May 21, 2020

The Love and Praise of the Church in Easter During Pandemic

Easter is the season of true love - a love that conquers death. It is a season of unvanquished hope and those who know this hope do not live by fear and can never be shamed into silence. Yet my heart is heavy.  I have heard too many reports of priests burying those who died, not of the virus that we are told is so dangerous, but of despair.  I have heard the grief of those who long to gather in worship and express their devotion to the Living God. Yet they feel confused, opposed and blamed. How to offer the praise eternal is owed puzzles many who will not be able to gather for worship - either because of their own health forbids it or because local laws and ordinances do not allow it.

Praise for eternal love rings throughout the world with the wonders that God has done for us nonetheless. There is no other reason that can account for this than the fact that He does love us.  In response to this love, through the centuries, Christians have always boldly proclaimed this mystery - even when it cost them dearly. Many a martyr would not have it any other way. And so it is today.

My heroes include those members of women's religious communities who will not have it any other way either. So they love recklessly those who the world recklessly abandons or neglects.  Several, as did the Missionaries of Charity in New York, in recent weeks, have lost their lives serving the poorest of the poor - but they would rather die by love than forsake the love of Christ disguised in sickness, poverty and loneliness. The world sees them as foolish. Yet, their foolishness speaks to me.

These fearless women who put their lives on the line show us what love-filled praise of Christ actually is -- by boldly going forward to those who are most forsaken, they reveal to us to very heart of the Church. The Church is the Bride of Christ and she lives for Her Bridegroom. He, for His part, considers her and all her members friends.  True love for a friend does not turn back in the face of risk but instead sacrifices its own safety for the sake of another. Consecrated men and women show this love in the Church.  When most of us were gripped with fear, they boldly went out to reveal the love of the Risen Lord -- this is Christian worship par excellence.

Real love cannot be contained in merely convenient exchanges but aches to give all until nothing is held back. Such love is never satisfied with what is merely appeasing before those who stand in its way. It will not allow itself to be defined by the desire to fit in or be accepted - but goes past this to implicate itself in the plight of another, undeterred by the awareness that most will not understand.  Such love is never indifferent to loneliness but finds ways to throw a bridge to the neighbor and lift them to God. It pushes beyond the limits of fear. Christian worship is animated by this very same love -- and that is why the faithful feel the need to gather for prayer again, even though there are risks.

The Easter Season is about this love in the Church, a love that she has received from Christ, the Bridegroom.  He Himself won it for her at great price.  This love has the power to purify her and make her immaculate - and each of her members is meant to share in this virginal purity, this fruitful intensity of life. Those who are consecrated in religious life remind us of this truth.

The Easter Season is a time when the Bride offers highest praise of her Divine Friend with all of her might, declaring what God has done for humanity to the very ends of the earth.  So loud should be her "alleluias" that the world ought to shake under heaven's shadow.

As I write this, however, I am aware that there are political leaders and experts who argue that we Christians should dare not gather or sing together lest we spread contagion. They perceive believers as a threat to stability and safety. Indeed, we are frightened into believing that if we gather to worship God, we will not only die a horrible death ourselves, but we might well be culpable for the death of others. Instead of praise, most of us hide in fear, bullied by the supposed science and shamed by what seems such a compelling argument. But not those beautiful women who serve those for whom no one else will care - these women may prudent measures take, but their prudence is measured by love and refuses to be contained by fear.

Though it has never been the Christian way, some leader tell us that we should only worship when there is no risk. If anyone dares risk to pray, quick are the betrayers and the deniers. To heed such voices is to allow the One who suffered death for us not to be proclaimed for fear of death. Yes, there is prudence to be observed. There are legitimate precautions discerned by the Church. We should protect the most vulnerable. At the same time, is it possible to be too careful?

Even though our lives are not our own, we have permitted fear to stifle praise in even very healthy communities at a time when the reason for our hope should be shouted from the rooftops. The results are not good. Despair is gripping the hearts of men and women. Humanity has always needed the word of hope Christians have to share. If even we might offer only muted praise, in the smallest gatherings, if we are healthy enough, we must nonetheless gather for their sakes and our own - for despair is a far worse killer than a virus can ever be. Above all, we must not be manipulated to the point that we fail, even if healthy, to approach the Bread of Life and Medicine of Immortality.

Some, even in the Church, have said that such speech is irresponsible. These same voices charge that only bad citizens or those with ulterior motives would ever make such declarations.  Or else, sneer that such an attitude is fideistic -- some sort of magical thinking. Yet, these very charges are what are always leveled against Christians when they are suppressed and persecuted - and we live at a time when more believers have been put to death than at any other point of the history of humanity. So I say it is irresponsible not to question -- that it is a dereliction of our duty as human beings to subordinate the worship of God to the myth of a completely risk-free therapeutic existence.

Concern for human life and safety are very important, and this dangerous virus does require pre-caution and great prudence.  There are however some facts we must face. We allowed governments to take away the religious safety net when it was needed most. Have we kept track of the mortality rate of those suffering for their faith and being put to death in present persecutions as much as we have this virus? Do we track how many of the most vulnerable have died, not from the virus, but from despair? If preserving human life is really the driving concern of those who forbid religious worship in even healthy communities among the healthy -- why is it that we should be so anxious about a virus that has killed only hundreds of thousands when abortion, over the same period of time, has killed tens of millions?  Still, our leaders are not ashamed to fund the efforts to murder and commercialize the body parts of the most vulnerable. Too many experts have proven utterly indifferent to the effects of loneliness, poverty and despair in our communities, and their anti-religious policy recommendations caused these things, not the virus.

When we begin to consider such difficult truths, we begin to find a true vocabulary and a courage to offer praise boldly - for praise issues from hearts that have submitted themselves to the truth and who refuse to believe the myths of fear that the politically powerful use to oppress and control.  Voices of oppression wrap themselves in science - but limit themselves to scientific truths about the number of infected, how the disease is transmitted and its death rate - and this is a very narrow slice of the truth, one they are manipulating because they too are afraid. Indeed, everyone knows that the prejudice that one brings to the facts colors the way the facts are seen. A fearful prejudice is killing millions more than the infection ever has -- killing, not only bodily life, but spiritual life as well.

Religious leaders, not government officials, are the most qualified to apply the advice of experts on best practices around the worship of God. The government is able to advise and martial resources, but not able to dictate the worship of God's people. The failure of our society to heed the voices of religious leaders has left the suffering vulnerable to despair.
 
Sometimes there are circumstances when sheltering-in-place is not really the most loving thing that we owe our neighbor or God. No cultural or political power ought to stand in the way of what is the most human and good thing to do. Shamelessly, among some who are in places of power and trust, there is even a conscious effort to make people of faith the scapegoats of failed policy. Studies focussing on worship but not commercial behavior sometimes are offered as justification for a very insidious form of prejudice.

There seems to be something driving this conversation, but to say it is only public health and safety is not compelling. Religious leaders sometimes feel pressure to take politically correct precautions around public worship that go beyond safety even at the expense of the piety. This kind of manipulation is not new - governments have always attempted to make absolute claims over people. Piety needs to be protected from this tendency - for it is not a private, but a public good.

The convictions shared in this post are considered by many well meaning people, including those in the Church, to be reckless. Perhaps they are. Indeed, the great women religious who have suffered death rather than neglect the poor during this pandemic also have been considered reckless. Christians who are faithful though they suffer the loss of all things are also considered reckless. Experts tell us that people who gather to sing and pray recklessly endanger their whole community. Holy Communion is also considered a risk.

Receiving the Antidote for Death is indeed a great risk - and hygienic concerns should be the least of our worries. Perhaps, the praise that Christians offer is indeed dangerous, but the danger it poses goes beyond  disease control. Faith in the Risen Lord is a threat to those who otherwise want to have absolute control over the things of the heart. Yet, our God has loved us to the point of folly and so must we praise at great risk, even to the point of folly.

Our faith never has been satisfied with appeasing political powers or staying within the comfortable limits that experts dictate are appropriate. Today, no less than in any other age, we live at a time when cultural and social powers have dared to dictate to the Church where, when and how she should love Christ.  They have not merely offered prudent guidelines to be followed in the face of grave danger. No. These governmental leaders, news outlets and experts have frightened, belittled, and shamed the Church into silence. We cower under threatening punishments, lawsuits and derision. Yet such earthly powers only extend to fear of death, and the Bride of Christ, beholding the Risen Lord as do so many consecrated women, does not know this fear.

