Saturday, March 30, 2013

Something Strange is Happening

It is Holy Saturday, and hence not a day for great words and lengthy reflections. A day of silence, and prayer, and waiting for the Resurrection. So in lieu of my own thoughts, I present here the beautiful Office of Readings for today, an ancient anonymous Easter homily. We incorporate it into our own morning prayer at Madonna House, and it is a much-cherished text here.

I will be taking a break from the blog for the next couple days anyhow—Easter holiday!—and will talk to you all again in the early days of the Octave. Have a joyous celebration, all. And now the reading:

Something strange is happening – there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.

He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve, he who is both God and the son of Eve. The Lord approached them bearing the cross, the weapon that had won him the victory. At the sight of him Adam, the first man he had created, struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone: “My Lord be with you all.” Christ answered him: “And with your spirit.” He took him by the hand and raised him up, saying: “Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.”

I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. Out of love for you and for your descendants I now by my own authority command all who are held in bondage to come forth, all who are in darkness to be enlightened, all who are sleeping to arise. I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead. Rise up, work of my hands, you who were created in my image.
Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in me and I am in you; together we form only one person and we cannot be separated. For your sake I, your God, became your son; I, the Lord, took the form of a slave; I, whose home is above the heavens, descended to the earth and beneath the earth. For your sake, for the sake of man, I became like a man without help, free among the dead. For the sake of you, who left a garden, I was betrayed to the Jews in a garden, and I was crucified in a garden.

See on my face the spittle I received in order to restore to you the life I once breathed into you. See there the marks of the blows I received in order to refashion your warped nature in my image. On my back see the marks of the scourging I endured to remove the burden of sin that weighs upon your back. See my hands, nailed firmly to a tree, for you who once wickedly stretched out your hand to a tree.

I slept on the cross and a sword pierced my side for you who slept in paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side has healed the pain in yours. My sleep will rouse you from your sleep in hell. The sword that pierced me has sheathed the sword that was turned against you.
Rise, let us leave this place. The enemy led you out of the earthly paradise. I will not restore you to that paradise, but I will enthrone you in heaven. I forbade you the tree that was only a symbol of life, but see, I who am life itself am now one with you. I appointed cherubim to guard you as slaves are guarded, but now I make them worship you as God. The throne formed by cherubim awaits you, its bearers swift and eager. The bridal chamber is adorned, the banquet is ready, the eternal dwelling places are prepared, the treasure houses of all good things lie open. The kingdom of heaven has been prepared for you from all eternity.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Into the Garden We Go

When Jesus had spoken these words, he went forth with his disciples across the Kidron Valley, where there was a garden, which he and his disciples entered. (John 18:1).

The Lord leaves the place where he had spoken with his Father. He goes forth from there. He does not, however, go alone, but in the company of his disciples. It is a company in which many things are not explicitly stated. Within it, the Lord is the one who knows everything; he had communicated his knowledge to the disciples, but they have comprehended only a little of it.

Still, they have not been estranged from him through this gap in insight. They are the archetype of a true Christian communion, in which much is passed over in silence and each remains at peace even if not knowing everything about the other.

For the Lord, something of the highest, most decisive sort is taking place: he has spoken with the Father, and now he goes forth. The disciples scarcely notice the enormity of the transition. They just go along with him. Thus the Lord goes with the Bride, the Church: she follows him, wordlessly, simply, in a sense colorlessly, but without revolt, in calmness in him

They go into a garden, to a pleasant location that in no way corresponds to the event. What is now to be played out, the suffering, will be so beyond measure that no earthly scenery could reflect it.

Adrienne von Speyr, The Birth of the Church: Meditations on John 18-21

Reflection – Good Friday calls us forth to go with the Lord. Forth from comfort; forth from comprehension; forth from complacency; forth from the familiar, the easy, the known quantity.

What is played out this day before our eyes, this story so familiar and so endlessly strange to us, is so utterly beyond us. The inner dialogue of Jesus and the Father, this deliberate, purposeful, relentless walking of God’s into the very heart of human evil, suffering, death, the face of love and grace shown forth on this day—all of this is utterly and wholly beyond our comprehension.

The disciples fell asleep in the garden, and this is no wonder. So often when faced with realities too big to take in, too much to handle, human beings simply shut down, simply turn away or off in our interior being.

God is dying for us today, and in this impossibility the very heart of the Trinity is revealed, and it is a heart of all-love, all-compassion, all-mercy and all-goodness. The most horrible thing in the world that could happen makes manifest the most wonderful thing in the world that could be.

Oh, it’s all too much! And we do, most of us, somewhat ‘shut down’ on Good Friday at some point. It is more than we can handle. And that’s OK, I think. God knows our capacity, and year by year, day by day, His Spirit is at work to help us take it in a little bit more than last year, a little more deeply than before.

Meanwhile, we all follow along after him on this trail. Off to the garden we go, then to the chief priest’s house, then to Pilate, then to Golgotha, then to the tomb. Trailing along like little tired children, dragging our heels and hanging our heads, whining a bit, or perhaps with this still calmness and good will that von Speyr writes about here.

This is the Church—the band of little human beings trailing after Jesus on this blazing path of glory and pain, anguish and love that he laid down these thousands of years ago, with majestic steps and divine certainty. It is a path ineradicable, permanently marked upon the face of the earth, and the mission of the Church in essence and in depth is to walk together, halting or quick, reluctant or eager, down this path of love and death, of gift and communion, to be with Him at the heart of the world, and so rise with Him to the Heart of God.
A Good Friday to you all.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Holy Thursday at Madonna House

There was much proclaimed by the prophets about the mystery of the Passover: that mystery is Christ, and to him be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

For the sake of suffering humanity he came down from heaven to earth, clothed himself in that humanity in the Virgin's womb, and was born a man. Having then a body capable of suffering, he took the pain of fallen man upon himself; he triumphed over the diseases of soul and body that were its cause, and by his Spirit, which was incapable of dying, he dealt man's destroyer, death, a fatal blow.

He was led forth like a lamb; he was slaughtered like a sheep. He ransomed us from our servitude to the world, as he had ransomed Israel from the hand of Egypt; he freed us from our slavery to the devil, as he had freed Israel from the hand of Pharaoh. He sealed our souls with his own Spirit, and the members of our body with his own blood.

He is the One who covered death with shame and cast the devil into mourning, as Moses cast Pharaoh into mourning . He is the One that smote sin and robbed iniquity of offspring, as Moses robbed the Egyptians of their offspring. He is the One who brought us out of slavery into freedom, out of darkness into light, out of death into life, out of tyranny into an eternal kingdom; who made us a new priesthood, a people chosen to be his own for ever. He is the Passover that is our salvation.

It is he who endured every kind of suffering in all those who foreshadowed him. In Abel he was slain, in Isaac bound, in Jacob exiled, in Joseph sold, in Moses exposed to die. He was sacrificed in the Passover lamb, persecuted in David, dishonored in the prophets.
It is he who was made man of the Virgin, he who was hung on the tree; it is he who was buried in the earth, raised from the dead, and taken up to the heights of heaven. He is the mute lamb, the slain lamb born of Mary, the fair ewe. He was seized from the flock, dragged off to be slaughtered, sacrificed in the evening, and buried at night. On the tree no bone of his was broken; in the earth his body knew no decay. He is the One who rose from the dead, and who raised man from the depths of the tomb.

Easter Homily of St. Melito of Sardis, Office of Readings for Holy Thursday

Reflection – Holy Thursday at Madonna House! For those readers of the blog who have spent a Triduum here, you know that this is one of the most beautiful days of our year. Usually at lunch we listen to a famous talk by Catherine Doherty on the priesthood, a passionate searing reminder of just what an awesome gift the Lord gave his Church in this mysterious institution.

