Saturday, November 30, 2013

Bloggy Advent Calendar

I am going to start a project for the Advent season on this blog. I realize that for many people the struggle to have Advent be Advent and celebrate Christmas at Christmas is a difficult one. The secular calendar is so utterly disjointed from the religious one at this point: Christmas starts now and ends on December 25, more or less.

So, I am going to provide solid Advent content for the next three weeks and three days. I will reflect on the readings of the day, share excerpts from the Office of Readings, from Catherine Doherty's book Donkey Bells, and we'll see what else the Lord inspires me to do.

At Madonna House, living apart as we do here in Combermere in what is genuinely a culture unto itself, we are able to really 'do' Advent in a way that is hard out in the world. I am happy to share something of our Advent spirit, to help us all enter more deeply into the longing and expectation of Christ. Hope to see you all here.

Updated to add: Hey, commenter Craig made a good suggestion for what he would like to see for this Advent blog project. If you have something you'd like to see, leave a comment, and I'll try to oblige.

Sing, And Keep Going

Let us sing alleluia here on earth, while we still live in anxiety, so that we may sing it one day in heaven in full security. Why do we now live in anxiety? Can you expect me not to feel anxious when I read, is not man’s life on earth a time of trial? Can you expect me not to feel anxious when the words still ring in my ears, Watch and pray that you will not be put to the test?

Can you expect me not to feel anxious when there are so many temptations here below that prayer itself reminds us of them, when we say, forgive us our trespasses…? Every day we make our petitions, every day we sin…

Even here amidst trials and temptations let us, let all men, sing alleluia. God is faithful, says holy Scripture, and he will not allow you to be tried beyond your strength. So let us sing alleluia even here on earth. Man is a debtor, but God is faithful…

You have entered upon a time of trial but you will come to no harm—God’s help will bring you through it safely. You are like a piece of pottery, shaped by instruction, fired by tribulation. When you are put in the oven therefore, keep your thoughts on the time when you will be taken out again, for God is faithful and he will guard your going in and your coming out.

But in the next life, when this body of ours has become immortal and incorruptible, then all trials will be over… O the happiness of the heavenly alleluia, sung in security, in fear of no adversity! We shall have no enemies in heaven, we shall never lose a friend. God’s praises are sung both there and here, but here they are sung in anxiety, there, in security; here they are sung by those destined to die; there, by those destined to live forever; here they are sung in hope, there, in hope’s fulfillment; here they are sung by wayfarers, there, by those living in their own country.

So then, my brothers, let us sing now, not in order to enjoy a life of leisure, but in order to lighten our labours. You should sing as wayfarers do—sing, but continue your journey. Do not be lazy, but sing to make your journey more enjoyable. Sing, but keep going.
What do I mean by keep going? Keep on making progress. This progress, however, must be in virtue; for there are some, the Apostle warns, whose only progress is in vice. If you make progress, you will be continuing your journey, but be sure that your progress is in virtue, true faith and right living. Sing then, but keep going.
St. Augustine, Office of Readings, Saturday of the 34th week of Ordinary Time

Reflection – It is with this reading that the Church chooses to end its liturgical cycle of patristic and hagiographic readings. This year, as it happens, it is superseded by the feast of St. Andrew, but nonetheless I wanted to feature it today.

Pope Francis has called us in his most recent document, the exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, to be vigilant of our Christian joy. In the urgent need of Christian witness and preaching on all of our parts, it is vital that we present a Christianity that actually is Good News in a convincing way. And as the Pope so pithily puts it, if we continually look like we’ve just come from a funeral, we’re not going to convince anyone that Jesus actually came to bring joy and blessing into the world.

I love Augustine’s simple formulation of the call. ‘Sing, but keep going.’ We live in a world racked by tribulations of one sort of another. There is real suffering and turmoil in every human life, and hard labour of one sort of another. Nobody would deny that. We are indeed pots in the kiln from time to time, and the fire can get a wee bit hot. I do love his imagery—and I think he did mean it to be comical—of the pot patiently thinking of when it will be taken out.