May 11, 2020

Woman of Courage - Mother of the Savior

Today, when so many are afraid of death, we need the courage of the Mother of the Savior. If she did not fear death, she was not rash in the face of danger. If she did not rush along with the crowd, she did not cower unsure of herself. She was firm and resolute ... confident in the love of God.

This woman's courage drew God and God drew forth the courage of His Mother. The Lord did not fail to trust in this woman's courage when He was most vulnerable - a child in her womb, fed by her breasts, held in her own arms, pondered in her heart. Even as the hostility of every evil power hunted Him down and unleashed itself on Him, He knew that she would have the strength to receive His dead body after He had given His all. He chose to rely on her courage, and her courage found its source in His choice.

With undaunted fortitude, she journeyed in obedience to God. Because of her love for her God, she was not timid when she traveled by foot through dangerous countryside. Because of her devotion to God's saving plan, she was not fearful when she bore pregnancy in the face of capital punishment. Because of her trust in God, she was not discouraged when she was turned away hungry and without shelter. Because of her confidence in God's goodness, she was undeterred when she gave birth in poverty. Because she believed in Divine Power, she was not afraid to nurse her child under the shadow of murderous tyranny.

She patiently followed her Son throughout his ministry, even when He seemed to deny her. With uncommon audacity, she stood strong under the Cross, even as the full vitriol of humanity was unleashed. She did not swoon when His last wordless cry rang out in the darkness. Faced with the antithesis of everything that was promised to her, she dared to believe. With a determination that the world had never known before, she prayed in the Upper Room for the plan of her Son to be fully realized.

Every mother knows something of this same courage and even those who do not know the Lord witness to a greatness that He has sewn into human existence. Yet, faith in the Word of the Father avails humble humanity of a certain and new fullness of this grace.  This hidden power is easily discounted and often the subject of ridicule. Yet in the face of death, the human mind can not explain the resolve that flows from the substance of its hope.

Behold, Christ Crucified has given us His Mother to take into our homes and hearts so that she might be our own Mother. If one welcomes this grace-filled Woman into his home, she teaches truths about Her Son that no one else can teach.  Her solemn faithfulness imparts what she herself received under the power of the Most High. Her gentle company nurtures with this hidden wisdom until a man can finally take his stand in life.

The strength of the Mother of God does not budge when any form of tyranny makes an absolute claim over human existence. No psychology can contain it. No ideology manipulate it. No agenda exhaust it. Materialism cannot dissipate it. It casts diversions aside. It crushes sin under foot. Addictions loosen their grip. Laziness is dispelled. Dark moods do not overthrow the freedom it offers.

The hidden strength this Mother strives to impart renews the effort to forgive. It frees from bitterness. It inclines to humility. It seeks forgiveness. In the face of failure and weakness, it humbly rises again and turns back homeward. As it journeys through empty voids and overwhelming circumstance, it perdures. It is the very interior firmness that overcomes all principalities and powers - for nothing can overthrow the love in which it is rooted. It is the courage of the truly free -- the same courage that lives in the heart of the Church, the beloved Bride of Christ, from whose womb Christians are born.

May 6, 2020

The Mystery of Christian Death and the New Birth of Christian Faith

May 6, 2020 This particular post will be a little self-revealing - but its intended for my family, long time friends and, of course, my students through the years. Today is the anniversary of a great grace in my life and in the life of my mother and brothers. 49 years ago John Cyprien Lilles died in the Lord. We may have been but children and my mother a very young widow, and indeed, our world was shattered, yet we were not without hope.

For those who are dealing with death, I can witness that in the midst of all the sorrow and difficult aloneness of those days, the Risen One was present to us. I believe that He is present to you too - even as you read these words.  He came to us through friends and family but also in the quiet times when we were alone. He spoke to us in prayer. Indeed, though sun and moon had fallen out of the sky, His Word for us has ever remained. The Lord walked with us just as He walked with the disciples on the Road to Emmaus. We did not recognize Him, but our hearts burned with all the tender ways that He spoke to us.  It is in the midst of such trials that faith is born and a new life given to us.

I suppose that I share this with those of you who have lost loved ones during this time of pandemic.  The power of death seems so overwhelming and definitive on a natural level. We feel so cut off and even crushed. Yet the mystery that our faith knows is ever greater. There is a love that is more powerful than death and there is no destructive force in the world that can overcome it. This love is definitively revealed to us by Jesus Christ - who rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, and at the same time, is accomplishing the most beautiful works, not only in our communities, but also presently in our hearts. This is why we worship Him - why men and women through the ages have risked everything to find Him.

As John's terminal cancer progressed, his friend Marshall McKinney was at his side. Marshall was a farmer as was my father and his family background was with cattle - so you could say that he was a real cowboy. Together with his wife Judy and my mom, he took eight hour shifts to feed, bath, cloth and accompany John through all that difficult time.  At one point, my father said that he saw Jesus. Marshall was in the room and, though he did not believe in God, fell down on his knees. He asked my father what Jesus was saying and my father described a reassuring message.  Jesus was inviting him to come home and assured him that his wife and children would be okay.  It was not long after this vision that my father passed away.

There was a context. John was not always a good Catholic. Bit by Jansenism, he believed his faith but did not believe that frequent communion was a good practice. To his mind, and in the minds of many Franco-Americans, only saints and hypocrites went to daily mass. On his death bed, however, a Holy Ghost Father, Fr. Donal, convinced him to go to confession and communion. He began to wear the scapular of Mt. Carmel. He began to pray. It must have been difficult for him to enter into such a conversion and not be able to share it with his friend Marshall. But that day of the vision, something was indeed shared that stayed with Marshall for the rest of his life.

I remembered all of this just after Marshall himself died - some forty years later.  I was troubled because he was a good man. It was difficult for me to accept that he might not be saved because he did not believe in God.  What a great mystery - where we truly stand before the Lord! We never know whether someone is culpable or not for their rejection of faith. We never know what doubts they had about their own unbelief - their own, "What if's". We never know what happens just at the moment of death - that sacred moment that the soul shares alone with God. I had written a final letter inviting him to consider the faith, and never heard a response. So, after his death, I kept praying for him.

I do not have visions or dreams, but sometimes the Lord uses my very active imagination. Once in prayer, in my imagination, I saw the throne of God and a crowd of witnesses surrounding Christ. I could not see Christ -- though in my prayer I often search for His holy Face.  Instead, though, I noticed two things. One was I saw Marshall approaching this place of judgment.  The second, was in the crowd of witnesses, one especially close to the Lord was my father. I realized that to receive the mercy of God, Marshall needed to present himself to the Judge of heaven and earth.  Then, I heard the Lord's voice call to him, "Come thou, O Blessed of my Father, when I was hungry, you fed me. When I was thirsty, you gave me to drink. When I was naked, you clothed me. When I was lonely, you visited me."

I realized that if Marshall would look up to the voice that called to him, he would see the face of the Lord, the Face of Mercy itself and then also see that crowd of witnesses urging him forward. And if in that crowd, he saw my father, he might find courage to go forward.  In their exchange of glances, he would realize that the Lord was personally addressing Himself to him. For what Marshall did for a dying man, he did unto the Lord.

Such is the greatness of Christian death. In it, not only is the man and woman of faith being saved as they die in faith, but also those around them are also given a word of hope. I think of all the healthcare workers and ministers of the Gospel who are with the dying even right in this moment, today. As they selflessly put their own lives at risk, they are ministering to Christ Himself through this person that the Lord has entrusted to their care.  Such great and mysterious blessings are theirs for their sacrifices and love.

It was because of such selflessness that I found an example of what it meant to be Christian from a man who did not know the Lord. I hope before my own death I might at last learn to love like that. As for Marshall, I will not know in this life what he chose when the Lord called Him into His presence, but I know because of his sacrifices, the voice of Mercy called to him and invited him home.




