Friday, May 31, 2013

Dancing With the Stars, Catholic Style

On this last day of May, this May 31 feast of the Visitation to Mary, I realize that I have hardly posted anything at all about Mary in this her month. To which I can only say to myself, ‘Tsk!’

So today I offer you a double (or is it triple?) helping of Marian meditation, with this excerpt from my book The Air We Breathe: The Mariology of Catherine de Hueck Doherty. I have chosen a section from the final chapter on Mary and joy, as this feast of the Visitation is one of the joyful mysteries of Mary’s rosary, and because I have always seen in this feast a sort of pure reflection of the joy of heaven. Other Marian mysteries are fraught with theological weight or bear some dimension of the Paschal Mystery and the suffering it entails.

Here, we simply have two women filled in different ways with the life of God rejoicing in the gracious gift of God and His faithful love, and praising Him together – a little icon of heaven. And this is what Mary wants to give each one of us. So here are my and Catherine’s further thoughts on the matter, a few short pages from a book you might just want to buy after reading them:

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Wasting Time With God

Q. What do you consider the most important target on which all of us movements, associations and communities must set our sights if we are to be able to carry out the task to which we are called? How can we communicate faith effectively today?”

A. I shall answer with just three words. The first: Jesus. What is the most important thing? Jesus. If we forge ahead with our own arrangements, with other things, with beautiful things but without Jesus we make no headway, it does not work. Jesus is more important. I would like now to make a small complaint, but in a brotherly way, just between ourselves. All of you in the square shouted “Francis, Francis, Pope Francis”; but where was Jesus? I should have preferred to hear you cry: “Jesus, Jesus is Lord, and he is in our midst!” From now on enough of “Francis”, just “Jesus”!

The second word is: prayer. Looking at the face of God, but above all — and this has to do with what I said earlier — realizing that he is also looking at us. The Lord looks at us. He looks at us first. My experience is what I feel in front of the tabernacle, when I go in the evening to pray before the Lord. Sometimes I nod off for a while; this is true, for the strain of the day more or less makes you fall asleep, but he understands. I feel great comfort when I think of the Lord looking at me. We think we have to pray and talk, talk, talk.... No! Let the Lord look at you. When he looks at us, he gives us strength and helps us to bear witness to him — for the question was about witnessing to faith, wasn’t it?

Pope Francis, Pentecost Vigil with Ecclesial Movements, May 18, 2013

Reflection – Well, again this is all so beautiful, what do I need to add to it? I do like his little touch of asking the crowds not to shout his name, but Jesus’ name. This has been a fairly recent development in the Church—the ‘Pope as rock star’ phenomenon—really starting with Bl. John Paul II and the youth events. Both he and Benedict recognized this kind of thing as an expression of filial love and loyalty to the Church, but Pope Francis is perhaps highlighting that it is not quite in order.

The center of our faith is not Francis, Benedict, or John Paul, It is Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. There is an intense christocentrism that we are all called to, without which the most creative and enthusiastic apostolic efforts fall flat, lie fallow, fail. And this christocentrism is expressed in prayer, consistent, unglamorous, steady prayer. Falling asleep at our devotions. Being bored and restless and surreptitiously checking our watch. Having nothing to say to God. Bringing him the usual laundry list of intentions that never change much from year to year. Reading scripture and getting nowhere with meditating on it. All that good stuff.

We think of prayer as pouring out our hearts and minds in a constant flow of ecstatic love with God, or of being swept up in mystical abandon to the heights of heaven, or of some great tangible experience of love and presence. Well, all that happens, once in a while. Once every twenty years or so, maybe (okay, I exaggerate – once every ten years).

But the deeper reality of prayer is our choice to waste time with Jesus. To regularly, routinely, habitually plunk ourselves down before him, either before the tabernacle, or in some other venue, and be with him, no matter what. To be there, whether or not he is entertaining us or seems to be answering our prayers, or whether or not we ‘feel’ very prayerful at this moment. Just be there, with Jesus, for better or for worse, richer or poorer, in sickness or in health, till do we (not) part.