For supper we arrange the tables of our dining room into a sort of banquet hall, tables end to end to form long rows covered with white table cloths, a head table complete with ornate candelabra and a beautiful mosaic of the Lamb of God above it. It is not a seder meal, exactly—I know many Christians do this, but we have discerned otherwise on that question—but rather what we call the Supper of the Lamb.

At the beginning of the meal, a few prayers are said and the candles are lit, and then as Psalm 136 is sung a whole roasted lamb is solemnly processed into the dining room, resting on a frame resembling a cross and supported by loaves of bread. It is not exactly beautiful, but is actually quite awful looking—it is a stark reminder of the lamb who was slain for us, the deep mystery that all the beauty, all the joy, all the loveliness and delight of our Christian faith rests on this terrible and awesome act of sacrifice, this deep suffering of God, this choice of Jesus to suffer and die an anguished death for us.

Then, as we gaze upon this lamb, the above homily is read. Jesus, the one in whom all the promises and foreshadowings of the Old Testament are realized; Jesus, the one who bears every human suffering, in whom all human suffering and death finds hope for redemption and deliverance; Jesus, whose love for mankind brought him to this extremity, and whose love for mankind triumphed over mankind’s sin and death.

After this, the lamb is solemnly processed out of the dining room to the remainder of Psalm 136… and we proceed to feast on it, and good bread and wine, and the joy and delight of being together as God’s family. At the end of the meal, the farewell discourse from John’s Gospel is read, and we proceed from there to the evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper.

In all this, we truly enter into the depth of the Triduum, the mysterious unity of pain and joy, beauty and ugliness, human tragedy with ‘divine comedy’, death with resurrection. And out of that comes community, family, a banquet, a celebration. This is the deep spiritual root of all human goodness and joy: the saving death of Christ, the love of God for the world. And this is what we celebrate today, and over these next three days.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

It is All a Mystery

This is the week of understanding. Although what a foolish word! We do not understand a mystery. No. This is a week of entering without understanding, of putting your head into your heart, so to speak.

At the same time, what we enter into is so extraordinary that we must understand who we are: we are the people who have been salvaged by God. Christ has lifted us to his Father, who had asked him to make us one, to cherish us, to look after us.

This is the week of his joy: “I have longed to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.” (Luke 22:15) This is the week of his sorrow. This is the week of his death. We can only prostrate ourselves before a cross and pray a prayer of thanks, the kind of thanks that is torn out of us because it is buried so deep that we do not often bring it forth. This is the hour of thanks.

This is the week of examining our conscience. For it is useless to prostrate, to kneel, or to pray, unless I, too, become a servant of the people that Christ became servant of. When Jesus finished washing the feet of all the apostles, he reminded them that “the Son of Man has not come to be served, but to serve”.

We need to set apart a place in our hearts where we are attentive to God, no matter where we are or what we are doing—washing dishes or anything at all. It makes no difference what you happen to be doing, because in your heart you are with your Beloved. Now we enter deeply into that place.

But this is also a week in which I have to serve my brother in whatever capacity I might be needed, because prayer without action is dead. You have to integrate your prayer into your life, preach the Gospel with your actions. Otherwise people will not know that this week is different from any other week that ever was or will be.

Catherine de Hueck Doherty, Season of Mercy

Reflection – Again, Catherine’s words are so profound and beautiful that my commentary is of little importance. This whole business of understanding, though – that is really important. What do we understand, anyhow? We have the formulae of our faith, and these have their place: Jesus died to save us from our sins; Jesus rose from the dead and opened the gates of heaven for us; dying you destroyed our death, rising you restored our life.

We say them, we believe them, but what understanding can we really claim to have of them? It is a land of deep mystery we enter in this Holy Week, but it is truly the mystery we all entered when we were baptized into this death and resurrection.

The word ‘mystery’ can raise hackles of some people of rationalist and atheist persuasion. It can sound like a cop-out, like Christians just say all these weird things and then get out of having to explain them by saying ‘well, it’s all a mystery anyway.’ And that may indeed happen from time to time. We are as prone to intellectual laziness as anyone.

But a mystery is not that, not a sort of ‘get out of thinking for free card’ we play whenever we don’t care to explain ourselves. A mystery instead is a truth we can only enter into by living it. Learned tomes can be written on the theology, psychology, sociology, and economics of marriage, but it is only when man and woman come together in this intimacy of life, bear children out of that intimacy, and take on the concrete task of loving one another and these children that the truth of marriage is really apprehended. It is a mystery.

And so it is with the life of Christ, his passion and death. That is what Catherine means by putting our heads into our hearts. It is not a question of some big emotional trip. What good would that be? It is a question of laying down our lives with Jesus, in Jesus, for one another.
We can talk theology, and this has value. We can celebrate the liturgical cycle, and this has great value. But sooner or later we have to enter the mystery ourselves, in our own personal being. We have to die with Christ and so rise with him in our own lives before we can really ‘understand’ anything about the matter. But this is the grace and the life He wants to give each one of us, and so our trust and surrender to Him is the key to entering this reality each day.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Where Jesus Lived

This is the week of quiet. That is to say, this week we should have a quiet heart. We are on the threshold of such a miracle that we can repeat the warning: “Take off your shoes, this place is holy.”

Let us quieten our hearts again. This is a great week that we are entering. It is the week of total kenosis, which in Greek means emptying oneself. When Christ came from heaven at Christmas he emptied himself and became a servant. The theme of servant comes to us again. This is the week of our kenosis—what he has done, we should do.

Our hearts become quieter and quieter. And look! Soon there will be a supper, of a kind that has never before been on earth, in which God will give himself to us as food. He who is fed on God is one with God. We are his children and we can do what he can do—with his help. In fact he said, “You will do greater miracles than I.” Our faith should rise like a blazing fire during this week, for we know a little of what it is all about. The events of this week shake us and hold us tight in a sense of expectation.

This is the week of Passover, both the first Passover supper that the Lord God asked for in the Old Testament, and the supper of God giving himself to us as food. This is the week of love, of a kind that makes one’s head and senses reel. To be fed by God is to be strong. So that by doing what is best for the other person, not by doing what I want, I begin to love.
Catherine de Hueck Doherty, Season of Mercy

Reflection – The word ‘kenosis’ was at one time a commonplace one in Catholic circles, but I’m not sure it is so much anymore. The Greek kenos simply means empty, and Phil 2: 7 speaks of God the Son emptying himself (ekonesen eauton) in his Incarnation, becoming like a slave, a self-emptying that is intensified in his shameful death.

So kenosis is a big word for Christians. As Catherine so simply puts it, what he has done, we should do. What does it mean to empty oneself, though? What does that look like? God fills us, this we know—the Eucharist is all about that, right? God filling us with his life, God giving us everything He is to be our own food and drink. So what is this emptying about?

I think there are many ways this goes on in our daily lives—Catherine is not talking about some weird mystical experience here, not at all. For example, there is choosing to serve when we don’t feel like it. When we’re tired, fed up, out of gas. When we feel like we’re taking a spatula and scraping out the last bits of love from the bottom of our hearts, and it hurts. This is kenosis—to do it anyway.

Or, forgiveness. To not insist on one’s own rights, to bear injuries patiently, to simply let the other person be the way they are, even if this causes us some pain. To lay down our sword and shield and live with vulnerability and defencelessness. This is kenosis, and no small one. This is how Jesus lived, and how he died.

