February 22, 2020

The Mother of God and Holy Humanity

The Fathers of the Church believed that when the Word became flesh whatever of our humanity was not subsumed by His Divine Person and united to His Divinity was not redeemed. The Fathers of the Church argued vigorously that the whole human reality, apart from sin, was subsumed by Christ: when the Word became flesh, He joined Himself irrevocably to all that is good, noble and true about our existence as well as all our limits, inadequacies and weaknesses.

Part of our human reality is the personal particularity of each one of us - and this too is what He has joined to Himself. This means that we are never truly alone - He is with us in our innermost self, completely connected to our plight. In this way, He is present to every person who has ever lived and who will ever lived. There is no misery to which He is stranger - for He has chosen that no human person should ever suffer alone. He comes to us in this manner because He is on an active pursuit to save our dignity and restore our integrity.

That is because God loves the whole human reality and does not wish any of it to perish in self-contradiction and alienation. For this is what sin is. Jesus did not sin, but He suffers its consequences with us and for us to deliver us us from its power. There is no human evil or suffering that is greater than His presence. He has already suffered it all, even unto death. He has journeyed into the depths of hell to search for us so that no matter how far we have gone from Him, the Savior of humanity is still only a prayer away.  In your Savior's presence, all that would threaten holy humanity is subordinated to the love of the Father. To enter this presence, all one needs to do is believe. All one needs to do is humble himself and ask. We can do this confidently because of the immensity of His love: He has willingly sacrificed everything to free each of us from meaningless and death.

This means salvation is a very concrete and particular reality - and so is our prayer. Salvation is not a generalized reality that is true is some vague way against the backdrop of the history of human activity. It is at the concrete heart of it all -- and so is the prayer of faith. Very particular, very personal, this mystery that takes up our highest thoughts and deepest desires because each instance of our short lives are pregnant with the presence of the Word made flesh. No one's life is accidental, but a pure gift. When we pray, the gift is opened. The Father has entrusted His Son to us so that we might know the truth about who we are, how much we are loved and the greatness to which we are called.

This presence of the Word of the Father makes us part of the story of salvation. Eternal Son of God tells the story of God's merciful love in his very person uniting humanity's time and space, limitation and weakness, temptation and struggle to God's eternal life and divine immensity, superabundance and divine power, unchanging truth and perfect peace. The saving Love of God is the spotlight that definitively shines with the truth on all of human history and is the stage on which each one's life story is told. This Divine Love is the drama in which all humanity and each one of us has an un-repeatable role.

What made such a union between God and man possible? The Lord never imposes on human freedom. Having created freedom and seeing his divine image and likeness in it, He would not corrupt or oppress it. Instead, he came to us to evoke a free response, and the dynamism of His appeal was entirely in the order of love and truth.  He humbly proposed His plan and waited for us to respond. The Father spoke His Word and waited for a heart to fully welcome His wisdom. The end is commensurate with the means - God acts within the parameters of human freedom because He yearns to raise the freedom on high.

The Lord waits for our hearts to welcome His Word. Our existence is awaited by such an immensity of love, but this love will not force itself. The God who is Love waits to be invited, to be asked, to be desired, to be welcomed. He endures our rejection, our indifference, our denial and our betrayal. This love is patient and confident - for its very presence already begins to produce something in us. Its patience evokes a yearning that we did not know we had. He waits before our loneliness and self-contradiction ready to welcome us home and restore our integrity.  God has created us without our asking it, but He will not save us until we ask.  A petition always expresses a desire. If we do not desire to be saved, He will never force salvation upon us.

This is a hidden secret - and only those who enter the hiddenness of faith in the Son of God can find it. So it was that Mary heard the angel's greeting and by granting God permission to accomplish his plan in her, the Word gained a small, quiet foothold on humanity's shore. In Mary's humble "yes", the Word made flesh found solid rock from which to resound.

The Word unveiled the desire of the Father through the "yes" of a woman. Her humble prayer and quiet faith opened the pathway to salvation for the whole world. The Woman welcomed Word into her heart. Her spirit surrendered to God's plan and her body conceived a new Adam under the shadow of the Most High.

Whoever enters under this same shadow still finds this wonderful woman - for the Mother of God follows her Son and yearns that everyone might discover the freedom to "go and do whatever He tells you." Blessed are those who freely chose to share such holy desires, the desire of this Holy Mother who believed - for it gives the Word space to turn water into wine, to transform human limits with divine freedom.

What a beautiful work in all creation humanity is! When filled with grace, the human creature can say "yes" to God and in this "yes" what Christ has joined in his Divine Person is made fruitful anew. In this yes, all the glory and power of Christian prayer is unleashed. The Word of the Father asks to dwell in this particular heart, at this particular time and place, under what particular circumstances He has yearned to make part of his saving mystery.  All of this when anyone freely chooses to live in obedient love under the shadow of the most High.


February 15, 2020

Contemplative Theology and Highest Wisdom

Often when I propose the possibility of a contemplative or kneeling theology, someone normally asks about upholding academic rigor.  The presumption is that a theology that is not primarily concerned with the questions of the academy is not likely to be demanding. In this worldview, admittedly the dominant view in most theological faculties, prayer is for the realm of the affections and imagination while study is about rational arguments and systems of thought. Such perceived dichotomy between devout prayer and serious study would seem to undermine the further dialogue that I wish would take place.

 In the minds of many, contemplative theology evokes the possibility of no more than pious twaddle  - its supposedly not serious or disciplined enough. Limited to an exercise in obscure associations and metaphors, too much so-called spiritual literature would seem to confirm such a judgment. Too many retreat conferences are pitched at a level that appeals only to the imagination. Perhaps because we have such atrophied hearts some of this helps us get back in touch with our humanity. Perhaps because we live in an abstract world disconnected from our own bodies, beginning to pray involves getting back in touch with the fact that we are enfleshed souls. The imagination indeed can be part of such an effort for it is connected to our senses. Indeed, nothing is in the mind that is not first in the senses - but if we do not plunge our senses into reality, if we do not discipline the flesh, the soul is left empty and the imagination rendered vulnerable to nihilism.

