Sunday, February 26, 2012

Fuga Mundi

"The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him. After John had been arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God: 'This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.'" [Mark 1:12-15]

This Gospel for the 1st Sunday of Lent (Year B) is terribly succinct by comparison with the parallel passage from Matthew (proclaimed in Year A) and that of Luke's Gospel (assigned for Year C). Its first sentence, however, jumped out at me in an extraordinary way this year:  "The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan."

Lots of images and thoughts came to mind, but an episode from the life of St. Benedict prevailed. In Pope St. Gregory the Great's Life of St. Benedict (2nd Dialogue) in Chapter 8 he recounts the story of the jealousy of a wicked priest named Fortunatus, who sought to destroy Benedict and his work. Benedict pitied the man and ultimately withdrew himself to another location for the sake of his monks, entrusting them to other governors who would not provoke the priest.

St. Gregory explains very well that Benedict did not flee from evil, did not seek to escape the real world, but carried on the struggle after the manner of our Lord and Savior:

"The old enemy of mankind, not taking this in good part, did not privily or in a dream, but in open sight present himself to the eyes of that holy father, and with great outcries complained that he had offered him violence. The noise which he made, the monks did hear, but himself they could not see: but, as the venerable father told them, he appeared visibly unto him most fell and cruel, and as though, with his fiery mouth and flaming eyes, he would have torn him in pieces: what the devil said unto him, all the monks did hear; for first he would call him by his name, and because the man of God vouchsafed him not any answer, then would he fall a-reviling and railing at him: for when he cried out, calling him "Blessed Bennet," and yet found that he gave him no answer, straightways he would turn his tune, and say: "Cursed Bennet, and not blessed: what hast thou to do with me? and why dost thou thus persecute me?" Wherefore new battles of the old enemy against the servant of God are to be looked for, against whom willingly did he make war, but, against his will, did he give him occasion of many notable victories."

Our struggle is indeed against Principalities and Powers, the minions of Satan. Our Lenten exercise is indeed more than a retreat. Days of recollection, spiritual exercises, are, yes, strength training; they have their sense in the words of Jesus inviting His disciples to come away and rest/divert for a while. Our annual Lenten penance is in a sense other, just as Jesus' 40 days in the desert were other; they were neither rest nor diversion. Lent and Lenten practices (classically: prayer, fasting and almsgiving) can help us contextualize the struggle, that determined effort which must be ours in seeking the Lord and His kingship over our lives. St. Gregory tells us that St. Benedict never simply locked horns with evil or butted heads with the devil. He defeated the Prince of Darkness by his life of intense communion with the Lord, by his relentless prayer, his humble estimation of self and absolute confidence in Christ Who has won the victory for us.

You might say that I don't have the foggiest idea what the words "fuga mundi" mean, simply because they don't even hint at what for or to what end Benedict, the whole monastic tradition and the Church's great ascetics turned their backs on this world's passing splendors.

Again this week I posed my question to a man working hard here in Ukraine as a Catholic missionary: "The moment of grace at independence, with the fall of Communist repression of all things spiritual, has passed. A generation has passed and there really aren't people remaining who can be called back to the practice of their faith. How do you announce the Good News to a world that has never known Christ?" I'll leave his answer aside and hint at my own response by insisting that like with Jesus Himself, like with Benedict, father of Western Monasticism and one of Europe's Patrons, it cannot be done without engaging in spiritual combat with the one who holds so many in chains, in darkness, in the shadow of death. It cannot be done without a fight, without engaging the enemy in the desert.


Wednesday, February 22, 2012

I'm with Jonah!

