September 30, 2012

St. Therese and the side splitting laughter of the saints

St. Therese of Lisieux is one of the great witnesses to the joy God takes in his creatures.  She was consecrated and completely abandoned to his mercy.  Her faith was nourished on Christ's humility.  Her heart explored beautiful depths of Christ's sorrowful passion that few plummet this life.   But no one can deny that she also brimmed with jubilation, a joy which was always ready to break out into play.   At least, this can be deduced from the words of those who knew her as a nun:
She is a little innocent thing to whom one would give Holy Communion without previous confession, but whose head is filled with tricks to be played on anyone she pleases.   A mystic, a comediene, she is everything.  She can make you shed tears of devotion, and she can just as easily make you split your sides with laugher during recreation." (Mother Marie de Gonzague, 1893, as cited by Bishop Guy Gaucher in The Passion of Therese of Lisieux, trans. Sr. Anne Marie Brennan, OCD, New York: Crossroads (1989, 1990), 239.)
We need more saints to both help us find those healing tears and, just as important, to make our sides split with laughter!   G.K. Chesterton once pondered whether, when Christ went into solitude, He was not keeping a secret that He dared not disclose to the world or even his closest followers.  I think this secret echoes in the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Belloc, as well as today's Peter Kreeft and Eric Metaxas.   St. Therese helps us see that this is also whispered in the lives of the saints, even if many of them were more successful than her in being discrete about it.  All evidence suggests that she would plead guilty on this count.  She could only complain that her joy did not allow her to hide the mystery of mirth revealed in that knowing smile that even now breaks across the Holy Face.

September 27, 2012

Seven Myths about the Catholic Church

In my last post we explored how we know God through the teaching of the Church.   Some balked at this.  One person complained bitterly about the failures of priests and bishops to preach and govern.  But the point is -- these are failures.  When we are faithful to the tasks God has given us - whether clergy or lay faithful - the glory of God is revealed in the world.  Dr. Christopher Kaczor has recently pointed to Father Richard John Neuhaus in this regard.  Father John Neuhaus, before his death in 2009, was outspoken in his commentary on the scandals that have rocked the Church in recent years.  He quotes Neuhaus as emphatically stating that the failures of the Church boil down to "fidelity, fidelity, fidelity."

I suppose some do not like to hear this because it strikes too close to home.  Am I really as faithful as I should be to the Gospel of Christ and do my failures really harm the Church and the world?  We would like to think this was not the case, but sadly it is.   On the other hand, fidelity to the truth is a shield against evil, even grave social evil, and at the same time overcomes all kinds of myth and false narratives.   Myths, false narratives and infidelity prevent people from knowing the true God because these things are in themselves contrary to the truth.  If we want others to see the Church in a truer light, we must take up the work of being faithful in our own lives.

Over at http://www.catholicnewsagency.com, my good friend Carl Bunderson offers a review of Dr. Christopher Kaczor's new book, Seven Myths about the Catholic Church.  I also had a chance to chat with the author about his work and found Dr. Kaczor's whole approach refreshing and informative.  This Philosopher from Loyola Marymount invites his readers to take a fresh look at many of the popular misconceptions about the Church - like the Church is opposed to science or that the Church does not want people to pursue happiness.  He also offers a scholarly examination of contentious issues like whether having a married clergy would have prevented the sexual abuse of children or whether the Church is expressing disdain for those with same sex attraction when upholding the traditional defintion of marriage.   By carefully considering the issues at stake, he invites us to question what is popularly believed against what the evidence actually suggests. A real encouragement for those who are looking for a good answer to charges leveled against the Church, but also a challenge to be more faithful to the truth and a little bit more courageous in speaking out.

It is a discussion Dr. Kaczor carries out with a lot of class and clarity.  When asked about this, he explained that he wrote the book for his friends who either were never Catholic, or have left the Church, or struggle with its teaching.  He wanted to engage his friends in a discussion about the truth.  This means working to expose misconceptions and accepted narratives that do not have a basis in reality.  In his explanation about why writing this work was important to him, I realized that bringing our faith to bear in the marketplace of ideas is not merely a duty, attending to the true concerns of other and learning to speak the truth with clarity is even more an act of friendship to those whom God has given us to love.  Another place for more information about the book is by SOP Newswire2 and the Maximus Group.  

September 22, 2012

How Do We Know To Whom We Are Praying?

