Monday, September 30, 2013

The Usual Run of Divinity

Day Two in Rome was a full one. If the first day, spent gazing at the ruins of the Colosseum and Forum through bleary jet-lagged eyes, was about encountering the 'usual run' of humanity, as I wrote yesterday, shot through with occasional flashes of divine glory, then yesterday was divinity all the way--God pouring out his divine life in the life of humanity and of the Church. Where to start... well, how about starting where it all started?

Where it all started
This is the relics of the crib of Christ, in the basilica of St. Mary Major. Now, as I said to a member of our party later, to me it is of little importance if this is actually the wood of the manger or not. After 2000 years, who knows? The key thing is not that a historical artifact was or was not preserved; the key thing is that it could have been.

The key thing is that God had a crib. The Incarnation: Baby Jesus. The usual run of divinity, which is to pour itself out in self-gift and love, and this happened, this was, this is real, and it is Jesus. And the one who bears witness to it in a unique way that no one else can is the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The one who was there when it started
I was not able to take a picture of the most famous and characteristic image of Our Lady in the basilica, as the Pauline Chapel where the Salus Populi Romanum resides is off limits to cameras, and is a place dedicated to prayer and silence. It is there that Pope Francis went the day after his election to put himself in Mary's hands for his pontificate.

I have to admit, though, that I was delighted to see this statue, which dates from after World War I. The house in which I live in Combermere is named Regina Pacis--Queen of Peace--and it was nice to see an image of her. Her hand is held up in a gesture of arrest, imploring us to stop the insanity of violence and killing; Jesus is holding an olive branch, hesitating before dropping it into the mouth of the waiting dove, waiting to see which nation of the world truly desires peace. The statue has lost none of its poignancy and relevance in the ensuing century since it was erected. Alas.

Besides St. Mary Major we also went here:

Just in case it's not intuitively obvious, this is the tomb of St. Paul, in the basilica of St. Paul outside the walls. My previous reading suggests that this is, in fact, the place - not a legend, but a historically well-attested site.

Personally, I found it incredibly moving to be in the presence of the relics of this saint who is virtually at the beginning of our Christian religion. The oldest Christian writings are Pauline; he is the first theologian and first missionary. If it is the usual run of divinity to pour itself out in love and self-gift, then St. Paul in his preaching, his writing, and his martyrdom shows that the divine life truly has been given to men redeemed in Christ.

Finally, although it was actually the first event of the day, we saw this guy:

Pictured: Oh, you know who.
Alas, this was the best picture I got, as Pope Francis rode past our hotel (which is right by St. Peter's square) after the Angelus blessing. As you can see, there was a bit of a sea of humanity sharing the experience, but we actually were pretty close. The man radiates joy, kindness, enthusiasm, and love - it is quite something to see him, and to see the impact his presence had on all of us.

I suppose my dominant sense in all this is precisely that the life of God has been shared with humanity, that it extends back to the remote past of Bethlehem and Palestine and forward into the squares and streets of Rome and every city and country place of the world--wherever there is love, gift, faith, joy, peace.

And that this is the true Eternal City, the place that cannot be dimmed or destroyed by death or time's ravages: the rough wood of the crib and the cross is more enduring than marble and stone buildings, and the 'marble and stone' of the Church rests on those rough bits of wood, on this woman who said yes to God, and on the countless men and women who like Paul have carried the word of God in their flesh into the world, or it does not stand at all.

Today, we go to some little church called St. Peter's... we'll see what that's about later.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Usual Run of Humanity

So, here I am in Rome, in a hotel that is literally a stone's throw from St. Peter's. Yesterday was arrival day--red eye flight from Ottawa by way of Philadelphia, check in, meet and have lunch with the large and extraordinarily warm and friendly extended family of Michael Weitl, the MH seminarian whose diaconate ordination I am here for, and then our first 'tourist' event: the Roman Colosseum and Forum.
Pictured: Ruins

OK, I'm the first to admit that I'm not much of a photographer. In my defence, I have never even owned a camera in my life (I borrowed the MH library's camera), and have to continually remind myself to take a picture. This is (clearly) the exterior of the Colosseum; here is a photo of the interior ruins. 

