Saturday, May 25, 2013

More to it than that, Liturgy

Not all that long ago, I discovered a great blog (called SYMPOSIUM), writing principally about the Eastern Tradition of our Church (the author hails from England, which really isn't "east" enough). He's published now on RISU and the article is captivating from my point of view. It is entitled: "THE LANGUAGE OF THE LITURGY: SPEAKING GOD’S KINGDOM". The author: Father James Siemens. The name is not typically Ukrainian and, if my sources serve me well, he would proudly profess himself to be the fruit of the evangelization efforts of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church worldwide, which he is eager to promote.

Let me lift just one quote from the article, which speaks about the Ukrainian language for liturgy and for culture:

"Indeed, as its lineage can be traced directly to Saints Wolodymyr and Olha, it is not just appropriate that it should be a language of worship, but should be considered a real gift. Yet, as Byzantine worship in the Kyivan tradition has spread across the globe, its continued use in places where the dominant language is not Ukrainian also means that, if the Ukrainian Church is to serve the people of God as an ‘Eastern lung’, she will need to do so in something other than – or at least in addition to – Ukrainian."

Other than in the case of Sts. Cyrill and Methodius, we don't usually think of the Byzantine tradition as missionary, as evangelizing beyond its borders. Father makes a good case for why we might rightly dump that stereotype and sort of breezes past the issue of inculturation, limiting his discussion to language as comprehensibility. I leave the matter of how the two "lungs" should complement each other on mission for you to judge. Our track record (Latins and Greeks) over the centuries for working harmoniously side by side on the same territory doesn't exactly read like a romance story. Sts. Cyrill and Methodius, with their disciples, were not the only ones who didn't have it particularly easy.

Personally, Father Siemens perplexes me as much as do folk within our "Latin" Tradition, for it seems to me they are thinking rather in terms of linguistic comprehension as the principal if not only vehicle in Divine Worship for carrying us to God. While people in the past have yearned and still today yearn for vernacular, our great liturgy, Byzantine or Roman, is not a book which we proclaim/read or chant from end to end; it is not so one dimensional or linear. Great worship is "layered": sometimes we are singing, while the celebrant is praying sottovoce; look again at the ancient Roman Rite as celebrated; understand the role of silence; remember that people were nourished by that liturgy for centuries.

When it comes to beauty, the little bit of Byzantine Liturgy which I have experienced in English pales in comparison to Old Slavonic or Ukrainian. No doubt there are some beautiful renditions of the Lord Have Mercy or the Holy Holy or the Lamb of God out there, but how can they compare with some of the Kyries, the Sanctus' or the Agnus Deis which we have in our Gregorian chant treasury, if not amongst the wealth of polyphony at our disposal?

In St. Augustine's day the catechumens were ushered out at the end of the Liturgy of the Word; they could not stay for the celebration of the great mysteries, the Eucharist. When after baptism they finally could, all needed to be explained to them, as they had never experience it before. What drew them to baptism was not the liturgy itself but, perhaps above all, the witness of Christian lives. Granted, that exclusion holds no more and there are many famous examples of unbelievers converted by encountering the sublime of worship, either simple or festive.

The crisis of faith and culture, the estrangement from the life of the Church today, is something which in the West people tend to lay at the door of liturgical abuse and banality. The recovery of the sacred would go a long, long way toward putting things in order. I cannot but believe that more is at stake however, in terms of family life, in terms of the witness to Christ which should be the hallmark of our daily living. Action speaks louder than words, or as one of the Popes of my lifetime stated: our age requires witnesses more than preceptors. A healthy and eager, fraternal competition for the sake of saving souls might be fun and might truly edify. My only point would be that I doubt seriously if it depends on linguistic comprehensibility.


Monday, May 20, 2013

Consubstantial, Yes!

The God of Jesus Christ 
Meditations on the Triune God 
Translated by Brian McNeil 

It's a good thing my annual vacation time is limited and I don't really have to spend much time reining in my propensity to impulse buying. The other day I saw a blurb from Ignatius Press suggesting this book would be good reading for Pentecost... and so I bought and read it. Not a mistake (as I have never found a book or article by our beloved Pope Emeritus to be a waste of time) but rather another find with countless insights to be gained of which I want only to share one from his discussion of the article of the Creed "consubstantial with the Father".

