Wednesday, August 31, 2011

God's Sowing is Silent


God's sowing is always silent; it does not appear in the statistics, and the seed that the Lord sows with WYD is like the seed of which the Gospel speaks: part falls on the road and is lost; part falls on stone and is lost; part falls on thorns and is lost; but a part falls on good earth and gives much fruit. This is, in fact, what happens with the sowing of WYD: Much is lost and this is human. To use other words of the Lord, the mustard seed is small, but it grows and becomes a great tree. Certainly much is lost. We cannot say that starting tomorrow a great growth will begin in the Church. God does not act like this. [His seed] grows in silence. I know that other WYDs have awakened friendships, friendships for life; so many new experiences that God exists. And we trust in this silent growth, and we are certain that, although the statistics do not say much about it, the Lord's seed really grows. And for many people it will be the beginning of a friendship with God and with others, of a universality of thought, of a common responsibility that really shows that these days give fruit.
Press Conference while held travelling to World Youth Day, August 18,2011

Reflection – ‘Oh, what good does it do?’ This is the question, and it’s a serious one. Not just about World Youth Day, but about… well, everything and anything. The parish RCIA has a dozen candidates and catechumens one year… and three years later how many of them are in church on Sunday? Madonna House has several hundred guests passing through every year… and what lasting difference does it make in their lives? You get married and have children… and they all grow up and leave the church. What good does it do?
This is a profound question which afflicts almost everybody at some point or other, often with great anguish. Is the world ever going to get better? Is the Church ever going to be renewed? Am I ever going to become the person I want to be?
The Holy Father’s words penetrate this anguish at a very deep level. ‘God’s sowing is always silent… His seed grows in silence.’ Every serious Christian (indeed every serious human being, at some level) has to grapple with this unchangeable fact. The hidden quality, the silent reality of the true growth, the true action of God, of the Spirit in the world.
Evil is reflected in statistics: marriage breakdowns, violent crimes, war casualties, and all the grim metrics of tragedy in the world. Good is not measured thus: the actions of grace in the world, of forgiveness, of mercy, the slow growth of wisdom and love in a human heart, the choice made to persevere in a difficult situation, to serve and to give when it costs much. No Gallup poll can capture this; no psychological experiment track it under laboratory conditions.
So yes, I’m sure there are young pilgrims who went to WYD, clapped and sang and chanted ‘Benedito (clap-clap, clap-clap)’ and even ‘Esta es la juventud del Papa’ and then went home and partied wildly with their friends, had sex with their girlfriend or boyfriend and slept in the next Sunday! (And of course there are many pilgrims for whom that is utterly not the case).
But the action of God is not limited by this. WYD generates a sacred memory for those who attend it, presents a vision of the Church, of Christ, of the Gospel that abides, even if some or even many of the attendees turn away from it for a time or even for good. It plants a seed, and this planting is the very heart, the essence of evangelization, as Our Lord himself taught us in the Gospel. And this planting applies, not only to WYD, but to all of our lives. What good does it do? Wait until the Harvest, and see.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

A Universal Call to Friendship

I would say that these WYDs are a sign, a cascade of light -- they give visibility to the faith, visibility to the presence of God in the world, and thus give the courage to be believers. Often, believers feel isolated in this world, somewhat lost. Here they see that they are not alone, that there is a great network of faith, a great community of believers in the world. [They see that] it is lovely to live in this universal friendship, and in this way friendships are born that cross the borders of cultures, of countries. The birth of a universal network of friendship that unites the world with God is an important reality for the future of humanity, for the life of humanity today… I think WYD should be considered as a sign, as part of a great journey; it creates friendships, opens borders, makes visible that it is beautiful to be with God, that God is with us.
Press Conference on World Youth Day, August 18,2011

Reflection – In this introductory reflection about World Youth Day, given to reporters while travelling to Madrid, it is significant that Pope Benedict focuses on the word ‘friendship’ as a central meaning of the WYD phenomenon.
WYD is about friendship: friendship with other Christians, other believers, friendships across nations and cultures, friendships built up within and among the pilgrim groups as they travel together and experience both the joyful and trying elements of the event: both beautiful liturgies and line ups for Porta-potties, if you will.
Friendship is a really important word, isn't it? I’m sometimes a bit surprised at which posts on this blog attract the most readers. The ones about sex, of course, are quite popular and that’s no surprise, but one that startled me with its popularity was this one on the nature of friendship in Christ. It has out-performed the ‘sex posts’ by a wide margin!
The whole business of friendship seems crucial to our humanity. Now, I have to admit that I tend to be a pretty solitary guy. I am truly content, by and large, to be left alone with my own company and thoughts. This is a helpful trait to have if you’re a writer. But God in his mercy gave me a vocation to live in community, to live with people who are not me, have their own thoughts, ideas, personality quirks and who I am asked to love and be friends with, in the truest sense of that word. So friendship is something I’ve reflected on quite a bit over the years.
Friendship: what does that word mean, anyhow? It’s a word thrown around a lot, debased perhaps (I have over 500 friends on Facebook!!!!! But how many could I pick out of a police line up?). To call someone a friend means, I think, that this person’s welfare matters in my life. My own individuality, my narrow frontier of concern for myself above all, is compromised. I have been expanded in my humanity: no longer is it all about me, no longer is the story of my life a one-man play, no longer am I only seeing through the one narrow lens of self-concern and self-direction.
To have a friend is to have a second self, to have another human being whose thoughts, opinions, reactions, feelings matter to me in some sense. It is a question of being broken out of the prison of the self, and this is the central task of our humanity, the task of love and charity.
WYD, then, is about friendship in a radical, global, universal sense. We all come from some little corner of the planet, whether it’s the Upper Ottawa Valley or New York City. We all are shaped by that little corner, bearing the cultural norms and traditions of our society. WYD, among other things, breaks us out of the limitations inherent in this and calls us to embrace, enjoy, celebrate the diversity and richness of the whole human fabric, and to make that diverse and beautiful fabric our own in whatever way we can. And all of this is wrapped up in this beautiful profound word, friendship.

