August 2, 2020

Under the Shadow of the Cross

Under the Shadow of the Cross, an uneventful silence can take hold.  We want something to happen but instead we are pulled into a sort of idleness. We want some sort of result, something that will help us prove to ourselves that this time was not wasted. Instead, there is an empty expanse and the only horizons we see are lonely, raising more questions than answers. What difficult voids wait in the heart! Yet, here, the Living God has created an ache that He yearns for us to share, a sharing in we know not what.

This silent stillness at times seems oppressive and something to be avoided. So we distract ourselves with our daily routine and with our routines in prayer and piety.  We conjure memories of the last time we felt spiritual, but no memory can satisfy the need to be still.  So we wait, humbled, haunted by the thought that no feat of spiritual industry can remove the piercing thorn. God Himself does not touch it but permits us to discover Him in our inadequacy. Thus, in the vestiges of religious accomplishments, our heart aches on deserted ground, sharing in we know not what.  

In the public square, this same silent prayer boldly rings for the cruciform shadow that we know in our hearts also covers the marketplace of ideas. Infuriated health officials vent oblivious to the ringing tolls of coming glory. Pedantic political powers relentlessly blame, but resonances of grace bathe the humble. No deadly hum of satanic accusation can thwart the hidden splendor lurking within hearts enchanted with prayer's good spell.   Something noble is being conceived in sacred hiddenness while the powerful cast about unaware of the perilous precipice before them.  A new unheard of hope stirs, even as earthly dreams seem shattered, in a sinner's fellowship, sharing in we know not what.    

Whether amidst the exigencies of the daily grind or hidden in the privacy of one's room, a deeper kind of prayer finds those eyes who search for us in love. Only as we learn to rest in the seeming idleness of love will we ever catch a fleeting glimpse of His inexhaustible gaze. Only a shared gaze catches unexpected voids and the haunting expectations that await us in love cannot be guessed until they are welcomed by the soul, even in its not knowing.

Idleness before the Cross of Christ takes on new meaning -- for in that intimate stillness to which He calls us one heart speaks to another, an abyss calls to abyss, voids co-inhere in that surprised possession of the other, that astonishing, but hope for, mutual delight.  He aches, knowing our plight, having chosen to take our side and we ache, seeing His plight for our sake. Here is the landscape of mutual recognition: He suffers our misery for love and seeing that He has so suffered for us, we wish to suffer in love for Him.  Something no words can say is shared, under the shadowof the Cross, known by that loving faith alone.

July 26, 2020

Contemplative Prayer in Crisis

Worried eyes peer above a mask in a supermarket while customers attempt to dodge each other in the aisles. Someone does not see the floor stickers and back muscles tighten. The sharp condescending tones of a young and tired cashier remind me of a middle school teacher. In the chaotic wreckage of post-shelter-in-place America, childhood insecurities have reclaimed ground once lost to adulthood, and the smallest act of non-compliance solicits fierce if unspoken reactions. Anxiety and concern for safety suck the air out of humor and graciousness - in a world where the only smiles we can offer are hidden and at a distance.  Yet, the Lord is present in this tenseness of it all, waiting for that one moment where He might unveil his glory.

This would seem to be one of the tasks of the moment - to allow our conscience to convict us more than we allow our fears to excuse us. This is a grace to ask for and to work to receive with all of one's effort.  For the Holy Spirit convinces of sin precisely when we believe that catastrophe has rendered that mystery no longer applicable. The irony is that in catastrophe we most need to be spiritually awake - yet under the spell of sin, our eyes are shut to the exquisite new work that God has begun among us. The Holy Spirit would set the world afire were not our hearts dampened by distrust.  This Living Flame in a disclosing flash illumines the secret mediocrities otherwise hidden by our pre-occupation with crisis. With heavenly warmth, this Furnace of Love carefully melts that hardness that forms on life's surface for our own lack of love. Yet, to accomplish this great work, we must suffer the dark smoke that bellows in prayerful awareness of the Word until, dried out from insobriety, a more worthy desire might ignite.

