Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Works of Mercy: Admonishing the Sinner

This will probably be my last blog post for the week. Later today I will get on a plane to Regina Saskatchewan, on the Canadian prairies. We have a Madonna House there which runs a soup kitchen for the men of the streets; I am going out to give them a three-day retreat. I return Sunday and will be back to normal blogging from then on.

But I thought I would do my ‘work of mercy’ post today, then, before I go off-line for the rest of the week. We are moving right along with these works, and now come to the most difficult, tricky, easy-to-do-wrong, really-hard-to-do-right work of all.

And that work is to admonish sinners. When I wrote the post about visiting the sick, and I was listing some of the genuine nuances of how you can biff that one up and end up being more of a nuisance than anything else, I hastened to say that I wasn’t trying to discourage anyone from actually doing that work of mercy.

With this one, I do fully mean to discourage people from doing this one, if you don’t think you can do it correctly. The damage that can be done to a person’s soul if they are rebuked for their sins badly, harshly, without mercy and with hard judgment is terrible. People can be driven away from God and from the Church, for years, if someone admonished them for their sins in a way that was hurtful, demeaning, loveless.

So don’t do it… unless, that is, you can do it with love, with peace, with compassion, with great care, prudence, and discernment. If you lack any of the above qualities in any situation where you may feel some admonishing is in order, do not move on it until you have them. Ask God for them.

Now, there are situations in life where this work of mercy actually is part of one’s job. Parents simply have to do this, and God bless all you parents reading this for taking on that hard part of the job. You gotta tell your kids when their doing wrong, and it’s no fun. But it has to be done. And others are in similar situations. Religious superiors, spiritual directors (gasp!)—when one person has a responsibility to some extent for the moral and human formation of another person, then there is an obligation to admonish the sinner. But again, always with compassion, mercy, love. 

Personally, I am very slow to correct a directee on something, my experience being that they usually know what they are doing wrong, and that there is great delicacy required to tell them so when it that is not the case. Lots of prayer, lots of waiting for the right moment, the season when the word of truth and correction can enter into their mind and heart. It’s tricky!

But in general, we have to be very slow to move with one another in this matter. Internet culture specializes in people shrieking at one another about how much the other person sucks, and I suppose at times in the Catholic blogosphere that kind of intemperate yelping of one another’s supposed sins can be justified by appealing to this work of mercy.

Well, nonsense. If you are going to correct someone for some misdeed of theirs, for one thing you do it in private, in the context of a face to face relationship. Your motivation must be the genuine good of the person you are correcting, and you have to really care about them. There must not be any trace of malice or anger, vengefulness or sarcasm or snarkiness—none of these can be part of any work of mercy we do, and certainly not this most delicate one.

So yes, I am definitely trying to discourage people from doing this work of mercy (odd project for a priest in the Year of Mercy). Unless, that is, you are doing it rightly, not lightly, with much prayer and love and care.

Of course the most profound way to ‘admonish the sinner’ that all of us are supposed to engage in continually is simple enough: it is to live a sinless life. When we respond with love of God and love of neighbor, when we strive daily to conform our acts, words, and thoughts to the demands of justice and charity, when the Law of God, both the negative precepts of the moral law (the shalt nots) and the positive commands of Christ (the Sermon on the Mount, the New Commandment of Love) is continually on our minds and hearts and guides every decision we make—all of this is a great admonishing of both the sinner who we ourselves are and of sinful humanity.

Become a saint, in other words. And then you will know when to speak and when to be silent, when one of your fellow sinners may need to have something said to them, and when the best way of correction is to simply love them and radiate the goodness of God to them through your own choice of the good, the true, and the beautiful in you life.

We want to get this work of mercy right, right? Well, that’s the way to do it, at least as best as this poor sinner can understand it himself. I do ask your prayers for me as I travel today and give the retreat to the good folks in Regina who serve the poor every day in their house, and I will be back on the blogosphere… well, sometime next week.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Feet and The Washer

I can’t seem to summon up the will to write my usual ‘this week in Madonna House’ blog post, popular as those always are, for the simple reason that I cannot think of anything noteworthy that happened this week here. Sometimes life is just pretty ordinary.

Meanwhile, I wanted to throw in my two cents’ worth about the Pope’s change in a small liturgical rubric, the Holy Thursday mandatum rite of foot washing. The Pope, as his absolute prerogative, has in recent years altered that rite in his own practice of it to include washing the feet of women; now he has formally altered the rubric for the universal Church so that ‘the red’ (the instructions) simply read that the feet of any of the ‘people of God’ can be washed.

