instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Sunday, March 31, 2013

These words seemed to them as idle tales

People understand birthdays. They know what an anniversary of a loved one's death is.

A resurrection is not like that. Most people don't have much experience with resurrection. The first, natural reaction to resurrection is bafflement.

Certainly the first reactions to Jesus' resurrection were bafflement. The women who came to the tomb and did not find His body "were puzzling over this." When they told the Apostles what the angels had said, "their story seemed like nonsense." When Jesus Himself appeared to the Apostles, "they were startled and terrified and thought that they were seeing a ghost."

 And these were the people Jesus had told He'd rise from the dead.

So we really have our work cut out for us when it comes to bringing the good news of Jesus' resurrection to a world that so desperately needs to hear it.

Starting, as always, with ourselves.

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Saturday, March 30, 2013

Lazarus, come forth

I spent Holy Week on retreat in the Florida Keys, and --

What? Yeah, yeah. Enviers gonna envy. You're just mad because you didn't think of it.

But okay, so it wasn't a particularly religious retreat. I did start and end each day with prayer, and I cut way back on the Internet, watched no TV, and read nothing but Bl. Columba Marmion's Christ, The Life of the Soul (and some snorkeling brochures).

If you haven't read Christ, The Life of the Soul, order the contemporary translation published by Zaccheus Press right now as an Easter present to yourself. It's a series of conferences Bl. Columba gave to his brother monks, in which he explains the Divine plan of salvation in a way that makes it positively exciting.

Exciting! Imagine that! The catechism you've heard from your mother's knee, drawn from the same old hoary passages from St. Paul they've been reading to you at Mass your whole life, becomes a thrilling, edge-of-your-seat tale in the hands, and heart, of an Irish monk preaching in French a hundred years ago.

How does he manage this trick? I'm not sure, but I suspect it's because his soul burned with love for Jesus Christ. Not with love of doctrine, or of the Church, or of revelation and Scripture, except insofar as all these are referred to Jesus, the only-begotten Son of God and true man, the son of Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit.

See what I mean? All the same old lettuce, nothing at all remarkable when you hear it second hand, but then my own heart is not burning with love for Jesus, with the nonisity of desiring nothing but Him. (Although those who desire nothing but Jesus possess Him, and His Father, and their Holy Spirit, and all graces and joys besides...)

The neighborhood manatee, hard-chilling Keys style.
So I spend several days communing with manatees and reading about the love of the Father for the Church, born from the side of His crucified Son and vivified by the Holy Spirit Who is their mutual Love...

... and I come home to find that Christ's Church is still filled with bellyaching about feet.

And I wonder, for how many Catholics might the Son of the Living God just as well have remained in the tomb?

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Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Church doesn't have quarterback controversies

One of the dynamics I think I've seen over the last couple of weeks is this: Catholics who were used to liking everything the Pope did found themselves not liking some of the things the Pope did, and that made them "concerned."

For my part, I think that's a good development. To be deep in history is to cease thinking that liking everything the Pope does is normal, and if the only way to get people deep in history is to have them life through it, so be it.


A map of legitimate Catholic opinion.


You can check the Ten Commandments, you can check the Law and the Prophets, you can check the Sermon on the Mount and the Last Supper Discourse, you can check the Creed and the Catechism, you can check canon law and the precepts of the Church, and you won't find, "Catholics must like the pope."

And really, I do understand the feelings when you've cowboyed up for a pope and others deprecate him in your hearing. "Good riddance" is a particularly hard attitude to stomach -- though I think more than one fan of Pope Emeritus Benedict has heard "good riddance" when all that was said was "Yay, Francis!"

Still, I would ask those who take offense on behalf of the Pope Emeritus, "Are you taking offense on behalf of him, or on behalf of your attachment to him?" If the former, all I can say is that I can't think of a sweeter gig in the world than retired pope, and anyone who knows him well enough to admire him can't think he's holed up in Castel Gandolfo checking Twitter and his RSS feeds for what the Internet is saying about him.

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Monday, March 18, 2013

An Inexact Exposition of the Doctrine of the Sacrament of Baptism

Read the Gospel According to St. Mark. Where it says "Jesus," add "and [your name]."

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Saturday, March 16, 2013

It always takes some getting used to

Heard "Francis our Pope" for the first time in a Eucharistic Prayer this morning. Turns out the "B" is silent.