Monday, August 29, 2011

On Pilgrimage, Part Two

'God alone suffices.' So I ended my previous post, as we got on the bus for the short trip from Avila to Madrid.
God alone suffices... but it was anything but 'God alone' for the next week! Me and 1.5 million of my closest friends rattling around in the beautiful city of Madrid, in temperatures topping out in the upper 30s (Celsius - that's around 100 in Fahrenheit), each day packed with catechesis, liturgies, talks, celebrations, and people, people, people.
It is impossible to convey WYD in words - I know that many of my blog readers have been at one some time or another, so I don't necessarily need to. The enthusiasm, energy, sheer volume of the young crowds, the intensity of moving around in such a vast throng of people, the endless variety of nations, and then the intimate little personal encounters with this one or that one in the crowd as you wait in line or press together on a subway car or against a railing waiting for Mass to start.
At times there can be a bit of skepticism, even cynicism about WYD - I've run across some pretty negative stuff on the Internet since returning, which I won't bother linking to. A sense can be had that this is just a party for well off young Catholics who don't necessarily believe any of this nonsense, but just want to cut loose in Europe for a few days.
Well, it may be that for some - who knows? I didn't interview 1.5 million people! But that wasn't my general impression. What was my general impression? Three things summarize it:
1) Teaching - The volume, and sheer quality of the teaching was impressive. Our group attended a catechetical session with by Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Canberra, and two with Archbishop Timothy Dolan. Christopher West was there giving a powerful presentation of the Theology of the Body, and the Knights of Columbus sponsored a series of panel discussions at the English-language Love and Life center, covering topics like religious freedom, evangelization of culture, the theology of the body, social media, prayer, entertainment. The quality of the speakers was world class, and the depth of the teaching being given was thoroughly adult. Perhaps this stood out for me because of my own avocation as a teacher, but it really was terrific stuff. And the young people seemed receptive, listening, receptive. The Word of God was preached - that's the main thing. Who receives it and who doesn't is a mystery hidden in the hearts of those present.
2) Reconciliation - I took two stints of three-hours each in the confessional. Obviously I won't discuss anything said there, but I can testify to those who may question the fruits of WYD that, at least for the couple of dozen people I encountered in the sacrament, God was definitely on the move. Graces being received, deep struggles and secret places of the heart being poured out, serious calls to repent, to change, to recommit to Christ--that was what I encountered. And it was beautiful.
3) Silence - 1.5 million people gathered for the Vigil at Cuatro Vientos. I will pass over the blazing heat, shortness of water, and violent storm in the evening. My lasting memory, though, is two moments of total silence in the crowd. When the Blessed Sacrament was exposed, this vast throng of very enthusiastic, very noisy young people fell absolutely quiet. It was unearthly, really. A moment, a minute, two minutes - how long was it? But everyone was still. The same thing happened during the Mass the next morning, after the homily. By then the crowd was probably over 2 million (but what's another 500 000 among friends?) - and again, utter silence, utter calm, utter quiet.
What's it all about? What's it all for? What comes of it? That's for God to know, and to say. But this little pilgrim touched something very deep and beautiful in Spain. Truth and grace and silence moving through what was, yes, a big Catholic party (and there ain't no party like a Catholic party...).
But God was there at the party, and yes, that alone suffices. 