Yet it is a horrific mistake to believe that prayer is not about the truth or that it is mindless. It is rash to assume that contemplation in the Catholic tradition looks out on anywhere other than the very truth for which our whole being hungers.  Indeed, contemplative theology is more demanding, not less, than the theology proper to the contemporary academy. Such a kneeling theology is open to the painful silence that the contemporary academy would rather avoid -- and in this silence, it learns to listen.

When we kneel before the presence of God, we must not believe our relationship to Him is limited to some affective imaginative exercise. As we trace the Sign of the Cross, it is catastrophic to presume anything other than this truth: by that power and authority wrought by what He suffered, He makes a claim over our very being, a claim before which we are accountable.  Our Crucified God, present in faith, bears the standard before which is measured what we have done and failed to do, who we are and who we have become. Not to know Him and what He has revealed about who we are can only limit our freedom to fully live -- for there is no freedom without this saving truth -- oh yes, that truth for which the soul pants and all of creation suffers labor pains.

What is at stake is the highest wisdom - that wisdom without which one's own life can only be diminished, without which the whole world be made less.  This wisdom requires a study of theology that is directed to union with God.  This wisdom also requires prayer informed and safe-guarded by sound doctrine, the truth that God has revealed and that the Holy Spirit makes known in the preaching of the Church.  Those who know this wisdom have access to the deep things of God - to a word of hope that their neighbors need now more than ever.

This wisdom requires the ongoing conversion of one's whole life, an intense struggle against sin and spiritual battle against principalities and powers. This highest wisdom demands deep down maturity - the capacity for renunciation, the capacity for a deeper surrender to God's love, the capacity to be humble and filled with wonder.  This wisdom requires the baptism of one's memory, imagination and affections in the Bible until the heart can speak the words of the Word, and at the same time, it demands deep understanding of the rich narratives, interlaced structures, and multivalent meanings of the Scriptures.  The bread chewed on in such study is the only food that can feed a mind intent on such a pursuit. All of this is so because this wisdom requires an encounter with the Lord that humbles the intellect and holds every thought captive.

Such encounters lay open through the wonders that God has revealed and entrusted to the Church - how we live and love, how we worship and adore, how we are tested and rise again - all of this informs, directs, deepens and lifts up the kind of contemplative study that the Church needs today. In such theological adoration, we are raised into the full stature of Christ - made wise by his eternal wisdom, the wisdom from above. Theology filled with adoration and praise roots every exploration of the truth in devotion to Christ.  It is this wisdom alone, this awareness of God's presence in the study of our faith, that renders a soul vulnerable to a glory and fullness of life too great for this present life to exhaust.

If Catholic education in general and seminary education specifically is ever to surrender itself to highest wisdom, contemplative prayer is an activity that must inform the classroom.  Contemplation of God and the things of God alone can direct these efforts above the latest concern of the academy. Only a kneeling theology can raise the gaze of students to behold what is above - a mystery so beautiful and filled with wonder that tears and joy, fiercest resolve and deepest freedom fill our being. We come to magnify something - no, Someone - not our own, but who is completely given us nonetheless.  Such truth filled prayer must ignite new scholarly efforts until virtuous life is born.

February 9, 2020

Renouncing Idols - Clinging to God

While there are many idols that might be worshipped, the contemporary person is prone to serve technology.  There is a tendency to see technological achievement as definitive of human achievement. Whether that achievement is economic power, social control or gratification, the only joy that it attains has the fragile brilliance of crystal, a joy far outweighed by the fear that it will be shattered in an instant.  Though some may be self-deluded enough to believe otherwise, self-definition through technological power offers only tenuous hope, even for the most powerful and adept. Indeed, the connection between what we know and what we make does not yield a destiny worthy of our nature and cannot long bear the weight of our existence.

Yet, technology offers such enchantment and seems to deliver on all its promises.  Indeed, the average person might even believe that technology is serving him. He might have sincerely convinced himself that he has mastered something over which he exerts control with no cost to himself. Technology, however, is not neutral. It is a mistake to believe that it is merely a potentiality just waiting for an extrinsic force to manipulate it for its own purposes.  

In so far as he sees his identity as tied to the work of his hands, a person's use of technology actually places his very being under its power. To the extent that anyone seeks the realization of his being from technology, that person is under the limited even if seemingly infinite potentialities of man made things. The alarming rate of self-harm and self-loathing testifies to the truth that knowing and making things is ordered to something that is not great enough to bear up human existence.  Indeed, to the extent that we give ourselves over to manipulating anything, we implicate ourselves in forces that manipulate us.

Worship is filled with the desire for something above ourselves.  If we serve what is above, it raises our existence. If something beneath us, it pulls us down to what is below our dignity.   This is a matter of spiritual principle - one is appropriated to that which one appropriates to himself.  St. Augustine expressed this in terms of desire and the weight of the soul. Desires for earthly things weigh the spirit down. Heavenly desires lift it up. No technology is heavenly. Technology cannot, by itself, raise us above ourselves. 

This does not mean that technology is to be completely avoided or that it is inherently evil. What our hands have made reflect a small part of the potential for good and evil that lives in the human heart.  Yet we should not allow this partial potential to make an absolute claim over our existence. We are mysteries unto ourselves, the truth of which is known only as we learn to give ourselves as gift to God and neighbor. Our lives have a higher purpose realized only through worshipping the One true God. We must be grateful to God that we can make anything good at all and we must be humble about the limits of technology when it comes to human thriving.  

