Consecrated to the Heart of the Redeemer under the patronage of the Theotokos and Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

28 December 2016

Year in Review: Celebrity Dying, Quotidian Living

I don't have a "Year in Review" media piece in front of me, but I can tick off the proverbial top of my head several celebrities who died in 2016. Starting from the most recent, but otherwise in no particular order: Carrie Fisher, Keith Emerson, Florence Henderson, George Michael, Prince...OK, that's all I could think of without help.

Found since the writing of the first paragraph, a rather partial list. Clockwise (from memory, starting from top left): Muhammad Ali; Alan Thicke; David Bowie; Nancy Reagan; John Glenn; Gene Wilder; Florence Henderson; Chyna; George Michael; Alan Rickman--not from memory (thanks, TLK!); Arnold Palmer; Prince; Carrie Fisher (center). Image credit: unknown and unsought.
The diversity of my Facebook friends shines forth in the varied reactions to these deaths. Nobody who posted on it was wholly indifferent (else, I suppose, they wouldn't have posted; I shared my selective share, as well).

Like much else, it moves me to wonder: maybe I care too little about people, or I just don't care about celebrities, or I consider myself "more sophisticated" (read conceited, even callous) for not caring so much about those particular people, their artistic prodigies or the fact of their deaths.

Except for the general sadness concerning death as a human institution, especially any death I consider "premature" or "before their time," my level of caring depends on my level of attentiveness and interest in their contributions to culture. It definitely is a reflection of me, for good or ill, or neither or both. For example, yesterday's death of Carrie Fisher registered lower than the death of Prince or George Michael, because I liked a few songs of the latter two persons and I care hardly at all for the Star Wars phenomenon. (Blasphemy, perhaps, but it's where I am. "Don't judge," but judge away.)

Nothing new here: Death is not going to stop. Celebrity deaths are not going to stop. The older we all get, the closer we all get to death. Pace Keith Richards, drug and alcohol abuse increase (but don't "guarantee") the likelihood of premature death. The cult of celebrity is not going to stop. The Internet is not going to stop, nor is the Internet-exacerbated tendency to react quickly and emotively to death, tragedy, and injustice.

In short: We need to renew our prescription for chill pills...and yet we must beware overdosing on chill pills, for we ought to take seriously many things, most of all our health, safety, and salvation. But we obsess over various uncontrollables to distract ourselves from the fundamental malady that includes "not being right unless we're not right" ("right" in the sense of "well"). The syndrome won't go away, though each day, please God, we can confront it--gently, yet head-on.

To retool a phrase: "The poor you always have with you" (Mt 26:11) meaning not only the material, but (here especially) the panoply of spiritual poverty that rock and roll our world. In the manner a friend once proposed a similar observation to me: we ought to keep in the front of the mind that in the back of our mind we are always seeking physical, emotional, moral, and spiritual self-destruction, aided, I now add, by the ancient enemy of genuine human fulfillment and the influence of that enemy in the culture.

One of my high school classmates, a fellow of intellectual bent and, if I recall, a fan of Jim Morrison, wrote this in his 1994 yearbook inscription to me: "Rem. [sic] your own death as often as possible." Upon first reading his esoteric entry, I concluded: whether or not I remembered my own death, I would remember him for having exhorted me thus.

One of my seminary professors, in his introductory ethics class of Fall 1997, told our class: "All philosophy is an attempt to address the problem of death." Implicit in that assertion, by virtue of their mutual service, is the inclusion of "all theology" with "all philosophy." The brevity and fragility and preciousness of life, besides being a proof for the existence of God, catalyzes the cranium for contemplation, especially that sort best supplemented by appropriate action.

I won't deny: 2016 was a difficult year for the entertainment industry and for many of its fans. Next year will be, too, I predict, if only because the celebrities of yesteryear, whose output was undeniably better than any of the drivel being released today, are dying off. (I mean, whenever, say, Tony Bennett or Betty White dies, the flag should be half-mast! When Sinatra died, I wore black all day! To explain: I was in the seminary, so I was wearing my cassock, specifically receiving my B.A. in Philosophy, which got me nowhere but wherever I am.)