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Thursday, March 14, 2013

Ages of the Church

Talk of Pope Francis as "the first post-Vatican II pope" brings to mind the three epochs in the life of an adult Catholic layman:
  1. When your new pastor is younger than you are.
  2. When your new bishop is younger than you are.
  3. When the new Pope is younger than you are.
I've reached the first epoch, but not the second. And though I've been Catholic a few years longer than Pope Francis has been a priest, I'm not quite at the point where I can say of the Pope -- quoting a Spike Jones lyric that gets funnier every year --  "He's a young fellow about my age."

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Wednesday, March 13, 2013

I wonder if he considered going with "Francis X"

Because really, who's going to tell him how to sign his letters?

Time to celebrate with a yerba mate.

God bless Pope Francis!
"Hi."

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Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Questions everyone else is asking

Answers no one else is giving.

What will the next pope do?

All sorts of things, I reckon. The one specific thing I am certain whoever emerges as Pope will do is continue the post-conciliar papal tradition of not asking me what to do.

What should the next pope do?

Pray. Fast. Give alms. Confirm his brethren in the faith. The Wednesday Angelus talks seem to be a big hit with the locals.

What would I do if I were the next pope?

Spend the weekend in Castel Gandolfo with my wife, trying my luck with the wine cellar, then read the resignation speech they wrote for me.

What are my hopes for the next pope?

I hope he likes pasta. They eat a lot of pasta in Rome, I think.

Who will be the next pope?

This is the only one of these questions I have been asked personally, and I am asked it by my children every time the conclave, or the resignation, is mentioned in our house. I have been asked it so often I'm beginning to wonder what it is my children think I do for a living.

I don't know the answer, of course, and neither does anyone else. But if he turns out to be an Italian, we'll be able to recast a knee-slapper from 1978:
A man is stranded on a desert island for six years, then rescued. As they're flying him back home, he asks what he's missed. One of his rescuers says, "Well, the President of the United States is a black man."
"Yeah, right," the man answers. "And I suppose the Pope is Italian."

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Monday, March 11, 2013

First World Lamentations

As if it weren't enough that a friend of mine would transfer to my parish in order to become RCIA director and track me down in the parish parking lot to twist my arm into helping out while I was still spun up over Sherry Weddell's call to form intentional disciples -- "Oh," she said, "you'll just have to teach one lesson, and it can be on anything you want" (which turned out to be FALSE; "Why your dead pet isn't in heaven" is not an RCIA topic in my parish), followed up in short order with, "It would be great if the catechumens and candidates saw at least a few of the same catechists every week," and then -- and I'm still trying to figure out what happened with this one -- "Would you be willing to help tell people when and where to stand during the scrutinies?," which somehow morphed into "Master of Ceremonies," like there's a Master of Ceremonies in RCIA -- and don't even get me started on getting roped into Evangelism Sunday, whatever that is, although our pastor may not be in much of a rush to tighten the lasso after he asked me, "What's your background?," and I gaped at him in silence for five seconds, like he'd asked, "What six moments in your life do you most closely associate with teal?," now I find she's been slinking off to North Carolina -- I know, right, how else would you split the distance between Maryland and Colorado -- to connive and collude directly with Sherry Weddell in person, the full import of which has yet to be revealed (as the above shows, she's mastered the "your cat is on the roof" style of moderating information flow), but it seems the Catherine of Siena Institute will be coming to our parish to give one of their workshops, which sounds mostly harmless, but I would not bet against my name winding up on one or more relatively short lists of names of People Who Would be Good for This New Initiative, and that sort of thing -- absurd on its face, since if I had any initiative I'd be the one drawing up the list of names instead of getting caught flat-footed in parking lots without an excuse to demur -- could seriously cut into my whiskey drinking time, though I would bet that "pondering the imponderable with a dram at your elbow" isn't one of the charisms on CSI's list, as though some people mightn't serve the Church best by lazing about at home.

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Sunday, March 10, 2013

Lesson from the catechist

Today's topic in RCIA class was the Sixth and Ninth Commandments, and though I say it who shouldn't, I think I had a few good puts.

The presentation (which I had nothing to do with preparing) was framed in terms of Bl. John Paul II's theology of the body, and included this statement:
We cannot live without love. If we do not encounter love, if we do not experience it and make it our own, and if we do not participate intimately in it, our life is meaningless.
These words would fit right in on a sappy greeting card. There's nothing in these words foreign or unknown to our culture.

