Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A Blunt Object

[Science] is an immensely good thing… but there exist also pathological forms of science that deprive man of all honor, when scientific capabilities are put at the service of power.

Values in a Time of Upheaval 26

Reflection – So I’m following up here on yesterday’s post, on Marxism and its ongoing presence in our world today in the form of a rejection of any existing order in creation in favor of whatever the most powerful person or group decree.
Here we see that the ideology of science is precisely that. Not the practice of science—to simply learn the principles by which the physical universe and living creatures operate is nothing but good. Indeed, there is an implicit giving of honor and glory to God in the scientific method—we take in the wisdom of the Creator by studying the detailed workings of his creation.
It is when the discoveries of science are put into practice by the powerful of the world without regard to the ethical demands of human dignity and freedom that we see the pathological form of science Ratzinger describes here. To harness the power of stem cells to treat and even cure hitherto devastating illnesses such as diabetes or Parkinson’s, or even to cure spinal cord injuries is manifestly a good thing.
To kill embryonic human beings so as to harvest those stem cells is not.
To refuse to acknowledge that scientific research and practice must be done according to the larger realities of our humanity, its nature, dignity and rights, is essentially to make such research devoid of any particular meaning and value. After all, why cure Parkinson’s? Because human beings suffer greatly from it, right? But if human life is worthless and meaningless, which the destruction of embryonic human beings entails, then why does that matter?
Science unmoored from morality becomes simply power—no more meaningful really than the crocodile’s jaws or the grizzly bear’s claws. A blunt or sharp object (as the case may be) to get whatever we want right now, but no more significant that that.
Only when we live in the fullness of our humanity, which means the fullness of our responsibility for one another in truth and in love, does science and any other manifestation of human powers and skills take on a meaningful mien.
And this is what the Church has to offer humanity and its ‘secular’ fields of knowledge: that which alone makes knowledge something worth possessing and conducive to a beautiful form of human life.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

That Terror Be Put to Flight

Marx was the one who said that humankind should no longer inquire into its origins and that to do so would be to act foolishly. Marx’s intention here was to move away from the question of understanding the ‘whence’ of the universe and its design… since creation in its innermost reasonableness attested most strongly and ineluctably to the Creator…. The question is seen as foolish from the very start. Creation is of no consequence; it is humanity that must produce the real creation, and it is that which will count for something. This is the source of the change of humanity’s fundamental directive vis a vis the world; it was at this point that progress became the real truth and matter became the material out of which human beings would cerate a world that was truly worth being lived in. Ernst Bloch intensified this idea and gave it a truly terrifying mien. He said that truth is now what we take it to be and that the only truth is change. Truth is, accordingly, whatever prevails, and as a result reality is a ‘signal to invade and an instruction to attack.’
In the Beginning, 49-50
Reflection – Might makes right, and the winners write the history books. So we have all been told. This is not new with Marx or the less well known Bloch. Ruthless and unscrupulous people have generally been able to articulate such as their philosophy, when they bothered to take time out from their busy schedule of rape, pillage, and looting to have a philosophy.
With the Marxist development (and Marxism is far from dead, and far from being limited to its explicit historic development in political-economic communism), the great brake that always bore on the schemes of the unscrupulous is removed.
This brake was the sense, the intuition, the barely grasped idea (at times), and firmly stated and codified idea (at other times) that there is an order to things that human beings cannot change.
We can rape, pillage, and loot—sure thing! But it was always at least dimly grasped that in time a bill would be presented, a debt exacted, that there were weights and measures valuing our deeds, that, in the words of an old Spanish proverb: “Take what you want… and pay for it!”
The Marxist sense is that there is no order to things, no scale in which we are balanced, no one to make us pay because there is no One there. We can do what we want, and make the world however we want. ‘Truth’ is a future-only concept, and the truth will be forged by whoever is strongest.
The theology of creation is more important than ever, in the face of this philosophy, which I firmly believe has broken free of its specifically Marxist context and is now a largely regnant rule of life in the year 2011. That God fashioned all that is, that it has a meaning and a purpose from Him, not from us, and that even our own fashioning, and the freedom with which we move through the world, is from Him, and has its own purpose in His schemes—this is the truth that liberates us from the ‘terrifying’ vista of Ernst Bloch, the vision of  a world in which all are at war with all to see whose truth will prevail among its many versions.
To recapture the sense of creation requires, I believe, a recapturing of the contemplative spirit in the world. It is Advent; we are all very busy. It can be very difficult to figure out how to contemplate cooking supper once more this time of year, let alone anything more profound.
But the Advent season calls us to this quietness. Not without difficulty, not without struggle. To stop, at least some time; to listen. To watch the snow fall on the hard earth, to hear the wind in the pine trees, to look at the winter stars. To receive creation as it is from God; and in that reception to know our own selves as received, as given, as gift. This is the wellspring of peace out of which we can truly act to fashion the world in justice and beauty. This is the open space we can create so that God can come into our world and have a place to lay his head, a place to be born anew. So that joy can enter the world again, and terror be put to flight, again.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Measure of Humanity

Certainly, in our many different sufferings and trials we always need the lesser and greater hopes too—a kind visit, the healing of internal and external wounds, a favorable resolution of a crisis, and so on. In our lesser trials these kinds of hope may even be sufficient. But in truly great trials, where I must make a definitive decision to place the truth before my own welfare, career and possessions, I need the certitude of that true, great hope of which we have spoken here. For this too we need witnesses—martyrs—who have given themselves totally, so as to show us the way—day after day. We need them if we are to prefer goodness to comfort, even in the little choices we face each day—knowing that this is how we live life to the full. Let us say it once again: the capacity to suffer for the sake of the truth is the measure of humanity. Yet this capacity to suffer depends on the type and extent of the hope that we bear within us and build upon. The saints were able to make the great journey of human existence in the way that Christ had done before them, because they were brimming with great hope.
Spe Salvi 39
Reflection – Hope is proved by martyrdom, in other words. We can go along in life, ‘hoping’ things work out—and sometimes they do, amazingly enough! Eventually, though, we are confronted with the situation that does not work out, with the suffering that is not assuaged in human terms, with a choice that must be made, an affliction that must be borne, a sacrifice that is asked of us—and there is little or no prospect of it humanly ‘working out’—in fact, what those words mean can become very murky indeed.
True hope, divine hope, is what alone pulls us through this moment, that choice, those situations. We have to know that our destiny is not earthly happiness, but eternal communion with God. Our goal is not to have everything ‘work out’, but to carried by our Father in heaven into a realm of light beyond anything we can conceive.
If we lose this—if we lose hope—we are reduced in big and small ways, but ultimately in a total way, to the level of expediency, compromise, cynical bids for our own comfort or advantage. The whole way of the world of self-interest and utilitarian calculation.
Yet, as Pope Benedict points out so well, ‘the capacity to suffer for the truth is the measure of our humanity.’ Without this, we lapse into a sub-human, bestial existence where all that matters is that ‘I get what I want.’  But we can only suffer for the truth if we are oriented towards our divine destiny in a deep abiding fashion. So we can only be human if we are open to the divine.
The saints and martyrs are the truly human ones among us: the rest of us are ‘on the way’ (hopefully!), but always with that downward tug into self-seeking which negates our true humanity.
It is Advent, and the Church invites us, not to enter into an orgy of consumption, shopping, eating, drinking, and frenzied socializing, but to look up. To look to the One who is our hope, to renew and place and deepen our hope in the One who carries us through the mazes and abysses of life in this world, and who promises to carry us over the threshold of death into the next world, and who is carrying the whole world towards this mysterious glorious consummation when all will be made well in Him.
Only this will free us from the gravitational pull of the self; only this will make our lives truly human; and only this will open us to the fullness of divinity for which we have been made.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Star Baby

The Christian faith has shown us that truth, justice and love are not simply ideals, but enormously weighty realities. It has shown us that God —Truth and Love in person—desired to suffer for us and with us. Bernard of Clairvaux coined the marvellous expression: Impassibilis est Deus, sed non incompassibilis—God cannot suffer, but he can suffer with. Man is worth so much to God that he himself became man in order to suffer with man in an utterly real way—in flesh and blood—as is revealed to us in the account of Jesus’ Passion. Hence in all human suffering we are joined by one who experiences and carries that suffering with us; hence con-solatio is present in all suffering, the consolation of God's compassionate love—and so the star of hope rises.