Or, tolerance. Not in the modern sense of being wishy-washy about the moral law or the truth of our faith, but about all the other stuff, yes. To not insist on one’s own way, one’s own ideas, one’s own take on reality. To practice humility and meekness in one’s dealings with others, as opposed to aggression and competitiveness. This can be a great self-emptying.

And to accept with as happy a heart as we can muster the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.’ The little (and maybe not so little) bumps in the road and crosses of daily life. To give thanks to God in all things and to not dedicate all one’s energy to making life completely pain-free for oneself—to just take it and get on with the business of loving. Kenosis, big time.

I’m sure there are more faces and phases of kenosis in our lives, including some that are more in the mystical line of things. But this is where God would have us live, you know. It’s where Jesus lived, and it is the way of life of God in the world that saved the world and raised it up to new life. It is a beautiful way to live—heavy yes, hard certainly, but beautiful.

Service, forgiveness, tolerance, humility, meekness, patience in long-suffering—how’s that for a Holy Week program? Let’s just do our best today, and pray for one another. Christianity is hard, if we take it seriously, and we need to help each other with it. So… pray for me, and I’ll pray for you. Deal?

Monday, March 25, 2013

New Wrinkle for Commenting

I've been getting a lot of distasteful spam-bot comments clogging up my moderation inbox, so have had to add 'word verification' on comments to weed out the non-humans. My apologies to my human readers!

The Only Thing That Matters

Holy Week is our week to ask about our love, about how much we love him. It is our week to ask ourselves how much we really follow him. There are thousands of little escapes that we can indulge in, that will make it appear that we are following him when we are not. It is our week to find out if we have kissed a friend in the way Judas kissed God. We can do that hypocritically, to earn human respect.

It is a week of examining ourselves. Not with a sort of a cold, intellectual examination of conscience to count our sins. That is not important; his infinite mercy will cover our sins if only we cry out to him for it. No, it is our week to find out how little we love, or how much. And no matter how much we do love, it is our week to cry out to the Lord to learn to love him more.

It is a fantastic, incredible week, in which we are allowed to see how much God the Father loved, how much God the Son obeyed the Father, and also loved us. It is the week of the Spirit: “I have endowed him with my Spirit” (Mt 12:18).

Each minute, each hour, each day of this week is a pilgrimage interiorized, a journey inward, to meet the Triune God who dwells within us. But also to follow Christ, to follow him from the moment of the changing of the bread and wine, to the stone of agony in the Garden, to the departure of all his disciples—the whole seen like a movie that is constantly before our eyes.

The path is clear. Christ made it; we cannot miss it. There are drops of blood along it, in the sands of time. We must follow them. This is the hour of us breaking all the vases we have in our hearts and spilling upon his feet all the perfumes we ever accumulated throughout our lives. What use have we of perfumes when we have God?

Catherine de Hueck Doherty, Season of Mercy

Reflection – This is such a clear, confronting, challenging meditation that I am inclined to add very little of my own thoughts to it. John of the Cross wrote that in the evening of our lives we will be judged on love alone. It is ultimately and utterly the only question any of us should ask ourselves: do I love as Jesus loved? And, if not, how can I grow in love?

All else falls away. Politics and economics, controversy and debate, personal wranglings and jealousies and conflicts. Do I love as Jesus loved, to death, unreservedly, holding nothing back, unconditionally? And if not, what am I going to do about that?

Nothing else matters. And Holy Week is the week of the great question, the great beholding of this love and the great call to receive it and the gift of salvation it brings, and to live it by the power of His Spirit.
Nothing else matters.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Quiet, Everyone

The entire Holy Week is a week of tenderness. All through the Gospel, from his birth right up to his death, the Lord exhibits much tenderness, especially in the way he treats the sinner. When the woman taken in adultery is brought to him, (John 8:3-11) Jesus shows great delicacy. It is very delicate to turn your back to a person like that, who is ashamed, write something in the sand, and wait until the last person has left; and then with infinite tenderness and gentleness say, “Has no man condemned you? Neither do I. Go, and sin no more”.

When Mary anoints Jesus’s feet with ointment (John 12:1-8) and Judas complains, Jesus says, “Leave her alone; she has kept this scent for the day of my burial. You will have your poor with you always; you will not always have me.” Tenderness—pity. Not the pity that hurts, the pity that makes the poor feel squeamish inside, not just the passing pity of the mind, but the pity of the heart. Jesus did not break the bruised reed nor quench this kind of flame.

Holy Week comes upon us. We have walked through Lent to come to this week in order to remember. It is painful. Painful because we love God and watch him suffer, yet joyous because we want to cry out our thanks to him. It is our week too in that now we must be crucified. We must go through the suffering he has gone through. That is his great gift to us, that we “make up what is wanting in the suffering of Christ” (Col 1:24). Nothing is really wanting in the suffering of Christ, but he allows us to partake of it if we wish.

Catherine de Hueck Doherty, Season of Mercy

Reflection – Well, it’s a call to go deeper, that’s for sure. So often in the hurly-burly of everyday life, there can be a sort of shallowing that happens. Stimuli comes at us—this person, that situation, that heaping pile of work, noise, words, images, pounding away at us from morning to night.

And all too often in our lives we can fall into a sort of reactive mode in all this, just flailing away to keep our heads above water, just trying to prevail each day in some fashion. Too easily that can devolve into power struggles or self-defensiveness or various forms of frenetic fight or flight activities.

And so we come to Holy Week. And here is this silent man standing before his accusers. Here is this still figure moving through crowds first yelling for his crowning as king, and then yelling for his blood as sacrificial victim. But he is still, he is intensely focussed on the Father’s will and the call to love and die for his people. And those people are us.

So Catherine calls us to contemplate the tenderness of God, his gentleness, his deep compassion which brought him to this pass. And as we contemplate it, to come to share it. Our world today is filled with anything but this kind of compassion. Our church culture, too, can be deeply deficient in compassion.

For example, Pope Francis’ election and the various different ways he is choosing to move in his first weeks as bishop of Rome have highlighted divisions and tensions in the Church. More traditionally minded Catholics have their hackles up; more ‘liberal’ Catholics are happily exalting Pope Francis and his celebrated humility to the denigration of Benedict, John Paul, and (I guess) every other Pope who ever lived in the past fifteen hundred years. The chattering classes of the media and the endless rattle of social media (not that I am in a position to cast the first stone here) churn out constant commentary and immediate reaction to every word and gesture of the man.

To all of which I want to say: shhhhhh. Quiet, everyone. The man is talking to us: listen to what he’s saying. This is the least, the most minimal duty that Catholics owe to the Roman Pontiff. Pope Francis is acting prophetically, and it is a grave mistake to either reflexively reject him because we don’t like the look of it, or to assume that he’s talking to other people: those horrible curia folk, or his predecessors, or ‘the rich.’ No, he’s talking to you and me and the whole world. He is our shepherd: listen to him.

Holy Week is a good time to quiet down and listen up. Above all, a good time to make tenderness and compassion the watchwords of our hearts and minds. And above all, a time to intensify our focus on Christ above all and in all and (in a certain sense) to the exclusion of all. Palm Sunday is here, and it is time to acclaim and worship Him as king and messiah. Let’s do just that, and enter into his kingship, which is all love and mercy and sacrifice for others.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Never Trust the Media! (A Holy Week Meditation)

I would now like to add yet a third point: there was the Council of the Fathers – the real Council – but there was also the Council of the media. It was almost a Council apart, and the world perceived the Council through the latter, through the media. Thus, the Council that reached the people with immediate effect was that of the media, not that of the Fathers.

