! First, there is no real opposition between religion and science, and hence no need to choose one over the other. The actual practice of science proceeds on atheistic grounds—that is, science can only be done by seeking natural explanations for events—but there is no reason whatsoever that a scientist cannot be a person of faith. Many are. And there is no logical opposition whatsoever between scientific method and religious truth.

Meanwhile, the statement that ‘x is true’ does not immediately entail ‘not-x is false’. The truth of x precludes the falsehood of anti-x, not other truths besides x.

Simply because our reason works in one direction, towards material reality, in such a way as to understand and manipulate it, we cannot say on that basis that our reason can only work in that way. It is illogical and arbitrary to limit reason to scientific computation and experimentation, simply because we know those things work.

Humanity has 3000 years (and counting!) of reasoning about God, humanity, morality, the meaning and purpose of life, and this reasoning has produced, not toasters and TVs, but an outpouring of poetry, music, art, architecture, literature of unsurpassed beauty. Science gives us the i-pod; religion gives us Bach. Science gives us TV; religion gives us Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Eliot, Dickens… something worth watching, in other words.

In other words, the atheist arguing that ‘science works’ has weighted the scales by subtly defining the word ‘works’ in a narrow way that nobody really accepts. Who wants a world filled with technological gadgets and gizmos if there’s nothing worth doing with them? Who wants a world of medical interventions and life-saving treatments if life itself is a meaningless mess?

In other words, religion ‘works’, but in a wholly different way and according to a wholly different metric than science. Yes, religion does not produce certitude in the way science does. Yes, religion’s ‘products’ are of a different kind than science’s, and the mode by which religion begets all these cultural human artifacts is indirect and diffuse.

I won’t even go into the argument that one of the artifacts of religion is… well, science. For now, let’s leave it that the atheist argument that only science works and therefore only science is credible is illogical, arbitrary, and unproven. And hence (irony alert!) unscientific.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Prosperity Gospel

Today there are on the one hand the forces of the market, of traffic in weapons, in drugs, and in human beings, all forces that weigh upon the world and ensnare humanity irresistibly. Today, on the other hand, there is also the ideology of success, of well-being, that tells us, ‘God is just a fiction, he only robs us on our time and our enjoyment of life. Don’t bother with him! Just try to squeeze as much out of life as you can.’ These temptations seem irresistible as well.

The Our Father in general and the petition ‘deliver us from evil’ in particular are trying to tell us that it is only when you have lost God that you have lost yourself; then you are nothing more than a random product of evolution. Then the ‘dragon’ really has won. So long as the dragon cannot wrest God from you, your deepest being remains unharmed, even in the midst of all the evils that threaten you.

Jesus of Nazareth 1, 165-6

Reflection – This lovely passage from Pope Benedict evokes the deep wisdom of the Gospel: ‘What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose himself?’ (Matt 16:26). This is a wisdom we need to reclaim, recapture in our time.

So often we marry the Gospel, awkwardly, to material concepts of worldly gain and prosperity. There is the crude, obvious form of this in some types of evangelical Protestantism, the so-called ‘properity Gospel’ where God makes all the elect rich, and healthy. God wants you to drive a BMW and wear the latest designer labels, you know (ignore all that ‘blessed are the poor’ nonsense!).

But aside from that easily debunked parody of Christianity, prosperity gospels can come in other more subtle forms, too. As soon as we identify ‘life in Christ’ with a shopping list of goods, as soon as ‘union with God’ is measured by some other qualities, we are slipping, more often than not quite innocently and unaware, into prosperity Christianity.

‘Christ should bring us inner peace’, so if I’m not at peace, something is wrong. Really? The world is full of trouble, you know. Sometimes our lives are very troubled, and that trouble can be deeply interior, not just outside of us. ‘Christian life should result in a loving community.’ Well, perhaps, but many saints didn’t have that. Many holy people had to contend with opposition, loneliness, rejection. ‘If I’m united with God, my life should be working out.’ If you are united with God, your life is indeed working out… but not necessarily in any way that you can see it.

It goes on and on—all sorts of ways that the prosperity gospel manifests itself in our lives. Few of us are entirely free of it. So we have to go back to the basics—the Our Father being a good place to start. ‘Thy kingdom come, thy will be done… lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.’ To know that it is God and God alone who secures our life, that it is God and God alone who matters, that it is God and God alone who is our desire, our hope, our happiness—this is basic Christianity.

