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.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

This Week in Madonna House - Sep 21-27

This week in Madonna House the dominant event was the annual retreat gathering of the MH associate clergy. I'm pretty sure I've not mentioned this aspect of the community of the blog before, that we have associate clerical members. So, what's that about?

In the late 1950s a priest named Joseph Raya came here, a Lebanese Melkite, much against his will by some friends of his who knew Catherine and MH. When he arrived he was taken aback by the sight of our Pax-Caritas cross. It seems he had long envisioned just such a cross, with the equivalent words in Arabic. He also fell in love with the community and its spirituality, but he was quite sure that he was called to remain a parish priest in Alabama where he was then assigned.

It is to the credit of Fr. John Callahan, the first MH priest and director of the priests, that he discerned on the spot that we were to have an associate priesthood. He took off his own Pax-Caritas cross and immediately placed it around the neck of Fr. Raya (who later on became Archbishop Raya in the Holy Land, and there's a whole lot to be said about his life in and with MH that is a story for another day).

And so the associate priesthood, later expanded to include permanent deacons, was born. These are ordained men who identify with MH spirituality and desire to live it in their ministries and lives. They make promises as we do, but as associates, and strive to live the spirit of the Little Mandate to the best of their abilities in their home dioceses.

For our part, we pray for them, welcome them as true members of our community when they come to visit, and host this annual retreat for them at the end of September. I'm not quite sure about the current number of associates but I know it's over 100, including several bishops and deacons. This year for the retreat we had a smaller number than usual, perhaps about a dozen priests and five deacons with their wives (who, while technically not associates, we cherish as beloved friends).

The format is much what one would expect - a daily conference, liturgy in common, lots of time for prayer and quiet. MH is such a relational community that we don't seem to go much for 'silence' in retreats, so there is also lots of time for visiting and sharing of life and enjoying one another's company. Our theme this year, taking the cue from Pope Francis, was 'The Joy of the Gospel' and we looked at that from various angles pertaining to ordained ministry.

The existence of a associate clergy in MH is somewhat of a mystery in the proper sense of that word. These men come here, they love us and we love them, and then they go out into the world to exercise their priestly or diaconal service, and the full extent of what we mean to them and they mean to us is largely hidden from all of us. Many of our associate priests over the years have said to us that they don't think they would have persevered in the priesthood without their association with MH. But it is all very hidden, very undramatic, very ordinary, as most of the really important and beautiful things in life are.

Otherwise this week, we remain a small family, with a light sprinkling of guests only. I understand that is going to change in the weeks ahead. Meanwhile, the harvest is coming in. Apple juicing was the big job of the week at the farm, and our farm manager informed me yesterday that our yield this year will be comparable to last year's bumper crop.

While I was away, the potatoes were harvested, and it was a good year for them. This is truly one of our staple crops, so we all breathe a sigh of relief when they do well. Living off the land as we do, we simply do not take food for granted.

There was another 'harvest' of sorts while I was on holidays that I should mention. We have four new applicants! Two men and two women began the 21-month process of discernment and formation in the MH apostolate. They join the four who are in their second year of applicancy, moving (God-willing) towards making their first promises this coming June. It is always a moment of joy and wonder when young people decide to throw in their lot with us and offer their lives to God in this humble but very beautiful way. While it is against blog policy for me to mention their names, please keep our applicants in your prayers.

That's about it - as always, I know there is lots going on in the community that I don't hear about until afterwards if at all, but that's what I noticed this week. Keep us all in your prayers, and know that we are praying for all of you and for the world.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

What is the Point of Religion?

The essence of an image consists in the fact that it represents something… with the fact that it goes beyond itself… thus the image of God means, first of all, that the human being cannot be closed in on himself. If he attempts this he betrays himself. To be the image of God implies relationality. It is the dynamic that sets the human being in motion toward the totally Other. Hence it means the capacity for relationship; it is the human capacity for God.

Joseph Ratzinger, In the Beginning

Reflection – ‘What is the point of religion, anyway?’ In a novel I read on my holidays, one of the characters, completely steeped in secular values and irreligious, asked this perfectly reasonable question. What is the purpose of prayer in human life, of religious observance, of turning towards God?

It is an important question – one might argue that it is the question the world poses to the Church right now. What are we bringing to the table? We have to avoid, it seems to me, giving answers that are utilitarian in nature. Religion helps us to be more peaceful… or helps us to work for social justice… or makes us more generous… or creates a more stable society…

All of these may be true to greater or lesser degrees, but none of these is the ‘point’ of religion. Prayer, and hence God, are not tools we use to achieve some greater purpose, some end of our own. This quote from Ratzinger gives us the real answer. The real answer to the question, hard as this may be to present to a thoroughly secular person, is that the point of God is that God is the point of everything.

We are not religious people because we hope to gain some other good from being religious—having our prayers answered so that we get what we want, or some variation on that. We are religious people because we believe that the purpose of creation is to enter into relationship with God.

Really the question is not ‘what is the point of religion?’ The question is ‘what is the point of anything?’ Life can be about professional success… but why bother with that? Life can be about happy family relationships… but why bother with that? Life can be about cramming in as much pleasure as we can into each moment (YOLO!)… but why bother with that?

At each twist and turn of trying to find some ultimate meaning and purpose to life, we are always confronted with human finitude, with the inevitability of death and the insufficiency of strictly human goods to genuinely satisfy us. What is the point of anything, really, unless everything is pointing us beyond the human and the finite and the mortal?

Once we open the door to that other reality, to God and to faith and to prayer, then everything becomes charged with meaning—our work, our loves, our families, our pleasures all become taken up in a world of meaning that is not doomed to the futility of the grave.

The point of religion, of faith, is that it gives a sure and solid and indestructible meaning to everything else in life, and without this meaning, everything else is really very fragile. It is quite a mysterious affair—it is only when we allow for the invisible, the unprovable, that which no eye has seen and no ear has heard, that which seems to be so insubstantial and fleeting, that all the things that are near at hand, obvious, plain, become fully solid and real with a lasting meaning and purpose.

Secularism has turned its back on the invisible and indemonstrable matters of God and the spirit in favor of what can be proven and known to the senses. Ironically, we find ourselves in a world devoid of lasting value or purpose, a world of brute matter and physical forces, a world where there is no meaning save what our frail and feeble humanity can impose on it for a short span of years.

Faith allows for this one element of impenetrable mystery—God!—and so the whole universe becomes charged with crystalline purpose and goodness, all the brute matter echoes like a resonating glass vibrating with the music of the angels, and all of humanity becomes the great priesthood of the cosmos, offering praise and worship to the Creator and so enacting that which is the utter fulfillment of all creation, the utter fulfillment of our own human destiny and vocation, the absolute and final and endless point of all that is.

And that is the point of religion.