Tuesday, March 31, 2015

When The Three Become One, She Is Yours

Arise — go! Sell all you possess. Give it directly, personally to the poor. Take up My cross (their cross) and follow Me, going to the poor, being poor, being one with them, one with Me.
Little — be always little! Be simple, poor, childlike.
Preach the Gospel with your life — without compromise! Listen to the Spirit. He will lead you.
Do little things exceedingly well for love of Me.
Love... love... love, never counting the cost.
Go into the marketplace and stay with Me. Pray, fast. Pray always, fast.
Be hidden. Be a light to your neighbour’s feet. Go without fear into the depth of men’s hearts. I shall be with you.
Pray always. I will be your rest.
The Little Mandate of Madonna House

Be simple… Our Tuesday readings of the Little Mandate have taken us to this somewhat mysterious word of simplicity, the call to be simple in the context of being little, poor, and childlike. What does it mean, simplicity?

‘Simple’ can easily be confused with its somewhat addled cousin simplistic, which is the wrong tendency to elide over, ignore, or deny real complexities in situations, genuine difficulties, the need for nuance and sensitive careful treatment of complicated and hard situations. A simplistic approach to life and especially to the problems and questions of other people is no great virtue and can do a lot of damage. All too often, what lurks behind a simplistic tendency is simple laziness or selfishness—we don’t want to bother with all the ins and outs of a situation, so instead produce some one-size-fits-all solution out of whole cloth.

The holy simplicity of the Mandate has nothing whatsoever to do with that. It is, however, the opposite of complexity nonetheless, but on the level of our own personal engagement with reality and the demands of the Gospel.

Christ calls each of us to live and die with Him. To love as He loved and to express this love in ways that are certainly not easy, but are not complicated in themselves. “I am third” – put God first, neighbor second, yourself last. Turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, serve and not be served, love everyone. While the specific application of the commandment of love may get into complex territory and difficult discernment at times, the core central reality is simplicity itself.

We are to die for the other, as Christ has died for us. And so often we human beings can generate a whole world of false complexity, a world of ‘buts’ and ‘ifs’ and ‘well, I don’t knows’ that serve not to engage in the real work of love and its concrete application but to get us off the hook of love. False complexity and rationalization can too often be an escape, an insulation against the Cross of Jesus Christ and its presence in our life in the call daily to sacrificial love.

Catherine wrote a poem called simplicity that seems relevant both in this context and in our present liturgical context. Here it is:

You speak so easily of Her -They call Simplicity ...
But do you know the way to her?
It is too simple - like Herself!

Two beams, that make a cross... are simple, homey things -
To make of trees that grow abundantly...
Three nails ... so easily come by ... so cheap, “so simple”...
A hammer - old familiar tool - will do nicely too!
Now ... your hands and feet, simple, familiar parts of YOU!

You will find SIMPLICITY...
The way will be quite SIMPLE straight and clear ...
When -- wood, nails and YOU -- ARE ONE!
Then she is yours!

Holy simplicity looks at the demands of the Gospel and does not wish them away, think them away, spin webs of complex justifications for why that Gospel precept does not apply to this situation, why I cannot turn this particular cheek, go that particular mile, give this particular cloak to that particular person, and so on and so forth. Balderdash!

We either do it, and rejoice in God’s grace that makes it possible for us to live as Christians, or we refuse to do it, and then are called into repentance and humble contrition. No excuses! That is what holy simplicity consists of. Simple, eh?

A happy Holy Week to you!

Monday, March 30, 2015

It's Easier to Just Give In

Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.
Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity,
and in whose spirit there is no deceit.

For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.

I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,”
and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.

Therefore let everyone who is godly offer prayer to you when you may be found;
surely in the rush of great waters, they shall not reach him.
You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble;
you surround me with shouts of deliverance.

I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go;
I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
Be not like a horse or a mule, without understanding,
which must be curbed with bit and bridle, or it will not stay near you.

Many are the sorrows of the wicked,
but steadfast love surrounds the one who trusts in the Lord.
Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.
Psalm 32

Reflection – Happy Monday of Holy Week. This is a week rich in themes—so much to ponder, so little time, really. Fortunately we have precisely one Holy Week a year, so if we don’t quite take it all in this year we can try again next year (not to mention that we’re allowed to think about these things in between—encouraged, actually!).

The Monday Psalter has brought us to Psalm 32 which focuses on one of the key themes of this season, namely forgiveness of sin.  In Madonna House we are having our communal penance service this evening; many parishes have had similar services at some point in the Lenten season.

In our community this is always a night of great peace and joy—to communally, individually acknowledge the simple, sad truth that we are sinners, that we have sinned, that we have done what we know to be wrong and have turned our faces from God in doing so—to be able to say this outright, publicly, with great humility, even as we reserve the specific details for the sanctity of the confessional, is great freedom and happiness.

