Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Church Has a Heart

Since my longing for martyrdom was powerful and unsettling, I turned to the epistles of St Paul in the hope of finally finding an answer. By chance the 12th and 13th chapters of the 1st epistle to the Corinthians caught my attention, and in the first section I read that not everyone can be an apostle, prophet or teacher, that the Church is composed of a variety of members, and that the eye cannot be the hand. Even with such an answer revealed before me, I was not satisfied and did not find peace.

I persevered in the reading and did not let my mind wander until I found this encouraging theme: Set your desires on the greater gifts. And I will show you the way which surpasses all others. For the Apostle insists that the greater gifts are nothing at all without love and that this same love is surely the best path leading directly to God. At length I had found peace of mind.

When I had looked upon the mystical body of the Church, I recognized myself in none of the members which St Paul described, and what is more, I desired to distinguish myself more favorably within the whole body.

Love appeared to me to be the hinge for my vocation. Indeed I knew that the Church had a body composed of various members, but in this body the necessary and more noble member was not lacking; I knew that the Church had a heart and that such a heart appeared to be aflame with love. I knew that one love drove the members of the Church to action, that if this love were extinguished, the apostles would have proclaimed the Gospel no longer, the martyrs would have shed their blood no more.

I saw and realized that love sets off the bounds of all vocations, that love is everything, that this same love embraces every time and every place. In one word, that love is everlasting.
Then, nearly ecstatic with the supreme joy in my soul, I proclaimed: O Jesus, my love, at last I have found my calling: my call is love. Certainly I have found my place in the Church, and you gave me that very place, my God. In the heart of the Church, my mother, I will be love, and thus I will be all things, as my desire finds its direction.
St. Therese of Lisieux, Story of a Soul

Reflection – Today is the feast of St. Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower of Jesus. I have written about her before on the blog; she is really my favorite saint, the first saint who I got to know as a person, and a constant spiritual guide and help for me, as she is for many millions of people.

It never fails to amaze me, that God would pluck someone whose life was so utterly obscure, so thoroughly ordinary in its external details, and elevate her to the status of one of the most well known and well beloved saints of the Church. There is a prophetic quality to this story—Therese stands at the very dawn of the 20th century and presents to us something vitally important about sanctity and the ways of God among men. It is a point of some irony, perhaps, that the vision of sanctity she presents is one especially suitable to the age of the laity in the Church, given that she herself is a consecrated Carmelite nun.

What is this vision? It’s more or less what she presents here, although she says it in different ways in her book. Namely, that it is great love that makes a saint, not great deeds. The vision of sanctity that excusably might emerge from the study of many of the canonized saints of the Church is that of a sort of spiritual Olympics—higher, faster, stronger—filled with people who shed their blood for Christ, founded orders, wrote great works of theology, performed prodigies of service to the poor, traveled to mission lands. Sanctity then, is limited to people of unusual gifts and strengths, or who find themselves in situations allowing for extremities like dying a martyr’s death (me, I’d like to die for Christ, but nobody has shown up who’s willing to kill me just yet!).

Therese, then, corrects this sort of spiritual elitism, by showing us that it is not deeds but love, not extraordinary events but extraordinary faithfulness in whatever events are ours, not prodigies of intellect or body, but a will wholly set on doing everything that is pleasing to God in the real circumstances of our real lives.

And this, then, opens the path to holiness for everyone no matter what. It is both a consoling vision, and a very challenging one. God does not demand what we cannot do—that our lives and our persons be other than what they are, before He can make us a great saint. Instead He asks that we live the lives we are living today, no matter what they consist of, with such love and fidelity, such prayer and devotion, that He can make us into a flame of love right here and right now. And this is the life of the Church, and the life of the world, that which makes everything luminous and joyous and beautiful.

And that is what St. Therese of Lisieux came to teach us.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Leaves That Are Green Turn to Gold

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?

Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.

Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow's springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What héart héard of, ghóst guéssed:

It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, Spring and Fall: To a Young Child

Reflection – It’s been awhile since we had any poetry on the blog (the Monday psalms aside). This time of year always puts me in mind of this fine Hopkins poem. The leaves in Combermere have been spectacular this week, at their finest peak of reds, golds, orange, and yellow. We have had bright sun the past few days, which has given the overall effect of the world being on fire, the fall leaves glowing incandescent in the light.