Meanwhile, be a singing pot. Sing alleluia, no matter what. Life is peaceful or at least stable, and perhaps the years are rolling out before you with little variety or change in sight? Sing alleluia. You’re in a time of ‘hard labour with no chance of parole’ – the busy, jam packed years of ceaseless toil and striving and fatigue? Sing alleluia. Things have taken a terrible turn for the worse, and great suffering and sorrow has come upon you? Sing alleluia. Or things are just grand and you love your life? Sing alleluia… and keep going. Don’t get complacent.

So that’s the word for the end of the year, according to Holy Mother Church. Sing alleluia, and so doing keep your joy intact. Keep going, and so doing push on to greater love and holiness and generosity of spirit. A good word to end the year on, alleluia, alleluia.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Is This the Life We Want?

Jesus himself is ‘heaven’ in the deepest and truest sense of the word—he in whom and through whom God’s will is wholly done. Looking at him, we realize that left to ourselves we can never be completely just: the gravitational pull of our own will constantly draws us away from God’s will and turns us into mere ‘earth’.

But he accepts us, he draws us up to himself, into himself, and in communion with him we too learn God’s will. Thus, what we are actually praying for in the third petition of the Our Father is that we come closer and closer to him, so that God’s will can conquer the downward pull of our selfishness and make us capable of the lofty height to which we are called.
Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth Vol. 1, p. 150

Reflection – Nice to have a little of the ol’ German Shepherd blogging from time to time. I still have hundreds of quotes from Pope Benedict stored away on my laptop. This one is from his commentary on the Our Father and the petition ‘thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’

It’s the end of the liturgical year, and if you’re one who gets to church during the week, you know that the readings are all focussing on the apocalyptic dimension of our faith, the whole awareness that the here and now and the ‘what is’ is temporary, transient. We are moving, slow or fast, in God’s own time, to ‘what will be’ – something very different, and the process of getting there—based on the Scriptures we have been given—will not be without its difficulties and turmoil.

There is always, and quite properly, an apocalyptic thread in the Christian tapestry. Simply, we are not trying to create some perfect life here on earth, simply fixing up the ‘here and now’ so that by our own efforts a nice little cozy world gets set up. Yes, we strive for justice and peace, but that’s simply out of love for our brothers and sisters and a desire to reduce the suffering injustice and war cause.

To be a Christian is to be well aware that the final resolution of all the world’s woes lies outside of the world and in this mysterious other reality. Call it heaven—we have to call it something—but truly we know little about it. Except that it is where Jesus is, and it is Jesus who will bring us and ultimately all the earth to the heavenly state.

And this heavenly state is not just ‘an end to suffering and want’. It is to do the Father’s will perfectly. And it is Jesus who achieves this in us, both showing us what it looks like (cough ‘the crucifix’ cough), and communicating his life and heart to us so we can walk that path of obediential love.

The question that faces all of us, of course, is whether or not this is really the life we want. Is it genuinely ‘heaven’ to wholly abandon one’s own self-will and give oneself over entirely to the will of God? This is a huge spiritual question that fundamentally shapes each human life. ‘Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven’, Milton’s Satan says. We can say that, too.

Ultimately the question is whether or not we believe in the absolute goodness, justice, and mercy of God. God is not just some ‘OK’ guy, some sort of nice person vaguely up there. God is Goodness itself, perfect justice, absolute mercy. Only that sort of God can both ask our total and absolute obedience, ask us to dwell in His will utterly and unreservedly, and make of His will for us a genuine heaven—a place of absolute light, joy, peace, gladness, goodness.

It all comes down to our concept of God. And Jesus comes in there, too, to show us something of who this God is, who the Father is, as much as our rather feeble minds can absorb, and enough to at least get us to trust Him enough to let Him in. His grace then can come in, and carry us the rest of the way there.

Happy Thanksgiving, my American readers – as you all gather around the sacred turkey today, do remember to give thanks to God above all for Jesus who makes it all possible, who truly does open heaven to us and who bears us there on the wings of his love and mercy. Amen.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Do We All Worship the Same God?

I’m cleaning out my ‘mailbox’ this week – something I don’t have to do too  often, blog-wise. A couple weeks ago, regular commenter Patricio had asked me to follow up on something I said in this post, namely that: “God as understood in both Judaism and Islam is indeed a God of love and mercy, and I firmly believe we all worship the same God…” I do go on to talk about a specific difference in our belief in God, namely our Christian belief that God became man, and how that does radically shape the Christian understanding and experience in a way that is completely different than any other religion.