To have to either hide one’s sins away like a terrible secret, a shameful thing one must conceal from God and neighbour, or to be so horrified or incensed at the very notion of sin and being a sinner that we have to deny sin exists, rationalize every choice we have made, wish away every moral law we have broken—all of this is frankly exhausting. Our bones waste away from the effort, our strength is dried up. It is so much easier, really, to just give in, admit one is a sinner, go to confession and forget about the whole thing.

Some of my anti-Catholic readers (why do they read this blog, anyway?) approach the subject of sin and the sacrament of confession as another example of clerical privilege and abuse. They don’t seem to realize that priests go to confession, too, as do bishops and the Pope for that matter. Our MH communal penance service is for all of us, as we all together acknowledge and confess our sins to the Lord, even as the priests are indeed the ministers of God’s mercy in the sacrament itself.

In Holy Week all of this is especially poignant and meaningful. Jesus Christ died for sinners, died to win us the sure forgiveness of our sins by the shedding of his blood. We cannot really appreciate what He did for us unless we fully acknowledge the desperate plight of our sinful humanity. If sin is not real, and is not a very serious problem indeed for us, then Christ’s death is rather pointless, isn’t it?

The truth is, our unforgiven sins will pull us down to Hell and eternal death if we do not bring them ‘under the Blood’, in that fine old fashioned phrase. And this should be no cause for undue distress for us, because as it happens Jesus did die for us, and so mercy and forgiveness have been made available to the whole human race in His death and risen life. We don’t have to be sorrowful, and we don’t have to be stubborn like a mule in finding our own path through the world, and we don’t have to waste away. Life is given us, freely, in Jesus Christ.

Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Why Did Jesus Die?

Do you sense something so far beyond mystery that you almost feel as if you were teetering at the edge of the universe? Last night in Gethsemane God the Son took upon himself my sins and yours—the sins of all the world. He took them on himself and lifted them up, or rather, he was lifted up for them on a cross. He died to atone for them.

Before our eyes this simple wooden cross holds the absolute forgiveness of God for us. Lord, have mercy! Lord, have mercy! A thousand languages repeat it, and he has pity on us because he has been lifted up and from him came pity, compassion, tenderness, understanding. Can we comprehend what has happened? God, the Almighty, the All–Powerful, the One who has no limit to his power, limited it. It is incomprehensible…

Today is the day of an examination of conscience, and yet somewhere deep within us joy rises like the sun. However it is still dark and the darkness is I, looking at myself. The darkness is also sorrow that he had to die for me. The joy is that he did! Now I am whole and healed and all is well! My separation from God, the original one, is wiped off.

Now I walk in the mercy of God; we live in his mercy. Now the moment of guilt is gone. Man must not feel any guilt anymore, only a terrible sadness when he once again breaks his alliance with God, the alliance of love. Whenever you feel that you have broken it, pray, “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner!” and it is forgiven!”
Catherine Doherty

Reflection – Happy Palm Sunday to you all, and a blessed Holy Week. This excerpt from a talk by Catherine Doherty on Good Friday 1973 seemed a fitting way to begin our week of the Lord’s Passion and love this year. The talk itself is part of my book Going Home.

I have been trying to do a bit of catechesis on Sundays here and there. This Sunday, let’s talk about the catechetical matter that is perhaps the one above all others, namely the death of Jesus Christ and its saving power in our lives.

For those who have simple faith, this matter poses no problem, and perhaps that is the best way to be. We know Jesus died; we know He died because He loves us; we know His loving death has saved us, won us forgiveness of our sins, opened heaven’s doors, reconciled us to the Father. For many people, that is all we need to know—we don’t get troubled by questions of how and why and what is the meaning of all this.

There are those who are so troubled, though, and it is good to have some kind of answer worked out for them. We cannot precisely ‘explain’ our faith—it is a divine revelation and ultimately transcends the powers of human comprehension—but we can talk about it, clarify it, make it a bit more understandable even if we cannot (and should not) eliminate the mysterious aspect of it.

And so many theologians over the millennia have given some account or other of ‘how’ Jesus’ death saved us. The Church has never adopted any one of those explanations as its own dogma. The dogma of the Church is precisely what I laid out two paragraphs ago, that this death happened and that this death has had these effects for all who are saved, and that the salvific fruits of this death are offered to all men and women.

In the Western Church, the most influential theory has been that of St. Anselm of Canterbury, the ‘substitutionary’ theory of salvation. Humanity, in committing sin against God, ran up a debt that was infinite, since our offense was against an infinite majesty. Being finite we could not pay that debt; but since it was a human debt, a human being had to pay it; but only an infinite being could make the infinite satisfaction of the debt; so only a God-man could pay that debt, and the wages of sin are in fact death, and so Jesus paid the debt for all of us.

With all due respect to St. Anselm and the many holy men and women who have accepted and taught this theory, I have never cared for it. It is too much rooted in categories of law for me—yes, this is an aspect of life and of our relationship with God (Scripture would collapse into incoherence if all notions of law were eliminated from it)—but law is not the heart and the whole of our life with God. And since this matter of Jesus’ death is at the heart of our faith and our life with God, it seems to me that casting it in wholly legal terms impoverishes our faith.