Ash Wednesday is one of those days when Jonah and the people of Nineveh come to my mind. Nineveh's change of heart in response to the words of the prophet, leaving aside their sinful ways, all lifting their voices in petition to the Lord, asking for His mercy, all from least to greatest focused and depriving themselves in hopes of a reprieve, is a vision for me of how the Church Militant should be in this great season of preparation for Easter. I think of the exuberant, maybe somewhat playful, but eminently devout way we as children of the 1950's, united with generations past and from time immemorial before us, went about making personal sacrifices and doing penance. It was purposeful action even if the deadly earnest of Nineveh was somewhat lacking in our childish approach. I miss that same spirit now in the Church of my adulthood. I wonder sometimes whether someone didn't fumble the ball at some point years back; I can't blame the powers that be within the Church; I have no theories of a conspiracy to tempt us to slack off or to bring about a demontage of all that is right in Catholic culture to explain a certain inertia when it comes to doing penance today.   

I explain this slackness to myself with the conclusion that I think I must belong to that "lost generation" within the Church where the Lenten call to repentance just doesn't resonate as it should in our hearts. Blame it on global warming; blame it on TV; blame it on children's vitamins or Dr. Spock; blame it on 1968! What I mean by that is most simply illustrated by saying that I and a whole generation or more with me can appreciate Jonah's disappointment at the Lord's decision not to destroy Nineveh, but rather to pardon the great city when it repented at the words of the prophet, putting on sackcloth and ashes. Somehow, I guess, there are those among us who, like Jonah, just don't get it, who don't truly appreciate how dear to God's heart are our penance and repentance. Too much of our world, or at least of my world, has little enthusiasm for penance and repentance. Perhaps it is a form of skepticism concerning our perfectibility; no doubt too God is not perceived as being all that close to us; I think it is a malaise which is generally labelled secularization.

However, Jonah's world wasn't secularized like ours is. How can I claim Jonah as an explanation or excuse for my or my generation's reticence about the efficacy of penitential practice? I won't, but I will hold up the example of Nineveh and say, loud and clear, "See!" Such is God's love! Granted, there is no king to decree our penance today, but each of us can contribute to the recovery of that resolve, that sense of purpose in making personal sacrifices before God. A humble, contrite heart, O God, you will not spurn. Our lives must have seasons and times, also for mourning our sins.

Let us all hold each other up in prayer this Lent, beseeching the Lord to have mercy, to withhold His wrathful judgment! The Lord is near to all who call upon Him, who call upon Him in truth.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Patris Pax

Psalm 3. 
"A psalm of David, when he fled from the face of Abessalon his son. 1. The words, "I slept, and took rest; and rose, for the Lord will take me up," lead us to believe that this Psalm is to be understood as in the Person of Christ; for they sound more applicable to the Passion and Resurrection of our Lord, than to that history in which David's flight is described from the face of his rebellious son. And, since it is written of Christ's disciples, "The sons of the bridegroom fast not as long as the bridegroom is with them;" [36] it is no wonder if by his undutiful [37] son be here meant that undutiful [38] disciple who betrayed Him. From whose face although it may be understood historically that He fled, when on his departure He withdrew with the rest to the mountain; yet in a spiritual sense, when the Son of God, that is the Power and Wisdom of God, abandoned the mind of Judas; when the Devil wholly occupied him; as it is written, "The Devil entered into his heart," [39] may it be well understood that Christ fled from his face; not that Christ gave place to the Devil, but that on Christ's departure the Devil took possession. Which departure, I suppose, is called a flight in this Psalm, because of its quickness; which is indicated also by the word of our Lord, saying, "That thou doest, do quickly." [40] So even in common conversation we say of anything that does not come to mind, it has fled from me; and of a man of much learning we say, nothing flies from him. Wherefore truth fled from the mind of Judas, when it ceased to enlighten him. But Absalom, as some interpret, in the Latin tongue signifies, Patris pax, a father's peace. And it may seem strange, whether in the history of the kings, when Absalom carried on war against his father; or in the history of the New Testament, when Judas was the betrayer of our Lord; how "father's peace" can be understood. But both in the former place they who read carefully, see that David in that war was at peace with his son, who even with sore grief lamented his death, saying, "O Absalom, my son, would God I had died for thee!" [41] And in the history of the New Testament by that so great and so wonderful forbearance of our Lord; in that He bore so long with him as if good, when He was not ignorant of his thoughts; in that He admitted him to the Supper in which He committed and delivered to His disciples the figure of His Body and Blood; finally, in that He received the kiss of peace at the very time of His betrayal; it is easily understood how Christ showed peace to His betrayer, although he was laid waste by the intestine war of so abominable a device. And therefore is Absalom called "father's peace," because his father had the peace, which he had not." [St. Augustine (2010-03-28). St. Augustine: Exposition on the Book of Psalms (Kindle Locations 355-375). Kindle Edition.]