Today, more than ever, we must ground our prayer in the truth.   Many techniques and methods made available in contemporary spirituality direct us towards either psychological comfort and the pursuits of psychic states.  In and of themselves, comfort and enlightenment are not bad.  But if we pursue these more than God, if we rest in experiences rather than in faith, we are vulnerable to dehumanizing deception.  God does not want us to compromise our integrity in our pursuit of Him and that is why He has revealed the truth to us - so that through prayer rooted in truth we might find a deeper integrity, a deeper foundation for our lives.

St. Augustine understood the importance of this in his Confessions.   After observing that the human person is fashioned with the instinct to praise God, he asks how it is we are to know God so that this human need might be met.  He realizes that we can be deluded, that we can transfer our desire for God onto other things.  If we pray to God, how do we know that we are not talking to ourselves or devoting ourselves to something else other than Him?  For St. Augustine, this is the ultimate question because it concerns our happiness.   For him, having the right answer to his question is essential because the whole purpose of our existence weighs in the balance.  Since our nature can only rest in God, if we are mistaken about who it is we are worshipping, we will not find the peace which we were meant to have.   The deepest core of our being would be frustrated and out of harmony with itself- this is for him a disintegrating way to live.

Could it be that some of the frustration we feel personally and that we see unfolding in society finds its roots in the fact that we are not devoting ourselves to the One True God?  We worship at other altars instead.   We have not rooted our prayer in truth but in a mirage, a shadow.

There is a lot of frustration in our society and in our families today -- frustration that results from believing that attaining possessions, security, comfort, pleasure and reputation will finally allow us to be happy.  We go to Church and we do what we are suppose to, but we do not make the search for the true God the priority, the guiding passion in our lives.  We are dissipated on other pursuits - other altars demand our sacrifices.  We develop clever plans and systems to secure these good things -- and yet no matter how much we attain of them, happiness seems to elude us, like a mirage in the desert.   We are like the pilgrim Dante at the beginning of the Divine Comedy -- we think we see the way out, but the more we try, the more lost we get and the more vulnerable.

The answer St. Augustine proposes, the answer to the question about how we know whether it is really the true God we are praying to when we pray is found in learning how to believe.  Prayer and faith are joined together - for prayer to help us realize what we most need, we need to learn what to believe about God and how to believe in Him.  He explains that we learn how to believe through preachers who teach us the Word of God through the teaching of the Church.  This Sacred Doctrine is transformative and the pathway to true peace - not only for ourselves, but for our whole society.

September 19, 2012

The Fire of St. Hildegard

The Abbess of Bingen describes "a blazing fire, incomprehensible, inextinguishable, wholly living and wholly Life, with a flame in it the color of the sky, which burned ardently with a gentle breath, and which was inseparably within the blazing fire."

Although the vision itself was given to her in her forties, how she sees this vision is the fruit of a lifetime devoted to searching for God, quaerere Deum. She knows her glimpse into the Fire of Love is an undeserved gift. At the same time, she also knows she was able to receive because she had dedicated herself to studying our faith in the Lord with her whole mind, whole heart, whole soul and whole strength.

Anyone who commits themselves to search so great a mystery becomes acutely aware of being inadequate and unworthy. Such souls learn a humility that knows any wisdom they acquire will not be the result of their own resourcefulness. Instead, they live to behold the Living God with the eyes of faith knowing this vision as an inestimable gift which inspires heart-piercing gratitude and reverent movements of adoration. The teachings of St. Hildegard ring with this mystical wisdom.

We need her vision of God, her way of seeing the Mystery of our faith. Contemplating God as "Blazing Fire" corrects a certain static vision of God, one which sees Him as conveniently tamed and predictably dull. One of the gravest errors of our time is the intellectual and lived hubris that presumes to fit God into some system or agenda contrived by human cleverness. In St. Hildegard's vision, all earthly powers of estimation and prediction are surmounted by the ardent burning in the heart of the Trinity.

She sees, she beholds, and she savors the radiant light and warming love of God. Because she is humble, He is able to constantly astonish her with new wonders and bath her in his dazzling splendor. Encountering One so totally other in holiness and truth, she is left stammering using a tapestry of rich images one following another in an effort to point to the One who has so captivates her thoughts and even more, has so captured her heart. In all of this, she is vulnerable to the hidden purpose He wants manifest.

When we seek the Lord with love driven faith, like St. Hildegard, we encounter a purposeful mystery who wants to disclose Himself, a hidden presence which no system can extinguish and no cleverness comprehend. Hidden and secret, the Life who reveals Himself in faith nonetheless enlightens and warms our whole existence in such manner that we must, like her, make Him known.

