Faith

Feast of the Guardian Angels

Aside from the guardian angel prayer, my next closest association with this feast is its affiliation with planting bulbs. While working for the Franciscans, one of the biggest parish festivals we celebrated was the last weekend in September. Part of this celebration was a fundraiser that included the selling of bulbs…tulips, gladiolus, daffodils, etc. The idea is intended to be both a seasonally-appropriate way to support the youth programs, and a way to get fall planting on the calendar for Midwestern gardeners. I didn’t come from a family of gardeners, so this fall planting business was new to me, but the association has stuck.

It turns out that these bulbs go into the ground at the end of the growing season, when the soil is about to freeze and be covered by snow. They are buried and all but forgotten. In the springtime, however, they are the first to appear—almost startling green and hardy.  They offer the first splashes of color to a barren landscape, and welcome source of nourishment for pollinators. They are literally life-giving  and the metaphor smacks of the Paschal Mystery.

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At the time, I lived in an apartment and thoughts of planting and yards were a bit beyond my lived experience. Maybe you’re in this place too—where you’re ‘adulting’ in different ways that you see demonstrated by parish festivals and involvement. It’s not uncommon for there to be a wealth of opportunities for youth retreats, mom groups, Knights of Columbus breakfasts; blood drives/food drives/diaper drives, rosary-makers, nursery helpers and the occasional young adult outing. (Thanks goodness for the gift of communities like CBC, am I right?!).

If I may, I hope to offer a word of encouragement and invitation for this contingent of the Church, because I think the work and presence of young adults within the worshipping community is not all that different than that of the work of the bulbs—in that it represents the beautiful and welcomed blooming of seeds long-since planted.

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As a person who has experienced this interim in church life, no longer a youth--still discerning what comes next, I have dabbled in all kinds of church ministries/classes/events. At worst I felt a little vulnerable, a lone-ranger of sorts because I was trying on roles in the church to see what fit me. At best, I was welcomed and made to feel a valued and contributing presence in the community. This is important discernment work, period. Like all discernment work, it is a growing experience and it is a fabulous way to do some inner-work identifying who it is God is calling you to be in and for the world.

Speaking as a parent of small children, it does my heart good to see this kind of exploration in any parish. Maybe planting is your thing, maybe it is social justice, maybe you offer piano accompaniment, middle of the night adoration shifts, help with youth group, visiting the homebound, serving as a Lector or Eucharistic minister. Whatever it is, it is powerful for me to see young adults in positions of service and leadership among the ranks of seasoned parishioners. It is powerful for my children, too.

Like the bulbs planted on the Feast of Guardian Angels, the fruit of this quiet work you are doing offers a breath of fresh air for the body of believers, and a quintessential bit of the practice of discernment. Thank you for the ways big or small that you contribute your gifts to the whole of the community—we are blessed because of it.

 

Angel of God, my guardian dear, to whom His love entrusts me here, ever this day [night] be at my side to light and guard, to rule and guide. Amen.



 

Fostering Good Growth

Meals at Andy’s are not meant to be relaxing in the sense that guests sit and wait for their food to be ready. Instead, they are assigned portions of the meal that they will contribute upon arrival: appetizers, salad, drinks, main course or dessert. This is not asking too much when there are eggs, herbs, vegetables, fruits and honey readily available. Before long, the back yard is buzzing with activity.

Eating dinner at Andy’s is a treat that I rate higher than getting invited out for supper anywhere else (which I love).  I have had this privilege exactly two times and I will tell you why you want to be on this invite list. You see, rather than landscaping with shrubs and bushes, Andy’s is landscaped with vegetables and herbs. Instead of entering through the front door, guests head directly into the backyard garden where the table and outdoor kitchen is located. The table is large and surrounded with a brick oven, a grill, climbing vines and twinkle lights.

It’s helpful to know a good ‘vine grower’ for a lot of reasons.

Even if horticulture isn’t your thing—it’s hard to get around it at this point in the year. Ads blast on the radio, Home Depot is packed and everyone from restaurateurs to brew houses boast their ‘locally grown’ menus. You may even hope to have a green,  patio view of this novelty in the midst of the city scape.

Isn’t it great when those who have a gift for growing step up so that the rest of us can enjoy the fruits of their labor? They can simultaneously make a place more beautiful and feed people. What a gift!

There is a fantastic collection of names for God in our lectionary. Vine Grower is among my favorites. I will admit that when the readings (like today’s reading) turn toward gardening metaphors, I look to the gardening gurus in my life that illustrate some of the finer points of fostering good growth like a good Vine Grower might do. I notice a few things that great gardeners seem to have in common:

1.     Vine Growers tend diligently: whether by weeding, watering or fertilizing--A good gardener is never far from their crop.