May 5, 2020

Christian Hope: A Great Calling and Difficult Project

Walking through the neighborhood, a new friendliness is peeking out. This is a sign of the Risen Lord at work in the world. The springtime flowers and new life seem to augment a certain newness in the eyes of my neighbors. They may not know Him or what He is accomplishing, yet His presence has begun its victory in them already.  Young people in particular express a certain jubilance - signs that a certain fear and anxiety is passing, that whatever it is we need to live with, we will have to accept and move on.  This is not to diminish the real threat of the pandemic that is still unfolding. It is just that the Lord of Life and Victor over sin and death has authority over every pandemic - and nothing can stop His power. The fear and suspicion, the anxiety and gloom that threatened Easter just a short time ago are clearing and the friendliness that we ought to share cannot be held back. 

We cannot say that this is due to the media. Most every source has been irresponsible and reckless. Why should we think it would ever be any different?  Everything was super hyped up before the pandemic and so it continues now. A responsible consumer of such media products will ask from time to time, all this hype that I am being fed, is it lifting up my dignity or crushing it? 

The culturally powerful know that we love to make villains out of those with whom we disagree.  We have learned that the media is ever ready to indulge this desire in every way it possibly can.  We love to sensationalize tragedy and loss, especially when doing so commands attention, and they have not failed to capitalize on this particular inclination either. Yet, besides indulging our less noble appetites, the culturally powerful have also used these outlets to control our behavior. For them it is about an orderly society - and while societal order is a good thing, they have set it up as an absolute because, throughout history, the powerful have always sought an absolute control. Without fear of God, one is afraid of everything and so needs to control it. As Augustine observed about the Roman Empire, "the only joy that they attained as the fragile brilliance of crystal, a joy far outweighed by the fear that it would be shattered in an instant." 

This is not to say that reasonable stories and opinions do not also get expressed. On occasion we hear an opinion that rises above the vilifying and fear mongering we are fed. As if starved prisoners, we hold out our hands for more. Quickly come the guards. Such opinions we are told are unscientific and dangerous and so forth and so on. Whoever proffers them is instantly impugned by organizations and experts - no reprieve from our diet of despair. No, we are told, we need balance. Any sign of hope is dangerous point out (as if frightening people out of their livelihoods and into abject poverty was balanced and thoughtful). 

Then there is the issue of the suppression of our religious freedom. Here in California, we are told that it will be months or longer before we will be able to gather for worship again. Commercial exchanges are okay and necessary, so we are told. Yet spiritual exchanges, these are too risky and, we are told, not really essential. This belies a vision of humanity that only sees consumers and producers, and does not see end points in eternity who do not admit of being used as a means to an end, and to whom the only proper value response is love.

Nothing offers the hope that God offers humanity, yet our culturally powerful fearfully limit this "dangerous" activity. The bold preaching of Peter and the Apostles is silenced in the public square and limited to virtual formats. Our priests and bishops cry out of virtual prisons, unable to be physically present to their sheep at a time when shepherds are most needed.  Helpful as a live-streamed mass may be during a time of crisis, such worship do not fully speak into the anxiety or loneliness that threatens human dignity today.  So, as happened during other times of persecution (yes, when Caesar tells you not to worship in public, no matter how well intentioned, that is persecution!), those who do gather, gather in secret - even if around a flickering screen somewhere in their own homes.  

Yet, even among Christians, there are those who are afraid of the Good News.  There are even voices that angrily denounce their brothers and sisters - shame on you for daring to think beyond this cage of fear in which we are shut. They shun their own fellow disciples and admonish them not to dare to dream or speak of hope for oneself or for the poor. Instead, we need to fit in and be good citizens who render unto Caesar what is Caesars, and if Caesars commands that you do not render to God what is his, then be obedient - for the politicians, experts and media experts are now our high priests, our malls, airports and universities our cathedrals, and the rich, powerful and famous our gods. Yet, we are made for more than producing and consuming things. It is not worthy of our dignity to be manipulated into some grand social scheme. It is a myth to believe that anyone can long be happy in a society that withdraws in fear and contents itself on meeting merely material needs. It is precisely against this tyranny that Christ, the Son of the Living God suffered and died for us - and only He, the Risen Lord, can free us from death and fear of death.

Created in the image and likeness of God, we have a great calling and with this calling, a difficult project.  Made to reflect what is beyond ourselves, no one is an ordinary person but each one of us is capable of self-controadiction.  Magnificence can suddenly unveil itself in the most surprising ways.  So can mediocrity. A pandemic and shelter-in-place orders do not change this fundamental human reality. Each day, a new battle begins for our integrity.  What we disclose or fail to disclose, what we hand over or what we hold back, the judgments we entertain in our hearts and our ability to attend to the heart of another, to allow their judgments to help us question our own - in each situation, we either betray the truth about ourselves or else confirm it. This truth is no easy matter. It involves our weaknesses, voids, inadequacies and failures - all of this for sure. And this, we would be foolish not to take stock of.  Yet, if we stop here, we are only at the surface of a great mystery. For an even deeper truth - indeed, the deepest truth of all - is that we are loved by God who has chosen to implicate Himself in our plight. Whatever it is that we must face, we do not face it alone. For He is with us to the end. 

May 3, 2020

The Voice of the Good Shepherd as we Shelter in Place

A difficult grace during pandemic is confronting the brokenness in our families as we shelter-in-place. God is hidden in that brokenness looking for His lost sheep: you and me. The Good Shepherd calls to us when our love for one another falls into the thicket to help us find our way out.  The One who brings Life to the Full also searches in those painful places where the briars of life cut deep.  This Shepherd has even climbed into the broken ravines that are impossible to escape.  He has gone there searching for us and it is in that pain that He will find us, if we let Him.  He searches there with love and patience, gently calling and listening for our bleats. But to be found by Him takes great courage and faith on our part. Most of all, to bleat out to the Good Shepherd takes a love that is confident in His goodness.

Shelter-in-place can become an opportunity for listening for the voice of the Good Shepherd.  Prayer is listening to the call of the Lord in our brokenness. When we are driven by the exigencies of the marketplace and entertainment industry, we often are distracted from the interior pain that members of our own household carry around. Even more, when under the dominance of external circumstances, we can be oblivious to the burdens that we carry or force others to carry for us. Quarantine can provide a moment of relief from driving exigencies and dominating circumstances so that we begin to face the real challenges until now avoided.

Un-faced guilt, un-forgiveness, bitter resentment, a burden of shame, in all of this the voice of the Shepherd calls out in search of us. His voice can lead us home if we will listen to it.  We do not face any burden or interior pain alone. Shame does not need to drive us further away from life and love. The Lord of Life, Risen from the Dead, has gone before us in power and authority over all that might threaten our dignity and weigh down our hearts, and as Divine Physician, He is already at work with his healing remedy.

Of course, shelter-in-place can also be an exercise in self-torment or narcissistic escapism - forms of imprisonment that even a superficial but productive life might avoid.  To avoid these dangers and take advantage of the difficult grace shelter-in-place affords, we must not be afraid of the truth. We must not be afraid to do the kind thing a thousand and one times, even if each of the thousand times we have done it is met with indifference. The voice of the Shepherd is a voice that calls for conversion and our humble efforts to smile or say a kind word are a sign that we are listening to Him.

Listening to the Good Shepherd is a matter of life and death. We have gone the wrong way and He calls us to turn around. It is a humbling thing to suddenly realize we have been on the wrong path and have followed, not the Shepherd who loves us, but a marauder who wants to steal us away. Yet if we deal with the truth about our own self and the truth about those with whom we live - no matter how painful - we are already on our way to verdant pastures.

When we first begin to see the brokenness in which we are lost, our initial reaction is to fix it. And this is not bad ... because there is a lot of unnecessary suffering that is easy to fix if we just use a little common sense. In the midst of much of life's disorder, the Shepherd's voice speaks to us through common sense and our own conscience.  Living a more orderly and disciplined life, for example, makes it easier to respect the space of those we live with. A harsh word stirs up anger, but a soft answer turns away wrath (Proverbs 15:1). It would be a mistake to presume that we could even address these more peripheral forms of disorder without His help -- but it pleases the Good Shepherd when He sees us take the initiative and He comes to our aid in a thousand hidden ways without our realizing just how much He has done.

There are other perilous situations, however, that go beyond our delusions of self-sufficiency.  As we listen to the voice of the Shepherd and try to follow His voice, we also come to realize, very quickly, that there are forms of brokenness that no matter how hard we try, we cannot fix them. Instead, our own efforts can sometimes make a situation even worse. Sometimes, we are so lost that the harder we try to find our way, the greater the danger we face. Common sense and following our conscience will only get us so far ... we need a Savior to rescue us and those we love from the thieves and wolves.

