Thursday, June 05, 2008

Zélie-Marie Guérin

Today, if a mother were to say, “Four of my children are already well settled in life,” we would imagine them married, possibly with children, living in a nice home with well paying careers. They are set and settled, and their mother is proud for having raised such successful offspring. However, these are not the words of a contemporary mother. Nay, these are the words of the mother of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, Zélie-Marie Guérin. She was speaking of the four children God had already called to himself. The quote in full reads, “Four of my children are already well settled in life, and the others will go likewise to that Heavenly Kingdom—enriched with greater merit because the combat will have been more prolonged." This further points to the meaning of the beginning of this quote, that she is speaking of heaven, and her concern for her children is completely directed towards the “Heavenly Kingdom.”

Father T. N. Taylor, the editor of Saint Thérèse’s autobiography, “The Story of a Soul,” included this quote in the prologue and added of Zélie, “Her whole ambition as a mother was directed to Heaven.” This is very accurate and very special. Many good parents yearn for their children to be with God forever, but their desire is often clouded over by worldly distractions. They want – and rightly so – for their children to thrive in this world, but which desire is greater – for the child to make excellent grades, attend college and get a worthy career, or to go to the “Heavenly Kingdom”? Zélie’s “whole ambition,” a complete commitment for her children to come into God’s Kingdom was something profoundly different than our preconception that being “settled in life” is a formula achieved on this earth.

Zélie and her husband, Louis Joseph Stanislaus Martin, were dedicated parents both to their children and to God’s will. Father Taylor writes,

“Nay, they themselves were destined to shine as apostles, and we read on one of the first pages of the Portuguese edition of the Autobiography, these significant words of an eminent Jesuit:

"To the Sacred Memory of Louis Joseph Stanislaus Martin and of Zélie Guérin, the blessed parents of Sister Teresa of the Child Jesus, for an example to all Christian parents."

They little dreamed of this future apostolate, nevertheless they made ready their souls day by day to be God's own instruments in God's good time. With most loving resignation they greeted the many crosses which the Lord laid upon them--the Lord whose tender name of Father is truest in the dark hour of trial.”

May we imitate the parents of Soeur Thérèse as we choose to do the will of God for ourselves and for our children and not be diverted by our own muddled will for their worldly “success.” It seems so simple and so obvious, but Zélie struck me with great clarity when she plainly made the truest statement about her four deceased little flowers, "Four of my children are already well settled in life.”

Monday, May 12, 2008

Beauty in the Conversion of Dorothy Day

Dorothy Day often said “it is by little and by little that we are saved.” Her own conversion to the Catholic faith involved many small realizations that brought her closer and closer to the Church. One of the unique features of Dorothy Day’s writing is her descriptive and concrete approach to things, including her conversion. She starts out with events and experiences. She tells the story of the common working person and the struggle to provide for the family. Her social consciousness of class struggle impelled her to become involved in Marxist and communistic causes. Young Dorothy was a social rebel and formally non-religious except that she saw a beauty in everyday things which drew her to the possibility of Christ and his Church. She would always continue to be a social rebel but came to embrace the Catholic Church and then later, once she was aware of them, the social justice principles of the Church. Her conditioned aversion to religion was embodied in the comment of Marx that called religion the opiate of the masses. The beauty and sacredness of the everyday broke her from this perspective. For the rest of her life she would proclaim indwelling of God in the world as the “sacrament of the present moment.”

Dorothy Day writes of her long conversion in From Union Square to Rome and The Long Loneliness. Her intention was to disclose an honest account of her journey to God and His Church, how God continually blessed her despite her sins and shortcomings. One of the interesting things I find in her conversion is the constant role of beauty opening her up to the prospect of the Gospel. She attributes her love of the poor as one of the redeeming qualities that kept her open to heed the Lord’s voice. “Because I sincerely loved His poor, He taught me to know Him.” She sees her own narrative journey infused with grace. She recognizes her desire for God and how that desire was sometimes wasted on selfish endeavors.

What I cannot do in this bit of writing is describe the role of beauty in Dorothy Day’s conversion any better than she did herself. Her reflection richly describes the movements of her soul corresponding to pivotal points of her life. Where applicable I include her own descriptions of her journey.

Those who are sincere and humble can come to God not merely through positive experiences of beauty, truth, and goodness but also through negative experiences of sin, suffering, and a series of disgust that indicates our limitations while affirming our affinity for God. Dorothy Day is one of those souls who traveled the depths of the suffering before willfully giving her life to God.

While it is often true that horror for one’s sins turns one to God, what I want to bring out in this book is a succession of events that led me to His feet, glimpses of Him that I received through the many years which made me feel the vital need of Him. I will try to trace for you the steps by which I came to accept the faith that I believe was always in my heart...Though I felt the strong, irresistible attraction to good, yet there was also, at times, a deliberate choosing of evil. How far I was led to choose it, it is hard to say. How far professors, companions, and reading influenced my way of life does not matter now. The fact remains that there was much of deliberate choice in it. Most of the time it was “following the devices and desires of my own heart.” Sometimes it was perhaps the Baudelariean idea of choosing “the downward path which leads to salvation.” Sometimes it was of choice, of free will, though perhaps at time I would have denied free will. And so, since it was deliberate, with recognition of its seriousness, it was grievous mortal sin and may the Lord forgive me. It was the arrogance and suffering of youth. It was pathetic, little, and mean in its very excuse for itself. – From Union Square to Rome

Dorothy grew up without a religious affiliation. She wrote, “In the family, the name of God was never mentioned. Mother and Father never went to church, none of us children had been baptized, and to speak of the soul was to speak immodestly, uncovering what might better remain hidden.” But she did have joyful experiences of community in times of disaster and uncertainty. Dorothy recalls a generally happy childhood. Mindful of the varieties of her experiences, Dorothy spent a great deal of time torn between the hopelessness of the human condition and intimations of something infinitely greater that can lift the human spirit. She had genuine compassion for others and felt called to serve others. This desire found momentary fulfillment in the political radicals of her day who sought to better the condition of workers.

When what I read made me particularly class-conscious, I used to turn from the park with all its beauty and peacefulness and walk down to North Avenue and over west through the slum districts, and watch the slatternly women and the unkempt children and ponder over the poverty of the homes as contrasted with the wealth along the shore drive. I wanted even then to play my part. I wanted to write such books that thousands upon thousands of readers would be convinced of the injustice of things as they were. – From Union Square to Rome

In college Dorothy felt utterly alone when separated from the comfort of her family. Reading Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, she felt compelled to believe in God but also felt alienated from the Christians around her. Reflecting on the conditions of others less fortunate than herself, she learned about Marxism and class struggle. For the most part she was open to religion until she came to see religion as a crutch for the feeble minded.

It seems to me that I was already shedding that faith when a professor whom I much admired made a statement in class—I shall always remember it—that religion was something which had brought great comfort to people throughout the ages, so that we ought not to criticize it. I don’t remember his exact words, but from the way he spoke of religion the class could infer that the strong were the ones who did not need such props. In my youthful arrogance, in my feeling that I was one of the strong, I felt then for the first time that religion was something that I must ruthlessly cut out of my life. I felt it indeed to be an opiate of the people, so I hardened my heart.
From Union Square to Rome

By twenty-five years of age, Dorothy had a list of political activist’s credentials as she worked with left-wing journals, joined the International Workers of the World that attempted to unite workers to overthrow the employing class, participated in pickets that resulted in jail time, and dabbled with communism. The first time she was imprisoned, Dorothy recalls meditating on Psalm 130 while in solitary confinement which created in her an experience of profound solidarity with those who were oppressed and suffering from their own sin and the sins of others. Her second arrest came during a raid where police were looking for communist radicals as a part of Palmer’s red scare. Dorothy was in the building to help nurse a friend back to health when police barged in, arrested her, and wrongfully accused of her of being a prostitute.