Saturday, August 27, 2011

On Pilgrimage, Part One

Coming to write about my experience of World Youth Day, I realize right away an unfortunate fact about the ‘blogosphere’, namely its extreme temporality—the journalistic imperative of the present tense exponentially increased by the immediacy of new communications. WYD Madrid was a whole entire week ago – who wants to hear about it now? Bearing in mind that pretty much every other blogger in the world has moved on to whatever’s happening this week (Hurricane Irene, anyone?), I want nonetheless to reflect a bit on my experiences, for a post or two anyhow, and ongoingly reflect on this blog on some of the Pope’s words to the young people in Madrid. The intense temporality of the blogosphere should not have the last word here: WYD exists so as to plant seeds that will sprout and grow and bear fruit. How can this happen if it is forgotten two days after it happens?
So to set the stage, myself, another priest from the Pembroke diocese, and ten young adults went to WYD together! First, though, we took five days to do a whirlwind tour of Fatima, Compostela, and Avila. I want to reflect briefly on those experiences in this post. My reflections will be entirely impressionistic and personal—simply what happened to me and my heart as we pilgrimaged around these holy places.
Fatima: Truth be told, I didn’t have much of a devotion or interest in Fatima before going there, compared to, say, Lourdes or Guadalupe. I know the story, of course (what pious Catholic of my generation doesn’t?). But it never grabbed me, somehow.
The first thing that struck me about Fatima was that I was home there. Home, for me, is Mary. I live in a Marian shrine year round, which is pretty cool actually, and my experience in any place dedicated and hallowed to the Mother of God is simply that it’s just another room in my home. So that was nice—here I am, here’s my mama, all is well.
What struck me powerfully about Fatima specifically, though, was a certain quality of seriousness about it. The Fatima apparitions are serious business. Mary came there to call her children to action, to battle. In Guadalupe, she asked her poor children to come and tell her their troubles; in Lourdes, she is there for the sick to bring healing.
In Fatima, we are told that the world is in dire trouble, and that every Christian needs to get down on their knees, to pray, to fast, to consecrate themselves in deadly earnestness to Jesus through Mary. And the seriousness, the apocalyptic urgency of the Fatima apparition, pervades the place. It’s not a warm fuzzy Marian shrine; here, Mary like a good mother is warning us about the peril we are all in (Young man, you stop what you're doing right this instant! You are so grounded!). And she tells us what we need to do to survive it.
I had brought a large envelope of prayer intentions from Madonna House with me, and took a couple hours in the old basilica to go through it, praying for each intention, along with my own rather voluminous regular prayer list. Something came over me as I did this, and it became a very intense experience of intercessory prayer: Mary, help this person! Mother, come to the aid of that person! Jesus, have mercy on us! Very much in the spirit of the place.
In all that, though, it was beautiful and joyful. Where Mary is, there is joy, because where she is, the battle has been won. Our time in Fatima happened to coincide with my birthday, and I began my 46th year of life on earth concelebrating Mass in the Chapel of the Apparitions, sitting just a few feet away from where Mary appeared to the three children. That was cool.
Santiago de Compostela: Due to circumstances beyond our control, our time at Compostela was a little truncated. We were supposed to have a two hour guided tour; it got truncated to one hour (we had the fastest-talking English-speaking Spanish tour guide ever, though!), and that one hour tour was conducted while WYD pilgrims poured into the church from all sides. So it was all a bit chaotic and noisy. We did have a beautiful Mass there with a pilgrim group from Bretagne, who had paid to have The Thurible lit at the end of Mass. You all know about The Thurible, right? Size of either a large refrigerator or a small automobile, takes a hundred pounds of incense, attains speeds of sixty miles an hour in full swing, which swing took it directly over our heads… a rather peculiar, albeit impressive experience, really.
But my Compostela experience really was mostly one of feeling rushed and frustrated… I wanted to spend so much more time there, see it more fully, pray there more deeply. But, on reflection, isn’t this how life is? We usually want things to be just a bit easier, to go just a bit differently. We want just a bit more time to reflect, to pray, to stop. And it usually doesn’t happen: life just keeps chugging along, bearing us with it. A bit noisier and more chaotic than we would choose, the tour guide a bit hard to understand, the crowds jostling us, weird smoking objects sailing past us at high velocity. What’s it all about?
And isn’t ‘pilgrimage’ really a vast metaphor for life? We go on pilgrimage, on sacred journeys, to touch the deep reality that our whole life is a vast sacred journey to the heart of God. And this journey proceeds, not as we like it, but as God ordains it. A bit harried, a bit rushed, a bit ‘not what we had envisioned’ – well, that’s the journey! Take it as it comes, and trust the Father is going to lead you through it to Himself.
AvilaAhh, Avila. ‘The silent city’, our guide Lucia told us it is called. The beautiful medieval walls, the churches, the convents, the plazas. Here too there were WYD pilgrims on all sides, but even they (we) were stilled by the place.
There’s something about Avila… the presence of Teresa and John and so many holy Carmelites, the prayer, the silence, the deep contemplation—it has soaked into the very stones there, into the walls. A mystical city.
A high point for me was the visit to Teresa of Avila’s birthplace, now a convent with a church attached to it. The actual room she was born in has become, of course, a chapel. Now I have a deep love and devotion for Teresa – she’s one of ‘my saints’, truly. In my brief career as a composer I wrote a musical setting on of her most famous prayers. So imagine my joy when, in the chapel of her birth, our tour guide Lucia pulls out prayer cards and leads us in praying the very words:

Let nothing disturb thee
Let nothing afright thee
All things are passing
God never changes
Patient endurance
Attains all things
Who possesses God
Wants for nothing
God alone suffices.

And turning to us with a beautiful smile, she says to us “It’s true!” Amen, Lucia. And so, armed with that deep quiet faith in God’s sufficiency, carrying us through the seriousness of our times and the rush and chaos of our days, we got on the bus to Madrid.
To be continued…

Monday, August 8, 2011

Hasta La Vista!

"So, are you going to blog World Youth Day?" Several people asked me this after I had started the blog. And my immediate reaction was simple: "No way!"
At first, the thought was strictly practical and technical: the only equipment I have to blog on is my big, clunky laptop, and there was no way I was going to lug that around Portugal and Spain for two weeks. I also couldn't imagine having time and energy to write posts in the midst of all the action.
But really, as I pondered it, it wasn't those practical considerations at all that make me say, "Hasta La Vista" (and not in the terminator sense of the phrase...). It is a spiritual consideration, instead.
I am going on a pilgrimage, on a sacred journey with the Lord and a few (hundred thousand) of his closest friends. The technological culture, for all of its benefits and obvious goods, places us in a certain mode of analysis, distance, filtering of life so as to put our spin, our presentation on it. To blog while on pilgrimage would be, in my opinion, to put several layers of insulation between me and the Lord's journeying with me these next two weeks.
Pilgrims don't blog. Or at least, this pilgrim doesn't! So, this is my last post for awhile (a great sigh of relief goes up from the peanut gallery). I assure you of my prayers for you at the holy places and in the crush of bodies and souls in the crowds of Madrid. And, yes, I will blog all about it when I get back at the end of the month. Talk to you then!

All I Want For My Birthday Is...

Well, actually, I'm getting the most fantastic birthday present I could imagine, which is to start the day (this Friday, in case you're interested!) in Fatima of all places.
Besides that, which is beyond anything I would have dreamed of, what I would like for my birthday is what any, every and all writers always want: more readers!
This baby blog is doing OK on the readership, all things considered... but yes, like a typical modern, I have to say that I WANT MORE!
So if you like my blog and want to give me a nice birthday present, here's what you can do. If there's a post of mine that you have especially enjoyed, found thought-provoking, etc., click on it. Then go to the bottom and where the little 'f' is for Facebook symbol is, click that. That will post the link to your facebook page, so that all your little Facebook friends can come truckling over to my blog. And maybe they will share it to their facebook pages, and so on, and so on... and then I will rule the world!!!!!!
Oh sorry, I just let slip with my master plan... never mind that last sentence...
So that's what I want for my birthday! It's free, and will take you less than a minute!

