Friday, October 30, 2015

Priest and Altar

I have been going over the Mass weekly on the blog, to show how the liturgy provides a pattern for our whole life—how in fact everything there is to say about being a disciple of Jesus Christ can be found in a close study of its forms and rites.

We are backing off the specific rites last week and this week to look at some of the fundamental symbols that make up the heart of the Mass. Last week we looked at bread and wine; this week let’s talk about the priest and the altar. Bread and wine are brought to the priest at the altar, and it is from there that the action of the Eucharist proceeds.

Why a priest? What is the point of this character in the funny clothes up there at the front? Why can’t anyone of the congregation do it, or the whole congregation together, for that matter? We can always say ‘Cuz Jesus told us to do it that way,’ and leave it at that (certainly, I believe that to be the case), but is there more than can be said here? Does it mean anything, this priestly office in the Church? Why is he at an altar? What special significance does that have?

While a full theology of the priesthood would be well beyond the scope of this single blog post, I think the great symbolism of the ordained priesthood in the Mass is to signify Christ the head of the Body, Christ to whom we bring the offering, Christ who is the sanctifier of the gifts.

Bread and wine, I said last week, carry within themselves a symbolic meaning that encompasses the entirety of human life. We bring the bread and wine and not simply offer it ourselves but hand it to ‘another’ to be offered. This other is, of course, a human being like ourselves, really no better or worse than we are in any respect, but has been ‘set apart’ for this role by his sacramental consecration.

And so the symbolism is direct and clear and deep – the radical resolution of our lives and all that is in them consists in our ‘handing them over’ to, not ‘another’, but to The Other who is God.

The altar, meanwhile, is essentially the place of sacrifice. We do not just offer the sacrifice any old place, in any convenient location—there is a place where the offering is to be made. In the context of the liturgy this means we perform the action of offering and consecration on a piece of furniture that has been solemnly consecrated for that purpose and hence can be used for no other.

Priest and altar symbolize together the radical ‘other-ness’ of our faith. Christ has come to us, God has made Himself so very near to us, so very intimately one with us, and this is a great gift, a great and awesome joy. But He is still the wholly Other, the Holy One who is utterly transcendent even or perhaps especially in His drawing so near to us, His making Himself so available to us.

The Pope has called since the beginning of his pontificate for the Church to not become ‘self-referential’. This is rightly taken to mean that our mission is outwards, that we must have a constant care to reach out from the sanctuary to those who are outside of it and seemingly cannot or at any rate will not come in. But there is this other sense in which we are not to be self-referential, and it is upwards, not outwards.

For us to be rightly missionary and outwards-directed, it seems to me we need to first be utterly non-self-referential in the sense of our whole selves being directed, referred, to Christ. Bread and wine are brought to the priest and placed on the altar. Our whole selves—everything in our lives right now, no matter what it is—is only rightly ordered when it is brought to Christ and placed on the altar which is the place of His own self-offering, His own gift to the Father for love of the world. The Paschal Mystery, and our lives are only what they should be when every bit of them is taken up into it, when it becomes Our Mystery, too.

The truth is, most of us hold something back. We may offer our prayers and explicitly charitable deeds as bread and wine for the priest and the altar, but our work life is our own. Or we may get it that our work life is to be consecrated for Him, but our personal realtionships are ours to manage. Our maybe those belong to Him, too, but our interior lives, our emotions and wounds and hard places within—well, He doesn’t want all that junk, does He? That’s what psychiatrists are for, if we can afford them.

And so on and so forth. Most of time, when our lives are not flowering into the fullness of holiness, of life made radiant and beautiful in Christ, it is because we are keeping some of our bread and wine to remain just that, our own bread and wine to be dealt with as we wish. And the bread goes moldy and the wine turns to vinegar, useless to us and to others, when it could have been transformed into food and drink for the world.

In this simple symbolism of the Mass (which we know does not remain at the mere level of symbol, but is a living reality, the center of all reality in fact), we see the whole pattern of Christian discipleship and Christian holiness.  And as we go on in the Mass next week, we shall see exactly how our bread and wine are to be given to Him, and what He does with them to make them what they are meant to become.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Despicable Me

I have been going through the chapters of my book Idol Thoughts on Wednesdays, on the eight thoughts that lead us away from God, that are in simple fact ‘other gods’, other ways of seeking happiness in this world.

