lent

The Lenten Primary

     The majority of Lent—the spiritual season of penance, reflection, and humility—this year has occurred in the months of February and March. This is all very appropriate, for the bulk of the circus that is the 2016 presidential primaries—the political season of punishment, resentment, and embarrassment—has also taken place in this time period. And I find this all rather depressingly funny.

    During Lent, the Christian world is called to repent and sin no more. This sinning no more encompasses the task of penance and necessitates a certain self-denial. The most commonly associated concept is a Lenten sacrifice. It is done so we might be reminded that all things, good as they may be, are second and perhaps obstacles to our relationship with God. Self-denial, though, is not always characterized by such explicit offerings. Self-denial to its root is a spiritual rejection of an isolated life. Myself necessitates me. Me alone is not qualified to order my life justly and piously. Instead, my life must be mastered by that which masters best, which is of course the divine law, love. Beautiful.

    During these primaries, the American electorate is called to endorse and vote. Voting, however,, requires nothing more than checking off a name on the ballot. It demands no criteria of evaluation, no critical-thinking, and certainly no basis in truth. Instead of sacrificing our misconceptions and hatred, we are actually inundated with messages of mostly fear and violence. We are reminded that everyone around us is second and even an obstacle to ourselves. It’s not always so blunt though. We get whispers of, “Only you matter. Don’t let anyone tell you right and wrong. Listen to me, I’ll take care of you. I’ll protect you.” It doesn’t matter which candidate is speaking, for it all boils down to that core message. It’s an anti-love campaign. It is a punishment of those who threaten us. My life must be mastered by no one, except those who order us to be mastered by no one. Contradictory.

    I am aware of my actions and conscience at no other time more than Lent. It is a period of intense reflection of my character, and my standing as a human person. The consequences of eternal life and death stare at me most starkly, in which I can see my soul either in chains or caring arms. I am in constant doubt, contemplating what in my life must be amended. Ironically, though, it is also when I am most frustrated with God, bordering on rebellion. My burden should light, the yoke easy! And it’s not, dammit.. The frustration is the result of a paradox. When we desire and expect an easy burden, we are actually seeking to avoid it, making the burden, in turn, much more difficult. Every Lent I become aware of the paradox, and I find that if the task is invited, it isn’t so difficult. Because just as lifting weights makes us stronger, carrying the cross gives us spiritual strength. Lent is a real period of supernatural regeneration. Isn’t that refreshing?

    I am aware of my opinions and political affiliation at no other time more than primaries. It is a time of intense debate with my fellow citizens, where we fight over the future standing of the nation. The consequences of reward and destruction are seemingly before us in such dramatic and apocalyptic fashion. And yet, it is also a time in which I seriously question my sanity in politics. With all the nonsense and noise, I can’t hear myself think. I wonder what am I doing in politics, what value does this have? My purpose should be clear, my intent decisive! And it’s not, dammit. The truth must be chosen, the good triumphant.The frustration is the result of a moral deadlock. When we fight so savagely over concepts of good and bad, we end up blurring the lines between the two, turning everyone into monsters. Every primary I become aware of this deadlock, and I find myself never knowing which way is right. I find it easiest to not think about it, and simply go about my business as needed for the win. But just as lifting weights poorly can gradually weaken your body, performing my duties agnostically weakens my resolve to stay in politics. Primaries is a real period of resentment for yourself. Isn’t that depressing?

    For me pride is a real danger. It is the battle I fight constantly, in which my inner thoughts tempt me with superiority and elitism. From the fruitful branch of self-confidences arises a mimicking weed of arrogance. It is a stubborn plant, which this world has armored with thorns to thwart those who would challenge it; deep roots to dishearten those who would reason with it; and a sprawling system to mock those who would ignore it. These armors put up their greatest fight in Lent, challenging its call to holiness by my very surety of self-righteousness. In the end, though, through the superabundance of grace, love, and a stern confession, my pride is lessened. With my fear of the Lord increased, I regain a piety that secures my place in God’s plan without the consequence of smugness. This is my great help.

