instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Man's work

The discussion on attracting men to the practice of Christianity has resurfaced, this time at open book. The problem: How do we get men to stop thinking of church as something for women?

My suggestion: Preach the Gospel.

I mean, you can dress Christianity up as manly man's work like saving the womenfolk from the world, the flesh, and the devil, plus a monthly beer and bowling night, but in the end the Church is about being crucified, and then being happy forever with God. That's not really a matter of psychology; it's a matter of faith. If you try to use psychology to arrive at faith, you're holding the stick on the weak end, and it's liable to snap off in your hand.

This isn't to say psychology is not important; we are, after all, incarnate beings. But the idea that being crucified will be more appealing to men if only their priests drank Scotch and cursed the Yankees suggests a rather adolescent approach to faith.

Which, come to think of it, just may meet the culture right where it is.

Still, I wish all those manly men who complain about how effeminate the Church is would quit gossipping like a bunch of old ladies.


Monday, April 19, 2004

A retreat with St. Catherine of Siena

St. Catherine of Siena's feast day is coming up a week from Thursday. There are books you can buy like Praying with Catherine of Siena and A Retreat with Catherine of Siena that provide programs for you to spend a few minutes a day reading some of her writings and meditating on her approach to God.

But books are non-negligible investments in money and time. For those who don't know St. Catherine's thought well enough to be able to say it would be worth buying such a book, I offer the following clip-and-save nine day mini-retreats, one for men and one for women.

No need to thank me, it's what I do.

A Nine Day, Self-Directed Catherinian Mini-Retreat for Women

Instructions: Spend fifteen minutes a day by yourself, meditating on the appropriate thought for each day.

Day 1: God is He Who Is, and you are she who is not.

Day 2: God is He Who Is, and you are she who is not.

Day 3: God is He Who Is, and you are she who is not.

Day 4: God is He Who Is, and you are she who is not.

Day 5: God is He Who Is, and you are she who is not.

Day 6: God is He Who Is, and you are she who is not.

Day 7: God is He Who Is, and you are she who is not.

Day 8: God is He Who Is, and you are she who is not.

Day 9: God is He Who Is, and you are she who is not.

A Nine Day, Self-Directed Catherinian Mini-Retreat for Men

Instructions: Spend fifteen minutes a day by yourself, meditating on the appropriate thought for each day.

Day 1: God is He Who Is, and you are he who is not.

Day 2: God is He Who Is, and you are he who is not.

Day 3: God is He Who Is, and you are he who is not.

Day 4: God is He Who Is, and you are he who is not.

Day 5: God is He Who Is, and you are he who is not.

Day 6: God is He Who Is, and you are he who is not.

Day 7: God is He Who Is, and you are he who is not.

Day 8: God is He Who Is, and you are he who is not.

Day 9: God is He Who Is, and you are he who is not.


Pharisees and Herodians

You know George Carlin's joke about drivers? "Ever notice that everyone who drives faster than you is a maniac, and everyone who drives slower than you is an idiot?"

That, plus the definition of "religious fanatic" as "someone who takes their religion more seriously than you take yours," plus Pansy Moss's tale of woe about parish gossip (never a problem in St. Blog's, of course), makes me think that there might be a joke in the idea that there are three kinds of Catholics: Pharisees, who take everything too far; Herodians, who take nothing far enough; and me.

The words "Pharisees" and "Herodians" appear in the same verse twice, both in Mark:
The Pharisees went out and immediately took counsel with the Herodians against Him to put Him to death.

They sent some Pharisees and Herodians to Him to ensnare Him in His speech.
As a historical matter, Pharisees and Herodians did not have much common cause; some wonder about the historicity of the Gospels because they show the two groups working together. But who is not with Jesus is against Him, and on the most fundamental matter in creation they were on the same side.

I suspect the Pharisees and Herodians meet together in the hearts of a lot of us; we condemn laxity over things we want to be rigorist about, and rigorism over the things we want to be lax about. But Christ will ever be between, and opposed by, both camps. So maybe the three kinds of Catholics are Pharisees, Herodians, and those who remain with Christ on Golgotha.


Is contemplation for everybody

In the discussions below on lay secular contemplation, I have evidently not been clear enough that my fundamental and overriding thesis is this:
Contemplation is for everybody.
Given that, a lot of the arguments against what I've been writing are more puzzling to me than convincing.

Somehow, when I try to explain my sub-thesis --
Secular layfolk are not let's pretend vowed religious --
I wind up leaving some people thinking I'm arguing my sub-thesis against my fundamental thesis. I am not. I'm arguing it against a different claim, one that says, "If secular layfolk want to be holy, they have to pretend to be vowed religious," and its pernicious corollary, "Since secular layfolk are not let's pretend vowed religious, they don't need to be, or can't be, holy."

I have only one objection to saying, with Kathy the Carmelite, of works like On Union With God, "To be 'attached' in the way these guys consider detrimental is to place marriage and the family ahead of God." My objection is: that's not what the text says.

As objections go, it's not a showstopper. Rhetoric, complexity, context, and implicit assumptions can all contribute to a text whose literal interpretation is not the literal sense intended by the author. Still, the literal interpretation makes a great deal of sense to me for a book written explicitly for vowed religious. Why shouldn't a monk attempt to keep his mind bare of all images of physical things? it's nice work if you can get it.

The point of my sub-thesis, though, is that I can't get that nice work, and further I ought not try. To a Carmelite, apparently, "I ought not try" must sound something like "God doesn't want me to love Him." To me, though, it sounds like "I shouldn't pretend to be a vowed religious," which I infer is a point so obvious to Carmelites it doesn't occur to them to even state it.

Those of us plodding along in the valley, though, have to be more careful about where our next step takes us. So while I hear Steven and Kathy hallooing to me from up on a peak, saying what sounds like, "What was written by a vowed religious for vowed religious applies directly to secular layfolk, if only you understand it properly," I still have to pick my own way up the mountainside from where I am.


Friday, April 16, 2004

All's I'm Saying

Consider this piece of spiritual direction. It's from Chapter 6 of On Union with God, but it's like can probably be found in most every work on the via negativa:
Learn to withdraw from imaginations and the images of physical things, since what pleases God above all else is a mind bare of those sorts of forms and objects, for it is his delight to be with the sons of men, that is those who, at peace from such activities, distractions and passions, seek him with a pure and simple mind, empty themselves for him, and cleave to him. Otherwise, if your memory, imagination and thought is often involved with such things, you must needs be filled with the thought of new things or memories of old ones, or identified with other changing objects. As a result, the Holy Spirit withholds Himself from thoughts bereft of understanding.
Here, "emptying yourself for God" means to withdraw from thoughts and memories of "changing objects." To the extent you don't empty yourself, the Holy Spirit witholds Himself.

So far, so good. All this is entirely consistent with Scripture, Tradition, reason, and the lived experience of the Church.

As it stands, though, it's lousy advice for a husband and father.

Because as it stands, it's not a prayer technique, it's a rule for life. He's not saying, "First, empty your mind of all distractions." He's saying, "Always have your mind empty of all distractions," which for me would include my wife and children. Emptying my mind of my wife and children would be sinful.

As it stands, this advice is not directly applicable to those who are married. (How applicable it is to secular folks who aren't married I couldn't say.) But this advice comes bundled with statements like, "This is the only way to Christian perfection," and statements like that draw my interest, because "Be you therefore perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect" was not an off-the-cuff suggestion for the few.

When I read, then, "Nada, nada, nada," I recognize two incompatibilities: first, I can't do nada, and I ought not even try; second, I've got algo that the via negativa doesn't even treat.

So that's all this is, really. An attempt to discern God's will, taking into account the discernment of others.


Scientific proof!

"Congratulations! You have a fine sense of pitch."

So says the cutting edge science of the finest minds at the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.

I can't wait to correct my wife.

(Dare I hope there is a National Institute on Clashing and Other Fashion Disorders?)


The key to the Cardinal

Occasionally, the clucking in the St. Blog's henhouse turns to the subject of my own bishop, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, when he commits some new outrage that offends the henhouse sensibilities. This week it's his failure to follow henhouse interpretation of canon law, but whatever the offense, there will be those who cluck, "Well of course! What else would you expect from a bishop like that?"

The meaning of "like that" varies from clucker to clucker; some mean "friendly to labor" or "politically liberal" or even "suspected of having voted for a Democrat," one of the henhouse's great sins. Others mean merely "spineless," or the ever popular "hapless." Some will hint darkly at simony and formal heresy.