Now first, we have to say that Pope’s have supreme and immediate authority to do precisely this kind of thing. Anything in the liturgy that does not touch directly upon the matter and form of the sacrament (e.g. bread and wine for Eucharist, water for baptism, a man for priesthood, a man and woman for marriage, oil for confirmation, and all the associated words that confect those sacraments) is subject to change by the proper authority, and that proper authority is the Bishop of Rome.

So if anyone is thinking ‘the Pope can’t do this!’ they are precisely wrong. This is exactly what the Pope can do, and he has.

And a good thing, too. I have long felt that the rite should change in precisely this way. This particular rite, like all the rites of the liturgy, is symbolic, right? Nobody is actually showing up in church on Holy Thursday because their feet are dirty and need to be washed. People generally attend to that kind of thing in their own homes.

Symbols are not the sort of things that only bear one meaning, or for that matter that bear a meaning apart from and unrelated to their cultural context. And as cultures change and shift, this kind of sub-rite of the liturgy (optional, in fact), is precisely the kind of thing that needs to be evaluated from time to time—is its symbolic meaning still holding? Does it communicate what it is meant to? Is what it is communicating what we really want/need to communicate at this time in the Church?

So the washing of the feet has borne two meanings, related but distinct. One is that of Christ establishing the ordained ministry in the Church, and in that establishing making it clear that it is a call to humble service. The emphasis is on the priesthood as service, and in that emphasis clearly only men should have their feet washed.

But it also is a symbolic reminder of the general call to service in the Church, Christ showing by example that not only priests but all of God’s people are called to wash the feet of their brothers and sisters in humble service. And in that reading, clearly the priest should wash the feet of men and women both.

Two different messages being communicated, right? Both are true, both are good, in fact they are in no way contradictory to each other. It is simply a matter of deciding which one is the more appropriate message to communicate to the Church in our times, and also if there is a risk of a message being communicated that we do not intend and do not believe. Such as, ‘women have no place in the Church’.

At any rate, the Pope has made the decision, and (not that my opinion matters) I happen to agree with it.

That being said, we now have to be vigilant about other messages creeping into the rite that are not particularly helpful or relevant to the liturgy, and that in fact are distractions. For example, “You go, girl! Female empowerment ftw!” Or “Pope Francis is the awesomest Pope evah! Take that, you stupid conservative traddies!” You know, things like that. If those become the focus of this rite, then this optional rite should simply be omitted.

Holy Thursday is one of the principal holy days of the year. Our focus should be first the Lord Jesus and his establishing of the Eucharist, second the Lord Jesus and his establishing of the priesthood as servants of the Eucharist, third the Lord Jesus and his great commandment of love and fourth, the Lord Jesus and his being delivered over into his passion and death.

You may notice a common theme running through where our focus should be in this liturgy. It starts with ‘J’ and rhymes with ‘sneezes’, eh? In fact, that’s more or less a sound principle not only for liturgy but for pretty much anything in life.

And so while I really have thought for some years that this change should be made in the rite, I would now say that it would be good if we could put this controversy behind us and simply make the focus of all our attention be not on the feet being washed, and especially not on the dirt that needs to be washed off (which, frankly, is where our focus is going so often), but on the Washer. Keep our eyes on Him, and the rest of this stuff tends to fall into place by itself.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Not Fade Away

Hear my voice, O God, in my complaint;
preserve my life from the dread enemy.

Hide me from the secret plots of the wicked,
from the scheming of evildoers,
who whet their tongues like swords,
who aim bitter words like arrows,
shooting from ambush at the blameless;
they shoot suddenly and without fear.

They hold fast to their evil purpose;
they talk of laying snares secretly, thinking, “Who can see us?
Who can search out our crimes?
We have thought out a cunningly conceived plot.”

For the human heart and mind are deep.
But God will shoot his arrow at them;
they will be wounded suddenly.
Because of their tongue he will bring them to ruin;
all who see them will shake with horror.

Then everyone will fear;
they will tell what God has brought about,
and ponder what he has done.
Let the righteous rejoice in the Lord
and take refuge in him.
Let all the upright in heart glory.
Psalm 64

Reflection – Well, another Friday, another psalm about our enemies attacking us and God destroying them. I must say that, while I am fully committed to doing this sequential commentary on the psalms, I will be really happy when we get a little bit further on in the psalter and other themes begin to predominate over this one. If for no other reason than that it is getting hard to think of something different to say about this particular subject, week upon week.

I would point out this time around, though, that this psalm features the whole reality of God quickly bringing to naught those who seem to have so much power in this world, those who are so very clever, so very Machiavellian in their plotting and scheming, those who are so sure that their wits and their malice will bring them the victory they seek.

And… they fail. They fail all the time. Or they enjoy some limited success for some time, and then, well, they just fade away. This is not only in the psalms; it is the way of the world, truly. Politicians, opinion makers and shapers, movers and shakers, peddlers of influence—all of these are people who for the most part do not in the end matter nearly as much as they seem to in the short run.