You Gotta Have Faith F-Faith F-Faith (aka, Once in a Very Great While, George Michaels is Right)

Human life becomes impossible if one can no longer trust other people and is no longer able to rely on their experience, their knowledge, on what is already provided for us. That is one aspect of faith, the positive side. On the other side it is naturally the expression of a lack of knowledge and to that extent of an attitude of inferiority: it would be better to know. [This type of faith] bears the character of what is insufficient and provisional: it is a purely initial preliminary stage of knowledge that whenever possible one will strive to pass beyond. But alongside this there is something quite different: this kind of ‘faith’ is a mutual trust, a common sharing in understanding and in mastering the world, and this aspect is unessential for the organization of human life. A society without trust cannot live.
To Look on Christ, 12-13.

Reflection – Who do you trust? Who, when they tell you something is so, do you believe? Anyone? Perhaps it might depend on the question – people in MH sometimes (once in a while) trust me on questions of theology or scripture, but they sure don’t trust me on auto mechanics or proper silk screening techniques (and rightly so!).
But that is the species of faith Ratzinger is talking about here. Not the supernatural theological virtue, but ordinary choices to believe a trusted authority. But without this, as he points out, life gets pretty difficult. Who of us can know everything about everything? We all have to make some decision to trust other people’s say so, even on mundane matters. If someone tells me they were working in the garden in the morning, I more or less take it at face value, even if I didn’t personally witness the momentous event.
Ratzinger’s point here (and of course he’s always addressing his opponents the logical positivists and their anti-faith bias) is that this is, in fact, a good thing. Yes, it is good to know everything from our own knowledge. Yes, it is good to have tested things out and determined to our own satisfaction the truth of this or that matter. It would be really great if I did know all about auto mechanics and handicrafts—but my brother Bryan knows, and I trust him. My sister Anne Marie knows, and I trust her. And this is the basis of social life—the bonds of trust that come from our mutual need, our mutual ignorance, and the little acts of faith we engage in every day without hardly noticing it.
So the ideologues who deny that any act of faith is valid, that it is always an abdication of the intellect and its rigors to engage in faith, have a very steep hill to climb, don’t they? Better fix your own car, tend your own illnesses, drive yourself wherever you go (surely you don’t trust the pilot, do you? Have you seen, and can you personally authenticate, his credentials?). Better grow your own food while you’re at it, and generate your own power—in fact, you’re basically going to have live off the grid, if you’re going to live without faith in your life.
Every human action is a faith-based initiative. And if this is true of food and housing, medicine and travel, why should we exclude faith from the fundamental matters of life and death, meaning and purpose? I choose to trust my mechanic with my car; why, if I determine that this book or that Church is trustworthy, should I not trust them with myself?
Yes, it’s more important, more consequential. Hence it’s a more important decision. But if faith is allowed in all these lesser matters, by what rational argument do we exclude it from the larger?

Sunday, August 7, 2011

What To Do When Hope Fades

A first essential setting for learning hope is prayer. When no one listens to me any more, God still listens to me. When I can no longer talk to anyone or call upon anyone, I can always talk to God. When there is no longer anyone to help me deal with a need or expectation that goes beyond the human capacity for hope, he can help me. When I have been plunged into complete solitude, if I pray I am never totally alone. The late Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan, a prisoner for thirteen years, nine of them spent in solitary confinement, has left us a precious little book: Prayers of Hope. During thirteen years in jail, in a situation of seemingly utter hopelessness, the fact that he could listen and speak to God became for him an increasing power of hope, which enabled him, after his release, to become for people all over the world a witness to hope—to that great hope which does not wane even in the nights of solitude.
Spe Salvi 32

Reflection – Pope Benedict here touches upon something very important in the journey of hope. It is when natural hope fades and even dies that supernatural hope flowers in its place. We always have both; supernatural hope is given us in baptism to keep our wills fixed on God who is our happiness; natural hope is a proper habit of our humanity to energize us to work for good, but difficult to achieve, future goals—‘where there’s life, there’s hope!’
The two are related in that both energize us in the same way – towards the arduous future good – but are wholly distinct in that one gets us off our duffs and working hard to earn that promotion, get that degree, raise those children, while the other makes us primarily and fundamentally ‘lift our eyes to the Lord, waiting for his merciful help.’
This is why prayer and hope are so inter-connected. It is prayer that is this very lifting of our eyes, our minds, our hearts, to God. Prayer is hope in action. And the more we exercise a virtue, the stronger it becomes in us, just like our muscles grow stronger as we exercise them.
Cardinal Van Thuan, mentioned here, is a towering figure of this virtue of hope, and indeed one of the great saints (if I can be presumptuous to say that) of the 20th century. His life of faithfulness as Archbishop of Saigon after his imprisonment is astounding, and the choice he made every day to love his enemies, his jailors, seeing in them the only members of his flock he had access to. Then there was his daily Eucharist, celebrated with a fragment of bread, two drops of wine and one of water, on his ‘chalice’ – the palm of his hand. And the pastoral letters he wrote in his first years in prison, smuggling them out to be copied out by hand and passed from household to Catholic household. Their eventual publication after they reached his family in Australia was the occasion of his being moved to solitary confinement.
He is truly a patron saint of our times, finding faith, hope, and love in the most difficult situation possible, and coming out of prison a radiant witness to the gospel. If you haven’t read his writings, I suggest you start here.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

