Thursday, December 24, 2015

If You Can't Find Christ...

Well, a very Merry Christmas to you all. This will be my last post for the year 2015, as I customarily take a bit of a break from blogging between Christmas and New Years.

I would like to share my 'Christmas present' from God this year - I generally ask the Lord for a word for the big seasons and feasts of the year, and He generally has something to say to me, somehow. This year my present came early, some weeks ago, and I have been pondering it ever since.

It is, Adeste Fideles. Traditionally the title of the carol is translated as 'O Come, All Ye Faithful', but any first year student of Latin knows that's not quite right. The Latin verb for 'come' is venire, and the imperative would be Venite Fideles. 

This is 'adeste', which means something quite different. It is the Latin verb 'adesse' which is from the verb 'to be' and is literally 'to be towards'. It is rightly translated as 'to be present, to be here'. When a teacher in Latin class is doing the roll call, the students respond to their name with 'Adsum' - I am here.

So, 'adeste' you faithful ones. Be present. Be here. Christmas is so busy, so very, very busy. In MH this year it got even busier what with Fr. Pat's death and funeral this week. But it's always something, and so much of what it is, beautiful as it all is with the fancy food and the sparkly decorations and the visiting and frolicking... well, it's all very good and proper and right.

But... adeste. Don't forget to 'be towards' what the whole thing is about. Be present... to what? To the Christ child. To the mystery. To God made man for us. To the manger, Mary, Joseph, the ox, the ass, the star, the shepherds. To the story, but it is no pious fable, no made up mythology. It is all true, it all happened, and it continues to happen in each one of our lives. He is present - are we?

I still hope to write about Fr. Pat McNulty at some point - his was a life worth memorializing. But a key story of his life and his relationship with Catherine Doherty seems relevant to what I'm trying to say here. Warning for mild vulgar language in this story - if you are offended by such, stop reading here.

In 1968, Fr. Pat crashed and burned in his parish ministry, and came up to MH to recuperate. Catherine put him in poustinia three days a week and sent him to the farm the other three days. So after a few weeks of this, he came down on Sunday. Fr. Pat was a man of volatile temperament and blunt direct speech, and was working through a lot of things at this point. So he sits at Catherine's table at brunch and promptly explodes at her. "I have a parish back in Forth Wayne going to hell in a handbasket, and here I am up in Canada shovelling horse shit! What good is that supposed to do?"

Catherine looked at him with great compassion and kindness, reached out and took his hand and simply said, "Father Pat, if you can't find Christ in the horse shit, you won't find him anywhere."

This became the transformative word for his life. We think we have to go here, go there, do this, do that. We have to 'Come' if we are 'Faithful' - go somewhere else, have our life be something else, if we are to find Christ. This is, well, it's horseshit! Christ came here. That's pretty much the whole point of Christmas. Christ is here, Christ came to where you are and where I am. We don't have to go looking for him; He came looking for us. Adeste! Be present to the mystery of your own life, in all its mess and murk and mire. God is lurking in there somewhere.

Now yes, you and He together might start cleaning up the place a bit together at some point. But that is the whole point of mercy, which is more than just a Jubilee Year to celebrate and then forget. He has come to us in the exact situation of our exact life as it is lived exactly right now, before we get it all cleaned up and shipshape for him. If I could ask for one Christmas gift from the Lord for all the people in my life, my directees especially, but all of you, all of us, it is that we could learn to trust that, rejoice in our poverty, and simply relax a bit and rest in God's love, present in our lives as they are today.

He is in the mess and the mire. He was 2000 years ago and He is now, for you and for me. Adeste Fideles, and a have a very Merry Christmas on account of it.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Works of Mercy: Ransoming the Captives

“O come, O come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel.” I am going through the corporal and spiritual works of mercy each Wednesday on this blog, and have come to the one work of mercy that I truly have no direct experience with (it was bound to happen). Namely, to ‘ransom the captive’.

Well, no experience of it in its direct literal sense, anyhow. Historically it seems to date in this formulation from earlier legal and social systems when people needed to be bought out of slavery or other related forms of imprisonment and bondage. While human slavery still exists, those working in the field of human trafficking have cautioned against directly intervening in this way, as it actually just fuels the market for those engaged in the modern slave trade.