Contemplative prayer does not cringe before crisis, but wades in.  Not limited to a few moments of solitude or a brief period of exterior silence before the noise of the daily routine takes hold, this prayer, if humble and determined, stays lit in the heart no matter the darkness of the moment. Not a public display, this prayer is at work in the public square precisely because it keeps alive the things of the heart. Yes, it knows all sorts of humiliations and trials - but such is the stuff of love. So a harsh word is turned away with a kind response - one as gratuitous and unexpected as the other. Then, where no one sees, in the hidden quiet, its solitary quest is renewed and deepened, even when the soul steps forward with no other light than comes from that secret Fire from above.





July 19, 2020

Dare We Go to Mass?

Dare we go to Mass? We are told that somehow not going to Mass in times of crisis is the most responsible and heroic thing we can do. Patronizing authorities assure us that this prevailing premise should not be called into question or else we are labeled fideists. And no one wants to be considered simple minded or fanatical. A host of experts would have us forgo liturgy because the singing might kill us and partaking of the Bread of Life might spread death. When we attend, we are ordered to cringe behind masks, at alienated distance from one another, cow-towing as if we should not be bold in our worship of the Risen Lord. Its Abitene 2020, yet unlike those young African martyrs of early Christianity, our post-modern hearts do not ache with the realization, Sine Dominico non possumus (without the Lord's Day, we cannot go on).

Why is Mass so necessary in the midst of pandemic and societal collapse? In dystopia, would it not be safer to worship in a more socially acceptable, even entertaining way? After all, instead of braving death to hear homilies about seemingly antiquated moral systems, social media provides designer deities who confirm the current think of the culturally hip. Who needs priests to offer mass when health officials and celebrities are the real mediators of human salvation? Or bishops to teach when a community organizer is able to offer a more politically acceptable word of hope? Or a pope to safeguard divine truth when any university sociologist can shame us before the herd's more accessible and relevant superego? Let's face it, fanciful though it is, this ideological idolatry makes one feel mighty: subordinating our dignity to the latest fetish saves America from evil politics, humanity from pandemic, and the world from pollution.

Unlike the Mass, these psycho-socio agendas never deal with any true challenges to one's own mediocrity. Rather, some social prophet provides a scapegoat, one opportune enough for social media platforms, such as any saint or father figure with a public statue. The self-serving inconsistencies of these agendas are rarely called into question because they distract from one's own (painful) self-contradictions. Not dealt with, the interior cacophony of anxiety and rage surges out against the weak and powerless -- and it is precisely for such as these that, the night before He died, the Lord made Eucharist.

When one is bereft of worship that is right and just, what opportunities for manipulation our current agreed upon religious incoherence presents! Yes, the worship of designer deities inevitably leads to that singular form of oppressiveness that only narcissique self-satisfaction can attain. The burning of churches is often replaced with killing the Christians who worship in them. Despised more than any other institution, most of all by those who are themselves Catholic, attacking the Church is lauded as some enlightened moral obligation. St. Junipero Serra statuary has not only been defaced with the triumphant approval of media and political personalities, but those indigenous communities who are grateful to him for bringing the Gospel of Christ are not so discretely ignored in the public square. And so we live in the echo of "Crucify Him!" Could it be otherwise? When progress is limited to idolatrous sensibilities, it cannot not long suffer the truth, especially when truth confronts one's own self-loathing emptiness. Only the coming of the Eucharistic Christ provides an antidote for such misery.

With Catholics failing to stand together for the salvation of the world, it is not by coincidence that we now live in climate of moral oppressiveness spiraling into open religious persecution. Rooted in systemic manipulation, all different forms of bad religion appeal to the imagination of both oppressor and oppressed -- and as long as one lives in this dream of alienating shame, one never is woke from the dynamic of suspicion, accusation and blame. Without the Word of the Father to lift up our hearts, one's own empty boorishness is deaf to the cry of my brother's blood to heaven. While we blame each other about the pandemic or bigotry, a pathway for meaningful discourse is overshadowed by myth induced malice. It is to help humanity escape this labyrinth of anxiety and despair that Catholics must go to Mass.

We go to mass for the saints. These are the selfless few who put their lives on the line so that we might enjoy blessings we ourselves did nothing earn. To be indifferent to their memory is to be ungrateful to God. These saints are a sign of hope, reminding us that what is noble is also worthy of the sacrifices we share as a people. The Sacrifice of the Mass makes their sacrifices present to us again.