An Embrace Forever Given

Two things emerge clearly from this rapid overview of the concept of eros past and present. First, there is a certain relationship between love and the Divine: love promises infinity, eternity—a reality far greater and totally other than our everyday existence. Yet we have also seen that the way to attain this goal is not simply by submitting to instinct. Purification and growth in maturity are called for; and these also pass through the path of renunciation. Far from rejecting or “poisoning” eros, they heal it and restore its true grandeur. This is due first and foremost to the fact that man is a being made up of body and soul. Man is truly himself when his body and soul are intimately united; the challenge of eros can be said to be truly overcome when this unification is achieved. Should he aspire to be pure spirit and to reject the flesh as pertaining to his animal nature alone, then spirit and body would both lose their dignity. On the other hand, should he deny the spirit and consider matter, the body, as the only reality, he would likewise lose his greatness… it is neither the spirit alone nor the body alone that loves: it is man, the person, a unified creature composed of body and soul, who loves. Only when both dimensions are truly united, does man attain his full stature. Only thus is love —eros—able to mature and attain its authentic grandeur. Nowadays Christianity of the past is often criticized as having been opposed to the body; and it is quite true that tendencies of this sort have always existed. Yet the contemporary way of exalting the body is deceptive.
Eros, reduced to pure “sex”, has become a commodity, a mere “thing” to be bought and sold, or rather, man himself becomes a commodity. This is hardly man's great “yes” to the body. On the contrary, he now considers his body and his sexuality as the purely material part of himself, to be used and exploited at will. Nor does he see it as an arena for the exercise of his freedom, but as a mere object that he attempts, as he pleases, to make both enjoyable and harmless. Here we are actually dealing with a debasement of the human body: no longer is it integrated into our overall existential freedom; no longer is it a vital expression of our whole being, but it is more or less relegated to the purely biological sphere. The apparent exaltation of the body can quickly turn into a hatred of bodiliness. Christian faith, on the other hand, has always considered man a unity in duality, a reality in which spirit and matter compenetrate, and in which each is brought to a new nobility. True, eros tends to rise “in ecstasy” towards the Divine, to lead us beyond ourselves; yet for this very reason it calls for a path of ascent, renunciation, purification and healing.

Deus Caritas Est 5

Reflection – Well, I tried and tried to find some way to shorten this paragraph of the encyclical, but you know, I just couldn’t do it. It’s so brilliant, so insightful, so packed with meaning – every sentence of it, every word of it. I’ve been going through thispart of the encyclical, reflecting on how well it meets the truth we all at least sort of know – that the sexual revolution which was supposed to bring such liberation and joy has brought disease and death, that eros left to its own devices degrades into use and exploitation - mere lust.
It is in this passage that we see, or at least begin to see, what it means for eros not to be left to its own devices, for it to be purified and lifted up so that it does indeed rise ‘in ecstasy’ towards the Divine. It is a question of the whole person being one in his or her body and soul, and the ecstatic movement of erotic desire being taken up into whole movement of the person. Self-gift, self-disposition, a total choice to embrace this person, not only in the one moment of union and pleasure, but all of each embracing all of the other. And not just a total embrace now, but an embrace that is forever given. And not just an embrace of the other as they are, but all his or her potentialities, most of all the capacity to engender life. A total embrace excluding nothing, not the future of this person nor what may come forth from them. In short, marriage, and openness to life in that marital embrace. This is the purification of eros.
The old fashioned language was ‘remedy of concupiscence’, but not in a simple minded sense that marriage provided a licit place to satisfy one's sexual desires, but in this deeper sense. In the vocation of marriage, desire is taken up into and incorporated into a personal choice to dedicate oneself to the other and hold nothing back from that dedication, and to accept always and in every movement of marriage that which may come from that dedication, namely the children God wants to give you. Eros is purified by being brought into the mystery of sacrificial love and death to self.

Of Twilight and Truth

We can continue to affirm… the unbelief is contrary to nature, but we must at once add that man is not able to clear up wholly the strange chiaroscuro that weighs down the questions concerning the eternal realities. If a genuine relationship is to come into existence, God must take the initiative: it is He who must come to meet man and address him.

Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures, 100

Reflection – This is the final excerpt I will include from the essay “The Natural Knowledge of God.” Ratzinger has talked about our capacity to recognize an order in created reality, and to know from this that an order-er exists. He has spoken of the naturalness with which this knowledge has come, factually, to most people in most times in human history. But he has also acknowledged that we all experience a tension around that – a desire to do our own thing and a desire to conform ourselves to the immediate powers that seem to control our lives: in our day, these are the fashions of the moment, the strongholds of money, sex, and power, and the ever-increasing reach of the state.
These interfere with our ability to ‘see’ God, so to speak. God and the Truth he has planted in all created reality are there, but these make demands on us that may put us in conflict with what we want to do, and what our society wants us to do. And so we can turn away; we can blind and deafen ourselves to God and the truth that surrounds us.
This analysis is deep and penetrating, and confronts us all—certainly, it confronts me! And so Ratzinger concludes the essay by saying that we just don’t have it within us to sort it all out. What is true? What is false? What is egoism? What is the spirit of the age? Where is God in all this? We little human beings are not up for the job of figgerin’ all that out, and anyhow, we are usually somewhat compromised already by our earlier wrong choices. We live in a mixture of light and darkness, a twilight land of half-shadows and dimly lit corners (this is the meaning of the word ‘chiaroscuro’).
The Christian answer, quite reasonable in light of this existential quandary we find ourselves in, is that God comes to meet us right here in the chiaroscuro. And this ‘meeting’ of God with man is a historical event with a face, a name, a narrative—Jesus of Nazareth, Son of Mary, Son of God, crucified, died, risen, ascended, and coming to us in the gift of his Spirit to the Church.
So our path to truth and knowledge of God is not, emphatically, the path of endlessly multiplied theological tomes (or blog posts!) or debate after debate with unbelievers and heretics. It is the path of cleaving to Jesus, moment by moment, turning to Him, asking Him for light, crying out to Him for mercy. Renouncing, in his name, the darkness of self-will and the illusions of the spirit of the age, and begging Him to shed the light of his truth into our frail little minds.
And it is only thus that we can thread our way through the needle of our times, and come into the full light of the Gospel, so that we can give this light and this Good News to our brothers and sisters who need it so deeply.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Neglecting Our Own Interests