No matter how enchanting or delightful, the work of our hands is not worthy of worship. The altars of the machine offer a hope that can only diminish human greatness and betray the freedom for which we were made. Our destiny rests beyond the things that we have made.  Thus, we must learn to place the things our hands of wrought into the hands of God. 

February 3, 2020

The Roman Catholic Priesthood in San Francisco

God is unveiling the noble greatness of the Roman Catholic Priesthood in the Archdiocese of San Francisco - a local Church on the very periphery of the Pacific Rim, and at the same time, a cultural and technological crossroads for the world. Last August, I began at St. Patrick’s Seminary and University as Academic Dean. Each day begins in the silence of our chapel. In these moments of prayer, those rich paradoxes of human misery and Divine Mercy at work in this community of faith sometimes disclose themselves in ways that baptize me in wonder. 

Although it appears that fewer men are pursuing the priesthood, there really has never been a shortage in vocations. On the contrary, there are always men who are willing to embrace a lifetime of celibacy for the sake of this noble calling, even in the lowest moments of history and culture. Still, if God always gives plenty of vocations to the priesthood and there seems to be a crisis in the priesthood, believers need to consider how we have been reckless about God’s goodness to us. This is of great importance: for how we treat the gift, we treat the Giver. We must find ways to protect and promote this powerful gift -- for the gift of the ministerial priesthood is the source of life in the Church and a sign of hope for the world. 
Through the years, my work in seminary education has allowed me to meet some of the most remarkable people, at some of the most outstanding seminaries in the United States. In regards to the seminarians themselves, it would have been easier for these men to follow a conventional career path and, indeed, many excelled in the ways of the world - for the world never expects very much from young men. Yet God expects much, and this is what draws them. To respond to His call is always to step into a pathway of greatness - for He is great and they proceed convinced, on some level, that we who are in His image are fashioned for magnificent purpose.

Just as did Abraham and the prophets, these men stepped forward to be counted in the arena of life when others fled through portals of indulgence. Those seeking to hide their timidity accuse them of temerity. Those unwilling to serve deem them gullible idealists. Feeling called by the Lord, they made a radical decision to take time out of their lives to listen more closely to His voice. Something in their hearts has moved them to seek something more. This is what makes them remarkable, marked by a certain courage that is not afraid of what peers think or society judges, but charged instead with some singular conviction that boldly goes beyond convention into the uncomfortable regions of God’s love. 

The most mature and gifted among them do not see themselves as heroes, but only as broken men loved by God, desiring to make some kind of return to Him for His goodness. Yet, I feel honored to be in their company and to accompany them a little while on their journey.  Whether in Denver, Los Angeles or San Francisco, the witness of the seminarians whom the Lord sends has never failed to lift me up and has helped me glimpse the utter goodness of God. They do not come as finished products, and they constantly face difficult trials and disappointments.  Sometimes, they go through dark periods where nothing makes sense. Yet, more often than not, those who persevere also encounter the Lord, and gain a wisdom and confidence that nothing in this world can take away.  When priestly formation is successful, those who are enriched by such encounters with the Lord become His fiery icons in many cold dark places that need both light and warmth.

The various seminaries that I have served are also to be recognized for their faculties -- men and women of inspiring character, prayerful discipline and profound insight into the most difficult questions confronting humanity and the Church. Many have been my closest friends, and their spirit of sacrifice and service have provided important examples for me of what faithfulness to the Lord ought to be. Theirs is a hidden vocation: seminary professors fight many difficult battles to protect the integrity of the faith and the moral character of those entrusted to them. Their stories are often untold and remain only in the memories of their students, yet heroic sacrifices are not the less admirable for remaining unsung. 

In a few cases, I am quite certain that God has permitted me to work with true saints both among faculty and seminarians. This is true of the seminarians and faculty at St Patrick's. As an institution, it has seen its fair share of tragedies and disappointments in recent years. Last year, Dr. Karen Chan, a wife, mother of young children, a very gifted scholar and an academic dean who served the seminary with maternal force and dedication, was tragically killed in a car accident. Only a few weeks later, the rector, Bishop Robert Christian, a beloved son of San Francisco, would suffer a heart attack and also die.  In the face of this sorrow, the faculty and the seminarians have come together in an authentic communion of faith and understanding. A profound mutual concern and desire to build up and renew priestly formation is at work among us -- the Holy Spirit is doing something new and powerful in our midst, and signs of hope shine out in all kinds of small gestures and acts of kindness.

I write all of this because of the sometimes severe criticism that seminaries receive at almost every corner. The sting of abominable crimes and catastrophic failures in leadership has spurned blame, pointing fingers, harsh judgments and accusations. The temptation to deflect or lash out is always present, yet faith in our Crucified God demands meekness that goes against the cycles of dysfunction otherwise un-resisted. Indeed, the admonishments offered to seminaries can be a gift. Few rebuke seminaries as institutions in themselves. Most, instead, condemn failures to uphold the demands of the Gospel of Christ in institutions that were founded for no other purpose. Standards of accreditation in higher education are easier to embrace than is the standard of the Cross. At least for me, some criticism actually occasions insight into how much conversion I still need if I am ever to serve the faculty and seminarians in those ways that they not only deserve, but indeed, need today. 

What conversion? A return to the dignity of the priesthood. Many blame seminaries for problems in the Church, and this is partly not without cause. Although John Paul II called for a reform of seminary life and many important efforts were made, the deep fundamental conversion of institutions and personal lives have rarely been embraced as they should. Too often we relied on programs more than we relied on God, correcting only external behaviors when a radical change of heart was needed. In so doing, we lost our way and need to come back to our senses. Somehow in the midst of the brokenness that is so pronounced today, we must return to the love of God the Father revealed in Christ Jesus -- a love inseparably implicated in our misery and unveiled in Holy Orders.  The dignity of the priesthood comes from this merciful love, and any correction or rebuke is useful insofar as it helps us recover this dignity.