Pictured: More ruins

Here is seen the ampitheatre floor, where all the 'entertainment' went on, and the seating around. Another member of the tour group asked me afterwards what I thought of it all. Besides the usual rather cliched thoughts of sic transit in gloria mundi and all that, I was actually quite struck by the fact that this was an entertainment centre, fundamentally, a theatre, a place where the Roman citizenry went for the spectacle of large muscly men trying to kill each other and condemned criminals being slaughtered by gladiators or wild beasts.

It was all about entertainment, all about the usual run of humanity: shallow, thoughtless, cruel at times, self-absorbed at others. Not incapable of kindness and flashes of genuine goodness, but always capable of a great calamitous descent into 'the banality of evil'. Such is our human condition.

Today, it is crowded with tourists, all of us armed with cameras of various i-types. Where before the human condition was marked by public executions and rivers of blood seeping into the white sand of the arena floor, now it is marked by 'selfies' and sodas, tour guides shepherding crowds wandering around staring at the ancient ruins. Which, I suppose, is progress--after all, nobody got their throat slit yesterday.

The usual run of humanity: I find us a loveable lot, really, in our ordinary ways and means, even with the descent into cruelty and barbaric evil that we are tragically prone to. But in the midst of that usual run, there is this other reality, which (whoops!) lousy photographer that I am, I failed to snap. At the entry of the Colosseum is a large, plain cross, marker of the historical fact that among those condemned criminals slaughtered by the beasts and the swordsmen were Christians, dying for their faith in Jesus. It is from that Cross that the Pope, each Good Friday, begins the solemn stations of the Cross in memory of Jesus' sacrifice, mirrored in the blood of the martyrs.

The usual run of humanity... and in the midst of it, shining forth like precious stones in a mud pit, this. Love to the point of death, the will to suffer and be slain for God, the courage to bear witness to a jeering, disbelieving world to the hope that transcends this world. The world's glory passes away, quickly or slowly, and ruins dotted by tourists are all that is left. But the glory of the Lord endureth forever, and this glory is expressed in faith, hope, love, diakonia (service) and the will to suffer and endure whatever is asked for the sake of God and his love poured out in the life of Christ and His Church.

Which is where we're heading today--a sweep through a few of the major basilicas of Rome, St. Peter's square, and so forth. Which, God willing, I will tell you all about tomorrow!

Friday, September 27, 2013

The Love of Wisdom and the Problem With the Internet

In Modernism… knowledge is equated with power… without attention to the dynamics of judgment mediating experience and thought by discovering which are true to reality and which false, moderns wrongly envisage truth as just an arbitrary decision. This is true because some in power decided it was true… knowledge in this context is generated by fear… [In the Catholic tradition] knowledge is born not of fear, but of a love of wisdom and understanding… truth has never been a category of dominative power but of wisdom.

Reflection – You will notice that I have no citation for this quote. This is because I’m writing this in transit (the Ottawa airport awaiting my flight to Philadelphia and from there, Rome, to be specific) and for reasons that are obscure and complex, I have some great quotes on my computer that don’t have the author and source attached to them. If I was in Combermere, I would have the reference at hand.

So, if you are the author of this lovely quote, don’t be mad at me, bro, for quoting you without attribution – when I get back to home base, I will edit the post to credit you. Meanwhile, what a great quote it is. Wisdom and love, and not power or dominance, as the source of truth—this is indeed the Catholic tradition, certainly that of the great monastic schools of theology and the scholastic school exemplified (but not limited to) Thomas Aquinas.

There is this strange caricature of Catholicism that it is a system of power and dominance, where Rome calls all the shots and the rest of us are cowed little sheep, chickens dogged by papal bulls (but let me stop horsing around for now, before I get your goat). It seems to me, based on my studies of the history of theology, that this is really not the case over the whole 2000 years of our Church’s life.