It was as ugly an experience as I ever wish to pass through, and a useful one. I do not think that ever again, no matter of what I am accused, can I suffer more than I did then from shame and regret, and self-contempt. Not only because I had been caught, found out, branded, publicly humiliated, but because of my own consciousness that I deserved it. – The Long Loneliness

Shortly after the incident, she reflected:

I could get away, but what of the others? I could get away, paying no penalty, because of my friends, my background, my education, my privilege. I suffered but was not part of it. I put it from me. It was too much for me. I think that for a long time one is stunned by such experiences. They seem to be quickly forgotten, but they leave a scar that is never healed. The Long Loneliness

Such experiences of solidarity fueled Dorothy Day’s passion for the poor. The dramatic experience of shame for Dorothy allowed her to realize her own capacity to become lost, even if only temporarily, in despair with resigned acceptance of injustice. However, she was able to leave the circumstances while many others had no clear way out. Dorothy had long since been committed to justice and speaking for the rights for others who cannot speak for themselves. In her college years and shortly thereafter, her idea of injustice reflected a worldview that directly conflicted with the Catholic Church. By way of practice and belief, much separated Dorothy from the Church. She lived a Bohemian lifestyle, wrote passionately about free love, had had two common law marriages and procured an abortion. Of course none of these kept her from continually seeking the truth and her spiritual awakening was just the beginning.

In 1925 the twenty-eight year old Dorothy day found out she was pregnant again. During this time Dorothy enjoyed a certain “dull contentment” in her common law marriage with Foster and her joyful anticipation for a new born child. Her time spent walking up and down the beaches in New York filled her with gratefulness for the beauty of nature. Dorothy began to pray more consciously at this time in a spirit of thanksgiving for her blessings.

I am surprised that I am beginning to pray daily. I began because I had to. I just found myself praying. I can’t get down on my knees, but I can pray while I am walking. If I get down on my knees I think, “Do I really believe? Whom am I praying to?” And a terrible doubt comes over me, and a sense of shame, and I wonder if I am praying because I am lonely, because I am unhappy.

Then I think suddenly, scornfully, “Here you are in a stupor of content. You are biological. Like a cow. Prayer with you is like the opiate of the people.” And over and over again in my mind that phrase is repeated jeeringly, “Religion is the opiate of the people.”

“But,” I reason with myself, “I am praying because I am happy, not because I am unhappy. I did not turn to God in unhappiness, in grief, in despair—to get consolation, to get something from Him.”

And encouraged that I am praying because I want to thank Him, I go on praying. No matter how dull the day, how long the walk seems, if I feel low at the beginning of the walk, the words I have been saying have insinuated themselves into my heart before I have done, so that on the trip back I neither pray nor think but am filled with exultation. – From Union Square to Rome

Her words speak to the reality that the heart has reasons unknown to the mind as Blaise Pascal mentions. Dorothy became discouraged whenever God became merely a thought of her intellect, yet her heart longed for communion. During this time, Dorothy began attending Mass regularly on Sundays, and this put a tension in her relationship with her husband. Foster was greatly skeptical of all religious institutions and notions of the supernatural. As a biologist he loved nature passionately, but as a absolute anarchist, he rebelled against institutional notions of family, government, and religion. Foster opposed economic inequality and escaped through his love of the outdoors. Dorothy believed her love for Foster opened her up to recognize God. The very things that satisfied Foster made Dorothy hungrier for truth. Foster opened Dorothy’s eyes to the mystical quality of creation and this beauty drew Dorothy out of herself and into contact with something greater.

His [Foster’s] ardent love of creation brought me to the Creator of all things. But when I cried out to him, “How can there be no God, when there are all these beautiful things?” he turned from me uneasily and complained that I was never satisfied. We loved each other so strongly that he wanted to remain in the love of the moment; he wanted me to rest in that love. He cried out against my attitude that there would be nothing left of that love without faith…

I could not see that love between man and woman was incompatible with love of God. God is the Creator, and the very fact that we were begetting a child made me have a sense that we were made in the image and likeness of God, co-creators with him. I could not protest with Sasha about “that initial agony of having to live.” Because I was grateful for love, I was grateful for life, and living with Foster made me appreciate it and even reverence it still more. He had introduced me to so much that was beautiful and good that I felt I owed to him too this renewed interest in the spirit of things. —The Long Loneliness

Dorothy struggled with her spiritual identity, but she could not speak to Foster about it. She became more and more convinced of God’s presence. They interpreted the same everyday beauty very differently. Once Tamar Teresa was born, Dorothy Day resolved to have her baptized in the Catholic Church. However, real fear surrounded her relationship with Foster:

A woman does not want to be alone at such a time. Even the most hardened, the most irreverent, is awed by the stupendous fact of creation. Becoming a Catholic would mean facing life alone, and I clung to family life. It was hard to contemplate giving up a mate in order that my child and I could become members of the Church. Foster would have nothing to do with religion or me if I embraced it. – From Union Square to Rome

Dorothy Day traveled to the local residence of the Sisters of Charity to seek baptism for her child. Sister Aloysia assisted Dorothy with the process and encouraged Dorothy to become Catholic as well. Sister Aloysia brought reading materials and instructed her Catechism lessons. Belief in Catholic Doctrine did not come easy to Dorothy. Even after her daughter was received in the Church she still fought with the decision to become Catholic herself. Even more so, she struggled to reconcile the Church with the class of workers. During this time Dorothy was completely oblivious to the Social Doctrine of the Church annunciated in papal encyclicals. Yet one day she became too troubled in her delay to wait any longer that she sought out a priest and joined the mystical body of Christ. Following her conversion Dorothy had quit her job with the Anti-Imperialist League because of its communist affiliation. Her common law marriage was ended with Foster and she embarked in a life long struggle to serve the poor and speak for the everyday worker. Dorothy was troubled that although the Catholic Church did a fair amount of charity work She did not seem to challenge society to change in the way that would reduce social injustices from happening in the first place.

I wanted to be poor, chaste, and obedient. I wanted to die in order to live, to put off the old man and put on Christ. I loved, in other words, and like all women in love, I wanted to be united in my love. Why should not Foster be jealous? Any man who did not participate in this love would, of course, realize my infidelity, my adultery, and so it is termed over and over again in Scripture.

I loved the Church for Christ made visible. Not for itself, because it was so often a scandal to me. Romano Guardini said that the Church is the cross on which Christ was crucified; one could not separate Christ from His Cross, and one must live in a state of permanent dissatisfaction with the Church…

Not long afterward a priest wanted me to write a story of my conversion, telling how the social teaching of the Church had led me to embrace Catholicism. But I knew nothing of the social teaching of the Church at that time. I have never heard of the encyclicals. I felt that the Church was the Church of the poor, that St. Patrick’s had been built from the pennies of servant girls, that it cared for the emigrant, it established hospitals, orphanages, day nurseries, houses of the Good Shepherd, homes for the ages, but at the same time, I felt that it did not set its face against the social order which made so much charity in the present sense of the word necessary. --The Long Loneliness

Dorothy Day’s life testifies to the grace of God. Soon she became very familiar with the social justice principles of the Church with the help of Peter Maurin and sought to put them into concrete practice in the Catholic Worker movement. Dorothy Day became an active contemplative. Her work for the poor was as constant and rigorous as her religious devotions. She believed in the power of prayer and lived with a simplicity that relied on the providence of God. She taught that to be humble we must be hospitable and open our hearts to the needs of others by being dependent upon God. Her life constitutes a beautiful whole that challenges the social conscience of our time. Reading Dorothy Day will open your eyes to the poor. She invites us to love Christ and perform the Spiritual and Corporeal Works of Mercy. Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day had a sacramental vision that sought to create a “society where it is easier for people to be good.”

It is no use saying that we were born two thousand years too late to give room for Christ. Nor will those who live at the end of the world have been born too late. Christ is always with us, always asking for room in our hearts. –Room for Christ; December 1945

Saturday, May 03, 2008

United Nations and Natural Law

On April 18, 2008 Benedict XVI addressed the United Nations. In the course of this address, Benedict XVI emphasized the importance of the United Nations, issued a challenge to be open to the discernment of the Church, warned against reductive scientific approaches that ignore the dignity of the person, and called the organizations to continually discern proper ways to safeguard human dignity without succumbing to culturally relativistic standards that ignore universal objective goods of human existence. One of the greatest ways the Catholic faith challenges culture is in her Social Doctrine and we have a religious leader, the Pope, addressing a secular institution on social matters. I think we should listen.

Benedict XVI cited the social reflection of the Church that has been occurring throughout history as an invaluable part of discerning the common good of society. This discernment is needed more than ever in a world of constant technological advancements and social situations that require a continual reflection on natural goods and the dignity of human persons. The theological perspective of Christianity has a privileged position of discernment because of the sacramental perspective of the Church that instructs the people of God about the sacredness of creation, the gift of life, and the will of the Creator.