Conversion to the love of the Father is all about addressing our ignorance of vital sources of humanity. How can we ever know the Father's love if we despise fatherhood as much as we do in our culture? A love for the Father that ought to be in our hearts is not there -- and this is an abyss of misery for the modern person. Without this love, we forget the tender greatness that ought to characterize the way we relate one to another. The capacity to listen, to accept the initiative of another, to surrender with trust, all of this is robbed us, and so we regard paternal authority with suspicion, ready to condemn and accuse win when we glimpse the tiniest speck from our plank filled perspectives. 

If there is no other figure as mocked or derided as is the family man, anti-religious cultural forces have unleashed torrents of bigotry against the priesthood too. The connection is that a heartless humanity cannot deal with fathers or men with any other kind of legitimate authority, and so disassociates, rejects and despises any figure who might unveil those primordial memories of humanity’s noble greatness. Together with this hatred of paternity, secular fanaticism has swayed most of America to regard celibate men - or any other kind of chaste male - as sociopaths. Roman Catholic Priests, spiritual fathers that they are, are objects of this social hostility and subjected to humiliations not unlike those of the Master whom they serve. The result? Victims of our mercilessness, twisted in hellish irony, we render the tenderness of a mother's womb unsafe for the most vulnerable while shamelessly shaming the infirmed and aged into suicide, all the while bloviating clich├ęs about dignity and personal choice.

A rediscovery of the vital role of integrity, courage and fatherhood for human thriving is needed if we are to restore the sense of dignity that belongs to the priestly vocation. Conversely, as priestly dignity is restored, our own identity, courage and integrity just may find some healing. Yes, there is a sense of identity that only a father can give, and hostile to a father's love, we have forgotten the truth about ourselves. We are not the sum total of our failures and evil does not define what is most true about humanity even in our current context. Rather, we come from love and are made for a love that not even death can diminish.  This is why Christ died for us and every Catholic priest is ordained so that the love of God the Father revealed by Christ might be made present again in our midst.

To work for the dignity of the priesthood is to believe that a spiritual space for tender graciousness with one another can be restored. There are challenges to this work. While the commendable efforts of many seminary faculties continue unnoticed, failures in fatherhood by many in the Church have made the gift of priestly vocation difficult to recognize. While a growing number of theologians and philosophers help men discover firm ground on which the weight of their existence rests enough to offer it in service, many others, in even the highest echelons of the Church, call into question the gift of priestly celibacy or otherwise obscure the meaning of priestly ministry. Yet, this battle for the priesthood and the struggle for integrity that issues from it are on the frontlines of Christ's work in the world today.

This is why the Holy Spirit continues to raise up men who have been entrusted with the gift of a priestly vocation, and with good faculties, many discover that devotion to Christ and service to the People of God are filled with a mysterious meaning and purpose, changing everything, making all things new. Indeed, they taste marvels too great for this present life to contain, even in the setting that is the technological oligarchy of the Bay Area. Here, so many great questions about the future of humanity and its need for salvation represent themselves with astonishing force.  Here, a culture's nihilistic self-hatred often spews neglect of all that is beautiful and noble; and, yet, for all this, humanity's deepest wounds ache for healing. Rather than walking away in discouragement, the men of St. Patrick's continue their journey to Holy Orders, quietly engaging their studies with a mirthful under current for which I can offer no compelling psychological or sociological natural explanation, save that of a beatitude that only God can give.

February 2, 2020

Father Raymond Gawronski and Priestly Celibacy

Fr. Raymond Gawronski's room at St. John Vianney Seminary looked out toward the mountains.  In the winter, at first dawn, the sun would reflect off the top of those mountains in powerful red and orange hues that grew longer and brighter.  This glory he saw on those mornings were as a shadow of the divine glory already dawning on humanity.  Renouncing sin, moderating our use of comforts and conveniences, fasting, keeping vigil, all of this removes veils before the Light of Christ as He shines our hearts. The priesthood and priestly celibacy were also part of this dawning.

Father Gawronski lived in this new light and dedicated his priesthood so that others might do so too. Such a life was cultivated most of all through long hours in quiet prayer alone, in intimacy with the Father, attending to the Word of the Father with love. Indeed, besides periodically spending time in the wilderness, he would rise in the very early in the morning daily and spend hours in prayer long before most everyone else in the seminary was awake. He immersed himself in this silence convinced that this saving Word disguises Himself in the solitude and quietude of our earthly existence, and in that hiddenness, He teaches us all things.

A spiritual director, he was very concerned about the distraction that technology presents in our relationship with the Lord. He saw over-indulgence and excessive gratification as a particular threat to the priestly way of life - escapes from the very mystery that celibate chastity ought otherwise avail a soul, and a contributing reason to the lack of fruitfulness in the priestly ministry of many today.  It is true that he loved movies, operas, literature and all kinds of music, but he also was weary of our tendency to entertain ourselves to death.  Thus, he constantly reminded those priests and seminarians who came to him for direction that not even intellectual pursuits were enough for our hearts. We needed to keep ourselves vigilant and ready for something much more meaningful.

He knew that Lord comes as a thief in the night.  He tried to convince those who sought his counsel not to cling so fearfully to the dreams that they might lose.  The safety of a cubicle might open to a successful career, even an ecclesial one, but will never demand very much in terms of human maturity.  Christ demands everything, even the courage to step beyond the limits of social convention and into a wilderness vulnerable to Divine Love.  In that wilderness, Fr. Raymond would help men let the Thief steal their hearts -- reassuring them that they came from Him to begin with.  We simply put the goodness of God first and when we do, we make ourselves vulnerable to His coming into our lives and to steal us away.