To lose God is to lose everything. To have God is to have everything, even if our lives are plunged into turmoil, full of loneliness and pain, and wrapped in deep mystery. Do we ever need to tell ourselves this, over and over again, daily!

There is a measure of our union with God—the only measure, in fact. It is our growth in love. The only way we can know we are in union with God is that we love more. But this is invisible to us, and only partially visible to others. So we cannot actually know that we are in union with God—we can only turn to Him and cry out for His mercy and ask Him to make it so. And this is Christian life in the world.

Paradoxically, it is a great life, a life that does (even in turmoil, darkness, loneliness, mystery) lead to joy and peace in abundance. But it only leads to that joy and peace when we no longer seek them as ‘prosperity’, but turn to God and seek Him alone. He is our prosperity; He is our treasure. When we seek first the kingdom of God, all else is added to us, but we have to be sincere in seeking the kingdom, and not the ‘all else.’

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

We Have To Choose

Barabbas figures as a sort of alter ego of Jesus, who makes the same claim [as him] but understands it a completely different way. So the choice is between a Messiah who leads an armed struggle, promises freedom and a kingdom of one’s own, and this mysterious Jesus who proclaims that losing oneself is the way to life. Is it any wonder that the crowds prefer Barabbas?
Jesus of Nazareth 1, 41

Reflection – I have always found it interesting, to say the least, that the name Barabbas means in Aramaic ‘Son of the Father.’ But I must say I never understood the significance until Pope Benedict laid it out for me in the above passage.

The context of this passage is the temptations of Christ in the desert, specifically the temptation to power through the worship of Satan. The Pope has explained that the word used to describe Barabbas—ΛΗΣΤΗΣ (lestes)—in the context of the time meant a leader of the armed resistance to the Romans. So one Son of the Father beckons us on the road to freedom by power; the other on the road to freedom by suffering love.

Well, this can have a thousand different manifestations in our daily lives, right? Most of us reading this are not in a position of political oppression and tyranny. If you are, you have my prayers. But all of us have this same basic temptation, this same basic option. Is my life to be secured by my own efforts and mastery, or by the power of Christ and his love?

Am I going to achieve whatever it is I need to achieve today by manipulation, by bullying, by cajoling and conniving, or am I going to choose to love today? We all have some measure of strength, some degree of personal gifts, be they physical, intellectual, social, emotional. Are my gifts going to be at the service of building up the kingdom of Fr. Denis Lemieux, or the kingdom of God? This is the very basic decision we all have to make, here and now, on August 7, 2012. Jesus or Barabbas?

Of course, it is helpful to reflect that the kingdom of (insert your name here) is a pretty fragile and ultimately pathetic thing. It is vulnerable at every moment to some bigger kingdom conquering it, or to destruction from within. An illness, a calamitous loss, a breach in our defenses, and it’s all gone. No more kingdom for you!

The kingdom of heaven, on the other hand, endures forever, is eternally secured by our Father in heaven and by the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. To live in that kingdom—to abandon all other concerns but to do the will of the Father and to love our brothers and sisters in that will—secures our life for eternity.

Of course, it is an invisible kingdom, one only apprehended by faith, and this is difficult for us, no doubt. So we have the visible immediate kingdom, in which we rule, but which can and indeed someday will be destroyed at any moment. And we have the eternally secure kingdom which is neither visible nor provides us with any immediate experience of mastery.

Well, it’s our choice. The crowd chose Barabbas, and so can we. Many do. Let’s try to choose Jesus and his kingdom, at least for today, OK? ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.’

Updated to add: After more than six months, suddenly this post is getting lots and lots of hits. The Internet, she is mysterious. Dear readers: to help me understand why all of the sudden this post is being widely read (apparently) could you leave a comment or e-mail me at to explain how you found this post?

Sunday, August 5, 2012

How Are You Doing With That?

In the same vein he says to the Thessalonians: you must not “grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Th 4:13). Here too we see as a distinguishing mark of Christians the fact that they have a future: it is not that they know the details of what awaits them, but they know in general terms that their life will not end in emptiness. Only when the future is certain as a positive reality does it become possible to live the present as well.

