Monday, December 29, 2014

A Talk with Myself

Today's Gospel (Luke 2:22-35):

"When the day came for them to be purified as laid down by the Law of Moses, the parents of Jesus took him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord – observing what stands written in the Law of the Lord: Every first-born male must be consecrated to the Lord – and also to offer in sacrifice, in accordance with what is said in the Law of the Lord, a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons. Now in Jerusalem there was a man named Simeon. He was an upright and devout man; he looked forward to Israel’s comforting and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death until he had set eyes on the Christ of the Lord. Prompted by the Spirit he came to the Temple and when the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the Law required, he took him into his arms and blessed God; and he said:

‘Now, Master, you can let your servant go in peace, just as you promised;
because my eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared for all the nations to see,
a light to enlighten the pagans and the glory of your people Israel.’

As the child’s father and mother stood there wondering at the things that were being said about him, Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, ‘You see this child: he is destined for the fall and for the rising of many in Israel, destined to be a sign that is rejected – and a sword will pierce your own soul too – so that the secret thoughts of many may be laid bare.’"

So much is in disarray around me that St. Luke came welcome this morning as a reminder of how God reigns in this our world, this side of the Last Judgment. And Simeon, the holy man and the prophet, said "Nunc dimittis"! Hail, Infant King! Yes, hail to the Newborn, King of the Jews! 

I guess we need to do our best, not so much to contain or control the situation, but to make straight the path to His manger bed. According to one Christmas story, as the Holy Family fled Herod's wrath for Egypt, the stone idols along their path fell before the Infant King. I guess we would wish it so, but the truth lies more in His vulnerability and flight, in the absolute freedom accorded to all to choose to let the Baby rule in our hearts alone. It should come as no surprise that the stone hearts within many breasts in our world today do not perceive and hence refuse obeisance to the Prince of Peace.

Both Ezekiel and St. Augustine read the riot act to the shepherds of God's flock, serving themselves as opposed to tending at the behest of the Good Shepherd. We think of Augustine, speaking out and all the while trembling for the responsibilities come upon him with the office of bishop. The disarray of Herod's court and his violence come surely from failure to recognize the signs and bow down before the Child. For this year's Sunday on the 28th, we missed the Holy Innocents' Feast and the special yearly reminder of their witness in martyrdom to the Infant King.

Each day, each generation starts anew in the darkness of our world, and with star and angel choir invites all to come to the Child enthroned on His Mother's breast. We choose the path of the shepherds. We choose joyful submission to the only One Whose Kingdom shall endure.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Destiny's Standardbearers?

The Red Prince: The Secret Lives of a Habsburg Archduke
Snyder, Timothy
(2008-06-03) Basic Books. Kindle Edition.

"In the nineteenth century, national unifications were brought by monarchs and their ministers, who sought to make from mass politics a new buttress of dynastic rule. Although nationalists presented unification as the choice of the people, no national question was resolved by popular will. Italy and Germany were made by kings at war. Even after Europe’s continental empires were destroyed in the First World War, national unifications were more a consequence of diplomacy than of democracy."(pp. 259-260)

Despite all the changes which just one year has brought to Ukraine, rendering Snyder's conclusions from 2008 dated, this history book is a masterpiece. It does for the Habsburgs and Ukraine what "Bloodlands" does for the region and the world. Besides that, for a history book, "The Red Prince" reads like a novel; even without snow, reading it was a great way to spend my Latin Christmas here in Kyiv. Profound thanks to the master!

A note of caution: it is a very adult book in the sense that it does not gloss over the profound defects and moral degeneracy of Wilhelm von Habsburg. Destiny's child for Ukraine was far from a paragon of virtue and albeit with a measure of discretion Snyder does not fail to bring the Red Prince's foibles to light.