As someone who tried to keep track of what Cardinal McCarrick says and does, though, rather than just the outrages he commits, I think the key to understanding him lies in his own words:
Most of all, I think I have always wanted to be a kind priest, and I would be grateful to God Who has been so kind to me if at least through His grace I have tried to be a kind bishop to those I served.
He wrote that in July 2002, a few weeks after his silver anniversary of episcopal consecration. Almost a year later, after his 45th anniversary of ordination, he went into more depth on what he sees as the three-fold challenge facing a priest:
In my own life, and in my pleas to those on whose heads I have imposed my hands at ordination, it has always been a three-fold challenge - work and pray and be kind to the people. If a priest can realize those three goals, he will be a good shepherd and a good man of God.

Of course, there is more to the priestly life than those three essential elements. The priest must study; he must recreate; he must take time for family, for friends; he must find time for exercise. These are natural virtues that every human being must cultivate - and I guess so are prayer and work and kindness, but in a priest they must be so much a part of his vocation. If we do not pray without ceasing, as the apostle urges, we become sterile. I know this because there are times when it has happened to me. If we do not work to the full extent of our capacity and if we are not kind, then we end up having lost the big picture and the great challenge of holiness and service.

As I look ahead to however many more years of service that God may give me, and I look back on the 45 exciting years that I have lived as a priest, I ask your prayers that I may finally start to pray more and better, to work "while the light lasts" and always to be kind.
See? Nothing about politics, or Mass in the vernacular, or being on television. Simply "always to be kind."

Of course, the henhouse is brimming with modern-day prophets who would spit on the idea of a bishop trying to be kind. It is not kind, they would say, in fact it is positively unkind to fail to correct people in their sins. That is true enough; charity, not kindness, is the greatest virtue, and the kindness of charity is not always felt as kindness.

But charity toward others is the desire for their salvation, not the desire for the satisfaction of telling them you doubt their salvation. I am not very perceptive spiritually, but I do not discern much desire for the salvation of others in the henhouse, compared to the desire for the satisfaction of seeing someone else get it in the chops from a stud bishop.

If, however, the "that" that Cardinal McCarrick is like is "kind," then those who think the times call for him to be more like something else would do well to pray that his kindness grow to encompass that something else, rather than that he stop being kind and start being their puppet.

(By the way, I'm inclined to think that how much and how earnestly people pray for something -- and I mean full-bore prayer, with vigils and fasts and candles and Rosaries and kneeling and maybe even some tears -- is a much better indicator of whether they truly desire it and whether the desire comes from God than how much and how earnestly they complain about it on the Internet. And that includes, naturally, complaining about complaining.)


Thursday, April 15, 2004

The fruit of the Holy Spirit
But the fruit of the Spirit is charity, joy, peace, patience, benignity, goodness, longanimity, mildness, faith, modesty, continency, chastity.
[Longanimity. There's a word we don't hear often enough.]

St. Thomas, in considering whether these fruits enumerated by St. Paul are human acts (as opposed to desires or habits), writes:
If then man's operation proceeds from man in virtue of his reason, it is said to be the fruit of his reason: but if it proceeds from him in respect of a higher power, which is the power of the Holy Ghost, then man's operation is said to be the fruit of the Holy Ghost....
If the operation proceding from you is not charity, joy, peace, patience, benignity, goodness, longanimity, mildness, faith, modesty, continency, or chastity, you might want to ask yourself whether it's the fruit of the Holy Spirit or the fruit of your own human reason. In particular, any hatred, outburst of fury, dissension, and faction is to be seen, if St. Paul is not mistaken, as a work of the flesh.

(It's worth noting that St. Paul opposes works of the flesh with fruit of the Spirit, the latter term suggesting, among other things, a much more careful and directed process of cultivation.)

It seems to me that, all things being equal, Easter should be a season when we reap the first fruits of what we cultivated during Lent. Where I see charity, joy, peace, patience, benignity, goodness, longanimity, mildness, faith, modesty, continency, and chastity, I should study the means of cultivation (which, from the human perspective, amounts to the means of getting out of God's way of cultivation) which produced them. Where I don't see this fruit, I should try to determine (as far as possible) and avoid whatever led to barrenness.


And the doctor said, "Don't do that."

I happened to notice a little book on a shelf this morning I'd picked up a couple of years ago called On Union with God, by (it is said) St. Albert the Great. (A different translation of this brief work is available on-line.) Since I'm in the process of trying to understand what union with God means for a lay secular person, I thought now might be a good time to read it.

It is, of course, written from the perspective of, and for those in, the religious life. My working hypothesis is that we can't simply take this perspective and, by shoehorning, shrinking, or whittling, make it fit the secular (and in particular the married) life.

So what can we draw from the one perspective to apply to the other? I'm still trying to figure that out. Generally speaking, though, I think there are some things that apply to all Christians equally; some that apply to all Christians, but in different ways according to their different states in life; and some that apply only to a particular state. Works like On Union with God can only be interpreted for married people in light of what applies particularly to the married state, and what applies particularly to the married state hasn't been the subject of the reflection and study that what applies particularly to the religious state has been.

But once you agree that perfection in this life consists in "the intellect [being] perfectly illuminated, according to its capacity, with the knowledge of God, who is perfect truth, ... the will [being] perfectly focused on the love of the perfect good, and ... the memory [being] fully absorbed in turning to and enjoying eternal happiness, and in gladly and contentedly resting in it," you can see why the religious state is a higher calling than the secular state without feeling somehow denigrated if you're not a religious.


Wednesday, April 14, 2004

What the lay secular contemplative life is not

Steven Riddle of Flos Carmeli has been posting on Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange's, OP, book Christian Perfection and Contemplation. Steven notes
that the contemplative life seems to come very rapidly (to the cloistered) who have the proper disposition and desire. I think this extends to the lay life, but perhaps requires more time given that one has other repsonsibilities and vocations to attend to. Persons who are married and who have children have a primary responsibility to their spouses and children. This is their primary vocation and one better "achieves perfection" through obedience to the necessity of one's calling than through all the straining at the bit with concomittant neglect of one's spouse and child. Obedience and humility seem to be virtues very highly prized by God, possibly because they foster a greater life of charity. Thus, in the married state, one sacrifices to some extent, what one would rather do (direct ascent to God) to what one is required (and in my case, at least, privileged and overjoyed) to do.
And since this touches on some things I'm thinking through these days, I'll copy over the comments I left at Flos Carmeli:

Great care must be taken, I think (and I think Steven is careful on this), to prevent any inference that marriage interferes with the contemplative life.

What makes the inference pernicious is that it in turn implies marriage is a hindrance to union with God, when in fact it is a principal and even sacramental means to union with God for all married Catholics.

It's a tricky point, since after all marriage actually does interfere with the contemplative life, but the interference isn't a conflict to be resolved, it's a choice to be made. The actual conflict is between marriage and celibacy; the two states in life afford two different levels of "contemplativity," if you will.

A desire for more contemplativity than your state in life affords is no better (and possibly worse) than a desire for less. If a husband desires direct ascent to God, let him pursue it in the watches of the night; if he climbs the mountain instead of caring for his family, he's unlikely to find God waiting for him at the top.

The kind of contemplative rhythym that is a fact of life in monasteries and closed communities is not something someone who is married should attempt to establish for himself. Rather, he should attempt to establish the kind of contemplative rhythym that is (or can be) a fact of life in families.

Married people are not mini-religious, somehow squeezing monastic observance into their lives between the demands of work and family. As a Lay Dominican, I am not part-friar. My Rule isn't that of the First Order of Preachers, with "as best you can"s and "as far as possible"s appended throughout.

I think one of the lessons of Vatican II, which we are still in the process of learning, is that there are many ways to answer the universal call to holiness. It's not that laymen are called to follow an attenuated monastic or clerical ideal, or even an attenuated monastic or clerical ideal tacked onto the obligations of family life. We are called to follow a full-bored lay ideal, an ideal we as a Church are still in the process of discerning.

It might be helpful to distinguish between "living in the presence of God," where one's heart is lifted toward God even as one goes about daily life, and "ascending to God," where the soul is more or less captivated by God Himself and any awareness of daily life dims or fades away entirely. The former satisfies the commandment to pray always, so everyone should seek it. The latter, though, while objectively more desireable than life itself, is not always and everywhere subjectively desireable, by which I mean God does not desire it for everyone at every moment.


Moved by the spirit

So first I read Fr. Keyes asking what people are doing to observe the Easter Season, and then I read Mark of Minute Particulars yammering on about something or other till he gets to the words, "Catholics for Single-Malt Scotch." God forbid I should, like Gideon, demand more than this as a sign for how I should keep Easter.

(Sticklers who don't find drinking single malt Scotch a good way to observe the Easter season, since the Scots are Presbyterians, may rest assured that I'll actually be starting out with single malt Irish whiskey, made by (we may piously assume) good Catholics.)


Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Should we all be equally lovable?

If God loves one person more than another, it can only be because the one is more lovable than the other. (Which in turn can only be because God made the one more lovable than the other, so this doesn't conflict with God's sovereignty.)