So our prayer bleats ... even as, without our realizing it, we are picked up and carried through the Sheep Gate. Hidden in the brokenness, the Good Shepherd finds us. He is not afraid to go there and we should never fear allowing Him to find us there.  He has abandoned everything to bring back one of His own and gladly suffers the misery we have entered to find us. To find Him in the broken wilderness of our hearts is not to have the misery magically go away, but to be carried by Him through it.  When our prayer allows Him to pick us up in the midst of what seems unfixable, our bleating has entered into the very Heart of God.

May 2, 2020

Father Conrad and Brother Isaiah - the Hidden Presence of God




PASCHA: Hymn of the Resurrection - Fr. Alexander Schmemann


On Easter we celebrate Christ’s Resurrection as something
that happened and still happens to us.
For each one of us received the gift of that new life 
and the power to accept it and live by it.
It is a gift which radically alters our attitude toward everything in this world,
including death.
It makes it possible for us joyfully to affirm:
“Death is no more!”
Oh, death is still there to be sure
and we still face it and someday it will come to take us.
But it is our whole faith that by His own death Christ changed the very nature of death,
made it a passage – a ‘passover’, a ‘Pascha’ - into the Kingdom of God,
transforming the tragedy of tragedies into the ultimate victory.
“Trampling down death by death”, He made us
partakers of His Resurrection.
This is why we say:”Christ is Risen and life reigneth!
Christ is Risen and not one dead remains in the grave!”
Such is the faith of the Church,
affirmed and made evident by her countless Saints.

In the center of the Church’s liturgical life, as its heart and climax,
as the sun whose rays penetrate everywhere, stands Pascha.
It is the door opened every year into the splendor of Christ’s Kingdom.
The foretaste of the eternal joy that awaits us, the glory of
the victory which already, although invisibly, fills the whole creation;
“death is no more!”
The entire worship of the Church is organized around Easter
and therefore the liturgical year becomes a journey, a pilgrimage 
towards Pascha, the End, which at the same time is the Beginning:
the end of all that which is ‘old’; the beginning of the new life,
a constant ‘passage’ from ‘this world’ into the 
Kingdom already revealed in Christ.

from Great Lent: Journey to Pascha by Fr. Alexander Schmemann

May 1, 2020

Prayer for Wisdom: In the Face of Danger by Scott Eagan

Come Holy Spirit – Come with Tongues of Fire
Come Great Sanctifier – Come, our Hearts Desire

Come Bestow Your Gifts – Holy Wisdom and Love
Show us Thy Ways – Wise Paths from Above

Help Us To Discern – To Choose and to See
Through this Present Darkness – Granting Great Mercy

Give us Children’s Hearts – As from the Manger
Guide with Thy Hand – Save us From All Danger

Bring us to the Empty Tomb 
 Where Our Lord Rose from Death’s Dark Womb

Dispel in Us All Sin and Fear
Draw Us Close Now - Bring Us Near

Fire our Hearts – and Live Within
Let Thy Love Heal Noise and Din

Jesus Christ Our Risen Lord
Arm our Minds with Gospel Sword

To Our Father Lead us On
Bring us to Your Forever Dawn

Give Us Thy Wisdom for this Day
With St. Joseph and Our Lady - Let Us Pray

Amen

April 30, 2020

Silence and the Strength of God

For Saint Elizabeth of the Trinity, silence is two activities at once. One the one hand, silence is the work of the soul dying to itself, forgetting itself, renouncing all that is not God through the recollection of all of one's thoughts and passions until one's whole being is ordered to God.  Keeping silence in these ways is a difficult task but those who take up this discipline discover it as a source of strength.

On the other hand silence is the work of God drawing the soul.  He is the source of all true silence and He has buried Himself in us.  In Him alone does one bury oneself when one has died to oneself.  He leads the soul into a hidden solitude, covering it under the shadow of His power and glory.

The progress of the soul into this silence is not grasping and forceful, but instead one of a wholly simple and loving movement.  Only a simple loving movement can enter into the loving simplicity of the Holy Trinity.  Such is contemplative prayer - love led faith into a communion of love, light and life.

Here, in this great silence, when the soul is finally vulnerable in its faith and ready to surrender, there are deep undercurrents in the love of God that can suddenly take it. From the outside, this Divine Impact appears to be certain disaster. From within, the soul has been transforms and adheres to God with a strength that nothing, not even death, can overcome. In the very brokenness of our lives and our hearts, a new creation springs and a peace is given that this world cannot give.

April 29, 2020

Science and Theology in the Public Square

Is there undue regulation of free speech on Youtube? I learned that an interview conducted by two doctors out of Bakersfield, CA may have been taken down. Apparently, some can still post it so that it is still available. The justification however was provided that this interview constituted a violation of community standards. In fact, they simply presented scientific evidence that brings into question some of our public policies - including policies that are regulating gatherings for public worship. Their findings were startling because they called into question many of the practices now in place and by so doing, these findings were helping to advance a better conversation that might help us make prudent adjustments. Yet they may have been taken down as misinformation.

This was the same justification given to me by Facebook over my posts on prayer in that forum. I was told that my posts about the spiritual life did not conform to community standards. I am surprised that there should be a connection between theology and science on Facebook and Google- that the administrators of these commercial products feel that they must suppress both. This would seem, however, to be a betrayal of the very values that they have allied themselves with in public.

To be clear, I believe an abundance of caution is called for in our public policies because this is a dangerous virus. We should protect one another - for the common good of our society is at stake. But that common good cannot be served in so far as efforts to discern the truth are suppressed. Some disagree with this position. At a time of crisis, they believe that any dissent is irresponsible speech. They believe the expression of ideas should be regulated on the internet as it is in China: https://www.theatlantic.com/…/what-covid-revealed-a…/610549/.

As the culturally powerful crush dissenting opinion, our ability to discern the truth as a society is compromised.  That is why it is very important for Catholics to bring their voice and perspectives into the public square - for religious freedom is not a private right, but a public good. Alerting the public to new evidence and discussing it, even if it calls into question current policy, is a responsible use of social media and should be affirmed in the community standards of Facebook and Youtube.

The whole history of the 20th Century tells us that freedom to religion and the access to truth are public goods that are easily lost - and when lost, it is always to the detriment of humanity. In California, the governor has dictated a plan by which Churches will remain closed for months on end. Apparently, it is the feeling - not of the people - but of policy makers that religion is too dangerous for society - a belief held by totalitarian regimes. What kind of society do we live in?  Whether or not the governor has dictated a good plan we will never know because, thanks to the totalitarian tactics of Facebook and Youtube, voices of science and religion are being suppressed.

April 26, 2020

Building a New World in Light of the Resurrection

Recently, Pope Francis called on the members of the Church to build a new world where there is equity among the poor and the rich. He did this in the face of the terrible devastation that has fallen on Italy during this time of pandemic. He also did so in light of the hope that we have in Christ. The Lord has risen from the dead and this opens up new possibilities for humanity- even in the face of anguish and anxiety. It is the role of the whole Church to proclaim this hope - the hope that we have in the Risen Lord.

Whatever else a new world might be, it would be reductionistic to see it only in terms of improved economic and distribution systems.  Indeed, the greatest problem that the poor face today is not material. The worse of all inequalities is that the most vulnerable are frequently spiritually neglected and under served. God's indwelling presence that is given to us by the Risen Christ compels us to address the needs of those in the greatest need, especially their spiritual needs.

During this pandemic, while ecclesial officials navigate local policies and public safety, the poor are the ones who inevitably suffer the most. In the midst of this crisis, the Church faces severe obstacles in providing housing, shelter, food, medical care and clothing for the poor at a time when there is a growing need. Extra generosity is needed by all believers. When, however, public worship is limited, the poor are cut off of the one place where their dignity is upheld as they share equally with the rest of society in offering to God what belongs to Him. In other words, the poor are carrying an undo burden for the rest of society when they are prohibited from gathering in worship even if this must be done for public safety. How do we deal with this?

At a time when an abundance of caution is duly called for, we also must be vigilant about the freedom to pray, not only in private, but together in public worship. This is not a selfish individual right - this is a public good, a great good especially for the poorest among us. To forego such a noble purpose anywhere for any length of time can only be justified under the most extreme circumstances. Yes, there have been other moments in history when such action were required. No doubt we are facing extreme circumstances in many communities - but do these circumstances exist in all communities in the same way?