And while the Council of the Fathers was conducted within the faith – it was a Council of faith seeking intellectus, seeking to understand itself and seeking to understand the signs of God at that time…  the Council of the journalists, naturally, was not conducted within the faith, but within the categories of today's media, namely apart from faith, with a different hermeneutic.

It was a political hermeneutic: for the media, the Council was a political struggle, a power struggle between different trends in the Church. It was obvious that the media would take the side of those who seemed to them more closely allied with their world. There were those who sought the decentralization of the Church, power for the bishops and then, through the expression "People of God", power for the people, the laity… Naturally, for them, this was the part to be approved, to be promulgated, to be favoured.

We know that this Council of the media was accessible to everyone. Therefore, this was the dominant one, the more effective one, and it created so many disasters, so many problems, so much suffering: seminaries closed, convents closed, banal liturgy … and the real Council had difficulty establishing itself and taking shape; the virtual Council was stronger than the real Council.

But the real force of the Council was present and, slowly but surely, established itself more and more and became the true force which is also the true reform, the true renewal of the Church. It seems to me that, 50 years after the Council, we see that this virtual Council is broken, is lost, and there now appears the true Council with all its spiritual force. And it is our task, especially in this Year of Faith, on the basis of this Year of Faith, to work so that the true Council, with its power of the Holy Spirit, be accomplished and the Church be truly renewed.

Pope Benedict XVI, Address to the Roman Clergy, February 14, 2013

Reflection – I’ve skipped ahead a bit in the talk, and will get back to the parts I skipped later. I wanted to reflect on this section before we move on to Holy Week blogging, as Pope Benedict says something very important here.

It is easy (all too easy!) to bash the media these days. Certainly I have done so, often in language too intemperate for this blog. Although one of my MH lay brothers, listening to me rant about the lousy job the media does, reminded me recently that (via this blog) I am the media now. Ouch!

But there is a deeper point here, and it actually pertains to Holy Week quite directly. It is true that the media distorted the Second Vatican Council, for example. The actual documents and their contents bear little resemblance to the popular picture people have, and that the media still promulgates, of what Vatican II was about. According to Pope Benedict who was there and should know, the media presentation of the deliberations and processes of the Council was equally distorted.

But the deeper point is not ‘the media is terrible and we should ignore them!’ That may be true. But more deeply, we have to be aware that, in a sense, we are all ‘media’. We all are taking in reality and putting forth our own spin on it. We all are presenting our version of things continually. There is the day Fr. Denis Lemieux is about to live, and then there is the day he is going to ‘report’ on to himself and others at the end of it. And these are not quite the same thing.

We are not all a bunch of filthy liars distorting the truth for our own personal gain. But we are unreliable witnesses, all of us, and don’t quite tell it like it is. Beware of the person who claims to ‘tell it like it is’ – really they just are dumping their judgments on you and whoever else will is listening.

And that leads me to Holy Week, oddly. Because… what is reality, anyhow? What is really going on? What’s the real deal, if we can’t trust the media, other people, or ourselves?

‘Behold the wood of the Cross…’ ‘Behold the Lamb of God…’ ‘Behold the man…’ What is going on, perpetually, always, in your life, in my life, in the life of the world, is that God is loving the world unto death and penetrating into the very heart of the world’s anguish and pain to sow seeds of life and resurrection there. God is descending into Hell to raise up Adam and Eve and all their children to radiant life in Him.
This is reality. This is not spin. This is what is. And in Holy Week we are invited, not to ‘tell it like it is’, but to ‘see it like it is,’ a seeing that can only happen by gazing upon the face of the Crucified Savior which yields to the radiant transfigured face of the Risen Lord. Un-mediated truth, or a medium of truth that is wholly reliable because it is wholly God’s – this is our time to plug into that truth and be conformed to it, so that our lives can be a little truer, a little less of us and a little (or lot) more of Jesus. That’s where we’re at, and that’s where I’ll be blogging this next week.

Friday, March 22, 2013

How Catholics Read the Bible

The idea had arisen that Scripture is complete; everything is found there; consequently there is no need for Tradition, and so the Magisterium has nothing to say. At that point Pope Paul VI transmitted to the Council fourteen formulae for a phrase to be inserted into the text on Revelation and he gave the Council Fathers, the freedom to choose one of the fourteen formulae, but he said that one of them needed to be chosen in order to complete the text. I remember more or less the formula "non omnis certitudo de veritatibus fidei potest sumi ex Sacra Scriptura", in other words, the Church’s certainty about her faith is not born only of an isolated book, but has need of the Church herself as a subject enlightened and guided by the Holy Spirit. Only then does the Scripture speak with all its authority.

This phrase is decisive, I would say, for showing the Church’s absolute necessity, and thus understanding the meaning of Tradition, the living body in which this word draws life from the outset and from which it receives its light, in which it is born. The fact of the canon of Scripture is already an ecclesial fact: that these writings are Scripture is the result of an illumination of the Church, who discovered in herself this canon of Scripture; she discovered it, she did not create it; and always and only in this communion of the living Church can one really understand and read the Scripture as the word of God, as a word which guides us in life and in death.

Reflection – There are such fine distinctions and careful reflections in this short passage that it merits careful close reading. Protestants reject this, of course, holding in their classical theology to the principle of sola scriptura – the Scriptures alone as the source of divine revealed truth. It must be said in response to that assertion that sola scriptura is simply not a Scriptural doctrine—nowhere in the Bible does it say that only in the Bible does God reveal himself. Indeed the ending of John’s Gospel explicitly says the opposite (Jn 21:25), and Jesus Himself says that the Holy Spirit would be with his disciples to teach them everything else they needed to learn (Jn 16:13).

Meanwhile, though, we do not exactly say that the Church ‘made’ the Bible. Benedict is clear here: we discovered it, we did not create it. Revelation is a gift from God, not a human product, but it is a gift He gave to His Church who received it, cherishes it, reads it, understands it in the light of all God’s other revelation in Tradition, and passes it on through the millennia.

We tend to think of things in terms of competitive opposites: Scripture or Tradition, the Word of God or the teaching authority of the Church. The more we can understand that God is the primary actor in the life of the Church and of salvation history, the more we can move out of this strange quasi-Marxist power struggle view of revelation and ‘who is in charge, who gets the last word’ being the most important question.

God reveals Himself to a body of believers, giving them a written inspired text and a living Tradition, and above all his Holy Spirit to abide with them to condition and guide their reception and interpretation of the revealed truth. It is a messy process, imperfect because sinful human beings are imperfect, but nonetheless that is our Catholic understanding of it.

And this understanding saves us from so many pitfalls in mis-reading of Scripture. One example, which is commonplace today. The exegete Rudolph Bultmann famously said that it is impossible to believe in miracles in the age of radio waves and antibiotics. Hence the miracle stories in the Bible are symbolic or legendary or something: at any rate, not to be taken literally. The dead cannot be raised, nor the blind healed, nor the lame walk, nor bread and fish multiplied. Of course not: we are modern scientific people, and know better.

Except… the Church has 2000 years of experience of, well, miracles performed by saints all over the place. Bultmann was a contemporary of Padre Pio! Lourdes is a place of ongoing miraculous healings. I personally know of instances of food being multiplied in soup kitchens for Christ’s poor. Miracles are not commonplace events of course—they wouldn’t be called miracles if they were. But if Bultmann was doing his exegesis within the catholic communion, he would never have written such a silly sentence.
That’s one example, and there are many others. It is the Church and its long experience of the ways of God in the world that conditions our reading of Scripture to keep it true to God’s Spirit. And that is how God’s revelation of love and saving power is passed on from one generation to the next, for 2000 years and counting.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Talking to Clever Ducks

Even more hotly debated was the problem of Revelation. At stake here was the relationship between Scripture and Tradition, and it was the exegetes above all who were anxious for greater freedom; they felt themselves somewhat – shall we say – in a position of inferiority with regard to the Protestants, who were making the great discoveries, whereas Catholics felt somewhat "handicapped" by the need to submit to the Magisterium.