Recently, I set up a spiritual reading project for myself: continuous reading of the Book of Psalms, also reading the Ukrainian text, and reading the relative exposition or commentary by St. Augustine. Truth to be told, the toughest part of it is facing St. Augustine, at least it has been so for the first three psalms. It's like the way they describe panning for gold. Much to my surprise, however, I've already struck it rich early in the game with St. Augustine's reflection on the meaning of the name Absalom: a father's peace. Take and read again the last part of Augustine's exposition on verse 1 of the psalm from note {41} to the end! It's marvelous! I'll share one application to life in the world for the Christian which struck me immediately.

As awkward as it sounds, and perhaps in this I am limiting the possibilities of such a reflection to those of us who are older, just like King David, I can have a father's peace in the face of any son or daughter who makes war upon me, regardless really of whether or not they are physical progeny. Knowing and understanding my own divine sonship as baptismal grace, I find myself by grace and adoption caught up into the life of the Most Blessed Trinity; not only do I find myself strong in the face of my adversaries; I find myself loving, such that I cannot or dare not have war in my heart.

Think about it and in the context of our Lord's Passion:  that so great and so wonderful forbearance of our Lord! I guess I could leave all else aside, read the psalm again and be most encouraged in the face of whatever I might claim as trials:

"3. O Lord, how many are my foes! Many are rising against me; many are saying of me there is no help for him in God. But thou, O Lord, art a shield about me, my glory, and the lifter of my head. I cry aloud to the Lord and he answers me from his holy hill. I lie down and sleep; I wake again, for the Lord sustains me. I am not afraid of ten thousands of people who have set themselves against me round about. Arise, O Lord! Deliver me, O my God! For thou dost smite all my enemies on the cheek, thou dost break the teeth of the wicked. Deliverance belongs to the Lord; thy blessing be upon thy people!"

Dear St. Augustine, who sees King David at peace with his son, Absalom, in the midst of war, who sees Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, at peace before Judas' treachery and rejection of his calling as a disciple! I cannot compare, but I can certainly hope for a heart filled also with a father's peace: But Thou, O Lord, art a shield about me, my glory, and the lifter of my head.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Through A Glass Darkly

"Yet it is here, at the margins of society and the borders of earthy existence, that the church is most intensely itself. In ministering to the poor, the sick, and the dying, it will naturally find the right balance between ritual identity and local inculturation. For the church can best realize its identity by looking beyond it."

As some may know, I hold in high esteem Andrew Sorokowski, who contributes regularly to RISU's rubric "Expert Opinion". His newest piece, "Beyond Identity", does not disappoint. He does a masterful job of analyzing just what is at stake today in the search by the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (and not necessarily just in the diaspora) for its identity as the Catholic standard bearer of the Kyivian-Byzantine tradition and culture. Sorokowski points out rightly that Church is there to bring people to God; evangelization is indeed the name of the game.

What amounts to a foregone conclusion for the author inside his own tradition is still very much an adventure of discovery for me, even in its most elementary components. There is much to observe and assimilate in an attempt to understand the uniqueness of Church in this Land. I was able to consolidate some of my own cultural gains this week as I escorted family around and we were treated to some marvelous English language tours of Kyivan holy places and museums. 