Spe Salvi 39

Reflection – So this is the crux of the matter (pun somewhat intended) in this whole business of suffering and our relationship to it. That God cannot suffer sounds hard and off-putting to us, but it follows upon our understanding of the nature of God. Suffering always flows from a lack of something in us, a privation, an imperfection; God is perfect and lacks nothing.
But this perfect and hence impassible God also lacks nothing in terms of love for his creatures. And so God who cannot suffer can suffer with—can have compassion. And this is the whole Christian revelation, the whole Christian mystery. God comes to us and makes himself able to suffer by assuming a human body and soul.
We’re starting Advent this evening, a new liturgical year with (in the English world) a new translation of the Mass to accompany it. Advent is the season where longing for the second coming and joyful anticipation of the celebration of the first coming mingle together.
But you can see how these two are related. We long for the second and final coming of Christ, because this is our true and deepest hope. The world continues on its path of suffering and death, darkness and sin, and we are all borne along on this current, even as we turn to Jesus moment by moment. We long for a true liberation, a true resolution to the crises and chaos of the world alienated from God.
We can have a true hope in the midst of this because, while we look forward to the final coming of Christ, we look back to that little baby born in Bethlehem, that little slip of a thing, that piece of human flesh and bone, shivering in the cold of the stable, fleeing to Egypt from Herod’s hatred, living among us in Nazareth, dying among us on Calvary.
Because God came into our world and did all this, and so opened heaven for all the faithful, we have a sure and certain hope that he will come and finish the job, so to speak, come and wrap all of creation up in his perfect love and justice, put an end to all hatred and war and cruelty, and draw all men and women who will to enter the eternal dance of love and joy.
The baby of Bethlehem is the star of hope. As we rush about in the busyness of December and all it entails, let us hold onto that baby, and so keep our eyes fixed on that star which leads us into the future God has opened up for us. He has come. He is real. He shares our burdens and sufferings. He gives us the strength to bear them to the end. He loves us.

Friday, November 25, 2011

A Couple of Stray Articles

Hey - I suspect many of my blog readers already get the MH paper Restoration, but for those who don't, I've had a little series on relativism in the modern world and the Christian response.
Part One is here, and Part Two is here. Part Three isn't online yet.
Read 'em and let me know what you think - so far it's been a love them or hate them affair.

The Easy Ways Don't Work

To suffer with the other and for others; to suffer for the sake of truth and justice; to suffer out of love and in order to become a person who truly loves—these are fundamental elements of humanity, and to abandon them would destroy man himself. Yet once again the question arises: are we capable of this? Is the other important enough to warrant my becoming, on his account, a person who suffers? Does truth matter to me enough to make suffering worthwhile? Is the promise of love so great that it justifies the gift of myself? In the history of humanity, it was the Christian faith that had the particular merit of bringing forth within man a new and deeper capacity for these kinds of suffering that are decisive for his humanity.
Spe Salvi 39
Reflection – Yesterday I reflected with the Holy Father on the redemption of our own personal suffering – how the fear of suffering drives us into all sorts of pathological and even evil acts, and how Christ present in our suffering heals us of this fear so we can bear whatever pain we must bear in this life with hope.
Today he goes on to reflect on the reality of suffering for others, not merely our own personal pain. The fact is, as we all know, we live in a broken world, and to truly help others, to be a force for love and healing, justice and mercy in this broken world, is not easy (to say the least!)
I am reminded of something Catherine Doherty was told by her spiritual director in the 1940s, Fr. Paul Furfey: that many people were willing to help change the world in easy ways… but the easy ways do not work. Very few people are willing to lay down their lives for the world, but the effect of their lives is all out of proportion to their numbers.
Truly, to live one’s life is such a way that some little light of love is shone into our corner of the world, to spend one’s time and energy in such a way that at least a few other people come to know something of joy and love—this is a task that demands all we have. It is a crucifying way of life, yet without it, love and joy remain very small and weak in the world.
And so we do have to know that there is a Love that meets our love, a Death that meets our death, and a Life, radiant and unending, that will catch and enfold our life as we strive to pour it out for the world.
And that it matters – that this little brother or sister, this little person in fact does matter enough for me to die for them, or be willing to suffer that they may live. Here too we need some kind of vision of Christ—how much I mean to Him—so you can mean that much to me, and so forth.
The pro-life cause is one I am passionate about, yet the circumstances of my life mean I have little direct involvement with it. But I believe firmly that the most deeply pro-life work anyone can engage with is to treat every human being as someone who is worth dying for, someone who is of immense importance to the world and to myself. Someone who is a precious and irreplaceable treasure. Everyone.
It is the absence of this attitude—the treating of people as units of production or valuable only if they are pleasing to the eye or in some other way—that is the deep root of the culture of death. But to live a true culture of life means being willing to suffer and die, even for one person who we might not even like terribly. And this is the force of love and hope that changes the world; nothing else will, you know.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Anchor of the Heart Reaches the Throne of God

We can try to limit suffering, to fight against it, but we cannot eliminate it. It is when we attempt to avoid suffering by withdrawing from anything that might involve hurt, when we try to spare ourselves the effort and pain of pursuing truth, love, and goodness, that we drift into a life of emptiness, in which there may be almost no pain, but the dark sensation of meaninglessness and abandonment is all the greater. It is not by sidestepping or fleeing from suffering that we are healed, but rather by our capacity for accepting it, maturing through it and finding meaning through union with Christ, who suffered with infinite love… Christ descended into “Hell” and is therefore close to those cast into it, transforming their darkness into light. Suffering and torment is still terrible and well- nigh unbearable. Yet the star of hope has risen—the anchor of the heart reaches the very throne of God. Instead of evil being unleashed within man, the light shines victorious: suffering—without ceasing to be suffering—becomes, despite everything, a hymn of praise.

Spe Salvi 37

Reflection – You know, there are passages from this encyclical that really need very little commentary from me, that are well-nigh perfect in themselves. This is one of them. All I would really have to say is that I believe the Pope has squarely identified here the primary pathology of the 20th and 21st centuries. This is the root of abortion, of contraception, of pornography, of consumerism, of greed, of fascism, of so many of the behaviors and ideologies that have driven us to the edge of the abyss we are on today.
When we fear suffering above all other things, when we are willing to do anything—kill our children, mutilate our bodies, suspend civil liberties, run away from painful relationships, flee into a world of fantasy and lies—rather than bear the suffering that is inevitable in this world, then we fall into this terrible abyss of meaningless dark emptiness.
This is our current pathology; Christ is the current (and eternal) answer. God penetrated suffering. God suffuses every corner, every facet, every moment and movement of the human condition. He has come; He is here; He has fused Himself with us in our human experience, most particularly in our suffering and death. And so we have nothing to fear; suffering, fear, anguish, terror, death have been touched by God in Jesus Christ. And so there is hope. Suffering, fear, anguish, terror, and death are not the last word. The last word is love, resurrection, joy, victory, a hymn of praise.
But we have to cling to Him. And we have to stop fleeing suffering. We have to stop doing terrible things to ourselves, one another, our children, in our vain futile effort to put an end to suffering. We have to cling to Him, and enter whatever suffering comes to us in love and patient endurance, knowing that ‘patient endurance attains all things; who possesses God wants for nothing; God alone suffices’ (Teresa of Avila).
I guess I did have a few things to say about this passage after all…

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Let's Be Logical

Liturgy is meant to be indeed a logike latreia, the ‘logicizing’ of my existence, my interior contemporaneity with the self-giving of Christ. His self-giving is meant to become mine, so that I become contemporary with the Pasch of Christ and assimilated unto God.