"The beatings will continue until morale improves" [or, if you will, "until morals improve"--and even if they did improve, that wouldn't guarantee anything but greater disillusionment, and more grist for the atheist/anti-theist/hedonist mill]. 

But more than that: grist for the human mill. I grind with the best of 'em.

‘Some find me a sword; some
            The flange and the rail; flame,
        Fang, or flood’ goes Death on drum,
            And storms bugle his fame.
    But wé dream we are rooted in earth—Dust!        85
    Flesh falls within sight of us, we, though our flower the same,
        Wave with the meadow, forget that there must
The sour scythe cringe, and the blear share come.
(G.M. Hopkins, "Wreck of the Deutschland," Stanza 11)

The last spoonful of mirror-directed moralizing on the matter: Excessive luxury of all sorts does not go unaddressed, whether by living or by dying. That's my takeaway from 2016. I'd like to keep it in mind every day.

10 December 2016

Prayer and the Divine Perspective

The following is an upcoming column from my parish bulletin corner. I have published it with the same impatience that might undergird intercessory prayer or Christmas requests.

Youmay have heard of a prayer called “The Saint Andrew Christmas Novena,” which people pray from 30 November (the feast of St. Andrew) to Christmas Day, as often as five times a day. While a novena (from the Latin novem, “nine”) normally goes for nine days, it can refer more broadly to any prayer repeated over a span of time.

Youwanna hear it? Here it goes: Hail and blessed be the hour and moment in which the Son of God was born of the most pure Virgin Mary, at midnight, in Bethlehem, in piercing cold. In that hour, vouchsafe, O my God! to hear my prayer and grant my desires (mention your intentions here), through the merits of Our Savior Jesus Christ, and of His Blessed Mother. Amen.

Prayers like this are a helpful mental and spiritual discipline. Prayer is classically defined as “the raising of one’s mind and heart to God or the requesting of good things from God” (St. John Damascene; cf. CCC 2559). Here the “heart” is not merely the locus of our affections (as in the shorthand “<3”), but also of our thoughts and decisions. So prayer principally raises one’s will to God, following the pivotal petition of the Lord’s own prayer: Thy Will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

When we attentively recite a formulaic prayer in which we can offer a specific need, or when we flat-out ask for this or that in our own words, it is important to remember that we are seeking to conform our wills, if not our preferences, to God’s. And how does God reveal His will, or His preference? In the way things unfold.

Godcertainly does not prefer every human decision, but He does permit the sinful ones in particular because to forbid any and all sin might appear to make for a better world, but not a free world in which people either will or will not participate in the good through loving actions, words, and thoughts.

In our prayer(s), another author has said that our deepest desire, when we dig far enough, is to share in the divine perspective on our person and our needs, which includes the whole network of people and situations that contribute in any manner to our person and our needs. That’s a big perspective, a mysterious one that, finally, we will be treated to in heaven. When we happen to receive glimpses of it along the way, God be praised; but that’s His prerogative to grant when and how He might deem it beneficial for us.

Where is that divine perspective located? At once on the cross of Christ and in the unity of the Trinity, for God the Son embodies total suffering and total love. God has so designed it that love and suffering are “total” insofar as they include yours and mine.

Regarding Christian suffering, Saint Paul said, “In my flesh I make up for what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of His Body, which is the Church” (Col 1:24). Regarding Christian love, again Paul: “[God] encourages us in our every affliction, so that we may be able to encourage those who are in any affliction with the encouragement with which we ourselves are encouraged by God” (2 Cor 1:4; it is appropriate to substitute the word “love” for “encourage/ment” passim).

If we want an answer to that pesky question “Why,” we’d better brace ourselves if we ever got an answer!

13 November 2016

Apocalyptic Pills

The last couple weeks of Ordinary Time and the first couple weeks of Advent feature what we call the “apocalyptic literature” of the Bible. The consummate example of this is the book once known as "The Apocalypse of St. John," more recently called “Revelation.” This style of writing employed an intense imagery and rhetoric to depict the battle going on between God and His celestial enemies. The immediate audience were Christians who were fighting their own battles with enemy nations, especially Rome, the granddaddy of oppressors. The voice of God rose clearly above the din to assure his besieged beloved that He was in charge, that victory would be theirs, and their current anguish would be alleviated.