The United Nations remains a privileged setting in which the Church is committed to contributing her experience "of humanity", developed over the centuries among peoples of every race and culture, and placing it at the disposal of all members of the international community. This experience and activity, directed towards attaining freedom for every believer, seeks also to increase the protection given to the rights of the person. Those rights are grounded and shaped by the transcendent nature of the person, which permits men and women to pursue their journey of faith and their search for God in this world.

Seeking true justice and freedom is always a matter of discernment and distinguishing good from evil through careful consideration of human nature and corresponding human actions. Traditionally this has been called natural law, reflecting on intrinsic goods of human existence and the means of achieving these goods without contradicting the intrinsic dignity of the person. Morality is based around the sacredness of the person and all of creation. This sacredness must be respected and upheld through our actions and it is the responsibility of the Church and society to protect this sacredness. In political language, this honor or respect due to the sacredness of existence has been translated as dignity. This dignity is the starting point of social justice. Because every person has an irreducible transcendental aspect of their being, we can speak of equality, freedom, and the common good.

The Catholic Church and other religion traditions have a responsibility to challenge society to recognize the transcendental nature of the person. Benedict XVI sees the religious dimension as aiding true discernment by creating inter-religious dialogue and preventing individual states from using subjective and culturally relative arguments to rationalize unjust treatment of people. This challenge is two-fold: the United Nations must be open to the fruit of religious dialogue and religions must be able to articulate a vision of faith that seeks a proper view of the human person in accordance with natural reason.

Discernment, then, shows that entrusting exclusively to individual States, with their laws and institutions, the final responsibility to meet the aspirations of persons, communities and entire peoples, can sometimes have consequences that exclude the possibility of a social order respectful of the dignity and rights of the person. On the other hand, a vision of life firmly anchored in the religious dimension can help to achieve this, since recognition of the transcendent value of every man and woman favors conversion of heart, which then leads to a commitment to resist violence, terrorism and war, and to promote justice and peace. This also provides the proper context for the inter-religious dialogue that the United Nations is called to support, just as it supports dialogue in other areas of human activity. Dialogue should be recognized as the means by which the various components of society can articulate their point of view and build consensus around the truth concerning particular values or goals. It pertains to the nature of religions, freely practiced, that they can autonomously conduct a dialogue of thought and life. If at this level, too, the religious sphere is kept separate from political action, then great benefits ensue for individuals and communities. On the other hand, the United Nations can count on the results of dialogue between religions, and can draw fruit from the willingness of believers to place their experiences at the service of the common good. Their task is to propose a vision of faith not in terms of intolerance, discrimination and conflict, but in terms of complete respect for truth, coexistence, rights, and reconciliation.

Secular societies and institutions should not ignore the contributions made by religious people and religious insights. Religious freedom is one of the natural goods of humanity that ought to be safe-guarded. Many pivot faith and reason against each other and argue that faith has no place in the public sphere. To the contrary, believers must not suppress this important part of themselves in order to be active citizens that contribute to the common good. As Catholics we are called to have a sacramental vision that enables us to see reality as sacred and to act in charity and humility towards God and others. Science by itself does not bring us to the mystery of the person, rather it is a method of collecting data and discovering the physical nature of the universe. Science can make us aware that many realties cannot be empirically observe. The limits of the scientific method can open us up to transcendental mystery that accompanies the physical universe. To deny the place of religion in the public sphere is to exclude an important perspective of reality and reduce the vision of humanity.

Many faith based initiatives embodied academic institutions, health care agencies, and charitable organizations have positively influenced the public policy and contributed to building up society. As Christians we have a responsibility to contribute to the just ordering of society. Christ makes clear that one cannot love God and hate our neighbors because love is not divided.

Pope Benedict XVI spoke about how religious insight stood at the founding of the United Nations. He recalled that the Dominican Friar Francisco de Vitoria, a precursor to the United Nations, formulated the organizations task of protecting freedom and human dignity while the concept of the sovereign state was still developing. Francisco de Vitoria “described this responsibility as an aspect of natural reason shared by all nations, and the result of an international order whose task it was to regulate relations between peoples.” The reality is that if injustice did not exist the United Nations would not be needed. Because injustices do exist, we have a responsibility to protect the dignity of the human persons.

The founding of the United Nations, as we know, coincided with the profound upheavals that humanity experienced when reference to the meaning of transcendence and natural reason was abandoned, and in consequence, freedom and human dignity were grossly violated. When this happens, it threatens the objective foundations of the values inspiring and governing the international order and it undermines the cogent and inviolable principles formulated and consolidated by the United Nations.

Ideally universal objective goods should coincide with the total common good, however if an organization works for a limited set of these goods this work should be encouraged. A part of evangelization is recognizing what is good in society and encouraging this goodness to continue. On the flip side, an equally important task is to recognize what is evil and unjust while calling for change. Both must be done in a spirit of humility and charity. Pope Benedict commented on the limited set of goods for which the United Nations labor:

Through the United Nations, States have established universal objectives which, even if they do not coincide with the total common good of the human family, undoubtedly represent a fundamental part of that good. The founding principles of the Organization -- the desire for peace, the quest for justice, respect for the dignity of the person, humanitarian cooperation and assistance -- express the just aspirations of the human spirit, and constitute the ideals which should underpin international relations.

Indeed, questions of security, development goals, reduction of local and global inequalities, protection of the environment, of resources and of the climate, require all international leaders to act jointly and to show a readiness to work in good faith, respecting the law, and promoting solidarity with the weakest regions of the planet. I am thinking especially of those countries in Africa and other parts of the world which remain on the margins of authentic integral development, and are therefore at risk of experiencing only the negative effects of globalization. In the context of international relations, it is necessary to recognize the higher role played by rules and structures that are intrinsically ordered to promote the common good, and therefore to safeguard human freedom.

After affirming the mission of the United Nations, the Holy Father issued forth many challenges to the continual discernment of the organization. Although technological advancements have improved the quality of physical life, science must be in service to the common good. Many scientific methods and techniques act against the natural order of creation and contradict the sacredness of life, the environment, and attack the identity of the human person and family. Benedict XVI says that the choice should not be between science and ethics but one of adopting a scientific method that works within an ethical framework that upholds the sacredness of creation.

The United Nations must recognize the importance of subsidiarity, but also be willing to take action when a humanitarian crisis arises whether man-made or natural, especially when not taking action would cause real damage. This call to action should be characterized by humility- openness to dialogue. The United Nations should seek ways to harmonize relationships between states and try to prevent any kind of outcome that would result in war or conflict that threatens human life. “What is needed is a deeper search for ways of pre-empting and managing conflicts by exploring every possible diplomatic avenue, and giving attention and encouragement to even the faintest sign of dialogue or desire for reconciliation.”

Like John Paul II, Benedict XVI stressed that what we consider human rights must be rooted in natural law, namely the objective goods intrinsic to human existence. Otherwise, the argument for certain “human rights” over other “human rights” merely becomes the competing whims of the powerful. This will to power becomes characterized by people trying to rationalize certain actions motivated by selfish ends. We must be aware of those trying to manipulate certain rights to satisfy trends and selective groups because this runs “the risks of contradicting unity of the human person and thus the indivisibility of rights.” Rather the legality of rights must always be consistent with the ethical and rational dimension upon which the rights are rooted. We must always make a rational consideration of the social interactions between humans and ways to act according to natural goods of human existence. Our understanding of rights must always include the Common Good, which upholds the collective dignity of every person while refraining from directly acting against the good of any individual.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Catholic Underground Podcast Featuring the Parousians!

We were blessed to have Fr. Chris Decker along with the Catholic Underground crew visited the LSU Parousians for our last meeting of the semester! Please go check it out!

Catholic Underground Special #5

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Offensive Nature of the Gospel of Life for American Catholics

In his homily at Washington Nationals Stadium, Pope Benedict XVI briefly touched on the inconsistency often displayed by the Church in the United States. While praising signs of renewal, the Holy Father noted,
"At the same time she senses, often painfully, the presence of division and polarization in her midst, as well as the troubling realization that many of the baptized, rather than acting as a spiritual leaven in the world, are inclined to embrace attitudes contrary to the truth of the Gospel."

