Sunday, March 29, 2015

Why Did Jesus Die?

Do you sense something so far beyond mystery that you almost feel as if you were teetering at the edge of the universe? Last night in Gethsemane God the Son took upon himself my sins and yours—the sins of all the world. He took them on himself and lifted them up, or rather, he was lifted up for them on a cross. He died to atone for them.

Before our eyes this simple wooden cross holds the absolute forgiveness of God for us. Lord, have mercy! Lord, have mercy! A thousand languages repeat it, and he has pity on us because he has been lifted up and from him came pity, compassion, tenderness, understanding. Can we comprehend what has happened? God, the Almighty, the All–Powerful, the One who has no limit to his power, limited it. It is incomprehensible…

Today is the day of an examination of conscience, and yet somewhere deep within us joy rises like the sun. However it is still dark and the darkness is I, looking at myself. The darkness is also sorrow that he had to die for me. The joy is that he did! Now I am whole and healed and all is well! My separation from God, the original one, is wiped off.

Now I walk in the mercy of God; we live in his mercy. Now the moment of guilt is gone. Man must not feel any guilt anymore, only a terrible sadness when he once again breaks his alliance with God, the alliance of love. Whenever you feel that you have broken it, pray, “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner!” and it is forgiven!”
Catherine Doherty

Reflection – Happy Palm Sunday to you all, and a blessed Holy Week. This excerpt from a talk by Catherine Doherty on Good Friday 1973 seemed a fitting way to begin our week of the Lord’s Passion and love this year. The talk itself is part of my book Going Home.

I have been trying to do a bit of catechesis on Sundays here and there. This Sunday, let’s talk about the catechetical matter that is perhaps the one above all others, namely the death of Jesus Christ and its saving power in our lives.

For those who have simple faith, this matter poses no problem, and perhaps that is the best way to be. We know Jesus died; we know He died because He loves us; we know His loving death has saved us, won us forgiveness of our sins, opened heaven’s doors, reconciled us to the Father. For many people, that is all we need to know—we don’t get troubled by questions of how and why and what is the meaning of all this.

There are those who are so troubled, though, and it is good to have some kind of answer worked out for them. We cannot precisely ‘explain’ our faith—it is a divine revelation and ultimately transcends the powers of human comprehension—but we can talk about it, clarify it, make it a bit more understandable even if we cannot (and should not) eliminate the mysterious aspect of it.

And so many theologians over the millennia have given some account or other of ‘how’ Jesus’ death saved us. The Church has never adopted any one of those explanations as its own dogma. The dogma of the Church is precisely what I laid out two paragraphs ago, that this death happened and that this death has had these effects for all who are saved, and that the salvific fruits of this death are offered to all men and women.

In the Western Church, the most influential theory has been that of St. Anselm of Canterbury, the ‘substitutionary’ theory of salvation. Humanity, in committing sin against God, ran up a debt that was infinite, since our offense was against an infinite majesty. Being finite we could not pay that debt; but since it was a human debt, a human being had to pay it; but only an infinite being could make the infinite satisfaction of the debt; so only a God-man could pay that debt, and the wages of sin are in fact death, and so Jesus paid the debt for all of us.

With all due respect to St. Anselm and the many holy men and women who have accepted and taught this theory, I have never cared for it. It is too much rooted in categories of law for me—yes, this is an aspect of life and of our relationship with God (Scripture would collapse into incoherence if all notions of law were eliminated from it)—but law is not the heart and the whole of our life with God. And since this matter of Jesus’ death is at the heart of our faith and our life with God, it seems to me that casting it in wholly legal terms impoverishes our faith.

This is the theory I prefer (I offer this bearing in mind that this too is merely a theory, and that our Catholic faith is the simple faith that Jesus saved us by dying for us, period): Sin is fundamentally death, the undoing of creation. Creation in its deep heart is being flowing from Being, being ordered and shaped and given life from Being. This is the deep meaning of obedience, that our whole existence is from Another, the Uncreated One.