What's unknown to our culture is what the word "love" means.

It might be said that the culture understands the above quotation as a sentiment, not as a religious doctrine. And it is a religious doctrine, since God is love, and that means love means this:



Also quoted was n. 2337 from the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
Chastity means the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being. Sexuality, in which man's belonging to the bodily and biological world is expressed, becomes personal and truly human when it is integrated into the relationship of one person to another, in the complete and lifelong mutual gift of a man and a woman.
The virtue of chastity therefore involves the integrity of the person and the integrality of the gift.
 Thus the absence of chastity involves a lack of integrity of the person. If I am unchaste, my person is dis-integrated, the inner unity of my bodily and spiritual being is broken. And that's worse than it sounds. It means that, even if I want to, I can't love my wife with my whole person, because I no longer have my whole person to give to her. (And that's true, of course, of any lack of integrity, not just sexual disintegration, with respect to love of anyone, not just one's spouse.)

The Catechism goes on to say this about conjugal fidelity:
The married couple forms "the intimate partnership of life and love established by the Creator and governed by his laws; it is rooted in the conjugal covenant, that is, in their irrevocable personal consent." Both give themselves definitively and totally to one another. They are no longer two; from now on they form one flesh. The covenant they freely contracted imposes on the spouses the obligation to preserve it as unique and indissoluble. "What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder."
The crazy thing is that Church teaching of this sort is commonly regarded as negative. "That means you can't get divorced. That means you can't have sex outside of marriage."

It's like being told you'll be honeymooning in the Greek islands and responding, "But that means I can't catch the afternoon races at the dog track!" What sort of a person wants to go to the dog track when they could go to the Greek islands?

The thousands of years of reflection, meditation, experience, and contemplation of the meaning of marriage in the Divine plan of salvation is a great and beautiful treasure of the Church, for the individual married Catholics who take advantage of it and for the communities in which they live. The Church doesn't forbid adultery and fornication out of caprice; much less are they fundamental rules that define Catholicism. Rather, their proscriptions really amount to minor corollaries of the full, beautiful truth of marriage taught by the Church as revealed by God, and most fully revealed by Jesus' Paschal sacrifice.

It is a perverse heart that is told, "You are capable of being loved by God like His child, and of loving another the way His Son loves you," but hears, "You can't get divorced." Perverse, but common. Our job is to figure out how to get them to hear what the Church says, in full.

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Lesson for the catechist

The topic of last week's RCIA class was the Fourth Commandment. The catechist leading the class read the following, from the CCC:

This commandment is expressed in positive terms of duties to be fulfilled. It introduces the subsequent commandments which are concerned with particular respect for life, marriage, earthly goods, and speech. It constitutes one of the foundations of the social doctrine of the Church.

The fourth commandment is addressed expressly to children in their relationship to their father and mother, because this relationship is the most universal. It likewise concerns the ties of kinship between members of the extended family. It requires honor, affection, and gratitude toward elders and ancestors. Finally, it extends to the duties of pupils to teachers, employees to employers, subordinates to leaders, citizens to their country, and to those who administer or govern it.

This commandment includes and presupposes the duties of parents, instructors, teachers, leaders, magistrates, those who govern, all who exercise authority over others or over a community of persons.
As he read this, I looked at the words of the commandment itself, written on a handout:
 HONOR THY FATHER AND MOTHER.
I was struck by how different the Church's view of the Ten Commandments is from the view of a lot of indifferent and lapsed Christians -- and, for that matter, from the view a lot of indifferent and lapsed Christians have of the Church's view of the Ten Commandments.

The indifferent and lapsed view reduces the Ten Commandments to a set of rules. Do this, don't do that -- and mostly they're, "Don't do that."

The Church's view is that the Ten Commandments express, not rules, but a Rule, a way of living that is in concord with the God Who created us. The Church refers to them as "the Decalogue," "'ten words' [that] point out the conditions of a life freed from the slavery of sin."

Yes, those conditions imply both positive and negative duties for us. Yes, as the Church ponders these words of God, some of the conclusions reached expand and refine the scope of those duties, and wind up expressed as more or less categorical rules. And yes, plenty of people have always preferred the fleshpots of Egypt to freedom.