On this point, I have found little scientific consensus. To prolong the suspension of public worship indefinitely based on the conflicting opinions among various experts should be concerning. To permit such a state of affairs merely out of concern for the optics or because voices in the media might ridicule public worship - this is a grave sin. We must not neglect to plan for the restoration of public worship in a responsible way, a way that protects the health and dignity of all the faithful.

What does it mean that policies are in place whereby, no matter the local circumstances, public worship in all localities is discouraged if not outright forbidden? Perhaps the circumstances exist that justify such policies. The experts have the obligation to resolve differences in opinion and come to a clearer consensus for the sake of society. Media have the responsibility not to sensationalize the truth or to shame into silence those who have a legitimate difference in opinion. Public officials also have the responsibility to safeguard our right to worship and assure its restoration as soon as is prudent to do so - any other behavior is simply oppressive. If there is justification for suspending public worship in a way that precludes the poor, as people of faith, we have an obligation to ask questions and to understand clearly what these circumstances are and how to deal with them to protect the vulnerable among us. 

April 24, 2020

Witnessing to the Risen Lord

Christ is risen from the dead and in the shadow of His healing presence, Christians no longer are driven by a fear of death. Instead, imbued with the life of the Savior in them, they are healed and driven by obedience to the love of the Father. Thus, they boldly proclaim the victory of Christ in the face of death, and offer those who most need it, a reason for the hope they have inside. They do this because the Risen Lord has chosen to work through the mystery of frail human freedom. When we believe, He gives us the strength to love with an audacity that reveals God.  It is in the sanctuary of each one's personal freedom that the Lord of Life gives this true power.  To anyone who freely chooses to believe that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead and accepts Him as Lord, He boldly forgives and abundantly communicates to them His very life.

The greatest proclamation of this truth - its source and climax - is the Mass. Here the Scriptures are read and reflected on, prayers are offered, the words He spoke the night before He died are boldly uttered again, the peace He gave when He rose again, is given again. At the Mass, the medicine of immortality is offered to the whole Church whether or not we can be present.  This healing love comes from Christ and He freely gives it to all who ask with faith and perseverance.  Anyone who receives this healing love, even if he dies, lives forever. Of this healing remedy, nothing is rationed. All is generously given.

Faith in Christ is about dealing with truth about the world and ourselves, and learning to love with His love, even in the face of death.  Never a magical escape from suffering or sickness or life, this faith provides determination and confidence even as the world falls apart. It always sees the good and works for it, when what is good seems most impossible. In the current crisis, for many of us, the most loving thing we can offer to God is to stay home and take care of those entrusted to us. For others, the most loving thing may will require even greater audacity. No Christian is ever excused from pondering what is good and noble, and every Christian is compelled to act on it with deep gratitude for what Christ is bringing about in our midst.

If from time to time through the centuries Christians have had to refrain from gathering together during times of plague, fear of death would never be an adequate explanation for what motivated their actions. Indeed, among some, maybe most, there would be moments of human weakness, but on the whole they acted for love for neighbor more than fear for themselves. Whatever the case, in their obedience to civil authority and common sense, they strove for noble rather than timid decisions. For those who live by faith in the Risen Lord, it cannot be any other way.

There have always been some non-Christians who believe that the boldness of the faithful before death is irrational and possibly dangerous. This is equally the case today. During this deadly pandemic, some experts suspect that Christian worship is dangerous. When priests or religious expose themselves to death to minister to others, it only confirms their deep suspicions.

No doubt that an abundance of caution under current circumstances is justified. Yet, there are some ironies that need consideration. For example, just how commercial interactions involved with cannabis or alcohol are less dangerous than limited gatherings for public prayer is not clear. Whatever the case, to really help patients and their loved one's deal with sickness and death, the worship of the Risen Christ would seem more rational and dignified than the escapism of substance abuse. Deeper prayer rather than more intoxication seems the better route to deal with the loneliness and anxieties of quarantine.

There are healthy young priests and religious who feel compelled to minister to the sick and dying, and those who care for them. They suffer a certain ache to bring a word of hope into hopeless situations - it is why they were consecrated to God. They are not indifferent to the anxieties of those entrusted to their care and they are very mindful of the limits that social media imposes on the ministry.  They need to be where Christ is at work and He is always at work among the most distressed and vulnerable. Obedient to due authority and observant of all the necessary precautions, at the end of the day, the love of Christ compels these ministers. The Risen Lord, at work in the world, is unleashing His eternal love in them -- and, moved by this love unleashed, these witnesses to Christ cannot but unleash inestimable treasure where this healing power is most needed.


April 19, 2020

The Still Small Voice

In our households, there are moments where it is good to turn off all the entertainment and diversions, light a candle, fold our hands, close our eyes and pray.  God speaks in silences, and the mature soul longs for those silences.  It does not have to be for long. All He needs is our readiness to surrender. Indeed, He can accomplish more in the twinkling of an eye than we can by years of conscious self-improvement. Indeed, some of our spiritual gymnastics do little more than prevent us from hearing His still small voice. The humble and persistent knock opens what arrogant self-reliance shuts out.

A subtle whisper moves with great delicacy through the heart echoing up from its deepest chambers, beckoning our pursuit into the unfamiliar and uncomfortable wilderness of a truer love. This familiar whisper is not our own, but resounds from the One from whom our being comes and for whom we were made. He is the Life Himself who made us, the very Truth who holds us into existence, the Way by which alone we find our heavenly homeland.  Now through the power of the Holy Spirit who He sends to us, we can hear this Word of the Father with the ear of our heart. Risen from the dead, He makes us understand that love surpassing all understanding - if only we might savor this spiritual food! If for one moment one glimpsed those eyes gazing on us with such kindness. What beautiful meaning His gaze traces in the soul! If we let Him, He will etch this hidden splendor into the fabric of our being until it breaks forth in action.  

April 18, 2020

Divine Mercy Sunday in the Pandemic

The mercy of God is at work in the world because Jesus is at work in the world. He is bringing to completion the eternal plan of the Father in manifold ways - and the greater the work being done, the more hidden from our eyes the accomplishment. This is not magical thinking. It is simply faith.

We do have a problem with magical thinking in the world. Yes it is magical to presume that positive thinking and religious presumption will fix our problems.  It is magical to think there will be no consequences if we do not use common sense or listen to the good counsel of experts and government leaders.  It is also magical to think that we can confront our present crisis without prayer and conversion of heart. It is madness to presume we can confront this crisis without God. It is crazy not to humbly ask for His help.  It is naive to put all our trust in human institutions. It is definitely magical to believe that the present crisis is simply about the spread a physical disease.

There were decisions made on the basis of profiteering and cavalier consumerism that made the world vulnerable to deadly dishonesty. We live in pure fantasy not to believe that the most vulnerable are the greatest victims of all. World powers play their heartless games, and we, each one, shield our hearts from being pierced by their plight. We are deluded to imagine that God does not see this.  The Lord is not responsible for the pandemic. Satan is because he is a murderer from the beginning. He is the father of lies, and there have been some very evil lies. God nevertheless is watching in judgment over us - and who is just in his sight? It is time to appeal to His mercy.

Shameless, we are driven by shame. It is magical to try to drink away the pain or distract ourselves from it through escapes into digital diversions. Indeed, behind pandemic there is sin, structures of sin, social sin and personal sin. Medicine cannot heal sin and quarantine cannot contain it. Only divine mercy can do that.

The Mercy of the Father is forever more powerful than sin. Give your sin to Him. Death cannot overcome this immense love. Give your dread of it to Him. No amount of suffering can diminish the inexhaustible vitality of His goodness to us - for His Son has already suffered to the end for our sake, and He raised Him up. Nothing prevents the Father from doing the same for us - if we will trust His Son whom He has sent for our sakes.

No plight is too much for His boundless love to bear. His mercy restores dignity. It alleviates hardship.  Divine Mercy lifts up the lowly. It shelters, feeds, clothes the poor. It moves hearts long frozen and convicts even the most poorly formed conscience. It accompanies the lonely and walks alongside those who believe they are having to carry on alone.