In modern times this work of mercy is sometimes updated to ‘visit those in prison.’ Well, that’s fine… if you can. Personally I have spent my entire adult life pretty much in Combermere Ontario where there are no prisons anywhere nearby. And one cannot just waltz into a prison to visit the prisoners, either. The modern jail system is a complex bureaucracy; there are procedures to go through.

Now, there are those who are called to do prison ministry of some sort or another, and all I can do is take my hat off to such people—it is a great work of mercy indeed, to extend a helping hand to those who are in such straits. But if any such people are reading this blog, they know an awful lot more about all that than I do, since it is simply outside of my experience and (barring a dramatic change in venue in my life) will continue to be so. And if anyone reading this blog is feeling called to engage in prison ministry, then you’d best be talking to those who know how to go about it, i.e. ‘not me!’

When I started this series I was determined to not go in a metaphorical direction with any of the works of mercy: feeding the hungry means putting a plate of actual food in front of an actual hungry person. But here, since my own experience is nil in the matter and in fact it is a pretty specialized type of ministry, I would like to reflect on some of the extended senses of this ransoming and this captivity.

The truth is, it is a very important business, this ransoming of captives. God came, as our beloved Advent hymn tells us, precisely as ‘redeemer’, as ransom for the nations. The human condition absent God’s redemption is precisely imprisonment—we are all prisoners of our own guilt and sin, and ‘liberation’ is the great work of God on our behalf.

We must not despise and condemn those who have spent time in prison, as we are sadly wont to do in our culture. Yes, we have to have a legal system, and people who commit serious crimes must be jailed. Of course. But there is no ‘us and them’ about this, like people who have done time in prison are some lower type of humanity to be viewed with scorn or suspicion upon their release.

We are all ‘criminals’, in the deeper sense of the matter. All locked into whatever our patterns of sin and compulsion are, until the Redeemer ransoms us. The whole mystery of Christmas, so soon upon us, is about this, not about fluffy snow (and a good thing for that, this year) or reindeer or bags of presents or… well, whatever the secular culture thinks it’s about.

It’s about God coming to liberate His people, and coming to do this in the strangest way possible—by becoming one of them, by identifying Himself with us, in lowliness, meekness, hiddenness and great compassionate mercy.

If we look around our own lives, we are bound to be able to see a few people in our immediate circle who we can recognize as ‘prisoners’ in one way or another. People in the grip of addictions, or intractable mental illness. People stuck in cycles of destructive behavior that hamper and constrict their lives. People who are simply severely limited by one thing or another, unable to really change their circumstances for reasons good and bad, real and perceived.

Well, go visit those people! Be part of their lives! Be compassionate, as God was and is compassionate to you when He came to be part of your life! Sometimes we really want to fix people, and when we can’t fix them we cut them out of our lives like a wart being excised from our bodies. But so many people cannot be ‘fixed’ that way, and there can be terrible loneliness for such people when person after person walks away from them. That can become a type of imprisonment all of its own.

And so it is Christmas, soon, the feast of the great Visitation of God to all us prisoners, the great ransoming of God of all captives. Let us be mindful in this feast of those still languishing in prisons literal and metaphorical, and see what we can do to alleviate their suffering and mitigate their isolation.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

This Week in Madonna House - December 13-19

Well, this week in MH has been... uh, quite a week, actually.

For those readers of this blog who are also friends of our apostolate in some other venue, it is no news that Fr. Patrick McNulty died Thursday evening, after a long time of serious illness. His body is being received at the St. Mary's chapel this afternoon, waked this evening, and then the funeral is tomorrow.

To be somewhat personal (because what else is blogging for?), I find myself unable to write too much about Fr. Pat right now. Maybe later. He was a great friend of mine, a wonderful and unique individual who enriched and enlivened all of our lives here, and to be honest I am quite grieved at his passing, as much as I am glad his long suffering is over. So... I will just leave it at that. Pray for him, and pray for MH--while we're all buckling down and doing what needs to be done, a funeral this close to Christmas requires an awful lot of generosity and flexibility on everyone's part. Fr. Pat was well known and well loved far and wide, and we expect quite a large crowd to be here tomorrow.