Spirit of the Liturgy, 58

Reflection – Two sentences here, absolutely packed with meaning and depth. Boy, that Ratzinger sure knows how to do it!
The phrase logike latreia is a quote from Romans 12:1 – ‘logical worship’ would be one way to render it. But as Ratzinger points out, for Christians ‘logic’ is not some dry abstract intellectual exercise. Logic is from the Logos—from the Word of God who is Christ in the flesh. The ‘logic’ of Christian life always reaches its fullness in our entry into the Paschal Mystery. We are being precisely and utterly logical only when we stretch out our arms to die with Christ so as to be raised to life with him. Any other mode of existence is senseless, illogical, silly.
What a way of talking about logic! What does it mean? Well, the logos of God is to love to the end of love. The Father pours Himself begetting the Son, the Son returns everything to the Father in an eternal act of love and gratitude. The Spirit pours forth eternally from this mutual love and gift. God’s creative act is a constant outpouring of being into what is not Him. And the action of redemption, of salvation, of bringing creation to its completion, takes the shape of this same act of love and gift, this time in a man of flesh who is also God from God.
And our entry into this is, precisely worship. And this worship is, precisely, the liturgy. We take our little selves, such as they are, and plunk them down before the altar of God where the Logos is doing what the Logos does—pouring out love to the end. And out of this encounter, here and now, today if you will, we are drawn into the dynamism of love to the end.
And this is what we mean by divinization. It’s not ascending to some astral plane, some esoteric New Age nirvana. It is to receive from God the capacity to live and love as God lives and loves. And out of this, or in the midst of all this, we receive eternal life. Love is stronger than death—but not just sentimental or emotional love. Crucified love. Sacrificial love. Love that is willing to die for the beloved. That’s how God loves us; that’s the love we receive in the Eucharist; that, and only that, is the love that bears us to eternal life.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Away for the Weekend

And I'm off again - last one for awhile. This time, I'm helping with a bereavement retreat at St. Mary of Egypt Refuge near Madoc. Pray for the retreatants, the retreat staff, and me! Back Monday.

A Love Affair

OK – before you all read this passage from Ratzinger, I need to post a warning – “Academic Language Ahead – Proceed With Caution.” Don’t give up on this blog post – I promise to make it all crystal clear. Cuz hey – that’s my job! But here it is:
Mariology can never simply be dissolved into an impersonal ecclesiology. It is a thorough misunderstanding of patristic typology to reduce Mary to a mere, hence, interchangeable, exemplification of theological structures. Rather, the type remains true to its meaning only when the non-interchangeable personal figure of Mary becomes transparent to the personal form of the church herself. In theology, it is not the person that is reducible to the thing, but the thing to the person.
A purely structural ecclesiology is bound to degrade Church to the level of a program of action. Only the Marian dimension secures the place of affectivity in faith and thus ensures a fully human correspondence to the reality of the incarnate Logos. Here I see the truth of the saying that Mary is the ‘vanquisher of all heresies’. This affective rooting [of the mystery of the Church in the personal mystery of Mary] guarantees the bond ex toto corde – from the depth of the heart – to the personal God and his Christ and rules out any recasting of Christology into a Jesus program.
Mary, the Church at the Source, 27
Reflection – ‘Mary is a symbol of the Church’. ‘Mary is the pattern of discipleship.’ ‘Mary is the model for Christian life.’ We have probably all heard something like this at some point – at least those practicing Catholic readers of this blog.
This quote from Ratzinger is giving an important, crucial brake on that kind of language, correct as it certainly is.
Mary is a symbol of… fill in the blank here. But wait a minute—she’s not a symbol, she’s a person. That is the precise point he is making. Better yet, she is a symbol because she is a person. This is what Mary brings to our Catholic understanding and why she remains so important and central to us.
Our faith is not a set of diagrams and schematics. Our faith is not a dry assemblage of rules and programs. Our faith is not a bunch of learned ideas and propositions.
The Christian religion is personal, warm, or it is no longer Christian. It is a love affair, or it has become something false to its own nature. But it is Mary ‘the symbol of the Church’ who by her very personal presence makes this clear, and makes it so.
Mary is only all the things she is—symbol, pattern, model—because she had and has a direct personal relationship with Jesus Christ, with God the Father, and with the Holy Spirit. Daughter of the Father, Mother of the Son, and Spouse of the Spirit—at every turn, Mary is in relationship, in a personal encounter, in a personal gift and reception of gift, all of which is utterly bound up in the central fact that she said yes to God, and so conceived and bore His Son into the world for its salvation.
And this is the Church. Not a bureaucracy or an army or a social agency or a club or a vehicle for ideology or any other abstract bloodless reality we may make it into. 'A Jesus Program', as he so eloquently puts it. The Church is daughter of the Father receiving everything from God out of love, mother of the Son’s life in her children, and spouse of the Spirit bringing forth the life of Christ into the world continually in the sacraments and in the saints begotten from her womb.
Mary, by standing before us always as our mother, teacher, guide, and friend, makes all of this not just more words, more abstract notions, but a living reality. She is our symbol, our model, and our pattern, but only because she is first our Mother, and our very best friend after Jesus.
God is a pretty smart Guy, you know! Along with everything else He has done to save us and give us eternal life, He gave us the most beautiful thing in the world he ever created—a truly beautiful Woman—to take us in hand and lead us down all the pathways of grace and mercy to the innermost corridors of the heart of God.
God is a Person, and you are a person, and Mary is a person, and the Church, in a sense, is a person—it is all intensely personal, warm, loving, and extraordinarily beautiful. Isn’t it great to be a Christian? Don’t we want to share all this beauty with the world?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The One Spiritual Ailment

The loss of the ability to see one’s guilt, the falling silent of conscience in so many areas, is a more dangerous illness of the soul than guilt which is recognized as guilt.