Such is Divine Mercy at work in the world - it shines like the stars through the saints in the streets working with the homeless, healthcare workers in hospitals with the sick and dying, among civil servants trying to preserve order and quell fear, among those carrying on essential tasks behind the scene, among parents caring for their children and children caring for their parents, among neighbors who look in on each other, and among ministers and priests who offer the Eucharist for us though we cannot be there with them.

So there is great reason for confidence - and it is time to rouse great confidence. If the sky is dark, God smiles down on us through myriads and myriads of stars. If wave after wave of misery seems to flood over the world and one's own soul, greater waves of mercy are also flowing. These mighty waves have an unconquered source, unseen by the eye of natural reason, but only a prayer away. The Risen Lord with open wounds and pierced heart comes to us stepping into this difficult darkness in search of us so that we do not walk alone, and if we follow Him who is Mercy itself, He will lead us home.


April 16, 2020

The Freedom to Worship God

To deal with a very serious medical emergencies, bishops and pastors collaborating with governmental official made some tough decisions about Easter celebrations this year. As a Catholic, not being able to participate in the flesh in the liturgies of Holy Week and Easter was a great sacrifice. I also believe, however, that God used this sacrifice and that He is at work in the world in a powerful way. That is why I look forward to the restoration of our right to worship God -- as we develop ways to safely be with each other again in public, the first thing we need to do is praise God for his goodness to us. This act of worship would show the ascendancy of human dignity over the threat of disease and our courage as God's people in the face of catastrophic circumstances.

In the coming weeks and months our society needs to rediscover the freedom to worship God. Though profound respect for experts is owed them for helping save many lives in this current crisis, there are other goods at stake that go beyond quelling fears and saving lives.  Disease experts and political leaders do not get to make an absolute claim over how we should live -- they have an important voice, but there are other voices that must be brought into the conversation. And it is evil to assume that when there is a grave threat, religious workers and ministers do not perform essential activities. There have been far too many chaplains who shed blood on battlefields for that hypothesis to be defended.  As a bishop in the Southwest put it, if pot shops and liquor stores are essential, it is likely that some religious services are as well.

Though prudence is required and mutual concern bids an abundance of caution, fear of death cannot be used as a tool to coerce compliance for the sake of a socio-medico experiments -- and too much of the media has been given over to hysteric contradictions one day to the next. Listening to the experts is key, yet we need to have an honest assessment of their disagreements - and not quickly write-off those whose opinion does not match a politically expedient point of view. In particular, to discern how best to restore the freedom to worship, religious leaders and government officials need the sober and simple truth, not meaningless conjecture.  We are at a point where we need to admit that in some cases some decisions were made on the basis of conjecture that ought now be reassessed. This act of humility opens a horizon of better decisions.

There is a great need, not only social and psychological, but also spiritual, for political leaders and government officials to restore religion to its rightful place in our society as soon as it may be done as safely as possible. Among the decisions that were made, some of the limits placed on the pastoral care of the sick need to be looked at.  So too we should consider whether there are not responsible ways for the faithful to gather for worship - at least in limited ways.

Religious freedom and human dignity are threatened when some experts and leaders presume that nothing is lost to a society when it must sacrifice public worship. When police are sent to ticket Churchgoers who are otherwise practicing social distancing and taking other precautions, something is amiss. When the most looming concern is not how to provide the spiritual care that people need in the midst of this crisis but instead how to ration resources or restore the economy, something is out of wack. Men do not live by bread alone ... and any society that believes otherwise will never hold together. Society opens itself to the gravest forms of abuse when those with power believe that not only during this crisis but afterward public prayer is too much of a health threat to allow.

If someone charges that religious fanatics do great harm, I would charge that fanatics without religion do worse. Contrary to the prejudice of many, religion is not a private affair. It is something for the public good. When we relegate the worship of God to the privacy of our homes, the very heart of our culture is vulnerable to being lost. Put differently, our society risks diseases far worse than death when its people are deprived of the healing Word of God. Indeed, God does not need our worship - but we need to worship God. His love is better than life and not to render Him His due is not really to live at all - for without worship we only exist ... and man cannot long bear a meaningless existence.

Piety is no more a dispensable character trait for a man than it is for a nation. If during times of war or extreme emergency public worship must be suspended, its absence over a longer period of time always has lasting consequences for society that are not easily dealt with. That is why, as plans are advanced to restart the economy, governmental leaders should be also working with religious leaders on how to restore public worship and open up the right of access to it. More than that, a good leader should not only ask God in his private prayer on behalf of the people for His help, that leader should be first in line in those places of public worship to show the citizens how important it is that we thank the Lord for the great mercy already shown us as a people.

We are religious beings who need to worship God, not only as individuals, but as communities in social solidarity. We do not come to praise God as alienated individuals seeking some therapeutic mental hygiene. We come out of mutual concern, to build each other up, to share a word of hope, to help provide a little guidance for the next step each one will have to take, and that we will all need to take together. Yet, we come together for something more than ourselves, to participate in something beyond the preservation of our own lives, to share in something that helps us get out of ourselves for a little while and enter into a place where we might thank Him who has been so good to us.

Worship is a social reality because God is interpersonal - He not only works in the interior of the heart but in the exigencies of the public square. He is the Lord of encounter - not only in private prayer, but in a community that humbly seeks His aid.  Thus, worship is most fully expressed when we are bound together, one with the other, in a solidarity of faith and fellowship.  This need is not the less in pandemics. Yes ... the technology has helped us pray and this is a grace. All the same, worship is a physical thing that we do with our bodies and voices in an actual place together with our neighbor. The place and time are set apart, sanctified for a great purpose - love of God and neighbor for the sake of God's glorious grace. And in that moment of worship, all that is most good, holy and true about being human is manifest - and something new begins.

Mystical Grace, Contemplative Prayer and the Perfection of the Christian Life

While few of us will reach the highest degrees of mystical prayer, many more of us are being invited to some degree of it in our life.  This is prayer where God is the primary actor and we respond to his initiative.  In initial efforts at prayer, actual graces are at work without our having done anything to deserve them.  Yet, those graces are ordered to helping us make the effort that, up until now, we have not had the desire or courage to make.

Think of prodigal son in Christ’s parable. By some grace he did not deserve he came to himself and began to reason with himself about his plight. This actual grace of conversion prompts him to examine and accept his situation, to change his mind about his actions and about his father, and then to do something about it.  We could say that the grace of conversion is "operative" because behind all of the son's actions, there is something that God is doing without the son ever knowing it or doing anything to deserve it. He simply responds to this divine action. The love of God works in this way in our lives - mysteriously moving us to repent.

When we accept the grace of conversion, all at once a whole new range of actual graces overflow our lives.  Among these graces, there are those in which we take the initiative but God cooperates with our effort.  We could never receive these cooperative graces had God not moved us to conversion first. Without His action, we would never take the initiative. He acted, and now we are free to act. And He loves to work in our freedom. When we sanctioned His judgment in our hearts, we gave Him the permission to help us in new ways that He could not help us before.

For the prodigal son, he needed to make the decision to get up, turn to His Father’s house, go and humbly plead his case, accepting his responsibility.  Grace is at work in his actions even though he is taking the initiative.  For God to help him, the young man needed to choose to stand up and go to his father’s house. We could say that God cooperated with his efforts, supporting him all through his journey home. So we call this cooperation on God’s part, cooperative grace, a divine action that cooperates with the actions of human freedom. The way God has made the human heart and the work of salvation, there are initiatives and efforts that must be made in the spiritual life. If we have accepted truth in our hearts, we must profess with our lips and live with our lives. But we never do these alone. In these cooperative graces, the Lord supports our freedom in beautiful but hidden ways - unaware of all He is doing behind the scenes, we have no idea how much we have to be grateful for.

Mystical grace, even in the most initial degree, is a new divine gift other than the grace of conversion and it is not the same as the cooperative graces. Like all grace, it is ordered to our holiness. Like all grace, it was won for us by what Christ suffered on the Cross.  This mystical grace, however, is actual and operativen in an entirely new way. This means that God acts and we respond - but our response is a much deeper surrender than anything we have ever been able to render before.  We belong to Him more radically, more completely than we could have ever given ourselves, even in our grace supported effort: there are divine workings makings that completely surpass anything we have done.