But in a perfect world, wouldn't we all be equally lovable? Isn't it just that one person responds more and better to God's grace, and so becomes more lovable? Wouldn't God love every member of an unfallen race the same? Doesn't God love all sparrows equally?

My answer to these questions is, "Not necessarily." (Okay, my answer to the sparrows question is, "I have no idea. Let me pour you a drink and we'll figure it out.")

People are different. Even perfect people are different, since they are members of the human species and images of God, and the perfections of the human species and the human images of God entail variety. As Bl. Raymond of Capua puts it in his Life of Catherine of Siena:
...the incomprehensible greatness of our God, Whose overflowing goodness can never run dry, ... pours out daily ever-varied charisms to add beauty and perfection to the souls of His saints... keep in mind that the Church herself can chant in the liturgy of each particular saint, without belittling any of the others: "His likeness has not been found." This infinite variety of individual types of sanctity flows from the infinite resources of power and benevolence possessed by the One Who sanctifies them, adorning them one by one with the special radiance of their own particular charism. [65]
One "special radiance" could, in principle, be more lovable (because its corresponding charism is of a higher order) than another, or they could be equally lovable, or, as I've suggested before, they could be simply incomparable.


"What concern is it of yours? You follow me."

Prompted by several different things, including Athanasius's recent (and unsuccessful) attempt to convince Todd and others that being a nun is better than being a wife, I've been planning on writing a post with the title, "God loves me best." The key idea of the post would be that God may well love me more than He loves you, and God may well love you more than He loves me, and if either possibility sticks in your craw you need to get over it.

Then I read a post by Rachel Watkins titled, "MOM (GOD) ALWAYS LIKED YOU BETTER...." She says a lot of sensible things about how God's love for you is not directly proportional to how easy your life is, but goes too far when she writes:
No, God loves me just as much as anyone else....
Seeing why God doesn't love everyone just as much as everyone else -- and, for that matter, understanding what it means to say, "God doesn't love everyone just as much as everyone else" -- isn't easy for egalitarian Americans, but it should be easy to set aside at least the one objection that it's non-egalitarian:
Objection. It would seem that God loves everyone just as much as everyone else, for otherwise He would love one person more than another, and that's not fair.

Reply to Objection.Trust me, chum, the last thing you want is for God to treat you fairly.
The idea that justice implies egalitarianism, or egalitarianism implies justice, doesn't stand up to scrutiny, and when I've seen it advanced it has tended to come from wounded pride rather than any theological principle.

There's a simple remedy for anyone offended by the idea that God might love someone else more than He loves them: Be holier than everyone else.


Am I an Easter people?

Easter is certainly the major liturgical event that best suits my temperament, but there are circumstances in which it doesn't suit my temperament at all to be told, "We are an Easter people." As a rule, these circumstances feature the imposition of cheeriness, which imposition someone feels is being resisted by those who don't think being an Easter people means we're always cheery.

Here I need to distinguish between cheeriness and cheerfulness. The former is a certain shared emotion -- "I'm glad you're happy"/"I'm happy you're glad." The latter is a disposition caused by the joy produced in the soul by the Holy Spirit. The former is incompatible with sorrow; the latter is not.

So if by, "We are an Easter people," someone means, "Christ is risen! And so, one day, shall we be risen!," I can only answer, "Alleluia!"

But if he means, "Christ is risen! So your sins don't matter," or, "So don't dwell on His death," or, "So stop being sad," I can only answer, "I may be an Easter people, but I also haven't quite finished my Good Friday."

There's an odd dynamic at work here. It was on Good Friday that Mary's hope in God's word was perfected, when all natural expectation that might have adulterated it was extinguished. Yet it is Easter which perfects our own hope, as a promise of our own resurrection. But our own resurrection is only promised to be desireable if we take up our crosses and follow Christ. Jesus' resurrection gives us the hope by which we embrace our own crucifixion. If we are an Easter people, we must also be a Good Friday people; that's what being an Easter people means.


Alleluia is our song

St. Augustine, I am told, said, "We are an Easter people, and 'Alleluia' is our song."

I suspect that, like a lot of other things St. Augustine said, St. Augustine didn't say that. Still, you can sort of cobble the sentiment together from things he did say, like this:
On account of these two seasons, one which now is in the temptations and tribulations of this life, the other which is to be hereafter in everlasting rest and exultation; we have established also the celebration of two seasons, that before Easter and that after Easter. That which is before Easter signifies tribulation, in which we now are; that which we are now keeping after Easter, signifies the bliss in which we shall hereafter be. The celebration then which we keep before Easter is what we do now; by that which we keep after Easter we signify what as yet we don't have. Therefore we employ that time in fastings and prayer; this present time we spend in praises, and relax our fast. This is the Alleluia which we sing, which, as you know, means "Praise the Lord." [Commentary on Psalm 148]
He adds some very sensible advice for those who dare sing "Alleluia" this Easter season:
Whenever you sing "Alleluia," give your bread to the hungry, clothe the naked, take in the stranger. Then not only does your voice sound, but your hand sounds in harmony with it, for your deeds agree with your words. [Commentary on Psalm 149]


Monday, April 12, 2004

The Gospel According to You

In his Easter sermon yesterday, my pastor preached along these lines: "Everyone here could take pen in hand and write their own Gospel account of dying and being brought back to life." And I think that's true, even literally true in a way that most generalizations aren't.

Of course, it's also not literally true, since there were babies in the church who couldn't hold a pen, and, more significantly, there may well have been grown-ups there who could hold a pen but who have no knowledge of the deaths and resurrections they have experienced in their lives.

Still, what is literally true is this: we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death, and just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too live in newness of life.

Now, maybe most of us don't live in newness of life in a way that causes constant wonder in ourselves and others, but that doesn't change what happened when we were baptized. That we aren't usually, or even ever, aware of Christ living in us doesn't mean He isn't, however feebly due to our preoccupations and sins.

We need to keep in mind that, though a Gospel account could be written by (or at least for) each of us, in every case it's the same Gospel. Some people object to language like "the Gospel of Mark" or "John's Gospel," because it's actually the Gospel of Jesus Christ according to Mark or John -- or you or me. They do have a point, although I don't object to the language myself, since in such cases the word "Gospel" refers to a literary work rather than "the Gospel."

What makes ours all the same Gospel is that they are all retellings of the same death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God and Son of Mary. "My" Gospel is the story of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection told from my perspective, or refracted through my own life. But if "my" Gospel isn't really Jesus' story, then it isn't really the Gospel.

It seems to me, then, that though we may all be able to write our own Gospel accounts, we aren't always the best commentators on our own accounts. I am not necessarily adept at drawing the meaning of Jesus' act death and resurrection out of the ways I've participated in it, even though I necessarily benefit from His act. For that matter, my Gospel account, such as it might be, is not necessarily intended, primarily or at all, for my own use. My account might just be a record of events, maybe just a quick story I tell someone in a parking lot, which God will inspire someone else to understand more fully than I ever will in this life.

This, I think, is one of the reasons the Church Militant is a community and not just a union of individuals. We exchange the Good News with each other, in ways intended and otherwise, showing each other over and over that the Word of God, spoken once and for all in Galilee and Judea two thousand years ago, is still sounding through the world. And the bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, that historical fact of the first Easter morning, is being repeated in countless marked and unmarked ways in the lives of all who believe in Him.


Saturday, April 10, 2004

So much for Lent

Now comes the real test: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving even when it's not Lent. (Though hold off on the fasting for a week or so. We have reason to celebrate, even if we weren't outstanding penitents over the past six and a half weeks.)


Thursday, April 08, 2004

The Paschal Triduum: Holy Thursday

I am remiss in not having yet read the 2001 document from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy. But, since I've always thought a facility for quotation covers the absence of original thought, let me quote from the document's section on Holy Thursday:
Visiting the Altar of Repose

141. Popular piety is particularly sensitive to the adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament in the wake of the Mass of the Lord's supper. Because of a long historical process, whose origins are not entirely clear, the place of repose has traditionally been referred to as a "a holy sepulchre". The faithful go there to venerate Jesus who was placed in a tomb following the crucifixion and in which he remained for some forty hours.

It is necessary to instruct the faithful on the meaning of the reposition: it is an austere solemn conservation of the Body of Christ for the community of the faithful which takes part in the liturgy of Good Friday and for the viaticum of the infirmed. It is an invitation to silent and prolonged adoration of the wondrous sacrament instituted by Jesus on this day.

In reference to the altar of repose, therefore, the term "sepulchre" should be avoided, and its decoration should not have any suggestion of a tomb. The tabernacle on this altar should not be in the form of a tomb or funerary urn. The Blessed Sacrament should be conserved in a closed tabernacle and should not be exposed in a monstrance.

After midnight on Holy Thursday, the adoration should conclude without solemnity, since the day of the Lord's Passion has already begun.
What I give in the post below, then, in terms of when which day begins, the CDWDS takes back here. So it goes.