Values in a Time of Upheaval, 81

Reflection – “‘He claims to be able to cure all physical ailments,’ said Flambeau.
‘Can he heal the one spiritual ailment?’ asked the priest with interest.
‘And what is that?’
‘Oh, thinking oneself quite well.’
This passage from Chesterton’s Father Brown story The Eye of Apollo (quoted from memory) has always stuck in my mind. ‘To think oneself quite well’ – this is the one sickness of the soul that truly is without remedy. All the other sins and vices, serious and destructive as they are, if they are known to be sins and vices, at least lead the soul who grapples with them to cry out to God, to ‘get help’ as the saying goes, to admit to being weak and needy and in need of mercy.
But to say “I’m all right, Jack – what’s your problem?” – this puts us in grave mortal peril. The above passage from Ratzinger is from a discussion of Nazi Germany and the apparent sincere belief of the SS and Gestapo that they were, in fact, ‘all right, Jack (or, perhaps, Hans).’ Some moral philosophers and theologians actually have argued that since these men were seemingly doing what in conscience they believed to be morally right, they could well be in heaven, since after all, we all have to follow our consciences.
Ratzinger (while of course making no pronouncement on the fate of anyone’s immortal soul) counters this line of argument. To become so morally blind and deaf, so depraved in one’s conscience that one no longer can see anything wrong whatsoever in one’s conduct is actually the most spiritually perilous state to be in. Every human being has implanted in them from God some original knowledge of good and evil, some basic sense of the moral law. To have killed that basic sense is deeply dangerous.
We are not Nazis. But more and more in the world today the attitude of ‘I’m all right, Jack – what’s your problem?’ crops up. It’s a familiar strain to us: I’m not doing anything wrong – it’s those people, the ones over there. They’re the bad guys! It’s those liberals, or conservatives, or gays, or fundies. It’s the Sanduskys or Corapis or Cains. It’s Obama. It’s Palin. It’s BushCheney. It’s Wall Street. It’s big government. It’s… fill in the blank here.
But what am I doing? Am I really so perfect, that I can shake my fist and point my finger and call people names, posture like I’m some kind of paragon? Yes, people do wrong things – of course! And I never do anything wrong? Really? Who am I, and where am I, that I can sit in judgment over the world?
When the London Daily News was hosting an essay contest entitled “What’s Wrong With the World?” Chesterton submitted his entry. It consisted of two words. It read, “I am.”
We really have to get there, folks. The problem is not him, or them, or you, or her. It’s not the Chinese, the Russians, the Iranians, or the North Koreans, the Republicans, the Democrats, or whatever political party you dislike wherever you live.
The problem is me—so long as I am not loving without counting the cost and living and dying every day with Jesus. The problem is me—until I become the saint God made me to be. The problem is me, not you, not them, not him, not her. Period. End of story.
Update: Flambeau, not Flaubert (HA!). Chesterton used to quote from memory, too, and consequently his books are full of mistakes...

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Are We Living in the Past?

[In the modern world] belief no longer appears as the bold but challenging leap out of the ‘apparent all’ of our visible world and into the apparent void of the invisible and intangible; it looks much more like a demand to bind oneself to yesterday and accept it as eternally valid. And who wants to do that?

Introduction to Christianity, 26

Reflection – The chronological snobbery of modernity is a well known and well commented on phenomenon. The blithe assumption that we are smarter, better, more educated, than people of past ages goes without saying in many quarters. “Medieval” is a synonym for backwards, superstitious, intolerant, violent, misogynist, racist—and so forth. All bad things happened in that vague period known as the Middle Ages or Dark Ages—although most who hold that would be hard pressed to define exactly what centuries specifically they mean by those phrases, what they were in the middle of, and what the darkness consisted of.
People who hold that view would also be hard pressed to describe the origin of the university system, the theory of universal human rights, the distinction between Platonism, neo-Platonism, and Artistotelianism, who Avicenna, Averroes, and Aquinas were and what difference they made, the varied contributions of the Vincentians, the Franciscans, and the monastic schools of the 12th century, and the significance to philosophy of such names as Boethius, Augustine, and pseudo-Dionysius.
In other words, people who sneer at the ignorance of the Middle Ages tend to be pretty ignorant; people who despise the prejudices of their ancestors tend to be prejudiced; those who scoff at the illiteracy and poor education of the benighted souls of the 13th century show themselves to be fundamentally illiterate and badly educated.
That being said, Ratzinger touches upon a fairly common attitude here in this short passage, and not one that can only be dismissed as the usual modern prejudice against pre-modernism. Why should the past have veto power over the present? Why are we bound to dogmatic formulations of the 4th, 5th, or 13th century? The substance of the bread and wine change to the substance of the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist, while the accidents (i.e. appearances, sensible qualities) remain the same. This is the dogma defined at the 4th Lateran Council of the 13th century. But to a people who no longer think of reality in terms of substance and accident, matter and form, how can this be maintained? Are we living in the past?
This, and similar concerns, are serious questions, perhaps somewhat beyond what can be addressed in a blog post. The essential point, though, in this question of belief and the seeming tyranny of the past over the present in Christianity is that we insist that there has been a definitive action of God in the course of human history. Belief, this leap from the ‘apparent all’ of the visible into the ‘apparent nothing’ of the invisible, is also belief that this apparent nothing made its own leap in our direction, that it became a visible, tangible reality, walked among us, acted in ways that were utterly human, though the action was divine.
If we do not have something like this, something like what Christians claim to be the case, then ‘belief’ becomes rather amorphous. “I believe in an invisible world”… but what is this world. “Oh, I don’t know…” And it all tends to become something I have constructed, projected into the void of the world. Something that suits me, that reflects what I want it all to be about. In other words, it becomes one more extension of my ego into the world.
Unless God has done something, unless there has been an objective and concrete imposition of the divine into the mundane, belief fails, becomes yet one more ego project. And so we stand (or kneel, perhaps) before this concrete, tangible God who did this Thing 2000 years ago, this Thing which is a living concrete tangible reality in the tabernacle and on the altar today. Only this kind of belief carries us truly from the visible and the immediate into the truly invisible and eternal, which remains so present to us that it can bear our weight and bear us into the realm of the divine, the realm of faith, the kingdom of God.

Monday, November 14, 2011

And a Great Silence Descended Upon the Blog

Very busy day Sunday. Medical situation (non life-threatening) today that took up most of my day and all of my energy. Result: no blog. If only I could just post cute pictures of cats I'd be up for it...
For those who may be wondering why I'm all quiet all of the sudden. I'm OK - life just got overwhelming all of the sudden...

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Oracles and Auguries

The prophet is not the Israelite’s version of the soothsayer… his task is not to report on the events of tomorrow or the next day in order to satisfy human curiosity or the need for security. He shows us the face of God, and is so doing he shows us the path that we have to take. The future of which he speaks reaches far beyond what people seek from soothsayers. He points out the path to the true ‘exodus,’ which consists in this: among all the paths of history, the path to God is the true direction that we must seek and find.

Jesus of Nazareth Part One, 4

Reflection – Remember Y2K? The fuss around the magical changing of the calendar from starting with the number ‘1’ to the number ‘2’? I’m not talking about the Church’s response to the new millennium, the proclamation of the great Jubilee—that was an invitation to contemplate Christ’s face as we recalled 2000 years of his life among us in the Church.
No, I’m remembering all the hysteria around computers, and the apocalyptic scenarios being dictated from heaven to various soi disant seers, which seemed to be rewritten on a regular basis (you would think that voices from heaven would have their act together regarding the apocalypse and wouldn’t need constant recourse to editing…)
And many were taken in by this, many were frightened or impelled to make massive changes in their life because some ‘prophet’ somewhere told them something was going to happen sometime soon. Personally I am aware of at least one marriage that was destroyed by this kind of apocalyptic soothsaying, and the panic it engendered in one half of the marriage.
I don’t recall any of those self-appointed seers apologizing after the year 2000 came and went without serious incident. Maybe they did, and I just didn’t hear about it.
And so we are coming up to the year 2012, and apocalyptic speculations are again rife, at least in some quarters. At least this time it’s more in the New Age circle as opposed to Catholic.
It’s this whole business of wanting to know the future, isn’t it? Wanting security or the inside track by getting the program. This is a deeply human reality: soothsayers, diviners, witches, spiritualists, oracles and auguries of all kinds extend back as far as we have records of human striving to live well in the world.
It’s all about security, I think. And this is why for Christians and Jews, divination has always been strictly forbidden. It’s not just that we are forbidden to know the future—actually there are instances in our sacred story of holy people being given isolated and immediate knowledge about some future event, generally so they could pray or do some charitable deed connected with it.
It’s that we are not meant to seek our security in this… and how we want to! If we can just know how the stock market is going to go… how the Middle East is going to go… how Europe is going to go… how my job and finances are going to go… if we could just know…
No. What we are to know is that we have a Father in heaven who loves us. We have a Lord, Jesus Christ, who is with us to lead us and guide us into the divine life. We have a Spirit poured into our hearts to make this a living reality, a here and now event. Prophecy, as it exists today, is simply and purely to guide us towards this Father, this Lord, and this Spirit acting in the world and in our lives.
We have no other real security, and we never will. All the oracles and soothsayers are liars or failures, as are all the modern secular versions: self-help books with guaranteed results, and all that business of securing our future by controlling our present.
God and God alone makes our life secure, and Jesus offers us the sure and certain path to God, and so to the freedom and peace and joy we long for.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Love, the Universe, and Everything!