What do we really lose if we trust God? If there is nothing to lose, why not trust Him with the gift of our sexuality as well?  This particular reflection is offered for those who are discerning whether to embrace celibate chastity for the sake of the Kingdom and who believe that the Lord might be calling them to the priesthood. Celibate chastity opens to this radical trust, the surrender of this nuptial gift to the Lord so that He can make us fruitful in a manner that goes beyond all our expectations. This is not merely a practical reality - it is a mystical one. When this kind of chastity is unleashed in the priesthood, this spiritual fruitfulness is brought to bear on the salvation of the whole world.

A Ukrainian monk of Mt. Tabor in California,  Fr. Raymond Gawronski, also known as Br. John Mary, was an avid advocate of priestly celibacy, even for the Eastern Churches.  This is because he connected the gift of ministerial priesthood with Christ's chaste manhood, and argued that Christ's chaste masculinity was intrinsically a priestly reality. Those who entered into this mystery of Christ's priestly existence through ordination were not only stamped by it, but it inserted them into the whole work of redemption in a singular way, in a way that takes up even their own masculinity.  Moreover, the relationship between priesthood and manhood opens out to the horizon of Christ's celibate chastity and the new unity of love and truth found in the Body of Christ.

Father Gawronski's position had Patristic foundations. The Fathers held that every human Christ did, He did as God and everything divine He did, He did as Man. This means that if He was celibate in his chaste masculinity, something divine was being manifest in it. If He was priestly in his filial relationship to the Father, something profoundly human was being manifest in it too. Christ, the High Priest, was celibate and spiritually fecund in his human body as the Son of God, and priests who serve the Body of Christ are meant to participate in this mystery.

The priest who lives in celibate chastity out of devotion to Christ shares in the spiritual fecundity of the Lord's mystical Body. The priesthood is not a bodiless reality. It is an inherently relational mystery. The priest mediates in the relationship between God and man through his priestly actions performed not only in the invisible movements of soul, but also in his flesh.  The more integrated priestly actions are with the movements of a priests heart, the better mediator he becomes.  In the Great High Priest, these actions were perfectly integrated in a new way so that those joined to Him by faith also realize a new integration of body and soul. Those who are ordained priests in Christ signify this integration through Word and Sacrament for the whole Mystical Body.

Christ's Body is not accidental to his redeeming mission - it is its very instrument - that mystery through which the mystery of our salvation is realized. What is the body, however, except that by which we realize communion with one another, the gift by which we unveil the spiritual truth, that by which we are able to speak heart to heart? No where is this realized more in the natural order of things than in marriage. Here, man and woman gift the total gift of themselves, one to the other, through a total gift of their bodies, a complete sanctioning and blessing of one another's fecundity.

The celibate foregoes such communion, and remains deprived of the mutual possession of hearts that marriage knows. Yet, when chaste celibacy is subordinated to faith in Christ, the possibility of an even deeper and more fruitful communication opens. This is because celibacy is animated by faith towards new relationships of grace. Renouncing the natural friendship of marriage out of devotion to Christ opens onto new supernatural friendships - relations of grace established in the Body of Christ.

Such a renunciation, when made out of devotion to Christ in faith, shares in the mystery of Christ's death.  Only the unique really dies, he argued. Christ was the most unique man who ever lived. There is something superabundantly unique about his death.  While it is true for every Christian that the closer one draws to the uniqueness of the Lord, the more one realizes his own uniqueness in the Lord; in the celibate chastity in the priesthood, this is true in a particular way.  Joined to the uniqueness of Christ's chastity through their own renunciation, they are enabled to enter into this special dimension of His death, the dimension of his dying as a chaste man totally dedicated to the Father. Dying with Him spiritually this way,  celibate priests become with Him a source of life in a particular way.

Along these lines, Father Gawronski recognized that we must be ready to be emptied of anything that the Lord deems necessary for Him to communicate Himself to us. This is where Christ's divine sonship comes in and defines humanity's priesthood before God in a whole new way. The Lord always acted in obedience to the Father and His obedient love is the wellspring of all human salvation - the power by which the whole world is made subject to Him.

Faith in Christ opens to this obedient mystery - through union with Him, we participate in His own loving obedience, extending in space and time its saving mystery.  This is why indifference to all that is not the will of God is a specifically Christian attitude. We are not indifferent to the world or to the plight of those who suffer. We are not cynical about the goodness of creation or people. While this is true of every Christian, for the priest, this divine and filial readiness animates his priestly actions so that in him, the saving work of the Great High Priest is manifest to the Church anew.

In this, Fr. Gawronski proposed that the Only begotten Son of the Father opened up the pathway of obedience to us in our frailty by suffering in his chaste flesh the chastisement of our sin. This is to say that our Savior mediates the saving love of the Father through surrendering His masculine purity to us completely, even to the point that we have abused all that is good, beautiful and true about his chaste manhood unto death on the Cross. In suffering His passion and death out of love for us and obedience to the Father, the Father's merciful love bears away our sin and frees us for a better love, a more meaningful life.

Not all priests are called to be monks but something about their very existence is oriented to chaste celibacy - an offering of their body for the sake of the Body of Christ in obedience to the Lord whose saving mystery they mediate. Fr. Gawronski knew that the priesthood, rooted in Christ's own filially animated masculinity, is an office - a gift entrusted by the Lord to exercise His power and authority for the building up of the Church.  As such, since His power and authority come from obedience unto death and ordered to the same obedience, a priest can only carry it out to the extent that he enters into this same mystery -- and in this, the dawn from on high is breaking upon us.