Sin rejects being, life, creation, and so sin is death. Jesus, being God the Creator, enters the reality of sin without sinning (which is metaphysically impossible for God) by entering the reality of death in his sacred humanity. His motivation is love—love of His Father, love and mercy to us poor sinners.

And so, in the very place of sin, the place where sin does what it does—kills us—the Creator God establishes a new creation. That which had been the great monument of destruction and uncreation—the tomb—becomes the place of personal encounter with Life. That which had been the fruit of our tragic and terrible disobedience and selfishness becomes transformed by obedience and selfless love.

It is not on the level of law and debts, but on the level of personal encounter, personal love, personal communion—a communion of love that is forged at the very place where all relationships are destroyed and sundered. And so—sin is forgiven, heaven opened, we are reconciled and saved.


Ultimately all we need to know is that God loves us so much that He died for us, and simple faith is satisfied by that answer. But it is good to meditate on just what Love does, and just how much Love has shown itself to be stronger than death, isn’t it? Happy Passion Sunday, and may we all enter into the victory of Christ and know his joy this Easter.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Madonna House Movie XI - A New Vision

Well, here it is, folks - the eleventh instalment in a twelve-part series on Madonna House community that we produced last year. This one, as you can see, is on a topic somewhat dear to my heart, which is the presence and role of the priests in MH. I show up, burbling away on the subject, throughout this video, so don't know what more I can add here. This is, simply, my vocation, and this short video does a pretty good job of presenting it, all things considered.

I believe that what we are trying to live in MH--priests and laity living together in a common family life with true mutuality and equality of dignity and mission--is not just for our community but is a new vision for the whole Church, one that I have given my life for. So here it is, and I hope you enjoy it:

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Not a Devotion, But a Reality

Happy feast of the Annunciation to you all! In lieu of my usual blog post, I thought in honour of the feast and of Our Lady that I would share this snippet of my book The Air We Breathe: The Mariology of Catherine Doherty, which seems to me to summarize the main theme and spiritual focus of this day. So... here it is!

For Catherine, Mary was simply a reality: ‘you don’t have devotion to reality, you embrace it.’ So what was this ‘embraceable’ reality of Mary? While Catherine had come to know Mary so deeply through the circumstances of her life and how Mary had come to help her in them, the reality of Mary was much deeper than her own subjective experience. More fundamental to her was the objective and awesome fact of Mary’s role in salvation:

I don’t think I have a “devotion” to Mary. I have something far greater, more immense, far more beautiful. I have an unshakable faith that she is the Mother of God, and hence, the Mother of men. I believe that she fashioned the body that has become to me the Body of her Son in the Eucharistic Sacrifice… Mary said one little word: fiat. She said it in faith, in God. She asked one or two questions, but immediately she accepted the will of God. She accepted without understanding…[i]

This is the heart of Marian reality according to Catherine: Mary gave her flesh to Jesus, and this Flesh is truly the salvation of the world. She did this by saying fiat – let it be done to me according to Thy will. She did not understand, at least not fully, what she was saying yes to.

This basic Marian fact, which is a simple fact of scripture available to anyone who believes in Jesus, is utterly central to the life of the Christian disciple. For we too are to give our flesh to God. Christ wills to be born in our souls by faith and come to maturity there through hope and love, the work of his Spirit in us who comes to us through the sacramental life of the Church. Our fiat is essential to this giving over of our flesh to en-flesh the Word in the world today. 

And we too do not understand much at all what our choice of saying yes (or no) will mean for us, what it will cost us and what the stakes are for ourselves and for others. Mary did what we are to do. Certainly she did it in a unique way and with a perfection and beauty that we can only admire, but nonetheless, Mary’s life and mission is precisely that of the Christian in the world.

For Catherine, Mary stands as the shining icon of the Christian, the clearest and best picture of what it means to be a follower of Christ. The awesome dignity of it, the mysterious depths of it, the frightening totality of it, the beautiful fruit of it—Mary is the figure who reveals all of this. But she does not reveal it to us simply as an exemplar. 