We go to Mass for the poor and vulnerable. The Crucified God has chosen to disguise Himself in their plight - and without the Mass, we can never recognize Him. These poor are especially loved by the Lord and our solidarity with them in their weakness reminds us that before God, no matter how blessed, we are all in need of a savior. When we lift up our hearts together, the most vulnerable member of a community is never a social problem to solve, but a neighbor to serve and a friend waiting to be made.

We go to Mass because, contrary to the prevailing voices of demonic accusation that echo within the limitations of idolatry, our Christian faith teaches us to believe first and foremost that we are not condemned but forgiven, and at a great price. Thus, defense of human dignity and a dignified way of life flow from what God yearns to give us when we come together to worship.

To go to Mass is to stake out a claim that will not, come what come may, ever condone boorishness - no matter how wrapped in indignation. In Christianity, there is no proletariat who can claim innocent victimhood - before the Cross we are each of us judged as thieves and liars. The blood of Abel is on our hands. Yet before the Cross to which the Mass brings me, I also see, in the very face of all my self-contradiction, there is truth - and this truth raised up on the Cross has taken the form of mercy. Mercy is more powerful than any unjust system or effort at social manipulation. Going to Mass unlocks this unconquered power, participating in the Eucharist opens floodgates of astonishing wonder and confident sharing in Christ's great sacrifice unleashes torrents of Divine Glory on the world.

In the Mass, I stand as a child of the Most High God. Before the immensity of His Love that has called me to true worship, I find the courage to work for reconciliation and to believe in the power of kindness even more than the threat of a disease. Not worthy that the Lord should enter under my roof, I accept responsibility for what I have done and failed to do, and as Christ calls to me at Mass, I climb down from my pride to repair what damage I can out of devotion - for He desires to sup with me. At Mass, I give the Lord the opportunity to heal broken situation that we call the world. Even more, as I approach the altar, I find the courage to forgive the debt that I hold over my brother ... for however great it might be, a greater debt was paid for me.



July 12, 2020

Mission San Gabriel

On the Feast of Saint Benedict, Archbishop Jose Gomez stood among the remains of Mission San Gabriel. The embers of the old Californian mission present him with one more trial on top of many other hardships confronting Los Angeles and the Church from which it derives it name, Our Lady, Queen of the Angels. He thanked the fire fighters for their great work and thanked God that no one was hurt, but he also lamented the evil suffered by an active parish of wonderful people of faith.

The Archbishop of Los Angeles has long advocated for the Catholic roots of the American experiment. The Catholic faith has been with America from the beginning and any betrayal of it also betrays the very heart of our nation. The history of California is one of the sources for his arguments. The missions provide a living sign of the hope that holy humanity offers every people, and this same hope lives in the very best of the American dream.

We do not know whether this particular fire was arson. Hopefully this is not the case, but current political powers have promoted vandalizing sacred art for political purposes. So, there is reason for suspicion.

The call for political violence has resulted in the destruction of important monuments of our faith heritage throughout California. Nor is it a new thing for activists of different kinds to burn down churches throughout the US. In a recent case, someone in Florida crashed his car into a parish church just before mass, splashed gasoline, and set the building on fire. The strange way state and local officials relate to churches during the pandemic has not helped: not essential social and spiritual partners with whom to cooperate, but instead non-essential dangers to be kept shut down. When legislatures pass laws aimed at particular practices of faith, as say is the case of sacramental confession, it sends a dangerous signal and violent opportunists have seized upon this reckless messaging. It is now open season on the Church even as the Church continues its outreach to the homeless, mentally ill, the displaced and the dying.

Something about this calls to mind other terrible fires suffered by parishes around the world. Though not itself the result of deliberate action, the terrible accident in Notre Dame in Paris is the most known of these. Only the most attentive might have also noticed that churches across France have been deliberately attacked for political purposes for a few years. As to the persecution of Christians in China, the West shuts its ears completely even as our brothers and sisters are tortured in camps. Something about the religious hatred and reckless indifference at work in the rest of the world connects with the new hatred of God in America.

Exploited by certain political powers who would seek to displace the role of Christianity to make room for some new utopianism, religious bigotry lays social sins on the Catholic Church.  An all too compliant scapegoat, the politically powerful intimidate the Church into this role for their own gain. The holiness to which the Church witnesses is banished from the rest of the community, no longer to be thought of, except in derision. A voice for the most vulnerable is all but muted. Indeed, there are in fact grave social troubles, and the most vulnerable always bear the brunt of these.