January 12, 2020

The Witness of Betty Suppes -- farmer from Delta, Colorado

Guest post by Richard Ziegman 

Last Summer our parish of St. Michael's in Delta CO joined the Suppes family in laying their mother, and matriarch, Betty Suppes to rest. She was 90 but everyone was surprised that she died so "young" because she was so full of life, spunk and vigor.  Betty was a local. She was raised by farmers and along with her late husband Lawrence, raised her family by farming.

I only came along eight years ago to Delta from Denver and moved into the same housing complex as Betty, just down the street from St. Michael's.  Being very much a big city boy, small town living and especially a farming community, was very new to me.  Betty, with her outgoing friendliness was just the person to help me make the adjustment. I first met her one day coming home from daily Mass. She waved her cane at me and said something a little bold for a stranger, speaking as if she knew me, and we became fast friends.

Befriending an elderly person wasn't new to me.  It began with one of my grandmothers, Helen, who was very bright and whose knowledge and love for the Church helped me to mature. Something she once said changed, or perhaps awoke my view of the aged, especially Betty. She said, "you know, Richard, on the outside I may be old but inside I dont feel any different than when I was about 35". I never looked at an aging person the same way and have had many of them as friends.  Everyone who knew Betty would say that she was very young on the inside.

In fact, Betty became an important part of my spiritual growth and a real gift from God.  Betty, ever curious, used to knock on my door with what I might call the "question du jour" about some aspect of the faith she found perplexing. I am fortunate to have a very good Catholic education, packing in some extra years in Theology and Philosophy.  Her Catholic generation usually have the articles of the Faith down pat but often desire a fleshing out of the details and finer points.  I was able to do a little of that for her. Over the next few years, question and answer sessions blossomed into a mutual love of things Catholic, old and new.

Besides being a "daily Masser" Betty was also comitted to an hour of Eucharistic Adoration each week and we met there at the same time for about 7 years. And in those times we shared only silence before the Blessed Sacrament, each seeking His presence in our own way.  Sometimes afterwards we would speak but not much was said, nor was it needed. Holy silence engenders holy silence. It is its own reward when it is acquired in the loving presence of God. But, we did often mention to eachother a shared experience, we both realized that we often came out of Adoration different than when we went in, completely changed, peaceful and confident. And, we agreed that it was the work of God. After that we always went to lunch together.

Over the last year Betty's health began to decline enough that she wasn't able to live in her own home anymore. She moved into an assisted living faculity where I continued to visit. She wasn't able to go to Adoration anymore. It took a greater act of faith for her, and for me, to recognize the presence of God. This is when I witnessed what I later realized was to be her last spiritual work.  I believe it to be a great thing in God's eyes.

Betty had been given a difficult neighbor to share living space with by the facility's staff. This was someone who had been moved around the home because apparantly, no one could get along with her.  The situation was no less difficult for Betty. However, over several months, I watched Betty set her personal preferences aside and befrend this troublesome neighbor. I also know, first hand that the neighbor was deeply touched by her kindness. No one knew that Betty would soon die, and what a beautiful, selfless gesture to offer to God at the end of your life than a kindness done selflessly.

In less than a year, everyone was surprised to see Betty decline so quickly. I think her many years of really hard farm life simply wore her out and caught up with her. This is when I believe she gave me a great gift. As Betty's mental capacity faded, It was painful for her to struggle but also for me. She simply wasn't able to engage in conversation anymore. And then, Mother Teresa's famous saying came to me, "this is Jesus in the distressing disguise of the poor".  That realization impressed on me the importance of continuing to visit her. I think that it was only the years of shared, silent holy hours between us that allowed me to understand just how necessary Mother Teresa's words were. I came to see Betty, but even more, I came to visit Jesus in Betty and the silence was the same.

The world, especially now, wants us all to believe that at this point a person ought to give up, even to take into one's own hands the power of life and death. But life does not end with the memory, at least the brain's capacity to remember. Life is where God is. And, in my friend Betty's fading memory, Jesus was still very much living. And, what happened soon after was astonishing. 

The week Betty died, I felt urged to visit her again. On my way to work I stopped in to see her for the last time. Some of her family was sitting around the bed. When I entered the room, her son, Jake described to me how the night before, Betty had had her last battle. We know that at the end of life, our great Enemy tries one last time to convince a Christian that his or her life was a waste, tempting to despair. During that time our Pastor arrived and gave her the last Sacraments. The battle ended and she began to rest peacefully though unconscious. That day I went in with the intention of praying with and for my friend one last time. So I knelt down and layed my hand on her arm. But, instead of praying, what I felt was that prayer had entered into me. I suddenly had a profound peace and the awareness of the presence of many souls, even angels attending to her. The holiness was so profound that it stayed with me for a long time after leaving her room.

Reflecting on that moment, I can understand that what I was caught up in was a kind of reward, or better, the natural result of many years of having helped each other in growth and maturity in God.  Here I had thought that I was stopping to help my friend Betty in her last struggle but, in fact I was caught up in what was already going on: a holy death, a death in Christ who is our life. Instead, she was helping me.  I consider that gift one of the greatest of my whole life: a gift from God and a gift from God and Betty, born out of a friendship in Christ.

I have a Saint-friend, Elizabeth of the Trinity, whose writings have helped me for 33 years. She is the Saint of friendships, friendships in Christ. In her writings you can find this teaching; when two people in this life have shared a holy friendship and one of the friends dies, when that soul is purified and comes before the face of God, what we call the beatific vision, that soul's vision benefits the friend left behind. This is true because love never ends, it unites and continues to unite souls across the divide until all are united. My friend Betty and I shared our hour before Jesus for many years. And now, we still share his presence but more profoundly than words can tell. Today, I came from Adoration knowing and even feeling that as I was before the Eucharistic Face of Jesus, she was also Adoring Him in Glory.