In the parable, Jesus teaches that the father saw his son coming from a long way off and ran to him.  The Father sees us, contemplates us, long before we see and contemplate Him. His ever greater desire for us evokes even our most tepid our desire to come into His presence. His loving gaze evokes love when we seek Him in prayer. We walk. He runs. We say we are not worthy. He greets us with a kiss and embrace and endows us with rings, and shoes, and a robe - and then throws a party - for we who were dead have come back to life. In the grace of mystical prayer, the soul comes to realize that no matter what it has done, it is as nothing compared to the immensity of what the Lord is doing.

The least degree of mystical prayer is the grace of the Father running to us, embracing us, kissing us, clothing us, honoring us, and celebrating our home coming.  Anyone who knows the joy of this homecoming remembers that it is so overwhelming that in a single moment, every the sorrow, hardship and difficulty is forgotten. We suddenly realize where we belong, and we want to stay there. Something so much more beautiful has made a claim over us that causes the banality of our own sin to relinquish its claim. We are contemplated, seen, recognized, known by the Father - and so we contemplate Him with the deepest conviction that we have not even touched the surface of the inexhaustible riches of Christ.

April 14, 2020

United under the Radiance of the Face of God

This Easter, we celebrate life, even in the face of death. There are loved one's who have faced death and not all of them have made it through. This passing out of this life is a difficult sorrow for those of us who are left behind. There are no words to express or relieve the heartache. When death is not expected, we are left with a troubled sorrow and unanswered questions.  

Christ knew this sorrow too. His heart was troubled before the tomb of his friend Lazarus. And so He stands with us, allowing our tears to mix with ours. He did not create us for death, and He came to overcome its claim on our existence. 

Through our faith, the Risen Lord leads us beyond the limits otherwise imposed on us by death. His love is unconquered and no threat to human existence can impede His way. So our Captain leads those who have died in faith into everlasting light, and those of us who still live by faith follow this Victor even under the shadow of that same glory. This symphony of glory and faith is the communion of saints - an exchange of holy gifts between the whole people of God both in this mortal life and in eternal life. 

What union between heaven and earth is realized in the Savior! So in that most sorrowful hour, when unanswered questions buffet our very existence and everything we believed about our lives seems to be shattered, we still have hope. Our hope does not disappoint -- for no matter what we suffer the love of God is poured out in us through Him (Romans 5:5). And if He is Lord of all and all things belong to Him, even death is subjected to His power to restore and make new.  

Saint Elizabeth of the Trinity reflected on these same truths with a young seminarian who had lost his father.  Her words reach out to everyone who has lost someone in this present crisis too.  They are a call to live with our hearts in what is above and to make our priority those things of heaven that seem so far away. This is how she dealt with the death of those she love - it is the Christian faith. And so she prays with us so that all might enjoy the eternal face to face that we were meant to know from before the foundation of the world: Let us live in what is above, in what is very far away, in Him... in us...  Under the radiance of God's Face, I remain united with you. (Letter 200, April 27, 1904)

Mass and Poustinia this Easter

Poustinia is one way to deal with these High Holy Days without the Mass. The word poustinia means desert or wilderness. In the Eastern Churches, members of the faithful sometimes retire into the wilderness to fast on bread and water and read the Holy Bible. To be drawn into such solitude is a great gift even if it happens only once in a lifetime is a great gift. We are dealing with a once in a lifetime moment now, and the grace of poustinia may be part of it.

One of the hardships of being in poustinia, especially in remote locations, is that Mass is difficult if not impossible to attend. So for those who participate in the Eucharist everyday, going into poustinia means not being able to be physically present for the liturgy. Yet, when you go deep enough into prayer, no matter where you are, the Liturgy of the Body of Christ is present. In fact, you have entered into the heart of the Mystical Body, the deepest spiritual center in which the Eucharist is the source and summit.  In all the trials and hardships that make up the silence and solitude of the wilderness, the true poustinik goes ever deeper into the Eucharistic mystery - never away from it.

Just as those who periodically forego the Eucharistic Liturgy to enter Poustinia, we find ourselves in our homes unable to go to Mass. Yet if we enter deep into prayer, just as is the case in poustinia, one discovers that faith brings what is most essential close to the heart. The Church is not less important if we are in solitude. Her worship not less vital for our relationship to the Lord though we are cut-off from our communities. This is because, in the liturgy, the Bride of Christ provides such multivalent access to the inexhaustible treasures she possesses in the Bridegroom - in both visible and invisible ways.

This bold access is opened through a beautiful dance of words and signs, symbols and cultic acts - each of which is drawn from the Holy Bible with sober intoxication whether or not we realize or understand it. The Savior established them - for He preached, and when Christians worship there is still preaching even when we cannot hear it. He took bread, blessed it, and gave it to his disciples. So too the mystical Body of Christ continues His saving actions even when we do not see or hear them.

It is not the case that the public worship of the Church is superfluous even in life and death situations - for martyrs have suffered death for the sake of going to Mass. While prudence and charity bid that we keep distance from each other for a short time, there are evils worse than a virus that only the visible worship of the Church can address. The State and experts are simply not qualified enough to protect us from such things - for humanity is made to praise God and when we do not, our dignity is diminished and integrity put at great risk, and this never ends well.  Yet, current circumstances call for prudence, and rendering Caesar what he asks for may well keep the most vulnerable among us safe. There are those, however, whose role it is to render unto God what belongs to God, and so by their actions on our sake the interest of the state is subordinate to the interests of God.

In the Eucharistic liturgy, everything the Church knows by heart is at stake: man pouring out his heart to God and God crying out to man, a mutual exchange sealed by the Blood of the New Covenant Christ.  It is a tangible and concrete reality and prayer enters into this same concreteness if we let it.  It goes deep into those cultic acts of Christ to find our hearts: taking the Bread and the Cup, blessing them, giving them, and allowing them to be consumed by us. These are all supreme acts of prayer and contemplation just as much in this moment as they were that night when these acts were first offered.

Anyone who assists in these acts with humble faith is suddenly made vulnerable to the saving power that the Lord communicates through them. Yes, it is best to be able to see with the eyes of one's own body and hear with one's bodily ears the Church's physical celebration - for our faith is not a cerebral trip, it is about the redemption of the body. At the same time, though we are miles away, separated by walls that make it impossible to see or hear that awesome prayer - the eyes and ears of our hearts, if we will hold them in that stillness that love still knows, listen and gaze on the invisible mysteries that the rites signify.  We feast on the same Eucharistic Lord whose desire to be our food never ceases. Whether we are deep in the wilderness and quarantined at home, nothing can separate us from the love of God even as the Church communicates it in the most tangible and concrete ways.

Christ works through others, whether or not we see their work. Mediating the rites so that this very exchange between God and man might realized by those newly present is the priest. He can act in the person of Christ because Christ instituted this priesthood when He commanded "Do this in memory of Me." When the priest obeys this command, the same power that went out from the Cross goes out anew, whether or not his obedience is visible to us. In all these ways and so many more, the power of the Lord is always at work making all things new whether we see it or not, whether we hear it or not, whether distance facilitates it or not, whether faith allows us to be present to it or not.

The priest can and must offer the Mass and Liturgy of the Hours for our sake - and this is a spiritual reality that goes beyond live-streaming a video. Beyond his homily, even a very good one, he not only represents the actions of Christ but as well our actions before God. He not only speaks for the Lord, but he also speaks for the Church before the Lord. The priest is the instrument of the memory of the Church - recalling what Christ commanded so that the conversation that He opened up might be renewed again in time and space.  Yet the great mystery that the priest unveils is the same mystery already given to us by faith.  When no priest can minister to us physically present, the priesthood of Christ is not physically absent: Christ the High Priest is ministering all the more and relies on the ministry of the priest even if hidden from the eyes of the believer. Mysteriously, even when hidden from our sight, because he is Christ's instrument, somehow his prayer and sacred action unleash Christ's ministry to us.

The mysteries the Church discloses in her worship are not unknown or remote to the believer even when the believer finds himself physically separated from the Church.  Distance, walls and any other obstacle is never more powerful that faith alive with love. The disciple knows what is being celebrated because the same reality lives in his heart.  The indwelling of the Trinity implies that the pathways to Mount Zion are in the heart, that there we enter the great gathering of all the angels and saints in great canticles of endless praise around the Throne of Grace, that within we know the descending of the whole heavenly Jerusalem, that united to Christ as his Body we offer undaunted intercession that pierces into the tabernacle not made by human hands, that in the very depths where we cry out to the Father, He Himself welcomes us into His bosom. To unveil to us this dramatic but invisible reality, the Risen Lord works through the rites of the Church though we are in the wilderness and separated from them.