Holy Thursday is Good Friday

When did today start? There are a lot of answers to that question.

Officially, of course, a day starts at midnight local time, with local time being determined by some official clock. That's useful when we're dealing with things related to the officialdom that decides such things: in legal matters, for example, or business transactions. For scientific and technological purposes, it's helpful to have a single global time, and a single moment at which the scientific "today" starts.

Informally, when people speak of "starting your day," they usually have in mind the morning: when they wake up, or have breakfast, or finish their second cup of coffee. Sometimes we use "day" as opposed to "night," with today beginning at sunrise.

In the Church's liturgical calendar, the start of a day usually isn't fixed. The day's Office of Readings can be said any time after the previous day's Night Prayer is said, even immediately after, and Night Prayer is said before going to sleep, whenever that might be.

The Jewish calendar, of course, reckons days to begin in the evening, which is partially reflected by the Church's Sundays and solemnities, which also begin the evening before the daylight period. They are, though, "super-days," longer than twenty-four hours, lasting past the second evening until Night Prayer is prayed a second time.

The one time during the year when the Catholic Church fully observes the Jewish custom is the Paschal Triduum, which lasts from the Mass of the Lord's Supper on Holy Thursday to Vespers on Easter Sunday.

I think Christians would benefit by a deeper appreciation of the Jewish reckoning of days. Even among Catholics, we speak of Jesus instituting the Eucharist on "the night before He died," which to my mind at least suggests a separation between the Last Supper (which should probably be called the First Supper) and the Crucifixion. But to Jesus, the Apostles, and the first generation or two of Christians (at least), the two events would naturally be seen as having happened on the same day. It is a day that begins with Jesus telling His disciples He has longed to celebrate that paschal feast with them and ends with the women watching where Joseph of Arimathea has Jesus' body placed.

Separating the Last Supper from the Crucifixion by thinking of them as happening on different days is unfortunate. It's not how Jesus and the others involved thought of them. It enables some Christians to focus on the Eucharist at the expense of the Crucifixion; it allows others to focus on the Crucifixion at the expense of the Eucharist. But they happened on the same day; they are, in reality, the same act.


Tuesday, April 06, 2004

Stigmata are for everyone

The Church allows the possibility that some few persons are so tightly bound to the suffering Christ that the very marks of His crucifixion appear on their hands and feet, and sometimes side and head as well.

Why, though, did Christ Himself receive the stigmata, and why does He continue to bear them?

Isaiah foretold, "But he was pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins. Upon him was the chastisement that makes us whole, by his stripes we were healed.... And he shall take away the sins of many, and win pardon for their offenses."

The Letter to the Hebrews teaches, "Son though He was, He learned obedience from what He suffered; and when He was made perfect, He became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey Him, declared by God High Priest according to the order of Melchizedek."

Jesus was crucified to take away our sins, and in so doing His humanity was made perfect, making possible not merely human beatitude in Paradise, but human adoption into the Divine Life.

In Matthew's Gospel, Jesus tells His disciples, "Whoever wishes to come after Me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me." This comes immediately after He rebukes Peter as Satan, for thinking not as God does but as men do.

What is the Christian's cross? It varies from place to place, and from Christian to Christian, but a cross is promised to each of us. This means a crucifixion is promised to each of us, and there is no such thing as a crucifixion that leaves no marks.

We should all, then, bear the stigmata of Christ. They may not take the form of bloodied palms or wounds in the side, but they will be none the less real for that. They may even be physically visible: lines on the face from praying for one's children; callused hands from helping needy neighbors with outdoor chores; a tired smile from enduring the workaday humiliations of thoughtless co-workers. They may be hidden: reddened eyes from tears shed before God in private; sore knees from kneeling in prayer; cruel and cutting words left unspoken and forgotten.

We are the union of body and spirit, each reflecting the other, so even our spiritual marks of discipleship will have some physical effects. As Jesus' own wounds have been glorified in His body, eternal marks of His pefect humanity, so might our stigmata, through which we are being perfected as His disciples, be glorified forever. In a sense, they may be the brandings by which the Son of Man separates the sheep from the goats.


Friday, April 02, 2004

What do you mean, "We"?

Steven Riddle has been blogging a series of reflections on St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross's The Science of the Cross. In one post, he writes, "We must come to terms with our desires, slay them and remain faithful and true servants of Our Lord. Only in this is the path up Mt. Carmel and the presence of heaven on Earth.... But such is our goal...."

To which I reply, maybe such is our goal, and maybe such isn't. I would say my own goal is not the presence of heaven on Earth but the presence of me in heaven. And not just me, but you too.

I think this is another example of a persistent difference (though not an opposition) between Steven and me. Crudely put, I keep getting the sense he thinks everyone should be Carmelite -- in spirituality, that is, not in canonical status.

Now of course, Steven himself is Carmelite, in both spirituality and status. He can and should write from that perspective. Still, a lot of "only in this way"s and "such is our goal"s show up in his commentary, and they tend to be unconditional and unqualified.

I, certainly, cannot argue against St. John of the Cross that there is no other path up Mt. Carmel. But I am not at all convinced there is no other mount at the top of which God may be encountered.

To put it more graciously, I don't think God intends us all to be Carmelite, to follow the way of nada up Mt. Carmel, before our deaths. In dying, we have little choice but to abandon everything; not all of us, though, are called to abandon everything in living. The contemplative life may be a higher state than the active life, just as the celibate state is higher than the married, but as with marriage and giving in marriage, not all of us are called to perfection in contemplation in this life.

Just to keep things complicated: Note I wrote that we aren't all called to perfection in contemplation. I do believe we are all called to some level of contemplation, because contemplation is for everyone.


A book of numbers

Camassia points out that Mark 8:18-21 emphasizes certain numbers:
"Do you have eyes and not see, ears and not hear? And do you not remember, when I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many wicker baskets full of fragments you picked up?"
They answered Him, "Twelve."
"When I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many full baskets of fragments did you pick up?"
They answered Him, "Seven."
He said to them, "Do you still not understand?"
Camassia reminds me of an important principle for understanding Scripture: numbers mean something.

What they mean, exactly, I may not understand, but they meant something to the people who wrote them, and they are supposed to mean something to the people who read them.

The Father of the Church offer their own interpretations of these numbers. Of the first miracle:
  • "By the five loaves are figured the Five Books of Moses, by the two fishes, the Psalms and Prophets."
  • "Or the two fishes are the discourses of fishermen, that is, their Epistles and Gospel."
  • Or "by the five thousand men are meant those who, living in the world, know how to make a good use of external things."
  • Or "by the twelve baskets, the Apostles and the following Doctors are typified, externally indeed despised by men, but inwardly full of healthful food. For all know that carrying baskets is a part of the work of slaves."
  • "Or, in the gathering of the twelve baskets full of fragments, is signified the time, when they shall sit on thrones, judging all who are left of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the twelve tribes of Israel, when the remnant of Israel shall be saved."
Of the second miracle:
  • "the seven loaves are spiritual discourses, for seven is the number, which points out the Holy Ghost, who perfects all things."
  • Or "the seven loaves are the gifts of the Holy Spirit, the fragments of the loaves are the mystical understanding of the first week."
  • Or, the seven baskets of leftovers represent "the higher precepts of perfection, to which the multitude cannot attain...; nevertheless, the multitude is said to have been satisfied, because though they cannot leave all that they possess, nor come up to that which is spoken of virgins, yet by listening to the commands of the law of God, they attain to everlasting life."
  • Or "the seven baskets are the seven Churches. By the four thousand is meant the year of the new dispensation, with its four seasons."
  • "Or there are four thousand, that is, men perfect in the four virtues; and for this reason, as being more advanced, they ate more, and left fewer fragments. For in this miracle, seven baskets full remain, but in the miracle of the five loaves, twelve, for there were five thousand men, which means men enslaved to the five senses, and for this reason they could not eat, but were satisfied with little, and many remains of the fragments were over and above."
Take your pick, or pick 'em all, or pick something else, but don't think the numbers are just facts.


Thursday, April 01, 2004

Seven into five

Just as two friends, frequently in each other's company, tend to develop similar habits, so too, by holding familiar converse with Jesus and the Blessed Virgin, by meditating on the mysteries of the Rosary and by living the same life in Holy Communion, we can become, to the extent of our lowliness, similar to them and can learn from these supreme models a life of humility, poverty, hiddenness, patience and perfection. -- Bl. Bartolo Longo, quoted in Rosarium Virginis Mariae
In a Lenten reflection last week, Fr. James Sullivan, OP, suggested a relationship between the five Luminous Mysteries, the Seven Sacraments, and the five virtues Bl. Bartolo claimed can be learned with the help of the Rosary. (Assume an "according to Fr. Sullivan" throughout the following.)