Do not fear, then, Trump and Clinton, Sanders and Cruz, Trudeau and Wynne (for my Canadian readers), and the whole lot of schemers and spin doctors, lackeys and toadies and backroom boys and girls who  attend them, and all the other proud players strutting the stage in January 2016—by January 2017 a good few of the will have faded away, and by January 2036 most of them will be forgotten and the world will keep spinning around serenely on its course.

I am convinced that the people who make a lasting mark on the world, the people whose efforts and labors do not fade away when they fade away, are the people I wrote about yesterday—the saints of God. And while I suppose we have to put some energy towards resisting the truly wicked people doing truly wicked things in this world—be it ISIS or whatever politician you find most appalling at the moment, this can never become the main focus of our concern.

If it does, we will become like them—power brokers and manipulators, doomed to fade away when our power fades. If our primary concern is to become the saints God made us to be, to love God and to love neighbor, to do God’s will and dedicate ourselves to works of mercy according to that will, then our lives will leave a permanent legacy in this world of light and truth, peace and joy, even if we are the most hidden and unknown of people.

Psalm 64 and all the related psalms essentially tell us not to worry too much about all the sound and fury of the mighty ones of the world, but to dedicate ourselves to serving God and living righteous good lives in this world, so as to be happy with Him in the next one. So… let’s aim for that, today.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

They Don't Usually Drink Beer, But...

And so we continue our journey through the Mass, looking at it as a pattern of Christian discipleship. Today we come to the communicantes, the part of the Eucharistic prayer that goes thus:

In communion with those whose memory we venerate, especially the glorious ever-Virgin Mary, Mother of our God and Lord, Jesus Christ, and blessed Joseph, her Spouse, your blessed Apostles and Martyrs, Peter and Paul, Andrew, (James, John, Thomas, James, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Simon and Jude: Linus, Cletus, Clement, Sixtus, Cornelius, Cyprian, Lawrence, Chrysogonus, John and Paul, Cosmas and Damian) and all your Saints: we ask that through their merits and prayers, in all things we may be defended by your protecting help. (Through Christ our Lord. Amen.)

In other words, the saints. At the liturgy we are not only in the presence of God, not only all together with the others at that particular Mass, not only united in prayer and worship with all of the Church throughout the world. We are also united with the Church in heaven, with the saints gathered around the throne of God. Our communion with God in Jesus Christ, our communion with one another in (we hope and pray) the bond of charity, is also a communion with this great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us and dwell in glory and light.

The devotion to the saints is one of the great riches of Catholic and Orthodox Christianity. It is an aspect of the faith that can be a bit bewildering to a new convert—that besides the Lord Jesus there is this endless company of men and women who Catholics all seem to know about and whose variety of call and individual personalities is head spinning in its diversity.

We have innocent virgin martyrs like today’s saint Agnes. We have grizzled old monks and scholars like irascible Jerome. We have great sinners who became great saints, like Augustine. We have people’s whose personalities are so attractive and warm we cannot help liking them, like Teresa of Avila. We have people who may not be quite so easy to love, who had quite a few rough edges along with the holiness (see above, Jerome).

Saints for everyone, and saints who are on the roll but largely forgotten in their particulars. That’s OK, too—they live in the presence of God, so they probably don’t care too much if we’re paying them any attention.

The whole lot of them enrich our faith life so profoundly. They are, for one thing, the most interesting people in the world—that lame Dos Equis guy can’t hold a candle to them, honestly. They don’t usually drink beer, but when they do, it’s for the glory of God, and you better bet they enjoy themselves doing so. What they did, who they were, the weird and truly awful stuff they went through, the achievements they did—all of this makes them many things, but never boring, not if you know anything about the real story of their lives.

And in that fascinating variety and wildly interesting bunch, we start to get the idea that the key to a full, rich, joyful, passionate, and even fun life is not what we think it is—money and sex and doing exactly what you want every moment of the day. All of that is a lot of nonsense, really. The key to a full and beautiful life is to plunge oneself into the heart of God like a scuba diver plumbing the depths of the ocean—to go down into those depths and never surface. To drown in the depths of God, and rise up a new creature permeated with His life giving water and Spirit and life.

So they are interesting, and they show us how to be interesting, too. And they help us—they actually are praying for us and have an active ministry in the world. There is a reason for all those holy cards and patronal saints for this, that, and just about any thing you can think of. They’re on the job, for us.

So the saints show up in the liturgy, gathering with us around the altar, and in that we are to take it that they should show up in our lives, too. They are a permanent reminder to us of the riches and wealth of God, His inexhaustible bounty and generosity, and the creativity of grace in making, at least potentially, every human being into the most interesting person in the world.