Man’s natural center of gravity draws him towards the visible, to what he can take in his hand and hold as his own. He has to turn round inwardly to see how badly he is neglecting his own interests by letting himself be drawn along in this way by his natural center of gravity.
Introduction to Christianity,  25

Reflection – Eve saw that the tree was good for food, and pleasing to the eye, and much to be desired for the wisdom it offered.’ (Gen 3:6). And she grabbed it, ate it, and gave it to Adam, and he did the same. And ever since, we have been a tribe of ‘grabbers’. As Fr. Ratzinger wrote in this, one of his earliest books, our center of gravity goes that way.
The story of the tree and the fall of Adam and Eve helps us understand this, though. Eve had the tree and its enticing fruit before her – the visible, the immediate, the ‘grab-able’. The invisible reality was her inner knowledge, her memory of God’s command. ‘Do not eat this fruit, for you will surely die.’ The visible is always the sense-object, the concrete piece of reality before us. It seems to me that the invisible reality we need to ‘turn round inwardly’ to behold is wisdom.
I want to grab that extra food, that next drink (one more round!). I want to get more money, a bigger house, car, TV. I want to go to bed with this one or that one. These are all the immediate, the visible, the obvious good things to grab at and consume. It is only the acquisition of wisdom, that interior invisible insight into the whole of reality, that tells us what we should or should not do. Eat this much, and no more; live with this much material goods and no more; do not commit adultery or fornication…
But this heeding of invisible wisdom requires an inner life, a commit to interiority, a certain quietness of mind and heart. The technological revolution of the last 20 years, whatever else one might say about it, seems to be at war with precisely this interiority. The constant presence of information technology and all its noise is driving people, especially young people, towards a way of life almost entirely geared to the visible, the immediate, the sensible. This is a serious challenge; leaving all questions of religion and spirituality aside, a capacity to think deeply, searchingly, critically about life has always been understood as fundamental to authentic human flourishing. A life reduced to the sensory level is an animal life, a reversion to barbarism.
In Madonna House, we ask our guests to turn off their gadgets and phones and be silent. We send them to poustinia for 24 hours with God, only a Bible to read, and bread and water for food. We all have to find some way to do this; we have to learn to ‘turn around inwardly’ towards the deeper truths, the Wisdom that awaits us. As Catherine put it, we have to journey inward to meet God who is dwelling in our hearts.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Why I Am a Conservative

Optimism is the theological virtue of a new god, and a new religion, the virtue of deified history, of a god ‘history’, and thus of the great god of modern ideologies and their promise… [As despair] is the sin against the Holy Spirit because it excludes the latter’s power to heal and to forgive and thereby rejects salvation, [so] in the new religion ‘pessimism’ is the sin of all sins, for to doubt optimism, progress, utopia is a frontal attack on the spirit of the modern age: it is to dispute its fundamental creed on which its security rests, even though this is always under threat in view of the weakness of the sham god of history.
To Look on Christ, 43

Reflection – This passage from Ratzinger is an interesting one. It well reflects the distinctive spirit of ‘modernity’ – a spirit that many would argue has given way to something quite different in post-modernity.
Modernity is characterized by just this idea of marching towards a glorious future, of the inevitable progress of history, of a certain historical determinism in which events unfold according to a definite program, and in which we are either to ‘lead, follow, or get out of the way’… or be crushed under the wheels of history’s vanguard.
Has this modern sense eroded, fractured under post-modernity’s weight? I’m not so sure. I was living in Washington DC during the last presidential election. Whatever one might think of Barack Obama, the type of enthusiasm around his campaign bore many characteristics of this sort of historical determinism, the quasi-Hegelian view of the historical moment and epochal change. There was a kind of ‘messianic’ excitement around his campaign, at least in some circles.
The aggressive movement towards same-sex marriage bears much of this same ideology of historical inevitability. Those opposed to both Obama and same-sex marriage have been characterized as ‘on the wrong side of history’ – as if history is a living entity with its own agenda.
I identify myself as a conservative, politically. Truthfully, I despise labels, and particularly the almost meaningless labels of ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ which seem to mean whatever the person using them wants them to mean, and more often than not are either tribal totems of belonging or terms of abuse hurled back and forth.
However, my overall perception after 45 years on the planet is that contemporary political liberalism seeks to fundamentally re-order society so as to usher in some sort of ‘new age’ of justice and equality, whereas conservatism accepts that human beings and human society will always be as they are, and the role of the state is fundamentally to restrain the worst excesses of human behavior and otherwise allow people to live their lives as best they see fit. This seems more in line with reality to me; hence, I call myself a conservative.
I am not a pessimist; I believe that God is indeed going to create a new heavens and a new earth, and the redeemed will live forever in the light of his glory. But that is His work, not ours. Our work is to live in peace and love, to serve and suffer and give ourselves away until we have nothing left to give. Our work is not to create this new heaven and earth by our own ideas and energies.
The world, or rather the human beings alive in the world today, will keep blundering along, not too bad and not too good, with flashes of beauty and heroism here and there, and a strong undercurrent of love and sacrifice running through nearly every human life. God’s grace active everywhere and in everyone, and the shadow reality of sin present in all hearts, too. So it always has been, so it will be until God comes to usher in the real New Age, the fullness of the kingdom of heaven.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Rendering to Caesar What is God's