The first luminous mystery is the Baptism of the Lord, which obviously corresponds to the sacrament of Baptism. They both teach us something of humility: our Lord's baptism, because the Eternal God had become man, and was even prepared to accept baptism at the hands of a man unfit to loosen His sandal, for it was fitting to fulfill all righteousness; our own baptism, because it is an acknowledgement that we are utterly powerless to save ourselves. (Those of us who were baptized as infants must also allow the humbling fact that not even on the natural level did we choose baptism for ourselves.)

The Miracle at Cana calls to mind the sacrament of Matrimony. That particular marriage began with a great gift from God, a gift given secretly to cover the poverty of the newlyweds. All who are married are poor, dependent on God for the graces for their marriages to thrive and be a means of their salvation. Not all recognize this poverty, though, nor are rightly thankful to God for what He has done for them without their knowing.

The third luminous mystery is the Proclamation of the Kingdom. What the Pope adds in his letter proposing the luminous mysteries to the Church, which most descriptions of the new mysteries don't mention, is that Jesus' proclamation comes "with His call to conversion." [RVM 21] A call to conversion suggests the sacrament of Reconciliation, which in turn suggests hiddenness. We hear news of the Kingdom, and we ask ourselves whether it is to us a pearl of great price, and if so whether we are really willing to sell all we have to obtain it. We search the hidden recesses of our hearts to find what we will not yet part with, then go into a room, hidden from view, to confess our sins, and there, in the one sacrament protected by a seal of silence, we pronounce our intention of conversion and receive forgiveness for our sins.

Conversion may also suggest the Anointing of the Sick, where all else is set aside in the sick one's appeal to God for the grace of strenth, peace, and courage, to unite him more closely with the suffering of Christ and the fulfillment of the covenant Christ ratified by His suffering. The Catechism teaches that in receiving this sacrament a sick person "contributes to the sanctification of the Church and to the good of all men for whom the Church suffers." In doing so, he has accepted Christ's invitation to enter into His Father's Kingdom, taken up his cross, and begun to follow Christ.

What do the Transfiguration, Confirmation, and patience have in common? Confirmation completes Baptism, and if in Jesus' Baptism the Father announced His Son to the world, so in the Transfiguration He confirmed Jesus' Sonship, and showed to Peter, James, and John that Jesus completes the Law and the Prophets. St. Peter, as ever in the Gospels, fails his test of patience, wanting Jesus' fulfillment in time to be done with immediately -- and, by extension, his own journey to beatitude. The West has the custom of delaying confirmation, sometimes for years, after baptism; this in itself calls for patience (though I've never noticed impatience for the sacrament to be much of a problem for those children more than a year younger than the prescribed age).

The Institution of the Eucharist was, of course, the first celebration of the Sacrament of the Eucharist; its relevance to Holy Orders, and the centrality of offering the Eucharist in the lives of priests, are also evident. The Eucharist is the means to our own perfection in the image and likeness of the Son through Whose sacrifice we become sons and daughters of the Eternal Father. Christ Himself, in His humanity, was made perfect through the suffering signified in the Eucharist, and by participating in this sacrament we gain the graces we need to follow Him.



Laetare Thursday

Bill White's strict Lenten regime has obviously uncluttered his mind, as he has "been researching bourbon the last day or two." The result of his research: "I'll start with Maker's Mark."

The question, "Which bourbon?" is like the question, "Which Bible translation?" Both have the same answer: "The one you find in your hand."

Bourbon, like all work of human hands, can be good or bad, which is to say well-made or ill-made, which is to say artistic or not. And like all the arts, the art of bourbon produces works that are only partially ordered by "goodness" (in the artistic, not moral, sense). By that I mean, given two bourbons, it's not necessarily true that one is "better" than the other. On the other hand, though it's only partial there is an ordering, so one particular bourbon genuinely can be better than another particular bourbon.

My claim is that all the arts are partially ordered by "artistic goodness," which is one reason those "100 Greatest" lists always generate so much discussion. Such lists are an attempt to force a partial ordering to be a full ordering, which results in claims as defensible as, "Green is better than burlap."

I will even go so far as to claim that mankind, considered as a set of individual creations the artistry of God, is only partially ordered by artistic goodness. This may be heresy; it is certainly a break with the tradition of an at-least implicit full ordering in the goodness of people, with of course Mary at the top of the order and everyone else lining up single-file behind her.

But it's also a break with the current mode of thought whereby we're all equally loved by God, me for being me and you for being you. What God loves is goodness, which is to say Himself, but love is by its nature fecund, so God has created Creation, which reflects His goodness and gives Him more to love. (Well, not more, strictly speaking, since the goodness of creation is really a participation in the goodness of God; really, creation gives God creatures to love. It's like (but not very like) adding crystals to the inside of a spherical mirror to give new ways the light inside can be reflected upon itself.)

So if humans really are partially ordered by artistic goodness, then there are two humans of whom it can be said one is better made by God than the other, and therefore the one is better loved by God than the other.

I don't think American Catholics on the whole are comfortable with saying such things these days, or at least not with allowing the possibility that there might be two more or less average adults of whom God loves one more than the other. But I don't think it makes sense to say instead that we're all equal; then you run into the problem Rob brought up on Camassia's blog: "[I]f you and I are both fully redeemed and 'perfect', in what way can we differ from each other?"

Parents necessarily adopt the habit of saying, "I love all my children equally," but I think we really mean, "I don't love any one child more than any other." God, though, can and (I say) does love some of His children more than others, because some of His children are better likenesses of His Only Begotten Son.

At the same time, though, I think some of God's children are neither better, nor worse, nor equal likenesses of His Only Begotten Son. I may be wrong, obviously; the goodness of humans may be fully ordered, so that quality of singing voice and perceptivity and all other human perfections are somehow commensurate, and they can be added up, as it were, to produce a univocal "goodness rating." I suspect, though, that between the painter and the poet there is not a ranking, nor even an equivalence, but merely the perfections of both.

From which the same would follow regarding the painting and the poem. And, for that matter, between the bourbon and the scotch.


Wednesday, March 31, 2004

"I have come not to abolish the law"

Camassia looks at Mark 7:
This is a very vexing chapter, if you're trying to figure the relationship between Jesus and the God of the Old Testament. It defies both those who make the one to be a seamless fulfillment of the other, and those who try to completely separate them.

In the first story some Pharisees criticize Jesus and his followers for eating without ritually washing first....

The weird thing about this is that Jesus quotes Mosaic law to undermine Mosaic law. "Honor thy father and mother" is credited as the Word of God, but the food taboos of Leviticus are treated as mere human tradition. But in the Old Testament as we have it, at least, all that law appears as a lump, delivered by God from Mt. Sinai. Jesus seems to be implying, though he does not actually say so, that the true Word ends at the end of Exodus.
Revelation is a process. Since it's revelation to time-bound creatures like us, it has to be a time-spanning process if it's to be congruent with our nature.

Jesus is the fulfillment of the Mosaic Law (and in fact of all Revelation, being the one Word God speaks to mankind). As such, He teaches the fulfillment of each precept of the Law, including "Honor your father and mother" as well as "The rabbit and the pig are ceremonially unclean for you."

Note that the Pharisees had their own fulfillment of these two precepts: "Honor your father and mother unless you can get around it." "The rabbit and the pig are ceremonially unclean for you so wash your hands before every meal and you will be clean before God."

Jesus, of course, fulfilled them differently.

But in saying, "Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person," was Jesus treating "the food taboos of Leviticus ... as mere human tradition"?

I don't think so. First, we need to distinguish between the food taboos of Leviticus and the mere human traditions that grew out of these taboos (the so-called fence around the Torah). It was the human traditions Jesus was particularly speaking against.

Still, it's true that Christianity does not regard the food taboos of Leviticus as binding. How can what is in effect the abrogation of a law be its fulfillment?

Some laws are what might be called "useful laws." The law in the U.S. is to drive on the right side of the road, not because driving on the right side of the road is in itself good for us, but because it makes driving safer. It is a useful law.

Similarly, the food taboos given in Leviticus 11 are given, not because eating rabbits and pigs was necessarily bad for Israelites, but because eating them made the Israelites ceremonially impure -- that is, unable to participate in the ceremonies required of them by the Law.

Again, though, Jesus is the fulfillment of the entire Law, includng the ceremonial precepts. In His fulfillment of the ceremonial precepts, Jesus tells us no one is too unclean to approach Him -- or rather, that what makes a man ceremonially unclean with respect to Jesus is what comes from his heart, not what enters him.

The food taboos, then, are the means to ceremonial purity, and just as the notion of ceremonial purity is perfected by Jesus, so are the means.


Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Devotedly yours

Though I've written about, and on the whole against, personality cults in the Church before, it's not an entirely cut-and-dried matter. After all, I warmly encourage devotions to saints, and devotion to a saint literally is a cult, and may well include devotion to the saint's personality as well. (For that matter, there are countless people on-line who seem to have a devotion to St. Jerome's personality, without any evident devotion to his sanctity.)

Still, the very word "devotion" suggests there are those who aren't devoted. Anyone who has ever known a friend to fall in love with a doubtful prospect knows the sudden lurch into incompatible frames of reference when the subject of the object of devotion comes up. To quote one of my own objects of devotion:
'I say, Bertie,' he said, after a pause of about an hour and a quarter.
'Do you like the name Mabel?'
'You don't think there's a kind of music in the word, like the wind rustling gently through the tree-tops?'
He seemed disappointed for a moment; then cheered up.
'Of course, you wouldn't. You always were a fatheaded worm without any soul, weren't you?'
'Just as you say. Who is she? Tell me all.'
And if Bertie Wooster knows enough to take being called a fatheaded worm without any soul without a flutter, you should be prepared to forgive me my devotion, and I your lack of same, should I corner you in the vestibule with talk of novenas to St. Soter for successful fundraising drives.


An on-going dispute

As might be expected, Fr. Kevin O'Rourke, OP, has something to say in response to statements made at the recent Life-Sustaining Treatments and the Vegetative State congress in Rome to the effect that artificial hydration and nutrition [AHN] for permanent vegetative state [PVS] patients is "simply care," and therefore cannot be discontinued. Fr. O'Rourke considers AHN to be unduly burdensome medical treatment offering no therapeutic hope to PVS patients, and therefore discontinuable.

A statement Fr. O'Rourke is circulating among U.S. Catholic healthcare ethicists asserts, "The tradition of Catholic theologians in regard to removing life support has been confirmed by Pope Pius XII (1957), the Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith (1980) and Pope John Paul II (1995)," assuring "us that life support may be withdrawn if it does not offer hope of benefit or imposes an excessive burden. The decision concerning hope of benefit is to be made by the patient or the patient's proxy. A representative of the church may offer guidance, but should not preempt the right of patient or proxy."

This is not a simple ethical problem -- witness the need for a congress to discuss it -- and, to my mind, even figuring out how to solve it is not straightforward. Who gets to decide these things? "Hope of benefit" is a medical judgment, except for the part that's a moral judgment. "Undue burden" is a personal judgment, made in this case on behalf of a person who isn't giving his own current judgment, except for the part that's a moral imperative. Things change, and what was extraordinary yesterday is ordinary today; what is a medical treatment today might be considered basic care tomorrow. Medical ethicists see themselves as in the right spot for setting down principles, knowledgeable about both medicine and morality, but to what extent is hospital experience a help in judgment, and how much is it a hindrance? (Do medical ethicists even recognize the risks of familiarity to judgment? Do the rest of us even recognize the possibility of benefit from familiarity?)

(I also wonder about how much weight should be given to the fact that Fr. O'Rourke's position is one "that would be accepted by a significant majority of U.S. Catholic ethicists," or even by statements by American bishops, since I suspect that a significant majority of U.S. Catholic ethicists, and th bishops who rely upon them, have been trained, directly or indirectly, by Fr. O'Rourke.)

I haven't read enough about the recent congress or the American response to change my previous opinion that Fr. O'Rourke's position begs some essential questions, starting with, "Is a patient diagnosed as being in a permanent vegetative state actually in a vegetative state permanently?" But I do think he is right to take issue with mischaracterizations of his position as entailing that a PVS patient "ceases to be a person." If the matter really is as clear as some at the congress seem to have said it is, it should be explicable without invoking straw-man counterarguments or demeaning those not yet convinced.


3 Principles That Can Guide Bloggers

ROME, MARCH 28, 2004 ( Every blogger should strive to seek the truth, enhance the dignity of the individual, and work for the common good, says a Vatican official.

Sort of.

What Archbishop John Foley, president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, actually said was:
All forms of social communication evidence three basic principles: the priority of truth -- we are never justified in recounting lies; the dignity of the individual -- our communication should enhance and not diminish our innate human dignity; the common good -- our communication should contribute to the good of the community and not harm it morally or in any other way.

These three should be the dominant principles in our life: the truth, the dignity of the individual, and the common good. If all communicators were always guided by these three principles, our world would be a happier place.


Monday, March 29, 2004

The politics of hindsight

In casting about for better candidates than the electoral process is giving us these days, some caution may be called for:


On Fairy Stories

Nârwen provides a link to J.R.R. Tolkien's essay, "On Fairy Stories." I recommend it to anyone who cares about fairy stories, or stories, or human nature (since they're all related). (Anyone who cares about Tolkien will [have] read it without my recommendation.)

Among Tolkien's insights is the hint of enduring human wisdom, not always explicitly recognized, in the "arbitrary prohibitions" of fairy tales: that some things are simply forbidden us (though he doesn't address the question of Who does the forbidding).
Even where a prohibition in a fairy-story is guessed to be derived from some taboo once practised long ago, it has probably been preserved in the later stages of the tale's history because of the great mythical significance of prohibition. A sense of that significance may indeed have lain behind some of the taboos themselves. Thou shalt not—or else thou shall depart beggared into endless regret. The gentlest "nursery-tales" know it. Even Peter Rabbit was forbidden a garden, lost his blue coat, and took sick. The Locked Door stands as an eternal Temptation.


Friday, March 26, 2004

A word on politics

I saw a car today with four or five political bumper stickers, none of which was for a candidate I'd want to be associated with.

Then I wondered which politician I would want to be associated with.

I did come up with one, and even designed a bumper sticker for him:

Too bad he's ineligible for political office.

Update: While we're at it, and since Athanasius's suggestion of Aragorn would require a design far beyond my abilities, how about this:


When the end is getting people to do what you want them to do
"'While it is true that I neither fear God nor respect any human being, because this widow keeps bothering me I shall deliver a just decision for her lest she finally come and strike me.'"
So speaks the unjust judge in the parable. But so does not speak everyone on the receiving end of mail campaigns conducted by indignant Catholics.

How can this be?

My theory is that most people on the receiving end of mail campaigns conducted by indignant Catholics are, not chancery rats or weaklings who yield before all stronger forces or even unjust judges who neither fear God nor respect any human being, but people.

If the end you seek is getting people to do what you want them to do, you're in the happy situation of having a choice of means. With machines, you don't have a choice: you have to use force to get them to do what you want them to do. But with people, you can use force, or you can use persuasion. (While with cats and teenagers, to complete the possible cases, there are no effective means.)

To use force as the means to get people to do what you want them to do, however, you need leverage of some sort. Note, though, that you aren't simply applying a force to the people, you are applying a directed force. The ability to swamp someone's mailroom with letters is not necessarily leverage, since it doesn't necessarily direct them to agree to do what you want them to do.

To use persuasion as the means to get people to do what you want them to do requires, I'm afraid, that bugaboo of Internet forums, an ad hominem argument. If you are genuinely acting for the end of getting people to do what you want them to do (instead of, say, feeling good about your righteousness), then you have to give them an argument they will find persuasive. You aren't (we assume) trying to persuade yourself they should do something, or to persuade some neutral party or the court of public opinion.

How do you know what arguments people will find persuasive? Well, it certainly helps if you know the people you're trying to persuade. If you don't know the people you're trying to persuade, I suppose you have a choice: you can guess what might persuade them, or you can decide you're unlikely to guess correctly.

If you want to guess, you might first guess what sort of people they are. Are they just like you? Are they just like all the other drooling idiots who drive you nuts? Are they easily categorized?

If you decide you're unlikely to guess correctly, what do you do? You might run through a risk management exercise: If I go with the most plausibly persuasive argument, what are the chances I'll make things worse, and how much worse would I make them? And you just might conclude trying to persuade someone you don't know using an argument they aren't likely to find persuasive is, in this instance, an ill-considered disproportionate means to the end of getting them to do what you want them to do.


The patience of a saint

In a great post that opens with a Fra Angelico Annunciation, Fr. Shane Tharp writes of "the true threads of what is beginning" with the Annunciation, including:
He still waits to be born. Baptism makes us mothers of the Word, one of the early Church Fathers observed.... The Holy Eucharist rests upon our innards, weighty as an embryonic child, but waiting, waiting to spring up to life and to be manifested. Yes, we too are made pregnant bearers of the Word, our bellies swollen with his Heart's Blood. But why have we not given birth? Is it because we are not enough like the woman of the Annunciation? We have not given birth because we have not emptied enough of ourselves. We have not given birth because we love not the will of the Father before all things. We have not given birth because we selfishly clutch at the goodness of Christ poured out to us as though it were only for us. It is for all to be distributed by us.
True, and more: Mary did not give birth while Gabriel stood before her. It took months for her to prepare (or rather, for God to prepare within her) Jesus to be born.