Hey, all! We just had a planning meeting for our annual MH 2012 Summer Program, a five week immersion into Christian community and Gospel life. As you can see I've added a box on the side of FAQs about the program, but the main info is on the Facebook events page, linked above.
We really want to get the word out this year for this program, so help me out, here, eh? Link, share, pass on the program to your facebook pages, twitter feeds, blogs... whatever!
The young people who come to our summer program, and come to MH throughout the year, really experience life changing graces here. Thousands have come to Christ, or come closer to Christ, or been healed and blessed in multiple ways. So help us find the young people (and even not-quite-so-young) who the Lord is calling to experience our life this summer.

A Hope That Goes Further

Day by day, man experiences many greater or lesser hopes, different in kind according to the different periods of his life. Sometimes one of these hopes may appear to be totally satisfying without any need for other hopes. Young people can have the hope of a great and fully satisfying love; the hope of a certain position in their profession, or of some success that will prove decisive for the rest of their lives. When these hopes are fulfilled, however, it becomes clear that they were not, in reality, the whole. It becomes evident that man has need of a hope that goes further. It becomes clear that only something infinite will suffice for him, something that will always be more than he can ever attain. In this regard our contemporary age has developed the hope of creating a perfect world that, thanks to scientific knowledge and to scientifically based politics, seemed to be achievable… This seemed at last to be the great and realistic hope that man needs. It was capable of galvanizing—for a time—all man's energies… it has become clear that this hope is constantly receding. Above all it has become apparent that this may be a hope for a future generation, but not for me… [but] a hope that does not concern me personally is not a real hope. It has also become clear that this hope is opposed to freedom, since human affairs depend in each generation on the free decisions of those concerned. If this freedom were to be taken away, as a result of certain conditions or structures, then ultimately this world would not be good, since a world without freedom can by no means be a good world… the question always arises: when is the world “better”? What makes it good? By what standard are we to judge its goodness? What are the paths that lead to this “goodness”?

Spe Salvi 30

Reflection -  Whither Greece? Whither Italy? Whither Europe? Is the Euro about the wither? Are we? Am I? How about you? Whither the withered, these days?
The world is in a bit of shaky state these days, as I have pointed out more than once on this blog. Truly hard to know what to make of it all, at least from where I’m sitting up in the backwoods of Canada. The Pope ‘s encyclical on hope is so utterly relevant these days, perhaps of all his writings it is the most urgently relevant in this time of global uncertainty.
We all hope that our lives will work out, for health and prosperity, success and the world’s goods. And sometimes we get what we hope for. Then we find out that all that stuff, nice as it is, does not make us fully happy. And even if we’re pretty happy, at some point we lose it – we grow old, we lose our health, people we love. That’s life. And oftentimes, it doesn’t work out at all. That’s life, too.
But hope must deepen, then, in us, if life is not to be a sad tragic affair. We have to learn to turn our earthly hopes to heavenly hopes. We have to learn that happiness, real and lasting perfect happiness, just is not given to us here and now. Otherwise we either become very sad and bitter, or plunge ourselves into the kind of ideological frenzy that the Pope outlines so well above – trying to build some kind of perfect world where none of that bad stuff will ever happen.
That’s what Europe’s been trying to do since the end of WWII, and it seems to be about to come crashing down around them. That’s what so much of the world has tried to do in the past decades, and it’s not working out very well. We have to learn. We have to go deeper. We have to accept suffering as the price of life in this world. We have to find that 'hope that goes further' than life in this world. We have to learn there’s another world beckoning to us. And we have to learn how to get there, and Who will bring us there.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Why We Choose to Be Sub-Human

Peace in the universe through peace with God, the union of above and below—that is how we can describe the essential intention of worship in all the world’s religions. But this basic definition of the attributes of worship is marked concretely by an awareness of man’s fall and estrangement. Of necessity it takes place as a struggle for atonement, forgiveness, reconciliation. The awareness of guilt weighs down on mankind. Worship is the attempt to be found at every stage of world history to bring back the world and one’s own life into right order.
Spirit of the Liturgy, 35
Reflection – At the end of her wonderful little book The Loser Letters, Mary Eberstadt, in the voice of her narrator A.F.C. (A Former Christian, although by the end of the book… well, I don’t want to spoil it for you…), points out the unsolvable problem for materialist atheism and its evolutionary reductionism of human experience. Namely, why do we feel guilty? What is the evolutionary advantage of remorse, of contrition, of sadness for past sins?
In a strictly materialist universe governed by rigid criteria of evolutionary advantage, survival of the fittest and all that (understood, not in its proper scientific sense, but with a sort of quasi-psychological/ethical/sociological fuzziness), remorse and contrition are enigmas, truly. What benefit do they confer, and how, in a strictly materialistic universe, can human beings find relief for these strong experiences which cause us so much suffering?
The consciousness of sin, of having done some terrible thing wrong which we cannot quite make right, is one of the deeply imbedded indicators in humanity that there is a Bigger Reality surrounding us, to whom we are accountable. That our relationship to this Bigger Reality is somehow key to whole project of happiness, peace, joy, love. And that there is something in us that has badly messed up this relationship.
And so, worship. And in worship, sacrifice, atonement, expiation. This is, as Ratzinger points out, a theme running broadly throughout the whole religious experience of the human race. It is a deeply human experience, and its increasing absence is not a sign of progress but of de-humanization.
To lose a sense of guilt, to consciously suppress, deny, rationalize, the sense every human carries of ‘something wrong in me’ is not the action of an enlightened free person. It is an act of fear, rather—fear that we may need to do something about that, may need to change, may need to turn to God and put ourselves under His authority. That this bigger reality surrounding us not only is the key to our happiness and joy, but that it (He) may make demands on us that may not be easy for us to fulfill. And so we choose to turn aside, to deny this powerful experience of guilt, or wrong.
But what a choice! To suppress our guilt is to then effectively place ourselves outside that ‘something bigger than me,’ the openness to which is the very condition of an authentic human life, as we have been exploring for some days now on this blog. But I think that's why we do it - guilt is a painful reality, and we flee from pain. But the price we pay for that flight from pain is a high one indeed. To choose to be sub-human, rather than choosing to be human, and in need of mercy.
No, worship, and in worship the free coming before God in need of forgiveness, of cleansing, of expiation, is the very heart of human life in the fallen world. But in Christ, this mystery which runs through all religions is made so joyous, so lavish, so simple. He is our expiation, his love and his gift are the cleansing of our sins. Our sole act is to enter into his life through faith in him, so that he can work in us the great work of re-creation and redemption that is his will for us. And this is the true fullness of human life – to enter into Christ’s life and because of that, to be able to love as he loves, to live in the heart of the mystery of love and gift as he lives there. Human life—worship, obedience, love.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

How to Stay Human

Only [by ecclesial obedience] can Adam be overcome in us, too, and the way opened up to the new human life. In an age in which emancipation is regarded as the true heart of redemption, and freedom appears as the right to do everything I myself want to, and only that, the concept of obedience is, so to speak, anathematized. It has been excised, not merely from our vocabulary, but from our thinking. Yet this conception of freedom is the very thing that has made people incapable of living with one another, incapable of loving. It enslaves people.

Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith, 168
Reflection - So we've been moving through a little reflection on faith, being human, being sub-human, and related cheerful topics, quoting besides Pope Benedict such luminaries as W.H  Auden, Lily Tomlin, Leonard Cohen, and the DSM IV. I do try to provide some variety on this blog...
The deep question of our humanity, in this short excerpt from a truly spectacular book by then Cardinal Ratzinger, intersects surprisingly with the question of obedience, and specifically ecclesial obedience - obedience to the Church and its authoritative teaching.
This may seem like an odd leap to some (and of course, an offensive objectionable statement to any non-Catholics stopping by here for whatever reason. Hi, non-Catholics! Stick with me for a minute here...) Yes, obey the Pope or become sub-human - how's that for ecumenical outreach! Let's see if we can unpack this a bit.
The truth of our humanity means, we have explored, an openness to that which is bigger than ourselves, that which we have not and could not make. The immense mystery of another human person, the overawing and overwhelming experience of the cosmos as a whole, the mystery of Being, the meaning, purpose, goal, direction of all that is--all of this is beyond the scope of our physical sciences and our practical intellects.
And without some openness, some real lived encounter with this larger reality, we are in fact stuck in our own autonomy, our own egoism. Our own experience of being the biggest thing or the only thing or the thing that defines and masters all other things... including all other people. And love flies out the window, and communion, and sacrifice, and a host of other things that make life worth living and truly deeply human.
But how do we stay open to 'what is not us and is bigger than us'. It must be the way of obedience. To not be the master, the one who determines what is real/unreal, true/false, good/evil. As long as we are the ones deciding this issues in an autonomous fashion, we are still stuck in the ego, stuck alienated from anything bigger than ourselves.
There must be a way of obedience open for us. And it cannot be simply to obey whatever we have determined to be true in itself. That way lies self-delusion and a veiled autonomy. I believe in God and in Jesus and I will be faithful to Him alone... but has he appeared to you lately and told you what He wants you to do today? Or how to move in the year 2011 with its specific challenges and obstacles and questions?
To say 'I believe in God and in Jesus and in His constant guidance of us through His Church on earth' is a very different thing. Now we are busted out of the prison of the self. Now there is a tangible reality, an audible voice, a concrete Thing that is telling me what to do, what not to do, and what the Gospel of Christ means for us in the world today.
Ouch! That smarts! And it should smart, because it always hurts when our ego gets busted open. And yes, the Church is made up of fallible, foolish, sinful men who don't always get it right. But nonetheless to place ourselves in an attitude of obedience to this Church, always with all the nuances and limitations and definitions of that obedience in place--this opens us up to what is not us and what is bigger than us, what we have not and could not make.
And this makes our life human, frees us from the tyranny of the self, and opens us up to the grand mystery of love and communion in the world.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Tag! You're (an) It!

Another form of power has become prominent…. Man is now capable of making men, of producing them in test tubes, so to speak. Man becomes a product, and this fundamentally alters man’s relationship to himself. He is no longer a gift of nature or of the Creator God: he is his own product. Man has climbed down in to the wellsprings of power, to the source of his very existence. The temptation now to construct the ‘correct’ man at last, the temptation to experiment with human beings, the temptation to see them as garbage and to get rid of them – this is not some fantastic notion of moralists inimical to progress.
Values in a Time of Upheaval, 36
Reflection – Yesterday the Pope and I reflected together on the need for faith, on how human beings need to be open to what is bigger than ourselves, to what transcends our utilitarian practical capacities and knowledge. I went so far as to say that without faith, man becomes sub-human.
Today, we look at what this ‘sub-human’ life might look like in real world terms. Looks quite a bit like the world we live is, doesn’t it? It reminds me of the poem “For the Time Being” by W.H. Auden. A Christmas poem, he describes that moment in the stable at Bethlehem where “Everything become a Thou/And nothing was an It.” The intense personalization and communion-character of all reality touched by Incarnate God.
The modern world increasingly resembles a sort of anti-Bethlehem: a place where everyone becomes an It, and nobody is a Thou. Every human life is stripped of mystery and gift and wonder and awe and instead is evaluated on strict utilitarian socio-economic calculations.
We see this in the pre-natal diagnosis and aborting of disabled fetuses; we see this quite openly in the more radical strains of the euthanasia movement; we see this in the increasing and alarming tendency in psychiatry to pathologize any behaviors or thought patterns occurring outside a strictly defined norm.
This latter may be unfamiliar to people. I have a humorous example. When I was a seminarian, I discovered that priests and seminarians scored highly on the test diagnosing Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Now that sounds alarming—who wants a bunch of narcissistic priests, right?
But it turns out that the reason for this test result was that we answer yes to the question “Do you believe God has a plan for your life?” According to psychiatrists (so learned!) only narcissists believe that. That the same seminarians and priests would add that God has a plan for every human life, that each person He made is precious in his sight… well, that doesn’t come up on the test. So it’s not relevant. I guess.
Underneath all this, however, is precisely what Ratzinger is describing. Without a transcendent sense of things, without a sense of the mystery, wonder, awe, gift, marvel that human beings are, that life is—without all of that, we reduce humanity to one more ‘thing’, one more product, one more object of scientific study and technological manipulation.
This is what it looks like to live without faith, to live without a soul, as I put it yesterday. Everything is an It and nothing and no one is a Thou. This is why Down’s Syndrome children and bed-ridden elderly and hyper active boys and narcissistic priests (hee hee) are so important today. We have to reclaim the mystery, reclaim the wonder. We have to humble ourselves before one another and remember that there is something in each human person before which we can only bow low in reverence. We are not the masters here. And without a sense of God, of the Master of all, it may prove very hard to do that. Don’t you think?

Monday, November 7, 2011

To Live Without a Soul

Belief in the sense intended by the Creed is not an incomplete kind of knowledge, an opinion that subsequently can or should be converted into practical knowledge. It is much rather an essentially different kind of intellectual attitude, which stands alongside practical knowledge as something independent and particular, and cannot be traced back to it or deduced from it… Every man must adopt some kind of attitude to the basic questions, and no man can do this in any other way but that of entertaining belief. There is a realm which allows no other answer but that of entertaining a belief, and no man can completely avoid this realm.
Introduction to Christianity, 40-1
Reflection - We all know what practical knowledge is, right? I know how to: write a blog post, drive a car, bake a cake, play the guitar, read Greek, celebrate Mass according to the Church's rubrics, and so forth. And we all walk through our days doing stuff that we know to do by our practical knowledge.
Ratzinger has often returned in his career to this early insight of his (this book is from the 1960s), that belief is something of a totally different order than practical knowledge. Practically speaking, we know things that are less than us, things we can master (caveat: I don't master the Mass, of course, but I do master the book containing the rubrical instructions and prayers for the Mass!).
But we all live in a world where we rub up against reality we cannot master, reality which is above us, beyond us, bigger than us. Not simply more practical stuff that we just haven't gotten around to learning yet, like quantum physics, but reality 'as a whole' - the underlying and overarching reality behind reality, the purpose, meaning, nature-in-itself of all that is. And individual realities that are by their nature not master-able - love and communion and other people and incidental stuff like that.
This is stuff we can know by practical knowledge, by knowing how to do this or that. This is something we can only engage by an act of faith, whether that is an explicitly religious, Christian faith, or some other kind of faith.
In other words, these immense realities, and reality as such are received by us, not mastered or made by us. To try to live without faith is to condemn ourselves to living in a world in which we are the biggest reality we know. And what a lamentable state of affairs that is.
This is to become less than human. To cut ourselves off from a world we cannot master is to cut ourselves off from every other human being and ultimately from ourselves. As Leonard Cohen sang many years ago, "You lose everything that cannot control/It begins with your family, but soon it comes round to your soul."
To live without faith, without belief, without opening yourself to the world as mystery, the world as gift, the world as awesome marvel, is to live without a soul. And this is to live a sub-human life, ultimately.
Without faith, we are less than human, because without faith we are alone in a technological world, a world in which all there is to do is make stuff and master stuff and make more stuff.
We are made to know and to love, to delight and rejoice, to contemplate and to receive. But only faith opens us up to this fullness of life.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Can You Be More Specific?