For her, at the center of this blazing vision of God is none other than the Eternal Word, the Word of Creation and Redemption, the divine utterance of the Father that resounds in the wonders He has made. Christ is the secret that opens access to the hidden depths of God. If we approach the Word of God in our living tradition ardently searching for God in word and sacrament, why should we not be able to share in her contemplation and find ourselves taken like her in silent adoration, our hearts full, bursting to cry out?

September 13, 2012

St. Hildegard of Bingen's Cry

"Arise therefore, and cry out"


September 17 is the feast of St. Hiildegard of Bingen. She lived from 1098-1179. A Benedictine Nun, at the age of 42, she was given visions and commanded rise up and cry out what she saw. She obeyed and produced a set of writings known today as Scivias.

Her first vision is of a hidden mountain, the mountain of God's throne, an iron mountain of immutable justice hidden in divine glory. A purifying Fear of the Lord contemplates this splendor. Not the kind of fear that pulls away to protect itself. Rather the kind of fear that is vigilant and sees the truth. Eyes which gaze with this holy fear can never be satisfied with the merely mediocre. They guard against every form of compromise. The glory they behold demands absolute allegiance, complete surrender, and total humility.

In this description, is St. Hildegard suggesting a way by which we might enjoy the same vision she has shared in? This is no exercise in esoteric navel gazing. Her vision demands a journey beyond our own self-pre-occupation and into real friendship with God, a friendship protected by the strength of divine justice. She sees the truth in a way that demands an ongoing conversion of life.

She is well-formed in St. Benedict's conversatio morum. The mountain she sees is not a truth we scrutinize so much as the truth that scrutinizes us: a scrutinizing of all our thoughts and actions in light of the Gospel. The truth she beholds demands repentance from the lack of justice we allow ourselves to slip into. The iron mountain she contemplates renders futile every effort to conform the Gospel to our own ways and invites us to be transformed by its just demands.

Today, where all kinds of cruelty are so easily excused and any form of self-indulgence so readily lifted up to the level of a fundamental human right, we need to rediscover the shadow of the iron mountain from which St. Hildegard cries out to us. Only under the glory of this mountain can we find the peace that the Lord has come to give. Only in the blinding light into which Holy Fear gazes can we find the humility to love one another the way Christ has loved us.

September 9, 2012

Primacy of Contemplation

Before action, there is being.  Before apostolate, there is prayer.  Before mission, there is contemplation.

The primacy of contemplation is rooted in the primacy of grace in the spiritual life.  Action is imperative, but God's action comes before our action.  Mission is born in contemplation.  Contemplative prayer is an encounter with Someone who knows the truth about us.  In this prayer, we discover how the Living God contemplates with eager expectation the noble purpose He has planned for us to share in from before the foundation of the world.

Prayer liberates us from everything that prevents us from being fruitful.  When we spend time in prayer, we make ourselves vulnerable to a plan that is not our own.  When we spend time in silence, we learn to listen to a voice beyond our own big fat ego.   When we spend time listening to the Word made flesh, we open our whole being to new life.

This is not to say there are many moments of grace that sprout from our efforts to be merciful to one another.  Sometimes these are the dominant graces of our life.  God loves to dwell in hearts that spend themselves for others and He is ready to sustain their efforts when nature reaches its limits.   Nonetheless, those who want to do something beautiful for God frequently discover that however noble the endeavors for which they spend themselves, their work amounts to nothing if He is not working in them.  

This is why those who are truly fruitful for the God humbly root themselves with fear and trembling deep in the Word: such tearful attention to the presence of God who speaks to them in sacred doctrine leads to a jubilation that informs everything they do. 

September 8, 2012

Mary - Mother of a New Humanity

Mary is mother of a new humanity, a humanity whose state is in communion with God.  Her birth indicates an important characteristic of this divine work.  Just as her birth is historically hidden, secret, humble, so too the great work the Lord will accomplish through her faith.  So too in each of our lives individually and together in the Church.  In all its apparent powerlessness, the power of God is made perfect in this new humanity.

The old humanity was a humanity that had lost God and subject to a forgetfulness of that love from when it came.  Without God, we live with a longing for something which the limitations of our nature seem to prevent us from attaining.  Without the Word of the Father, we are constantly haunted by a peculiar dis-ease with ourselves and the world, a sense that things are not the way they ought to be.  And without the Risen Lord, even our most noble efforts to try to relieve this longing and guilt are subject to the futility of death.  