Apocalyptic literature has been compared to painkillers like Vicodin or Percocet: in the prescribed doses they provide needed relief for seriously distressed people. For those who aren't really in that kind of pain–perhaps, in the spiritual realm, those who only imagine they’re being persecuted–the apocalyptic mindset usually ends up more harmful. It gets them loaded, and makes them lose touch with reality. It can even make them very hard to be around, a challenge to support.

Consider the events of the past week. I don't mean the death of Mrs. T's founder Ted Twardzik or of famed musician Leonard Cohen, as noteworthy as they are; I mean, as you might have guessed, the presidential election. Our nation, and a few others besides, have been holding their breath before and since. Either “holding their breath,” or “hyperventilating”– I'm not really sure. If there's ever been a moment where people of every political stripe have been popping apocalyptic pills, it's now. Popping more and more of them, to less and less good effect. Division and fear rule more than their constituencies care to admit. No wonder the campaign sign for “Giant Meteor” was so popular! I wonder it if got any write-in votes.

In most situations, we’re not advised just to take medicines without attending to what we are currently capable of doing. Pain relief is supposed to promote freedom of movement, but abusers often end up inert or ineffective. St. Paul told the Thessalonians, “If anyone was unwilling to work, neither should that one eat.” Work, with a sense of purpose and direction. The Catholic principle of subsidiarity says that no person or force should do for another what they can do for themselves. More and more it seems that this is a tall order, and the culture of death makes hearts smaller. Forward movement today will require perseverance, by which, St. Paul says, we will secure our lives.

The Lord has not promised a placid and carefree existence, nor does He keep anyone from sowing willful division in their relationships. Jesus spoke His words today as a prediction, and we can see how they have played out. Either way, they are not pleasing to the ears. We must ask: is God God or not? Has Jesus conquered sin, suffering, and death or not? And what’s more, does He not offer us the grace to participate in that victory by, as He put it, “giving testimony”—courageously raising our voices or pens or typing fingers, or raising our hands in prayer or virtuous action, against injustice? By seeking to learn and spread the truth? By loving the unlovable in everyone, and even ourselves, enough to help them recognize the freedom to change?

04 November 2016

Priest, Prophet, and King: The Way of the Church

I promised, did I not, that my weekly parish bulletin columns would make their way onto this blog? I didn't forget; I just remembered later. The delay enables me to group together the last three weeks' reflections on the baptismal anointing into the Lord Jesus' threefold munera (L., "offices," "gifts") of Priest, Prophet, and King/shepherd, which spell out His identity and mission as "Messiah" (Heb, mashiach; Gk, Christos), and become for the Church the sacred tasks of sanctifying, teaching, and governing. 

23 October 2016 — 30th OT C

As Priest we are hard-wired for sacrifice. The priests of the First Covenant offered grain and animals to God in atonement for sin, in thanksgiving for God’s blessings. Our Church’s Catechism quotes an early Christian author who said, “Mankind is a beggar before God.” We cannot help but declare our dependence on God as “giver of breath and bread” (G. M.Hopkins, Wreck of the Deutschland).

According to the early understanding that persists into our day, God gives everything—good and evil. We will say with greater nuance that God permits evil, but we still experience many bad things as “happening to” us. Before the omnipotent Creator of all things we declare our need for repair and redress, our need to persevere in life amid our trials.

We offer the sacrifices of our private prayers of adoration, thanksgiving, contrition, and supplication (“ACTS”). But above all, we participate in the sacrifice of the Church’s common prayer: the offering of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. If we [as individual Catholics, and as a parish; Ed.] are not doing that, we’re simply not firing on all cylinders. 

Our sacrifice of praise includes the confession, or acknowledgment, of our sins! That’s about the most original thing we can offer Him, for our good works come from His inspiration and direction, even though we may not perceive that inspiration and direction. But those works truly become ours. We cooperate with God in carrying them out. “Confession” means acknowledgment: acknowledgment above all of the goodness of our God, Whose love for us extends even unto the forgiveness of our sins and restoration to friendship with Him and our neighbor. If we’re not doing that [i.e. making a regular, conscientious Confession], we’re simply not firing on all cylinders.

