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

01 May 2017

Payback Time! (or, "Welcome Back, Blogger")

Yesterday I attended a fête in honor of Missionary of the Sacred Heart Father E. Michael Camilli, a native, lifelong friend, and regular servant of Holy Guardian Angels Parish. The now-regional school boasts Fr. Camilli as an alumnus, and has decided to dedicate the parish/school hall to him. Having served at "HGA" for 6.5 years (Jan 2008--Jun 2014), I greatly benefited from Fr. Camilli's priestly fraternity, so I was honored to be present for that occasion.

It was a joyful reunion for me, as I haven't gotten back to HGA very often since returning (for now) to my Coal Region roots. One parishioner told me that he missed my blog posts. I soon realized that I haven't put anything on here all year. Focus has shifted to the social media, which provide their own forum for inspiration, information, and amusement; but it's as if my attention span has become attenuated as a result, less equipped for the work of ongoing reflection and composition.

To be fair, my parish bulletin has afforded me a wonderful chance to reflect and compose. In fact, I believe I considered this online forum as a second venue for those compositions, but have failed to act in that regard. Payback Time!

I'm not in the habit of doing "series sermons" like many of our Protestant brethren deliver, though some Catholics have found success in the practice. The closest I get to that is in my bulletin columns. That's good for any parishioners who may read them, but what for the untold handfuls of readers around the globe? Mindful of their plaintive pleas, below I have combined several weeks' dissertations on the Act of Contrition. May it serve as a good start, with God's help and renewed discipline (who says it has to stop with Lent?), to more regular posting.

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O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee; and I detest all my sins because I dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell, but most of all because I have offended Thee, my God, who are all-good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life. Amen. 
Sorry: the root, “sore,” is from the Old English for “painful, grievous, aching,” and its meaning is further expanded by the Old Norse sarr (sore, wounded). The reconstructed Proto-Indo-European (PIE) "language", which forms the roots for a great many words across the world, oftentimes tells you a lot: “sai-” means “suffering.” 
Our violation of God’s laws hurts us. We may suppose God (or more likely, the Church) enjoys telling people what to do and think. Rather, what God has revealed in Scripture and Tradition, further unpacked by the Church’s Magisterium (teaching authority), is for our health, safety, and salvation— what one moral theologian calls “Integral Human Fulfillment” because pursuing goods and avoiding evils is what enables us to be our best selves in community with others. Therefore, to quote St. Augustine, “we are not so much punished for our sins as by them.” 
But we make contrary choices because what seems to be good about them overshadows the harm they bring upon others and self, and the affront they pose to God. Sin causes soreness: sin inflicts physical, emotional, and spiritual wounds, and wounds hurt. Wounds aren’t pretty, either: it pains people to witness what hurting people are going through. It is not al- ways their fault, but at a certain point, whose fault it is matters far less than what a fellow member of Christ’s Body is undergoing. Our compassion for hurting people does, however, move us to consider the origins of the hurt in the matrix of contributing choices. 

Heartily: Not “hardly,” as sometimes the kids accidentally say. The grain of truth in it is something that adults don’t miss! “Heartily” is one of many words that has fallen out of usage, but the Church retains a lot of those words in theology, in public and personal prayer (think back to the changes in wording from 6 years ago), because our communally-learned communication with God very much shapes our thinking about divine and human realities. That’s not to say we can’t “take the gloves off” and be brutally candid with God with all our emotions—we most definitely should!—but what we say and do together “lifts up our hearts,” to borrow what the priest says in the Preface Dialogue before the Eucharistic Prayer. To be heartily sorry is to recognize how the core of our person- hood, the location of our thoughts and feelings, is affected by what we do and appeals to the One Who alone can undo it. 