So now we can say: Christianity was not only “good news”—the communication of a hitherto unknown content. In our language we would say: the Christian message was not only “informative” but “performative”. That means: the Gospel is not merely a communication of things that can be known—it is one that makes things happen and is life-changing. The dark door of time, of the future, has been thrown open. The one who has hope lives differently; the one who hopes has been granted the gift of a new life.
Spe Salvi 2

Reflection – So here we see what I wrote about yesterday—the logos of the hope of Christianity. What is the difference Christianity makes, and why does it give us hope and so empower us to act and live in the present in a certain way?

Because of Christ, death has no power over us any more. That’s it, basically. The fear of death, the terrible dread that drives our world, along with the fear of suffering that is it’s intimate companion, is simply not to be ours. Christ suffered and died for us, and his suffering and death were and are the salvation of the world. So we need not be afraid of suffering or death, since a glorious future has been assured for us through, with, and in this Lord who is all in all.

So, how are you doing with that? How am I doing with that? Afraid of death, much? Afraid of pain, much? This is truly something we need to take to prayer, you know. Of course there is a natural fear of pain and death that resides in our very bodies and is not subject to our rational wills. Jesus himself manifests this species of fear in the garden of Gethsemane. Our flesh shrinks from the cross.

But we need to pray and think very hard about the fear of pain and death that does reside in our reason. Because the world is tearing itself to pieces over the fear of pain and death. Abortion is legal, and millions of human beings have died from abortion, because of fear of pain and death. Economic injustice—unchecked avarice and gluttony—is driven by nothing else than the fear of pain and death. Euthanasia will be legalized to the extent that the fear of pain and death goes unchecked, and millions more will die from that evil in the decades to come.

So if we Christians don’t get our act together, a little bit at least, on this point we are really doing the world a disservice. We know Christ is risen. We know that a glorious future awaits all those who put their trust in Him. We know that suffering joined to Him is a glorious treasure, a way of co-redeeming the world with Him. We know that there is nothing to fear in this world but sin, and nothing to seek in this world but love.

Why do we act so differently, so much of the time? Or, why do we act the same as everyone else, so much of the time? Act as if the worst possible thing that could happen to us is suffering, and that death is a dreadful calamity. And so any course of action that will lead to suffering must be avoided, and any snatching at pleasure is to be excused if not approved. The pleasure-pain principle, and so much trampling of the moral law flows from that, you know?

But the worst thing that can happen to us is not suffering, but mortal sin, and to die in a state of mortal sin is the only true calamity. We who are Christians, and who say we know these things, need to proclaim them by our lives and by our words.

But we have to start with our own hearts. We are not to live by the pleasure-pain principle—seek pleasure and avoid pain. No! Seek love and avoid sin—this is the ethos of the Christian. And because Christ is risen, and assures us of a glorious triumphant future, we can give ourselves to this love and this ethos unreservedly and accept whatever pain and sacrifice it entails on us.

If we don’t do that, the world will go on and on, aborting, euthanizing, oppressing, drugging, fornicating… on and on without anyone to show it anything different. We need to get our act together on this, and learn to live as if what we believe is , you know, really true. For our own sakes, and for the sake of the world which is so very lost right now.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

That Was Then, This Is Now

“Hope” is a key word in Biblical faith—so much so that in several passages the words “faith” and “hope” seem interchangeable. Thus the Letter to the Hebrews closely links the “fullness of faith” (10:22) to “the confession of our hope without wavering” (10:23). Likewise, when the First Letter of Peter exhorts Christians to be always ready to give an answer concerning the logos—the meaning and the reason—of their hope (cf. 3:15), “hope” is equivalent to “faith”.

We see how decisively the self-understanding of the early Christians was shaped by their having received the gift of a trustworthy hope, when we compare the Christian life with life prior to faith, or with the situation of the followers of other religions. Paul reminds the Ephesians that before their encounter with Christ they were “without hope and without God in the world” (Eph 2:12). Of course he knew they had had gods, he knew they had had a religion, but their gods had proved questionable, and no hope emerged from their contradictory myths. Notwithstanding their gods, they were “without God” and consequently found themselves in a dark world, facing a dark future. In nihil ab nihilo quam cito recidimus (How quickly we fall back from nothing to nothing): so says an epitaph of that period. In this phrase we see in no uncertain terms the point Paul was making.
Spe Salvi 2

Reflection – It is significant that the last thing we know about the pagan world of antiquity is that it willingly sought baptism. The myth that Christianity was forced at the point of the sword on an unwilling populace is unhistorical, at least in this period.