It would take, in fact, what it took me (six years of hard intellectual labor) to show definitively how this is so, but when you look at the great eras of theological development and action—the great patristic era of (roughly) 200-600 and in the Catholic West, the great monastic-scholastic period of (roughly) 1100-1400, the ages in which most of the fundamental vocabulary, theological theory, definitions, and the like became the solid core of Catholic theology, you simply do not see the Pope in Rome issuing decree upon decree, fulminating and excommunicating, defining and demarcarting.

Patristic theology was done primarily by the bishops, in a dialogic process. Monastic theology (think, Bernard of Clairvaux) was done by, well, monks, more often than not in the form of scripture commentaries and homilies. Scholastic theology was done in the incipient universities, generally by friars of the Franciscan and Dominican orders. There is a history of papal supervision and Roman discipline, but the primary work is done in this very different mode.

The bishops were pastors seeking to serve their people by clarifying theology in response to heresy and schism; the monks were genuinely seized by a love of holy wisdom and a desire to plumb the depths of the Word of God; the scholastics were convinced that it was an act of pious love of God to exercise the intellect to its fullest capacity and to achieve the greatest clarity of definition possible by its disciplined use.

It seems to me that it is only later, under the pressures of the Reformation, that theological energy came to be centred more and more in the exercise of papal authority. This era generally has not been looked upon as a great era of flowering of theological depth and wealth. The authority of the Pope has always been there (or so I, a Roman Catholic, firmly believe), and perhaps things had to go this way, given the tragedy of division and theological chaos the Reformation plunged us into, but when you look broadly at the whole of our life as a Church, the Pope's authority hasn’t really been exercised all that much in the realm of theology. The caricature of the Catholic Church as a top-down, repressive, tyrannical authority centred on the Pope is not borne out well by the actual facts of history.

Anyhow, all of this learned excursus, the details of which are available to you if you wish to do six years or so of hard theological labor, is not so much to cause a furious debate about the authority of the Pope or the direction and thrust of current theology--anyone who reads my blog knows where I stand on these things, I think.

Rather, I simply want to clear the ground for us to contemplate this notion of truth as coming from a love of wisdom, a contemplative spirit, a desire not to control or dominate, but to receive, serve, and love. I think this is a spirit we could do well to re-emphasize and re-enter, especially in our highly competitive, disputative, and polemical internet culture. So often it all seems to be about winning the argument and doing the other person down, rather than the quieter search for understanding and insight. Theology has been served well by bishops, monks, and scholarly friars; I'm not sure it is served at all by com-box warriors and snarky tweets.

Something to think about… as I wait in the airport lounge for my flight. Talk to you… well, probably not tomorrow when I’ll be jet lagged to the gills, but Sunday!

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Patron Saint of Failures?

For two days now I have experienced a great desire to be a martyr and to endure all the torments the martyrs suffer.

Jesus, my Lord and Savior, what can I give you in return for all the favors you have first conferred on me? I will take from your hand the cup of your sufferings and call on your name. I vow before your Eternal Father and the Holy Spirit, before your Most Holy Mother and her most chaste spouse, before the angels, apostles, and martyrs, before my blessed fathers Saint Ignatius and Saint Francis Xavier—in truth, I vow to you, Jesus my Savior, that as far as I have the strength I will never fail to accept the grace of martyrdom, if some day you in your infinite mercy should offer it to me, your most unworthy servant.

I bind myself in this way so that for the rest of my life I will have neither permission nor freedom to refuse opportunities of dying and shedding my blood for you… further, I bind myself to this so that, on receiving the blow of death, I shall accept it from your hands with the fullest delight and joy of spirit. For this reason, my beloved Jesus, and because of the surging joy which moves me, here and now I offer my blood and body and life. May I die only for you, if you give me this grace, since you willingly died for me.