We have come to the eighth thought, the granddaddy of them all, that is pride. In the book I liken pride to the ‘big bad’ in the modern crime movie—the villain who is at work directing all the lesser villains who are merely his minions (Despicable Me! But these minions aren't quite so cute and loveable...).

Pride is like that with the other seven thoughts—all of them essentially tend towards pride or spring from pride, and are strengthened in us by the amount of pride we have. As the Eucharist is the source and summit of divine life in us, so pride is the source and summit of all that is death in us.

Pride, fundamentally, consists in exalting ourselves above our true place. The Latin word for it, superbia, communicates that well—basically, ‘over-ness.’ When we consider ourselves to be more than we are, that is the simple form of pride.

Simple, but what complex forms it takes in all of us. There are the crude forms of pride, easy enough to recognize—dominance, arrogance, bombastic crude power trips. But it can be, and usually is, much more subtle in us.

There is the quiet steady assumption that we are always right, that our judgments, our way, our take on things are simply reality. God is the One whose word fashions the universe, who spoke and it came to be. It is a terrible arrogation of the divine prerogative when we believe our own ‘words’, spoken or interior, actually are the first and last word of what is.

There is self-centredness, which has a hundred faces. There is the steady consistent reference of all things in our lives back to ourselves—everything in this world considered and evaluated on the sole basis of ‘how it affects me’. In properly spiritual matters, I see this when people say they ‘like’ this Scripture passage or they ‘don’t like’ that one, for whatever reason. But the Bible is the Word of God—it is verging on, if not outright, blasphemy to speak of it that way – this Word of God is great, that one not so much, and so forth…

Pride is a tricky, subtle thing, and none of us should ever imagine we are free of it. It is a shape-shifter in the soul, but always singing the same tune: I-me-mine-I-me-mine… always putting ourselves at the center of all things.

And of course it is then the secret source of the strength and persistence of the other seven thoughts. God has laid out for us a way of happiness and blessed life in this world. The path of love received and given, life received and given, the human person made to be a receptacle of divine life, and in that receiving becoming a lover of all creation as God is the Lover of all.

Pride looks at all that outpouring of divine life and love and says, “Yeah, no thanks. I have a better idea! Seven better ideas, in fact.” And off we go on the paths of gluttony, lust, avarice, anger, despondency, acedia, vainglory. All the alternative plans for happiness that don’t involve all this silly God business (does He even exist, anyhow?).

Pride seems very alluring and compelling. Well of course we are the center of our own life—what else is possible? It’s only human to put yourself first in the order of things! What else can we do, and why would we? Isn’t it pathological to efface oneself and put anything else ahead of one’s own being?

Such is pride’s story when it is hauled out into the clear light of day and forced to defend itself. And it is a load of hooey. The truth is, we are made by God, made for God, made essentially for a life of communion with God, receiving and giving, giving and receiving. And out of that, loving, loving, loving our neighbors as the duties of our state of life direct us. The ‘self’ is simply that which exists to be this place of reception and seat of action, the necessary ‘I’ which can enter into communion with the divine ‘Thou’, and thence with all other ‘thous’ we encounter.

And in this, we are truly exalted, truly elevated above our station, but by God, not by our own efforts. We enter into and become sharers in the life of the Trinity, the very life of God made accessible to us in Jesus Christ. Pride, which is all about self-exaltation, actually closes us up in ourselves and dooms us to a small, narrow, constricted little life bounded by our own limitations and ambit… and we really are very small little creatures, it turns out.

The only way to actually climb the ladder of being and become a ‘Great Person’ is to embrace the radical humility of the gift, to paradoxically accept that we are nothing, can do nothing, have nothing of our own… and in that find ourselves mysteriously opened to the one who is Everything and gives us everything He is. And our lives become in that humility and that openness an entry into the Dance of Love which is the very inner life of the Trinity—radical exaltation following upon radical abasement and self-emptying.

As I always say at the end of these Wednesday posts, I actually have quite a bit more to say about all this, but then you wouldn’t buy my book if I said it all here, would you? So you can read the rest of my thoughts here. Have a great day!

Monday, October 26, 2015

Looking In Triumph Over Our Foes

Save me, O God, by your name,
and vindicate me by your might.
Hear my prayer, O God;
give ear to the words of my mouth.

For the insolent have risen against me,
the ruthless seek my life;
they do not set God before them.