Mary is not just a symbol or pattern of Christian discipleship. She is not merely the sum total of some list of qualities that we are to memorize and imitate. She is not only a beautiful picture that we can admire.

Mary comes to each one of us, personally. Mary ‘takes us on’ individually, teaching us and helping us. Mary is really the spiritual director of the whole human race. She gives us courage when the way is dark, guidance when the way is twisted and confusing, joy when the way is sorrowful. She whispers in our ears, constantly, the word of hope and consolation that we need if we are to persevere in our own fiat. She can do this because she walked every step of this way, knows every inch of it, and knows the glory to which it leads.


[i] “I Live on an Island,” in Restoration, June 1968.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

I've Got a Blank Space, Baby!

Arise — go! Sell all you possess. Give it directly, personally to the poor. Take up My cross (their cross) and follow Me, going to the poor, being poor, being one with them, one with Me.
Little — be always little! Be simple, poor, childlike.
Preach the Gospel with your life — without compromise! Listen to the Spirit. He will lead you.
Do little things exceedingly well for love of Me.
Love... love... love, never counting the cost.
Go into the marketplace and stay with Me. Pray, fast. Pray always, fast.
Be hidden. Be a light to your neighbour’s feet. Go without fear into the depth of men’s hearts. I shall be with you.
Pray always. I will be your rest.
The Little Mandate of Madonna House

Little, be always little. For those of you who are wondering where on earth Fr. Denis is, I am writing this in Victoria now, where I’m spending the last few days of my little apostolic trip out West. Back to Ontario and ‘normal’ life Thursday.

I have been going through the Little Mandate bit by bit for the past while now, and we have finally gotten past the first paragraph. Catherine always did say that the first paragraph was the essence of the matter; the rest is commentary on it – how to live it out.

Key to that living it out is the spiritual attitude of the second paragraph, specifically the attitude of ‘littleness’ we are looking at today. There is no question that this is a very hard thing to embrace, hard to really stay in this spot of spiritual littleness, spiritual childhood.

We want to be ‘big’. Pride in Latin and Greek and Hebrew means being above oneself, taking to oneself a bigger status, a higher place than one rightly occupies. And pride really is the deep wound of our humanity, expressed in so many ways. Pursuit of riches and power, dominant behaviours of various sorts, or the more hidden interior expressions of it—quiet assumptions of superiority, self-righteousness, incessant judgment of others.

All of it is the direct rejection of humility, which is the deep meaning of this second paragraph of the Mandate. It is the unanimous testimony of all the spiritual geniuses of Christianity that humility is the virtue at the very heart of the spiritual life, as understood in our Christian faith. To accept to be what one is—a creature, that is, one made by and absolutely dependent for being on Another, and so properly bound to obedience to that Other—is the utter need for any kind of progress in spiritual growth, any kind of real interior life in God.

The reason for this is so simple it hardly need explaining, does it? You don’t make children grow up to be adults by feeding them rocks and dirt. You don’t make a seed grow to be a tree by giving it roast beef and mashed potatoes. You don’t make a thing grow to the mature state it is meant to attain by ignoring the kind of thing it is. Living in the truth, on this most basic physiological level, is what makes life and growth possible.

And humility is thus the soil, the mother’s milk, of our healthy flourishing humanity because it is the truth. We are creatures. We are wholly dependent on God for existence and for ongoing life. We are meant to live in such a way as to be constantly receiving everything from Him who is Everything, meant to be an empty space filled by Fullness, a cup perpetually filled with strong wine, a womb perpetually made fruitful by the One who is the source of all fruitfulness.

If I can be a bit silly and paraphrase Taylor Swift here, we are meant to sing continually, “I’ve got a blank space, baby (Jesus), and you can write your name.” Littleness—accepting that this is so, and deliberately refusing to fill that blank space with all sorts of illiterate scrawls, empty boasts, lunatic ravings (those are our judgments of other people!), and the like—is our constant choice to be that empty canvas for God to paint on, that unsown field for God to plant in, that cup waiting to be filled with the precious Wine of God (which we know is not wine at all, but his very life's blood).