Meanwhile, that was hardly the only thing that went on this week here. Sunday last was also St. Lucy's day, even though the liturgical celebration was supplanted by Gaudete Sunday. So, Lucy came as she did, with a crown of light and with sweet bread. We have another Lucy custom, derived from somewhere in Hungary. Wheat is blessed and planted that day in a small pot, symbolizing the coming of Christ who is the Bread of Life. Watered and tended for the rest of Advent, the Lucy wheat will be placed near the manger scene at Christmas.

The next day was, of course, December 14. This is the anniversary of death of our founder Catherine Doherty, and we had our customary day of recollection. This meant a relaxed morning with a later Mass time, and then silence for the afternoon with Adoration. I gave a conference early in the afternoon, speaking on the theme of mercy in the writings of Catherine. I wrote a book on the subject, so it's fairly easy for me to work up a talk on it. The day ended with solemn Vespers and Benediction, followed by a festive supper.

After that we had precisely three days of 'ordinary' life before Fr. Pat's death on Thursday evening. This is largely taken up with Christmas preparations--decorating and cooking. For my part I whipped up a batch of 70 butter tarts one evening, bringing my total this year to a record high of 220. Friday evening we went Christmas carolling in the neighbourhood, a tradition in MH that goes back to the early years. There are people who are now grandparents who remember us coming to sing carols when they were little children, and who cherish the custom.

The last two days have seen a huge inrush of guests, and this will continue until Christmas. The women's guest dorm in particular is full up this year.

Well, there are no doubt about fifty other things that happened this week in Madonna House, but to be honest it's all kind of blurry at this point. Do remember us in your prayers, especially these next two days which will be very full of both emotion and work, and know that we are indeed praying for all of you in the midst of it all.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Sheltering In Place

Hear my cry, O God; listen to my prayer.
From the end of the earth I call to you,
when my heart is faint.

Lead me to the rock that is higher than I;
for you are my refuge, a strong tower against the enemy.
Let me abide in your tent forever,
find refuge under the shelter of your wings.
For you, O God, have heard my vows;
you have given me the heritage of those who fear your name.

Prolong the life of the king;
may his years endure to all generations!
May he be enthroned forever before God;
appoint steadfast love and faithfulness to watch over him!

So I will always sing praises to your name,
as I pay my vows day after day.
Psalm 61

Reflection – A friend and neighbor of mine who is an avid reader of the blog, and particularly of this running series on the psalms, pointed out to me that my commentary on the ‘gloomy 50s’ has missed an important beat.

Namely, that the cry of the psalmist in distress has to be understood as principally (in our Christian reading of it) to refer to the cry of Christ, to the sufferings of Jesus on behalf of all humanity. That while the original and immediate occasion of these psalms’ composition was the suffering of the psalmists’ own lives, now we hear the voice of God Himself, made man in Jesus, in them.

Well, this is profound stuff. And we see the depth of it in the very first line of this psalm: ‘From the end of the earth I call to you’. How can a single individual be crying ‘from the end of the earth’? This implies something bigger than the sufferings of one man. And indeed the Church has read this psalm as referring to Christ, and because of Christ, of His Body on earth, the Church—an expression of the whole Church, which is Christ and is also redeemed humanity, crying out to God.

And in this psalm the cry of distress immediately yields to expressions of intimacy, trust, confidence. This whole business of ‘refuge’ looms large here. And we need to take this to heart, don’t we? Sometimes we can get a bit silly about this notion of seeking refuge, as if strong independent mature adult Christians shouldn’t be looking for such things.

We have to live in the real world! We can’t retreat into our safe space! Down with refuge! Up with going out there and being with the people! And so on and so forth. All of which is fine enough, so long as we know that God Himself has provided us with a refuge, and that in fact we do need said refuge, and it is no part of a real adult faith to eschew it.

That refuge is the Church Herself, but within that refuge we find ourselves delivered into the real refuge which is the Heart of Jesus. His merciful love which carves out for us on earth the only ‘safe space’ we need, and out of which safe space we can indeed traverse the rough waters and fiery passages of life in this world.