This is the true and deep christocentrism without which our lives ultimately fail. As long as our focus is on results or emotions or on getting our ‘needs’ met or having the world arrange itself according to our specifications or having our plans and projects succeed, then our focus is not on the Lord Jesus, but on what we hope to get from him.

Our faith is not about, ‘John Paul, Benedict, Francis.’ It is also not about ‘me, me, me.’ It is about Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. And only that kind of faith, and that kind of intense focus, will make our lives evangelical and apostolic—truly good news, truly sent by the Father to bring the Gospel of grace and mercy to the world.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Is He For Real?

This experience of faith is important. We say we must seek God, go to him and ask forgiveness, but when we go, he is waiting for us, he is there first! In Spanish we have a word that explains this well: primerear — the Lord always gets there before us, he gets there first, he is waiting for us!

To find someone waiting for you is truly a great grace. You go to him as a sinner, but he is waiting to forgive you. This is the experience that the Prophets of Israel describe, comparing the Lord to the almond blossom, the first flower of spring (cf. Jer 1:11-12). Before any other flowers appear, he is there, waiting. The Lord is waiting for us. Moreover, when we seek him, we discover that he is waiting to welcome us, to offer us his love. And this fills your heart with such wonder that you can hardly believe it, and this is how your faith grows — through encounter with a Person, through encounter with the Lord…

You were also talking about the fragility of faith, about how to overcome it. The worst enemy of a fragile faith — curious, isn’t it? — is fear. Do not be afraid! We are frail and we know it, but he is stronger! If you walk with him there is no problem! A child is very frail — I have seen many children today — but if they’re with their father, with their mother, they are safe. With the Lord we are safe. Faith grows with the Lord, from the very hand of the Lord; this helps us grow and makes us strong. However if we think we can manage on our own.... Just think what happened to Peter: “Lord I will never fall away!” and then the cock crowed, and Peter had denied the Lord three times!

Think about it: when we are too self-confident, we are more fragile — much more fragile. Always with the Lord, with the Lord! And when we say “with the Lord”, we mean with the Eucharist, with the Bible, with prayer... but also with the family, with our mother, also with her, because she is the one who brings us to the Lord; she is the mother, she is the one who knows everything. So pray to Our Lady too and ask her, as a mother, to “make me strong”. 

This is what I think about fragility, at least it has been my experience. One thing that makes me strong every day is praying the Rosary to Our Lady. I feel such great strength because I go to her and I feel strong.
Pope Francis, Pentecost Vigil with Ecclesial Movements, May 18, 2013

Reflection –  There is such deep spiritual wisdom expressed here so simply I hardly feel the need for extensive commentary. It is worth highlighting, perhaps, just how radically at odds this is with what has been the prevailing ethos of North American society in the past century or so.

Modernity is based, at its root, on the presupposition that either there is no God (atheism), or that God is essentially passive in our regard (deism), or that in some fashion or other we human beings are ‘god’ and hence the real action of the Spirit lies with us alone (Hegelian idealism). Faith smiles at all these notions, and continually turns its face, gently but with tireless consistency, to the God who is waiting for us.

Modernity, because it is essentially rooted in the denial of this expectant faith, places great stress on technical mastery, intellectual dominance, and the socio-Darwinian survival of the fittest. Rather than placing our intellectual and physical abilities at the service of love and of goodness, we use them to seize a higher place in the hierarchy of society, or a larger share of the world’s goods.

The path of faith informs us that this world is passing away, and that the great and mighty of this age are not those of the age to come which does not pass away. And so faith is content to be little, to be childlike, to place all our hope and all our gifts and goods and talents at the feet of God, knowing that He will make best use of them and guide us in their use.