2.     Vine Growers prune extensively: As difficult as it can be to see a beautiful rose bush hacked down to nubs, doing so allows for the plant to flourish more abundantly.

3.     Vine Growers apply compost: Nothing is wasted-- no banana peel, watermelon rind or coffee grounds are tossed aside without purpose. Each provides essential nutrients for the benefit of the entire garden.

4.     Vine Growers nourish those around them, particularly by feeding them.

Maybe it’s easier to think about our own experiences of growth from this vantage point.  I need that reminder that the Vine Grower is never far from me. I know how uncomfortable it is to be pruned, yet in so doing, I am encouraged—even expected to grow more vibrantly, and I am nourished by the very things I might have imagined to be trash, used-up or spent.

Because of these things—not in spite of them-- I can hope to bear fruit; perhaps even to feed those around me (green thumb or not).

 

With a Burning Heart

Every Easter season, I’m struck with the story of the two disciples walking on the road to Emmaus in chapter 24 of Luke. Perhaps it’s because I relate to the two disciples in question, who begin the story with heavy hearts. Unbeknownst to them, they encounter Jesus, because “their eyes were prevented from recognizing him” (Luke 24:16).  They tell Jesus of the mysterious events of the crucifixion and their discovery of the empty tomb.  Christ then explains the Scripture to them and reveals Himself in the breaking of the bread. The disciples finally recognize Him and their response to this revelation is one of my favorite verses in the Bible: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way and opened the scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32)

Many times in my life, I’ve gone through dark periods  – the infamous dark valley of Psalm 23. Like the disciples, I enter a mixed period of doubt, hope and wonder when life doesn’t go the way I planned, or I encounter an unexpected setback. During these periods, I wonder at the presence of Christ in my life and question His will. I know that I’m traveling to a new destination, but I feel uncertain, perplexed and sometimes sad and lost. And then, oftentimes without realizing it, I encounter Christ along the way.

In a similar way the disciples could not recognize Jesus, Christ enters my life and moves me in ways that I don’t immediately recognize. I’m blinded by past suffering and errors and afraid to hope for what’s to come. Suddenly, everything falls into place. My eyes are opened and I suddenly see God’s plan for me.  Christ’s presence in my life raises my spirit and gives me new hope. And again and again I recognize the burning in my heart that comes with the truth and love of Christ. Only the Lord can make my heart burn in such a way, as I renew my Baptismal vows every Easter season. The disciples encountered the Lord on the road and God in the dark valley guided the shepherd. In such a way, the Lord has led me through a dark valley and I celebrate his resurrection with my family. He has met me on the road.

The tale of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus reminds me that Christ pulls through in his promises.  He invites me to renew myself with his resurrection.  Sometimes I don’t recognize the way the Lord moves me in my life, but I just have to trust that He will guide me. He challenges me to reacquaint myself with His word and fall back in love with Him.  They say that hindsight is 20/20 and, at least for me, that’s very true. In retrospect, when I consider moments in my life when I felt lost or needed extra guidance, I realize that I became stronger and was on my way to a new beginning. When I doubt the Lord’s presence in my life, I must remember to be extra vigilant to an encounter with Christ along the way.  No matter how long the road – or the dark valley – Christ will lead me to my destination.

 

Hellbender

“He descended into hell.”

What a cryptic phrase from the Apostles Creed!  What do we mean when we say these words at Mass every Sunday, or when we begin the Rosary? Did Jesus really go to hell?  Or, was it Sheol?  Or Hades?  Or the place of the just who could not enter heaven until Our Lord’s sacrifice on the Cross in atonement for our sins? Is there still the possibility of eternal damnation, or is “hell” merely an antiquated concept that the Church has outgrown because of Vatican II?  For answers let us consider The Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 631 to 635.

The phrase, “He descended into hell,” must be considered in tandem with what immediately follows: “On the third day He rose again.”  As the Catechism states, “The Apostle’s Creed confesses in the same article Christ’s descent into hell and his Resurrection from the dead on the third day, because in his Passover it was precisely out of the depths of death that he made life spring forth.” [CCC631] Here we see the “both/and” dichotomy of the Catholic faith: Good Friday and Easter Sunday.  An easy trap to fall into is to focus only on one over the other.  One only has to see latest news stories coming out of Egypt or Syria to see that man is capable of great evil, but is his nature totally depraved?  Good Friday without Easter Sunday? Or the opposite end of the spectrum which some have termed “Christianity Lite” for those whose comfortable lives give them the promise of heaven without the reality of hell, or forgiveness without repentance? The truth lies between the two extremes.  All of humanity was forever changed because “on the third day He rose again,” but there is no Resurrection without a Crucifixion, and our willful embrace or rejection of this metaphysical reality effects how we live (or should be living).