Paganism was insufficient. The gods, and the myths surrounding them, had clearly lapsed into ahistorical unreality; the consolation of philosophy was available only to a small elite, and even for them was hard-won and tenuous. Christianity, its claims firmly rooted in history, time, place and filled with all the vibrancy and enthusiasm of an entirely new thing in the world, was profoundly attractive.

And the pagan world was attracted. And they came for baptism, by the hundreds, by the thousands, by the millions. Over a period of some centuries, for most of which time the Church had little or no political power, the pagan world became steadily, increasingly Christian. I’m no expert in history, but offhand I can’t think of a parallel to this kind of religious transformation of a civilization over a relatively short span of time. No matter what your opinion of it might be—was it the bringing of the good news to the nations or a tragic descent into superstitious darkness and obscurantism—it happened, and it happened in an extraordinary way.

Well, that was then, this is now. Christianity does indeed seem to have meant ‘hope’ for a decadent paganism. It does seem to have brought a vitality and energy, a historical validity and a universal appeal to the world of late antiquity. What about now? People have abandoned Christianity in such vast numbers, either for nothing at all or for an eclectic mélange of neo-paganism and New Age practices. Religion for so many people is a dirty word. What is the message of hope the battered old Church, no longer quite so new and vibrant, brings to the year 2012?

This is a question of some urgency. I would suggest that this cannot be a question left to the Pope, the bishops, the pastors alone. The question really is – do you have a logos for your hope? Does your faith bring you hope, and if so, why?

We need to dig into the depths of our Christianity for this, and it really is a matter of some importance to do so. The world truly thinks (largely) that Christianity has been basically discredited and that we are all better off living without religion. This is the essential view of secularism.

But I believe many people are, in fact, living ‘without God and without hope’ in the world today, or with species of hope that are so unreal and fragile that a stiff wind can destroy them. Do we have something better to offer them? Do we believe it ourselves? On the answer to those questions lies much of the success or failure of the New Evangelization today. And, I repeat, it is not so much a matter of the pope, the bishops, the pastors. It is you and me and the real hope we bear in our heart, and our ability to bear witness, to give the reason for that hope to those who are seeking for it.

Friday, August 3, 2012

And So We Sing

On the very next day after the joy of the Exodus, the Israelites had to accept that they were now exposed to the wilderness and its terrors, and even entry into the Promised Land did not put a stop to the threats to their life. But there were also the mighty deeds of God, which were new every day. These were cause for singing Moses’ song anew and proved that God is not a God of the past, but of the present and future. Of course, while singing the song, they realized it was only provisional, and so they longed for the definitive new song, for the salvation that would no longer be followed by a moment of anguish but would be a song only of praise. The man who believes in the Resurrection of Christ really does know what definitive salvation is.

Spirit of the Liturgy, 138

Reflection – “The man who believes in the Resurrection of Christ really does know what definitive salvation is…” and yet you know, we continue to have problems. I’m not being cynical or disbelieving here, just expressing a fact.

The wilderness and its terrors, threats to our life, moments of anguish—all of these are still very much part of the human condition. Someone just forwarded us an e-mail from a Christian living in Damascus, Syria, telling of their situation, which is one of extreme mortal peril, a nightmare of mortar and shelling and gunfire ravaging the city and its residents. While life in North America has seen relatively little of that form of terror, on any day anguish can descend upon any one of us.

And yet, we sing. Christians sing. This is the great act of Christian hope, Christian joy—to sing a new song to the Lord. I’m a musical sort of fellow and so can easily read this ‘singing’ business literally. I enjoy singing. I do realize, though, that not everyone has such direct joy in music. Singing can be understood symbolically. It is the choice to live in joy, to raise up mind, heart, and voice to God above, to proclaim with every fiber of our being that God is good and that His ways are good. That is what singing means, biblicaly.

And so we sing. Ratzinger writes here of the difference between the singing of the people of God in the Old Testament and our Christian singing, this ‘definitive as opposed to provisional’ business. One might reasonably ask what real difference there is, since all of us still live in this world of suffering and danger. All of our singing is hard-won, a choice for joy in the midst of the battle, for hope in the midst of the mortar and shelling of a broken world.