So a very concrete struggle was in play here: what sort of freedom do exegetes have? How does one properly read Scripture? What is the meaning of Tradition? It was a multifaceted struggle which I cannot go into now, but the important thing, for sure, is that Scripture is the word of God and that the Church is under Scripture, the Church obeys God’s word and does not stand above Scripture. Yet at the same time Scripture is Scripture only because there is the living Church, its living subject; without the living subject of the Church, Scripture is only a book, open to different interpretations and lacking ultimate clarity.

Reflection – OK, so I’m back as of yesterday in my own bed in my own bedroom in my own priest house in my own Madonna House in Combermere. Whew. While England was great and I loved it there… well, as Dorothy said, ‘There’s no place like home!’

Now just to remind everyone that before all this kerfuffle of the last month or so in Rome we were having something called a ‘Year of Faith’ (remember that?). Incidentally, I think this whole business of papal resignation and the historic election of Pope Francis has been a vital part of the Year of Faith, among other things calling everyone to truly deepen our faith in the Church’s origin and sustenance in God and not in human beings.

But part of the Year of Faith has been the call from Pope (Emeritus) Benedict to study and re-embrace the legacy of Vatican II in truth and in depth. And since this talk to the Roman clergy is virtually the last public statement we have of Pope Benedict on that or any other subject, I’m going to spend the next few days—perhaps until Holy Week or so—blogging my way through it. So… back to Life With a German Shepherd for a few days.

So here we have the thorny issue of Revelation, Scripture, Tradition, and Magisterium and their inter-relation. It seems to me, and here I of course defer to the great scholars of the Church who have been far more immersed in these matters than I, that the whole field of critical Scripture scholarship developed primarily in a non-Catholic setting, and its development, methodologies and pre-suppositions reflect that.
Catholic Scripture scholars who wish to work in that field on an equal level with their Protestant colleagues have more often than not simply done their Scripture scholarship on those terms, and in consequence have had to compartmentalize their scholarship and their faith, to the detriment of both and to themselves above all.

It seems to me that, far from stifling the work of Scripture scholarship, the integration of Scripture and Tradition guided by the rightful authority of the Magisterium enlivens it and gives it depth and direction. So often, in my admittedly minimal exposure to historical-critical exegesis, the terminus of the work seems to be this one scholar’s speculative re-construction of the composition of this one text and its original historical intent and meaning. All very speculative—the next scholar promptly comes along and writes a completely different re-construction—and all rather fruitless.

I mean, we get to see what a clever duck Dr. Whositby is and how effectively he debunked Dr. Wheresitfrom (although the radical scholarship of Dr. Wassitmean is coming right behind to debunk him in turn), but what good does their work do in drawing out the deep meaning of the Word of God in a creative spiritual way for the Body of Christ? Especially since most of them cannot write coherent and lively prose to save their lives.

Meanwhile, Scripture scholarship can be done in a lively creative tension with the whole tradition of the Church, an approach and a method that actually takes us somewhere. Pope Benedict’s own Jesus of Nazareth books are precisely his effort to teach by showing us how to do it. My own belief is that this approach rescues Scripture scholarship (and indeed, the Scriptures) from the dusty dry hegemony of the academics and saves it from many of the outright errors and distortions it too often falls into… about which I will blog tomorrow, God willing and the crick don`t rise. See you then.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

New Book On the Way, Hurray, Hurray!

Hurray, hurray - the 'mock-up' of my new book cover arrived this week. Coming soon from Justin Press. I always like what Mark Shea says about such things - this is the writer's version of baby ultrasound pictures. Anyhow, stay tuned to this station - the book (which I've been working on, one way or another, since 2009) is coming soon.

Unfinished Business

Somewhere in our hearts there are always dead ends of human relations: something forgotten, something we have put away on the shelf or in the cavern of our soul. It may not show all the time, but it does come forth. All those dead ends have to be swept away into the lap of the Lord, or at his feet. We cannot enter radiantly into [Easter] unless we have forgiven.

Christ expects of us a peaceful approach to the other, no matter how hurtful that other has been, an approach like his own: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.” I remember when the Communists shot a priest in Russia [during Mass], an old man with a thin, reedy voice said, “Father, forgive them, even if they do know what they do.” I understood then what total forgiveness could be. We can only understand forgiveness through Christ forgiving us. Christ who forgave his enemies while he lived, and telling us to forgive “seventy times seven”.

The greatest thing I can do for anybody is to pray for them and really mean it. If I just say, “Lord, I have forgiven her; please look after her”, that is not enough. The person has to be in my heart, in my mind, for a little while. Then I hand him or her over to God, clad in the white garment of my forgiveness. I forget them in the sense that I have forgiven them, but I remember them in the uniqueness of their person. Now they are just as they were before. It can be done. I think such love can do what is almost impossible.

Catherine de Hueck Doherty, Season of Mercy

Reflection – Catherine has a way of coming at things from a slightly different angle than other writers. Here it is the whole business of forgiveness and the Gospel call to same. This is a tough one, and there’s no question about it. Besides the somewhat petty level of daily annoyances and small injustices, almost all of us have at least somewhere in the back of our histories someone who did us a great injury, or who injured someone we dearly love.

Both on the petty level and on the grand, forgiveness is hard. But Catherine is quite right, of course. We may not be feverishly plotting revenge against our enemies, but we all have a tendency to simply park these dead ended relationships somewhere back in the caverns and shelves of our mind. To simply write it off and move on.

But we cannot write it off and move on, not if we are Christians. Because the ‘it’ is not an ‘it’ – it is a he or a she—a person. And we are accountable for every human relationship and how it ends—not in the outer realm which is beyond our control—but in our hearts.

Until we forgive this person and love them, the relationship has not ended rightly, and is unfinished business for us. We might need to leave it as such for a time, especially in the bigger injuries and deeper hurts, but if we are Christians we cannot leave it at that forever.

Essentially, Christianity means being called to live the life of Christ in the world in our frail fallen flesh. And so God so loved the world that He died for the salvation of everyone. Our living his life in our own flesh means we simply cannot leave anyone outside of our love. Not the person who hurt you worst (I know that as you read this you have someone in mind – I certainly do as I write it!), and not the person who bothers and frustrates you every day (you probably have someone in mind for that position, too!).

Challenging? Yes. But the world as we see it today is filled with the opposite attitude: hatred and revenge or cold indifference and contempt. And where does all that take us? Our biggest contribution to a culture of life and love is to this day extend the hand of forgiveness through the prayer of our heart, through carrying that person today in our thoughts and minds, asking God to bless them and, in a sense, giving our lives for that blessing. Christ gave his life for you; you can give today for ‘that person’. And that’s how love conquers in our world.
I'm not being too simplistic, am I? I don't think so. It's hard, no question, and the emotional realites can be complex enough, but I think the thing itself is extraordinarily simple. To desire, and to ask God, that hatred and anger and indifference be eradicated from our hearts so that love can flow outward to everyone, and in a particular way to our enemies, whoever they may be.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Memory of Mankind

The radical detachment of the Enlightenment philosophy from its roots ultimately leads it to dispense with man. The spokesmen of the natural sciences tell us that man does not possess any liberty—in total contradiction of the starting point of the whole question. The more advanced spokesmen of a philosophy that is clearly separated from the roots of the historical memory of humanity tell us that man ought not to imagine that the is something different from all other living beings. And it follows that man ought not to be treated any differently from them…

The real antagonism typical of today’s world is not that between diverse religious cultures; rather, it is the antagonism between the radical emancipation of man from God, from the roots of life, on the one hand, and the great religious cultures, on the other. If we come to experience a clash of cultures, this will not be due to a conflict between the great religions, which of course have always been at odds with one another but, nevertheless have ultimately always understood how to coexist with one another. The coming clash will be between the radical emancipation of man and the great historical cultures.