Offended: The Latin preposition ob and the verb fendere combine to mean “to strike against.” Our violations of God’s for-our-own-good laws are acts of rebellion that hurt us more than they hurt Him, but at the same time no lover, no sane person, enjoys rejection. God’s displeasure at being rejected is not, however, a wound of ego, as it can be for us. His desire for our fulfillment does not abide being thwarted, whether we are harming ourselves or fellow human persons. Violations of the first three commandments are harmful to us because those violations militate against our identity as children of God meant for eternal life with Him. 
Detest: Hate, pure and simple. I hate my sins. I cannot undo an action or word in life, and there is no point in spinning my proverbial wheels in reverse. Fallen men and women some- times act contrary to the path of life that God has presented us, sometimes in a serious manner. Individually and collectively these sins have occasioned the death of the Messiah. I am not at all happy about that. 
All: It is our fallen tendency to reduce many sins to “learning experiences,” and more fallen yet, secretly or openly, to savor the experiences for the pleasure we have derived therefrom. So we start to parse: “I am sad that God is offended by this bad decision, though, to be honest, I don’t even really consider it ‘bad,’ because—what the heck, it was spring break and YOLO!” We best savor the event by striving to act differently when confronted by similar temptations going forward. 
Dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell / Your just punishments: Imperfect contrition (or “attrition”) is sorrow for sin in view of sin’s unsavory eternal consequences for us. It is enough that our minds still entertain a sense of invincibility, that somehow we can assure ourselves of immunity from the earthly consequences of our callousness or carelessness. Many of us have been gravely misled to believe that God really doesn’t care about sin—as if God happily violated wills steeled against charity, honesty, unselfishness, and purity. God’s justice is real because sin’s gravity cannot be ignored, and not because God is some kind of peevish meanie. 
Most of all because I/they have offended Thee: Sinners with perfect contrition hate the fact of their participation in the crucifixion of Our Lord and the impoverishment of the world that He is nonetheless willing to love to death. If we hate our sins because of what they do to us, i.e. cause spiritual emphysema that makes it harder for us to breathe the atmosphere of divine grace we were made to breathe, I might call that an offshoot of perfect contrition: at least we have a sense of our true worth and its Origin. 
All-good and deserving of all my love: That’s God for you. 

I firmly resolve: The “Big Book,” the basic text of Alcoholics Anonymous, famously says, “Half-measures availed us nothing.” Hand-in-hand with a hatred of past sins goes a sincere and steadfast determination to adopt virtues that run contrary to those sins. We are in respectable enough company if our experience resembles that of the apostles, whose spirit was willing but flesh was weak (Mt 26:41). Sometimes, I concede, my spirit isn’t even all that willing!

We contrast “perfect” contrition as that which arises out of love for God, to “imperfect” contrition owing to disgust for the ugliness of sin or the fear of punishment for sin. The Catechism (1452) mentions that perfect contrition forgives venial sins, but also can forgive mortal sins if it includes the firm resolution to confess those sins as soon as possible in the Sacrament of Penance. Imperfect contrition cannot forgive serious sins, but it disposes sinners to obtain sacramental absolution (1453).

With the help of Thy grace: Confession restores us to God’s grace and unites us to His friendship. The 16th century Council of Trent also mentions the “peace and serenity of conscience” that Confession bestows upon the penitent who approaches contritely and with “religious disposition” (cf. CCC 1468). The last phrase speaks to scrupulous persons, who have a difficult time experiencing peace because of an overly sensitive moral conscience and a cripplingly fearful attitude toward God. These sufferers profit from gentle care and firm direction. Then there is the heresy of pelagianism, which insists that we earn salvation by our own efforts. To the contrary we affirm that God’s grace initiates every good inspiration and action in our lives (cf. Phil 2:13).

To sin no more: CCC 943 considers the avoidance of sin an exercise of the disciple’s “kingly mission.” Baptism invests us with legitimate authority to direct our wills and intellects towards goodness and truth, their proper objects. It takes determination and practice (i.e. trial and error), and, as noted above, it takes God’s help, always ours for the asking.

To avoid the near occasion of sin: We want to cultivate the good habits that support virtue. There are people, places, and things that simply may not be good for us to frequent if our engagement with them leads us to sin. To employ Our Lord’s hyperbole, there are plenty of eyes to pluck out and limbs to sever if we want to remain whole (cf. Mt 5:29ff). We may have to make some changes in our lives, and there is no time for fooling ourselves.

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?