The quote is long, but more readable than my ramblings:

"But why did Arius’ answer seem so very obvious to the people of his age? Why did he succeed in winning over the public opinion of the entire educated world in so short a time? His success was due to the same reason that leads public opinion today to write off the Council of Nicaea: Arius wanted to preserve the purity of the concept of God. He did not want to ascribe to God anything as naive as an incarnation. He was convinced that in the final analysis, the concept of God and God himself must be completely excluded from human history. He was convinced that, ultimately, the world itself must regulate its own affairs; that it cannot gain access to God; and that of course God himself is so great that he cannot touch the world. The Fathers regarded this as atheism, and their judgment was correct, since a God to whom man has no access whatsoever, a God who in reality cannot play any role in the world, is no God. But have we not long since quietly returned to this kind of atheism? Do we, too, not find it intolerable to make God descend into human existence? Do we, too, not find it impossible that man could have a genuine relationship with God in the world? Is this not the reason why we have retreated with such passion to “the man Jesus”? But does this not mean that we have ended up in a world view of despair? For if only we ourselves have power over the world, since God has no such power, what else remains but despair (even if it is screened by big words)?" (Highlight Loc. 920-30)

These days here at home and in conversation with good folk have brought lots of questions and issues to the surface concerning the needs of our day and time. Yesterday I enjoyed being interviewed by the local Catholic Radio, still struggling for access to the airwaves here in South Dakota (anti-Catholic bias?). The interview was to a great extent biographical and a central theme was that of asking what was different about the faith environment which nurtured me, who if anyone inspired me or played a key role in my life, who helped bring out my vocation to priesthood, etc. Reasonable questions, yes, which must always stand against the backdrop of whatever it is that is going on in home, parish and Church today, no? The other usual query, which also came up during the interview, posits some sort of vocational struggle or wrestling with God before surrendering to His call.

As always, I guess, I must say that I disappoint my questioners by stating that my parents at home, both of them in their own unique way and together complementing each other, communicated a sense of the presence of God, which has stood me and all my siblings in good stead over the years. Catholic school supported that and offered additional content. For me there was no struggle, no wrestling with the will of God for me; believing folk around me shared with Mom and Dad what they discerned as the seeds of a vocation in a little boy and what I perceived at first in a childish way grew apace with my own maturation process over the course of time, marked by a boy's prayers, the balance of a minor seminary experience, university and major seminary, never stopping with ordination, but continuing in the school of life right up until today. Never forget that it is the Church that concretizes the call to Holy Orders, which comes from God! 

Where did Benedict and "consubstantial" go, you ask? Well, even though most of what is written in this book was thought out and set to paper decades ago, it reflects on a practical atheism abroad in our world which in my childhood and youth I was somehow spared. Certainly, we can fault decades of poor pedagogy which kept children (some now grandparents) from learning their catechism, but then the general and enveloping climate had changed as well, undermining what was really a Catholic culture, a nurturing environment. 

I think that Benedict is right in saying that the atheism of our day has crept into the Church just like the Arianism which the Fathers of the Council of Nicaea had to struggle against. The sense of the Year of Faith, which he proclaimed, is all too evident to me.

Other than recommending this book, may I suggest one small exercise and namely taking time to reflect that when we proclaim "Jesus is Lord" we are acknowledging the Son of the Eternal Father as God. Ponder the words of the Creed and let them change your outlook, your approach to every day. Reclaim or seek for the very first time that natural (for us the baptized) sense of the power and presence of God in Jesus Christ in our daily lives.


Sunday, May 19, 2013

It Doesn't Get Much Better

A School of Prayer
Pope Benedict XVI
Sceptre Publishers, Inc. 2012 (Kindle Edition)

“Constant and unanimous prayer is a precious tool to overcome any trial that may arise on life’s journey, because it is being deeply united to God that allows us also to be united to others.” (Highlight Loc. 2253-54)

No doubt there are those who would question as to whether I am all that in touch with the world around me, but for all my sustainers, who respect my judgment, I must tell you I couldn't be more enthusiastic about a book. Some may have enjoyed singly these Wednesday General Audience talks from our Pope Emeritus, but gathered under one cover they take on new life and never fail to impress as you allow yourself to be surprised, touched and convinced by the leitmotifs woven in.

This volume is indeed for everyone and can educate the smartest among us while edifying and responding to the needs of some of the simplest and most honest among us believers. It really helps understand what prayer of petition is all about and how we ask of God and experience an answer to our prayers.

"Before reflecting on this beautiful prayer, let us take note of an important basic attitude: when the first Christian community is confronted by dangers, difficulties, and threats, it does not attempt to work out how to react, find strategies, defend itself, or decide what measures to adopt; rather, when it is put to the test, the community starts to pray and makes contact with God." (Highlight Loc. 2001-4)

The Holy Father couldn't be clearer on the importance of unity and perseverance in prayer. He never judges, but it is all too clear that we as a Church would do better if we were of one mind and heart and constant in our prayer.