Joseph Ratzinger, Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures, 42-44

Reflection – See, it’s quotes like this which got me started on this blog, and which are why Pope Benedict’s resignation from the papacy and public life do not mean his writings will vanish any time soon from my blogging and, I hope, from the interest of the public.

It is this whole business of the ‘historical memory of mankind’ that is so central in his writings and reflections. There is a fundamental core of truth—or at least, to be fair, what has always been taken to be true by the vast mass of humanity—that is shared between traditional cultures and it is precisely this core that is rejected by modern secularism.

What is this core of truth? That there is a divine spiritual realm above the human and the earthly material one. That everything comes from the divine, from God in some sense, and is under the authority of God. That there is a moral law which is binding on every human being and that does not change from one generation to the next (for how could it be a binding moral law if it always changes?). That the life of humanity is one part, perhaps a central part as we Christians understand, in a drama that we did not initiate and whose final outcome and meaning is not ours to determine.

Some might argue that the moral law varies widely from place to place, culture to culture. C.S. Lewis answered that one long ago in his writings by pointing out that… well, it really doesn’t. There has never been a culture that valued cowardice or oath-breaking or indiscriminate killing. There is vast overlap in the actual content of the moral law among cultures; most of the real variance lies in who the moral law gets applied to, and who is left outside its protection.

At any rate, secularism is the true radical variant here, casting out any sense of a moral law, a divine origin, meaning, and goal to life, and any real connection with the vast traditions of humanity. We have been assured that all this is vitally necessary if humanity is to climb out its tragic barbaric past into a glorious and truly civilized future. And what secularism has delivered has been abortions by the tens of millions, euthanasia on the immediate horizon in most of the Western nations and already present in some, the ever-increasing degradation of human sexuality in ever-increasing corrosively  explicit displays of obscenity, and a casual contempt for human freedom and dignity that shows up in all manners and forms, in social media and government policy, in the light entertainments of music and TV, and in serious academic discourse.
Enough. Secularism has had its day, and its promises have proven false. Let us return to the wisdom of our mothers and fathers going back to the dim recesses of human memory, which has been cast aside so lightly, of so little account to us. It is the feast of St. Joseph today, patron of Canada and of the universal Church. A good feast day to ponder this clash of cultures, perhaps, and to choose wisely the path of life and freedom, which is the path of God in the world, of love and of the brotherhood of man under the fatherhood of God.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

English Reflections

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is smeared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights of the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward springs--
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
Gerard Manley Hopkins, God's Grandeur
Reflection - So I depart today from Robin Hood's Bay, North Yorkshire, U.K., hopping on the train in Scarborough to Manchester, and flying out tomorrow morning for Toronto. It has been just three weeks since I made the trip in reverse. (On a practical note, blogging may be a bit sparse the next couple days - I'll do my best, but travel does make it difficult).

I want to begin this post by apologizing in advance to any English readers - I know there is nothing more galling than someone coming to spend three weeks in your home country and then making all sorts of learned ponderous statements about it, on the Internet no less. I will try to avoid that particular brand of folly (having plenty of my own specialized brands). I am well aware that I have spent a mere 21 days in a very small corner of North Yorkshire with vast stretches of England on all sides, unseen, unknown to me.

That being said, what I have experienced is best put precisely in this famous poem of Hopkins. Simply, I have experienced beauty, and a sort of ineradicable goodness here that took me (just a bit) by surprise. England gets a bad press, you know. The global picture of England on the whole is not a positive one: football hooligans and ASBO-laden re-primitivized slum dwelling yobs, all presided over by a Nanny State government doling out benefits with no thought of the future. This, and more negative pictures yet that I won't go into on this blog, is the general picture one picks up of England in the global media consciousness.

Well, all that may have some foundation in truth - after three weeks, how would I know? But what I experienced was beauty. Beauty of the land, which I expected - the North Yorkshire coast is spectacular, the moors lovely, the North Sea imposing and entrancing. Beauty of architecture, which I also expected - the stone houses, the ancient churches, the unique harmony born of a long co-existence between God's created beauty and man's, the blending of human craftsmanship with the divine architecture.

But there is beauty in England itself - the people, I mean. And in the English spirit, the soul of England. 'There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.' And I touched that freshness many, many times. I touched the holiness of the heart of Christian England in Durham Cathedral, praying at the tombs of St. Bede and St. Cuthbert. It is hard to go much further back into the mists of English Christianity than that... and the freshness of their holiness is there still, deep down, radiant.

And then the strange and painful beauty that came out of the English Reformation. I touched that in York, at the Bar Convent where Mary Ward and her sisters kept the faith in the most difficult circumstances imaginable. I saw the priest hole there, and the hidden chapel, the altar disguised as a bed board, the vestments disguised as a bolt of cloth. And Margaret Clitheroe's shrine, remembering this woman crushed to death with a stone at her spine for the crime of hiding priests. All very dark and painful and sad... but the Holy Ghost broods over the world in such places, and those bright wings can be felt, if not exactly seen, if you know what I mean.

But there is a goodness, a beauty, a light here - for all the problems, all the falling away from faith and church life and practice, all the social-political-economic troubles. Nature--and even more, super-nature--is never spent. There has been a Christian spirit, a Christian culture in England for over a millennium, the light and freshness of which will not quickly be spent indeed. And my reflection in all this is that it is our Christian task in general, wherever we are, to bear witness to this, to look earnestly for this, and to honor and welcome it when it is found.

Too often, Christians can seem like global scolds, continually bemoaning the failures and evils of the world and of their neighbors. This may be exaggerated, but there is a thread of truth in it at least. We can be a bit mopy at times, if we're not careful. The good Lord know there's enough to be mopy about - the problems are real, and serious. But we really should be so attuned to any stirring of goodness, any and all traces of beauty, and and all shining forth of truth and light in our brothers and sisters, since any and all of it comes from God and is His in source and in essence.

To bear witness to beauty, goodness, and truth wherever it lingers in this bent world of ours, and to foster and encourage it to grow to the fullness of its divine life - this is key to the mission of Christianity in our poor neo-pagan, apostasized world. And this is what I have touched in my little English experience, and what I carry in my heart as I return to Canada where that dearest freshness is deep in things, too.

As we move through these next weeks of Passiontide, when beauty and goodness, truth and light assume strange and appalling forms in the face of the Crucified One, let us call on the Spirit to show us where love is present and where love is winning in the hearts and souls of men, and our own hearts as well.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The God Who Strips Himself Naked

God could give no greater gift to men than to make his Word, through whom he created all things, their head and to join them to him as his members, so that the word might be both Son of God and son of man, one God with the Father and one man with all men.
The result is that when we speak with God in prayer we do not separate the Son from him, and when the body of the Son prays it does not separate its head from itself: it is the one Savior of his body, our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who prays for us and in us and is himself the object of our prayers.
He prays for us as our priest, he prays in us as our head, he is the object of our prayers as our God. Let us recognize both our voice in his, and his voice in ours. When something is said, especially in prophecy, about the Lord Jesus Christ that seems to belong to a condition of lowliness unworthy of God, we must not hesitate to ascribe this conditon to one who did not hesitate to unite himself with us...
Our thoughts then must be awakened to keep their vigil of faith. We must realize that the one whom we were contemplating a short time before in his nature as God took to himself the nature of a servant; he was made in the likeness of men and found to be a man like others; he humbled himself by being obedient even in accepting death... Himself unchanged, he took to himself our created nature in order to change it, and made us one man with himself, head and body.
St. Augustine, Office of Readings, Wednesday of the Fifth Week of Lent

Reflection - One thing I do want to do with this new blog is to periodically include snippets from the Office of Readings of the Church. Daily the Church offers a rich banquet of patristic and other writings in the divine office; it is a constant offering of wisdom and light that sadly goes unused by the mass of Catholic Christians.