When the human person is no longer seen as standing under God’s protection and bearing God’s breath, then he begins to be viewed in a utilitarian fashion. It is then that the barbarity appears which tramples upon human dignity.
In the Beginning, 60
Reflection – Lily Tomlin, in a one woman Broadway show that was a big hit back in the 1980s (I misremember the name of it right now!) had a line I’ve always remembered. “I always wanted to be someone,” she said, “but I now realize I should have been more specific.”
Human dignity, human value, the precious gift of each human person as a ‘someone’ and not a ‘something’—this is something the whole wide world, or at least those of us in the post-Christian West, can easily get on board with. Of course every human being is precious and valuable and all that good stuff.
But why? Our behavior is not always so precious and valuable. Our ideas and desires are not so unique and fascinating: most people tend to fall into a fairly conformist mode of life and thought. We’re not all rock stars, fashion models, or Mensa members.
Without God’s protection and God’s breath, can we credibly uphold human dignity and specialness? Without God, who is this ‘someone’ who is supposed to be worth so much. What’s the specific that makes me someone you or anyone should care about?
In fact, the history of the last hundred years (and indeed deeper and broader human history) shows that outside of this sense of God’s love and inestimable valuing of each human person, there has been little if any sense of human dignity, human worth. The poor and wretched, in particular, have been accorded little value and no rights in much of the world, for much of the human story. It’s hardly self-evident, this human dignity and worth business.
Christianity did bring this into the world, admittedly not as quickly as one would have liked, and with a terrible uphill battle against precisely the barbarism Ratzinger describes in this passage. But it is a historical fact that the very notion of human rights flowing from our divine origin and destiny is wholly a product of Christian theology reflecting on the doctrines of creation and redemption.
Without God to protect us and hold us in his love, we are very vulnerable to all the forces of barbarism: exploitation, political repression, utilitarian calculation, and the unfettered killing of the weak and helpless who come out on the wrong side of the equation.
As God is increasingly thrown to the side of social structures or worse, thrown in the ‘dustbin of history’ as an irrelevant relic of past superstition, we must take here. Where are we to find a secure notion of human dignity and freedom? The state? Academia? Market forces? A vague trust in human goodness? Have any of these shown themselves to be reliable guardians of these values?
We have to ask ourselves these questions, and ask them of those who want to forge an entirely secular ethic. Barbarism looms before us; some would argue that a society where babies can be killed at the will of their mothers has already gotten there. And so we have to ask: without God, where does human dignity come from and where is it held secure?

Saturday, November 5, 2011

A God on the Stage of the World

The first point is that the historical-critical method—specifically because of the intrinsic nature of theology and faith—is and remains an indispensable dimension of exegetical work. For it is of the essence of biblical faith to be about real historical events. It does not tell stories symbolizing supra-historical truths, but is based on history, history that took place here on this earth. The factum historicum (historical fact) is not an interchangeable symbolic cipher for biblical faith, but the foundation on which it stands: et incarnatus est—when we say these words, we acknowledge God’s actual entry into real history.
Jesus of Nazareth Part One, Xv
Reflection – When Pope Benedict did the unusual act of publishing a work of theology under his own name after his election to the papacy, lots of people were excited. Popes, once they get poped, tend to limit themselves to magisterial statements bearing the weight of papal authority; Pope Benedict wanted to say some things about scripture and Jesus that were his own personal reflections; this was unusual.
Jesus of Nazareth has been a best seller for sure, but I suspect a lot of people who bought it may have gotten a bit bogged down by passages like the above one from the preface. It’s too bad, since most of the heavy sledding, academia-wise, comes early on and can even be skipped without losing his train of thought. Once he gets into the body of the book, there’s little of that stuff.
But meanwhile, he is making a crucial point here. The historical-critical method of interpreting Scripture is all about putting the text into the historical context. What did this mean when it was written? What is the culture that produced this text? What was the human author trying to accomplish? Who was he writing for? Since we do not believe that God ‘dictated’ the Bible to his scribes, but that it was a genuine human composition done under a special grace of divine inspiration, concerns about the historical process of that composition are relevant in shedding light on its meaning.
But Pope Benedict makes a more essential point in this. Namely: our faith is not a faith in myths. One can have a mythological faith, where the stories of the gods and their doings reflect deeper truths about humanity and the world; the Greeks raised this kind of mythological religion to great heights. But this is not the nature of Judaism or Christianity.
Essential to our religious worldview is the unshakeable dogma that God has acted in time and history, that right in the midst of the messy political and military conflicts, the ugliness of human sin and the beauty of human striving, God acted. For real, directly. Whether it is Abraham called to leave his home and people for a new land, Moses called to lead the people from slavery, David raised up as a king, the prophets raised up as bearers of divine Truth, we believe that God acted in the midst of it all.
And the conception, birth, life, death, and resurrection of the Incarnate God, Jesus Christ is a historical fact, not a nice story or a symbolic whatever. It happened, and this is essential to the Christian religion.
This is crucial. To put it in personal terms, if God did not act back then, He cannot act right now, for me. If God is somehow up there, outside, passive, only accessible through some kind of symbol or mythology or vague intuition, then He cannot really help me, or you. Only a God who appears on the stage of the world, who enters the drama, who is an actor, an agent—only this kind of God can reach down and save me, or you.
Only this kind of God can forgive me my sins, and restore me to life, and feed me his spiritual food and drink. Only a God moving in history can teach me certain truth and empower me to actually love. God has made himself available to us, for real, in time, now, and so you and I can make ourselves available to everyone else by laying down our lives, for real, now. And this is the fundamental point the Pope is making.

Friday, November 4, 2011

The One Who Brings Us There

The reason why the image [of the Shepherd] became so precious to early Christianity is that the shepherd was regarded as an allegory of the Logos. The Logos, through whom all things were made, who bears within himself, so to speak, the archetypes of all existing things, is the guardian of creation. In the Incarnation he takes the lost sheep, human nature, humanity as a whole, onto his shoulders and carries it home. The image of the shepherd thus sums up the whole of salvation history: God’s entry into history, the Incarnation, the pursuit of the lost sheep and the homeward path in the Church of the Jews and Gentiles.
Spirit of the Liturgy, 118-9
Reflection – I am reminded, reading this passage, of the work Madonna House does in Winslow Arizona. Our house there has always had as part of its mandate to teach catechism; this has taken many different forms over the years. For the last while, we have offered the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, a Montessori based catechetical program, to the small children of that town.
The image of the shepherd caring for his sheep, keeping them close, feeding them, and seeking out the lost ones, speaks deeply to small children of all cultures and nations. In Winslow, where there is a measure of poverty among the people we serve, and the forms of suffering that can bring, there is a special poignancy in the imagery. One little girl whose mother was in prison for drugs spent her time in the program working with the parable of the lost sheep, setting up the figures of the sheepfold, the shepherd, and having the shepherd (Jesus) look for the lost sheep over and over again. Another little boy, around Christmas time, took the lost sheep figure and placed it in the manger with Jesus to be safe and warm there.
Deep connections being made—and these children are ages three-five. There is something about this shepherd and his care for the sheep, God and his care for humanity, Jesus coming down from heaven to find us, the experience of being ‘lost’, of losing the way, our home, our safety—all of this speaks deeply to our human experience.
And it speaks to God’s experience too, apparently. It is what He is about; what He is, for us. Ratzinger’s identification of the shepherd with the Logos places this whole beautiful field of images not only in sacred history and not even ‘only’ in Jesus Christ, but at the very heart of the Godhead. God is this shepherd, holding his sheep in his care. It is not some incidental matter; it is the very heart of God towards us to do this.
Since this is from his book on liturgy, this whole business of sheep and shepherds and sheepfolds ties in, then, with the Eucharist. It is there that God in Christ gathers us, there that the shepherd comes to each one of us to seek and search out what is lost, and to gather us home.
November is the month of the dead, the month of looking up beyond the here and now to the forever of God’s eternal gaze. The shepherding of God is ultimately not a matter of moving us here or there on the face of the planet, of getting us to do this or not do that; all of that is part of it, but ultimately he is ‘herding’ us towards the eternal pasture, the eternal sheepfold. As we contemplate the mysteries of death and pray for our beloved departed, we look to that, too, to our own final gathering up, the final entry into the place of safety, rest. Our final coming home, and the One who brings us there.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Becoming a Person