    In politics, losing is a real danger. The battle between candidates is constant, in which I am threatened by possibility of an unwelcome majority. From the benefit of freedom to associate and speak comes the vicious right to ridicule and discard. This is not so much a stubborn weed as it is a poisonous berry we gluttonously consume. We do not care to differentiate between that which is healthy and ill for us. We pick more berries off our bushes than our opponents so that we can beat them at the death-pie contest. And the primaries are a big contest, calling upon the bakers to do their worst. In the end, we are left with nothing but ourselves killed by our own inhumanity, our own insecurity. The superabundance of disgust and animosity gives us an exacerbated need to lash out. With fear of others increased, we are left with nothing but intolerance. This is our great suicide.

    At the end of 40 days in the desert comes the greatest suffering, the crucifixion. My spirit is whipped by my sins and my soul crushed by my guilt. I am hung upon the cross of my temptation, and I surrender myself over to something more. Just as Christ rose to release us from our death, we will rise, awoken to a new life of Godliness.

    I pray at the end of these nightmarish months on the campaign trail comes a great suffering. One which reveals to us our pettiness, and chokes us by the very ballot we vote with. May we hang by the choices we make, and live in the intolerable reality we fashion for ourselves My only hope is that when it is all finished we will have learned our lesson for the next season. My worry is that God will not bother to raise us up from the grave we freely chose to dig.  Thankfully, God is merciful, even if we don’t deserve it.

Happy Easter, happy voting.

You Can't Give What You Ain't Got

But Peter said: Silver and gold I have none; but what I have, I give thee: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, arise, and walk. [Acts 3:6]

 

 

I teach and putter about for a small Catholic institute at a rather big, basketball-famous state university. I call us small relative to the size our school (nearly 30,000 students), but when you tally up the number of students who come to our Center for Masses, theology classes, Bible studies, retreats, and the rest, we are actually larger than many a tiny Catholic college.

While my part of the circus focuses on their academic formation, I cannot help but take note of some trends in their larger formation. And if you were to stick around after our Sunday evening theology and beers at the local bar, and if you were to ask me what is the number one impediment to their growth––spiritual, academic, cultural, I would have one Latin phrase for you: Nemo dat quod non habet. “You cannot give what you do not have”.

A less charitable man would quote the Latin adage: Caecus caeco dux. “The blind are leading the blind.” And if I was feeling particularly apt to pull splinters out of their eyes, I would quote Our Lord, “And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into the pit. [Matthew 15:14].”

But let us stick to the philosophic and legal principle of Nemo dat. If you read the Gospels closely, you will often see Our Lord “withdrawing”–-from crowds, to solitudes, to deserts, to pray, to rest. On the other hand, we have the modern student who suffers from FoMO (fear of missing out). Even alone they are connected, they are tagged, they are poked (or used to be), they are hashtagged, emojied, snapchatted into a whirlwind of transient burblings that are a greater punishment than the sinners cast about by perpetual whirlwinds in Dante’s Inferno.

If there is Adoration, there must be Praise & Worship.  If there is instruction in the faith, let it be an epic event with hashtags, streamed video, and TED-Talk levels of dumbed-downed-ness. But Jesus did not say, “I am the Rock-Climb, the PodCast, and the Event. [Hipster Gospel 4:20]”.

To be clear, I am not advocating you discard your gym membership, throw out your electronic devices, or cancel your plane ticket for that winter Bible conference. I am not so brave and so bold in my declarations as the late John Senior––the lodestone for those Catholics seeking to lead secular university students to the Good, the True, and the Beautiful––who asked us to throw our televisions out the window. But I would ask you where is the font of everlasting waters at which you refresh yourself to minister to others?

Just as John Senior’s classic The Death of Christian Culture demanded a follow-up, The Restoration of Christian Culture, so my words above await some solution. If students today suffer from a formation that seeks to give what it does not have, how do they acquire what should be given?