I include this today since we are heading with this evening's opening of the Fifth Sunday of Lent into Passiontide, the final two weeks of Lent when the Church turns its gaze more and more intently to the figure of the humiliated Christ, the lowly one, the poor man who is God from God, Light from Light, the God who strips himself naked before us, the very fount of all joy and beauty who embraces pain, sorrow, disfigurement for our sake, the Deathless One who dies for us.

In the face of this Face, there are only two appropriate responses. Ultimately, we are to forsake all else to follow this man, this God wherever he leads us and to have no other concern but to live in his will and his love. But to get there, to grow to love Him that much so that we can do this, the Church has always known that we need to simply behold him. And Passiontide is all about beholding the Lamb of God, beholding the man (ecce homo!), beholding the wood of the cross.

To not turn away, to not shrug it off with a casual 'whatever', to not be blithe or heedless of it. God died for us. God became man and died for us. God united himself to us that totally - marvel of marvels. The poverty of Christ, the humility of God, the astounding path God chose to walk to save and redeem the world is our intense focus these next two weeks. There is little to say about it (not that that ever stops me from trying), little to say to God in response to it except a weak and shaky 'Thank you'.

But it seems to me that this is precisely the direction Pope Francis is guiding us towards, in his life-long focus on poverty and simplicity of life, reflected in his words and deeds of these first days of his papacy. We see a world, and a Church, beset with problems and anguish and sin. Our human tendency is to take control, to get all clever and efficient and smooth, to whip those bishops and priests and politicians into shape, goshdarnit, and then we'll have a Church or a nation worth belonging to!

Jesus stripped himself naked, was beaten up, flogged, and nailed to two pieces of wood. And that's how the world got saved, and the how the Church was born, in the first place. So... the path of renewal and restoration must follow this same path, don't you think? This same Christ is living in us, living for us, and seated at the right hand of God the Father in the heavens. Let us pray in him, with him, and to him, then, as wise St. Augustine counsels, so that we may discern the path of love and brotherhood in our own lives and our life together as the Body of Christ in the world.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Marvelling at Forsaken Cornfields

The Father said, 'That is a stone.' The Son would not say, 'That is a loaf.' No one creative fiat shall contradict another. TheFather and the Son are of one mind. The Lord could hunger, could starve, but would not change into another thing what His Father had made one thing.
 There was no such change in the feeding of the multitudes. The fish and the bread were fish and bread before... there was in these miracles, and I think in all, only a hastening of appearances: the doing of that in a day which may ordinarily take a thousand years, for with God times in not what it is with us.
He makes it... Nor does it render the process one whit more miraculous. Indeed, the wonder of the growing corn is to me greater than the wonder of feeding the thousands. It is easier to understand the creative power going forth at once - immediately - than throught he countless, the lovely, the seemingly forsaken wonders of the cornfield.
George MacDonald,  Unspoken Sermons, Vol 1
Reflection - Well, after all the papal excitement of recent days, let's settle back into something different. I just plucked the above book, or rather an anthology of selections from it, off the shelf of the MH England library. I had read MacDonald's fairy tales, which are delightful, and knew of his influence on C.S. Lewis, which was profound, but had never experienced his prose style.

It seems to me that this sermon from the late 19th century could have been given in the year 2013 without much need for change. The whole modern world is dedicated to turning stones into bread - to making something God made one thing into something quite other.

For example, human beings are persons, not medicine. So embryos can not be harvested for stem cell research. A person is one thing; medicine is another. This is roughly the same argument used for why cannibalism is wrong - my brother is my life, not my lunch. I suppose in time, having pursued the use of embryos for medical research, we will come around to using them as appetizers.

Sorry to be distasteful, but the distastefulness is not mine, after all. Underneath this modern attitude which is so prevalent, this rejection of God's created order, this utter incapacity to distinguish between one thing-making something injured or ill well-and another-making something to be what it is not-is a fundamental rejection of God the Creator, God the Father, and a terminal inability or refusal to trust Him as such.

Meanwhile, besides holding out the Son's total acceptance of the will of the Father as our model, MacDonald calls us to a whole-hearted delight in the actual force of life and wholeness that is inherent in creation itself. The cornfield does burgeon and blossom and produce the full ear, the mature plant heavy with nourishment and life. There are, in fact, medical advances with adult stem cell therapies, which simply use the potentialities of the patient's own body to speed or strengthen the healing process, something our bodies are designed to do by their own created power.

God's created order is good, and the deep solutions to our difficulties and sorrows lie within a joyful acceptance of it and embrace of its true goodness and life. And even though death is inevitable, and suffering may proceed it, even there God comes to meet his creature and lead us into a fuller yet reception of life and beauty. The passage through suffering and death, when it comes to us and cannot be withstood by our godly use of intellect and will, is a passage into Christ's own life, death, and resurrection.

I like this MacDonald fellow, and will be adding him to my rogue's gallery on the side when I get back to Combermere, along with that new pope fellow in Rome whassisname. Meantime, let us spend the day marvelling at the forsaken cornfields and their lovely, miraculous fecundity.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Francis, Rebuild My Church

Well, that was... unexpected! Here's a few first thoughts on the election of Pope Francis and what was truly for most of us our first encounter with this man last night on the balcony of St. Peter's. Like many, I knew almost nothing about him before last night, and of course the real getting to know our new Holy Father will occur in the weeks and months ahead.

First... enter a pope, leave a cardinal! The saying for conclaves holds true. Jorge Bergoglio (I had to look up the spelling of his last name just now) was on no one's list. What are the chances that at the next conclave the media and pundits will remember this and be a bit less cocksure? Yeah, I don't think so either.

Second, I was moved very deeply by his beginning his papacy by leading us in prayer. Let us pray for Pope Emeritus Benedict... Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be. Simple, childlike prayer, gathering the people of God around the throne of God and under the protection of the Madonna. What more can we ask a shepherd to do?

Third, I was also deeply moved--to the point of tears, truth be told--at his bowing down humbly to ask for our prayers as he begins this daunting task. Again, so simple, so childlike, so poor--'I want you to do something for me.' And how many millions of Catholics around the world at that point were united in praying for this man bowing before us to ask for the alms of our prayers? What a beautiful, gentle way to begin his papacy.

Fourth, and finally, the choice of name. This is deeply symbolic, deeply meaningful. Francis of Assisi, the poor man who rebuilt the Church, not by political games or five-year pastoral plans, but by an example of holiness and voluntary poverty, of prayer and simplicity of life. Or maybe it is Francis Xavier, the heroic Jesuit missionary, the martyr who gave his life to spread the Gospel to the ends of the earth. Or there is Francis de Sales, the great evangelizer of apostate Europe. And the mischievious side of me has to mention St. Francis Borgia, the great Jesuit saint, just for the sake of getting 'Borgia' and 'pope' in the same sentence.

But really, it is Francis of Assisi who I believe he is invoking in his choice of name. Francis, rebuild my Church. The Church today is in terrible disarray, terrible disrepair. It needs rebuilding, desparately. Ecclesia semper reformanda - the Church always needing to be reformed, this is the theme that comes to me in all this.