A Catholic’s affirmation that Jesus was “raised from the dead presupposes that the crucified one sojourned in the realm of the dead prior to his Resurrection.” [CCC632] That is, “Jesus, like all men, experienced death and in his soul joined the others in the realm of the dead.”  But, by descending to the dead, did Jesus destroy the hell of eternal damnation? Oh, that the demands of faith could be that easy!  No, Jesus descended to the dead “to free the just who had gone before him.” [CCC633].  “He descended there as Savior, proclaiming the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there.” [CCC632].  So where is the “there?”

We shouldn’t think of hell as a place, but as a state of the soul in relation to God.  Biblical terms of “Sheol” and “Hades” are synonymous – the former is in Hebrew, and the latter in Greek.  Both are the “abode of the dead,” but this description still evokes the idea of a place.  Matters of the soul are difficult to envision, so we use imagery to help grasp metaphysical realities.  The souls in the “abode of the dead” are “deprived of the vision of God,” and this is true for the evil or righteous alike.  Jesus went for the holy souls who awaited their Savior “in Abraham’s bosom,” from the parable of the poor man Lazarus [Luke 16:19-31].  Remember, in this parable, reference is made to the resurrection of the dead.  As the parable teaches: belief must begin with Moses and the Prophets, because “if they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” [Luke 16:31]. 

Believers and unbelievers alike can agree that Jesus was killed.  But those who believe that Jesus is God must then logically conclude that God died on a Friday afternoon two thousand years ago. But, no! God cannot die!  One might then conclude incorrectly that “Jesus cannot be God because God cannot die.” Or another false belief will arise: that Jesus never really died, but was taken down from the cross before it was too late.  

How do we solve this riddle that Jesus Christ is God, and that “Jesus was crucified, died and was buried?” Again, from the Catechism: “In his human soul united to his divine person, the dead Christ went down to the realm of the dead” to “open heaven’s gates for the just who had gone before him.” [CCC635]  

Our discussion has now brought us into the metaphysical realm where images to not work.  What is the soul? What makes a person divine?  These questions are beyond the scope of this article.  Sufficient for now must be the simple faith and belief that Jesus Christ is both God and man.  He is a divine person who has a human soul.  The two are united and inseparable, and because God does not die, for He is Life Itself, after the Crucifixion, God descended into hell to release all who were waiting for the messianic promises of the Old Testament to be fulfilled.  Not even death could contain Him, so we can say with St. Paul, “O death, where is thy victory?  O death, where is thy sting?” [1 Corinthians 15:55].

The Resurrection itself is too important an event in history to celebrate for one day only, which is why the Church celebrates the Octave of Easter, culminating with Divine Mercy Sunday.    And, although Lent is forty days, Easter is fifty, culminating with Pentecost!

As we celebrate the most central mysteries of our faith during this holiest of liturgical seasons, let us all raise a glass to and be grateful for the unfathomable mercy of Jesus.  And, for those in the Washington, DC area, please join us Sundays during the Easter Season to celebrate at the most aptly named place for such an occasion: The Hellbender Brewing Company.

 

The Damning Deficit of Catchphrase Catholicism

This op-ed, as evidenced by its title, is obviously of crucial importance. You can be certain of my strong (and correct) opinion because of the seriousness of the words I used in the title. And also alliteration—alliteration always makes something intrinsically more important. The only thing that could make my title (and consequently my argument) stronger would be to use a rhyme. Perhaps I should have gone with the title, "The Crass Malaise of the Catholic Catchphrase" to make it really roll off the tongue as seemingly substantial, while in truth only carrying a vague illusion of importance.

What have I just said? To be fair, I am not even sure what to make of my own first paragraph, but it sounds good, does it not? Furthermore I am a writer, and therefore you should trust my conclusions. I promise I do have a point, please read on.

I am not mocking the need to create intriguing and provocative titles for articles, news stories, or blog posts. As a writer I know the importance of a strong title. I also know well the self-satisfaction of leaning back in my chair and patting myself on the back for my impressive wit and creativity upon crafting an excellent title and pithy introduction.

I am beginning my fourth paragraph and I have yet to really say anything. What I have written sounds good, and may have even made you chuckle (Okay, I'm very witty and you have definitely LOL'ed, or at least laughed out loud in your mind to yourself [LOLIYMTY], if that's possible, but I digress). The lack of substance I have heretofore provided is precisely the point I want to make.

Using a catchy title, relying on pithy statements, and assuring you (dear reader) of my authority to speak on the subject, has provided you the appearance of an argument and a conclusion. However, I have not yet made an actual argument to defend my title (which is also conveniently my conclusion). My whole argument is summed up in the introduction and conclusion that there is a "Damning Deficit of Catchphrase Catholicism." But without actually making an argument, how convincing is the statement. It sounds nice, but means nothing. Too often we end our arguments in this way. We encounter people on the street, in a bar, at a party, or anywhere else, and we engage them with pithy, but ultimately empty statements.