"Dear brothers and sisters, Peter’s liberation as recounted by Luke tells us that the Church (i.e., each of us) goes through the night of trial, but it is unceasing vigilance in prayer that sustains us. I too, from the first moment of my election as the successor of St. Peter, have always felt supported by your prayers, by the prayers of the Church, especially in moments of great difficulty. My heartfelt thanks! With constant and faithful prayer, the Lord releases us from our chains; he guides us through every night of imprisonment that can gnaw at our hearts. He gives us the peace of heart to face the difficulties of life, persecution, opposition, and even rejection. Peter’s experience shows us the power of prayer." (Highlight Loc. 2247-52)

People's enthusiasm for Pope Francis and the big crowds present in St. Peter's Square are truly a feast for the eyes and a joy to the heart. Beyond the hurrahs and the hosannahs, all of us worldwide in unanimity owe him the prayerful support which the Church has always given and without reserve to St. Peter and his Successors. 

Start with his monthly intentions in the Apostleship of Prayer and go on from there in union with the whole Church. Peter slept easy in chains, confident in God's power to save and in the prayer of the Church.

In Him we live and move and have our being:

Actiones nostras, quæsumus, Domine, aspirando præveni et adiuvando prosequere, ut cuncta nostra oratio et operatio a te semper incipiat, et per te coepta finiatur”—that is, “Inspire our actions, Lord, and accompany them with your help, so that our every word and action may always begin and end in you.” Every step in our life, every action—of the Church too—must be taken before God, in the light of his word." 
(Highlight Loc. 2111-15)

Saturday, May 18, 2013

A Love Story against the Backdrop of War

A Song for Nagasaki 
The Story of Takashi Nagai Scientist, 
Convert and Survivor of the Atomic Bomb 
Foreword by Shusaku Endo 
Ignatius Press. Kindle Edition (2009). 

A dear friend recommended this book to me and I gladly do the same for one and all. It is beautifully written and offers much material for personal reflection.

For me, the most touching part of the book is the description of his conversion and the part played by Nagasaki's Catholic community in leading him to the fullness of life and faith within the communion of the Church.

The virtues of filial piety and married love are well described in the book. Maybe you have to have lived your life to comprehend the beauty of such virtue, but I'd risk exposing young people to this book as a way of preparing them for chaste, married love.

I'm sure the author would complain that such a review as mine sells short his message about the true meaning of just and lasting peace. I'm sorry, but he did too good of a job on describing marriage and family as I would wish them lived within the Church and for the sake of our world. I'll hold on to the treasure I found without denying others what marvels they might find.

Takashi and Midori Nagai are another one of those Catholic couples who should be raised to the altars for the sake of the inspiration to be gained from their heroic witness to Christ.  

Friday, May 17, 2013

Preparing for Pentecost

“So this heavenly spouse when he thought good to begin the promulgation of his law, cast down upon the assembly of those disciples whom he had deputed for this work a shower of fiery tongues, sufficiently intimating thereby that the preaching of the gospel was wholly designed for the inflaming of hearts.” (Treatise on the Love of God - Enhanced Version (St. Francis de Sales) - Highlight Loc. 1096-98 – Kindle Edition)

This is the quote which will carry me now to Pentecost this year. It may just become a sort of watchword for me as well. We'll just see.

Not so much by confession or admission as by observation, I'd have to say that the first five months of this year (despite all of the excitement: HABEMUS PAPAM!) has been an experience of a post-pentecost community rather ponderous in every aspect, not much inflaming of hearts being perceived in the order of our day as Church (as much anyway as I can see or sense). It would be neither fair nor altogether right to say that I felt myself confronted and challenged by a Bride weighted down by sin, but the sluggishness or ineffectiveness with which I sensed myself confronted was or is indeed oppressive. I know that Christ, this heavenly spouse, cannot or does not ever feel this way, but as far as my share in the spousing (as His priest) goes, such a feeling comes as no surprise. Were I all afire like Him that would not be the case.

The remedy, of course, is for me here and now to embrace that burning bush, that fire, and enter into Him, to set my heart unfailingly and again on the life of the world to come, never turning back:

“Thus, Jesus tells us that it is only by conforming our own will to the divine one that human beings attain their true height, that they become “divine”; only by coming out of ourselves, only in the “yes” to God, is Adam’s desire—and the desire of us all—to be completely free. It is what Jesus brings about at Gethsemane: in transferring the human will into the divine will the true man is born and we are redeemed.” (A School of Prayer (Pope Benedict XVI) - Highlight Loc. 1659-62 – Kindle Edition)

The tough part in all this is that it is not simply a question of beauty being in the eye of the beholder: I can be an enthusiastic bridegroom like St. Francis of Assisi, whose love is sufficient for the Bride and draws the best out of her. Even so, I wish something of the Bride herself, something which in turn could sustain me as that every man, in search of that community which is to lead me to everlasting life and love.

