Thursday, March 31, 2016

Living a Spiritual Life

Every Thursday, before I took my Lenten fast from blogging, I have been going through the Mass, offering a commentary particularly on how the Mass informs and shapes our whole Christian life.
We have come in this commentary to the very heart of the Eucharistic Prayer, approaching the very moment when the bread and wine are transubstantiated into the Body and Blood of Christ. Immediately before this moment we pray:

Be pleased, O God, we pray, to bless, acknowledge, and approve this offering in every respect; make it spiritual and acceptable, so that it may become for us the Body and Blood of your most beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.

There is a great deal packed into this prayer—so much so that books could be written about it. There is the basic reality of the Eucharist itself presented here: that the bread and wine really, truly, become his Body and Blood. The heart of our Catholic faith, that God has made Himself that available to us, has given Himself to us at such a depth.

There is the all the ‘deprecatory’ language, all the ‘be pleased, we pray’, and the asking God to approve our offering. It is so crucial for us to always keep in mind the utter graciousness of God in doing all this for us. It is not some automatic thing, like a vending machine: we put in bread and wine, say some prayers, make some ritual gestures and out comes the Eucharist. It is, rather, an encounter of humanity with God’s merciful love.

He is faithful to His covenant and always comes through for us, always gives Himself to us in this intimate and startling way, but nonetheless there is nothing of this that is automatic, nothing that is our right or our due or something that ‘just happens because’. Nothing of the sort! God loves us, and has pity upon us, and so has permanently and radically adopted this stance of mercy towards us, most fully expressed in His gift of the Eucharist.

What is this business, though, about making the offering ‘spiritual’? What’s that about? In our confused minds we can think of spiritual as being the opposite of material, but that doesn’t make sense—the bread and wine don’t disappear in a puff of mysticism. What does this word ‘spiritual’ mean? It also gets used these days as the opposite of 'religious', but in this context that doesn't make a whole lot of sense, either.

I could write a book about that (in fact, I want to write a book about it, and hope to get to it eventually). ‘Spiritual’ is in fact the contrary (not the contradictory) of ‘material’. Material reality, by definition, is finite, divisible, corruptible, and local. Spiritual is boundless, indivisible, incorruptible, and potentially omnipresent.

The whole sum of reality, in our faith, is that God, who is Pure Spirit, has taken a portion of material reality—the human person—and ‘spiritualized’ us, made us capable of bearing the qualities of spiritual reality in our materiality. This is our creation in God’s likeness, and our subsequent redemption and adoption as God’s children in Christ.

When we pray that the bread and wine become spiritual, we are praying that ordinary material stuff—bread that will go moldy in time, wine that will turn to vinegar, and at any rate are simply blunt material objects, will bear the full weight of pure spiritual reality—the very life of God. And in that, in our offering and reception of these gifts made so spiritual, that life of God flows through the life of the Church, and the effect of divine communion is achieved.

This is the Eucharist, and it is the very heart of our faith. But the rest of our lives—the whole of human life in virtually every dimension—is meant to be ‘spiritualized’ in just this way. Nothing of our humanity, even the most mundane and earthy, is meant to be ‘simply material’, simply a matter of this life and its physical exigencies and limitations. Every last particle of human life is meant to be a vessel of God’s life and love, meant to become something that opens up to the boundless, the infinite, the eternal, that which cannot be diminished or divided but is a whole, single reality.

Anyhow, like I say I really want to write a book about this, if I can ever find the time. But this little prayer of the Mass, which we can easily pass over quickly on our way to the Institution narrative that follows it (stay tuned to next week!), holds the key to it all, is in fact the very pattern of our life as Christians.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Works of Mercy: Forgiving Offences Willingly

So, as I was just saying eight weeks ago… yeah, it seems a little weird to just pick up the series I was doing before Lent began, way back in early February.  In case your memory is a little shaky, Wednesdays on the blog I had been going through the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, all part of helping us understand what we’re supposed to be doing in this Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy.

As I thought would happen, it seems to me that we don’t hear too much about the Year of Mercy lately. We human beings have such short attention spans—for many people it seems to have been a ‘two months of Mercy’, and then let’s move on to something else. Like, I don’t know, Donald Trump or something.

But the Year goes until Christ the King, so let’s try to keep mercy at the forefront And here we are in the very heart of the year, with Mercy Sunday just around the corner. And this whole Octave of Easter is all about celebrating the victory of mercy, the victory of God’s love in the world, lavishing life in the place of death, shining light into the innermost recesses of darkness and gloom, and above all pouring out God’s forgiveness of sin upon all humanity. Mercy has been given us, and it has been given us by the Risen Lord Jesus.