It really is radical, the divergence between the path of faith and the path of the world. And regardless of our station in life and the specific work and world God has put us into, we all have to choose, I guess. Is God real? Is He waiting upon us? Do we put all our trust in Him, or in ourselves or some other created finite reality? This is the basic choice all of us have to make each day of our lives.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Someone Was Waiting

I had the great blessing of growing up in a family in which faith was lived in a simple, practical way. However it was my paternal grandmother in particular who influenced my journey of faith. She was a woman who explained to us, who talked to us about Jesus, who taught us the Catechism. I always remember that on the evening of Good Friday she would take us to the candle-light procession, and at the end of this procession “the dead Christ” would arrive and our grandmother would make us — the children — kneel down and she would say to us: “Look, he is dead, but tomorrow he will rise”.

This was how I received my first Christian proclamation, from this very woman, from my grandmother! This is really beautiful! The first proclamation at home, in the family! And this makes me think of the love of so many mothers and grandmothers in the transmission of faith. They are the ones who pass on the faith. This used to happen in the early Church too, for Saint Paul said to Timothy: “I am reminded of the faith of your mother and of your grandmother” (cf. 2 Tim 1:5).

All the mothers and all the grandmothers who are here should think about this: passing on the faith! Because God sets beside us people who help us on our journey of faith. We do not find our faith in the abstract, no! It is always a person preaching who tells us who Jesus is, who communicates faith to us and gives us the first proclamation. And this is how I received my first experience of faith.

One day in particular, though, was very important to me: 21 September 1953. I was almost 17. It was “Students’ Day”, for us the first day of spring — for you the first day of autumn. Before going to the celebration I passed through the parish I normally attended, I found a priest that I did not know and I felt the need to go to confession. For me this was an experience of encounter: I found that someone was waiting for me. Yet I do not know what happened, I can’t remember, I do not know why that particular priest was there whom I did not know, or why I felt this desire to confess, but the truth is that someone was waiting for me. He had been waiting for me for some time. After making my confession I felt something had changed. I was not the same. I had heard something like a voice, or a call. I was convinced that I should become a priest.

Pope Francis, Pentecost Vigil with Ecclesial Movements, May 18, 2013

Reflection – Well, I’m on a bit of a Pope Francis binge right now – his recent talks, etc., have been so wonderful and worth highlighting. The next few days we’ll have this vigil where he answered questions put to him by representatives of the ecclesial movements.

This question was about how he personally came to strong faith and overcame doubts. And we see in this the two elements of most of our faith journeys: faith as transmitted by others, and faith as a mysterious encounter. The faith that comes to us from family, especially parents and grandparents, and from the larger community, and then this strange meeting with this Other, this One who beckons us directly to come follow Him.

It seems to me that both are vital necessary elements to a vigorous lasting faith. The witness and teaching of our parents and others is necessary: we are not going to intuitively figure out that ‘Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again’! And besides that, there is always this element of the personal, the power of the witness of the believer to spark faith in the neophyte.

And yet without that other, that strange moment or moments when we meet Jesus—who can describe it? Who can claim to understand what happens there?—the faith remains at the level of custom and tradition. Nice, and it was nice of our families to give us this pleasant relic of the past, which orders our days in a mostly nice way… but not really a very strong reality. When the storms and shipwrecks of life come our way, or some deep temptation to sin, such a faith will be the first casualty.

No, it all needs to get very real and personal. And it is worth reflecting on our own personal journey here. How would we answer the question posed to Pope Francis? For me, raised Catholic in the tumultuous years of the 1970s, my family’s faith was a bit shaky, a bit weak in the transmission (I’m not faulting my poor parents, who did their best – it was a difficult era). But there was that warm sunny day in September 1983 when I was seventeen, sitting on the porch steps of my family home and… well, Christ came to me, and I gave my life to Him. A story for another day…

And we all have that story, and we all must lay claim to it. Why believe? Why do you believe (do you?)? What got you there and what keeps you there? Basic questions, but in a world of disbelief and cynicism we need to answer them, at least for ourselves.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

More, Please!

The older theologians used to say that the soul is a kind of sailboat, the Holy Spirit is the wind which fills its sails and drives it forward, and the gusts of wind are the gifts of the Spirit. Lacking his impulse and his grace, we do not go forward.