The idea of a personal relationship between the Creator God and each individual… in its pure form is limited to the sphere of biblical religion. But there is an objective connection between this and the conviction that was common to almost the whole of mankind before the modern period, the conviction that man’s Being contains an imperative; the conviction that he does not himself invent morality on the basis of calculations of expediency but rather finds it already present in the essence of things.”
A Turning Point for Europe?,  28-9

Reflection – The idea of a natural moral law is not especially Christian, either in origin or by necessity. It is theistic—there can be no law without a Lawgiver, after all. But the idea that there is a structure to reality, an inherent way that things work, that they are supposed to flow, and that morality lies in conforming our own free choices to the structures of reality in existence—this can be found in Plato and in Aristotle, in the Greek dramas and the Jewish Torah.
Once we exclude that idea from our calculations, which is the commonplace attitude today, we truly are in a bind, at least intellectually speaking. We’re not in so much of a bind in our actions—'just do whatever the heck you want!', basically, is the outcome of rejecting the natural law. But to justify our actions rationally without recourse to a natural law has proven to be more difficult than was originally thought.
Most ethicists have ended up taking one strand of the natural law and elevating it without justification to an absolute position. Utilitarianism does this; so does consequentialism. The ‘natural’ law for these ethicists seems to be to do whatever is most useful or has good consequences. But without a theory of nature, in other words a theory of what it’s all for, how are we to calculate what is useful and good? I might think it’s good to rob the local liquor store and spend the loot on fast cars and loose women. Certainly, it’s useful to me to do this. Why exactly should I subordinate my immediate needs and desires to the common good?
Theories that disallow any kind of inherent structure to reality, and particularly any kind of purpose, or end, to human life, fail to justify this. And smart guys like Sartre and Nietzsche see through that, and counsel us to just do whatever we want to do. The strongest will prevail, and its all pointless anyhow.
And many follow this counsel today, without the hyper-dramatic emotional climate of European existentialism. But what happens when your unfettered will and mine clash? How do we resolve the conflict? Rock-paper-scissors? Pistols at dawn?
Usually we go to court. In other words, the government decides. Having refused to render unto God what is God’s, we render unto Caesar… everything, basically. If there is no power, no truth, no justice higher than the state, then the state is the highest power of all. And this is the bind we increasingly find ourselves in, in our modern world. Allowing no natural law to hamper us, we find ourselves increasingly hemmed in on every side by ever-expanding numbers of decidedly unnatural laws.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Essential Question of our Time

The true measure of humanity is essentially determined in relationship to suffering and to the sufferer. This holds true both for the individual and for society. A society unable to accept its suffering members and incapable of helping to share their suffering and to bear it inwardly through “com-passion” is a cruel and inhuman society. Yet society cannot accept its suffering members and support them in their trials unless individuals are capable of doing so themselves; moreover, the individual cannot accept another's suffering unless he personally is able to find meaning in suffering, a path of purification and growth in maturity, a journey of hope. Indeed, to accept the “other” who suffers, means that I take up his suffering in such a way that it becomes mine also. Because it has now become a shared suffering, though, in which another person is present, this suffering is penetrated by the light of love. The Latin word con-solatio, “consolation”, expresses this beautifully. It suggests being with the other in his solitude, so that it ceases to be solitude. Furthermore, the capacity to accept suffering for the sake of goodness, truth and justice is an essential criterion of humanity, because if my own well-being and safety are ultimately more important than truth and justice, then the power of the stronger prevails, then violence and untruth reign supreme. Truth and justice must stand above my comfort and physical well-being, or else my life itself becomes a lie. In the end, even the “yes” to love is a source of suffering, because love always requires expropriations of my “I”, in which I allow myself to be pruned and wounded. Love simply cannot exist without this painful renunciation of myself, for otherwise it becomes pure selfishness and thereby ceases to be love.
Spe Salvi 38

Reflection – In this paragraph from the encyclical, Pope Benedict hits upon a deep root of the hopelessness afflicting our times. Suffering enters every human life, no matter what. So long as we see suffering as an unmitigated evil, an intolerable burden, something to be fled from, fought off, done away with no matter what the cost, then we are set on a path of hopelessness.
Sooner or later, a suffering that cannot be fled, fought, or done away with descends upon us. Now, let us be clear-- suffering is an evil, a burden, and it is to be fled, fought, and done away with… so long as this can be done without violating the greater imperatives of charity and justice. For years (if I can wax a bit confessional) I worked hard to avoid people who caused me suffering, which is no easy thing when you live in a community like Madonna House. And it was bad for me, bad for them.
To be able to be present to people who are suffering (which, after all, causes us to suffer with them), we must, as the Pope says, have found in our own personal suffering that mysterious something else, that most mysterious presence of Christ, action of grace, purification of ego—there are a dozen ways of putting it, but it is that ‘something’ (or Someone) we encounter in the heart of suffering that makes it, if not itself good, then a conduit to goodness, to a deeper goodness than we could have attained without the suffering.
Without this discovery, this encounter, we are indeed driven to worse and worse acts of desperation as we strive to flee, fight, and do away with suffering. We will contracept, and when that fails, abort; we will kill embryos to harvest their stem cells in the vague hope that we might thereby cure some disease or other (hasn’t happened yet…), and when that doesn’t work, euthanize the sick.
We will leave our marriages when they no longer please us, or as happens more and more often today, simply refuse to make any commitment to any life that will trap us in a situation where we might have to suffer. And so on and so on.
Sentimentality, this soft, seemingly caring attitude that all that matters is to eliminate suffering, leads to the gas chamber. The only way to eliminate suffering is to eliminate everything from my life that causes me suffering. And everyone. To refuse suffering is to destroy ourselves, one another, and our very humanity. It is the essential question of our time.