The Baptism of the Lord

The Savior saves us. Jesus is the One sent by the Father for the salvation of the world.  The Word of the Father -- everything the Father has to say to us, He entrusts to us in His Word. Through His Word, the Father wishes us to know that He loves us and does not want us to perish. His Word is life, and abundance of such life that this present life cannot contain it. Whoever believes in this Word possesses the life that the Father wants us to have.  To be saved is to have this life, a life stronger than death.

Jesus, the Beloved of the Father, unveils a glory that unaided reason cannot see.  To behold this divine beauty is to stand before the source of every noble aspiration, everything worth living for, everything worth dying for.  Joy and sorrow grip the soul all at once, and the heart cannot contain itself.  The fulfillment of every desire and the only place where the heart might finally find its rest, His yearning for us, for all that the Father loves, has summoned us into existence and brought us before His saving gaze.

In His gaze on us, the fullness of life that Christ Jesus gives holds captive every thought and orders all our affection anew - all the self-contradictions that threaten our integrity lose their claim before Him.  He is never passive but tirelessly at work, accomplishing the Father's will, pouring forth salvific goodness in the midst of all the brokenness of the world, transforming everything, leaving nothing as it once was, establishing such peace that no power on earth, below or above can take it away.

As He gazes, He speaks and His voice reverberates with saving harmonies.  This living Word speaks not only with captivating words but mighty deeds -- and by both word and deed, He pierces the heart and saves us from every evil.  Nothing in this world can overcome Him and He has triumphed over all the adversaries and obstacles to human life. Not even the deep waters of death quenched His love for us. Indeed, He freely entered into those waters, obedient to the love of the Father, to save us and bring us home.

The Word has entered the depth of the world to bring us to life.  That we might possess this life, the Word was plunged into the chaotic abyss of human evil and the destructive powers of the cosmos.  He entered not to allow these things to have their sway but to do battle. The suffering that Christ endured for us in this fight for our dignity reveals how much the Father grieves over the burden of guilt under which we struggle and how far God is willing to go that we might be finally free.

The waters that threaten human dignity would drown us in an abyss of misery. No merely cerebral affair or feat of psychological prowess, His movement into the heart unveils hidden motives in which we would otherwise be engulfed.  He climbs down into the gutters of hearts, plunges into the dark waters that have engulfed us, and seeking us, He does not rest until He finds us. He renders vulnerable one's whole being to the truth and baths away every false judgement. He raises up as a new creation every soul that would plunge into the mystery of His death with Him.

We have done nothing to deserve such a gift. The Savior initiates this movement in our own freedom and freely brings it to completion. Through the most gentle immersion into the currents of our hearts, His flesh and blood presence evokes and strengthens this pure gift until it bears the fruit of eternal life.
     

January 4, 2020

Epiphanies at Bethlehem, the Jordan, Cana and in our Lives

Epiphany evokes adoration and obedience. This is true whether we adore Christ with the Magi, enter into the Baptism of the Lord with John the Baptist, or obey the Lord with those servants who listened to the "Woman" who dared to approach the Lord. Each epiphany is a manifestation of glory, the unveiling of God's beautiful plan for humanity. Those who through obedience to His Word welcome this manifestation of love invite new astonished wonder into their lives - a mystery too great for this world to contain. Mysteriously, such greatness requires such humility. The only way to welcome the Word made flesh in all His glory, the only way to become obedient to this Word in a way that brings light to the world, is through the prayer of faith.

I write this because some suggest that those who pray are actually avoiding a task at hand. Yet true prayer avoids nothing.  Instead, the one who prays enters the battle between good and evil, and seeking the Lord in the silence of our hearts opens a pathway to victory.  Anyone who ever wants to accomplish anything worthy of being a Christian will never accomplish it if he will not take time for prayer. To behold the splendor of the Lord by faith, to say yes to the challenge that it places before the heart, to welcome all the inconvenience and discomfort that it will cause, this is never easy -- and yet, to become who we are, to discover the truth about the noble purpose for which we are made, we must say "yes" in prayer to the glory revealed by the Son of Mary, that Lamb of God, that Cause of all Joy, Christ the Lord.

Through all the perplexing circumstances of our lives, through all the strife in the world, through all the failures in the Church, the Babe adored by Magi reveals that God is un-thwarted in his purpose. Seemingly as powerless as an infant's cry in the night, He advances His priorities with unyielding determination, and his first priority is our salvation. Homeless, He helps us find our way home when we come to adore Him. He carries us with Himself down into the waters of baptism so that He can restore our integrity and re-establish our dignity - re-establishing it above every self-contradiction and misery that threatens our existence. Making of our concerns His own, He turns water into wine so that, even in the face of humiliation, we might find joy. No matter the cost to Himself, He wants us to know how much we are loved and that we can trust Him.

The Lord of Armies has gone homeless with tireless humility so that we might wake from our proud lethargy, rise up and go to the home of our Father. To say He is homeless is to say that He loves though He is not loved. He has confidence even in the face of our lack of confidence. He is never discouraged by evil, even that evil that haunts our own hearts. Quite the opposite - every evil loses heart before this supreme Lord. No evil can stand before His majesty, and when we cling to His presence by faith, believing in Him more than we believe in our own sinfulness, His kindness purifies us of all that is an obstacle to the goodness that He beholds in us.

Our whole existence as creatures is ordered to adoration of this loving Creator.  To adore means to kiss with the lips of our mouth. Such an action is not simply physical. We are enfleshed spirits - and all that we do with our body bears something spiritual about it. This means that to offer adoration is to give over our very life breath to another, the very spiritual reality of it. God delights in this humble surrender, but the One who created us never keeps our life's breath for Himself.  Instead, the Lord of Life gives breath-spirit back with renewed supernatural vigor - that Holy Spirit who is the Giver of Life.  Adoration, then, is an exchange of kisses - man's life's breath for God's life's breath.