I think Snyder has something also for us to reflect upon today, when he says that nation states in Europe were not brought to birth by popular will but by fiat from "on high". In a sense, Ukraine deserved more that the black sheep of Stefan Habsburg's family; the Poles fared much better. In any case, Snyder filled in a lot for me about a crucial century here for nation building. We hope and pray for the best for Ukraine, integral and prosperous, within its 1991 borders as clearly defined by the best principles of international law.


Saturday, December 27, 2014

Great Expectations ... Not?

Roses Among Thorns: 
Simple Advice for Renewing Your Spiritual Journey
de Sales, St. Francis
 Sophia Institute Press. Kindle Edition. (2014-04-09).

"Those who arm themselves before the warning bell has tolled are always better off than those who, when the commotion breaks out, are running here and there looking for helmet and shield. We should say our goodbyes to the world when we have the leisure to do so and retire bit by bit from our attachment to creatures." (pp. 106-107)

Reminiscing together about Christmas family customs, my brother reminded me of one of Mom's great lines in her older years. When the question of who from our large family was coming home, what about food, beds and all came up, her response was: all that mattered was that she got to church on Christmas. "We should say our goodbyes to the world when we have the leisure to do so and retire bit by bit from our attachment to creatures."

One of my mentors, fifteen years my senior, could not stand St. Francis de Sales on botanical and zoological grounds. Truth to be told, when the saint talks about birds, bees, horses and trees, it all kind of sounds like a big fairy tale. I could never convince my mentor that this did not detract from a spirituality which was as "black-belt" as St. John of the Cross or St. Theresa of Avila and much more accessible to us mortals.

The editors of this little volume have rendered an incomparable service in presenting a marvelous "thought for the day" kind of book. "Roses among Thorns" belongs to my Kindle traveling library along with the Imitation of Christ, Spiritual Combat and a few others. It is another one of those greats which never disappoints. TAKE AND READ!

Sunday, December 14, 2014

A Book out of Character

The Seven Deadly Virtues: 
18 Conservative Writers on 
Why the Virtuous Life is Funny as Hell. 
Templeton Press. Kindle Edition.  (2014-10-14). 

"If you’re a parent, and you’re sending away to college kids who’ve never been asked to do a task that was too hard, or been given a responsibility they didn’t believe they could bear, or have never been asked to suffer a single moment for the sake of another—you haven’t succeeded. You’ve failed. Courage is the essential virtue." (p. 56)

As somber as my quote choice may come off, I wish to assure that this book is at once entertaining and profound. Almost by coincidence, because the virtues discussed follow a nearly classical hierarchy, the earlier chapters are without exception superior to the later. To say it another way, PART I: THE CARDINAL VIRTUES is uniformly witty and profound. I am not so convinced of the redeeming social value of the second part of the book, treating the so-called "everyday" virtues.

Apart from being recreational reading, the book offers a convincing counter to the relativism which would deprive us of real goodness, truth and beauty as they unfold in our lives today with an assuring constancy.  

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Godseekers and Liturgical Accessibility

The Gospel (Matthew 9:35-10:1,5,6-8) from Saturday of the 1st Week of Advent is a clear reminder of what is expected of those called to gather in the lost sheep, to pasture the flock, to tend the vineyard:

"Jesus made a tour through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the Good News of the kingdom and curing all kinds of diseases and sickness.
  And when he saw the crowds he felt sorry for them because they were harassed and dejected, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is rich but the labourers are few, so ask the Lord of the harvest to send labourers to his harvest.’
  He summoned his twelve disciples, and gave them authority over unclean spirits with power to cast them out and to cure all kinds of diseases and sickness. These twelve Jesus sent out, instructing them as follows: ‘Go rather to the lost sheep of the House of Israel. And as you go, proclaim that the kingdom of heaven is close at hand. Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out devils. You received without charge, give without charge.’"