Almost Comical... Almost

It is an obvious fact that the rational character of the universe cannot be explained rationally on the basis of something irrational! This is why the Logos that is at the origin of all things remains more than ever the best hypothesis, although this is of course a hypothesis that demands we give up a position where it is we who are in charge and that we take the risk of assuming the position of humble listeners.
Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures, 99

Reflection – The obviousness of the fact that Ratzinger outlines here, and the stubborn refusal of so many supposedly bright (Bright?) people to see the argument, is almost comical. We are beings with reason. We can manifestly use our reason to understand the universe. Therefore, the universe has a rational character. But the universe, being inanimate, is not itself rational. Therefore, the rational character of the universe must come from something that is rational. Or, reality is absurd—there is no rational explanation for why a vast material cosmos produces a creature with rational properties who can use those rational properties to understand its reality.
As I say, this seems like such a strong and simple argument that it is almost comical that the Brights (those superior intellectual beings!) cannot follow it, apparently. It’s not an outright proof of God’s existence, simply a strong argument that either there is a Mind behind the universe or everything is utterly absurd.
But this Mind, then, asks to be minded, doesn’t it? And that’s the rub for us, I suspect. Once we allow for a Maker, a Designer, some fashion of Being who ordered all beings to His/Her/Its own purposes… well, then we can’t just do whatever we want, right? And I think this is the real issue behind much of the New Atheism, which is not terribly bright, really, not terribly strong in its arguments, and mostly good at vaunting its superior intellectual force as opposed to demonstrating it.
Who is the Master – this is the question at stake here. Are we the biggest and brightest show in town, or is there Someone Bigger who may just have other Ideas? And are we willing to assume the risk of being humble listeners to those Ideas?

Monday, August 1, 2011

At the Movies

The MH community just watched "Of Gods and Men" last night. I am not a movie buff, and usually don't enjoy sitting a watching a movie at all.
This movie is different - it is a fantastic, beautiful, artistic, mesmerizing experience. And the story it tells is absolutely true - it all happened, just 15 years ago. And it bears witness to the power of love, of faith, of grace, of God in a way I've never seen a movie quite do. And there's not a trace of maudlin sentimentality or romanticized religiosity.
So, if you haven't seen it yet, what are you waiting for?

Making the World What It Oughta Be??

Two categories [have] become increasingly central to the idea of progress: reason and freedom. Progress is primarily associated with the growing dominion of reason, and this reason is obviously considered to be a force of good and a force for good. Progress is the overcoming of all forms of dependency—it is progress towards perfect freedom. Likewise freedom is seen purely as a promise, in which man becomes more and more fully himself. In both concepts—freedom and reason—there is a political aspect. The kingdom of reason, in fact, is expected as the new condition of the human race once it has attained total freedom. The political conditions of such a kingdom of reason and freedom, however, appear at first sight somewhat ill defined. Reason and freedom seem to guarantee by themselves, by virtue of their intrinsic goodness, a new and perfect human community. The two key concepts of “reason” and “freedom”, however, were tacitly interpreted as being in conflict with the shackles of faith and of the Church as well as those of the political structures of the period. Both concepts therefore contain a revolutionary potential of enormous explosive force.

Spe Salvi 18

Reflection – “We can change the world, rearrange the world…” I’m not exactly old enough to remember the 1960s, but I am the youngest of six children, and my oldest brother and sister were avid record buyers. I therefore grew up surrounded by the sounds of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, the Moody Blues, Joan Baez, etc., etc, all sounding the call to revolutionary change and promising freedom from all constraints if we anwered it.
Similarly, I’ve often noticed a similar theme present in people who came of age in an earlier generation yet, those who were young adults in the 1950s or so, a certain expectation of endless progress, endless growth. Things are just going to keep getting better and better and better… this was the expectation of a certain era and place. ‘Better living through science!’ was the promise.
Pope Benedict reflects here on precisely this, such a familiar strain of thought to us. We’re going to figure it all out, and once we figure it all out we will, in the words of that peppy ‘Up With People’ song, “make this world what it oughta be.” This is the secular strand of hope that has been presented to us, in its essence.
I must confess that it holds little to no appeal to me, and not because I have any great spiritual vision, either. Whether it’s the time I grew up in or some quirk in my character, I’ve never for a moment believed in the myth of human progress and perfection. Born in 1966, my earliest memories of the social and political world were Watergate, Viet Nam, the oil crisis, pollution, the Cold War and consequent fear of nuclear annihilation. That’s enough to make any seven year old slightly jaundiced!
Today, it seems like our economic system, built to a large degree on credit, debt, and putting off to tomorrow’s tax payers what we cannot pay for today, is coming to a crisis. Debt ceilings and defaulting on loans and all that. What it all means, what it will look like when what seems to be the inevitable crash comes—I don’t have a clue.
As a priest and a Christian, though, I know that it is when all earthly hopes crumble that God offers us the true hope of humanity. It is when our little kingdoms fall that the Kingdom rises in our hearts. It is when our plans and schemes and economic models fail that God’s holy will can flourish in our hearts.
And this is true hope, the hope that we poor little post-moderns, who really don’t know very much and who are rapidly approaching a crisis for which we seem to be ill-prepared, will be met there by our Father in heaven who loves us, and who offers us a new way into the future, the way of love, faith, radical dependence on him, and from this the ability to lay down our lives for one another. I think we are going to need this ability in the days ahead.