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

29 March 2014

Signs of Life

I was a precocious lad. As a tween and a teen I used to read all kinds of stuff that wouldn’t be expected of kids my age; fortunately a substantial quantity of it was religious. I got hold of pre-Vatican II missals and prayer books, which contained prayers such as this one from Saint Augustine: Domine, noverim me, noverim te, nec aliquid cupiam nisi te. “Lord, may I know myself, may I know you, and desire nothing else but you.” Early on it struck a chord with me: aside from the endeavor of knowing God and knowing oneself in God, what else is there, really? 

Well, you may retort, there’s everything: shelter, health, education, employment, relationships, and all the rest. Scriptural snippets are fine and dandy, but did you ever wonder about the backstory and the follow-up of the people in these Gospel scenes? Like us, they had a life, with all that entails; but we scarcely hear of it. We hear their encounter with Jesus, which the evangelist presents in a neat, stylized manner, arguably more appropriate for television or novels than the “real world.” I wonder whether this apparent disparity between biblical stories and people's experience may account for some people’s crises in faith. If so, it certainly prompts them to look deeper.

Even though the Fourth Gospel recounted only seven of Jesus’ miracles (or, as he called them, “signs”), most of them are unique to John, and have a bit more meat to them than the other Gospels’ miracles. Recall last week's labyrinthine discussion between Jesus and the Samaritan woman, which covered everything from the woman's sinful lifestyle to questions of liturgical ritual. Today’s reading resembles a drama with the interaction between the characters, as well as the nuanced, compassionate view of the Pharisees that differs from the Synoptic Gospels. 

By luring us into the stories, Saint John invites us to see ourselves in them, and to offer a response of either belief or unbelief in Jesus. Now that response doesn’t often come instantly, but rather develops through struggles and questions. It’s rarely cut-and-dried. The blind man himself moves from calling Jesus “a prophet” to calling Him “Lord,” a process that involves arguments and persecution.

In fact, we may come to see the entire history of the Church, and our own history as well, as what persons in recovery call a "spiritual awakening": the mysterious process of coming to see and believe in the Lord Jesus who alone can heal the blindness of our hearts, if we but open them to Him. Jesus does not expect us to do this without any fear, just without any deceit. Thus does Saint Paul encourage the Ephesians to “live as children of light,” trying to “learn what is pleasing to the Lord.” He further directs the listener to “expose…the fruitless works of darkness,” the heart’s movements of pride, anger, lust, greed, gluttony, sloth, and envy that account for our spiritual blindness. As we bring these things, as we bring our very selves, to the Lord’s healing Light, we can begin to recognize our true selves, as Samuel recognized David, as God’s beloved and anointed one.

Ego sum lux mundi; ego habeo lucem parvam

27 March 2014

Seize the Joys

This coming Sunday is "Lætare Sunday," so named for the first word of the Entrance Antiphon (Isaiah 66:10-11).
Lætare, Jerusalem, et conventum facite, omnes qui diligitis eam; gaudete cum lætitia, qui in tristitia fuistis, ut exsultetis, et satiemini ab uberibus consolationis vestræ.
Rejoice, Jerusalem, and all who love her. Be joyful, all who were in mourning; exult and be satisfied at her consoling breast.
At this halfway point in the penitential season of Lent, priests may wear rose colored vestments. They catch the eye, reminding us of the joy that the risen Christ already has brought to the world:
Deus qui per resurrectionem Filii tui, Domini nostri Iesu Christi, mundum laetificare dignatus es: praesta, quaesumus, ut per eius Genetricem Virginem Mariam, perpetuae capiamus gaudia vitae.
God, who through the resurrection of your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, has deigned to rejoice the world: make it so, we ask, that we may seize the joys of everlasting life through His Birth-giver the Virgin Mary. (Author's translation)
One of the (pre-new translation) Lenten collects refers to Lent as "this joyful season" that God gives us each year.


We may wonder what there is to be joyful about. We lose sight of the resurrection, or consider it the proverbial carrot before the ecclesial horse, rendering it practically irrelevant to our lives.

It is time to reclaim the joy of faith in the resurrection, which persists in the face of darkness;  the darkness cannot overcome it (cf. John 1:5). The joy of the resurrection provides the context in which we may rightly consider any debilitation of soul or body: "It is so that the works of God might be made visible" (Jn 9:3).