I have always believed there to be a profound sacramental meaning in the beauty of fall. Because, of course what we are watching as we watch the “leaves that are green turn to gold” is a large scale manifestation of death and dying, the living tissue of tree-leaf turning to ‘wanwood leafmeal’ lying on the earth, to decay and become part of the earth.

And it is a spectacularly beautiful sight, breath-taking in its brilliance. Hopkins of course is writing in this poem about the next sequence in the fall, the great denuding of the trees of their leaves, the fading of the red, gold, and orange into various hues of brown and grey, the starkness of the branches stripped of their foliage. I personally find that has its own beauty, but I am well known to have weird taste in these matters and to find beauty in the strangest things.

But we are all caught up in this season, at least in the northern hemisphere, in a grand contemplation of death and dying—the blight that man was born for, the springs of sorrow, that for which we ‘weep and know why’ as life draws on.

The blaze of glory that accompanies the ‘dying’ of the trees has, I maintain, a sacramental significance. That is, I believe it communicates to us that death is not merely a blight, not merely a sorrow, that there is something in the passing away of a life, and particularly a human life, that manifests glory, that reveals the beauty and majesty of a person.

We always joke in Madonna House that we don’t really appreciate anyone in the community until they die, and then we see them plain, perhaps a little bit as God sees them. In their passing away they shine forth like autumn leaves of red and gold before they vanish into the earth, disappear into the mysterious heart of God.

There is grief then, of course, in the death of the dying, in the inevitable presence of death in all our lives and our own deaths, whenever they may come. But it is a grief tightly bound up with the precious beauty, the blazing fire of color and depth and life that shines forth in this world, so often most brilliantly in the very moment of its passing away.

It is this beauty and this shining forth that, I believe, bears witness to the hope of the resurrection, to their being something next, something beyond, some continuance of the person, of life, that the grave is not the goal, the end, the finis of the world. We live, we die, we shine forth like a bonfire shooting up into the sky, and then vanish… but we do not cease. The song is taken up in a new key, in a new mode, the fire burns even more brightly in a different world, with a light and flame that is not extinguished.

Margaret grieves, but Margaret will rejoice. Fall comes, and then winter, but spring comes after, and it is the assurance of our faith that spring and the glory of summer is the last word of God to man, the last movement of the world into eternity, and that the glory and beauty of the person will shine forever in the resurrection of the dead.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Where Can We Find Justice?

In the Lord I haven taken refuge;
how can you say to my soul,
“Fly like a bird to the mountains;

For look, the wicked bend the bow,
they have fitted their arrow to the string,
to shoot in the dark at the upright in heart.
If the foundations are destroyed,
what can the righteous do?”

The Lord is in his holy temple;
the Lord ’s throne is in heaven.
His eyes behold, his gaze examines humankind.
The Lord tests the righteous and the wicked,
and his soul hates the lover of violence.

On the wicked he will rain coals of fire and sulfur
a scorching wind shall be the portion of their cup.

For the Lord is righteous;
he loves righteous deeds;
the upright shall behold his face.
Psalm 11

Reflection -  The Monday Psalter has again delivered up a psalm most suitable for people suffering persecution, oppression, violence, war, hatred. In short, a psalm that is most suitable for many millions of people living in the world today, particularly in various countries of the Middle East, the Ukraine, and elsewhere.

It is very significant that God chose to be the recipients of his revelation, not the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Babylonians, the Assyrians. Not the great and powerful empires of the ancient world, in other words, but rather a little tribe perched on a narrow strip of land surrounded by larger and more heavily armed neighbors who were in a state of near-constant warfare with one another.
Israel did have a brief period of ascendancy and consequent peace in its history, in the reigns of David and Solomon more or less, but not long after that came the succession of imperial powers, a sword constantly held at the throat of God’s chosen people.

And these are the people to whom God chose to reveal Himself and ultimately entrusted the fullest revelation of His own self becoming man and living among us. And of course this fullest revelation itself bears the mark of powerlessness, weakness, lowliness. Jesus did not come with a sword to set the world at right by violence, but was Himself a victim of violence and injustice.

There is something to truly contemplate in all this. We live, more and more, in a world that worships power and violence above all else. The way to overcome evil is to blow it away with a 357 Magnum, or so several hundred Hollywood action movies have assured us.

It is not that we are never to resist evil in this way—as I have said previously, I am not a pacifist, exactly. There are times when the common good, and the good of the evil-doer himself, requires that force be used to put an end to violent deeds.