The Holy Spirit draws us into the mystery of the living God and saves us from the threat of a Church which is gnostic and self-referential, closed in on herself; he impels us to open the doors and go forth to proclaim and bear witness to the good news of the Gospel, to communicate the joy of faith, the encounter with Christ. The Holy Spirit is the soul of mission.

The events that took place in Jerusalem almost two thousand years ago are not something far removed from us; they are events which affect us and become a lived experience in each of us. The Pentecost of the Upper Room in Jerusalem is the beginning, a beginning which endures. The Holy Spirit is the supreme gift of the risen Christ to his apostles, yet he wants that gift to reach everyone.

As we heard in the Gospel, Jesus says: “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to remain with you forever” (Jn 14:16). It is the Paraclete Spirit, the “Comforter”, who grants us the courage to take to the streets of the world, bringing the Gospel! The Holy Spirit makes us look to the horizon and drive us to the very outskirts of existence in order to proclaim life in Jesus Christ. Let us ask ourselves: do we tend to stay closed in on ourselves, on our group, or do we let the Holy Spirit open us to mission? Today let us remember these three words: newness, harmony and mission.

Pope Francis, Homily, Pentecost Sunday, May 19, 2013

Reflection – Well, here we have it once again. This has been the consistent call of Pope Francis to the Church virtually from day one of his pontificate, now a mere two months old (is it just me, or does it seem like much, much longer?).

Go out! Don’t be self-referential! Go to the outskirts! Be missionary! This has been the constant message of this man to the whole Church, and one that we all have to take very seriously.

My own personal version of this word, which (if I can be somewhat personal) the Lord has been saying to my heart long before Pope Francis’ election has been a very simple one: More! The Lord always asks ‘more’ of us. More what? Well, your mileage may vary. More love, for sure. More generosity, absolutely. Something more, something added, something on top of what we already are doing/being in our lives.

It is not really a matter, often, of ‘doing’ more. Rather, it is a matter first of letting the Holy Spirit expand our hearts to ‘be’ more. But it seems to me that it is essential in being a vibrant, living Christian that we accept the fact that God never lets us stay still for too long: there is always the great divine ‘More’ beckoning us onward. ‘Being a Christian’ and ‘being comfortable’ do not have a great Venn diagram-style overlap.

This can feel burdensome and heavy to some, I realize. But actually it is liberating and energizing. When we are not growing, we are dying. And when we are dying, our energies all go to self-preservation and self-protection. This is that self-enclosed Christianity the pope is talking about. Feeling ourselves to be a beleaguered frail fading aging minority, we retreat into our parishes or ecclesial and personal fortresses, and husband all our remaining energies, which are less every year, into keeping them going ‘just they way they always have.’

It is the Holy Spirit who is the Lord and giver of life who breaks us out of these fortresses. The ‘more’ of God is not just more work and more projects, but more life, more love, more joy, more enthusiasm, more grace. More!

You know, it is funny. I have now typed the word ‘more’ about twenty times in this post. Every time my mind has made a bilingual pun – in Greek the word more is foolish – Erasmus of Rotterdam dedicated his sublime In Praise of Folly to his good friend Thomas More in one of the great historical literary puns.

And to be open to the more of God is a foolish endeavor for sure. God always calls us to abandon our calculating utilitarian self-proctecting ways and plunge into the divine folly of love. Each according to the Spirit’s leading, and always discerned with care for the duties of our state of life, but nonetheless, always more, never settling into what is, forsaking comfort and complacency and inertia. This is the word of Pope Francis to us, the word of God to us, and the great adventure of the Gospel opening up before us in the Lord’s year of grace 2013.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Notes From a Second Clarinet

The Holy Spirit would appear to create disorder in the Church, since he brings the diversity of charisms and gifts; yet all this, by his working, is a great source of wealth, for the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of unity, which does not mean uniformity, but which leads everything back to harmony. In the Church, it is the Holy Spirit who creates harmony. One of Fathers of the Church has an expression which I love: the Holy Spirit himself is harmony – “Ipse harmoniaest”.