Patricio wrote: “I think it would be useful for you to write something about your comment that the God of Christianity and the God of Islam are the same God. What are the key points which make this so for you. Satan would use oneness, love and mercy if it could turn you from Jesus. I have been unable to reconcile the Muslim God as lived in the middle east with God as he has revealed himself through Jesus. It would appear in Africa for example the many Muslims though forbidden under pain of death are converting to Christianity and are literally changing gods if you will as is true with the Hindu converts from appeasing the many to Jesus the one. Inter faith dialogue and getting alone is something else.”

Good question, and I know that it is not such an easy one. Leaving aside the painful history we are living through with the religious extremism and violence that is in fact present in the Muslim world and that is causing so much suffering there and elsewhere, and the consequent emotional climate that makes it hard to discuss these things, there is a genuine philosophical conundrum here.
At what point do two individuals, seeming to be looking at the same reality, conclude that they are actually talking about two different things? If we are both talking about our mutual friend Bill Jones, and I’m talking about his wife Suzy and their four children, and you’re talking about him being a bachelor, I have him living in Toronto, you in California… well at some point along the way we might just conclude we’re talking about two different people, right?

But where is that point? A question for philosophy, and common sense. If you know Bill to be a hard working accountant, and I know him to be also a fun loving dirt biker, you know he has three children, and I’m well aware he has four, you think he probably doesn’t have any religion, I know very well that he’s a practicing Catholic… well, it might still be the same Bill. I just happen to know him better. You’re his co-worker who only sees him 9-5. I’m his spiritual director! But we’re still talking about the same guy, right?

OK, enough about Bill. Our Christian contention would be, at least from the formal Catholic teaching (see Nostra Aetate 4), that we’re talking about the same Guy, it’s just that we know Him a little bit better. Not because we’re such great people—we absolutely and thoroughly are not—but because He’s revealed Himself truly in Jesus, as much of a revelation as we can bear, and we believe this revelation. When you come to think of it, the only way to know a person, or a Person, is if they choose to reveal themselves to us.

So what do we share with our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters about God? That there is one God. That He is the creator of all else that is—all things visible and invisible. That He is All Good. That He is loving—Allah, the All Compassionate, the All Merciful. That He is the sole arbiter of morality, the author of the moral law.

Well, for me that is pretty strong overlap – the Venn diagram is starting to look pretty circular in the shared area. Now we believe that this One creator God who is the loving Lord of all that is revealed everything in Jesus Christ, and that this revelation in Christ opens up to us the very great mystery of the Trinity of persons in the One God, and that Jesus reveals all sorts of specific realities about the scope and extent of God’s merciful love, and the radical absoluteness of the moral law and the demands of charity it entails.

That being said, it seems to me that simply on the face of it, the amount we share on the doctrine of God—oneness, sovereignty, goodness, love, mercy—is my basis, and the Church’s, for saying we worship the same God.

Now, I know about Judaism no more than what any student of the Old Testament knows, and I know considerably less about Islam. So I have no intention of beclowning myself by talking about religions of which I know little. It infuriates me when people do that to my religion; I won’t do it to someone else’s.

But it seems to me that it is poor reasoning to base a contrary opinion—we worship different gods—on the basis of poor behavior on the part of some members of this or that religion. I say this knowing full well the real anguish and real problems Patricio refers to in his question, and I hope I’m not making light of them. But nonetheless, if we project onto the God who is worshipped the worst qualities of the worst representatives of the religion who worships Him, how will the Christian God fare? We may not be so much killing people these days for the most part, but… well, do I have to go into all that? We’re not such wonderful people, not all the time anyhow. We would be very quick to say, ‘but that’s not our religion, that’s our failure to live our religion!’ And it certainly isn’t the God we worship – the rampant and terrible failures of Catholic Christians on many fronts. Jesus is much better, we would want people to understand.

I think we have to extend that same charity and forbearance to our Muslim brothers and sisters, many of whom indeed insist that this violent extreme form of Islam is a terrible distortion of what they know and understand it to be, and Allah their God to be commanding. So that’s my answer—I’m out of both time and space for today. I would love to have more discussion on this point which is so vital today, anyone who comes along, so please – comment if you will!

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

What Good is the Church?