If we try to evangelize by saying the Church is beautiful and beauty will save the world, but we do not elaborate on what beauty is and why it is necessary, then we really haven't said anything. When we talk about people's wounds, but we don't actually talk about what has wounded people, we do the same. When we praise or dismiss something as the "Francis Effect" we are not really talking about the movement of the Church during Pope Francis’ papacy in any substantial way. And please don't get me started on "modest is hottest." Evangelization through catch phrases doesn't convince anyone. Plus, preaching to the choir in pithy statements only understood by the choir is like joining a birthday party and eating only the frosting off the cake: We enjoy it in the moment, but it leaves our stomachs lacking and aching for more substance.

The catchphrases we use as Catholics are not inherently good or bad. I find them to have a hierarchy from better to worse; from poignant and effective to convoluted and confusing. While they may not be bad per se, I will claim that to rely on them alone to try to spread the Gospel or to use them to medicate our own doubts, fears, or uncertainties is not a good practice.

My argument can be summed up in this way:

Premises:

1) Our God is indescribable, yet he has revealed himself to us.

2) His Church, mysteriously the Body of Christ, is equally mysterious and revealed through revelation.

3) While we can speak to the truths of God and his Church, anything we say will inevitably fall short.

4) Because our words will fall short, we should strive to be as accurate and descriptive as possible when we speak.

5) Because our words will fall short, we should strive to make our lives a living witness.

6) Catchy phrases and pithy statements can help aid memory and point to precise arguments.

7) Used alone, the catchphrase begins to lose the weight of the argument that backs it.

8) Prayer, and pondering the mysteries of our faith and life, fills our souls to the point of speaking with weight behind our words. The Dominicans are called the Order of Preachers; they prioritize prayer and meditation so that their prayer and meditation can overflow into and inform their preaching.

9) Often our actions and our presence when we encounter someone speak much deeper and more profoundly than our words could. 

Conclusion:

There is a deficit in our evangelization and in our own faith ponderings when we rely on catchphrases. The catchphrases themselves are often true, but if we do not carry a deeper pondering and understanding with them, they are of little substantive value to us or to whoever hears them. We need time to ponder ideas of mystery and we need time to encounter people. If we are in too great a hurry, our message lacking any more than a surface level will fall into the vast bin of the world’s ideas. There, the message of the Gospel, demoted to merely an unsubstantive "perspective" or “idea,” will stew with the two minute videos from Buzzfeed, Vox, NowThis, ViralThread, et al. Our message will be consumed easily, and dismissed and forgotten just as easily. This is the damning deficit of catchphrase Catholicism.

 

So my challenge to all of us is to read, pray, ponder, and sit in silence. Then we can go out, and like the Dominicans, let our prayer and meditation inform our preaching and our living. Having spent time in prayer encountering truth eternal, we will be ready to give a reason for the hope that is within is. The reason for our hope is not a convenient catchphrase. Instead, our hope is in the Lord, the eternal word, God who became man and payed our debt to sin, our savior, and our love!

 

Fearless

December 8 is the feast of the Immaculate Conception in the Catholic Church.  As a child, I was always taught that the Immaculate Conception commemorated the Catholic teaching of Mary’s birth without Original Sin, but I had no idea what that meant. 

            December 8, 2011 fell on my first week of final examinations at Creighton University in Omaha, NE.  It was below freezing outside.  I had zero desire leave my warm dorm room to go to mass that day, and I did not feel like I had time to go.  Besides, faith was not the most important thing in my life then.  My roommate at the time was going, and she encouraged me to go with her.  Despite pressure otherwise, I decided to join her for the 8:00 p.m. service.  I remember sitting in St. John’s that night overwhelmed with responsibilities, surrounded by my new friends, and listening to “Immaculate Mary” playing from the beautiful Steinway grand piano.  Candles were lit, and the church lights were faint.  I had a big decision to make, one that had needed to be made for a long time, but one that I feared making. 

            The gospel spoke to me in a particular way that night.  It is the same gospel reading today as it was that night.  

Then the angel said to her,
“Do not be afraid, Mary,
for you have found favor with God.
Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son,
and you shall name him Jesus.
He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High,
and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father,
and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever,
and of his Kingdom there will be no end.”
But Mary said to the angel,
“How can this be,
since I have no relations with a man?”
And the angel said to her in reply,
“The Holy Spirit will come upon you,
and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.
Therefore the child to be born
will be called holy, the Son of God.
And behold, Elizabeth, your relative,
has also conceived a son in her old age,
and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren;
for nothing will be impossible for God.”
Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.
May it be done to me according to your word.”