Is it actually to solve social ills that religious hatred promoted? The American equivalent of Maoists teach that the pathway to a brave new world is built on vilifying all vestiges of the past - including the Christian memory of holy humanity.  As teach the architects of secular Europe, heritage and piety must be sacrificed to usher in fundamental social change. Make no mistake: this change is not about protecting anyone's dignity or freedom. It does not lead to spiritual maturity or to any form of human progress. It subverts all that is noble to accommodate the fantasies of the politically powerful. Yet, whatever the future utopia that the powerful envision, sown in anarchy's burnt soil, it can only reap more nihilistic oppression of the poor.


Mysteriously, attacks on the sacred stir many Catholics to lives of deeper prayer and spiritual renewal.  The Church in China continues to grow much more on the persecuted mainland than it ever did in the freedom of Taiwan. Religious movements of young families throughout France continue to grow. Priests in St. Louis gather every night before a public statue of St. Louis to pray with the faithful.  Together with a group of the faithful, they witness that this King is not a symbol of oppression but of the justice and holiness that inspired the founding of their city. The same is happening here in California where prayer services have been held in front of monuments, often defaced, of Saint Junipero Serra.

A man who gave up everything, left the comfort of his home to bring the Gospel to the farthest edge of the world, Saint Junipero Serra deemed the chain of missions that he founded on earthquake faulted soil to be a sure ladder to heaven, a pilgrim pathway not unlike the Camino de Santiago.   These missions were not first and foremost buildings. They were visible signs of spiritual realities in which indigenous people might find shelter and make a new beginning in an ever changing world. Not without untold hardships and many grave mistakes, it is on this spiritual path that California is built.

To this day, the buildings witness to a faith that offers humanity the only real new start it has ever had - for other beliefs are subject to the changing cycles of culture and history, but this one offers a pathway to a more noble destiny and purpose. The saint founded these islands of humanity on what was considered the very periphery of the world so that on earth's most unstable remotest frontier, there might be a sure sign of hope. And so they are today, even as Californians dance on the edge of a shaky precipice, sunbathed white stucco and sandstone shining under the darkest threats to human dignity any people have ever faced at any time in history. For moral and spiritual oppression is far more dehumanizing than any other absolute claim a government might make on its people.

Fittingly, long before anyone else ever would, Saint Junipero was a voice of justice for the plight of the indigenous peoples. While some of the indigenous see Saint Junipero and his missions themselves as symbols of oppression, not all native Americans share this opinion. When Spain brought its many terrible social evils, it also endeavored to entrust to the unknown peoples of the world's edge its greatest treasure: a gift so beautiful and necessary for humanity that many Spaniards gladly suffered hardship and death that those who now live here might enjoy it. El Escorial was built around it, terrible wars were fought to preserve it, and each expensive expedition to America was dedicated to extend it -- and so the Catholic faith came to California at great cost.

For many, the missions meant freedom from the violence inherent to both European occupation and pagan culture. Grateful to Saint Junipero for this freedom, thousands of indigenous Californians wept at his death and exponentially more raised their families in peace because of his selflessness. That is why some native peoples even see Saint Junipero Serra and the Franciscan family as a sign of God's favor to them. Through the Franciscans, God sent them someone who, as did the Son of God, gladly forsook every comfort in life and embraced every kind of unforeseen hardship to rescue the threatened dignity of the indigenous, and to walk with them through their trials.

Of course, with the societal vilification of the Church and the Christian faith, there is a wholesale return to those same dehumanizing practices now that once plagued the pagan world and infected their European occupiers: open thuggery, sex-trafficking, and all kinds of oppression. Thus, only native voices of righteous indignation and condemnation are permitted as if the indigenous know nothing of the mercy, the graciousness or the greatness of Christian piety. My own conscience, however, rings with memories of great indigenous Christians whose voices, if ignored, can only worsen the plight of those now manipulated by the latest news cycle and political ideologue. As was the case for the Nazis and the Communists, the whole neo-pagan narrative only disadvantages the poor who must raise their children subjugated to the commercial opportunism of heartless algorithm, hostile atheism, and holistic arrogance. How does a voice of prayer speak into this?