But surely, God is my helper;
the Lord is the upholder of my life.
He will repay my enemies for their evil.

In your faithfulness, put an end to them.
With a freewill offering I will sacrifice to you;
I will give thanks to your name, O Lord, for it is good.

For he has delivered me from every trouble,
and my eye has looked in triumph on my enemies.
Psalm 54

Reflection – The Monday Psalter continues its tour through the ‘gloomy 50s’ – this portion of the book of psalms focuses with pretty much laser focus on the enemies of the psalmist, their wickedness, the harm they have done to him, and the surety with which God will punish them and deliver him.

In other words, all the things that we try not to make the main focus of our own spiritual lives! Generally speaking, as a spiritual director, I try to steer people away from this kind of obsessive stewing over injuries and God’s punishments of those who deal them out. It doesn’t seem to be the healthiest and most peaceful way to live one’s life.

Nevertheless, here we are. We are never given any specific information about the sufferings of the psalmist; it must have been severe, given the extremity of response we read in the psalms. And it seems that one of the first lessons we are to take from this kind of psalm in general is that, while an exclusive focus on this aspect of life is unhealthy and embittering, we do need to have room for it somewhere, somehow, as needed. Bad things do happen; there is wickedness, harm, evil; we have to be able to lament and grieve over it and cry out to God for deliverance.

What is this deliverance, then? For the psalmist, it almost certainly was understood in worldly terms. They lose, I win! Simple, right? For Christians, we may be inclined to pray this psalm in entirely unworldly terms. I go to heaven, they go the other place. In other words, they lose, big time, and I WIN!!! Simpler yet, right?

While any old thing might happen in this world and the spinning of the wheel fortune (non-game-show version) is unpredictable, and furthermore the questions of eternal reward and punishment are strictly and utterly above my pay grade and so I will not address them here or elsewhere, I think there is yet another way to look at this question of God’s deliverance.

We may indeed ‘win’, either by coming out on top of whatever situation we find ourselves oppressed by, or (please God!) by ultimately getting to heaven. But there is another deliverance the Lord wants to give us in this life that I think has its own depth and import. Someone yesterday was quoting to me from the diaries of Etty Hillesum, a young Jewish woman living in the Netherlands during the Nazi occupation. She would indeed ultimately die in the Holocaust.

In the diary entry the person was telling me about, she describes living in Amsterdam under the German occupation. She is surrounded by the signs of anti-semitic violence and threat. Signs proclaiming ‘Jews and Dogs not allowed’, swastikas, and so forth. The tides of hatred against her and her people are rising. It is a situation of mortal peril and profound ugliness, evil, brutality.

Her own ‘victory over her enemies’ at that point was her realization that interiorly, she was free. She did not need to allow her enemies’ hatred to become hers. She did not need to allow fear, hopelessness, anger, and the host of other emotional and spiritual responses to be the master of her. And this was, at least in that moment, that period of her life, a great victory for her. Evil is evil, and it is a terrible ugly thing; it does not have to have the last word for us.

Hillesum, living confronted by an extremity of evil, is one thing. For us living in a world where perhaps we are not yet faced with such an enormity as the Nazi movement, we are called even more so to that space of interior freedom. There is terrible evil in the world, and I won’t bother listing it all off here – we all have our lists. But we do not need to allow that evil to become our master, to let anger, fear, despair, sorrow, vengeance be our dominating realities.

Interior freedom, the choice to live in the light, in hope, in peace, and in joy, and in love—this is the here and now victory over our enemies. Your interior castle is your own, and no matter what battles are raging against you outside it, the keep is secure, the citadel stands. With Jesus’ help, the citadel stands. So let us hold our heads high and look in triumph over whatever foes we have – not with arrogance and vindictiveness, but with faith, hope, and love today.

P.S. For those who are my regular faithful readers, the Monday Psalter will be transforming into the Friday Psalter as of next week, as my regular poustinia day is shifting from Friday to Monday.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

This Week in Madonna House, October 17-24

Sorry for my slack blogging lately, folks! Life is full these days, and sometimes the blog just sinks down to the bottom of my priorities, and that's just the way it is.

A short post this time, as life here is pretty much the same mostly. We have a house full of guests, young people full of life and energy. It is really pretty awesome, and makes for a lively spirit in the place. One of the young women here has been joking about all the strange things she has had to do since arriving. Chopping up entire carcasses of sheep and cows for meat was one; now she is breaking up black walnuts (we drive over them with a van for that stage), and then picking the nutmeat out of the shattered shells. MH is a weird place.