Psalm 61 is a really mystical psalm—after this expression of confidence and trust in God Our Refuge, there is all this business of the king and his long life. Again, in the original composition, this would be the actual king in Jerusalem; for us, it is again Christ and His enduring life on earth in the life of the Church.

There are fundamental matters here of good spiritual order, good spiritual foundation and grounding. We live in a world that seems to us to be a dangerous place. Fear and anger are the common lot of the day. Those of us who are Catholic Christians need to safeguard our communion with Christ, with His Church, and from this with one another, to weather the storms of the world as it is.

Of course this is challenging, since the Church itself is made up of a bunch of sinners who screw up a lot, and so life in the Church can be a fairly stormy affair much of the time, and it doesn’t necessarily ‘feel’ like much of a refuge. But as we determine that God’s plan is for us to ‘shelter in place’, so to speak—to stay with the Church and find refuge within its confines, even if the other people doing likewise are an obstreperous bunch of miscreants—we do indeed find ourselves mysteriously delivered over to the refuge within the refuge, which is Christ’s own mysterious life in the Church and in the world. And this is the surest, safest, and most secure way to live in our times and in all times.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Holy and Unblemished Sacrifices

It is Thursday, and therefore Liturgy time on the blog. I am doing a commentary on the Mass, striving to draw forth how it is a pattern for Christian life and discipleship.

After 22 blog posts covering the Introductory Rites, Liturgy of the Word, and the Preparation of the Gifts, Preface and Sanctus, we are now launching into the Eucharisitic Prayer, the heart of the matter, truly.

It is worth noting at this point that from here on up to the Great Amen in the priest does pretty much all the talking. This is theologically significant. He not only symbolizes Christ in this liturgical moment, but actually is acting in persona Christi. 

The exclusivity of the priestly prayers (i.e. that the laity don’t just join in and pray along with him) means that the liturgy is fundamentally something Jesus does and we receive, something we enter into in the mode of passive reception before active participation. And in fact our deepest entry into ‘full, conscious, and active participation’ lies in knowing that we are primarily graced recipients of the action of the Mass and not the principal actors.

I will be using Eucharistic Prayer I, also known as the Roman Canon, for this commentary. It was until the post Vatican II reforms the only canon we had, the one anaphora, or Eucharistic Prayer, of the Latin Church for over a millennium. That it is not done all that often in many North American parishes is frankly shameful. It is held to be too long, which is ridiculous. 

It is two minutes longer than the other prayers. Anyhow, I don’t want to start ranting about that subject, amusing as that might be for some, but I just want to go on record as saying that it is disgraceful that so many Catholics are deprived of praying the prayer that all their ancestors prayed because we need that extra two minutes for what… another verse or two of Gather Us In?

Anyhow. Back to the Mass! The prayer begins “To you, therefore, most merciful Father, we make humble prayer and petition through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord: that you accept and bless + these gifts, these offerings, these holy and unblemished sacrifices…” As we begin the prayer, we consciously address the Father, through the Son. So important, that. God is Father—this in a sense is the whole point of the Year of Mercy, to recapture the awareness of God as Father. And this is done as we approach Him the way He must be approached in truth—through the Son.

The language of humility is important here. We do not approach God upright, with heads held high as if we are His equals. No – we bow, we prostrate, we kneel, we throw ourselves down before Him. He loves us and delights in us, and wants us to know Him as our loving Father… but let us never forget that He is the awesome God, the Eternal, the Mighty, the Holy… and we are frail creatures of dust.
And we bring Him these gifts and ask Him to accept them. 

At this juncture, the gifts are not the Body and Blood—we are still referring to the bread and wine here. That these gifts are ‘holy and unblemished’ of course recalls the whole Old Testament theme of only bringing sacrifices to God that are whole and intact, not the injured and damaged.

Here, it does indeed imply (since the bread and wine symbolically are the offering of the whole Church of its own self, and of each member of the Church of our own selves), that we are free of grave sin as we approach the altar. I know this is a contentious and hard subject these days, but my brothers and sisters, it is really important. The Church and Christ provide every help possible for us to be clean of grave sin, and all are welcome to be present at the liturgy and participate as much as they can, even if they are burdened with sin. There is no harshness, no rejection in this.