 

            As I sat there that day I realized that living without Original Sin simply meant living without fear and trusting the Lord with whatever He asked…even if it wrecked my perfect game plan.  That night, I made a huge personal decision that changed the course of my life forever.  I felt a profound peace sense of peace.  When I walked outside, I was greeted Nebraska’s first winter snow.  It was officially a new season, a new beginning.  The white Christmas lights reflected off that fresh snow.  Christmas wreathes and red ribbon hugged each lamppost.  The life size manger in the middle of campus looked something out of a Christmas snow globe, and everything took my breath away. 

            I think this what I have come to love and remember most each year about this feast day.  Yield to love.  Yield new beginnings.  Yield to the change in season and in relationships.  Yield to uncertainty.  As the angel Gabriel said, “Do not be afraid.”  With baptism, we are wiped clean of Original Sin, which provides the possibility of both choosing fearlessly and living fearlessly.  So this season, take some risks.  Make big decisions and changes if they need to happen.  I am grateful everyday that my life has never been the same.

The Hope of the World

Last November as her semester abroad was ending, my sister was planning on stopping through Paris on her way to Scotland for a week before meeting up with me in Rome. She originally planned to be in Paris only one day and one night. A couple of weeks before her trip she decided to skip Paris and fly straight to Scotland. On November 13, the exact day my sister originally planned to be in Paris, explosions rang out in the city as terrorists executed a coordinated attack throughout Paris. My sister was safely in Scotland and I met up with her in Rome the next week.

Last week in Munich there was a mass shooting at a shopping center near Olympiapark. Last November while in Munich, I walked past that shopping mall while I was touring Olympiapark. When I heard the news reports it struck me that, though thousands of miles away, I knew exactly where the terrible event was taking place. Furthermore, a fellow Franciscan University graduate was in the shopping mall with his youth group during the attack. They were travelling through Munich on their way to World Youth Day and luckily none of them were harmed, but I saw his facebook posts live during the attack.

Most recently we mourned the tragic killing of Fr. Jaques Hamel in France while he was celebrating Mass. In light of that, parishioners at the parish I work at have expressed concern, asking if we have a plan in place if an active attack were to occur at our parish. 

These are only a few examples of the turbulent violence that is scourging our world today. Others, like me, have stories of just how close to home these tragedies are. Many have had the violence strike even closer than I, even witnessing it first-hand. Shock, sadness, anger, and fear are common and reasonable responses to the tragedies around us. We inherently want to feel in control, but the reality is events like these could happen anytime and anywhere. In our fear we want to have a plan, we want to avoid all risk, but we can't do that. We can not let fear keep us from boldly living. In light of this, I would like to speak those tremendous words that have permeated throughout the history of the Church, "Be not afraid." 

I cannot speak better than St. John Paul II, but as your Christian brother, living with you among the fears of this world - the fear of terrorism, the fear of partisan political ideology, the fear of racial tensions, the fear of economic distress, the fear of the unknown other - I exhort you, fellow Christians, to not be afraid. To pray, pray for those whose lives have been taken, pray for peace, pray for justice, pray for your brothers, and pray for your enemies, PRAY!

It is easy to look at prayer and ask what it can do in the face of such evil, but therein lies our faith in God. That God is present, that God is here, and that our hope amidst the struggles and the terrors of this life is in Jesus Christ who died and conquered death in his resurrection. So stand as a witness to the world of the hope that is within you. We must not let fear turn us in on ourselves. We must not shrink in fear, rather let us grow in hope! Evil cannot sustain, it devours itself, but hope finds its fruition in the Love of God which remains forever!

Friends, in our grief, in our mourning, and in our anger, let us remember that “we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the equipment of the gospel of peace; besides all these, taking the shield of faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication.” (Ephesians 6:13-18)

I originally had a different article I planned to post today, however, due to the recent events, I felt compelled to write this piece. Thank you for our prayers, thank you for your faith and your hope. The world needs now, more than ever, the hope and the work of Christians! All the angels and saints, pray for us.

“Let nothing disturb you; Let nothing frighten you; All things pass; God never changes. Patience obtains all things. The one who has God lacks nothing. God alone suffices."
- St. Teresa of Jesus (Avila)

Burn, Baby, Burn! The Novena Betwixt Ascension and Pentecost

What does it mean to turn away from our Holy Faith? If anything, it does not mean to ground oneself in the terra firma of the here and now, as if this is opposed to those “ethereal Christians,” those space-cadet types whose head-in-the-cloud concerns distract them with pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by. There may be plenty of folks who fit such a bill, but this is not what makes the bulk of the modern herd truly shudder.

No, to turn from the Sante Fe, in our day, is not to be more grounded in the physical, but instead to recoil, often times in horror, from the concrete thing in all its thingy-ness before us. It is not that the Faith is divorced from reality, but instead that it is often too really real for most. So professed atheist and believer alike turn from the Faith--implicitly or explicitly--because to stick their hands into the open wound of the Church’s side is simply too grisly, too fleshy a prospect to bear. If only it were more dreamlike and detached, perhaps then they would not turn.