This is the theory I prefer (I offer this bearing in mind that this too is merely a theory, and that our Catholic faith is the simple faith that Jesus saved us by dying for us, period): Sin is fundamentally death, the undoing of creation. Creation in its deep heart is being flowing from Being, being ordered and shaped and given life from Being. This is the deep meaning of obedience, that our whole existence is from Another, the Uncreated One.

Sin rejects being, life, creation, and so sin is death. Jesus, being God the Creator, enters the reality of sin without sinning (which is metaphysically impossible for God) by entering the reality of death in his sacred humanity. His motivation is love—love of His Father, love and mercy to us poor sinners.

And so, in the very place of sin, the place where sin does what it does—kills us—the Creator God establishes a new creation. That which had been the great monument of destruction and uncreation—the tomb—becomes the place of personal encounter with Life. That which had been the fruit of our tragic and terrible disobedience and selfishness becomes transformed by obedience and selfless love.

It is not on the level of law and debts, but on the level of personal encounter, personal love, personal communion—a communion of love that is forged at the very place where all relationships are destroyed and sundered. And so—sin is forgiven, heaven opened, we are reconciled and saved.

Ultimately all we need to know is that God loves us so much that He died for us, and simple faith is satisfied by that answer. But it is good to meditate on just what Love does, and just how much Love has shown itself to be stronger than death, isn’t it? Happy Passion Sunday, and may we all enter into the victory of Christ and know his joy this Easter.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Madonna House Movie XI - A New Vision

Well, here it is, folks - the eleventh instalment in a twelve-part series on Madonna House community that we produced last year. This one, as you can see, is on a topic somewhat dear to my heart, which is the presence and role of the priests in MH. I show up, burbling away on the subject, throughout this video, so don't know what more I can add here. This is, simply, my vocation, and this short video does a pretty good job of presenting it, all things considered.

I believe that what we are trying to live in MH--priests and laity living together in a common family life with true mutuality and equality of dignity and mission--is not just for our community but is a new vision for the whole Church, one that I have given my life for. So here it is, and I hope you enjoy it:

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Not a Devotion, But a Reality

Happy feast of the Annunciation to you all! In lieu of my usual blog post, I thought in honour of the feast and of Our Lady that I would share this snippet of my book The Air We Breathe: The Mariology of Catherine Doherty, which seems to me to summarize the main theme and spiritual focus of this day. So... here it is!

For Catherine, Mary was simply a reality: ‘you don’t have devotion to reality, you embrace it.’ So what was this ‘embraceable’ reality of Mary? While Catherine had come to know Mary so deeply through the circumstances of her life and how Mary had come to help her in them, the reality of Mary was much deeper than her own subjective experience. More fundamental to her was the objective and awesome fact of Mary’s role in salvation:

I don’t think I have a “devotion” to Mary. I have something far greater, more immense, far more beautiful. I have an unshakable faith that she is the Mother of God, and hence, the Mother of men. I believe that she fashioned the body that has become to me the Body of her Son in the Eucharistic Sacrifice… Mary said one little word: fiat. She said it in faith, in God. She asked one or two questions, but immediately she accepted the will of God. She accepted without understanding…[i]

This is the heart of Marian reality according to Catherine: Mary gave her flesh to Jesus, and this Flesh is truly the salvation of the world. She did this by saying fiat – let it be done to me according to Thy will. She did not understand, at least not fully, what she was saying yes to.

This basic Marian fact, which is a simple fact of scripture available to anyone who believes in Jesus, is utterly central to the life of the Christian disciple. For we too are to give our flesh to God. Christ wills to be born in our souls by faith and come to maturity there through hope and love, the work of his Spirit in us who comes to us through the sacramental life of the Church. Our fiat is essential to this giving over of our flesh to en-flesh the Word in the world today. 

And we too do not understand much at all what our choice of saying yes (or no) will mean for us, what it will cost us and what the stakes are for ourselves and for others. Mary did what we are to do. Certainly she did it in a unique way and with a perfection and beauty that we can only admire, but nonetheless, Mary’s life and mission is precisely that of the Christian in the world.

For Catherine, Mary stands as the shining icon of the Christian, the clearest and best picture of what it means to be a follower of Christ. The awesome dignity of it, the mysterious depths of it, the frightening totality of it, the beautiful fruit of it—Mary is the figure who reveals all of this. But she does not reveal it to us simply as an exemplar. 

Mary is not just a symbol or pattern of Christian discipleship. She is not merely the sum total of some list of qualities that we are to memorize and imitate. She is not only a beautiful picture that we can admire.

Mary comes to each one of us, personally. Mary ‘takes us on’ individually, teaching us and helping us. Mary is really the spiritual director of the whole human race. She gives us courage when the way is dark, guidance when the way is twisted and confusing, joy when the way is sorrowful. She whispers in our ears, constantly, the word of hope and consolation that we need if we are to persevere in our own fiat. She can do this because she walked every step of this way, knows every inch of it, and knows the glory to which it leads.

[i] “I Live on an Island,” in Restoration, June 1968.