The Church (with me) is to be about the business of its mission bestowed in the upper room on the day of Pentecost: "sufficiently intimating thereby that the preaching of the gospel was wholly designed for the inflaming of hearts.”

My hope then and prayer for Pentecost this year would be for me certainly, that I might be that more effective instrument, but also that the Church, the Bride of Christ, might indeed better reveal herself as that woman clothed with the sun. May the spotless Bride of the Lamb better inflame hearts and bring them to Christ!


Saturday, May 11, 2013

Summing up Retreat 2013

“3. I desire no consolation which taketh away from me compunction, I love no contemplation which leadeth to pride. For all that is high is not holy, nor is everything that is sweet good; every desire is not pure; nor is everything that is dear to us pleasing unto God.” [The Imitation of Christ (Optimized for Kindle) (Thomas A. Kempis and The Collected Works of Thomas A Kempis) - Highlight Loc. 1019-21]

I don’t think we set out to seek an insight and what touches us at a given moment may seem all too ordinary for others, but this little quote from “The Imitation of Christ” is a big gift which I can carry away from my annual retreat. Deo gratias!

“And do you know what shows the imperfection of their love? It is that, as soon as they are deprived of the consolations which they find in Me, their love fails and can no longer survive. It becomes weak and gradually cools towards Me when, in order to exercise them in virtue and to detach them from their imperfection, I withdraw spiritual consolations from them and send them difficulties and afflictions. I act in this way in order to bring them to perfection, to teach them to know themselves, to realize that they are nothing and that of themselves they have no grace. Adversity should have the effect of making them seek refuge in Me, recognize Me as their benefactor, and become attached to Me by a true humility....” {adapted from St. Catherine of Siena}  [Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange. The Three Ways of the Spiritual Life (Kindle Edition) - Highlight Loc. 557-62]

What one should expect from a retreat, other than privileged time to “rest in the Lord”, may be too tough or personalized of a question to set out for general discussion. I wish at least that much (time to “rest in the Lord”) for others and hope that brother priests and bishops never miss an annual retreat.

The challenge for all would seem to be this matter of how life, our life, is conducted, day to day in the course of that year which may pass between spiritual exercises, aka retreat. Is it like life between pedicures (I’ve never had one, but my sisters tell me it works wonders all around)? Is it one long submersion in the work-a-day world, with only brief ascents to catch one’s bearings, kind of like snorkeling in open water and wanting to keep your boat in sight? I certainly hope that retreat brings the occasional insight on how to change and grow, how better to live and serve day-in-and-day-out.

I hope too that retreat helps us long for heaven and that means for death in the Lord and life with Him for all eternity. In the day of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Anthony of Padua, they and many others longed for martyrdom at the hands of those who denied Christ His Divinity and Lordship over all creation. Comparable to their attempts to reach the battle fronts between belief and unbelief in their day might be an attempt by some adventurous and zealous youth to face the challenge of some blasphemous TV talk show host. We commend all to the Fathers and Doctors who counsel against running headlong to martyrdom.

Thus, by the unutterable mercy of God, even the very punishment of wickedness has become the armor of virtue, and the penalty of the sinner becomes the reward of the righteous. For then death was incurred by sinning; now righteousness is fulfilled by dying. In the case of the holy martyrs it is so; for to them the persecutor proposes the alternative, apostasy or death. [Saint Augustine of Hippo. The City of God (Kindle Edition) - Highlight Loc. 9400-9402]

Pray for me! Wish me another year in the Lord! I wish and pray the same thing for you, all of us together struggling for glory, Glory, alongside our great Captain. Not, then, so much seeking an increment of consolations as hoping for an excess of zeal.