But the Ten Commandments are God's revelation to us of a life well lived, and that revelation contains far more than a set of rules. If all people are hearing is, "Do this, don't do that," it's certainly not because that's all the Church is saying --

Though it is possible that's all the Church -- in the persons of individual catechists, teachers, priests, and online fraternal correctors -- has said directly to some of the people who dismiss the Church as nothing but a machine for spoilsport rule-making.

Either way, the point isn't to assign blame, but to propose (or re-propose) the truths revealed by God and entrusted to the Church to a culture that sees the freedom of the sons of God as a form of slavery and slavery to sin as freedom.

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Saturday, March 09, 2013

P40X: Lenten Humpweek

We're about halfway from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday. Are you about halfway purified?

Likely, not. And I say that, not as a knock against you personally, Dear Reader, but in the statistical sense that few of us ever get fully purified by our Lenten disciplines. For that matter, how many of us ever intend to get fully purified?

It's also true that purity isn't the sort of thing that you get by halves. You know the saying, a spoonful of sewage in a gallon of wine makes a gallon of sewage. The saints are right to be more distraught at their spoonful of sin than we are at our gallon of sins. If they could just overcome their spoonful, they'd be pure, while if we dumped out our gallon, we'd just refill the bucket by nightfall.

At least, we would if we simply dump it out, then carry on with business as usual. Dumping a bucket like this can happen in at least two ways:
  • In my imagination, as when I say to myself, "You know, I really should stop pushing young children into mud puddles. But even if I did, I'd still kick canes out from old men on the street, and pretty soon I'd be right back with the children and the puddles. So why bother? I am what I am, and God will sort it out later." In other words, I imagine what it would be like to abjure my sins, and I figure it would be pretty much like a smoker who quits smoking between the time he runs out of cigarettes and the time he buys a new pack at the store, so I never actually abjure my sins. My imagination doesn't account for the fact that, if I did actually abjure my sins, I would be changed from the person sitting here imagining it, and I just might be changed in a way that would cause me to continue to grow in holiness rather than sink back into the mire.
  • In the confessional, when I make a sincere confession -- so the bucket is truly emptied -- but my purpose of amendment is about as firm as my New Years Day resolve that I will get into shape this year. In other words, it is as a morning cloud, and as the dew that goeth away in the morning. The thought in my head, as I walk out of the church, is, "This time, this time, I shall leave the children, and the puddles, undisturbed." But if I have done no work to uproot the habit of bemudding, then the firm resolve will soon be forgotten, if it has not already been directly overcome by temptation.
Which brings me back to my theme of Lent as an ideal liturgical season for the development of virtuous habits (and the dissolution of vicious habits).

In particular, the virtuous habit -- which we hear all about, and maybe even talk about, and certainly say "Amen" about at Mass, and constantly mention if we pray the Liturgy of the Hours -- of penance.

Though when I say we hear all about the virtue of penance, I don't mean we necessarily realize we are hearing about penance as a virtue, as a habitual disposition of the will "whereby the sinner is disposed to hatred of his sin as an offence against God and to a firm purpose of amendment and satisfaction." I suspect that when we hear the word "penance," we usually think of an Our Father and a Hail Mary after Confession -- and in the context of Lent, we think of giving up chocolate or beer.

But my giving up chocolate or beer [As if - Ed.] as an act of self-denial isn't an act of penance if it isn't associated in any way with hatred of my sins.
N.B. That's hatred of my sins. Not hatred of sin in the abstract, not hatred of the sins of those around me. Hatred of my own, actual, real, concrete, no-kidding sins that I, of my own free will and volition, have as a matter of historical fact committed. The reply I made at 9:43 am on Tuesday, the reply I didn't make at 11:16 am on Tuesday, the choice I made to turn on the TV at 8:31 pm on Wednesday.
So, with three weeks until the Easter Vigil, let me make this suggestion: If you have been giving something up for Lent, if you have been praying, fasting, and giving alms for the last three and a half weeks because that's what Catholics do during Lent, but you have not been growing in the virtue of penance, add "growth in the virtue of penance" to your Lenten commitments. Make a conscious effort to think on your sins, and from that knowledge -- together with the increased knowledge of the all-holy God that you prayer, fasting, and almsgiving has caused -- will come a holy hatred of those sins. As the old Catholic Encyclopedia puts it,
The detestation of sin is a praiseworthy act, and in penance this detestation proceeds from a special motive, i.e., because sin offends God...
Does that sound familiar? Like something from one of those old "Acts of Contrition" you say during Confession?
I detest all my sins because of Thy just punishment, but most of all because I have offended Thee, my God, Who are all good and deserving of all my love.
It should, because contrition is the primary act of penance. The "Act of Contrition" is a prayer the reciting of which is, if done sincerely, an act of contrition. And the virtue of penance is closely related to the Sacrament of Penance. As the universal Catechism sums up:
The sacrament of Penance is a whole consisting in three actions of the penitent and the priest's absolution. The penitent's acts are repentance, confession or disclosure of sins to the priest, and the intention to make reparation and do works of reparation.
The first and third of those actions are acts of the virtue of penance. By consciously cultivating -- with the help of God's grace -- the virtue of penance, you will make those actions of the Sacrament habitual in your life, so that when you dump out your bucket of sewage by confessing your sins to a priest, it will not fill back up so quickly with sewage, leaving room instead for the new wine of God's graces --