Yet even old humanity doom though it was had remnants that promised its current plight would not be the last word to its ancient story.  Something in our spirit resists accepting the purposelessness which weighs upon our existence.   Even when we are very far from God, even when we find ourselves engulfed to dehumanizing misery, something still deeper in our hearts wants to call for help, wants to ask for mercy.  This primordial prayer emanating from the heart's core echoes even when we try to neglect, reject or renounce its goading. There is sewn deep within us, we who are fashioned in the image and likeness of Someone not of this world, an inclination to hope and to seek help.

This propensity to make an appeal to Someone beyond ourselves is evidence of the primordial origins of humanity's nobility.   What is good, tender and beautiful about humanity is more fundamental, more true than all those liberty depriving decisions whose compound effects compromise, diminish and betray our dignity.  For the very fact that we try to cry out for help suggests that what is most true about the human condition is not our failures or voids or inadequacies -- what is most true is that we are loved and awaited by Love.   In the limitlessness of this Love we find the limits of evil.

The great sign of this human hope was born when God brought the sinless virgin Mary into this world.   This flower of humanity was never without God and would become humanity's great "yes" to his Word.  She was born humanity's prayer, the heart of humanity that lifts up its voice to the Lord.

She anticipates the new state of life offered to us in Christ.  Her longing found rest in the longing of Lord.  In Him, she knew the harmony that humanity was meant to know with itself and the world.   By clinging to Him, even the death would be overtaken by the substance of her hope - for by obedience to the Word she forever ponders the doom of humanity through the eyes of Love stronger than death.     

September 5, 2012

The Soul of Theology

If the study of the Sacred Page is the soul of theology, then prayer and study are meant to converge in the task of theology.   For not just any study of the Word of God can animate theological investigation.  Rather, this investigation must be mindful that it approaches divine revelation's living fountain, dynamic instrument, inerrant witness, and most inspired expression.  As we read with true devotion, we do not scutinize or measure or critically examine as much as we find ourselves examined, measured and scrutinized.   We do not understand so much as we are understood before the mystery of divine speech.  Here, the rocky coast of earthly judgment is confounded by an ocean of divine clemency.  The words of the Word of God are become rising waves of truth which beat against our hearts to bring new life.   If the Sacred Page conveys God's self-disclosure, this means theological study can only approach this manifestation of the Word of the Father in astonished wonder baptized in reverence and awe.   For to approach the Holy Bible in our living tradition in any other way is already a failure to contemplate not only the gift but even more the Giver.

September 3, 2012

Entrusted with a Pearl Beyond Price

Once there was an evangelist who preached the Gospel of Christ to a group of teenagers.  After hearing how Jesus died to set us free from sin so that we might inherit eternal life, I was so slothful and spiritually asleep, I questioned him, "Is that all there is?  Is the mystery of our faith really summarized in his death, his resurrection and his coming again in glory?  I have heard this all before, but is there anything more?"

Why was my heart so cold to the Gospel of Christ?  Although I wanted to live my life for Jesus, my soul was divided.  Desires for reputation and friendship and entertainment and many other things were not fully submitted to Christ.  I had not yet learned the importance of mortification and I practiced self-denial insipidly.  So even though I believed in the gospel and even though a small part of my heart belonged to God, there were areas of my life I was holding back and I lived too dissipated a life to really question the enchanting falsehoods I entertained.  My devotion was not whole hearted.  I was afraid of what I might lose.   Unwilling to let go of things I thought were so important, my heart was not open to the riches Christ yearned to lavish on me.  

Thank God for those whose hearts are generous in sharing the Word of God.  Over the years, many beautiful souls helped me see how our indifference is melted when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable to the Lord.  At the time, the youth leader, instead of putting me in my place as I probably deserved, just looked at me and smiled.  There was a spark in his eyes which disclosed something that words cannot express, a kind of compassionate reassurance that only someone who really understands you can convey.  I wonder if this was the look Jesus gave to the rich young man?

Then Mr. Shopbell said something the gist of which moves me deeply to this day.   His exact words are lost to my memory, but what he entrusted to me is a pearl beyond price, "If you only really understood the Cross of Christ and the great gift He has given by moving you to believe in Him, you could spend a whole lifetime pondering those riches and never begin to exhaust the mystery that is there."

Thank you teachers, preachers, catechists, evangelists and parents who are faithful in telling the truth about God and spreading the message of our faith.  It is a labor of love and compassion, a real work of mercy.   Yet our hearts are starved for the truth and even the smallest drop of living water is enough to get us through the desert of falsehood we face.  The seeds you sew in secret will lead to an abundant harvest.  The Lord of the harvest will not allow your efforts to go without their reward.