 “Consider now the lively examples of the holy fathers, in whom shone forth real perfectness and religion, and thou shalt see how little, even as nothing, is all that we do. Ah! What is our life when compared to theirs? They, saints and friends of Christ as they were, served the Lord in hunger and thirst, in cold and nakedness, in labour and weariness, in watchings and fastings, in prayer and holy meditations, in persecutions and much rebuke.” [The Imitation of Christ (Optimized for Kindle) (Thomas A. Kempis and The Collected Works of Thomas A Kempis) - Highlight Loc. 471-74]


Friday, May 10, 2013

Code - No Code - Second Opinion

Spending leisure time with family just now, at less than 4 months since Mom's funeral, the topic of hospital care and bedside manner came up. One of the real frustrations the family had to face was the lack of responsiveness or communication both on the part of nurses and doctors. In the estimation of one of my sisters the nurses are not uniformly so, some are actually quite good. Doctors, however, seem to hold their cards close to their chests. Even outside the hospital, like at a gathering, the pattern for emergencies and first aid seems to be active involvement until the ambulance arrives and then complete withdrawal in the face of the med-techs. The explanation in our suing society could be as simple as liability. Not sharing openly about the patient with the patient or with the family in a hospital setting could simply be a strategy for not provoking the family or the anxious patient to seek the famous "second opinion". Everything seems guarded; there is no room for immediacy. (By comparison, the Hospice environment was most consoling.)

Some might easily and perhaps rightly observe, well, we've dethroned our physicians; nobody is Dr. Anybody anymore: he's Ted or Bill and she's Mavis or Kathy. What do you expect? I really don't know how informality as a cultural trait impacts on the issue at hand. Some of it might be training as well. Upon reflection, however, I have to say that it is not just the medical profession. It is society in general, we're very much in a tearing down mode when it comes to institutions; obviously not even the Church is spared in such matters. I don't think that mistrust or hostility is the issue. Rather, as in the case of the medical profession, what worries me more is the behavior of the "practitioners".

Apart from the perennial and generally unfair question about what we can or cannot expect of a young priest, which is always more than we expect of other men his age (rightly or wrongly so), I'm missing what should set the ecclesial experience apart. That something which in all other fields gets an indeterminate but very romantic French name, but which for priests should be tagged in Latin: ex opere operato, and with no apologies offered. At issue is not the counselling setting or matters of governance, but the administration of the Sacraments, and not so much in the official sense that the Sacraments, if the proper form is respected, are assured of their efficacy for the one receiving, regardless of whether the minister be worthy or not, but rather also subjectively in that we believe Father does not get in the way of an action which is Christ's directed to the Father Almighty on behalf of His Church and of the individual there present or absent intended and prayed for.

As time goes on, it is this aspect of the "rupture" or discontinuity both in our liturgical tradition and in the way we live out Church which has me anxious. This is not what was intended by that romantic Italian word aggiornamento. This worry surfaced quite vividly for me in the course of my retreat in a beloved retreat center where I arrived in the midst of a very serious and solid mini-Ignatian silent retreat for priests. That each man kept rigorously to his own silent world with eyes averted, well, that is indeed as it should be. But as a couple of the priests needed singly to anticipate their departure and get on the long road home and celebrate Mass privately before leaving, I encountered something which never would have been the case just 50 years ago: a reticence to celebrate Mass in the presence of someone else in the chapel or to "intrude" (if you will) on another Mass being celebrated (this is no small chapel either). We are, to say it another way, light years away from the early morning scene of side altars in alcoves dedicated to private Masses in a monastic community or in a house of priests.

It may be wrong to go with a gut feeling, but I have the impression that this reticence or shyness stems from a very different perception of what it is that a priest celebrant is about at liturgy, and namely, somehow not so perfectly identified with Christ acting as once upon a time... Alter Christus? It is, but not only, a question of the Ordinary Form. I experienced this same reticence these days from a priest celebrating the Extraordinary Form.

It could simply be that as all are parish priests they may never have experienced the Eucharist apart from the context of having those others in church, many or few, assisting specifically at their Mass. Nonetheless, forgive me, but this shyness strikes me as something akin to a crisis of faith, when not of the priest himself, then of the community around him. Let it be clear, I don't think it is the environment of the retreat center, which is generally nurturing and evidently supportive of the priest's celebrating sine populo and in either form approved by the Church. It is something of the Church in a more general way and certainly in certain places more marked by the vicissitudes of these last decades. It is not the nurturing world I knew as an 8th grader (1963), taking my turn as server sacristan, coming to the Cathedral at 6:00 a.m. on weekdays to set up for the 6:45 Mass and then serving the private Mass of the director of Catholic Charities at Mary's Altar, being sure first that whichever of the three young associates who had Mass that morning at the High Altar was in the sacristy, otherwise alerting the housekeeper to knock on his door. The environment was positive and without apologies; it carried us all and thankfully so.

Nostalgia is not an option; very simply, it has to be possible to constitute a fully nurturing environment for Divine Worship today, which draws people to church, even 8th Grade boys at 6:00 in the morning, if need be. But what to do? Creativity seems to be called for, just as it does in finding spaces at home for nurturing. Our world is different and parents need help in sorting through lots of things which our parents and grandparents were mercifully spared: I can remember coming home after two years in Rome, in the summer of 1974, and discovering the new and sadly different world where extracurricular activities were keeping children out and away even at the supper hour; family meals were gone except maybe for Saturday night. Yet before microwave, dinner was simply in foil in the warming oven to be consumed when younger siblings returned from football, cheerleading practice, the school musical or whatever.