I think that what the psalms convey to us, and what the whole of our Christian revelation conveys as well, is that while we must use violent means at times to curb violence, we must not put our trust in these means. Justice will never come at the point of a sword, or from the barrel of a gun. Justice comes from one place and one place alone, and that is heaven, from the exercise of perfect justice-in-love of the Father.

And so as we make the hard choices we have to make (I write this in deep awareness of the extreme difficulty facing world leaders right now in their response to the IS and other situations) our call as Christians is to continually not look to the mountains (symbols, Scripturally, of human pride and strength) for refuge, but to the Lord of the mountains, the God of heaven. And to trust that God is ultimately working out the salvation and redemption of all people, and that his justice will in the end prevail over human wickedness, violence, and hate.

This is the revelation He has given us; this is the prayer of faith given us in Psalm 11.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

How Can We Make the Mass Relevant to People?

Universality is an essential feature of Christian worship. It is the worship of an open heaven. It is never just an event in the life of a community that finds itself in a particular place.

No, to celebrate the Eucharist means to enter into the openness of a glorification of God that embraces both heaven and earth, an openness effected by the Cross and Resurrection. Christian liturgy is never just an event organized by a particular group or set of people or even by a particular local Church.

Mankind’s movement toward Christ meets Christ’s movement toward men. He wants to unite mankind and bring about the one Church the one divine assembly, of all men.
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Spirit of the Liturgy

Reflection – One more day of ‘Ratzinger blogging’, and then we’ll be on to something different next week. It seemed appropriate on Sunday, the day of the Lord’s resurrection when the whole Body of Christ throughout the world is gathering together to worship the Risen Lord, to have this excerpt from Spirit of the Liturgy.

Liturgy in Roman Catholic culture in the past 50 years has suffered deeply from the loss of this universal perspective. Far too often we are locked into our own immediate community, our own immediate parish or culture or situation, and the liturgy becomes a mere expression of communal solidarity or identity.

The worst examples of this are seen, of course, in youth ministry, when efforts to make the Mass ‘relevant’ to teenagers or children lead perhaps well-meaning priests and youth workers to introduce such novelties as rock bands, rap, superhero vestments, and so forth. When the focus of the liturgy becomes the assembly and not God, the people and not the Person, fellowship and not Communion, then we are badly off course.

This is why fidelity to the rubrics matters so much. We are not just a little group doing our own thing at St. Soandso Parish, and so able to edit, add, delete, and modify the rite according to what works for us. What really works for us is to celebrate the liturgy exactly as it is given to us, to ‘say the black and do the red’ and in this to know ourselves to be part of a bigger body, a larger reality, a Church that extends to the ends of the earth and in fact transcends the earthly realm to extend to the worship of the Church Triumphant before the throne of God.

In fact, I would argue in a Chestertonian style that the liturgy is most relevant to us, most meeting us where we are, precisely when it is incomprehensible, obscure. It is most meaningful precisely where it is ‘meaningless’. Because we moderns need more than anything to be shaken out of our narrow provincialism, our conviction that the world begins and ends with us, that all reality is to conform itself to our little ideas and our little prejudices, rather than we conforming ourselves to the reality of God which is vastly greater than us.

When we are pushed beyond our immediate understanding and resonance with a liturgical moment, we are actually touching upon the fact, which goes way beyond liturgy and extends to every aspect of spiritual and moral life, that God is continually calling us well out of our comfort zones, well beyond what is easy or feels natural or corresponds to our notions about life.

The simple act of conforming ourselves to the liturgy that the Church gives us, rather than demanding continually that the liturgy conform itself to our likes and dislikes, is a deep act of spiritual humility that genuinely helps us to be conditioned for all the acts of discipleship, obedience, surrender, abandonment that the Lord will most certainly ask of all of us in our lives.

And that we do this act of conformation as a body, a community, signals then that this is the true identity of our community: we are the people the Lord calls together (the original meaning of ecclesia) to be his people, the ones he fashions and shapes according to his good purposes and not ours, his truth and meaning and not ours, his Death and Resurrection and glorification in heaven, and not our little and poor ideas about human happiness and flourishing.

Liturgical obedience is a powerful means, expression, and symbolic realization of the basic stance of faith and discipleship, and we in the Western Church need desperately to recover that sense of faith regarding the liturgy, both for our own selves, and for our task of evangelizing the world.