Let me risk possible ridicule by art historians and the people of the Land by expressing unbounded enthusiasm for Ukrainian Baroque iconography and by stating that the remnants of this period which have somehow survived two great wars and Soviet barbarism are my window of appreciation for the Kyivian-Byzantine tradition. No one set of aesthetic criteria can sum up a tradition, but I think Ukrainian Baroque says some things about the soul of this people: beautiful flowers and drapery; healthy, full faces. We're going beyond the canon of what makes for beauty here and saying something important about what constitutes sanctity and heavenly glory.

Cultures, which are necessarily rooted in family and custom, are bearers of the Good News. The sublime, which finds its proper stage in faith life, goes beyond family, never leaving family or small community behind. In the high liturgy in our best churches, our identity, our greatness or dignity before God and in His eyes is mediated or disclosed and necessarily so but on the firm foundation of the faith experience, day in and day out, of the little church, of the family. 

I guess coming from the Upper Midwest of the U.S. and having lived elsewhere I may be overly prone to have reservations about the word "inculturation". The tilma of Juan Diego, bearing the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, is not an insertion or substitution which mediates, but an exchange carried out in a certain way among the Spanish conquistadores and in a very different way among the indigenous population drawn to the small chapel and Juan Diego's personal witness for the rest of his days. Two very different peoples found themselves at the feet of the "Morenita", both drawn by beauty and love.

As I say, I deeply respect the insights of Sorokowski, but beyond the spiritual and corporal works of mercy, it is divine worship, music and art that must be there to help us find ourselves in Christ for the sake of the life of the world. I do firmly believe that along with the Kyivian-Byzantine tradition and its beauty, our images make a difference and profess a profound and unique truth. We all find ourselves as we gaze into the face of Christ, as we contemplate His beautiful Mother, and all the Saints.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Religious Freedom: Truth and Conscience

"15. The fact is that men of the present day want to be able freely to profess their religion in private and in public. Indeed, religious freedom has already been declared to be a civil right in most constitutions, and it is solemnly recognized in international documents. The further fact is that forms of government still exist under which, even though freedom of religious worship receives constitutional recognition, the powers of government are engaged in the effort to deter citizens from the profession of religion and to make life very difficult and dangerous for religious communities.

This council greets with joy the first of these two facts as among the signs of the times. With sorrow, however, it denounces the other fact, as only to be deplored. The council exhorts Catholics, and it directs a plea to all men, most carefully to consider how greatly necessary religious freedom is, especially in the present condition of the human family. All nations are coming into even closer unity. Men of different cultures and religions are being brought together in closer relationships. There is a growing consciousness of the personal responsibility that every man has. All this is evident. Consequently, in order that relationships of peace and harmony be established and maintained within the whole of mankind, it is necessary that religious freedom be everywhere provided with an effective constitutional guarantee and that respect be shown for the high duty and right of man freely to lead his religious life in society." (Dignitatis humanae)

 Who would have guessed, certainly not I, that these words of the Second Vatican Council, from nigh unto half a century ago, could be applied today to the Obama administration: "even though freedom of religious worship receives constitutional recognition, the powers of government are engaged in the effort to deter citizens from the profession of religion and to make life very difficult and dangerous for religious communities."?

The present open conflict in the United States of America, between the Catholic Church and the Obama administration, in defense of freedom of conscience, in its search for the truth which finds its ultimate ground and fulfillment in God the Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ, is in reaction to an act of aggression which most folks find hard to even fathom. There is no living memory among Catholics today of how things were back before World War II, when we were in great number and for the most part struggling groups of poor immigrants left to our own designs.  Now, it would seem, relativism pushed to the extreme by a libertarian intolerance which borders on totalitarianism makes one fear that, to say the very least, we don't find ourselves in the best of times. God-fearing folk are openly scorned and bidden, it would seem, to abandon the public square of Catholic social services, Catholic hospital and nursing care, truly Catholic university education, in a word, to depart from anywhere we might have cooperated (seemingly to our ultimate detriment) with public authorities. It looks like in the future in America, if we'll want to do more than worship of a Sunday, we'll have to do it on our own and very discreetly, so as not to incur the wrath of some bigot, perhaps wielding authority and most likely able to martial the court system to sustain his or her aggression.