Watching a TV News report on a media campaign for the Brooklyn Diocese which hopes to be more than your average "come home for Christmas" attempt to reach out to fallen away Catholics, something dawned upon me. There are people out there who have walked away or fallen away from Church, some still seeking God's place in their lives and some not seeking at all. Elsewhere in the Gospel, Jesus expressed regret over the rich, young man who just walked away from the challenge of perfection. My guess is that if that one had been truly seeking entrance into God's Kingdom, well, he would have been up to the Lord's challenge to give up all and come follow. Don't get me wrong, I guess I am fine with the media campaign thing in so far as it could be just the nudge that a seeker needs. My point being that saying Brooklyn has 250,000 church goers amongst a million four hundred thousand Catholics out there and would like more to practice the faith simply for their sake does not cut the mustard. What if all 1.4 million came on Christmas? What if even half came just for Christmas and half of them stayed? Who is going to preach to them; who is going to look after them once they come home? The ad campaign cannot really further the Kingdom in the way we would hope to save souls.

When you get to my age, you have lots of friends and acquaintances who are practicing Catholics whose children or grandchildren walked away or fell away from going to church. The folks are sad and generally of a stubbornly hopeful mind that, at least in the case of their children, the phase will pass and they will come home to the Church of their Baptism. They are heartsick and guilt ridden over the lost grandchildren. They pray and I am convinced, also from experience, that the Lord in His mercy hears and answers their prayers. Sometimes that third generation child falls in love with a practicing Catholic and through wedding preparations and subsequent contact the ice is broken and the second generation is freed to return as well. Sometimes the loving Lord bestows other graces. Important is our own prayerful supplication.

Living here in Ukraine now for more than three years has broadened my perspective on what draws people to Church and what either leaves them cold or repels them. I take my first point as always given: the Church must tend the flock entrusted to its care. We lose so many because we don't care for those whom we have; as in the case of the hireling we let the devil carry them off. Beyond that it is a question of identifying those, generally faint of heart and perhaps burdened by sin, who are seeking and reach out to them, as the Gospel says, offering healing. Perhaps the biggest challenge is making God in Jesus Christ within His Church accessible. Many would say that what sets Ukrainians who are far from Church apart is the fact that they are genuine seekers. It could be that there are here per capita more seekers of God than you find in the blase` materialized West, but I think we need to look elsewhere if we would be constructive. Seeking out the lost or pressing people to come into the wedding feast become daunting challenges. What doesn't or shouldn't impede return to the bosom of Mother Church is making the Church more accessible to people by opening things up. Byzantine life here in Kyiv illustrates well what I mean.

The closest example here to my home is the Orthodox Cathedral of St. Volodymyr, open all day and frequented by people who come in to pray, to light a candle, to ask prayers for their intentions, to pick up at the religious goods shop some sacred object big or small for home or for a gift. At liturgy times the bells ring out, people come and insert themselves in an action focused on God. No demands are placed upon them but those of respect for the decorum proper to the Temple of the Lord. I think that Roman Catholic Churches in big cities all over the western world were once that way too. Apart from the locked doors we too often encounter, the focus on the Divine Presence (front and center) has too often been removed along with the sacred images which once helped us center our prayer. Liturgy in the West for decades has been an attempt to engage me, to draw me into a discursive action which seeks from me song, verbal responses and all too often eye-contact, while drawing me away from the Lamb upon the Throne.

As counter-intuitive as it may sound to some, Catholic worship would be more inviting if it were less confrontational, more linear, more of a contemplative space. Cozy or folksy is not adequate to the human condition, except maybe for a diner with super-sized portions, catering to middle-aged men in plaid flannel shirts wearing ball caps indoors. The Byzantine world teaches eloquently: we need a restoration of the Roman Rite. We need a sacred space where people can enter in without being challenged and can focus together with others on the Dawn from on High Who comes to visit us. It is not a panacea, but it is a sine qua non. If we fail to accompany our people, well, the devil will continue to carry them off, but if our churches once again become still points in this hectic world, spaces filled with truly oriented worship, humbly directed to our Redeemer and Savior, then we stand a chance.