More than frequently, a really good, searching comment shows up on this blog. Time is scarce for me these days, and I’m not always able to answer such as they deserve. A few days ago, on this post, I had several such comments, but the first one directly asked me to reflect more on the question of the Church’s role in our growth in holiness. The question also happened to be from a personal friend and neighbor, but it was good enough that I thought I should write further on the subject in response.
So, John Lynch wrote:

I am rather hoping that you would say more about this; in particular from the perspective of an individual's ability, through grace, to be in love with God. Not so much in love or enthralled with a particular manifestation of God but with the Father as a person.

How do you see that in terms of one’s own love of self (now there’s a dry term or is “arid” a more realistic descriptor?) and how that same person can leave or abandon that perspective of self love. Where do you see the person of God residing in this Church, His bride, and how does the church lead us away from self-love and into a true communion? Sacramental yes – without a doubt – but what does the church do and how does she enable us to change? How does she heal us of this so that we can be?

This is a big question, of course. What is the Church’s role in not only our salvation, but our growth in charity? Charity is the love of God infused in our hearts by the Holy Spirit at baptism, which is to grow in us through our lives of faith. What does the Church do to help us in that role?

Of course there is the fundamental and utterly central role of the Church in giving us the sacraments. Of that, there is either nothing to say or a twenty-volume opus to write. So I will say nothing except that, of course, without the sacraments and the grace they provide charity is not in us and cannot grow in us.

And then there is the preaching and teaching office of the Church. Admittedly, there is a wide variety in how this office is exercised from parish to parish and diocese to diocese, and I think it is no great secret that this is an area of great poverty in the Church in many places. But, nonetheless, even in a catechetical wasteland where very little that is helpful is offered from the pulpit, every time we go to Church we do hear the Gospel proclaimed, we do hear the Word of God.

And even if our own parish has stumbled badly in presenting the teachings of Christ and of his Church to us, those teachings do exist, and they exist because the Church has passed them on faithfully for 2000 years. And these teachings lay out for us the path of love and holiness in the world.

But I think there is something else to this business of how the Church helps us grow in holiness and love. I am reminded of Flannery O’Connor’s famous line to a recent convert, ‘A Catholic has to suffer as much from the Church as for the Church.’ Her dry Southern wit is in evidence in this, but she is expressing a deep truth here.

Namely, the Church helps us grow in love and in holiness because it is so hard to love the Church! And by Church here, I don’t mean the whole mystical theological entity which in its majestic breadth and depth is quite easy to love… as an idea. I mean Fr. O’Gimmeabreak and Sister Nonsense and the really nasty lady who sits in the front pew and is a terrible gossip, and the parish finance council who are soulless bean counters, and all the lousy no good holier than thou types who think they’re so great, and the all the lousy no good mediocre Sunday Catholics, and the bishop who doesn’t have a clue what’s going on, and… and… and…

The Church helps us to grow in love and in holiness because the Church is messed up. And to stay as a real part of the Church—not just to show up one minute before Mass and then tear out one second after the recessional hymn ends—means striving to love people who are not easy to love, to build something resembling a community with great difficulty and travail.

To actually take on and love the Church, according to one’s capacities and state of life, requires great forgiveness, mercy, patience, long suffering, and genuine sacrificial love. It means putting into practice the great saying “I am third” that we always quote around MH: God is first, my neighbor is second, I am third. It’s not about me and my preferences and having my ego stroked or my (felt) needs met.

Of course this is all going on while we are receiving the body and blood of Christ, having our sins washed away in confession, and hearing the Word of God proclaimed. But the first exercise in living out the sacraments and preaching the Gospel with our lives happens right then and there in the body of the faithful.

It seems to me that the lack of fellowship many people find in the Catholic Church (the phenomenon of everyone just showing up for the sacraments, like filling up the gas tank, and then vanishing for the rest of the week) is a pretty serious pastoral and spiritual problem. We are meant to be a koinonia, a genuine community, and this does not happen in many, many parishes, or perhaps there will be a little clique of parishioners who do everything and run the show, and there is little hospitality to the stranger or the outsider.

There’s a great call in all this to love, love, love, never counting the cost, to just keep trying to build relationships, to create something real and Christian and good, and to genuinely suffer on account of the Church and its many and persistent failures. I think it is a road to holiness, but I do realize just how hard it is. Anyhow, those are my thoughts on how the Church helps us become saints.