Might one way in which we are unlike the woman of the Annunciation be our impatience? Filled with zeal, touched by God with some special consolation, we are ready to evangelize the world NOW! Yet, for whatever reason, the world is not evangelized NOW, and soon our zeal for the kingdom fades as worries over that new knocking sound in the car engine increase. Then comes the reflection: "Guess I wasn't really supposed to evangelize the world after all."

We can't give what we don't have. We can't give a viable Christ to the world until He is viable within us, and that takes some time. Time to nurture the Word, to ponder in our hearts, to contemplate the face of Jesus. What God gave Mary was not the promise she would conceive and bear a son. A promise, once given, is ready to be shared with whoever needs to know of it. What God gave Mary was her Son Himself, and He wasn't ready to be shared with the wider world until He was fully formed in her womb.


The Angelico Code

So which Annunciation painting did your favorite bloggers post yesterday?

I have to say, I became instantly fond of the one Karen Marie Knapp posted. As Peony Moss comments, "although the painter depicts Mary in modern dress, he still uses the artistic traditions of depicting the Annunciation -- the traditional depiction of Gabriel, the lilies, the columns, the house, the blue dress, the book -- so it looks like he's really thinking about the Annunciation and not just going for a cheap gimmick."

The one thing I'd add is that there's an extra degree of anachronism in the painting, in that such a girl in the culture depicted would not be prepared for marriage, as girls Mary's age were in Mary's culture. That said, no one in any culture is ever prepared for the news Gabriel had for Mary, so we might take the anachronism as a symbol of the greater shock.

Peony herself, meanwhile, posted an, um, different painting, while admitting the one she wanted was yet a third, which Eric Johnson managed to find on-line.

Then there are the bloggers of rarefied taste who turned to Fra Angelico, including Father Tharp, Gerard, and Father Johansen, to list them in order of my increasing preference for the versions posted. (Though I think the image of that last painting I swiped from somewhere has better coloring than Fr. Johansen's. Either way, it was upon looking at this painting that the though first occurred of taking Beato Angelico as my patron in the Order.)


Thursday, March 25, 2004

Happy Annunciation Day!

I was thinking this morning that it would be nice if the Annunciation were a Really Big Deal in the Church, up there with Christmas and Easter. For one thing, it would be good theology, since the Annunciation is held to be the actual moment (or at least close to it) in which God became man. For another thing, it would be good apologetics, a way of showing that Catholics really do believe that something precious comes to be at conception.

But I don't have much say on the liturgical calendar, which has had an organic growth from the earliest days of worshipping at sunrise on Sunday after observing the Sabbath the day before. Christmas has been the Feast of the Incarnation as long as there's been a need for such a feast, and so it shall remain.

It occurs to me, too, that observing the Annunciation as a Solemnity without obligation to attend Mass is in keeping with the character of the event it commemorates. It was a private moment, an intimate exchange between heaven and a single human heart, that only gradually is made known to others. The Nativity is the time when this private event literally bears public fruit, when the angels sing to men and men to each other. But today we call to mind those first delicate moments, when God is made man yet not man fully made, and with the patience and humility of every mother Mary begins the months-long process of letting her child be formed within her.

There's a nice reflection on-line on what the Feast of the Annunciation means to a convent of cloistered Dominican nuns, and to us all:
The Eternal Father invited Mary to make a home for God in her body. Without a doubt she had already made a home for Him in her soul. Today on this great feast you and I are once again invited to make a home for God in the deepest center of our being. Our Yes to the Lord's invitation is not to an idea or a project but to the three-Personed God of Love....

The feast of the Annunciation reminds us that only when our surrender to God becomes receptivity patterned on Our Lady's Yes can our hearts truly become a home for the Word of God to dwell in. This feast is appropriately celebrated during Lent because without fail such surrender will inevitably lead to the Cross, in whatever form Christ wishes for us. Often for us it is little things: weakness in our personalities that we can't seem to overcome; physical sickness or limitations; anxieties over those we love or the long days of darkness in prayer. Jesus, who loves each of us as His spouse, wants us to give Him even these things. Our "grandfather" Saint Augustine exhorts us to this total self-giving so that we will be one with Him on the Cross: "Let Him be placed in complete possession of your heart, who for you was placed upon the Cross."
[Our "grandfather" Saint Augustine: Dominican friars and nuns observe (after a fashion) the Rule of St. Augustine, who is therefore regarded as something of a "pre-founder" or "grandfather," with St. Dominic of course the founder and father.]


The best thing about blogging...

... is when someone else does it for you.

On the subject of The DaVinci Code in particular and "female rituals of sacred worship" in general, Kathy the Carmelite has done the sowing (and the plowing, and the mucking about with quite a bit of fertilizer) that we may do the reaping.


The Angel of the Lord declared unto Mary

Be very careful about approaching Mary, even (especially?) out of simple curiosity. She's very likely to take your hand, look you in the eye, and say, "Do whatever He tells you," and you'll be very likely to say, "Yes, Mother," without even thinking about it, and then you'll be stuck, a disciple of the Lord, and the Lord's discipleships very rarely constitute nothing but drinking the best wine.
Ever Virgin, ever fruitful,
On that day in Nazareth,
Waiting for your humble fiat,
All of heaven held its breath.

Ever Virgin, ever fruitful,
On the day when you gave birth,
All of heaven's angels gloried:
God Himself made man on earth.

You who once brought God to sinners
Labor still, your work undone.
Ever Virgin, ever fruitful,
Ever bring men to your Son.


Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Mary in the Gospels, iv

Still, even if we resolve the "Mary of Scripture" and the "Mary of Tradition," so to speak, there remains a certain unmet and half-expressed expectation that, somehow, Mary should be different, that, if she doesn't actually glow in the dark, there should be a faint shimmer about her as she moves through the streets of Nazareth. How do we resolve this tension, this apparent ordinariness where we expect something almost magical?

It seems to me it wasn't necessary for Mary to entirely get what was going on in Jesus' life (and here I'm straying from the Catholic tradition of arguing for the fitness-nigh-unto-necessity of Mary being practically perfect in every way). Also, her not entirely getting it signifies a bunch of things to the rest of us; e.g., we can't count on entirely getting it, either, and we should always be prepared for God to surprise us, and even where to look for Jesus when we find we've lost Him.

So given a) that it wasn't necessary for Mary to have complete understanding of Jesus' mission, and b) that her incomplete understanding would teach us more about ourselves than her complete understanding would, the tension implied in a Mother of God who does not completely understand her Son seems worth it.

Mary's great (even defining) act of faith was her answer to Gabriel, at a moment when she was not yet a virgin pregnant with a child who would be called Son of the Most High, and of Whose kingdom there will be no end.

Remember, faith is "a participation in another's knowledge," not credence in one's own senses. So while the fact that she did bear a son while a virgin gave good reason to trust the further promise of the angel, that of Jesus' kingdom there will be no end was still an object of faith for Mary throughout her life, since she had no direct knowledge of eternity.

And yet, the half-expressed expectation of someone midway between human and divine can still nag at us.

Let me suggest a reason for this expectation, without implying anyone who might have this expectation does so for this reason: Maybe some of us, maybe myself included, half-think that if Gabriel appeared to us and we gave birth to the Son of God, then we would glow in the dark. Maybe we figure that a contact like that with God would raise us into a higher order of being, somewhere between man and God.

And maybe, if we half-believe this even as we know it's not true, maybe we half-believe that the fact Gabriel hasn't appeared to us explains why we don't glow in the dark. More seriously, maybe there's a half-belief that God hasn't done enough for anyone to seriously expect us to have Christ living in us. Maybe there's a half-belief that God better get cracking with the fancy stuff if He really wants us to be, you know, saints.


Mary in the Gospels, iii

Veneration of Mary does come up as a topic in Luke, though not in a way that makes it immediately plain why there are statues of Mary in most Catholic churches:
While [Jesus] was speaking, a woman from the crowd called out and said to him, "Blessed is the womb that carried you and the breasts at which you nursed."

He replied, "Rather, blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it."
Is this a rebuke to those who would venerate Mary? I see it, not as a rebuke, but as a correction or clarification to the woman's words of praise that serves three purposes.

First, it shows that any honor Mary might deserve from Christians is due her first and foremost because she heard the word of God and kept it. (Which, after all, is pretty much what we read Luke's infancy narrative, and in the earlier report of the visit of Jesus' relatives.)

Second, it shows that an honor similar to that of Mary is available to anyone who desires it, simply be hearing the word of God and keeping it.

Third -- and this is an idea I'm stealing from a coincidental email from Kathy the Carmelite -- it guards against veneration of Mary on purely physical grounds, or indeed on any other grounds than fidelity to the One God. Of all creatures, we value Mary the highest, but not for what she is in herself (and still less for any "sacred feminine" some claim she signifies). We value her entirely for what God has done through her, even as the ways in which we express the value we assign her necessarily adopt incarnational dimensions. Her womb is not blessed because it bore Jesus; her womb bore Jesus because God blessed her, and through her each of us.