Nowhere is this gnarly nature of the Church more evident than Her insistence on the centrality of the Sacraments. Man does not live by bread alone, but he does not understand by airy metaphors alone either.

So for Baptism, an action in which we spiritually die with Christ in His grave so that we may rise with Him in His resurrection, the Church uses water in the rite. Why? Yes, water is life giving and good for washing, but it is also a central reminder both ancient and tangible of mystery and death--a pedigree that spans times, geographies, and cultures unending. Just as much as it evokes cleansing and slaking, it does the same with drowning and sinking, as Christ Himself plunged into the depths of death in His Tomb for our sake. It should be no wonder that babies instinctively cry when dowsed with the stuff, and it is to our detriment as adults that we so easily forget what they reflexively know.

What does this have to do with this intermittent time between the Ascension and Pentecost, the nine days between God ascending and descending from earth to Heaven and back? In these most “spiritual” of feasts, where the Bodily Resurrected Lord goes “to be at the Right Hand of the Father,” and the Spiritus Sanctus comes to dwell among His Church, this matter (wait for it…) of the spirit (…pun totally intended) weighs heavily upon us as we say with the nascent Church the first Novena She ever prayed.

We are likely to think of spiritual things in as airy and fluffy of terms as possible. Indeed, Scripture itself will use wind time and again as an image of all things spiritual (that which we cannot see but feel), words or music (that which we cannot see but can hear), or even birds (sure, they are bodies, but they constantly evade our grasp by riding upon the wind and twerping a song at us while doing so for good measure). It is no wonder that modern man thinks of all things spiritual as he does: weightless, invisible, or worse yet, imaginary.

But to counter this, the Church marshals the fiercest of creatures to stand in for the spirit, in the hope that it begins to put flesh on that which has none: fire.

Fire has always played a terrifying and wondrous role in mankind’s understanding of itself. One needs only look to the myth of Prometheus, or Kipling’s tales of beasts envious of man’s harnessing of the “red flower” to recapture the awe and majesty man ascribes to flame. What else holds such immeasurable potential to wreak havoc and give life than fire? And I do not mean only through forge or hearth—fire controlled. I mean fire in its very act of consumption.   

Perhaps you have seen such a sight: a field of scorched earth, the black ash of formerly aspirating things in vanquished lumps, an indistinguishable mound of devastation. And yet there, thrusting out of its ashen grave, grows a single shoot of electric green, a determined plant reaching for a gasp of air and light. As part of a lawn or meadow, grass is unnoticeable. But as a single blade charged against such a sullen pitch, the blade is a defiant banner declaring this mysterious fact of fire: it may feed off of life, but in doing so, it provides the food for the new life to come. Nature itself is a Phoenix, rising from the ashes.

Moses and the Burning Bush, Illustration from 1890 Holman Bible

Moses and the Burning Bush, Illustration from 1890 Holman Bible

But to what exponential heights such an analogy can take wing if we add an out-of-the-ordinary element to such a flame: imagine a fire that burns, but does not consume that which it enflames. So God shows Himself to Moses in a burning bush that is not eaten by the blaze, and Mary, who held Divinity in her womb and did not perish, is evoked as the New Testament version of the same bush.

In this, a natural mystery completes itself in a supernatural one.  In God, we creatures can be lit with the fire of the I AM, but rather than an eternal cycle of plant returning to ash becoming plant, our lives grow out of the fire simultaneous to its incandescent torch.

Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple and the Virgin of the Burning Bush

Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple and the Virgin of the Burning Bush

And is this not what separates the former proffered images of the spirit from the latter?  While we cannot see the wind or word (and often not even the bird), fire above all things is visible, indeed is uniquely visible, and in the sun, that great ball of fire,  alights the entire world with refulgence. We can smell what has been burned, hear it crackle as it spreads, and feel its electric bite if we are unfortunate enough to brush up against it. We even love tasting things that are charred!

Of all those sacramental signs the Church gives us to understand what spirit is, fire demonstrates that even things spiritual are tangible in a special—or perhaps even fundamental--way. But what fire signifies best of all about the spirit is that neither are capable of being grasped. Both may be harnessed, indeed harnessed to great creative or destructive ends, but to harness them is not to possess them. You can purchase fuel, but you cannot put a price on individuals licks of flame. The ancient charge of simony is a crime that intends to declare similar things with all matters spiritual: the spirit cannot be bought.

So as strange as it may be, both fire and spirit cannot be consumed; things in all their thingy-ness are consumed by them. And thus in this time between the Body of Christ ascending to the Spiritual realm, and the Spirit of God descending to the bodily one, we sit patiently with the Disciples and Mary in the Upper Room, waiting to be consumed by the fire that does not waste away its host. We are preparing to get lit (but not how the kids these days mean it), to be burst into light.