In the shadow of the epiphany of the Lord, we know from our own broken experience that it is possible to adore someone or something other than God. Such was Herod and those who served him. It is indeed possible to give one's life's breath to lesser things. Such things can never give back anything commensurate with such a gift. They offer no new life - only death. That which we trust with our life's breath always takes possession of us until we belong to it. The one to whom we belong is also the one to whom we are subject.  In short, we make ourselves subject to that which we adore. To subject oneself to anything that is less than God means that one is no longer subject to God and therefore, that one belongs to someone else who opposes the life of God. This is why St. John teaches that "whoever sins belongs to the Devil."

The Devil exists, not as a mental construct of man's religious imagination, but as a super-intelligent creature bent on our destruction and so very aware of our foolishness.  The Devil has acted against his own existence from the beginning and so he has rendered himself capable of nothing other than oppression. God, on the contrary, always acts for the sake of those He loves, and in the simplicity of His essence, He only loves. The Devil would rob us of the life that God wants to breathe into us - for no other reason than he envies the particular love that the Lord has for us.  Those who venerate such wickedness are imprisoned by it, locked into fearful calculations and the false sense of security that they offer.

Herod is a reminder of the oppressiveness of political power that is not submitted to God just as the Magi show us sovereign freedom of kingship submitted to the Lord. To reject the Lord, as did Herod, is to allow false worship to thwart the maturity of one's own humanity. With so much immaturity on display, one does not need to argue that idolatry is alive and well in the 21st Century.

Just as was Herod, there are many people hanging their hats on all kinds of magical thinking. Seduced by the euphoria of spiritual states or the praise of peers or other successes, they are vulnerable to compromising their own integrity.  Even if someone did not believe that power, prestige and pleasure were actual gods, they bow their heads to these powers whenever they put these things before the love owed to God and neighbor. We live at a time when it is common for religious and political leaders to make false deities out of ideologies, causes, political agendas, and public appearance. Going with the flow or simply following the popular conventions, even religious conventions, is inevitably a move to idolatry.

John the Baptist testifies that to accept the love of God, to follow the Lamb of God, is to choose the pathway of righteousness for oneself and to reject every form of idolatry. This baptism into truth requires a hard won decision to go against the flow - the flow in culture and the flow in one's own heart. This is a battle against evil, against every form of compromise, against every enchantment of earthly dreams.  It is to climb uphill against all that is comfortable, familiar and convenient - for love is none of these things.  Only by following this pathway by faith do we find and come into acceptance of the love of God. Once we accept His love, we possess Him and He belongs to us -- and He possess us, and we belong to Him.

Epiphany also reveals that we need the powerful mystery of woman in the plan of salvation. Jesus calls Mary "Woman" at the Wedding Feast of Cana. Woman before the mystery of Christ is as Woman before Adam: the flesh of His flesh and bone of His bones.  The first woman helped Adam realize His place in creation and this new woman is the one who assists the Lord in recognizing his place in humanity.  She does so by a simple prayer - a prayer that simply makes known a need and even suffers what seems to be the rejection of its unspoken request. In the end, Mary's confidence in her Son gives Him the space He needs to manifest the glory of God.

Mary anticipates and animates the prayer of the Church today -- and we need this part of the grace of Epiphany now more than ever.  Everyone is concerned with who has or does not have ecclesial power, whether they are abusing it, whether they are reckless with it. Yet, the most important part of the Church is not its leadership. If the Body of Christ has a head, it also has a heart -- and it is for the Heart that the Head lays down His life.  Without the Heart, the Body is lifeless.  Woman in the Church witnesses to this Heart - this love in the life of the Church.

We need to let the prayer that comes from the heart of the Church be our prayer if the grace of Epiphany is to break upon us.  Those who pray with simple trust will suddenly find that the Wedding Feast of Cana is breaking out around them. The voice of the Church coincides with the voice of Mary in the Church, "Go and do whatever He tells you."  Listening to this counsel frees us to act as good servants of the Lord, servants who listen and respond in prayer. Servants whose listening prayer becomes prayerful action. Conversely, not to listen to the Woman who prays, is to deprive ourselves of this freedom to serve the Lord. The Lord is ready to turn water into wine, but He needs us to believe in Him and fill the jars of our hearts with the water of confidence in His mercy and contrition for our sin. Of this, He makes such joy as the world as never seen before.

The voice of the Church helps us realize we cannot overcome any enemy on our own resources, but instead, only through those gifts that come from the One who has loved us to the end, gifts that He lavishes us with in and through the Church. The Bridegroom has won these gifts for us by what He has suffered, and He trusts his Bride, the Church, to share them with everyone who asks for them. The Church exists to teach us to do whatever Christ's asks of us. Through the obedience of the Church, each soul learns obedience to this Word of the Father, to preach Him to the ends of the earth until the end of time.

Epiphany evokes adoration and obedience. The Lord is ready to breathe his life into us if we will bow ourselves and offer our lives to Him. If we obediently invite Christ into our hearts, though we suffer every torment, we are not without hope and though we die, we are not without life. For His love is our life. His love in us is stronger than death and no matter the power, nothing can overcome the work that He has begun in us. Even Satan and all his evil works are being used by the Lord as providing new ways to unveil the triumph of His love. Christ can do this because He has suffered all our evil unto death but death could not exhaust His love for us. He descended into Hell but Hell could not prevent Him from finding us to take us home.  Ascended into heaven, everything is subject to Him and ordered to Him, and so He orders everything, even the labyrinthian ways of our own hearts, to His love - such is glory that baptizes us if we give ourselves to Him.