Truth to be told, I am always happy to hear folks discussing such matters and I hope that such reflection can lead to strategies. It is not only life in a war zone which is cataclysmic. Contemporary society would tempt us generally to something other than God-centered living. Sad as it sounds, I am looking at my two young priests (OF and EF) as canaries in the coal mine. We need more fresh air here below, lest they perish and we with them.


Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Purgative Way to Union

The Three Ways of the Spiritual Life
Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange
(Kindle Edition)

What seems like forever ago, a friendly reader suggested with great charity that I stop complaining about St. John of the Cross and look to Father Garrigou-Lagrange for help. She even gave me a link to his lectures published online. I started but did not or have not as yet gotten all that far. For that reason, I am pleased that Kindle came to my aid with recommendations for three works which cost me a total of less than $4.00

Father does much in this particular work to help one work through the obscure. I took delight in some fundamental principles which he brought home again and again in the course of his teaching:

Unitive love then becomes in the soul like a sea of fire that ' reaches to the farthest heights and depths, filling it wholly with love. ' This love, hardly perceptible at first, grows more and more until the soul experiences an ever-increasing hunger for God and a burning thirst, of which the Psalmist says: ' For thee my soul hath thirsted; for thee my flesh, O, how many ways ! ‘This is truly the beatitude of those that hunger and thirst after justice; this is truly the prelude to the life of heaven, truly a beginning of eternal life, ' quaedam inchoatio vitae aeternae. ' as St. Thomas has said. This is the supreme, but normal, development of the life of grace on earth, the seed of glory, semen gloriae. (Highlight Loc. 1380-85)

He reminds us of the solid Catholic teaching which grounds it all: This is the supreme, but normal, development of the life of grace on earth, the seed of glory, semen gloriae.

Perhaps Father’s language can help some understand how the spiritual torments (purgation) of St. Catherine of Genoa could lead to her treatise on Purgatory:

Let us see now (I) why this conversion is necessary for proficients, (2) how God purifies the soul at this stage and (3) what are the fruits of this third conversion. The necessity of the purification of the spirit. Many imperfections remain even in those who have advanced in the way of God. If their sensibility has been to a great extent purged of the faults of spiritual sensuality, inertia, jealousy, impatience, yet there still remain in the spirit certain ' stains of the old man ' which are like rust on the soul, a rust which will only disappear under the action of an intense fire, similar to that which came down upon the Apostles on the day of Pentecost. (Highlight Loc. 812-18)

All such discourse, obscure (I’m sorry) as it is, despite the great Dominican’s comparisons to the more familiar developmental stages of man: child, youth, adult, leads me on to continue studying and hoping to understand something more of interiority and sanctity.

Pray for me as I do for you, that we might make it through this “dark night” together!

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

A Sojourner?

After a long respite, I'm back plugging away at St. Augustine's City of God and presently somewhat taken by his reflection on Cain as the builder of the earthly city whose sacrifice God did not accept and Abel, the just man, with Seth after him, as a sojourner on the way to the City of God.

It is no small challenge to live this life not seeking here a lasting dwelling place and all kinds of creature comforts, even though we firmly believe that our place is with the Lord. Yes, I think our sympathies rest with the earthly city and that is indeed the problem. No doubt, it is for that reason that any sacrifices we make, as was the case with Cain, are unacceptable simply because they are proportionately insufficient to all we hold tightly in our grasp, wrongly directed or intentioned. We cling, as Cain did, to the here and now... I hope St. Augustine is not too bothered by my analysis.

Sadly, it would seem, our hearts are set on the earthly city and material rather than spiritual gain. Apart from the upright stewardship of material resources with which we-parents or we-spouses express our love for children and for husband or wife, in today's world especially we set material priorities which are misplaced and often postpone the call from God to found a family or at least try to found one, denying by action or omission that which is integral to the sacrament of matrimony.

The Book of Tobit is strong on family and teaching the importance of almsgiving and that of other such (like burying the dead), on the singular importance of what we once learned were the corporal works of mercy. This is as it should be; Nineveh, the earthly city, must be left behind. We have here no lasting dwelling place. We are called to be sojourners and most of us are brought to that vocation kicking and screaming.

Nineveh, the great city of the prophet Jonah, Sodom and Gomorrah must be left behind. They offer nothing which brings peace, only material goods to be envied by others.

