June 28, 2020

The Saints in the Public Square

People of prayer are witnessing to the religious dimension of humanity. Even in the face of an angry crowd, the gentle tenderness of holy humanity is a sign that helps everyone return to their senses.  The one thing all the politicians, experts and mobs have in common is that they do not understand the religious dimension of humanity. That is why saints are so important. The witness of someone praying the rosary even as rancor is begin incited reminds everyone of their own humanity. We are not beings whose meaning is ever exhausted by the latest political cause or social agenda, no matter how noble.  We are spiritual creatures who need to be reminded of the deeper truths in which we live, and move and have our being. Saints signify what the nihilistic conventions of the moment obscure.

Dissociated from the natural world and, thus, our own humanity, without the witness of saints, we find ourselves rendering sacrifice to the golden calf of a therapeutic utopia. Without them, we are left with the secular media as our prophets. Instead of men chosen by God, doctors, psychologists and other experts ape priesthood on the altars of our phone screens. We presume that our salvation is in the next advancement in technology or medical discovery - and, when we are not otherwise scapegoating one another, we convince ourselves that only the unborn can serve as our unblemished holocaust. So the womb is the most dangerous place of a baby in a society that sanctions religious hatred -- only when saints cry out can we return to our senses to heal this deadly structural and institutional bigotry.

In the spiritual vacuum such irreligious pursuits occasion, our society now deems the ultimate purpose of life to be the advancement of the biological and physical freedom to achieve absolute autonomous self-definition.  Yet we are not absolutely autonomous beings. This is supreme presumption for, indeed, we are not gods. The path to sanctity, so maligned today, into the most sacred depths and fragile limits of humanity begins when one humbly accepts this revealed truth.  Because he knows that he is not God, only the saint can fill this vacuous need for meaning haunting the hearts of our contemporaries, and to the saint alone belongs the task of helping our communities remember the sacred truth that has been entrusted to their care.

In the silence of a single saint, deepest truth pierces every empty slogans bellowing out of the dimmed consciences of our angry mobs. What else can any mob yell but "Crucify Him"? If a mob again cries "Barabbas," it is only because it always sides with murderers rather than the innocent. The suffering silence of a holy witness is pregnant with that new life that the blessing of persecution begets.

To hear the truth about humanity, the saints help us assume the posture of the Good Thief: only when we are convinced of sin can we repent of how conformed we have been to this world and call out Christ, our Savior. Paradise awaits those who are condemned if they will let Him speak. As political activism would seem to eclipse the light of faith, we have saints in our midst who help us see a pronounced and growing desire for the spiritual truth that Christ whispers into our hearts. These saint believe that there is a new openness to the spiritual riches of Christianity even when the witness of religious art is torn from the public square because they have beheld the beauty of Christ.

Wherever sin abounds, grace abounds the more.  Saints help us remember to search and ponder what is good, beautiful, true and noble. To find these graces (and there are twice as many of them as there are evils) requires another courageous form of silence.  This is not the silence that hides itself because it is afraid of another's wrath. This deeper silence can patiently endure the rage the spews from righteous indignation of another because it is confident of a much deeper justice, a justice that only mercy knows.  This silence does not fear abysses of misery but carefully journeys through them until it arrives at a deep place of encounter. Such prayer goes deeper than fear and rage, and rests only in the truth.  On that holy ground is planted the cruciform still point around which the world turns, the threshold to the Heart of God.

June 23, 2020

Persecution and Prayer

There is resentment toward people of faith, toward our Christian heritage, and especially toward the Catholic Faith.  In this picture, we see fury unleashed on a public statue of the first great missionary to California. He came to bring the Gospel of Peace, but now is a sign of the brutal hostility that lives in what is left of our culture and society.  The red paint might anticipate blood that the Lord will permit be shed in our own times, martyrs for Christ on American soil again, and this to lay bare the hearts of many.  The red also bespeaks that Blood that has already been shed that we might at last find true freedom to pray.

Political leaders and news media keep reporting how peaceful the protests are. This defaced statue tells another story.  We see Junipero Serra as a witness, not to our enlightened society or the glories of a technological culture - but instead to the empty vacuum, filled with rage, that our soul-less technocracy has created. Ignoring the religious dimension of man always leads to violence ... neglecting our spiritual life, always causes death.  Without the healing presence of God, men are damned to rage or despair, and are cut off from everything that is most dear and wonderful about humanity. Prayer makes space for the presence of God - even in the face of complete catastrophe.  It is indeed a time of great unrest -- and yet in the midst of unrest and in the face of religious hatred, Christians are called to pray.