The Pope's solution to this problem of Catholics who fail to act as a saving sign of contradiction to the world and wind up contradicting their own mission echoes the work of the Parousians.

The challenges confronting us require a comprehensive and sound instruction in the truths of the faith. But they also call for cultivating a mindset, an intellectual “culture”, which is genuinely Catholic, confident in the profound harmony of faith and reason, and prepared to bring the richness of faith’s vision to bear on the urgent issues which affect the future of American society.

In order to be the spiritual leaven we are meant to be in the world, we must move past the polarization and division of secular and materialist ideologies that have infiltrated our ways of thinking by creating a genuinely Catholic intellectual culture.

There are still some dissenters in the Catholic Church who are hard pressed to agree with the Magisterium on anything. Why they have remained Catholic is anybody's guess. Most American dissenters are characterized as cafeteria Catholics, those who generally accept the tenets of the faith, but reject others because they do not line up with some outside divisive ideology, and competing divisive ideologies that do not conform to the fullness of faith are at the root of the disunion and distrust among American Catholics. The Holy Father has always been insistent that Catholicism minus a few troubling teachings plus a few incompatible trendy ideas is not Catholicism. As more than a few commentators noted on the elevation of Joseph Ratzinger to the papacy, the cafeteria is closed.

The need to create a genuinely Catholic intellectual culture has been realized before this papacy. The novelist Walker Percy defended a consistent life ethic in his 1981 essay, "A View of Abortion, With Something to Offend Everybody."

Percy begins his essay noting the late twentieth century desensitized response to dying masses before offering his nagging diagnosis to the culture:
True legalized abortion - a million and a half fetuses flushed down the Disposall every year in this country - is yet another banal atrocity in a century where atrocities have become commonplace.

Percy realized this line of argument has already been made and immediately distances himself from the hypocrisy attributed to the pro-life movement.
The statement will probably offend one side in this already superheated debate, so I hasten in the interest of fairness and truth to offend the other side. What else can you do when some of your allies give you as big a pain as your opponents? I notice this about many so-called pro-lifers. They seem pro-life only on this one perfervid and politicized issue. The Reagan administration, for example, professes to be anti-abortion but has just recently decided in the interests of business that it is proper for infant-formula manufacturers to continue their hard sell in the Third World despite thousands of deaths from bottle feeding. And Senator Jesse Helms and the Moral Majority, who profess a reverence for unborn life, don't seem to care much about born life: poor women who don't get abortions have babies and can't feed them.


Percy then goes on with uncommon boldness in speaking the truth about abortion.
What I am writing this for is the egregious doublespeak that the abortionists - "pro-choicers," that is - seem to have hit on in the current rhetorical war.

Percy dismisses the disingenuous argument that opposition to abortion is a religious issue.

But I do submit that religion, philosophy, and private opinion have nothing to do with this issue. I further submit that it is commonplace of modern biology, known to every high-school student and no doubt to you the reader as well, that the life of every individual organism, human or not, begins with the chromosomes of the sperm fuse with the chromosomes of the ovum to form a new DNA complex that henceforth directs the ontogenesis of the organism.


Percy imagines the whole debate as a "Galileo trial in reverse," with the Supreme Court telling a high-school biology teacher that his position on scientific fact is only private belief which he must refrain from teaching, and the teacher submits while murmuring, "But it's still alive!"

Percy closes the essay with a prophetic warning, one that the pro-life movement has not quite fulfilled.
To pro-abortionists: According to opinion polls, it looks as if you may get your way. But you're not going to have it both ways. You're going to be told what you're doing.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

We Are the Living Stones

On April 19, 2008 Pope Benedict XVI celebrated a votive mass for the universal Church at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. In his homily Benedict eloquently weaved together the theological reflection on the mass readings, the congregation, the surrounding art, the architecture and history of St. Patrick’s Cathedral to speak of “the pursuit of holiness, the spread of the Gospel and the building up of the Church in faith, hope and love.” The physical building and spiritual worship of the local community participating in the eternal Divine Liturgy became an analogy of the people of God, the universal Church.

Benedict XVI reminds us that our faith is a continuity of the community that precedes us. We owe a debt of appreciation to those men and women from whose labor we have reaped the fruit. In turn, we have the task to continue the work of faith that has been entrusted to us. At liturgy and in life we are always invited to participate in a reality that transcends time and yet requires our participation as a unique and necessary expression in this time and this space.

"Gathered as we are in this historic cathedral, how can we not think of the countless men and women who have gone before us, who labored for the growth of the Church in the United States, and left us a lasting legacy of faith and good works? In today’s first reading we saw how, in the power of the Holy Spirit, the Apostles went forth from the Upper Room to proclaim God’s mighty works to people of every nation and tongue. In this country, the Church’s mission has always involved drawing people “from every nation under heaven” (cf. Acts 2:5) into spiritual unity, and enriching the Body of Christ by the variety of their gifts."

The work of God is always the work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit makes us one in faith and love. We must remember that the strength of the Church lies in our bearing the image of God. The unity and diversity embodied in the very inner-life of the Trinity manifests in the diversity and unity of the faith community. Our individuality and solitude opens us up to God and calls us to make an authentic gift of self to others. The summit of this union occurs during the Divine Liturgy and more particularly during Communion when we eat the very flesh and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. God calls us to break out of the dark prison of the self and into the light of Love.

"This is the message of hope we are called to proclaim and embody in a world where self-centeredness, greed, violence, and cynicism so often seem to choke the fragile growth of grace in people’s hearts. Saint Irenaeus, with great insight, understood that the command which Moses enjoined upon the people of Israel: “Choose life!” (Dt 30:19) was the ultimate reason for our obedience to all God’s commandments (cf. Adv. Haer. IV, 16, 2-5). Perhaps we have lost sight of this: in a society where the Church seems legalistic and “institutional” to many people, our most urgent challenge is to communicate the joy born of faith and the experience of God’s love."

Too often people look at God’s commands as a foreign power that comes to negate our freedom and stunt our personal growth. To the contrary, God’s will is life, for God is the source of life, and all life finds its meaning in God. The reason for God’s commands is to set us free from the snares of sin so that we may fully bear the image of God through choosing life and become fully alive. Sin does not represent life but death, not growth but decay. All saints will the same thing: “God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” As long as we see God’s will as some imposing immutable far-off force trying to control us, we will neglect the truth that God only wants to set us free so we may respond freely to the call to love inscribed in the nature of our being. This love is not passive but combats all that separates us from God, and God’s truth is like a sword that prunes us so that we may flourish.

All physical reality has a spiritual dimension. In his homily Benedict XVI turns to the concrete example of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral to reflect on the theological meaning of this house of prayer. This cathedral is a symbol of hope in as much as it symbolizes the Church and God’s presence in the world. Furthermore, the elaborate Gothic style architecture represents a spiritual tradition more ancient than the land of America where this Cathedral resides. The purpose of Church architecture and art is to portray mystical realities and theological truths that occur all around us. Church art at its finest always expresses a sacramental vision that lifts the soul to the contemplation of truth. Because Benedict XVI provides succinct and beautiful reflection, I have included all the text pertaining to St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

"I am particularly happy that we have gathered in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. Perhaps more than any other church in the United States, this place is known and loved as “a house of prayer for all peoples” (cf. Is 56:7; Mk 11:17). Each day thousands of men, women and children enter its doors and find peace within its walls. Archbishop John Hughes, who – as Cardinal Egan has reminded us – was responsible for building this venerable edifice, wished it to rise in pure Gothic style. He wanted this cathedral to remind the young Church in America of the great spiritual tradition to which it was heir, and to inspire it to bring the best of that heritage to the building up of Christ’s body in this land. I would like to draw your attention to a few aspects of this beautiful structure which I think can serve as a starting point for a reflection on our particular vocations within the unity of the Mystical Body.

The first has to do with the stained glass windows, which flood the interior with mystic light. From the outside, those windows are dark, heavy, even dreary. But once one enters the church, they suddenly come alive; reflecting the light passing through them, they reveal all their splendor. Many writers – here in America we can think of Nathaniel Hawthorne – have used the image of stained glass to illustrate the mystery of the Church herself. It is only from the inside, from the experience of faith and ecclesial life, that we see the Church as she truly is: flooded with grace, resplendent in beauty, adorned by the manifold gifts of the Spirit. It follows that we, who live the life of grace within the Church’s communion, are called to draw all people into this mystery of light.