The farmers and the food processors had a grand end of the season supper together last night. All of the food is frozen, canned, dried, or in root cellars for the winter. It would appear that we have once again staved off malnutrition, thanks to the hours and hours of hard work from... well, just about everyone at some point or another. It is a group project!

We had a prayer service on Friday for the refugees and migrants of the world, with a holy hour, decades of the rosary interspersed with readings and testimonies from various refugees over the world, and a song composed by one of our women to the text "I was a stranger, and you welcomed me."

The biggest news, however, is that the laymen of MH have completed their election for a new director general. We elect our leaders like no other community on earth does, holding ballots until we reach unanimity. The Russian word we use for this is sobornost, about which Catherine Doherty wrote quite a bit. I am pleased to announce that Larry Klein has been elected to be the new DG of the laymen for a four year term beginning in January.

Larry is replacing Mark Schlingerman who has served with great generosity in this position for the past twelve years. I ask your prayers for both these men as they transition into their new responsibilities, for all the men at this holy and joyous time, and for our community. And know that we are praying for you as well, in the works of our hands and the prayers of our lips and hearts.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Bread and Wine

My Thursday commentary on the Mass has taken us past the Liturgy of the Word and so now into the Liturgy of the Offertory, the Preparation of the Gifts. At this point, while of course words are still used in the Mass, the use of the symbol begins to emerge here in its prominence.

So I want to spend some time these next few weeks discussing the central symbols of the Mass that dominate the action of the Eucharist. Specifically, there is 'bread and wine', there is the altar, and there is the priest. These are the basic symbolic elements of the celebration of the Mass into which we all enter in worship.

Why is it bread and wine that is used for the matter of the sacrament? Of all the foods that could be chosen, why did Our Lord choose these two? Why does the Church insist on wheat bread and grape wine, even when this may be inconvenient (say, in mission areas where these need to be shipped in at some expense)? Or even when it may make it difficult for an individual Catholic to receive the Eucharist (say, someone with celiac disease or an alcoholic)?

Fundamentally of course it is a matter of obedience. The Lord used bread and wine, told us to do what he was doing the way he was doing it, and so we have no authority to change it. That's really it--the sacraments were not our brilliant idea, not ours in their institution and so not ours to muck around with and change according to whatever brilliant idea is floating around in the Church or in the world (this applies to all the sacraments, marriage and priesthood being the two that people seem to want to muck around with the most these days).

But anyhow, back to bread and wine. Granting that we use them for the simple reason that Jesus done told us to do so, is there anything more to be said? Quite a bit more, actually. Bread is the great scriptural symbol of the basic reality of human life. The word itself in Hebrew is used interchangeably with 'food'. Bread is sustenance, bread is survival. The core reality of ordinary life lived day to day.

Bread also has a shadow side, too. Life is labor, life is hard. 'You will earn your bread by the sweat of your brow.' There is the bread of affliction the people ate in Egypt--bread has this aspect of hard labor, of a world that is marked by economic hardship, injustice, exploitation. Bread is life... but life is hard.

Wine is something quite different, symbolically. We cannot live without bread, symbolically speaking. We can live without wine. Wine is the great symbol in the Bible of life lived beyond the level of mere survival, mere sustenance. Wine is the symbol of human flourishing, joy, celebration. Life as not just a chore to be endured but as something happy, something rich and full.

But wine too has its shadow side. Drunkenness, folly, the wreckage of life that comes when it is consumed rashly or without due measure. Wine 'gladdens the heart', to use the fine biblical phrase, but it can also sadden the heart, drunk in the wrong amount at the wrong time.

All of this meaning is taken into the action of the Mass. Bread and wine are taken to the altar and given to the priest. Everything that human life is - the basic reality, the hard laborious injustice, the glad celebration and joy, and the tragic wreckage of our brokenness - all of this is carried up the aisle of the church to be given to the priest and placed on the altar.

I will say more about those symbols next week, but for now the main point is that Christ's choosing of bread and wine means he has chosen us, that he has chosen to bring all of human life in its beauty and goodness and its tragic suffering into his own offering. There is nothing - not one particle of our human life, that is outside of the Eucharist, that cannot be brought into the mystery of Christ and of God. These simple Eucharistic elements of bread and wine contain within them the whole panoply of the human condition, the human experience. And all of it is to be brought to the altar of God, all of it is to be brought into the mystery of Christ and His love.