From the spiritual diaries of St. Jean de Brebeuf, priest and martyr

Reflection -  Happy feast of the Jesuit martyrs of North America – Jean Brebeuf, Isaac Jogues and companions. Well, in Canada, at least. The rest of the Church celebrates them on October 19; for reasons obscure to me, in Canada their feast day is moved to today.

In my short nine years of priesthood, one of the most moving experiences I have had has been celebrating Mass on the very spot, the very field, where Jean Brebeuf is believed to have been martyred. There is a large cross erected on the site of his torture and death, and a simple stone altar nearby. It is an ordinary farmer’s field, with nothing to distinguish it from any other farmer’s field… yet there it is. Brebeuf and (I believe) Gabriel Lalemant (sp?) were killed there after truly gruesome torture, the details of which I will spare you. They were killed by inches.

Well, we started well in Canada, the Catholic Church, that is. Besides their heroic deaths, the Jesuits lived heroically, laying down their lives with great energy for the native people of this wilderness land. And in this era, subsequent misdeeds and horrific failures coming later, the mission was done in a spirit of profound respect for the people, their language and culture. They learned the language; I believe it was Isaac Jogues who developed a written alphabet for it. They inculturated themselves into the tribal life of the Huron people, although for cultured Frenchmen of the 17th century this was no small thing indeed.

And of course, they died with and for the people they had come to serve. We started well in Canada, and it is good to remember that and give due honor to them and to God who made it all possible. Given our current state of spiritual morbidity and cultural confusion, it is good to be mindful that Canada truly was built in its beginnings on the labor of the saints and the blessed, starting with these Jesuit martyrs but encompassing a vast array of holy men and women who shaped this nation from the beginning as a land of peace and charity, prayer and love of the poor.

For myself, when I look at the Jesuit martyrs I have a soft spot for one of the more obscure of them. Isaac Jogues and Jean Brebeuf were giants—men of prodigious brilliance and physical endurance, true heroes in the order both of nature and of grace. Spiritual and (in the case of Brebeuf) physical giants.

I like to think of Noel Charbanel, myself. He was not a giant. He was not a great success as a missionary. He couldn’t learn the language. He couldn’t adjust to the food and the genuinely harsh living conditions. He was sick a lot. He couldn’t put up a brave front about it all, and the Huron people had little respect for him. Children made fun of him. He was a bit of a screw-up, a failure, a back number. For reasons that are obscure to me, and which are perhaps better left unexplored, I have a soft spot for that kind of person.

And… after some time of being a lousy failure in New France, he knelt down before his superiors here and made a vow to spend the rest of his life as a missionary here. Why? Because God had asked him to do so, and he decided (I guess) that it was better to be a failure doing God’s will than a great success doing his own will. I like that very much.

We can admire the great giants, the larger than life figures who explode upon world history and leave a permanent mark on it. But most of us are a little bit closer to the Charbanel model of things, I would suggest. And it is indeed better to be a failure doing God’s will than a success at our own stuff. And whatever level of failure Noel Charbanel experienced, God succeeded where he failed, and he did die a martyr’s death, and is St. Noel Charbanel now. So, happy feast day, all you failures out there! May God succeed in our lives where we cannot, and see us through to a happy conclusion. Amen.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Going to Rome...

Well, I'm out the door again, this time heading for my first visit (hopefully not the last) to Rome. No, Pope Francis hasn't been reading my blog and summoned me to clarify a few points. I am going to represent the Madonna House priests at the diaconate ordination of our seminarian Michael Weitl.

I am planning to continue blogging, and even am bringing a camera with some vague idea of doing some 'travel blogging' - not my usual style, but what the heck.

On the other hand, I have no idea what sort of wifi access/time crunch I will be experiencing there, so blogging might get a bit sparse. If I disappear off the internet altogether, that's what's happened, and I'll see you all later in October. Wish me well!

Isn't God Supposed to Take Care of Us?