Granted, in many cases, we have put ourselves on this slippery slope. I can remember an aunt of mine complaining years and years ago about how, in exchange for a few dollars from some instance of government, the dear sisters took down the holy pictures and crucifixes which had been in their hospital rooms replacing them with mallard ducks. The little and bigger betrayals have occurred and I need not document them to make my point. The war is on, battle has been engaged, and I think it will be up to voters, sooner or later, to choose and clearly in favor of religious liberty and freedom of conscience beyond the threshold of the temple. 

"Consequently, in order that relationships of peace and harmony be established and maintained within the whole of mankind, it is necessary that religious freedom be everywhere provided with an effective constitutional guarantee and that respect be shown for the high duty and right of man freely to lead his religious life in society." 

Fifty years ago the Council Fathers, and goodly folks with them, thought it was sufficient to appeal to human dignity and a genuine search in conscience for the truth as pillars or keys to granting the how and wherefore not only of being allowed, to use the old expression, "the church of our choice", but moreover to be allowed to live out our faith at home, in school, in the work place, even to quietly say a family prayer before meals in a crowded restaurant. How important all this is to the Papal Magisterium of all these years as found in the messages for the world day of prayer for peace!

Maybe the acceptance (or tolerance?) we as Catholics experienced after World War II was altogether idyllic; maybe things are just getting back to normal; maybe it is time to get to work and secure our rights by international accord. Perhaps through negotiating concordats and other such accords we'll have to struggle for every square inch of public space we can reclaim or gain, but just maybe we'll meet reasonable people along the way who will give us our due and not begrudge us our true identity. 

May the Lord look kindly upon His children and show us His mercy!

Saturday, February 11, 2012

RANGO - A Movie Review

I rarely watch movies and since I've been here in Ukraine I don't have much taste for TV either. Neither of these facts is the result of a conscious choice. I do like films and if I had to admit a weakness for any particular genre then it would be for animated films. After seeing a trailer on YouTube, something pushed me to make time for "Rango". The soundtrack is great and some of the scenes, most even, are riotously funny and truly entertaining.

"Rango", however, has a very adult theme, even if the animation is spectacular and certain characters, like the armadillo and the head of the mole family, are so well drawn they deserve a place in an art gallery. When I say that the film has a very adult theme, what I mean is that it has "no redeeming social value" as it so scorns or scoffs at the things of the spirit. It's cutesie atheism or agnosticism flaunted on the silver screen and dished up with almost enthralling graphic detail, right down to the little mustache on the big rattlesnake. 
All I could think of while I was watching it was, "I wonder how would it be rated by the Catholic Film Academy." The portrayal of so much cynicism when it comes to matters of the spirit deserves a warning to parents and a challenge to anyone not to go there hoping for more than mindless entertainment. The million dollar question is, of course, why couldn't it just have been mindless fun and great special effects? Did I really need to have human hope and ritual trashed?

As I say this, I remember back to my childhood when, before going to see a movie at the theater, we would check the rating on the chosen film in our Catholic paper. I also remember as an adolescent and perhaps even as a young adult being mystified by the poor rating some films got from the Academy. No doubt, others who have seen "Rango" will wonder about my worries and reservations. I think I'm right and I guess I'm sad that even an animated film has to be so jaded.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

More Sober Than Science

 I just finished another book on Kindle, which I would heartily recommend to any dear Catholic who suffers an occasional twinge of insecurity, embarrassment or inferiority in the face of "SCIENCE" and its know-it-all shamans:

The Catholic Church and Science 
Answering the Questions, Exposing the Myths 
Benjamin Wiker 
TAN Books 
Charlotte, North Carolina, 2011
Kindle Edition.