Righteous indignation does not convert hearts. Bitter polemics do not assuage the misery that haunts human existence.  Charged rhetoric does not bring a soul to repentance. But a word of truth spoken with love and aflame with prayer can pierce through confusion and re-establish those who have been trampled down in rage.

Instead of joining the cacophony of the moment, people of faith are invited to raise up praise of such glory that it opens beyond time and space and all hostility -- helping humanity find a foothold in a peace that this world cannot give. This praise of glory that we must find a way to sing can only be summoned by those who are willing to enter into the silence of God and humbly welcome the treasures of love that He longs to give. This pathway of true prayer requires repentance, humility, gentle kindness, and the courage to believe that what is good and noble in the hearts of humanity comes from God, and therefore is more powerful and enduring than anything that contradicts it - no matter how violently.  So a hymn is born in those who believe - the same hymn as those who right now are gathered around the Throne, crying out before the Lamb that was slain, "Holy, Holy, Holy."

June 19, 2020

The Sacred Heart of Jesus

The heart of the matter is what is searched for when listening to another's heart. Only those who are brave will ever be able to bear what they hear. This is because, in every heart, there are difficult secrets, troubling things that are too hard to share and at the same time, painful things to know. There are also beautiful things so heart piercing that one overflows with joy and sorrow all at once. The pure of heart knows a brave freedom before the pain and beauty of such deep down things. Theirs is the courage to ask for, to seek out, to knock at and to listen to the one Heart that Christians call sacred.

To be pure of heart requires self-mastery, especially of one's own sexuality, and one finds this treasure in the Heart of the Lord. Chaste and modest, a heart can find in Him the freedom to give itself with tender delicacy without every betraying itself. The heart made pure by the Savior does not yield before the terror of great beauty, but can freely behold what is truly good in every encounter while remaining faithful to all that it holds dear and sacred. Such purity creates both the noble boundaries and the necessary discernment when approaching the heart of another. To humbly surrender the misery another suffers and to commend them to the mercy of God is the most noble expression of such chastity. At the same time, renunciation of all that is not God's will comes from possessing Christ's own purity of heart - the purifying power of the Sacred Heart communicates this to those who persevere in asking for this grace.

Deep in the Sacred Heart one also finds the truth that one most needs in life.  To be taught the truth by another gives some insight, but until our own understanding of what we have learned has been purified by the Holy Spirit, our sight is only partial. Whether we seek the heart of the Scriptures or the heart of a friend, only when the Spirit who knows the Heart of Jesus whispers in our depths are we free from rash judgments, irrational desires, and pride. Yet, as we surrender our hearts to the Holy Spirit, He communicates the most precious truths that pour forth from the pierced Heart of God - and forgiving an offense or praying for an enemy suddenly becomes a possibility.

Chastity and truth are deep in the Sacred Heart, but even deeper is the merciful love of the Father.  This is the deepest secret of the whole cosmos - the secret that lives in the bosom of the Trinity.  If we ask, the Heart of the Crucified will give us to overflowing. If we seek this love, the Risen Sacred Heart will show us this uncreated power that can change not only one's own heart, but the whole world.  If we knock at the door of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Savior will open wide His Heart and wait for us to open wide to Him.

Do not be afraid to ask, to seek or to knock at the Sacred Heart. For His Heart is also asking, seeking and knocking - do not be afraid to open wide to Him.


June 14, 2020

The Mystery of the Holy Eucharist - Real Presence in Real Time

Catholics process publicly with the Eucharist because the whole world needs the Body and Blood of Christ.  A priest, flanked by altar servers with candles and incense, processes through the streets with a circular container called a monstrance, usually golden. This monstrance shows the Blessed Sacrament, earthly bread become the Body of Christ, by holding, in its circular center, a consecrated host.

This procession is actually spectacular - something that is meant to be seen not only by believers but also by those who do not believe. More than raising questions, this spectacle is meant to witness. As parishioners follow behind, they believe that the pilgrim God is walking before them once again, leading them through the desert of their lives to the promise land. In the Blessed Sacrament whose reality they believe guides them home, they have found and proclaim a splendor that is even now breaking in on us, even if this glory seems hidden from our eyes, disguised as it is in the suffering, alienation, social strife and political vitriol of the moment.

Such spectacles are not tolerated in contemporary societies, especially during pandemics. This too is part of the mystery of Corpus Christi - how one looks on the Body of the Lord unveils where one stands in life. Secular society is soul-less because it will not welcome the Soul and Divinity of the Savior.