We are on the edge of Holy Week, and the immense mysteries of God are upon us, the vast frontiers of divine life and love revealed to us only in the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of His Son Jesus Christ. In the face of that immensity, we are best served by being a little blank, a little empty, a little… well, little. And in that littleness, receptive. And in that receptivity, come to be able to share in His Cross and join Him in loving the world into life and beauty again. It’s the only way to do it, and it requires from us deep humility and surrender to His will in our lives.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Let Your Heart Take Courage

In you, O Lord, do I take refuge; let me never be put to shame;
in your righteousness deliver me!
Incline your ear to me; rescue me speedily!..
Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God…

Because of all my adversaries I have become a reproach, especially to my neighbors,
and an object of dread to my acquaintances; those who see me in the street flee from me.
I have been forgotten like one who is dead; I have become like a broken vessel.
For I hear the whispering of many—terror on every side! —
as they scheme together against me, as they plot to take my life.

But I trust in you, O Lord; I say, “You are my God.”
My times are in your hand;
rescue me from the hand of my enemies and from my persecutors!
Make your face shine on your servant; save me in your steadfast love!
O Lord, let me not be put to shame, for I call upon you;
let the wicked be put to shame; let them go silently to Sheol…

Love the Lord, all you his saints!
The Lord preserves the faithful but abundantly repays the one who acts in pride.
Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord.
Psalm 31

Reflection – The Monday Psalter has delivered up for us Psalm 31, just in time for Passiontide.  It is a happy coincidence that we have this psalm, which is the source of one of the Lord’s seven last words on the Cross, to meditate on as we begin this last cycle of Lent, the two weeks when the Church’s focus shifts from our own lowly state and need for mercy to the beautiful joyous solemn reality that mercy has indeed been given us in the Passion and Death of Jesus Christ.

‘Into your hands I commit my spirit’ – along with ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me’, these two words of the Lord should be understood as implying the whole psalm, prayed by Him as he hung upon the Cross. A man crucified can only speak with great difficulty; that the Lord spoke this one sentence of Psalm 31 means that the whole of it was resonating in his mind and heart as he died for us.

And this is of great significance. Psalm 31 is a psalm of total entrustment and peaceful abandonment to God in the face of great suffering and affliction. The psalmist is undergoing what so many of the psalmists seem to have undergone—persecution, calumny, humiliation, and who knows what else—but in the midst of it, his prayer is serene, childlike, faithful.

On the lips of Jesus this prayer becomes a deep revelation of the Trinity—the Son resting in the bosom of the Father from all eternity, the communion of love which is the very transcendent structure of Being, the wholly divine revelation that God Himself is communion, is mutual gift and reception and gift, that the very absolute center of reality is not defined by categories of power or violence or cold mechanistic determinism, but by the warmth of love and gift.

And this wholly divine, absolutely transcendent reality is translated into the human sphere in the Incarnation, and is shown on the Cross to be utterly triumphant over the worst excesses of suffering and evil, the worst wounds of non-love that man can deal out to man. And because Jesus on the Cross commits his spirit not only to His Father in heaven but to us (cf John 19:30), we can share in that absolute victory of childlike trust and expectant hope over suffering and evil in our lives.

It is Passiontide, time to contemplate these realities which are so simple and yet carry us right into the heart of the Triune Mystery of God, and make that mystery the mystery of our own lives. Christ died for us, and then rose from the dead. And so in our own ‘dying’, be it in body or in spirit, we can rest in confidence that He is in us, alive and active, and that in Him all things are made new, and we are brought through sorrow and death into life without end.