I can remember lots of years ago, certainly more than 20, when Mom expressed a wish to have on the wall at home a framed picture of the old Klondike Mill near her folk's farm in northwest Iowa. The mill represented for her all that was good about her childhood and that was just about everything. I don't know if it was a flour mill or a saw mill or if it was still working those long years ago; all that seemed important to Mom was the mill as a backdrop to the mill pond where as a tiny girl she would go fishing for bullheads with her father. It is a fond memory of subsistence farming, of the simple life, what some people today might class as poverty; it is joy gathered from a sufficiency of love, like that dolly which disappeared one day without a trace only to reappear at Christmas with a brand-new homemade dress and hat. For sojourners it was enough.

Families don't choose to be poor, but we can certainly all choose to be sojourners as opposed to city-dwellers, established and secure. Job, despite his great suffering, understood our calling best when he said that it is the Lord Who gives and the Lord Who takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord!

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Always and Everywhere Believed

St. Augustine caught me pleasantly a bit off guard this morning and I thought I'd share this marvelous quote from him with you:

“15.  But as men are prone to estimate sins, not by reference to their inherent sinfulness, but rather by reference to their own customs, it frequently happens that a man will think nothing blameable except what the men of his own country and time are accustomed to condemn, and nothing worthy of praise or approval except what is sanctioned by the custom of his companions; and thus it comes to pass, that if Scripture either enjoins what is opposed to the customs of the hearers, or condemns what is not so opposed, and if at the same time the authority of the word has a hold upon their minds, they think that the expression is figurative.  Now Scripture enjoins nothing except charity, and condemns nothing except lust, and in that way fashions the lives of men.  In the same way, if an erroneous opinion has taken possession of the mind, men think that whatever Scripture asserts contrary to this must be figurative.  Now Scripture asserts nothing but the catholic faith, in regard to things past, future, and present.  It is a narrative of the past, a prophecy of the future, and a description of the present.  But all these tend to nourish and strengthen charity, and to overcome and root out lust.” [On Christian Doctrine (Saint Augustine) - Highlight Loc. 1411-20 – Kindle Edition]

How else can you explain the dullness of people in reacting to the horrors alluded to in the case of the abortionist Kermit Gosnell on trial, charged with various accounts of murder? Why do some Catholic and Christian people not finally come to and face the truth about abortion - that it is always and everywhere wrong, wrong, wrong? If they hold to Scripture as an authority, they must deny the Bible's force because "custom" (everybody is doing it) binds them and blinds them to the truth. Needless to say this applies to any number of moral aberrations which according to surveys seem tolerable even when the Catholic Church teaches clearly otherwise.

 I suppose the question might be whether St. Augustine, clear-headed and direct had any more success in his day than the Church's Teaching Authority (Magisterium) does today, not just with hardened criminals but with run-of-the-mill folk. Let us pray for the grace of conversion for all who call themselves Catholic or claim to be faithful to Holy Scripture! May Christ's Word really touch hearts and have the last say!

Monday, May 6, 2013

And No Further - Tarpon Fishing

I hope my brother-in-law will forgive me any inaccuracies in recounting his explanation of the tarpon fishing technique proper to the Florida Everglades. Our conversation kept popping into my mind as I was reading this year's air travel book (for me): Adriano Roccucci, Stalin e il patriarca, Chiesa ortodossa e potere sovietico 1917-1958, Giulio Einaudi editore, 2011. I am very grateful to the author for gifting me this book,  which examines the first 40 years of Communist repression of the Russian Orthodox Church. I don't know if I will finish it on my flight home to Kyiv in late May, but at some point I certainly will. When that time comes I will spare my readers an Italian book review in any case.

Tarpon fishing and Stalin's dealings with the Russian Orthodox Church, you ask? Yes, because a tarpon has a bony jaw and it is really hard to set a hook. You have to let them run with the hook without giving them too much slack, using your fingers to keep the tension in the line. Too much slack and you lose your trophy. My brother-in-law tells me it can really burn up your fingers. This sort of describes the Soviet turnabout during World War II, allowing the election of a patriarch and a measure of religious freedom just when you might say that Stalin was ready to "land" the last fragments of the institutional church. The thesis would be that the Party took the decision to harness the church's popularity as a patriotic force in the war effort against Hitler. Mention is made of a concession to the Allies, which seems to have helped sweeten the deal as well.

Be it known that I have no plans for tarpon fishing in the Everglades, nor am I really interested in what sold the "evil empire" on giving the institutional church some slack. Long-term, if the Soviets had been able, they would have decimated the church, making the North Koreans look like schoolboys, but that was not to be, thanks be to God. We must never forget Who is ultimately in charge, permitting but also providing in His own good time.