This is no easy task in a world which can tend to look at the Church, like those stained glass windows, “from the outside”: a world which deeply senses a need for spirituality, yet finds it difficult to “enter into” the mystery of the Church. Even for those of us within, the light of faith can be dimmed by routine, and the splendor of the Church obscured by the sins and weaknesses of her members. It can be dimmed too, by the obstacles encountered in a society which sometimes seems to have forgotten God and to resent even the most elementary demands of Christian morality. You, who have devoted your lives to bearing witness to the love of Christ and the building up of his Body, know from your daily contact with the world around us how tempting it is at times to give way to frustration, disappointment and even pessimism about the future. In a word, it is not always easy to see the light of the Spirit all about us, the splendor of the Risen Lord illuminating our lives and instilling renewed hope in his victory over the world (cf. Jn 16:33).

Yet the word of God reminds us that, in faith, we see the heavens opened, and the grace of the Holy Spirit lighting up the Church and bringing sure hope to our world. “O Lord, my God,” the Psalmist sings, “when you send forth your spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth” (Ps 104:30). These words evoke the first creation, when the Spirit of God hovered over the deep (cf. Gen 1:2). And they look forward to the new creation, at Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles and established the Church as the first fruits of a redeemed humanity (cf. Jn 20:22-23). These words summon us to ever deeper faith in God’s infinite power to transform every human situation, to create life from death, and to light up even the darkest night. And they make us think of another magnificent phrase of Saint Irenaeus: “where the Church is, there is the Spirit of God; where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church and all grace” (Adv. Haer. III, 24, 1).

This leads me to a further reflection about the architecture of this church. Like all Gothic cathedrals, it is a highly complex structure, whose exact and harmonious proportions symbolize the unity of God’s creation. Medieval artists often portrayed Christ, the creative Word of God, as a heavenly “geometer”, compass in hand, who orders the cosmos with infinite wisdom and purpose. Does this not bring to mind our need to see all things with the eyes of faith, and thus to grasp them in their truest perspective, in the unity of God’s eternal plan? This requires, as we know, constant conversion, and a commitment to acquiring “a fresh, spiritual way of thinking” (cf. Eph 4:23). It also calls for the cultivation of those virtues which enable each of us to grow in holiness and to bear spiritual fruit within our particular state of life. Is not this ongoing “intellectual” conversion as necessary as “moral” conversion for our own growth in faith, our discernment of the signs of the times, and our personal contribution to the Church’s life and mission?"

This last paragraph speaks of the importance of faith and reason working together. Great cathedrals represent works of art that unite the content of faith to the novelty of human intelligence and ingenuity from the complex processes of designing to constructing. The questions above (italics mine) remind us of the need to integrate reason into the faith perspective because God has ordered the cosmos according to a Divine plan has given us the capacity to know. Rather than being opposed to each other, faith and reason represent mutual perspectives that help form a cohesive and holistic worldview. The combination of faith and reason in the Cathedral and in the Church represents the upward movement of the soul to discover truth and seek God’s will.

"Dear friends, these considerations lead me to a final observation about this great cathedral in which we find ourselves. The unity of a Gothic cathedral, we know, is not the static unity of a classical temple, but a unity born of the dynamic tension of diverse forces which impel the architecture upward, pointing it to heaven. Here too, we can see a symbol of the Church’s unity, which is the unity – as Saint Paul has told us – of a living body composed of many different members, each with its own role and purpose. Here too we see our need to acknowledge and reverence the gifts of each and every member of the body as “manifestations of the Spirit given for the good of all” (1 Cor 12:7). Certainly within the Church’s divinely-willed structure there is a distinction to be made between hierarchical and charismatic gifts (cf. Lumen Gentium, 4). Yet the very variety and richness of the graces bestowed by the Spirit invite us constantly to discern how these gifts are to be rightly ordered in the service of the Church’s mission. You, dear priests, by sacramental ordination have been configured to Christ, the Head of the Body. You, dear deacons, have been ordained for the service of that Body. You, dear men and women religious, both contemplative and apostolic, have devoted your lives to following the divine Master in generous love and complete devotion to his Gospel. All of you, who fill this cathedral today, as well as your retired, elderly and infirm brothers and sisters, who unite their prayers and sacrifices to your labors, are called to be forces of unity within Christ’s Body. By your personal witness, and your fidelity to the ministry or apostolate entrusted to you, you prepare a path for the Spirit. For the Spirit never ceases to pour out his abundant gifts, to awaken new vocations and missions, and to guide the Church, as our Lord promised in this morning’s Gospel, into the fullness of truth (cf. Jn 16:13)."

We must prepare the way of the Lord! As the Cathedral provides a sacred space for God to dwell in the world, we must likewise allow God to work through us. Benedict XVI encourages us to gaze upwards with humility and confidence for we are the living stones of the temple that God is raising up in the world.

At the conclusion of Mass, the Holy Father added the following:

"At this moment I can only thank you for your love of the Church and Our Lord, and for the love which you show to the poor Successor of Saint Peter. I will try to do all that is possible to be a worthy successor of the great Apostle, who also was a man with faults and sins, but remained in the end the rock for the Church. And so I too, with all my spiritual poverty, can be for this time, in virtue of the Lord’s grace, the Successor of Peter.

It is also your prayers and your love which give me the certainty that the Lord will help me in this my ministry. I am therefore deeply grateful for your love and for your prayers. My response now for all that you have given to me during this visit is my blessing, which I impart to you at the conclusion of this beautiful Celebration."

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Pope Benedict XVI on the Power of Prayer


Pope Benedict XVI's first papal visit to the United States is only five days away, and while most of us will not get the chance to see him in person, the Holy Father has asked that we remain close to him in prayer during his visit. If you haven't yet read his address to United States Catholics, I encourage you to do so. (Or you can watch the video here!) I found the following excerpt to be a particularly appropriate reminder to us as students as we press on toward the end of this semester:


"I am especially grateful to all who have been praying for the success of the visit, since prayer is the most important element of all. Dear friends, I say this because I am convinced that without the power of prayer, without that intimate union with the Lord, our human endeavors would achieve very little. Indeed this is what our faith teaches us. It is God who saves us, he saves the world, and all of history. He is the shepherd of his people. I am coming, sent by Jesus Christ, to bring you his word of life."

Too often we forget that our good works are only as effective as the prayer that supports them. With prayer, even the simplest acts of love plant seeds that in time bear great fruit. Without prayer, even the most extravagant good deeds "achieve very little."

God doesn't ask us to save the world - He is the Savior of the world, and we are only His instruments. If we wish to participate in His saving work, then we must remain intimately united to Him in prayer.

Let us especially pray for our Holy Father as he travels next week, and for one another as we continue to study, to seek the Truth, and to bring the "word of life" to our teachers and classmates.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Order through Prayer

In teaching my students about what it means to be an image of God, a much clearer view of human nature has emerged within my own spiritual vision.

What is natural to man? Is indulgence in worldly affairs natural? Is revelry in sexual adventure that which completes man? Are we naturally bound to the desire for the accumulation of material goods? To know what is natural to man, one must first know man’s nature.

To say that something is natural, one is claiming that that which is deemed natural is in accordance with the nature of the thing being observed. For example, is it natural for a fish to swim? Of course it is. By observing the nature of the fish, the conclusion is easily reached that swimming is natural to the fish, for that is in accordance with its nature. A fish that doesn’t swim quickly dies. A bird that doesn’t fly falls to its death. A man that doesn’t pray is crushed under the weight of the world, for he is not made for the world in both his and its present state.

What, then, is man’s nature? The answer is both simple and profound -- man is an image of God. The image must tell us something of that which it reflects, and if the image is a reflection of the eternal, then to reflect eternity for all eternity is what is natural to it. This is confirmed by St. Gregory of Nyssa in his Catechetical Orations in which he writes:

If humanity is called to life in order to share in the divine nature, it must have been suitably constituted for the purpose…That is why humanity was given life, intelligence, wisdom, and all the qualities worthy of the godhead, so that each one of them should cause it to desire the godhead, so that each one of them should cause it to desire what is akin to it. And since eternity is inherent in the godhead, it was absolutely imperative that our nature should not lack it but should have in itself the principle of immortality. By virtue of this inborn faculty it could always be drawn towards what is superior to it and retain the desire for eternity.