He is indeed harmony. Only the Spirit can awaken diversity, plurality and multiplicity, while at the same time building unity. Here too, when we are the ones who try to create diversity and close ourselves up in what makes us different and other, we bring division. When we are the ones who want to build unity in accordance with our human plans, we end up creating uniformity, standardization.

But if instead we let ourselves be guided by the Spirit, richness, variety and diversity never become a source of conflict, because he impels us to experience variety within the communion of the Church. Journeying together in the Church, under the guidance of her pastors who possess a special charism and ministry, is a sign of the working of the Holy Spirit.

Having a sense of the Church is something fundamental for every Christian, every community and every movement. It is the Church which brings Christ to me, and me to Christ; parallel journeys are very dangerous! When we venture beyond (proagon) the Church’s teaching and community – the Apostle John tells us in his Second Letter - and do not remain in them, we are not one with the God of Jesus Christ (cf. 2 Jn 1:9). So let us ask ourselves: Am I open to the harmony of the Holy Spirit, overcoming every form of exclusivity? Do I let myself be guided by him, living in the Church and with the Church?
Pope Francis, Homily, Pentecost Sunday, May 19, 2013

Reflection – This is an incredibly balanced and sane presentation of the whole question of unity-in-diversity in the Church. This week has seen a great deal of internet kerfuffle about Pope Francis’ remarks on atheists and redemption. In my typical contrarian fashion I have chosen not to blog about those remarks, on the sound principle that everyone else is saying everything else that needs to be said, so what’s left?

But I have to admit, I’m a bit baffled at how people are astounded (!), baffled (!), perplexed (!), shocked (!!!) at these various remarks by the pope. As far as I can figure out, he is stating fairly conventional Catholic doctrines, and doing so in a fairly simple, straightforward way. It is usually not a great shocking baffling astounding perplexing matter to learn that the Pope is Catholic. I even believe there is a proverb to that effect, often accompanied by one concerning the locative properties of ursine excretion. (What and where Catholic bears do is a matter I will not delve into here. This is a family blog.)

Ahem. So here we see the Pope’s Catholicity in another expression. The Spirit brings diversity, but always within the Church. The Spirit has manifold gifts, charisms, and graces which create a beautiful harmony, but the melody to that harmony is always our holy Catholic faith handed down to us from the apostles. There is a rich polyphony of instrument and voice in the life of the Church, but the conductor drawing all these diverse musicians together into a symphony is the teaching magisterium of the Church.

But the conductor is not the composer. The magisterium has a task of unity so as to safeguard the beauty of the harmony of the Church, but it does not create that harmony, does not write the notes. That is the mission of the Spirit in the world, and it is a mission ongoing in each of our hearts.

We have to get as clear in our own minds about this as we can be, since the world is anything but clear about it and shows no signs of moving in that direction. The magisterium—the pope and the bishops together—is a servant of the Spirit and of the whole Body of Christ in all its diversity. But this service may and at times does take the form of disciplining, of correcting, even of ‘silencing’ a discordant oboe or out of tune tuba. Of course, the Church has no police force, no prison system, no control of public media, so 'silencing' is a relative term here, to say the least. (I will never forget the dissident theologian taking out a full page ad in the New York Times blaring "I HAVE BEEN SILENCED!")

For us second clarinets or third trumpets, our call is to give our whole heart and soul, our entire breath, to the notes, the beauty, that the Spirit is giving us to play in our lives, but always with our eyes on the director, the conductor, always ready to be ‘harmonized’ in the life of the Church by its leaders, never stepping out as a solo act, but also never retreating into passivity and sullen silence when we can’t play our part exactly as we envisioned.