But this path of reformation must come from holiness of life, purity of prayer, and deep poverty and simplicity of spirit. Let us pray for Pope Francis that he may faithfully follow the Lamb of God in love of the Father and service to God's people, as the Spirit of God leads him to do.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Pope Day

O God, eternal shepherd,
who govern your flock with unfailing care,
grant in your boundless fatherly love
a pastor for your Church
who will please you by his holiness
and to us show watchful care.

Collect, Mass for the Election of a Pope or Bishop

Reflection - Well, here it is - Pope Day! Well, probably, anyhow - the first ballot yesterday evening and four ballots today certainly is a good start on the process. If not today, almost certainly tomorrow.

As I mentioned yesterday here, I offered the Mass for the election of a pope here in our England house. I was deeply struck by the prayer (above) which the Church offers for this occasion. This is the mind and heart of the Church as we approach this solemn moment of welcoming the successor of Peter onto the chair of Peter with all the awesome responsibility that comes with that. It is no joke that the room the newly elected Pope is ushered into and vested with the robes of his office, the room where he 'becomes' the Pope, so to speak, is called the Room of Tears. We really need to pray for this man, whoever he may be.

But this Collect tells us how to pray for him, I would suggest. And it is a fine corrective to the endless punditry that has come from all sides of the punditocracy, the pundit-sphere (Punditeria? Punditistan? The People's Democracy of Punditia?).

Ahem. Sorry - punning (pun-dit-ing?) is my ongoing untreated addiction. But really, from all sides of the equation has come ceaseless analysis and chatter about just what we need from a Pope. We need a reformer of the Curia. We need a charismatic evangelical presence. We need someone who can finally deal with the sex abuse scandals. We need a non-European. We need someone who will change every Church teaching to bring the Church into the 21st century for crying out loud. (OK, that last one is from the New York Times, who don't really count).

But how about... we need a pastor who will please God with his holiness? Because really... I kind of like that! A Pope who God will like! A Pope who will earnestly seek the will of God in all things and unite himself in prayer and in love to God's holy will, which is what holiness consists of. A Pope pleasing to God--please God that the cardinals will elect such a man for us!

And to us show watchful care. I like that, too. Not 'and solve every problem of the Church.' Not, 'and never make a mistake.' Not, 'and be all things to all people and thrill us all with his awesome charismatic popetude.' To show us watchful care. To do, as we say in Madonna House, the duty of the moment of the Bishop of Rome. To do little things exceedingly well... and in light of the truly divine actions of God, of Christ, of the Spirit in the world, the Pope spends his days doing little things. May he do them well out of love for God.

You know, as we've all been moving through the days and weeks since all this started, I have been pondering much the whole business of the papacy, not in its doctrinal and structural realities, which as a faithful Catholic I accept unreservedly, but in its current cultural expression--the host of expectations and attitudes we tend to adopt towards the current office-holder of the See of Rome.

I think we are out of balance on this front. The Pope is one man, with one job to do, and it is an important job, no question. But he is not the whole Church, he is (certainly!) not Jesus or God, he is not the entire magisterium or the whole of the episcopacy. He is one man, and he has one job to do, and that is to faithfully serve God as shepherd of the universal church to the utmost extent that a single human being can do that.

He cannot run every diocese or every parish. He cannot solve every problem. He cannot personally evangelize your disbelieving co-workers or bring back to Church your rebellious children or siblings. He cannot make every priest shape up, or even every bishop. He is one man, with one job to do, and that job is so huge that our best prayer is that he be a holy man who listens to God with ardent care and zeal.

So today is 'pope day'... I hope! Let us surround this poor man with our prayers and love, and ask God to lavish his graces and blessings on him, so that he can be a true servant of the servants of God who are us, and faithfully and nobly fulfill the great calling in life which God has given him.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Conclave Thoughts

Trusting another means taking one’s stand on some one else’s intelligence and embracing as true what one has not decided for one’s self… it implies a recognition by the mind of its own limits, an acceptance of dependence, a surrender of my absolute sovereignty.

Jean Danielou, The Scandal of the Truth
Reflection - I have very little time indeed to blog today, as I prepare for a parish mission tomorrow. Anyhow, the conclave begins as I write this, and perhaps it is best to be silent and prayerful rather than chattering and nattering on about whatever.

In relation to the conclave, this quote on truth and surrender seems relevant. A bunch of men, most of whom are total strangers to me, are preparing to make a decision in Rome that will affect the whole Church in a radical fashion.

This is daunting, is it not? I certainly find it so. We pray for them. We have various levels of trust in their good judgment, based on our experience and knowledge. We have no control whatsoever in what is going to happen in the next two days.

So... we are all feeling our limits, and this is not a bad thing. We all cast them, the Church, and our own selves on the merciful love of God, or at least that is what we are called to do. And that is a very good thing indeed.

Well, I have to go say Mass now, offering the Mass for the election of the pope. Enough of my words; time for Jesus to have his way with me and with us all. Amen.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Into the Sheepfold

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
All the days of my life
In the Lord's own house shall I dwell
For the rest of my days.
Psalm 23
Reflection - So, here I am, back from giving the MH England staff a retreat in nearby Filey, just south of Scarborough, right on the North Sea. The retreat was beautiful, but the weather was ghastly - cold arctic winds continually blowing off the sea with rain and sleet and snow mixed in with it. So much for an English spring!
Fortunately, the Lord's goodness and mercy were not thrown off the track by all that, and followed us there through all the storms and nastiness. And that is the point of these first lines of the poem: no matter what, no matter what difficulties, problems, conflicts, tensions, even sins we are bedevilled with... God is with us. 
This was true for the inspired writer of the psalm, whoever and wherever he was. How much more true it is for us, now that Christ has come. God became man, and man has never been alone since, not really. Oh, we don't always feel that way. Maybe we don't 'feel' it often at all. But it is so. Emmanuel has come, God is with us.

The second last verse of the psalm is all about this never-failing fidelity of God. Goodness and mercy follow us all our lives long. Goodness--that in every situation, in any circumstance, there is a good choice to be made, a way of righteousness through it. It may be (usually is) difficult; it may involve sacrifice, may even involve martyrdom, but there it is.

And mercy -- when we fail (often), there is mercy from God, compassion from heaven, help given to stand up again when we stumble and fall. Our whole life is bound up with goodness and mercy, the constant call to do the right thing, and constant succor when we fall woefully short of that right thing. All of this is God's shepherding of us, and Christ the Good Shepherd leads us on our way.

But the last verse of the psalm is where it opens up to an even deeper 'shepherding'. In the context of the original psalm and its time, it probably meant having access to the temple of God in Jerusalem always, being able to enter in and offer worship, and never being deprived of this to the point of death. There was little awareness of eternal life in early Judaism.

But for us... the Lord's house has a different meaning, and 'the rest of our days' has a slightly longer scope now. The Good Shepherd is leading us, not to a happy earthly life, not even to a godly virtuous earthly life, but to heaven. We are living in the Lord's own house even now (the life of grace and ecclesial communion) but will experience that house as a true house, a visible tangible home, a genuine way of life and love that we cannot imagine now, but has been assured to us by the Lord.

This is the point of the whole affair, of God's shepherding work, the deep meaning of the sheepfold God leads us towards. All the rest of the psalm - the dark valleys and cool pastures, the still waters and right paths, terminate here. We are going to heaven... at least, if God has anything to say about the matter. Seek his goodness, ask for his mercy, and keep following Him no matter what... and we'll be all right. We really will be, you know.