Wiker goes about facing and handling just about any challenge you can imagine to the intellectual credentials of the Catholic Church over history. He does so succinctly, clearly and in his familiar "university prof" tone, also drawing on the Catechism of the Catholic Church to show that serious science has little to fear from the Catholic Church. The book would be a positive contribution to the reading list for any university student and, for all of us who didn't use our study years to the maximum, offers a manageable way to improve our performance on certain topics at cocktail  and dinner parties.

I can recommend the book to those who are looking for a sure source for answers to questions regarding evolution, Big Bang theories, or the existence of ET's and the possibility of inter-galactic travel outside of your favorite neighborhood movie theater.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Freedom and Obedience, Vocation and Choice

"If I preach the gospel, this is no reason for me to boast, for an obligation has been imposed on me, and woe to me if I do not preach it! 17  If I do so willingly, I have a recompense, but if unwillingly, then I have been entrusted with a stewardship. 18  What then is my recompense? That, when I preach, I offer the gospel free of charge so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel. 19  Although I am free in regard to all, I have made myself a slave to all so as to win over as many as possible." (1 Cor. 9:16-19)

Again the other day I ran into a dear bishop who half apologized for taking young men into his seminary. We just don't think, do we? Why is it that we find it hard to see that the Old Testament Prophet Samuel, the little boy to whom God spoke directly in the Holy Place, turned over to the Lord by his mother shortly after she weaned him, is only a radical story because there is no ambiguity whatever in this woman, neither regarding to Whom she needs be grateful for her son nor concerning how she should show her gratitude to the Lord and her love for her son. God calls us to His service from our mother's womb. We are made for Him. We belong to Him.

If you challenge people on their hesitancy to allow a young man or young men from boyhood to pursue a vocation to priesthood, if you ask them what is to be gained by leaving a young man to aimlessly shift for himself (which is what happens when you postpone allowing him to make a commitment proportionate to his age), they cannot really have a cogent reply. The delayed or belated vocation of long ago does not become better for the use of euphemisms like "adult" or "mature". Rarely do these men tell you their vocation story without admitting that they had fled what they had known to be the case probably since the age of reason. How can there be virtue or merit in postponing your response to God's call?

Thanks be to God that older men do respond and become great priests. That is not the issue. The matter is spurning or scorning the enthusiasm of youth; at issue is our neglect for not seeking to identify and call forth from youth those who could potentially make good priests. Some people at this point might have issues about freedom and choice, as if a vocation to celibate priesthood or marriage and family life was like trying to decide between becoming a rocket scientist or a brain surgeon. "He's got it all together! He can be anything he wants to be!" she says... Maybe so, but God calls us out of knowledge and love. Better than the old village matchmaker who had a much better record than any computer dating service, the Lord knows us through and through and invites us to share in His saving work. How often when it comes to good do we choose better when we say "no"?

Obedience to God's call is ultimate self-actualization. If I'm stretching it by affirming such, then take St. Paul's understatement:

"If I preach the gospel, this is no reason for me to boast, for an obligation has been imposed on me, and woe to me if I do not preach it! 17  If I do so willingly, I have a recompense, but if unwillingly, then I have been entrusted with a stewardship. 18  What then is my recompense? That, when I preach, I offer the gospel free of charge so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel. 19  Although I am free in regard to all, I have made myself a slave to all so as to win over as many as possible." (1 Cor. 9:16-19)

I'm reading a marvelous book in Italian these days written by a young priest who just completed six years of service here at the Nunciature, Fr. Pavlo Vyshkovskyy, OMI.  The book documents the martyrdom of the Catholic Church in Ukraine under Communism. The chapter on the witness of priests and bishops touched me profoundly. Who but God alone, in His great and mysterious love, could ask such sacrifices, such suffering? These men fought really to stay with their people and be available for their people, never counting the cost. Is it love to try and delay or deprive a boy or a young man of his share in the sufferings of Christ? 

We must pray for vocations, yes, and by praying steadfastly for generous hearts in the young men and in their parents.