Live so that the works of God might be made visible: that is the summons of the risen Lord.

19 March 2014

Treasure Amid The Trash

Recently I got to talk to one of our PREP ("CCD") classes about the Scrutinies. The Scrutinies are minor rites in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA). Candidates for Baptism ("the Elect") are invited to examine themselves more deeply with regard to their readiness to be initiated.

The verb scrutari means "to examine, search," specifically through trash (scruta). I told the children to think of a necklace or something else of value that might have fallen into the waste can. Having exhausted other possibilities, they would head to the trash in hopes of finding the lost article. In the same way, the Elect sort through their sinful past to discover and affirm the gift of faith that will lead them to the Easter Sacraments. Those of us who have already been initiated join them in a deeper self-searching and renewal of faith.

The Gospel readings for the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Sundays of Lent are the texts in which the faithful of all stages encounter Christ, the Valuable Article, amid the rubbish of sin, sickness, and death.

The Samaritan Woman at the Well (Jn 4:5-42) meets the man who "told me everything I have done," and finds Him to be more than an insightful and intriguing figure. She is moved by the meeting to share her story with her fellows.

The Man Born Blind (Jn 9:1-41) is treated to a Messianic mudpie that opens his eyes and increases his faith. The fact that Jesus heals him on a Sabbath incites the Pharisees to conspire against Jesus from that point onward, thereby revealing their own stubborn blindness.

Jesus raises Lazarus (Jn 11:1-45) from the sleep of death in order to reveal Himself as "the Resurrection and the Life," and He pointedly asks Lazarus' sisters, "Do you believe this?" The Lord  conquers these enemies in us because He has made us His friends.

I hope these fourth graders attend Mass and pay more attention to these stories. The whole point of PREP, I reminded them, was to encounter the Lord Jesus, to rise in knowledge and fall in love with Him within His Church. If they are courageous enough to keep seeking Him amid the refuse of their own lives, they will unearth, and want to share, the boon of a relationship with God.

11 March 2014

Weather or Not, Here I Come

This Saturday I hope to compete in my second marathon, the Two Rivers Marathon in Lackawaxen, PA.
The Hardware in Store
In the last couple of weeks before a race, the runners "taper," i.e., decrease their weekly mileage to give their bodies a rest. While the body rests, however, the mind does not. At this point the anxieties come to the fore. My concern of choice has been the weather. I confess that I have checked the Weather Channel's website and iPhone app as many as ten times in one day.

"You ought to know that forecasts change from day to day! You're not going to get a reliable prediction ten days out!"

I was talking to a friend yesterday, a former marathoner. Since I first contemplated the distance, this man has been a source of encouragement and challenge. This time he offered a challenge.

He gets on me about my propensity to dwell on negative thoughts and uncontrollable contingencies. Certainly I can do nothing about the weather, so (to his mind) the best thing I could do between today and Friday is stop checking the weather for Saturday. I accepted this assignment with the customary groan.

"But how can I pack if I don't know the weather?"

I began to think it through: Pack for the coldest possible day, but allow for some adjustment. At my last weather check, the day may start in the 20s with some snow showers, going up to the mid 40s.

Our seminary philosophy classes didn't teach us much about Francis Bacon, but the famous saying "Knowledge is power" came to mind. I'll say this: my eagerness for knowledge exerts power over me, or rather I give tremendous power to my curiosity.

This past winter may not have been the worst in recent times, either in terms of the temperatures or the snowfall totals, but it seemed that way sometimes. I don't think I've paid so much attention to the conditions as I did this year, only because I wanted to keep running outside. As for the single-digit days, one of them was not a running day on my schedule, on another I capitulated and stayed on the treadmill, and once I ran outside, just to say I did. Were there any more than three?

If I were a blaming man, I'd attribute (yeah, that sounds better than "blame") my weather worries to the social media. At the first whiff of snow or ice, people would saturate my news feed with forecasts, school delays and closings, humorous references to mass acquisition of bread, milk, and eggs, etc. It could get crazy real soon, in my head.