‘Love the Lord, you his saints, be strong and let your hearts take courage, all you who wait for the Lord.’ Into your hands, O Lord, we commit our spirits.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Kill The Brain, Kill The Zombie

Once upon a time, in a village in Eastern Europe, there arose an unusual problem. A curious disease afflicted many of the townspeople. It was mostly fatal (though not always), and its onset was signalled by the victim’s lapsing into a deathlike coma… As a result, the townspeople feared that several of their relatives had already been buried alive and that a similar fate might await them. How to overcome that uncertainty was their dilemma.

One group of people thought that the coffins be well stocked with water and food and that a small air vent be drilled into them, just in case one of the dead happened to be alive. This was expensive to do but seemed more than worth the trouble. A second group, however, came up with a less expensive and more efficient idea. Each coffin would have a twelve-inch stake affixed to the inside of the coffin lid, exactly at the level of the heart. Then, when the coffin was closed, all uncertainty would cease…

What is important to note is that different solutions were generated by different questions. The first solution was an answer to the question ‘How can we make sure that we do not bury people who are sill alive?’ The second was an answer to the question, ‘How can we make sure that everyone we bury is dead?’
Neil Postman, Technopoly

Reflection – I am reading this quite wonderful book right now, on the inherent tendency of technology to not simply augment and assist but to dominate and control our lives. The above passage is from a chapter that treats language itself as a sort of technology, and shows how the ability to control the language allows the controllers—the linguistic technocrats—to control both what questions gets asked, how they are framed, and hence what the outcome will be.

This passage, and the rather amusing parable of the villagers’ two approaches to a knotty problem, sheds much light on our contemporary society and its discourse around difficult social issues. How are the questions of our times framed? Who is doing the framing? Can we step back from the actual raw experience that generates difficult social debates and look at how the outcomes of these debates are formed not only by the experiences themselves but by the choices made by those in power—the entertainment-media complex in particular—as to how to frame the terms of those discussions?

For example, is abortion about the right of a woman to self-determination and autonomy, or is it about the protection of a vulnerable human life? So much of the utter inability of the ‘pro-choice’ and ‘pro-life’ sides of this terrible issue to engage in meaningful conversation comes from the fact that they are in fact asking different questions and framing the issue in completely different ways.

Is ‘same-sex marriage’ about extending marriage rights and benefits to an hitherto excluded group or is it about changing the very definition of what marriage is? Completely different conversations emerge from how that question is framed. Physician assisted suicide—is it about how to relive suffering in a compassionate way, or is it about how to protect a vulnerable population (which eventually will include most of us) from being pressured to die?

Those who know me or have read this blog know where I take my stand on these issues, of course. I am Catholic, a loyal son of the Church, and I believe the Church’s teachings on these matters is from God, simply. But the question I raise here is not primarily about the issues themselves, but about the difficulty caused by how they are framed, and the lack of critical thinking that people bring to bear on this business of question-framing and parameter-setting.

Of course this leads to terrible problems in the very capacity of our society to discuss the issues themselves. People who are against abortion are framed as wanting to control women, people who are against ‘same sex marriage’ hate gay people, people who are opposed to physician assisted suicide lack compassion and want the sick and dying to suffer. All of those conclusions come, not from the issues themselves, not from the raw experience of the things themselves, but from the dominant narrative and how it has framed each of these issues.

I can hardly address all of these issues qua issues in a single blog post. Here, I simply wish to observe (without going into a full-bore ‘Wake up, sheeple!’ style rant) that we are being manipulated by the technocrats who control the language of our time, and that the framing of difficult and contentious issues is more often than not used, not so as to provide a careful and judicious exploration of the truth and falsehood of these matters, but to control the discussion, demonize and marginalize those on the ‘wrong side’ of the discussion, and cook the books to provide the outcome those technocrats have determined to be the right one.


And… is this really how a free, dignified, democratic and rational society should go about these things? Or is the twelve-inch stake being thrust, not so much in the mostly dead villager, but in the heart of our civil discourse and free society? Kill the brain, kill the zombie, you know--remove our ability to think clearly, and the undead remnants of Western Civilization will stop flailing around so annoyingly. 

I'm just framing a question here, folks, just asking the question…