The destruction of Mission San Gabriel has diminished the cultural heritage and spiritual patrimony of California. The faith from which this State is born is increased, not lessened, nonetheless. It is a kind of spiritual rule, the more persecuted, the more the Church lives. Archbishop Gomez knows this, as did Saint Junipero and the Franciscans who came with him. Through the echo of an angel's greeting, California has received a ladder that cannot be destroyed by any fire, political or ideological. Mission San Gabriel remains a vital part of this great mystery.

Though the visible structures might need constant rebuilding, the spiritual realities that are the missions have endured starvation, abandonment, attacks, and earthquakes. They will also endure the bigotry of our day. The imperfect Christendom that founded California sank long ago in a sea of secularism.  The remnants of its structures remain vulnerable to the next wave of social strife. At the same time, the faith that Christians selflessly sowed into the soil of the world's edge provides a way up that will last long after any current government is a forgotten memory.  Through their faithfulness to what they received, the faithful of Mission San Gabriel form an island of humanity, a refuge for what is most sacred and true about this frail piece of the Pacific Rim, and through them, anew, tidings of great joy.
A statue of St. Junipero Serra at Mission San Antonio


July 8, 2020

The Gift of Life and the Search for God

When life seems to be more of a drudgery than a blessing, it is well past time to search for God.  It is before His Face that we come to learn just what a beautiful gift life actually is. The wonder of this creature alive before me, given to my gaze, by Someone who, with no ulterior motive, simply wants my happiness. This is always the deepest truth - that we are beloved by a God who has taken our side, who is not indifferent to our personal plight, who humbly comes to us, desirous to be with us.

To see such immense goodness is to avail oneself of a banquet of manifold living gifts, each nourishing my own existence in ways that words cannot say - if only I allow the sheer splendor of these encounters with truth into my heart. Restitution becomes no more than repaying love for a debt already forgiven and before such Crucified love, there is no condemnation, only joy that the missing coin has been recovered, the pearl purchased, the lost lamb found, the son come home. In finding God and daring to stand before His face, we find what lays bare the heart - our very life.

The vision of God is the project of a lifetime, and thousands of battles are fought to win this prize. Shame beats us down even as our quest begins. We play the blame game at the expense of never entering the arena of life. Unwilling to bear with our own sin, we believe that we can finally set the world straight once we convince ourselves that it is all our neighbor's fault. In the midst of the chaos of this age, where shouts for "justice" stir social wrath, we are vulnerable to all kinds of false myths that distract us from this search. Feeding this frenzy, the news cycle rotates not to meaningful encounters, but to confrontations of spiraling fear, rage and self-loathing, such pursuits as exhaust themselves in what is truly damnable: alienating self-contradictions ever deepened by fruitless gratifications closed off to life.

When we do not seek God, we can only sow with rash judgment and reap the wind of righteous indignation. The voice of conscience goes unheeded when we consciously indulge calumny's self-justification. We sit on top of mountains of judgment as storms of destruction come bearing down.  Perched so high on pillars of pride, we are unable to shelter under the wings of God.

How do  I safely descend such a precipice and begin to climb the mountain of God? The Lord allows his disciples all kinds of humiliations, persecutions and overwhelming trials- for without these, I might never learn to live. He even sends his messengers as broken beggars crying for a word of hope. Each cry invites me to come down, to descend to where the Lord is waiting.

For my part, the mystery of Zacchaeus comes to mind. I must be on the lookout beyond the structures of sin in which I have enmeshed myself. As long as I am pulled to the periphery of perception, I can easily mistake a blessing for misfortune. With beams in my own eye, I can only see my neighbor according to his splintered sized faults. No, I must not be blind to the glory hidden in those distraught eyes who calls out, "I must stay at your house."

The stranger who invokes me can never be an encounter with Author of Life as long as I see only a character playing out his role in the latest social narrative and political conflict. I must stop stuffing my sickly imagination with pig's slop and remember the food of my Father's house. I must be open to what is unfamiliar, uncomfortable and inconvenient - for love is of these things and God is love. The wonder of life will never astonish me if I fail to welcome the friend in need with an open heart - for one treats the Giver just as he treats the gift.

It is time to seek the Lord. We risk losing the beautiful gift of life as long as we submit ourselves to any voice other than His.  He is never far away - the ears of the heart know the melody of his call even when only a whisper and the eyes of the soul recognize His mysterious radiance even when it's hidden in distress. Yet, even at one's last breath, to hear His Voice and to seek His Face is at last to have finally lived.