The answer is the Church’s call for Lent: prayer, fasting, almsgiving. Beyond this: If you are going to lead a Bible study, spend some time learning the Bible from a good teacher. If you are going to invite a friend to Mass, make sure you attend as well. If you are leading a retreat, make one yourself. If you are going to evangelize on campus or in the office, seek the counsel of a good spiritual director or confessor so that you know what (or rather “who”) you are proclaiming.

But the simplest, surest way for students and young people today to have something that they might give is to pray the rosary every day. Just as I have seen a rise in Nemo-Dat evangelization, so have I seen a decline in student’s praying the rosary––individually or in groups. If you are hashtagging or “checking in” on your rosary, you are not doing it right. The hashtag may come before or after, but not during the rosary. And for that 20 minutes, you withdraw as the Lord asks you to withdraw. You store up treasure that you might then give freely.

But thou when thou shalt pray, enter into thy chamber, and having shut the door, pray to thy Father in secret: and thy Father who seeth in secret will repay thee. [Matthew 6:6]

 


Save Us, Oh Virgin of Mercy

It is the Year of Mercy, so I submit a humble question into the ether: why don't we see more about the lovely (and formerly quite popular) image of the "Virgin of Mercy?"

As the beautiful painting above demonstrates, this subject of Catholic art, quite popular from the Medieval through the Early Modern period, transmits a potent visual catechism on the Christian teaching pertaining to Mercy. While devotion to the Blessed Virgin is of course spiritedly displayed in her loving protection spanning the faithful, there is much this image instructs us about the Church as a whole, and what it denotes to belong to it.

First of all, much is signified about the Church itself. Mary has long symbolized the Church as Mother of all believers: we were, after all, given to the Blessed Virgin as her children by the Lord Himself while He perished on the Cross. Under this consideration, the warm mantle Mary extends about her children is emblematic of the embrace the world-spanning Ecclesial body should exude throughout the globe and throughout time. Under the maternal embrace of Mary’s mantle, the faithful should encounter love and a spirit of adoption, no matter what physical building they enter across the planet.

Secondly, that Mary is much grander than most figures in these paintings, and the fact an infinite expanse cascades behind her cloak, evokes Mary as the great Queen of Heaven. As her celestial frame swathes all within her cape, from her position on high, she shields the weary believers from the slings and arrows of this life. Here, the Church Triumphant in Heaven is expressed, those who intercede even now for us in this age of pilgrimage. Indeed, it is telling that, in the picture above, the only creatures to match Mary in stature are two hulking Saints who flank the Blessed Virgin, reaching out to the weary in this vale of tears.

Finally, and most importantly, these representations of Our Holy Mother bespeak a copious wealth of insight into the meaning of membership in the Church. Notice: in all these Icons, whether adorned with Kings and Queens, Popes and Bishops, Monks and Nuns, or a whole host of laity, every soul present beneath the cloak of Mary, bends their knee. All, no matter their stature, huddle humbly like Children, snuggled close to one another and with the Virgin Mother herself. Perhaps no other painting conveys this sense better than this:

Beyond bending their knees, their faces incorporated collectively into one amalgamated mass, these great men, though they retain their headwear, are naked (or at least “lightly clothed” to the extreme) under the mantle of Mary. Indeed, they look cold somehow, the colors of the paint seemingly seconds away from shivering. The concept, of course, is this: though we may embody different roles and offices in this life (what the differing head coverings represent), underneath we are as naked and poor as the day we were born, and without the protection of Mary and the Church she signifies and exemplifies, we would die of exposure when turned out to the world.

It is this paradoxical holding of two extremes—the power of mere hats but the nakedness of the mere individuals who wear them—that addresses me so profoundly here in the middle of Lent.

Here we devote an entire month plus to fasting, almsgiving and prayer, and yet our daily lives--subsumed as they are in the hats we must wear--go on as usual. Jesus instructs us to fast for an interior reason, and not for the respect of others—to wash our face and anoint our head. I know people are fond of posting their Ashes on Social Media each Ash Wednesday, while others with equal gusto castigate those who do so, but as good intentioned as it is, the latter practice goes back to a much more basic Protestant objection to the ashes. I heard it plenty growing up—does not publically wearing ashes go against the grain of what Our Lord protested against when he admonished those who fast outwardly?