This principle holds, even when particular Catholic practice improperly loses sight of the principle.


Mary in the Gospels, ii

The three synoptic Gospels each tell of Jesus being told His "mother and brothers" want to speak to Him. Jesus uses this as an opportunity to teach, "My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and act on it."

What can we learn from these passages, besides the facts that a) Jesus made use of the teaching opportunities that came His way, and b) His mother and His brothers are those who hear the word of God and act on it?

Well, one other thing is suggested by Mark 3:21, which provides the reason Jesus' relatives came to see Him:
When his relatives heard of this they set out to seize Him, for they said, "He is out of His mind."
Though all three synoptic Gospels mention their arrival, neither Matthew nor Luke (the two with infancy narratives) report that they thought Jesus was out of His mind. Is this simply a matter of leaving out a detail that makes the infancy narratives harder to understand?

Neither Matthew nor Luke put the scene of the arrival of Jesus' relatives in much context. Mark, though, mentions that His relatives "set out to seize Him" after hearing reports of Him. What reports?

Well, the verse immediately before they set out to seize Him is, "He came home. Again the crowd gathered, making it impossible for them even to eat."

So, on the natural level they've got a Relative Who is causing such a commotion, He (and those commoted) can't even eat. That might seem to call for an intervention, even from someone who knows He is the Messiah. (And we might point to the miracle at Cana as an example of Mary successfully imploring Jesus; she might have had something similar in mind here.)

On the supernatural level, Mark is comparing the doubt of Jesus' relatives -- which, for what it's worth, is not explicitly ascribed to Mary herself (though the context does seem to allow for that) -- to the doubt of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem.

Jesus' relatives think He is out of His mind. And, as Peter would later show, even one who believed Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, might criticize the way He was going about being the Messiah.

The scribes, on the other hand, say He is an agent of the devil, which Jesus points out is irrational (and, by implication, a worse mistake, possibly an everlasting mistake).

When, finally, His relatives arrive, Jesus completes the lesson by saying faith, not blood, makes a person His true brother, sister, or mother.

Did Mary have the faith to make her a true mother of Jesus? Scripture (to say nothing of Tradition) indicates she did -- but at the time of Jesus' ministry in Galilee her faith was not yet made complete by the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

It's in the distinction between the perfect faith expressed in Mary's "Let it be done to me according to your word" at the Annunciation and the completion of that faith in the wind of Pentecost that I find the room to accomodate both her lack of understanding when Jesus was twelve and her arguable lack of understanding when He began His public ministry (always leavened by the understanding she showed at Cana).


Mary in the Gospels, i

[Most of these posts are cribbed from comments I made on the "A mother's joyful love" post below. My thanks to Rob, Jennifer, and Millinerd, non-Catholics all, for talking this stuff over with me.]

I think it's unlikely that the veneration Catholic and Orthodox pay to Mary, the Mother of God, would be predicted by someone who knew only what he read in the Gospels. Not just because so little is actually said of her, but because some of the few things that are said aren't altogether flattering.

How, for example, does a Catholic who believes Mary is the All-Holy Seat of Wisdom understand her misunderstanding when she discovered her twelve-year-old Son in the Temple?

Speaking for myself, I understand it by assuming Mary was more "normal" than a lot of the pious legends would allow. Jesus, too, for that matter.

If, say, Jesus had never (or rarely) referred to God as His Father before He remained behind at the Temple at age 12, then His play on words ("Your father and I," "My Father's business") would naturally confuse Mary, if she herself were not given to spending hours a day rapt in contemplation over the ineffable mysteries of the Incarnation.

In fact, a relatively normal Mary -- one who isn't herself an all-knowing glow-in-the-dark plaster statue with a demur half-smile and downcast eyes -- serves in part as a guarantor of the Incarnation. Even as we proclaim her the Mother of God, if she is a true-to-life woman, then we are proclaiming the Son of God is true man.


Prepare ye the way of the truth

It occurs to me that truth is one of those things that require no preparation -- for which, even, no preparation is possible. (Love is another one of those things.)

Note I wrote "truth," not "a particular truth." People certainly do need to be prepared for certain specific truths, an idea that in Christianity goes back -- well, the the Adamic Covenant, I suppose, but I was going to say "to St. Paul":
Brothers, I could not talk to you as spiritual people, but as fleshly people, as infants in Christ. I fed you milk, not solid food, because you were unable to take it. Indeed, you are still not able, even now, for you are still of the flesh.
But the only way to prepare someone for a particular truth, I think, is with another truth. This is simply how humans learn, by moving from what we know now to something we don't already know.

If it's true that nothing but truth is a preparation for truth, though, then anything other than truth is an ill-considered disproportionate means to the end of truth. We may tell ourselves we're just getting someone ready for the truth, but if we're using some means that isn't giving him the truth, we aren't really preparing him for the truth.

These thoughts were prompted by something I read about the folks who regard, for many different reasons, Pope John Paul II to be a disaster for the Church. They look forward to his death or resignation so that they can finally get on with the business of correcting all his errors.

But the only way to work for truth is truth. Complaint, condescension, deprecation: these don't prepare anyone for the truth of anything. If one were given to unfounded speculation, one might even conjecture that complaining about the Pope is a self-serving disproportionate means, in that it gives the illusion of engaging his position without requiring any actual engagement.

Of course, this phenomenon is not limited to Catholics who don't like the current Pope. It occurs whenever someone perceives an obstacle to truth and settles on a plan for removing that obstacle that itself isn't the truth. "Since he'll only hold up the vote, let's not invite him to the meeting." "Ask her yourself, if you like, but everyone knows she's a liar." "You're very thoughtful and honest, unlike all those troglodytes in class. Would you please read this book and tell me what you think?"

Our disproportionate plans may or may not be sinful, but if we're really as concerned for the truth as we say we are, we should be aware of the truth of our plans to prepare for the truth.


Monday, March 22, 2004

A mother's joyful love
The scribe said to Him, "Well said, teacher. You are right in saying, 'He is One and there is no other than he.' And 'to love him with all your heart, with all your understanding, with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself' is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices."
And when Jesus saw that he answered with understanding, He said to him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God."
There is, in Scripture, dogma, and pious imagination, no human person who, from her conception, through her whole life, and even beyond her death to all eternity, has been closer to the kingdom of God than the Mother of God, the Blessed Virgin Mary. One might reasonably conclude, then, that Mary loved her neighbor as herself. And indeed:
This maternity of Mary in the order of grace began with the consent which she gave in faith at the Annunciation and which she sustained without wavering beneath the cross, and lasts until The eternal fulfillment of all the elect. Taken up to heaven she did not lay aside this salvific duty, but by her constant intercession continued to bring us the gifts of eternal salvation. [Lumen Gentium 62]
But what forms did her love for her neighbor take during her natural lifetime?

Setting aside pious legends, we have the story of the Visitation, following hard upon the Annunciation, when Mary rose in haste to her kinswoman Elizabeth to celebrate the natural and supernatural graces God had given them and, through them, the world. There is the wedding at Cana, where with the instinct of both a faithful daughter and a wise mother Mary knew Whom to ask, and how, for the most unlikely of Divine favors.

And... there's not much more.

We may well imagine the countless acts of charity Mary's sinlessness implies: helping other mothers with children and chores, perhaps mending rifts between friends or cooling the well-side gossip against a neighbor. But such acts are remarkable only for the purity of the one who performed them, not for the size, scope, or uniqueness of the acts themselves.

It might be said that Mary's "public ministry" as Mother of the Church began at the foot of the Cross, just as her "private ministry" as mother to Jesus was reaching its fulfillment.

The idea I'm trying to tease out of all this is that, even during her private ministry, between the Annunciation and the Crucifixion, Mary was loving all others in and through her private ministry. It was God Who gave her this ministry, this means of loving others by feeding and clothing and bathing and teaching Jesus. She did not (as far as I know) prophesy to the other mothers of Nazareth, or steal the Baptist's thunder by calling on her neighbors to repent. She did not send Joseph into the synagogue to read Scripture and declare, "In just a few short years, these words will be fulfilled in your hearing."

Mary did not found hospitals, or schools, or any sort of popular movement. Her charity, her participation in God's own love for her neighbors -- in Nazareth, in Judea, in the Andes -- was expressed in her raising her Son as best she could. It was a love of neighbor wholly informed by love of God, and wholly conducted according to God's will for her life.

It was a love of neighbor of a dignity far beyond anything you or I have the opportunity to express, and yet, if we follow Mary's model, our own humble acts of charity will be worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices, and we shall live, today and forever, in the kingdom of God.