God is all good, and order is good. Therefore, God is Order itself. We see a reflection of the face of God in His creation. The Orthodox theologian Olivier Clement in his book The Roots of Christian Mysticism writes:

Each being manifests the creative word which gives it its identity and attracts it. Each being manifests a dynamic idea, something willed by God. Ultimately each thing is a created name of him who cannot be named.

There is order in creation, for its Creator is Order itself, and Order begets order. Man is an image of God; therefore, he is made in the image of Order. Order is part of man’s nature as an image of God; therefore, disorder is unnatural to man.

In God, all of His attributes are one. Because he is eternal and infinite, He cannot be made of parts, nor does He possess parts. He is one is His essence. This has infinite implications, a few being that His order is His love, His love is His justice, His justice is His love, His love is His order, etc. God is all these good things, and man being an image of God finds in them his natural habitat. It is natural for man to have order both in the world and in his mind, will, and body. It is natural for man to love, to seek justice, etc. It is unnatural for man to do anything else. In saying that it is unnatural to man, although man seems tends towards these, I mean to say that it goes against his nature as an image of God. Yet more often than not, we do that which is unnatural to us and claim that it is simply human nature. This couldn’t be farther from the truth! To do anything but love, seek justice, obey God, etc. is to introduce disorder into our minds, wills, and bodies. Disorder in the human soul is manifested in many and various ways, all of which are hideous to the ordered soul.

Who is the man that embraces disorder? He is the one that is confused, addicted, angry, materialistic, yet all the while convincing himself that he has found happiness and contentment. Of course, the conclusions of a disordered mind will almost always be disordered.

How must a disordered system be overcome? By introducing order into the system. When it comes to the human soul made in the image and likeness of Order, Order must be brought into the disordered soul. By an opening up of the soul to the influence of Order through the indwelling of Order can the human soul begin to banish from it the darkness of disorder. This opening up of the soul is called prayer, which is as natural to man as barking is to a dog, as flying is to a bird, as swimming is to a fish. Yet we are like dogs that do not know how to bark and fish that cannot swim. We are dominated by the world which was created to be dominated by us. How absolutely unnatural!

Prayer is our best bet for happiness as happiness can only be found in order. In fact, order is happiness. The purpose of prayer is to turn outside of ourselves, to empty the image in order to be filled with the reality. It is our nature to empty ourselves to both God and neighbor, that in emptying ourselves we may be filled. Fulfillment in emptiness! Yet another of those wonderful Christian paradoxes.

How can we know that our calling is to turn and open to others? If we were created to turn in on ourselves, then our eyes would be facing the opposite direction. We would be created to look inward. But according to nature that is not so. We look outward. It is in looking outward that we can empty ourselves just as the greatest Man, the God-man, did: “Who though He was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped; Rather, He emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave…”

Through prayer, we look outward to the Source of all order and happiness. Through prayer, we empty ourselves of our worldly accretions, placing ourselves under the direct influence of a Perfect Order. As Order begins to reign in our souls, so, too, does love, truth, joy, peace, and all other attributes of God.

We pray in order that the unnatural might be overcome by the natural, that darkness might become light, and that disorder be crushed under the liberating weight of Order.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Dignity of Women: A look at Mulieris Dignitatem (post 3)

After examining the original solitude and original unity of man and woman as created in the image of God, both as individuals and collectively, John Paul II describes the nature and consequences of original sin. In order to properly understand the dignity of women, we must first understand how this dignity has been affronted through the fall of humanity. The introduction of sin ruptured the original unity between man and woman. This fall from grace has irrevocable effects on all relationships.

The mystery of sin can only enter the world through humanity because man and woman reveal the image of God. Although destined and called to freely share in the inner life of God, man and woman must still choose God and willfully make a sincere gift of self. God endowed man and woman with the natural goods of reason, free will, and a partner to help them understand their call to communion and the sincere gift of self, yet man still rebelled.

By committing sin man rejects this gift and at the same time wills to become "as God, knowing good and evil" (Gen 3:5), that is to say, deciding what is good and what is evil independently of God, his Creator. The sin of the first parents has its own human "measure": an interior standard of its own in man's free will, and it also has within itself a certain "diabolic" characteristic, which is clearly shown in the Book of Genesis (3:15). Sin brings about a break in the original unity which man enjoyed in the state of original justice: union with God as the source of the unity within his own "I", in the mutual relationship between man and woman ("communio personarum") as well as in regard to the external world, to nature. (MD: 9)

John Paul II makes it clear that independent of the ‘distinction of roles’ that Adam and Eve performed in the narrative recounting original sin; both man and woman are equally responsible for the transgression against God. Man rejects likeness to God by refusing to make a sincere gift of self, and this destroys the communion of persons. This willful disobedience puts a tragic strain on the relationship between God and man that God cannot ignore. God is offended, man and woman are deeply affected, and man’s eternal destination for supernatural happiness has been rejected.

The mystery of sin brings about the experience of suffering. The great offense done to the creator affects all of creation and more particularly this rupture resounds in the physical and spiritual condition of man. The newfound knowledge discovered by man was toil, pain, and death imbedded in the human experience for all generations.

Original Sin also creates a fundamental division between man and woman that threatens their ability to enter into an authentic relationship of love. Scripture describes one of the consequences of sin to the woman: “your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (Genesis 3:16). John Paul II states that this dominion over women by men denotes a “loss of the stability of that fundamental equality” that man and woman mutually possessed in unity with one another. This dis-unity diminishes both the dignity of man and woman because the authentic communion of persons depends upon the equality rooted in their dignity (MD: 10).

In a way, this division connotes a type of primordial divorce between the sexes that threatens the sacramental meaning of marriage and this danger exists in every generation.

The matrimonial union requires respect for and a perfecting of the true personal subjectivity of both of them. The woman cannot become the "object" of "domination" and male "possession". But the words of the biblical text directly concern original sin and its lasting consequences in man and woman. Burdened by hereditary sinfulness, they bear within themselves the constant "inclination to sin", the tendency to go against the moral order which corresponds to the rational nature and dignity of man and woman as persons (MD: 10)

The consequence for men is a tendency to objectify women as objects of lust rather than subjects recipient to love. The “inclination to sin” will continuously burden the mutual relationship between man and woman.

It is very important to understand that the dominion of men over women occurred as a consequence of sin, and that John Paul II claims that this dominion over women and tendency to objectify must be overcome through God’s grace. Still, given modern debate of “women’s rights,” another danger arises. In trying to liberate women from the sin of male domination this should not attempt to “liberate” women of their femininity.

Consequently, even the rightful opposition of women to what is expressed in the biblical words "He shall rule over you" (Gen 3:16) must not under any condition lead to the "masculinization" of women. In the name of liberation from male "domination", women must not appropriate to themselves male characteristics contrary to their own feminine "originality". There is a well-founded fear that if they take this path, women will not "reach fulfilment", but instead will deform and lose what constitutes their essential richness. It is indeed an enormous richness. (MD: 10)

Women must act in an authentically feminine way as embodied in the openness and humility of Mary, the mother of God. The richness of being woman is intimately connected to her femininity. Modern feminism that tries to trivialize the sexual differences of man and woman attack the natural goodness of sexuality and sexual differentiation. Love does not seek to irradiate sexual difference but to conquer sin.

The personal resources of femininity are certainly no less than the resources of masculinity: they are merely different. Hence a woman, as well as a man, must understand her "fulfilment" as a person, her dignity and vocation, on the basis of these resources, according to the richness of the femininity which she received on the day of creation and which she inherits as an expression of the "image and likeness of God" that is specifically hers. The inheritance of sin suggested by the words of the Bible - "Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you" - can be conquered only by following this path. The overcoming of this evil inheritance is, generation after generation, the task of every human being, whether woman or man. For whenever man is responsible for offending a woman's personal dignity and vocation, he acts contrary to his own personal dignity and his own vocation. (MD: 10)

Every woman has the task of exploring the meaning of her femininity and her special dignity as a woman. Every woman reflects the image of God in a unique way, and she plays a particular role in the family of God. The meaning of being man and woman cannot be understood apart from the other and apart from the reality of being made in the “image and likeness of God.” Because of the inter-connectedness between the sexes, the dignity of woman must be protected by man and male dominance must be resisted for the sake of both man and woman.