If there is discomfort around Eucharistic processions, there is a contemporary prejudice that presumes religion to be something that should be kept in the privacy of the home or at least behind closed doors.  When religion is relegated to the realm of emotion one may well be embarrassed to allow it on our streets. But is it really only a crutch for difficult moments as we hobble through this world? And if we are hobbling through, where are we actually headed.

Religious gatherings are socially accepted only insofar as they help us manage painful moments of life, but true prayer must stay out of the marketplace of ideas. Here is this Eucharistic procession right into that marketplace.  The media only presents it as reckless endangerment in a time of crisis. But what threat does God actually pose our collapsing civilization? His saving presence might have something to speak into the mobs whose anger still resonates with "Crucify Him." Those who want a public square free of religion might allow it whenever it is useful politically - scapegoating is a very real phenomenon of ritual purification on a communal skill. Others might grant that some religious practices are therapeutic at least personally.  Others might allow religion to provide social gratification. Ver few want to be challenged by the fact that God is truly present and on the march, Real Presence in Real Time.

The mystery of the Eucharist processes forward against the tendency to remove God from human affairs.  This mystery by which the memory of Christ's passion is renewed signifies the deepest truth of all: that God has come, at great price, to save us. Those who participate in this Great Mystery by faith are filled with the most healing and wonderful power every unleashed on Earth. This pure gift comes through the wounds that God suffered for our sake to transform not only the way we live, but the whole world in which we move and have our being. It is the most real thing in all space time and space, the single still point around which the world turns - for what God has done stands above all the threatening exigencies that oppose what is good and true about humanity, and on this ground, we find the freedom to stand and to move forward, to finally fully become what we are meant to be.

The Eucharist shows us how great is the mystery of Christian piety.  This devotion to God and to our neighbor is given to us when we gather for the Mass and lift up our hearts before the Living God. What makes life worth living is knowing the truth and falling in love. Through this Sacrament we know that God has fallen in love with humanity and He unveils, by real true Presence, the truth that we need for life. Not merely a symbol to placate our psyche, but a truly personal presence that engages the reality of our whole being and implicates us in the very truth about our own existence, the existence of our neighbors, and the existence of all that is.

This Sacred Banquet is the only food that can address the spiritual malnutrition that afflicts the hearts of men and women of our time.  This Body and Blood is the only real answer to injustice - not only in our communities but in our hearts. Those who welcome the Risen Presence not only find the courage to ask for forgiven, but are given true strength to forgive. Starving for truth those deprived of this food may rage or despair, but they are not free to live. Thwarted by death and goading against it, they need this medicine of immortality if love might reign anew in their hearts.  No matter how much we demand that our dignity be recognized, without this antidote for death, nothing else can restore our integrity and make us just. Yet, those who will humbly seek and ask can freely receive that which is no less than a pledge of future glory. 

June 12, 2020

In Memory of John Mathias

Recently, I attended a funeral service for my nephew John Mathias. He was one of the victims, not of the corona virus, but of shelter-in-place. I would prefer not to see him that way … for he is much more than this, and yet his blood cries out. Thus, I must write this difficult overflow of heart.

Like many who suffered addictions, public policy held avid disregard for his safety.  Apparently, he could not take it, sought an escape, and accidently overdosed on the street’s latest dark toxins. I loved my nephew and I am saddened, not only for him, but for all the other young people our public policy has precipitated grave and irreparable harm.

Yes, the mystery of John’s own freedom is involved with this. And for that I can offer no excuse save that a terrible inner pain and anxiety afflicted him since his youth. As he entered his teenage years, drugs seemed to offer some sort of relief and he self-medicated.  At the same time, this same anxiety opened up for him the mystery of faith and his parents witnessed to him with a tender and patient love. It is true that during the shelter-in-place, he re-established a connection with them. As a young adult, he opened up about his struggles and they saw the beautiful kindhearted man that was beginning to emerge. Yet the Bay Area is not a merciful place for those who struggle with addictions. He had recently got a job and some money when the police found his corpse at a lonely bus-stop somewhere in Santa Clara.

One of the ways current policy contributed to his death was it took away a safety net, something his humanity needed just as much as breath. That safety net was his community of faith.  Truth be told, he assisted his mother in looking in on other members of their church – she brought food and company to those who found shelter-in-place too much, and with silent friendliness, he stood beside her. So, he was not utterly deprived. Still though, and not only for him but for others who suffered as did he, besides these beautiful acts of mercy, he and his family were unable to gather with their faith community to worship together. This took a toll.