The difference, I would say is this: in the Old Testament, the faith was that God has acted in the past to mighty deeds, and He will act again to save his people; in the New Testament era, our faith is that Christ is risen, and so even now in the very heart of the battle, the most degraded and anguished times of struggle and distress, God is acting, He is present.

The victory of Christ, then, is not a past event with a future promise of fulfillment only. It is a living and present reality, because Christ is risen from the dead and ascended in his risen humanity to the Father. The power and presence of the risen Christ is at work even in Syria, even in the abortion clinic, even in the cancer ward, even in the morgue.

And so we sing. One thinks of the Ugandan martyrs, Charles Lwanga and his companions, who laughed and joked and sang as they were led out to torture and death, or the Carmelite nuns of Compiegne, singing hymns of praise to God as they were led to the guillotine in the days of the Terror. If they can sing, surely we can too.

Singing may not come easily to us. The pressures and problems and burdens of life can overwhelm us. But it is a choice, an asceticism. The asceticism of joy, the conscious deliberate choice for joy, for song, for hope in the midst of life’s travails. Christ is risen, He is alive, He is acting in your life and my life today to work his salvation in our midst, today, alleluia. ‘Let us sing to the Lord a new song, playing loudly with all our skill, for the word of the Lord is faithful, and all his works to be trusted’ (Ps 33).

Thursday, August 2, 2012


Mariology underscores the nexus mysteriorum—the intrinsic interwovenness of the mysteries in their irreducible mutual otherness and their unity. While the conceptual pairs bride-bridegroom and head-body allow us to perceive the connection between Christ and the Church, Mary represents a further step, inasmuch as she is first related to Christ, not as bride, but as mother. Here we can see the function of the title ‘Mother of the Church’; it expresses the fact that Mariology goes beyond the framework of ecclesiology and at the same time is correlative of it.

Mary, the Church at the Source, 29

Reflection – OK, nobody panic. This quote is a bit dense, I grant you. Even I, who wrote an entire thesis on the Mariology of Joseph Ratzinger, was a little flummoxed by it at first. It’s a good reminder that, as lucidly and beautifully as he writes most of the time, he is indeed a German theologian, and can convolute it up with the best of them if need be.

Let’s see if we can untangle the syntax and elevated vocabulary and find out what he’s really saying here. First, some context. There is a move in contemporary (i.e. 20th century) Mariology to reduce Mary to simply an icon or archetype of the Church. Mary is the Church; the Church is Mary. Mary is the pattern of a Christian disciple, and of course the community of disciples taken together is the Church.

Ratzinger certainly does not reject that—I’ve written a whole thesis on the matter, and there’s lots in there about Mary and the Church. So here he is simply pointing out that we cannot simply reduce Mary to that level. The danger of doing so is that Mary then becomes merely a symbol or a type or an example to follow. Sort of a schematic drawing of discipleship or ecclesiology. All very abstract and clinical and dry.

Well, Mary is not like that. She is indeed the one who shows us what the Church is and what discipleship is, what it means for a human creature to truly open up to Christ and give herself to Him and His kingdom in our midst. But she’s more than just that.

She’s also our mama. She was Christ’s mama; she is ours. She is a member of the Church, but she also stands in a unique and vitally important relationship to the Church and to each member of the Church. And this is relationship is very simple. She is our mama, our mother. Mother Mary, my mother and yours and the Pope’s mother. Mother of the most separated, straying, confused and broken down member of the Church, and Mother of the saintliest saint who ever sainted their way across history.

This means that we are called not merely not contemplate Mary as example and icon, but to truly love her, talk to her, go to her for help, live in a true intimate nearness to her, as children do with their mother. Again, I’ve written a whole book about this, which (in a spirit of totally disinterested concern, I assure you!) I highly recommend.

What does it mean to say that Mary is our mother? Mothers, by definition, nurture out of their own substance the life of their children. A mother, by definition and irrespective of her own virtues and gifts, gives her flesh to her children for their life. First in the womb, and then at the breast, a mother gives her own being to her children so that their being can flourish and grow strong.

This is not sentimentality about motherhood (like that awful old song, ‘M is for the million things she gave me, O means only that she’s growing old…’). This is simple biological fact. And this is what Mary does for every believer. Out of her own essential being—that is, her fiat, her total openness of her whole being to God—she nourishes the feeble life of her children. Our fiat is compromised, partial, weak. Hers is perfect and total. But as we draw near to her, she nourishes us with it, and so we grow a little bit stronger, a little more total. As mother, she does indeed model for us the way we are to walk, as any good mother teaches her children right from wrong. But it’s deeper than that – we draw strength and life from this woman. Her life is communicated to us to become our life.