30 October 2016 — 31st OT C

From the days of Moses and Elijah up to John the Baptist, God drafted the biblical prophets (Gk pro, "for, on behalf of" + phemi, "to speak"), to their own testimony, against their will– or at least it wasn't their idea to take up prophecy. They considered their call as something that predated the development of their own understanding and freedom: "Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you” (Jer 1:5). The initiative is always God’s. But the Prophet always experienced the response as an option– perhaps "an offer he couldn't refuse," at least not without difficulty. Many of the prophets certainly tried to refuse, but the content and drive of prophecy had a certain inexorable urgency to them: God’s word needed to get out!

The Father sent the Son into the world as a continuation of that prophetic tradition, yet with the unique and unrepeatable newness that comes with being God. “Behold, I am doing something new” (Isa 43:19)—these words to Isaiah found in the Christ their definitive fulfillment.

One way the Old Covenant's prophetic continuity shone through with the end that Jesus met: like most of the Prophets before him, he was put to death. To retrofit a famous movie phrase, his listeners couldn't handle the truth. “Humankind cannot very much bear reality” (T.S. Eliot).

In the time of the Church, martyrs have met their Maker in much the same fashion, for much the same reason.

Does the Catholic Church have a “death wish”? On the contrary, we have a Life Wish, in communion with the Lord Jesus, who said, “I came that they may have life, and have it more abundantly” (Jn 10:10). Therefore we continue to proclaim the Gospel of Life and Love in the face of societal and interior forces that militate against life and love, against reality. Our adversaries claim we are the unrealistic ones– the very same claim they levied against Jesus. Whether we shall meet the same end, offering the witness of our lives, will depend on our fidelity to our calling. In any case, we pray that our witness will be the means to renewal in the Church and the world.

6 November 2016 – 32nd OT C

Recall God’s initial reluctance at Israel’s request for a king to rule over them (cf. 1 Sam 8). The dialogue takes place in an all-too-human manner, which I shall paraphrase:

God: “You don’t know what you’re getting into. A king would tax you in ways you might never have imagined. He’ll enlist your sons for his military and your daughters for his harem. Eventually you’ll want the bum out, but it won’t work that way.” Israel: “So what? Everyone else is doing it!” God: “OK—suture yourself!”

Despite Israel’s willful insistence on having a king, and despite those kings’ predictably lascivious, deceptive, and bellicose predilections [think the upcoming election? Ed.], the Lord’s active care never ceased. In the spirit of Moses and David (who acted as both prophets and rulers), the Father sent His Son as the foretold shepherd after God’s own heart (cf. Jer 3:15). The watchful eye of the “Good Shepherd” (Jn 10:11) extends beyond Israel’s borders, even unto the limits of time and space. And “His dominion is vast and forever peaceful” (Isa 9:6), rooted in the security of His relationship with the Father in the Holy Spirit.

Throughout His earthly ministry, Jesus exercised His kingly office “with authority,” but not so as to “lord it over” people with aggression (Mt 20:25). Instead, He embodied the very directive He issued His disciples: “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant” (Mt 20:26). Nowhere was this concept of authority as service clearer than His farewell overture in the Upper Room, where He washed the disciples’ feet as an example for them to follow (Jn 13:1-20). Jesus’ activity of healing the sick, forgiving sins, and proclaiming truth derived its force from the Father, and became the substance of the Church’s pastoral care.

Our participation in that ministry has numerous forms; I couldn’t begin to exhaust them in this short space. We could start along the lines of the “Works of Mercy,” both corporal (e.g. giving food to the hungry, visiting the sick or imprisoned, burying the dead) and spiritual (e.g. forgiving all wrongs, instructing the ignorant, praying for living and dead). It also includes efforts to promote justice, as for safeguarding the lives of unborn children, working to improve social conditions that tempt parents to abortion, and assisting in the healing of parents who have chosen abortion.

One does not need to be a priest or sister, or belong to organizations like the St. Vincent de Paul Society or the Knights of Columbus, in order to cooperate in Christ’s ministry of shepherding. But Catholics have found access to shepherding opportunities by entering into a lifelong dedication to the Faith and joining parish associations. It comes down to trusting God and investigating possibilities with an open heart and mind.