The magisterium is not the composer, but neither are you and I. And so we all strain together to listen to the Spirit, let Him write the movement of this long symphony called Christianity that we are just one small ‘bar’ to, and trust that the whole piece taken together possesses a beauty that is beyond our wildest imaging, a full beauty we will only hear in heaven, but what a joy it will be there, to hear the whole thing, and finally see how our little part fit into it.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Something New On the Earth

Newness always makes us a bit fearful, because we feel more secure if we have everything under control, if we are the ones who build, program and plan our lives in accordance with our own ideas, our own comfort, our own preferences.

This is also the case when it comes to God. Often we follow him, we accept him, but only up to a certain point. It is hard to abandon ourselves to him with complete trust, allowing the Holy Spirit to be the soul and guide of our lives in our every decision. We fear that God may force us to strike out on new paths and leave behind our all too narrow, closed and selfish horizons in order to become open to his own.

Yet throughout the history of salvation, whenever God reveals himself, he brings newness - God always brings newness -, and demands our complete trust: Noah, mocked by all, builds an ark and is saved; Abram leaves his land with only a promise in hand; Moses stands up to the might of Pharaoh and leads his people to freedom; the apostles, huddled fearfully in the Upper Room, go forth with courage to proclaim the Gospel.

This is not a question of novelty for novelty’s sake, the search for something new to relieve our boredom, as is so often the case in our own day. The newness which God brings into our life is something that actually brings fulfilment, that gives true joy, true serenity, because God loves us and desires only our good. Let us ask ourselves today: Are we open to “God’s surprises”? 

Or are we closed and fearful before the newness of the Holy Spirit? Do we have the courage to strike out along the new paths which God’s newness sets before us, or do we resist, barricaded in transient structures which have lost their capacity for openness to what is new? We would do well to ask ourselves these questions all through the day.
Pope Francis, Homily, Pentecost Sunday, May 19, 2013

Reflection – We’ve been reading some of the latest material from Pope Francis for our post-lunch spiritual reading here at Madonna House, and it has stimulated much discussion and interest. I want to spend the remainder of this week, which in the traditional calendar is the Octave of Pentecost, looking at this homily, and at a wonderful Q & A session the Pope had with representatives of the ecclesial movements who met in Rome last weekend.

It is this same group who are the audience for this homily, too. And so the newness the Pope is talking about can first be seen to refer to groups like MH or Focolare or Communion and Liberation: this new outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the Church that has brought forth new forms of consecrated and lay life in the world, straining existing canonical categories and not infrequently raising eyebrows and furrowing brows – what is your group, anyhow? A monastery? A religious order? A commune? A mistake?

But the Pope here seems to be cautioning groups like mine, and of course the whole Church listening in on this homily, to never settle down to just being what we are, doing what we’re doing. God is always doing something new on earth. God is always pushing the envelope, pushing the boundaries, pushing, pushing, pushing us to some new way of loving, some new response to the real circumstances our brothers and sisters find themselves in.

Now, sometimes when words like ‘newness’ get thrown around, we can get thrown off the scent. Too often in the last 50 years the word ‘new’ has been put to the service of a certain ecclesial agenda of throwing all our doctrines and especially our moral teachings out the window and embracing the mores and mentality of the prevailing culture. This is not remotely what Pope Francis is talking about, as anyone who has paid attention to the whole of his teaching well knows.

Of course this attitude of refashioning a Church around the latest ideas and currents of thought becomes precisely what he is preaching against, precisely a matter of having “everything under control…  [where] we are the ones who build, program and plan our lives in accordance with our own ideas, our own comfort, our own preferences.” The newness of God is something quite different.

It does not resemble a political program, or an ideological agenda, or anything of that kind. It is a matter of deep prayer, deep compassion, deep love, and a deep willingness to let God set the agenda for our own personal life and the life of whatever community or family we find ourselves in. To trust that it is when we lose control of life—when situations and circumstances arise that take us into uncharted territory or painful confrontations with the unknown, it then that the newness of the Spirit is dawning upon us, and then that we should be vigilant,  looking for the new path of love and hope in the world opening up before us, Red Sea-like, in the darkness of the night of the world.