Why? Well, because God wants it so. And in this ‘wanting it so’ of God, we learn something deep about not just Mary, but ourselves and all creation. As we grow stronger and more total in our fiat, we too become ‘mothers’, in a sense. We too can communicate our life to others so that our lives become food and drink for others.

So Mary’s motherhood of the Church, this real relationship each of us is called to have with her, actually communicates to us that the Church, too, is a mother, and that means that you and I, male or female, are called to this kind of  ‘motherhood.’ To nurture and feed and give our life to be the life of others—this is the awesome vocation of the Christian in the world, and Mary is the one who reveals it to us in her universal motherhood.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Question of Vatican II

My venerable predecessor saw this Year as a “consequence and a necessity of the postconciliar period”, fully conscious of the grave difficulties of the time, especially with regard to the profession of the true faith and its correct interpretation… the texts bequeathed by the Council Fathers, in the words of Blessed John Paul II, “have lost nothing of their value or brilliance. They need to be read correctly, to be widely known and taken to heart as important and normative texts of the Magisterium, within the Church's Tradition ... I feel more than ever in duty bound to point to the Council as the great grace bestowed on the Church in the twentieth century: there we find a sure compass by which to take our bearings in the century now beginning.”
I would also like to emphasize strongly what I had occasion to say concerning the Council a few months after my election as Successor of Peter: “if we interpret and implement it guided by a right hermeneutic, it can be and can become increasingly powerful for the ever necessary renewal of the Church.”
Porta Fidei 5

Reflection – Ah, the question of Vatican II! This year of faith begins October 14 on the 50th Anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council. So much ink-and-pixels have been spilt over the meaning, value, prophetic character, problems, misinterpretations, or apocalypticomigodhorror of the Council and its aftermath. I’m not really sure what I have to offer on a subject about which so many have said so much before me.

This in spite of my having been born more or less when the Council was ending and thus having lived my entire life as a Catholic in its shadow.The pre-conciliar church is not a memory for me; it is something I’ve heard of only. In terms of direct lived experience, the church of Vatican II is the only one I’ve known, and so it is difficult for me to assess it. To what shall I compare it?

Growing up when I did, I’ve had a bit of a reaction to the dominant attitude, which tended to present Vatican II as the Greatest Event in Church History™ after the Resurrection (perhaps), besides which the previous 1962 years serve as a dark prologue at best. A steady diet of that through childhood and adolescence, while church attendance plummeted and the remaining average parishioner could no longer name the ten commandments, four evangelists, or three persons of the Trinity, is enough to make Pollyanna a cynic.

Meanwhile, of course, there was the much smaller crowd of people for whom Vatican II was a dark freemasonic plot forged in the bowels of hell to destroy the church from within. The church was doing just fine (fine, I tell you, fine!) until Pope John XXIII bizarrely decided to call a council, and it all went to hell from there…

So having spent much of my life hearing those two positions endlessly reiterated (along with, I grant, several more moderate versions), I like reading what our last two popes have said about Vatican II (btw, sorry to have lost the hyperlinks for the quotes somewhere along the way).

Namely, Vatican II is of great value and import in 20th century Catholicism, and needs to be interpreted properly and within the continuous line of tradition. The post-conciliar era has brought great problems to the Church in terms of knowledge of the faith, but the actual texts of Vatican II (as opposed to the tricksy and ever-changing ‘Spirit of Vatican II™), carefully read and understood in light of our 2000 years of consistent doctrine, themselves provide insight into how to address these problems.

What a nice balanced attitude. Trust the Popes! Gotta hand it to them! So this is the spirit in which we should look upon Vatican II as we approach this year of faith. It might be a good idea this year to dust off the documents and read them again (surely you have a copy of them in your home, right… right?). You know - what do they actually say, as opposed to what everyone thinks they say?

What did Lumen Gentium actually say about the hierarchical structure of the Church? (Hint: not a democracy). What did Sacrosanctum Consilium actually say about the liturgy? (Hint: almost nothing about the use of the vernacular). What did Nostra Aetate say about other religions? (Hint: we are not relativists). It might be good to read these old documents. Just, you know, to know what the Church actually said in them. Just a thought…