Original sin leaves humanity in a dire predicament. Next week I will discuss the mercy of God on humanity and what has been named the “proto-evangelium” which foretells the prominent role of woman in the redemption of humanity.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Song of Songs and the Triduum

Last night, I read the Song of Songs as a meditation the Easter Triduum, and I couldn't believe I'd never placed it in that context before. The beauty and depth of its poetry had never seemed so profound. As the Bride of Christ, the Church, we are asked to enter into the mysteries of Holy Week with a deep and holy intimacy. We receive the gift of Christ's flesh and blood with renewed gratitude on Holy Thursday; we celebrate His passion with broken hearts, "faint with love" on Good Friday; we wait in silence on Holy Saturday for the resurrection that our Bridegroom promised; and then on Easter, we rejoice at the sound of His voice, knowing that He has risen and asked us to rise with Him.

The Song of Songs begins as the Bride asks to be brought to the chambers of her lover, who is both shepherd and king. In a particularly striking image that prefigures the Passion and Resurrection, the Bridegroom calls His Bride "a lily among thorns" (Song 2:2). They share an intimate meal - as we do when we celebrate the Eucharist - which the Bride describes in this way:
I delight to rest in his shadow,
and his fruit is sweet to my mouth.
He brings me into the banquet hall,
and his emblem over me is love.
... His left hand is under my head
and his right arm embraces me. (2:3-4, 6)
Then the Bride has a dream that makes it seem as though her lover has left her:
On my bed at night, I sought him
whom my heart loves -
I sought him but I did not find him.
... Have you seen him whom my heart loves? (3:2-3)
But just after she says this, she finds him and says that she "took hold of him and would not let him go" (3:4). Her desire to hold fast to the Bridegroom recalls the disciples' desire to cling to Christ and their refusal to believe that He was going where they could not follow.

Then the daughters of Jerusalem - the faithful - are urged to gaze upon the King as he comes in a royal procession, surrounded by the "valiant men of Israel" and
In the crown with which his mother has crowned him
on the day of his marriage,
on the day of the joy of his heart. (3:11)
This is Good Friday, the day of Christ's marriage to His Church, when He receives His crown of thorns, the crown shared by His sorrowful mother, and His love for us is consummated on the cross. The day is "good" because it pleased God to redeem us, it was indeed "the day of the joy of his heart."

The Bridegroom praises His Bride and tells her that "until the day breathes cool and the shadows lengthen," he will "go to the mountain of myrrh, / to the hill of incense," presumably to offer a sacrifice for her (4:6), just as Christ went to the hill of Calvary to sacrifice Himself for us.

Then the Bride has another dream, more heartbreaking than the first, because in this dream, she is not reunited with her lover. "I was sleeping," she says, "but my heart kept vigil" (5:2). She hears her lover knocking at the door, but she does not rise immediately to open it. She is afraid. She has taken off her garment - the veil of the temple has been torn - and her feet have been washed - as the Lord washed the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper - and she hesitates, but the sound of her lover's voice makes her heart tremble (5:4), so she rises. With fingers "dripping choice myrrh" (5:5) - an image which recalls the anointing at Bethany in Matthew 26, as well as the spices used to anoint Christ's body for burial - she goes to open the door, but she opens it to darkness and silence:
My lover had departed, gone.
I sought him but I did not find him;
I called to him but he did not answer me. (5:6)
When the Bride goes looking for the Bridegroom, she is "struck" and "wounded" by the watchmen of the city (5:7), but she praises her lover, even in his absence. She knows he will return. Then her joy is restored when she meets him in the garden and sees the lilies and the vines in bloom, and they retire together to their marriage bed (7:12-13). Again she is able to say, "His left hand is under my head, and his right arm embraces me" (8:3).

So too, we share in Christ's suffering as we celebrate His Passion, but we praise Him even in His seeming absence. We know what he has promised: "you are now in anguish. But I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you" (John 16:22).
We know He will return to us, and so on this Holy Saturday, as the Bride of Our Lord, "we wait in joyful hope," keeping vigil in our hearts and listening for His voice. We wait in silence, knowing that in the morning we will hear Him say:
"Arise, my beloved, my beautiful one,
and come!
For see, the winter is past,
the rains are over and gone." (Song 2:10-11)

Friday, March 21, 2008

An Acceptable Sacrifice


We celebrate today the greatest sacrifice ever made, a sacrifice that dwarfs our feeble attempts at imitation. With this in mind, we must come to an understanding of what it means to offer an acceptable sacrifice to the Lord. In other words, are our sacrifices offered in union with and in the same spirit with which the Christ offered His, or are they offered in the same spirit as Cain’s?

Genesis 4:1-16 recounts a story that reveals the destructive nature of the darkness hid within our hearts. Two brothers offer sacrifices to God. One is accepted while the other is not. But why? A close reading reveals a possible reason for the denial of Cain’s sacrifice:

“The Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted?’” (Genesis 4:6-7)

Cain’s immediate response to God’s rejection of his sacrifice was not one of humility as one might expect of a person in such a position. It was anger. Rather than seeking out the proper way to please God, Cain digs his heels deeper into pride and presumably rationalization of his unacceptable sacrifice. God’s questioning is meant not only to provide an invitation for self-examination, but also for Cain to understand what it is God is actually seeking from him. God is not so much concerned with the sacrifice per se evidenced by the fact that sacrifice is not once mentioned when God speaks to Cain. He is concerned with the very heart of Cain, for the heart is what determines the acceptability of one’s sacrifice, not the other way around. The words, “If you do well, will you not be accepted?” indicate something deeper than the mere rejection of a sacrifice, for God is speaking not of the acceptance of sacrifice, but about the acceptance of Cain himself. In other words, the sacrifice serves its purpose when the heart is pure. A heart polluted by envy and anger is a heart that pollutes. Cain’s sacrifice was polluted by his self-love and vanity, thus making it unacceptable in God’s eyes. Mother Teresa taught us that God calls us to do small things with great love as it is the great love that determines the greatness of the act. Cain, unfortunately, allows his vanity and self-love to devolve further into unjustified anger.

The instruction from God to Cain to do well went unappreciated and unheeded. Though God called out to Cain, pointing him in the direction of perfection, Cain sought his own way and offered an even more abominable sacrifice, the life of his own brother.

We’ve all got a bit of Cain in us. Some more than others, but we’ve all got it. I’m not speaking of fratricide. I’m speaking of the profound lack of insight that characterizes our relationships with the Almighty. We lack insight as to what God truly wants of us, and we tend towards a false belief in the sufficiency of offering Him our own works apart from our very selves, when in reality, all He really wants from us is a pure and humble heart in submission to His will expressed through physical sacrifices.

The Psalmist makes the above thought clear when he writes: “Sacrifice and offering you do not desire; but you have given me an open ear. Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required. Then I said, ‘Behold, I come; in the roll of the book it is written of me; I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.’”

The Psalmist reveals to us that God’s desire is man himself, not his bull, ram, or cereal offering. The offering is to be an expression of the man, taking on value by virtue of the purity of his heart and delight in God’s will.

In stark contrast to Cain’s offering is the offering of Christ Who offered His purity and His entire being which He made completely and absolutely in union with God’s will.

“In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard for his godly fear. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and being made perfect he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him.” (Hebrews 5:7-9)

St. Paul teaches us that the suffering of Christ was characterized by godly fear, supplication, and obedience. Because of this, he was made perfect, and thus, He Himself was made an acceptable sacrifice to the Father. As a sort of correction of Cain’s abominable sacrifice that led to his brother’s death, Christ offers His own life to save the lives of His bothers.

During this Triduum and throughout the Easter season, let us continue to examine the acceptability of our own sacrifices, discerning if we have offered ourselves to Him or a pathetic substitute.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Overcoming the Obscurity of Saint Patrick


People obsess over the color green on Saint Patrick’s day, while Saint Patrick spent a great deal of time obsessing over God. I wonder how I can keep from making another obscure holiday out of another obscure saint. This year, I decided to start by making the saint less obscure. While this may not be possible for someone like Saint Valentine, this certainly is possible for Saint Patrick. Beyond the legend and folk lore that surrounds Saint Patrick, I have access to his writings, and his words speak volumes about his relationship to God and his view of divine grace.