Against those who assert that gathering for public worship is a non-essential activity, we see even now in our own society that people perish without it. Embodied spiritual and communal worship – people actually gathered physically in a sacred space – is the very life breath of the soul. Rob a man of this, and you risk robbing him of any reason to live and he either collapses into despair or rises up in rage, most of the time without knowing exactly why. Yet we are too compliant with a suffocating secularism: if we want our spirits to breathe, we must have courage to protect the rightful place of faith in our hearts, homes and communities. Sadly, our public policy did not adequately take into account this important truth – and many have died, though their deaths go largely ignored.

For months we were told that we could not exercise our right to gather to worship — and out of civil obedience we gave up those rites most sacred to hearth and home. Our religious leaders asked us to make this painful sacrifice out of love for our brothers and sisters in our community.  And so we did in a spirit of obedience and true concern. Did it even cross our minds for a moment that our failures to gather in prayer might sow seeds that could bear the fruit of social rage or alienated despair? No.  We failed to question the experts who made us think that worshipping God was but reckless endangerment. Now I ask myself, was it not even more reckless not to gather with courage and stand before God for the sake of those who most needed His mercy? Thus, the very ground of our dignity, from which alone our rights come, is taken from under our feet and as a civilization, we are falling into a darkness with millstones of discord around our necks.

How do we make space in our lives for the Lord? John had a noble cynicism expressed in a wry knowing smile whenever I shared my faith with him. I should allow this to help me question that which I too readily accept. An amazingly perceptive man, he sensed that something was wrong, not only with his own heart, but the world itself. He could not articulate the lack of authenticity that frustrated him, but this frustration did not overcome the love he bore and tried to live by, even as he patiently listened to me and shared his heart. Wit and humor were his weapons and his gifts. All the same, his mischievous eyes betrayed insight into the inconsistencies of the stories that we tell ourselves and the ironies of a broken world, and he did not really want to go along with the meaninglessness of it all. He invited me to pray over him, and I wanted him to be healed or at least relieved from the inner pain that he bore. In a single moment, suspicion and surrender flashed on his face. He did not want to be taken in but he was open to meeting the One who would take him home. So we prayed and there were tears we shared together.

The questioning glance that John once gave me makes me wonder about my own authenticity and kindness as I indulge in judging my neighbor, even when that neighbor is a politician or expert. I ought to fear and tremble before the Lord who endures all the self-contradictions that I constantly explain away to myself. We make space for the Lord by facing the truth and renouncing social myths that stir up either unnecessary anxiety or righteous indignation.

What is it but an attack on the greatness of our piety when we sacrifice our young people as well as the most vulnerable on the altar of the latest social experiment?  There is no room for real religion here.  To secure a therapeutic utopia, only emotive vague religious sentiment managed before the glow of a computer monitor is tolerated. Perhaps, small sterile gatherings as well, but only if these assist in making us compliant cogs in the machinery of social progress. We dare not question this diminishing role of religion - for we should be shamed into silence. Yet, our young people and the vulnerable pay the price when we allow the promotion of any public policy that robs us of piety - that holy devotion to God and family that, when rooted in truth and true love, makes life worth living.

It is with holy devotion that we gathered as a family for John.  His mother discerned God’s mysterious plans and, believing in his mercy, commended her son to God, thankful that in the final months of his short life they had shared such a beautiful time together, even in the midst of difficult hardship.  Indeed, I believe in Jesus Christ because He alone safeguards those most deep down things that makes worthwhile this brief time we have to share one with the other. I believe that He never abandoned my nephew even as my nephew struggled to be faithful to him.

Only Christ’s Blood can save the truth about the human heart – and that truth is this: we are made for love and only when we truly fall in love do we finally begin to live. Faith in Christ is all about the redemption of this love and life for humanity. We need the freedom, physical space and fellowship that this faith demands – or the light of true love and life will be withheld from a whole generation in their darkest hour. Would that those who are struggling in darkness even now might have this light – for though the Light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it, we must never hide our lamps under a bushel basket when the world needs a city shining on a hill.

Religious leaders must needs make their voices heard in the public square. You have a competency that no scientist or health official could ever possess. If you do not speak, what is most vital is overlooked or rejected. Indeed, the deepest truths of human life are entrusted into your hands and you touch the very saving mysteries that the World most needs today. Those mysteries flow in the Blood of Jesus that you have been given for the sake of others and the world needs the truth that only that Blood can give.

John and I shared this Blood in that one mutual glance – and, I would like to think, somewhere deep in his heart he glimpsed Him who alone is our hope.  And our hope does not disappoint. I hope this memory might have consoled him in his final moments and even more, I hope at that lonely bus stop, the love of Christ that his parents shared with him might have baptized him with new life even as he breathed his last. At this point, what more can be said? My heart rests with the lifeless ashes of my nephew, and goes to his parents, and his brothers and sister, and my prayer is for those such as these who most need God now.