If you want a fire, you cannot simply “obtain” it. First, you must find the kindling, let it dry out, and then hold it to the spark—you can call on fire, but its seems inaccurate to say you “make” it. In this liturgical time, brothers and sisters, may we take the kindling wood of our lives—our hopes, desires, fears—and prepare for the Wind from Heaven to dry them from the heavy moisture of sin. Once He has done so, may He set our souls ablaze for all the world to see, simultaneously being consumed by the all-consuming God, and ever arising out of our ashes. Amen.  

The Foolish Stumbling Block of the Easter Economy

But we preach Christ crucified, indeed unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Gentiles foolishness. (1Corinthians 1:23)

Easter is the High Feast of the Foolishness of God, the Glorious Octave of His almighty skandalon, over which the great and smart and strong of this world will endlessly and perpetually fall. Amen, Alleluia!

Anyone who would deign to preach Christ without the offense of the Cross, who would stoop to preaching Our Lord unrisen, though he imagines himself reasonable and calculating, is indeed a stooge who knows not what he does. As St. Paul further says, sans the utter folly of the Cross and the inescapable snare of the empty tomb, our faith “is in vain, for you are yet in your sins, and “we are of all men most miserable.” Once more, Amen, Alleluia!

Though we have tried our best to put the Word of God “in its place,” to train Him to stay in the boundaries of our well-kempt lawns, Easter cannot be confined. It bursts from our polite grasps just as Life burst from the Grave that wondrous night, and evades being truncated into sound bites fit for easy and pleasant consumption. There is no ½ or ¾ a Cross, no pinch-or-so of Resurrection. One must confirm them in their wholeness, or deny them in their totality. All lip service paid to the bald starkness and holy madness of that night quickly melts away under the slightest scrutiny: do you believe IT to be true? The stone laid aside, the angels-in-white, the frantic witness of the women with their un-poured-perfumes, they ask and demand an answer: do you praise the Risen One? 

As witness to this scandal and foolishness, this body and soul of Easter, God has gifted the world with two astounding authors: Chaucer and Cervantes. When it comes to the stumbling-block nature of this latter age of ours, no one surpasses Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (Northman that I am, I give the nod to him over Dante, but quarrel with no man who would choose the Florentine). John Senior famously (though as far as I can tell, not in writing) made his students read first The Little Flowers of St. Francis so they could see an image of a Saint, and then required a walk with Chaucer's pilgrims to understand those they set by in the pews.

So the great scandal of the Church is precisely that, next to the chivalrous Knight and the pious Parson, there is the drunk Miller and the mischievous Monk—with the Wife of Bath perhaps being more interesting than them all! A student well read in Chaucer would not even let the corruption of certain Clergy dissuade them from the Faith: the Pardoner, among others, is warning enough! Volumes could be written regarding this good master of the skandlon that is our Faith, and but volumes too defending the dogged belief that this menagerie of fallen souls belong on the same pilgrimage toward God together.

But on this Feast of the Comedy truly Divine, I would like to focus on the Foolishness of God, and what is to my mind the most sublime prophet of this facet of the Resurrection: Don Quixote. Indeed, the last five paragraphs of Simon Leys’s seminal essay “The Imitation of Our Lord Don Quixote” form perhaps the most succinct explanation of what I hold most dear about our Faith. To quote the last two paragraphs:
 

In his quest for immortal fame, Don Quixote suffered repeated defeats. Because he obstinately refused to adjust “the hugeness of his desire” to “the smallness of reality,” he was doomed to perpetual failure. Only a culture based upon “a religion of losers” could produce such a hero.
What we should remember, however, is this (if I may thus paraphrase Bernard Shaw): The successful man adapts himself to the world. The loser persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the loser.     My friends, what more does this season call us to, than Knighthood in the triumphant and regal Kingdom of Losers that Christ has won over all the “winners” of the world?

Which brings me to the title of this essay. The word “economy” comes from two Greek words, oikos meaning “household,”and nomos meaning “law.” When I speak of the Easter Economy, I have in mind first not some ephemeral advice about this or that market, but everlasting rules that Christ has set for this new household of His, the realm of the “Kingdom of Losers” He has won through conquering death. How is it that we sinners, stumbling blocks though we are, are to live in this new realm of folly won by the Slaughtered Lamb of God?

Oh, we can only but begin to speak to the lavish manner in which God pours out His blessing on us, His unworthy children! However, in being embarrassed by the embarrassing largesse of God, it is we who prove to be miserly in our attitude toward the Ancient of Days. How ironic that it should be so, in a political season where people admire men supposedly too rich to be bought off, or with political ideals too lofty to be tarnished by realism, that it is God’s very children who slink away scandalized by the scandal of God’s mercy. We should instead loudly praise the Divine Apatheia which is immune to bribes, speaks endlessly of the timelessness in which God holds all things and thus proves Him incapable of overestimating the heights His compassion can climb!