At which point the metaphor breaks down, for reasons of the spoonful-of-sewage paradox mentioned above. But that's a point at which you have been changed, for the better, and are still moving in the right direction: where the holy ones mourn over their spoonfuls, while pouring out for those around them God's pure grace.

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Wednesday, March 06, 2013

The God of the Old Testament

Here are a couple of verses from a passage in Deuteronomy instructing Israel to have nothing to do with the pagans they would find in the Promised Land:
Know, then, that the LORD, your God, is God: the faithful God who keeps covenant mercy to the thousandth generation toward those who love him and keep his commandments, but who repays with destruction those who hate him; he does not delay with those who hate him, but makes them pay for it.
That's some old time religion. Follow all the crazy rules, and you're set for life, but don't make the LORD, your God, angry. You wouldn't like Him when He's angry.

But it's also some new time religion, or at least some New Testament time religion. Jesus too speaks of the consequences of loving God and keeping His commandments:
Whoever has my commandments and observes them is the one who loves me. And whoever loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and reveal myself to him.
(Note, by the way, that in just a few words Jesus explains what all the crazy rules are for: They are the necessary, concrete, specific acts by which we love God. What makes them intrinsically acts of love of God can be more or less inferred, but that inference is a secondary matter. If the love of your life tells you snickerdoodles are their favorite cookie, you bake them snickerdoodles.)

As for repaying with destruction those who hate God, Jesus says (among other things):
Anyone who does not remain in me will be thrown out like a branch and wither; people will gather them and throw them into a fire and they will be burned.
These are not comforting words. These are not intended to be comforting words. But nor are they intended to feed triumphalism on the part of Jesus' disciples. If God doesn't find pleasure in the death of the wicked, neither should His children.

I'll suggest two purposes for Jesus' repeated teaching on the damnation of the wicked. First, it is a warning to the Elect get their act together. You can slice the doctrines of predestination and free will however you like; if you don't remain in Christ you will be thrown out like a branch and wither.

Second, it is a teaching on the nature of God. Fools read such passages and say, "What a petty, miserable little god they have, by nature vindictive, capricious, and miserly." That would be true, I suppose, if the LORD were the sky-god with superpowers they think He is revealed to be (with an a priori assumption that is only sustainable if they ignore or dismiss as flattery the many Scriptural passages that praise God in Himself).

But if the LORD is as He is in fact revealed to be in Scripture -- All-Holy, All-Wise, All-Good Sovereign and Creator -- then the destruction of the wicked simply follows as a necessary corollary. To be wicked is to be base, foolish, and evil. Do those who sneer at "the God of the Old Testament" -- including plenty of self-professes Christians -- prefer a god who welcomes and rewards baseness, foolishness, and evil?

No, they want one of two things (if I may speak for them). They either want to fashion God in their own likeness, so that He agrees with their opinions about what is wise and good, or they simply want to be God themselves, by denying God His sovereignty over them.

Either way, they want God to be other than as He is. They don't like the necessary consequences of God being as God is, so they want His nature to change.

Well, God's nature can't change. More to my point, God's nature as revealed to the patriarchs and prophets can't be different than God's nature as revealed by His son Jesus Christ. And the many passages in both Testaments that prophesy the destruction of sinners all reveal God to be holy, wise, and good, just the sort of sovereign creator any same person would want -- in fact, far better than anyone would think to want.

(Image of icon from DanielBibb.com.)

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