Once, even I weighed in by posting the Chicago song, "Song of the Evergreens," which features longtime trumpet player Lee Loughnane in one of his rare vocal offerings. The tune includes repetition of the word "snow." You wanna hear it? Here it goes:
I can say this much: I've kept up the training schedule all this time, somehow balancing it with parish responsibilities (at least nobody has told me otherwise), so come the weekend, whatever the conditions, I'll give it my best. I haven't been aiming to beat my previous time of 3 hours, 36 minutes, and 12 seconds, but that would be nice. Thanks to this cold, my legs have been stiffer, my gait stilted, my pace stunted. Wearing so many layers couldn't have helped, either.

As for the next marathon ("How could you be thinking about that?"), I recall the words of running giant Frank Shorter: "You have to forget your last marathon before you try another. Your mind can't know what's coming." Now that's discipline--which I don't yet have. Perhaps a big-city race, like Philly or somewhere else close-by. My friend has suggested the Marine Corps Marathon. It will be much bigger than the race in my current sights, which may max out at 250 contestants or so. We'll see.

I am looking forward to Saturday. Pray for favorable conditions, safety for all competitors and well-wishers, swift times, and speedy recoveries.

05 March 2014

The Ash Mash, Always In Fash

I have a few moments in between Masses to offer a reflection or two about this non-obligatory yet culturally and spiritually popular festa in cinerem, known as "Ash Wednesday."

Since I first started receiving ashes, and more acutely since I first started applying them, I've preferred the traditional declaration, "Remember [man] that you are dust and to dust you shall return" (memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris). Of course the contemporary challenge to "turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel" is valid and effective as well, because it is the desired human and Christian response to the fact of mortality.

To date I do not recall anybody coming up to me for ashes with their tongue stuck out. One priest who was leading a retreat told that story and said that he gladly obliged, figuring that the recipient was either not accustomed to going to Mass or unwittingly treated it like any other Mass. We of a kinder, gentler Church might have chosen differently; but who am I to judge?

My best tale from today: when I applied ashes to one individual with the mortality memento, he thanked me – and I responded, under my breath, "don't thank me!

I didn't cause the human race to be subject to the ravages of sin, suffering, and death! No, but I accepted God's call to apply the remedy to sin, suffering, and death, even as I needed it.

The spiritual disciplines of a disciple (from the Latin discere, to learn) are prayer, fasting, and almsgiving/charity. To these I add watchfulness, perhaps the result of the first three.

"What do you mean by watchfulness?" Glad you asked. At all times we are under the perspicacious eye of the Primordial Enemy of Salvation and Transcendence (PEST). Being of angelic personhood, he will always be keener and wilier then we. Therefore we must unite our consciousness in real time with our Lord and Lover, attending to Him at once within the privacy of our "rooms" (as Jesus suggests today in Mt 6:4-6) and in His divers human disguises. If we try to do that for so long as one minute, we'll begin to notice the resistance seethe within us. This is not a failing, but rather an opportunity to remind ourselves of God's providential care, intended specifically for us in these God-awful circumstances.

A priest-friend reminded his Facebook friends that, while ashes are available today, the Gospel and the Eucharist (and, I would add, the Communion of Saints, ourselves included) are also available at each and every iteration of the Lord's One Saving Sacrificial Banquet. Cultural Catholics treat Ash Wednesday like some local baseball fans treat the day when every guest receives a free Jimmy Rollins bobblehead doll. God takes what He can gets, but maybe God also expects more out of us. "Well, that'll teach God to have expectations," our snarkier selves might retort.

One would surmise that an All-Knowing God neither has nor needs to have any "expectations" for us, as if He is somehow "waiting" upon our responses; but "one gets the feeling that God is on the journey, too" (St. Teresa of Ávila), so maybe in our limited time-space experience, the foreknowledge of God (Whom we oft imagine as "waiting at the end" vs. "present all the while") mysteriously permits our free action. We don't have to have it figured out; we just have to live it.

+ + + + +

Forgiveness is one of the major aims of Lent. Forgiveness of self always seemed like a strange concept to me, but the longer I run, the more I perceive its relevance in my life. Here is an article that might help you in this lifelong, needful spiritual discipline.

And here's a fun exercise from the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), who encourages people to post ashen photos and descriptions in the Twitterverse and Facebookia under #ashtag: a 21st century media m-ashup.