My point is another one which blends well with my Russell Shaw review and his notion that American civil society is and always has been inimical to the Catholic Church, that the hierarchical proponents of Americanism did the Catholic Church in America much more harm than good. You might say that the error was as inevitable as the yoke with which the Russian Orthodox Church has time and again saddled itself under czars, party secretaries, and even presidents. In one sense, however, the hierarchs and their theologizing about symphonia or coming of age in society are not what was ultimately decisive, either in America or in Russia. The folk sitting in the pews or standing outside the iconostasis were and are what counts. I say this today on Easter Sunday according to the Julian Calendar (in 2013 five weeks later than the Gregorian Calendar). Roccucci and most Byzantine hierarchs today would tell you that the folk are what block the harmonizing of the civil and religious calendars in the East. In Stalin's time, yes, but I am not so sure today. 

I suspect that today's Russian is as deprived of his roots as is his American contemporary. He may still take his Easter basket to church to be blessed, but he'd do it on another day if need be. He may still have it harder in life than a conspicuous consumer on the other side of the Atlantic or Pacific, but no one is crowding him like they were in the 1920's and '30's; there's little chance he and all his neighbors together will stand up and shout, "This far and no further".... "Hands off my calendar!" 

Custom and tradition thankfully keep us from the pains of the Babylonian Exile, but perhaps exile says more about our real life situation than costume, Easter eggs and lamb. It would be wrong to wish ourselves estranged from the society in which we live, but I think it right that we should understand where Christianity, where Catholicism stops and caos reigns... This far and no further, please God!

I've promised myself I will do more thinking about fostering a new Catholic subculture in the U.S. as called for by Russell Shaw. My fear is that for starters, there will be no escaping the hard choices which Tobit had to make in Nineveh, far from the Temple and his beloved homeland. Homeschooling and how many other hard choices at home? How much courage will it require of us? 


Sunday, May 5, 2013

Back to Purgatory with St. Catherine of Genoa

When I first read the Treatise on Purgatory of St. Catherine of Genoa, I resolved to return to that work which touched me no less at second reading than at its first. Depending on where you come from and whether you know your Catechism, beware! Unless you read the whole little track attentively, common reservations or prejudices shared by much of contemporary society might just leave you reeling:

“So that the souls in Purgatory enjoy the greatest happiness and endure the greatest pain; the one does not hinder the other.” [A Treatise on Purgatory (Saint Catherine of Genoa) Kindle Edition - Highlight Loc. 254]

St. Catherine is thoroughly Catholic and confident in her free will. Her world view and faith are untainted by reformation pessimism. While living in genuine hope, she understands, as should we, that people can exclude God from their lives and find Hell waiting when death comes to claim them:

“Hence it is manifest that there is perversity of will, contrary to the will of God, where the guilt is known and ill will persists, and that the guilt of those who have passed with ill will from this life to Hell is not remitted, nor can be since they may no longer change the will with which they have passed out of this life, in which passage the soul is made stable in good or evil in accordance with its deliberate will. As it is written, "Ubi te invenero," that is in the hour of death, with the will to sin or dissatisfaction with sin or repentance for sin, "Ibi te judicabo." Of which judgment there is afterwards no remission, as I will shew: After death free will can never return, for the will is fixed as it was at the moment of death.” (Highlight Loc. 156-61)

No doubt, it is lukewarmness which keeps us from that longing for the courts of God's House and understanding how this saint could teaching about Purgatory already this side of Heaven:

“I believe no happiness can be found worthy to be compared with that of a soul in Purgatory except that of the saints in Paradise; and day by day this happiness grows as God flows into these souls, more and more as the hindrance to His entrance is consumed. Sin's rust is the hindrance, and the fire burns the rust away so that more and more the soul opens itself up to the divine inflowing. A thing which is covered cannot respond to the sun's rays, not because of any defect in the sun, which is shining all the time, but because the cover is an obstacle; if the cover be burnt away, this thing is open to the sun; more and more as the cover is consumed does it respond to the rays of the sun.” (Highlight Loc. 131-36)

May this Year of Faith find us all more knowledgeable in matters of faith and stir our hearts to genuine repentance and an insatiable longing for Heaven. Mortal sin is objectively so and my refusal out of pride to accept it as such changes nothing. Most of the ignorance we encounter in Catholics today is vincible; it could very easily be overcome with good will and honest effort. There is an urgent need for a much more frequent use of the sacrament of Penance, firm purpose to sin no more and through self-sacrifice to make atonement for the temporal punishment due for that which we indeed bring upon ourselves.