God does not deal with abstractions. He is a person, and the Church is a person. The more that each one of us becomes a person, person in the sense of a fit habitation for God, daughter Zion, the more we become one, and the more the Church is herself.

Mary, the Church at the Source, 66

Reflection – It is November, month of the faithful departed. November, the grey month, the cold, damp month, the month with neither leaves nor snow, usually, the in between month, when the earth holds little appeal for us, and so our minds and hearts easily turn to heavenly things.
This business of God being a person and dealing with persons, not abstractions, actually fits right into all of this. Because we can easily say ‘the faithful departed’, and somehow slip into some kind of ‘aggregate’ thinking—some immense throng of people who we hope God is taking care of in some way. It’s different, of course, when it’s our faithful departed—then we’re all ‘That’s not a throng! That’s Theresa and Raymond Lemieux, my parents! And Alma and Roger and Robert and Bruno and Maurice and Leo and Marg and Laurette and Alan and Charlotte, my uncles and aunts!’ Very personal, very individual.
But that is how God is with each one of us, you know. All the billions of the dead, and the seven billion living, too. Each is known, each is loved, each is recognized, not as one of the throng, but as you, as me, as John, as Charlie, as Anne, as Terry… each is known.
And this is eternal life, I think. To be known by God, and to live in the eternal light of that knowledge and love. That is what it means to ‘become a person’ – to wholly evade this terrible tragic slippage into the mass of humanity, into abstractions or formalized existence or social conformity to the tropes of the day, into whatever may be the ritual expressions and postures of ‘The Church of What’s Happening Now.’ To entirely escape being a cliché, a type.
But this becoming a person only can happen to one who receives God, who receives this knowledge and love of God in such a way that his or her true self is brought forth with luminous clarity and exactitude, the personal genius and beauty of each one able to be expressed, because the content of the expression is residing within each one. And this content is the perfection of truth, goodness, and beauty which resides in the Godhead.
Ultimately, the only one who has been fully a human person is Mary who totally received Him and whose life was totally given to expressing his life in the world. The paradox (I guess) is that we become the person we truly are only in relation to this Other Person. Human life is lived in reference to God, or it ceases to be human life. When this openness to the infinite horizon is lost we quickly lapse into banality, into catchphrases and stock situations, into being one of the herd: sheeple instead of people, and what a gray, cold, damp experience of reality that ends up being.
God has something better for us, and this is what we really are contemplating in this month of November. Becoming a person, becoming vibrantly, radiantly alive to love, to truth, to beauty, to goodness, and in that, to each other, so that the true human community which is the Church can flourish, too.
It’s not an abstraction: it is God, you, and me. And it is not only for heaven, for some future reality, lovely as it may be. It is today, and the concrete choices we make today, that will make us persons or make us something less. And as persons, we carry within us the freshness of spring, the fullness of summer, and the blazing glory of the fall into the gray dark and cold of the dying world.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

To Open Our Eyes

[This is] man's essential situation, the situation that gives rise to all his contradictions and hopes: in some way we want life itself, true life, untouched even by death; yet at the same time we do not know the thing towards which we feel driven. We cannot stop reaching out for it, and yet we know that all we can experience or accomplish is not what we yearn for. This unknown “thing” is the true “hope” which drives us, and at the same time the fact that it is unknown is the cause of all forms of despair and also of all efforts, whether positive or destructive, directed towards worldly authenticity and human authenticity. The term “eternal life” is intended to give a name to this known “unknown”. Inevitably it is an inadequate term that creates confusion. “Eternal”, in fact, suggests to us the idea of something interminable, and this frightens us; “life” makes us think of the life that we know and love and do not want to lose, even though very often it brings more toil than satisfaction, so that while on the one hand we desire it, on the other hand we do not want it.
To imagine ourselves outside the temporality that imprisons us and in some way to sense that eternity is not an unending succession of days in the calendar, but something more like the supreme moment of satisfaction, in which totality embraces us and we embrace totality—this we can only attempt. It would be like plunging into the ocean of infinite love, a moment in which time—the before and after—no longer exists. We can only attempt to grasp the idea that such a moment is life in the full sense, a plunging ever anew into the vastness of being, in which we are simply overwhelmed with joy. This is how Jesus expresses it in Saint John's Gospel: “I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (). We must think along these lines if we want to understand the object of Christian hope, to understand what it is that our faith, our being with Christ, leads us to expect.

Spe Salvi 12

Reflection -  When my alarm clock went off at 6.00 this morning, my first waking thought was, ‘Well, I had a different alarm clock this time last year.’
Last year on November 2, my mother died at I had been up with her the night previous, and had gone to bed at 4.00 somehow not expecting to be awoken two hours later by my niece’s frantic cries of distress when mom stopped breathing.
I have been at many a death bed, but somehow (I guess it’s always the way when it’s one of your own) missed the signs of imminent death in my mother.
So my mother died on All Souls—appropriate enough day, I guess. And I’ve been pondering her, my father who died a few years earlier, and the rest of my aunts and uncles who have all gone beyond that mysterious threshold over the past few years—the last of the aunts (save one by marriage) dying just two months ago.
Death! We don’t like thinking about it, and yet there it is, looming for all of us. The great mystery, the great sorrow, the great darkness that surrounds the end of our life. And yet, as Ambrose said two blog posts ago, death is what saves us from life.
We know, mostly, if we are honest, that we are not really happy here, not for long, not securely. Even the happiness we do enjoy, which is real and intense at times, gives way to the ravages of age and time, the failure of the body and the loss of so much that we love.
And so death comes to us as this enemy/friend/mystery/answer/darkness/light/sorrow/hope for joy unending. We don’t quite know what to do with it; we don’t like it much, yet we know, a bit, or hope, a bit, that death closes one door only to open another.
‘Eternal life’ – as the Pope readily admits, a woefully inadequate word. What is this thing we hope for, we head for, we cry out for? To open our eyes and look on love, to open our eyes and find our eyes being met by the eyes, the face, the beauty, the One who our hearts have cried out for, searched for, never quite found, or found for a brief moment—this is eternal life.
To be caught up in the mystery of love that breaks through all barriers, illumines all darkness, and sweeps away all confusion and ignorance in one act of joyous jubilant affirmation—this is eternal life.
And this is the life I long for, not only for myself, but for my mother, my father, my aunts and uncles, all my beloved MH brothers and sisters gone ahead… and for all of us, too. Happy All Souls Day to you – may we all be caught up by our divine Lover, and so live forever in beauty and joy.