03 March 2014

Love: The Response to Death

Runner, writer, and educator Joe Muldowney over at "Running Shorts: The Blog" shared last week about a close friend's recent suicide. He expressed his bewilderment over why his friend, or anyone else, would decide to take his own life. Joe's appropriate response was not an "answer" to the question; instead it was a forward movement:
I kissed my wife and told her I loved her. I spoke to my three children. They are doing well with their lives and careers. I threw snowballs in the air for Dixie, my Labrador Retriever, to catch.
Love is the best response to death. Love is the best response to the threat of death, to the contemplation of death.

There are many dimensions to the mystery of suicide. Sometimes Love doesn't get to the person in time. Sometimes the person isn't able, or willing, to receive Love. Sometimes bystanders are afraid to express Love.

And sometimes I don't have a clue what I'm talking about, and am afraid to suggest that anything I could offer (in this or other subjects) holds any weight whatever, except if I happen to be citing the Bible or the Catechism.

A friend who struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts directed me to the popular blog Hyperbole and a Half, which deftly chronicles, among other topics, the young author's struggles with being depressed (here and here) and with being subjected to sincere supporters.

I confess to being one of those well intentioned persons. Call me anything, but don't call me "at a loss for something to say." If a person gives me an inch of willingness to be heard and harangued, I'm taking a yard. Whatever it takes to distract them (and me!) from self.

In the heart of the dejected, Self--the false one, not the true one--becomes the enemy. More properly, the false self becomes the tool of the Primordial Enemy of Salvation and Transcendence (PEST). I distinguish the false from the true self in terms of who a person is from the perspective of a wise and loving Creator and those persons who, knowingly or not, assist Him in building up the human family. There may be technical dimensions to the distinction, such as one might encounter in the likes of Merton or Jung, but these exceed the scope of the current post and the current poster.

Thank God and thank my friends, my worst far...haven't been nearly as bad as I ever thought they were. But I certainly acknowledge how easy it is for the mind to become an echo chamber that augments only the worst thoughts and feelings, and this with gusto. How subtly and stupidly "You didn't lock the door" can morph into "You suck both professionally and personally!" But that's just how people can roll; it is both a science and an art.

In their malaise do the discouraged mean to manipulate? Sometimes I think they do, absent their better judgment, only because I've been aware of that proclivity in myself. Unable and/or unwilling to receive the Full Insight About Themselves (FIAT), they may unwittingly resort to repeating those time-honored deprecations (imprecations?) at the first, second, or nineteenth sign of imperfection. At the least, they may repeat it interiorly, or aloud when they sense that the receiver might retract or mollify his or her statement, even if it was reasonable and practical ("Locking the door secures the house, which ought to be important to you").

In short (because, at just under 5'4", that's what I am), the "You" in question is not the real person. He or she is the delicate yet sturdy construct of years' worth of lies, approximations, intimations, and mishearings, honed by the finest sandpaper and sealed with the oiliest varnish. Don't dare destroy it, because, as the lie goes, there might be nothing left to salvage; and then what?

My friend Joe's sadness is no doubt shared by many who survive a loved one's suicide. "What could I have done--especially if I'd known about it"; or, if I knew about it, "why didn't he reach out, or why didn't I reach out...more than (say) three times?" Mourners go through the gamut from denial to acceptance with the uniqueness of snowflakes, though with enough predictability to have made a science of it.

In the economies of many households, the deficit of Love goes back generations. And (to shift metaphorical tracks) in some situations, a single traumatic event or protracted experience (e.g., war) can derail a train that previously had run smoothly. The passengers are either genuinely interested in everyone's safety or simply want to reach their destinations without further disturbance. The team of mechanics (ideally, it is a team) have run out of tools, and even the best of them are tempted to run out of patience. And, above all, the conductor himself often doesn't know how it happened or how to return to optimal conditions.

If mass transit reports such problems, how much more so the human spirit, which surpasses mere functionality and is "worth more than many sparrows" (Mt 10:31)?

The caregivers in a concerned community (family, workplace, presbyterate, etc.) must try their darnedest to uplift the downtrodden among them. At the same time they cannot ultimately take responsibility for the final outcome, and would do well, therefore, to enlist auxiliaries, even if for their own sanity. Consider the game plan of Moses, for whom seventy elders did the trick (Num 10:11-15). Seventy may be too high or too dear, but how about three?

Plus we cannot underestimate the care we demonstrate on our knees, praying that our friends want to be well, or even want to want to be well. "Paul plants, Apollos waters," but who knows how the grain may eventually make its grand appearance?