As to what happens to those elements, what happens to our human lives, what happens to us when this is done... well, that's for the posts ahead. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

It's Been The Ruin Of Many A Poor Boy

On Wednesdays we have been going through the chapters of my new book Idol Thoughts, exploring the eight traditional logismoi, or thoughts, that take us away from God. The list came down to us in the West as the seven deadly sins, but I prefer to talk about the older list and the language of thoughts. Before we actually launch into sinful actions, it is our prior thought patterns that get us into trouble, right?

One reason I like the older list is because of today’s thought, which doesn’t appear on the list of seven. This is the thought of vainglory. Gregory the Great, who gave us the list as we know it, collapsed vainglory into pride, but the two actually are different things, and the difference is instructive.

Vainglory is the idea that happiness lies in the good opinion of other people. Pride couldn’t care less about other people and what they think, since they are inferior beings, but vainglory cares intensely about such matters. What matters with vainglory is not what you are or what you do, but what people think about what you are and do.

Vainglory has many manifestations. There is the more obvious form of it—attention seeking, spotlight hogging, the person who needs to be ‘the bride at every wedding, the corpse at every funeral’. There is the desperate hunger to be popular, to be liked, to be well thought of—in my own country of Canada this is a major factor in the pressure to either not hold or at the very least not express unpopular political opinions. Indeed, much evil goes unchecked in the world because of this form of vainglory—we just want everyone to like us.

In personal relationships, there is the inordinate desire to be loved, to have that special person look at us in that special way—again, the important thing is not our being or our deeds, but the good regard of the other. How many women, in particular (and sometimes men, too) sacrifice their true selves, their beliefs, their principles, because of that need for love?

And then there is the burning desire to have one’s contributions acknowledged, one’s gifts appreciated, one’s work valued. The need to be thanked. The need to not just do what is right but to have someone notice that we are doing what is right and say ‘Hey, good job, you! You are doing what is right! Kudos to you!’

And then, when that thanks, that little bit of attention or appreciation is not there—rage. Bitterness of spirit (those bastards didn’t even say thank you, after all I did for them!), withdrawing into self-pity, and so forth.

Or, if we are given that appreciation, we begin to crave it more than we want to simply do what is right and good. And we start to tailor our good deeds towards that end. Playing to the crowd, pandering. One of the most serious manifestations of this is the popular preacher, teacher, or writer who may at first have been successful because he was writing and delivering a message he believed in, that meant something to him, and strove to do it well for the sake of the message.

But the applause of the crowd is a heady drug, and it has, in the words of the song, been the ruin of many a poor boy—the message starts to get distorted, the focus shifts from the content to the one delivering the content, the ego waxes strong. Success is more spiritually dangerous than failure, and it has ruined many.

Vainglory has a thousand faces, from the gross seeking of fame and honor to the quiet wish that somebody would just say thank you once in a while. And it is a tenacious weed in the soul, one that takes a very long time to eradicate. It’s roots go deep and are tangled with many things that are good and righteous in us.

Vainglory is so powerful because it has a core truth to it. Truly, we are meant to receive the valuation of our life from another. We are not meant to be our own judges—in fact, we cannot be. And it is the core of pride, subject of next Wednesday’s blog post, that we make ourselves that.

We are meant to stand under judgment, and some part of us hungers for that. Something in us wants, indeed needs to be told by another what good our life is. But vainglory goes badly awry when it locates that other in flesh and blood, in the crowd or in that one person whose opinion matters to us. It is not the other whose good opinion will make us happy, the rather The Other.

Strictly speaking, our eternal happiness lies in holding the good opinion of that Other, of God. Vainglory is ‘vain’, that is empty and pointless, because it leads us nowhere and cannot secure us the happiness we seek. True glory—the glory of God, the eternal light of heaven which already is vouchsafed to us in the gift of sanctifiying grace and which will be ours after death in consequence of God’s particular judgment of us, is the real thing, the real happiness of the soul.

As I always say around here, I have much more to say on the subject, but I do want you to buy my book, so I will leave it there for now. May we spend today concerned not for the good opinion of man but with pleasing God who alone can make us happy.