Christ did not cast himself from the pinnacle of the temple. He did not leap into the abyss; he did not tempt God. But he did descend into the abyss of death, into the night of abandonment, and into the desolation of the defenseless. He ventured this leap as an act of God’s love for men. And so he knew that, ultimately, when he leaped he could only fall into the kindly hands of the Father.

This brings to light the real meaning of Psalm 91, which has to do with the right to the ultimate and unlimited trust of which the Psalm speaks: if you follow the will of God, you know that in spite of all the terrible things that happen to you, you will never lose a final refuge. You know that the foundation of the world is love, so that even when no human being can or will help you, you may go on, trusting in the One who loves you. Yet this trust, which we cultivate on the authority of Scripture and at the invitation of the Risen Lord, is something quite different from the reckless defiance of God that would make God our servant.
Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth Vol.1, p. 38

Reflection – It’s been quite a while since I’ve had anything from Pope Benedict on the blog. Psalm 91 is quite the psalm, if you’re not familiar with it – it is the one quoted by the devil to Jesus in the temptations in the desert: ‘He will command his angels to watch over you, lest you dash your foot against a stone.’

There is quite a bit more along those lines: ‘You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrows that fly by day, nor the plague that prowls in the darkness, nor the scourge that lays waste at noon.’ It is one of the great Scriptural prayers of utter and complete trust in God, a total and unreserved act of faith in the providential care of God.

And yet, as the Pope points out here, this faith and trust are not borne out by a world in which bad things never happen to good people, but only to ‘bad’ people. Jesus plunged into the abyss of death, and in this knew the love and care of his Father in heaven. So often we human beings grapple painfully with that – we try to be good people and live in a way pleasing to God, and then when something terrible happens to us our to someone we love, our faith is shaken. Isn’t God supposed to be taking care of us?

Wasn’t God supposed to take care of his Beloved Son? For a Christian, there should be no challenge to faith even if the worst thing we can think of happens. Even if we are indeed caught in the ‘abyss of death, the night of abandonment, the desolation of the defenseless’, and our emotions are all where they of course must be in that position, we know God is with us, Jesus has gone before us, Love has not and will not fail us.

I’m thinking here of all the Christians who are facing exile or death right now in Egypt and Syria and a handful of other countries. I realize well that it is one thing to write about trusting God and plunging into this or that abyss when, in fact, I am sitting in a chair in Canada on a most beautiful fall day, surrounded by a family who love me, living in a society that is fundamentally prosperous and at peace.

Quite another to entrust one’s life to God when at any moment men with guns might burst in and kill you and your family. And yet these people—our brothers and sisters in Christ—are indeed doing just that, it seems, or at least being called to do that. It is good for us who live in the relatively sheltered world of North America to be aware of these situations, certainly to pray for them, but also to be clear ourselves about what trust and faith is, and just what kind of road God asks us to walk in this world.

In North America, we labor greatly under the shadow of ‘prosperity Gospel Christianity’, which shows up in many forms. Essentially, the idea that if you give your life to God good things should happen to you, and if you turn away from God bad things will happen to you. And so of course the people who have bad stuff happen to them must, on some level, be lousy rotten sinners who got it coming to them, and the people who prosper must deserve it.

We all know this is silly, especially when we’re the poor saps who have the bad things happen to us, and our neighbors across the street who are so horrible have good things happen, but it is a silliness that has put down deep roots into our culture, for long historical reasons that are unnecessary to explore.

Meanwhile, we have a 2000 year history of Christians being asked to lose everything—their homes, their goods, their lives—as the price of following Christ. And we need to be clear about that: God takes care of his children, but this care takes mysterious forms in this life. Our call is to trust him, and that trust is expressed in doing his will, best we can, come what may, and to leave the success and failure, joy or desolation of our life, in the hands of our Father in heaven. To do what Jesus did, in short, which can only happen with his help and by his grace. 