What does this mean practically? It is not a matter of technique or method - though the Christian tradition is rich with those from Lectio Divine, to the Rosary to the Jesus Prayer - just to name the most popular. Instead of a technique, however, prayer is primarily about a very simple movement of love in the heart. It is faith humbly stretching out to the Risen Lord and begging with tears. It is a great stillness and silence that yearns to see His Face. When our hearts ache for Him the most, it is hear the He is in our midst, eating and drinking with us - for His body and blood communicate to us the same aching love that He has known from before the foundation of the world.

To make our homes into a poustinia is to open our hearts to the grace of a deeper Eucharistic encounter. It is not enough to read the Bible with our eyes - we must read it into our actions. Turn off the diversions. Leave your fear behind. Do not let petty bickering rob you of this grace. Reconcile with your brother and sister. Persevere in bearing with them and find ways to relieve the frustration that they suffer. Say what edifying things can be said to build up their faith. Do not be drunk on wine or frivolous diversions - but filled with the Holy Spirit.

As for the experts and the politicians, let the talking heads talk to themselves for a little while. If it is something important, you will learn it in plenty of time. But for some few minutes or even a couple of hours each day not even the experts get to make an absolute claim on your existence. Because the Church is at prayer, you can enter into the wilderness to seek the Lord and this is something no one can prevent. You do not have to go beyond the privacy of your bedroom to find this spiritual desert. Humbly ask Him who even more humbly offers Himself to you. Seek the Living One who seeks you even more. Knock and the door will be open by the One who has patiently awaited you in love.

April 13, 2020

Cardinal Burke's Observation - a word of wisdom in a time of crisis

A story is told about the saintly Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński, Archbishop of Gniezno and Warsaw in Poland and Primate of Poland, who was first imprisoned and then placed under house arrest by the Communist government, beginning in September of 1953. He and those who assisted him witnessed the inhuman treatment, indeed torture and execution, of so many prisoners. One of those who was assisting him during the time of his house arrest expressed, one day, fear about who might arrive at the door. The fear was not unfounded. The Cardinal is said to have responded that, when fear knocks at the door, courage opens the door, and there is no one there. In other words, in times of suffering and even death, we must have the courage of those who are alive in Christ. We cannot give way to fear, which is a natural sentiment in time of danger but which Satan uses to take away our Christlike courage. Rather, we must have ever greater confidence in Our Lord Who will never abandon us. If we go forward with courage, yes, there will be suffering, but there will not be defeat. When courage opens the door, what we feared so much will not be there because Christ is with us. Rather, there will be the victory of Christ in our human flesh. In the present and most grave situation in which we are living in the world and in the Church, let us remember the example of the Venerable Cardinal Wyszyński. When fear would overcome us, let us be courageous in Christ Who indeed is risen and lives in us.

April 9, 2020

A Retreat For Holy Week and Easter With Kris McGregor and Discerning Hearts

Grateful to Kris McGregor for hosting these conferences which were to be offered at St. Clare's Retreat Center in Soquel, California.  In this first conference, I offer some practical pointers on how to enter into this retreat and some counsels on meditation and mental prayer. The retreat is a meditation on the the Gospel of John, Chapters 13-17 drawn from Hans Urs von Balthasar's great work Heart of the World.  I hope you have a Holy Triduum and and Blessed Easter!

Heart of the World – Conference 1 – Meditations on the Paschal Mystery /w Dr. Anthony Lilles

Fr. Robert Torczynski of Mendocino on Holy Thursday

April 6, 2020

Spiritual Communion and the Prayer of Faith

The act of faith is a powerful movement of soul, more powerful than pandemic, loneliness, suffering, fear or even death. This wholly simple movement avails not only one's intellect but also one's whole being to mysteries so great that this present life is not able to contain them. The act of faith culminates in a foretaste of splendor dawning upon us.

This act remains un-circumscribed by anything that is not God. Pressing exigencies, terrifying circumstances, catastrophe, disaster, none of this limits this most primal act of the human heart.  The spirit reaches out for its object - realities above and beyond itself - not in titanic struggle, not in nihilistic dreaminess, but with the simple, humble determination that only love knows. Eternity comes rushing in, in the very frailty of the present moment, whenever the heart lifts itself up to God and humbly requests His saving help.

Such is the mystery that faith in Christ Jesus has opened up for the world. He bought this movement of grace at the price of his own blood.  By His Passion and Death, He has opened access to the heart of the Father so that every prayer of faith offered in his Name is always heard and answered. His Cross is the threshold to the boundless love of the Holy Trinity, the meeting point of human misery and Divine Mercy, the doorway to a love stronger than death. When we ask for our own salvation (and before God, no one else can ask for us), the Father recognizes our voice because the Blood of His Son cries out to Him. The blood of Christ is so eloquent that it bears away even our sins and rushes in with such tender mercy.

Because our faith is not yet perfect, we might see inadequacy, shame and unworthiness, but the Father sees in that Blood a love that is stronger than death. Struggling with doubt, we might see a game in which we secure psychological relief but not true change of heart, in that Blood the Father sees His Word by which He made Heaven and Earth.  By that Blood, doubt no more and do not be distracted by what you suppose is beyond God's power to heal, for your trust in Him gives Him the space He needs to make you whole. In His Son and what He suffered for us, the Father chose to suffer our misery with us, including our own sin, so that we would not suffer alone, and out of this suffering, the power of His love in the blood of His Son rescues our dignity and gives us life, even as we struggle for life's breath.

The fact is, before we offer our act of faith, Jesus, the Word of the Father, has already taken our side and the Risen One has poured out the blood that enables us to call to Him.  He whose life now belongs to us is not indifferent to our plight, but ready in the twinkling of an eye to come to our aid. So it has been from the first moment of our lives and is now in this pandemic. Though we treated him as an enemy, He has chosen to be our neighbor. Where others pass us by, he stoops down, baths our wounds and carries us to shelter.  Though we have treasured Him so little, He sees in us a treasure buried in a field, a pearl, a lost coin, a lost sheep - and He has turned the world upside down to find us.  We are His beloved Bride, and to render us pure and immaculate, He has held nothing back but handed Himself over to humiliation and scorn. We are His Father's vineyard, and what abuse He suffered so that the Father might lay claim to us.

In the Name of the Father who loves us, He watches for our coming from a long way off and the moment we come to our senses, turn around and start on the way home, He who longs for our return runs to us. He clothes us in robes, rings and shoes, and leads us where we belong. In our plight, we see that we are not worthy to be his servant, but He calls us sons and daughters. If we will only seek those tear filled eyes that so tenderly gaze on us, we would know in a single glance that what most defines our existence is not our betrayal of love, but the deeper reality that God's love for us is irrevocable - and whether we accept it or reject it forever, nothing has the power to change that - for He is unchangeable.

The access that Christ has opened to the heart of the Father through our faith in Him makes possible what Christian tradition calls spiritual communion - a heart to heart with God, an unfolding of that the very same grace he offered the night before His death,  an encounter with what Christ did on the Cross that even in this moment can begin to fill our hearts. To receive this grace, all one needs to do is ask with faith and perseverance. Think of it!  The greatest work that God can accomplish in humanity is only a prayer away, a treasure is ours for the asking.

Suddenly, we are not alone no matter how cut-off we are from our friends and family.  Heaven surrounds us and we breathe the air of our true homeland. This immense and majestic silence echoes with the hymns and canticles of myriads and myriads of angels and saints gathered around the throne of the Lamb. The glory, the splendor, the beauty can cause us to ache with such joy and sorrow all at once, and something is given that fills every moment of our life, from birth to the present, with new meaning.  God's City of Peace descends and the misery of the moment is pregnant with love's intensity.

All at once, no matter what our poverty or dire circumstance, we have everything that matters. By this most humble prayer of faith, we open the door to a banquet hall and discover that we are the guests of honor.  In the valley of death, as fear rises up on every side, He guides us and helps us refresh our weary hearts if we will but bow our heads and fold our hands. We feast on the Bread of Life in the face of our enemies if we will only ask the Source of Living Waters to give us a drink.  And he pours a cup of joy so wonderful that no matter what might befall us, we will live in the house of the Lord for ever and ever. Amen.