We speak of mercy as if “nice” people could lend at the absurd rate God does, but the truth is that God lends us mercy like a 3am gambler, who lets it ride on red through the terror of Good Friday and the emptiness of Holy Saturday. We imagine God Himself as nice as well, but He is frankly irresponsible towards us, if it were not for the infinite stores of mercy from which He draws. Amen, and alleluia that it be so!

So in this 50 day Feast, let us be cursed if we are the ones found wanting in lavish praise, if we be the ones that fall short of abundant joy, if we would be the scolds of God and lecture Him about His outlandish economics! As the Easter Sequence Victimae Paschali proclaims, “death and life have contended in that combat stupendous,” and my friends, the loser of this battle? He won. Will you be the one who diminishes the splendor of His stupendous victory? Will you be the one who, red-cheeks blushing, looks away at the refulgent splendor of the conquering slaughtered Lamb? Or will you join the jubilant throngs of scandalous fools, bathed in the immeasurable and undeserved spoils of Our Resurrected King, and sing the anthem of the Kingdom of Losers, “Christ indeed from death is risen, our new life obtaining; have mercy, victor King, ever reigning!”?

Let His ransomed fools say, Amen! Alleluia!      

 

 

 

Lord, Increase Our Faith!

Over the past few weeks, I’ve encountered many Catholics who have approached me as a seminarian asking for my thoughts on the SCOTUS ruling on Same-Sex “Marriage”. Most of them are looking for a word of consolation. And on my part, I understand. It is disheartening to see the nation that I love and grew up in continue down this dark and evil path of corrupting marriage and the family—all in the name of a counterfeit “love.” But when I talk to these people who come seeking a word of encouragement, I’ve come to realize, left to my own devices, I have no word to offer. The only word I can offer is the Word of God, and that’s big: the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Sometimes it can feel we Christians go around adopting a mentality of a sort of “Bad News”: the world is falling apart, sin is taking a deeper hold of our culture and our communities, dysfunction is all around us (and if we are honest, even within us). But of course the simple truth is that “the world” is falling apart, sin is tearing apart that original harmony of God’s created order. The world is the devil’s playground. Not the world as creation, because that is good as we hear in the Scriptures. But the spirit of the world is under the control of the evil one.

But as Christians—that is as bearers of Christ—we are called to proclaim the Good News. And it is times like these we should rejoice, because in the midst of a twisted and deprived generation, we are called to be children of the light, St. Paul says. And while we too are sinners, we have found refuge in the merciful embrace of our Heavenly Father.

At the heart of the Good News is “that God works out all things for the good of those who love Him.” (Romans 8:28) And the foundation for this truth of our Holy Catholic faith is found in the Cross & Resurrection of Jesus Christ. God drew the greatest good—our salvation, from the greatest evil—man putting the God-Man to death. Love does indeed win so the Cross proclaims. And God continues to draw good from evil. St. Paul says that “Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more.” (Romans 5:20) We must live in a grace filled age, because sin is abundant!

Faith is needed to believe this. But we do not create faith. Faith is a gift from God. We must ask for it.  And faith is at the center of the proclamation of the Good News. “For man believes in his heart and so is justified, and he confesses with his lips and so is saved.” (Romans 10:10) Cultivating faith is at the heart of evangelization. What miracles Jesus was able to do with people of faith. And he was amazed by other’s lack of faith. If we are going to be missionary disciples, as Pope Francis keeps calling us to be, if we are going to be missionaries of joy, than we must lead our evangelization efforts with this proclamation, first being people of deep faith, and then collaborating with the Holy Spirit in inspiring the gift of faith in those around us.

All of us need to ask the Lord for more faith. We can never have enough. We must beg for faith. And I mean beg! Whenever we begin to become discouraged, to complain or whine, we must cry out for the gift of faith! I think we can learn a little from children when it comes to begging for faith, because so often, as adults, begging is seen as inappropriate for an adult. Think of how a child can throw a tantrum for some candy at the store. The child screams, and cries, demanding to get what it wants. Now this image, when translated to our spiritual lives can only go so far: but perhaps we should throw a tantrum in our payers, making a ruckus as we cry out to the Lord for faith.

As a priest friend of mine preached recently on this SCOTUS ruling:

At the end of the day, God is love. As our loves are truly ordered to him, we enter into the life and love of God. There is happiness. There is joy. There we come fully alive. To borrow a slogan from the last few weeks: ‘Love wins’, yes; but, only if it is God’s love.

Lord, we believe you are love, and have truly already won the victory: Increase our faith, that we might be bearers of the Good News!