But we must not—we simply must not!—approach the altar of God if there is serious blemish, serious disobedience, serious sin in our lives. It is not a matter of censorious priggishness, but of basic integrity and honesty with oneself and with God. It is spiritually damaging in the extreme to willfully flout this, and demand to receive the Eucharist when one’s life is not in accordance with the commands of God, made known to us through His spotless Bride, the Church.

So we begin the Eucharistic Prayer in a place of deep humility, deep knowledge that we are entering here into the very action of Jesus Christ towards His Father, and deep self-examination that we are indeed disposed to enter this action. As we go about our day today, let us be mindful that our whole life is to be lived right here at this Eucharistic moment, to the Father through the Son, an unblemished offering through Christ to our Father in heaven, in deep humility, amen.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Works of Mercy: Visiting the Sick

Our Wednesdays on this blog are devoted to the Year of Mercy, and specifically to presenting each of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy in turn. Mercy, as Pope Francis reminded us in Vultus Misericordiae, has to be incarnated and practical; it cannot be left as an abstract idea and have any reality to it.

Today we have come to the work of visiting the sick. This is a most delicate work of mercy. At the same time as the sick do need visiting and when done right this work of mercy can (literally!) be a life saver, this is also of the corporal works of mercy one of the easiest to botch up. It can become not a work of mercy at all (well, in intention, yes) as a terrible burden on the person.

On the positive side, we know that sickness can be a terribly isolating reality, both for the sick person and for their caregivers. Especially in our North American culture of go-go-go, busy-busy-busy and of rampant individualism, the person who is forcibly removed from the normal stream of human activity and work can find themselves quite lonely.

So a bit of a visit from a friend goes a long way. And in situations of long-term illness, perhaps a slow terminal disease or a chronic suffering of some kind, both visits and offers of practical help are in order. Be mindful of the caregiver in those situations, too—often it is a spouse who him or herself is not doing so well, may not be too young and may need real assistance, or an adult child who is juggling caregiving on top of their own adult responsibilities. Is there anything you can do, even washing a sink of dirty dishes or (if you’re up for it) spelling them off for a few hours so they can run errands or just go out?

At the same time, there is great delicacy needed in the matter of visiting the sick. Sometimes the sick don’t want visitors! Sometimes they want them, but their energies are limited and it may not be the right time, or they may only be able to have a short visit. Calling ahead is a good idea, if possible: “Is X up for visitors today? OK, then, but is there anything I can do for you otherwise?” That kind of thing.

And upon visiting, remember that you’re there to help and support them, not to add to their burden. There is a useful chart floating around on the Internet that depicts a series of concentric circles, the actual sick person being in the center, their primary person or people (spouse, children) in the next circle, close friends and extended family next, then pretty much everyone else.

The general idea is that care, compassion and support flow from the outer circles inward; pain, grief, anxiety, frustration, anger flows from the inner circles out. So you don’t go visit a sick person and expect them or their spouse to comfort you because they’re doing poorly. You support them, and then if you need consolation, go get it somewhere else.

It is delicate. To go and visit the sick, overstay one’s welcome, and chatter away about all sorts of things that may not be helpful for them—one’s own life and cares and problems and situations—is well meant but not really helpful. And when the person is actually dying, there is more delicacy needed yet—those final days and weeks of life are precious for the dying person and their intimate circle—it is not always the case, but often it is just not the time for lots of other visits. Dying is hard work—even the intimate immediate circle of the dying person have to move with care at that point.

Well, it sounds like I’m making such a thing of it that you might decide it’s all just too delicate (a word I’m using too much, perhaps) and you’d better just stay away altogether, insensitive clod that you are. Well, no. It’s just that this is a work of mercy that needs to be done well, and the key is to remember that the focus here is the sick person, and what he or she needs, not your need to see them or to get something from them.

But it is great thing when done well, and even if done poorly the love and effort we bring to it are appreciated generally. Sickness is such a basic form of human poverty and need, the body breaking down and our mortality raising its head. Fearsome, and sobering—and the support of the community is needed and a great work of mercy indeed. And in our aging society (you will notice I am NOT talking about euthanasia in this post) there will be ample opportunity to practice this work of mercy in years ahead—so let’s not neglect it.