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Sin Doesn't Matter - God Understands

The clearest proof of the reliability of Christ’s love is to be found in his dying for our sake. If laying down one’s life for one’s friends is the greatest proof of love (cf. Jn 15:13), Jesus offered his own life for all, even for his enemies, to transform their hearts. This explains why the evangelists could see the hour of Christ’s crucifixion as the culmination of the gaze of faith; in that hour the depth and breadth of God’s love shone forth. 

It was then that Saint John offered his solemn testimony, as together with the Mother of Jesus he gazed upon the pierced one (cf. Jn 19:37): "He who saw this has borne witness, so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth" (Jn 19:35). In Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, Prince Myskin sees a painting by Hans Holbein the Younger depicting Christ dead in the tomb and says: "Looking at that painting might cause one to lose his faith". 

The painting is a gruesome portrayal of the destructive effects of death on Christ’s body. Yet it is precisely in contemplating Jesus’ death that faith grows stronger and receives a dazzling light; then it is revealed as faith in Christ’s steadfast love for us, a love capable of embracing death to bring us salvation. This love, which did not recoil before death in order to show its depth, is something I can believe in; Christ’s total self-gift overcomes every suspicion and enables me to entrust myself to him completely.
Lumen Fidei 16

Reflection – We continue our Tuesday read-through of the encyclical Lumen Fidei. Here we see the very heart of faith laid out: the believing heart and mind contemplating the death of Christ on the Cross for us. The Cross is, indeed, the glory of God revealed, because it is the love of God revealed, and God’s love is his glory—the inner splendor of the Trinity, made manifest in the man Jesus who is the Son of God and whose deepest reality is expressed in this suffering and death out of love for us.

All this talk on this blog and elsewhere about mercy and sin, good and evil, the tough issues of our times, and Pope Francis’ penetrating and thoughtful words on all those subjects—it seems to me that none of this talk really goes anywhere unless it is conducted, so to speak, on Calvary, at the foot of the Cross of Jesus.

We cannot talk about sin except in that light: this man, who is God, died for my sins and yours. We cannot talk about mercy except in that light: the mercy of God is freely given, but look at what that mercy means! God became a man and died for us. We don’t really understand the whys and hows of it all… but that is how mercy came to us. It is no easy breezy ‘get out of jail free’ card, although it is free, and does get us out of jail… but God died for it.

We cannot understand questions of moral good and evil except at the foot of the Cross. God took on Himself the greatest evils humanity is capable of, and lay still under the blows and lashes and nailings… and this great evil became the locus of the greatest good imaginable, a world reborn, humanity saved, gates of heaven opened, eternal life and joy bestowed. Again, the whys, the hows… we just don’t know. But it is our faith.

The whole ‘context’ Pope Francis is calling us to present, as we present the hard truths of moral good and moral evil and things the world would rather not hear about right now, is precisely this context. God died for our sins and that death has won us mercy, forgiveness, and fullness of life. We are indeed sinners, all of us, every last one of us, and it is no part of the Church’s mission to evaluate greater and lesser sinning, to figure out who the realllly bad sinners are and who are just 'kind of' sinners. 

Nonsense! We are all sinners… but in a very real sense it doesn’t matter. So I’m a sinner! So you’re a sinner! One great crying out of ‘Jesus, mercy!’, one good confession, one good act of contrition, and goodbye sin, hello mercy. All through the blood of Christ, all through the power of the Cross.

The alternative is the path of endless, fruitless, and increasingly frantic self-justification. Well I had to… well it’s not really a sin because I read a book somewhere that says it’s not… well he had it coming to him… well I’d do it again, and I’m not sorry… well but if I hadn’t done it, bad stuff would have happened… well I think God understands…

Oh, God understands all right. He understands we are sinners, that we rebel and twist and turn and disobey and do whatever we think is right regardless of the moral law and justify it all away in the contortions of our minds. God understands… and He dies for us, so that His mercy is available, one act of repentance away, one confession, one crying out for it.

This is the glory of God, that all the human evil in the world, every bit of cruelty and greed and lust and vicious appetite is all overcome by one act of divine love, one total outpouring of divine goodness, one death of one man who is God, for us. Amen.