We must remember that the ceremony of ashes came about in cultures where nearly everyone was Catholic. You did not need to remind anyone you were fasting—the great majority of everyone you knew did the same. What the ashes reminded everyone of was something akin to this picture—everyone will be dust someday soon, from the lowest pauper to the highest prince.

Underneath the diadems and miters, we are all naked, we are all ash. If it was not for the Church, if it was not for the prayers of the Mother of God and the Saints, if it was not for Jesus Christ, who lived, died, and was resurrected so that all this could exist to shelter us, we would perish, and return to the dust from which we came.

In Lent, we learn to kneel, we learn that we are fundamentally naked, we learn that we are in this boat together, huddled children imploring our Mother to protect us from the relentless storm. We do this while we wear our various hats, realizing that what we wear is not who we fundamentally are, but who we have been asked to be at the good pleasure of Our Lord and his Mother, the Church.

But we are not only our nakedness—we are the children of this loving mother, who wraps us in Her mantle and protects us. But we can only fit under the mantle if we bend our knee, and while there is a vast amount of room under her cloak, we can only fit in next to her if we are willing to sidle up, side-by-side, with our brothers and sisters underneath.

Virgin of Mercy, pray for us this Lent!

Spiritual Vision

Recently, I rediscovered Romano Guardini. In my undergraduate studies a professor had handed me a copy of his work The Lord. For the past 7 years it collected dust on my shelf, until this past January when I went on retreat to prepare for my diaconal ordination and brought it along with me. I fell in love with his presentation of Christ and how real he makes the person of the Lord. In the years between being handed the book and picking it up, many of my intellectual heroes have cited Guardini, including professors at the seminary and men like Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Francis (who wrote a thesis using Guardini) and Bishop Robert Barron. Pope Benedict XVI said “Guardini taught that the essence of Christianity is not an idea, not a system of thought, not a plan of action. The essence of Christianity is a Person: Jesus Christ Himself. That which is essential is the One who is essential.” Reading through The Lord, I discovered a beautiful gem on spiritual vision that has been feeding my prayer into Lent during this Year of Mercy.

Throughout His teachings, Our Lord says some rather puzzling things. For example, He says He has come that “they who do not see may see and those who see may become blind.” (John 9:39) And again in His famous Sermon on the Mount He declares, “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” (Matthew 6:22-23)

All of us are blind. If only we would have the humility to acknowledge it! For when we compare our earthly way of seeing things to God’s view, we see the limits to our vision. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9)

To see something is to take into oneself its form. But how easy it is for us to filter what we take it. Of course ideological filters can exist as well as particular ways of seeing based on our nurturing. But also just as true is that influence of concupiscence on our way of taking in reality. And no one understands this more than Christ. He sees our tendency to be blind and desires to give us sight. We do this so often with other people, alienating them because of interior judgments we make against them. In this case we become enablers of the throw away culture the Holy Father is constantly condemning rather than agents of true Christian humanism. It’s worth quoting Guardini at length, because of the profundity of his insight:

 To see another human being as he really is means to lay ourselves open to his influence. Thus when fear or dislike moves us to avoid him, this reaction is already evident in our gaze; the eye caricaturizes him, stifling the good, heightening the bad. We discern his intentions, making swift comparisons, and leap to conclusions. All this proceeds involuntarily, if not unconsciously. Seeing is a protective service to the will to live. The deeper our fear or distaste of a person, the more tightly we close our eyes to him, until finally we are incapable of perception or the profound German word for it, Wahrnehmen: reception-of-truth. Thus we have become blind to that particular person. This mysterious process lies behind every enmity. Discussion, preaching, explanations are utterly useless. The eye simply ceases to register what is plain to be seen.

Pope Francis has called for this Lent during the Year of Mercy to be one of greater intensity and purification. To pray for the grace to see every human person with the eyes of faith and to have our vision rooted more in reality and supernatural vision, to be receptive to the truth, would do wonders for making the world more just and more merciful. Maybe Guradini will help you in examining your interactions with others. I know his insight has awakened me.