There exists only a small collection of Saint Patrick’s writing. The smallness of his works may be appropriate to the simplicity and humility of the man. Yet great strength shines through his reliance on God. Patrick confessed himself as a simple countryman, unlearned, and least among the faithful. Both his Confessio and his Letter to Coroticus begin with “I, Patrick, a sinner” emphasizing his unworthiness and God’s constant grace and faithfulness.

Patrick acknowledges his faults of the past, but does not think his imperfections are enough to prevent him from doing God’s work. Rather he finds them as reason to rely on grace and exalt God’s name. In his writings, Patrick ardently celebrates his salvation, the Gospel message, and his mission. For these reasons, he journeyed as a missionary to Ireland; to serve God and the Irish people in the land he was once enslaved.

Speculation surrounds Patrick’s exact place of origin but many people speculate Britain. His Confessio reveals that during a raid, the sixteen-year-old Patrick was captured and sent as a slave to Ireland. Patrick viewed his capture as a symbolic exile representing his spiritual isolation from God at that time. Before his capture, Patrick admits to not living a very religious or good life.

In exile, Patrick accredits God with protecting him and consoling him as a father does his son. God made Patrick knowledgeable of his unbelief during his captivity, and gave Patrick the grace to respond in prayer. His conversion occurred during this time.

But after I reached Ireland I used to pasture the flock each day and I used to pray many times a day. More and more did the love of God, and my fear of him and faith increase, and my spirit was moved so that in a day [I said] from one up to a hundred prayers, and in the night a like number; besides I used to stay out in the forests and on the mountain and I would wake up before daylight to pray in the snow, in icy coldness, in rain, and I used to feel neither ill nor any slothfulness, because, as I now see, the Spirit was burning in me at that time. (Confessio: 16)

Working as a shepherd, Patrick gained a steadfast faith that would provide him with the courage and patience to know that God will provide. After six years in enslavement and prompted by the Lord, Patrick endured a dangerous escape completely trusting in God’s providence. He traveled two-hundred miles to discover a boat leaving port the day of his arrival.

During his six years in Ireland, Patrick learned the language, culture, and people. Patrick desired the conversion of the Irish people. Once free, Patrick sought out training to become a missionary. He was convinced that God wanted him return to Ireland after a vision in which Patrick heard the voices of the Irish calling for him. However, it would be a great number of years before he could return as a missionary with the support of the Church. During this time, Patrick never gave up hope.

And many gifts were offered to me with weeping and tears, and I offended them [the donors], and also went against the wishes of a good number of my elders; but guided by God, I neither agreed with them nor deferred to them, not by my own grace but by God who is victorious in me and withstands them all, so that I might come to the Irish people to preach the Gospel and endure insults from unbelievers; that I might hear scandal of my travels, and endure many persecutions to the extent of prison; and so that I might give up my free birthright for the advantage of others, and if I should be worthy, I am ready [to give] even my life without hesitation; and most willingly for His name. And I choose to devote it to him even unto death, if God grant it to me. (Confessio: 37)

After thirty-nine years of pilgrimage and formation, Patrick eventually returned to Ireland as a bishop. He challenged the religion of the druids and engaged them in spiritual discussion trying to proclaim the Gospel. On such an occasion of challenge, Patrick is reported to have been describing the mysteries of the divine Trinity and using a shamrock as a natural example of three in one when the queen converted. Whether or not this happened, Christian Ireland was born in his lifetime. Other issues Patrick had to combat were human sacrifice and enslavement, both of which became obsolete by the time of his death. Patrick, who preached that nothing is impossible for the Lord, demonstrates this reality in his mission. Ireland became a Christian nation without physical force.

So, how is it that in Ireland, where they never had any knowledge of God but, always, until now, cherished idols and unclean things, they are lately become a people of the Lord, and are called children of God; the sons of the Irish [Scotti] and the daughters of the chieftains are to be seen as monks and virgins of Christ. (Confessio, 41).

With the absolute dedication of Patrick to God, much of Ireland became converted. He never rushed or forced the will if God but patiently waited as he actively sought ways to fulfill his destiny. Providence is present in the life, works, and writings of Patrick. He always heeded that divine grace is always present and guiding him at every moment. He lived in the constant presence of God. He showed the mercy God granted to him to the people he served. He appealed to the Irish’s desire for truth through humility and love. Furthermore, the fruits of his labor continued long after his death. The disciples of Patrick helped re-evangelize a ravished Europe torn apart spiritually through Arianism and physically through countless invasions that lead to the fall of the Roman Empire.

In honor of Saint Patrick, we should remember the missionary zeal we must have in proclaiming the Gospel. Though humble, Saint Patrick never sacrificed truth or love. Rather, he courageously sacrificed himself in service to God and to the Irish, his adopted family. He came to love the land of his captivity, and its inhabitants.

The following is a prayer from the Lorica of Saint Patrick:

I bind to myself today
The strong virtue of the Invocation of the Trinity:
I believe in the Trinity in Unity
The Creator of the Universe.

I bind to myself today
The virtue of the Incarnation of Christ with His Baptism,
The virtue of His crucifixion with His burial,
The virtue of His Resurrection with His Ascension,
The virtue of His coming on the Judgment Day.

I bind to myself today
The virtue of the love of seraphim,
In the obedience of angels,
In the hope of resurrection unto reward,
In prayers of Patriarchs,
In predictions of Prophets,
In preaching of Apostles,
In faith of Confessors,
In purity of holy Virgins,
In deeds of righteous men.

I bind to myself today
The power of Heaven,
The light of the sun,
The brightness of the moon,
The splendor of fire,
The flashing of lightning,
The swiftness of wind,
The depth of sea,
The stability of earth,
The compactness of rocks.

I bind to myself today
God's Power to guide me,
God's Might to uphold me,
God's Wisdom to teach me,
God's Eye to watch over me,
God's Ear to hear me,
God's Word to give me speech,
God's Hand to guide me,
God's Way to lie before me,
God's Shield to shelter me,
God's Host to secure me,
Against the snares of demons,
Against the seductions of vices,
Against the lusts of nature,
Against everyone who meditates injury to me,
Whether far or near,
Whether few or with many.

I invoke today all these virtues
Against every hostile merciless power
Which may assail my body and my soul,
Against the incantations of false prophets,
Against the black laws of heathenism,
Against the false laws of heresy,
Against the deceits of idolatry,
Against the spells of women, and smiths, and druids,
Against every knowledge that binds the soul of man.

Christ, protect me today
Against poison, against burning,
Against drowning, against death-wound,
That I may receive abundant reward.

Christ with me, Christ before me,
Christ behind me, Christ within me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ at my right, Christ at my left,
Christ in the fort,
Christ in the chariot seat,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks to me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

I bind to myself today
The strong virtue of the Invocation of the Trinity,
I believe in the Trinity in Unity
The Creator of the Universe.

Friday, March 14, 2008

He Has Finished the Race


In our catholicity, when one part of the Body of Christ suffers, the whole body suffers. We mourn with those who mourn.

Zenit, The New York Times and the BBC are covering the death of Paulos Faraj Rahho, the Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Mosul in Iraq. His body was recovered two weeks after he was abduction by Muslim extremists. Three of his aides were killed in the kidnapping. It is unclear whether or not the 65-year-old archbishop was murdered or died of natural causes.

We stand with the Holy Father and the Archbishop's flock in mourning his death and praying for peace in Iraq and the safety of Iraq's Christian community.

During the Holy Week in front of us, as we contemplate the passion of our Lord, may we remember that the crosses we may be expected to bear in our Christian witnesses can go far beyond the things we give up for Lent and the moderate trials of affluent Western living. Those crosses could include maintaining our testimony in the face of those who violently oppose our faith and are willing to kill for our silence. While opposing secularist efforts to remove any reference to faith from the public square (e.g., the war on Christmas) can be good, and internal acts of offering our little sufferings up to the Lord is even better in our pursuit of holiness, our lives belong to Christ, and He may ask everything of us.

May we give God gratitude for the relative ease in which we live. May we be provoked to find ways to offer ourselves more fully to Christ and our brothers and sisters, that we may suffer with them as Christ suffered for us. May we be instruments of peace.