And so we come to the spiritual work of mercy that is most divine in nature of all of them: to forgive offences willingly. It is more than appropriate to contemplate this work of mercy in the very Week of Mercy, the week when we all are basking in the joyful fact that God has forgiven our sins through the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

It is a formula so simple and logical that a small child can understand it: what has been done for us, we must do for one another. God sees us in all our un-glory, all our warts and open wounds, all our roughness and sharp edges, all our deliberate choices to not love, to not obey, to not do what is good and right. He sees all that, and His response is to extend mercy to all humanity. We have to accept that gift, and the acceptance of that gift is our repentance, our contrition, our prayer for forgiveness. 

But let us be very clear—the offer is made, the gift is extended, mercy is real and is there for every human being no matter how wretched and corrupt their life has become.

What God is for us, we are to be for one another. It is that simple. So we must forgive one another—we must, absolutely. Forgive one another in the small things of life—the little annoyances, the hurtful comments or thoughtless acts. And forgive in the big things of life, too—the deep wounds others have inflicted on us either culpably through malice or selfishness, or through some incapacity, blindness, or negligence.

The small things are easier to forgive, but not always that easy. It is easier to store up resentments, to keep a close account of just how crummy this person is treating me, just in case I decide to strike back at them at some point. You know, present them with how big an account they’ve run up, and demand payback.

Forgiveness in the small things is a work we have to continually choose. Letting one another off the hook, as God lets us off the hook. With the big things, it is again a work, but it is a much deeper and more difficult work, one that extends over time and is part of a whole journey of healing and integration.

One cannot simply paper over a deep wound of life—abuse, say, or some terrible act of violence or malicious harm—with a facile “Well, I forgive that person.” You cannot put a Band-Aid over a severed artery, and you cannot blithely ‘forgive’ those major hurts of life.

But forgiveness must happen, in time, a necessary and vital part of the healing process. And I think that even as other things are happening—as one gets the help one needs to be healed of such wounds—that we can start nonetheless by praying for the one who hurt us, by choosing forgiveness insofar as we choose to return a blessing for a curse, good for evil.

There is much to say about this—more than I can say in a blog post. But in this fundamental choice we truly are acting as sons and daughters of our Father in heaven, truly embracing the immensity and beauty of our royal dignity and stature. And in that, declaring that our life is much bigger, that we are much bigger, than the wounds and hurts inflicted on us, the harm done to us by the other person.

And ultimately in this, both the small everyday acts of forgiveness and the commitment to the big acts of forgiveness, we are choosing to have our life be about making manifest the love and mercy of God in the world. And this is Christianity, this is what it is to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. So let’s do the best we can today, and show forth his mercy by being very merciful to everyone we meet.

Monday, March 28, 2016

This Week in Madonna House - March 20-28

Christ is Risen, alleluia! Truly, He is Risen, alleluia! Such is the refrain ringing through the chapels, dining rooms, highways and byways of Madonna House the past two days. It is Easter, and we are celebrating.

Celebration for us means... well, pretty much what it means for anyone anywhere. A little bit of time off from work. Nice food. Decorations. And beautiful, beautiful liturgies done up with maximum solemnity and care.

Getting here was, of course, a lot of work on many levels. Holy Week in Madonna House is a time of great beauty, profound traditions, and an awful lot of elbow grease and sweat on the brow. Palm Sunday we began with our usual procession from the dining room of St. Mary's to the chapel, with banners and candles and cross. All crowding into the foyer in front of the chapel until we sing those magic words, "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, lift up your gates and sing..." and the doors fling open and we all stream into the church, symbol of the heavenly Jerusalem, led by Christ in the person of the priest.

The three weekdays of Holy Week all had their own busyness and special quality. Monday was our communal penance service, always a very precious time for us, when the whole community together enters into the mercy of God in a very basic and elemental way. Tuesday, many of us went to the Chrism Mass in Pembroke to celebrate the mystery of the sacramental priesthood and the blessing of the oils with our local bishop, Michael Mulhall, and the larger diocesan church. Every year, for me, this event has deeper meaning and import.

Wednesday evening we all gathered together to dye the Easter eggs which feature as part of our post-Vigil festivities. Our handicraft people have managed to develop ways of egg dying that ensure really beautiful eggs no matter the talent or lack thereof of the dyers. I have absolutely no skill in this matter, so stick to a form of tie-dying that yields very nice results. Others use a drop-pull method involving melted crayons on spoons mounted over candles and... well, it sounds a bit weird when I put it that way but the results are remarkably good.

Of course there is ferocious activity in the kitchen, the handicraft, the library, the laundry all through these days, to prepare for the Sacred Triduum.

Which began on Thursday with our 'Supper of the Lamb', a simply gorgeous ritual meal (not a Seder supper, but influenced by that Jewish sacred ritual), where the farmers process in a whole lamb, roasted, to make very visible and tangible Christ the Lamb who was slain. Readings and prayers taken from the Office and the Gospel of John bring home the sacred importance of the day, and a simple (but delicious) meal of lamb, bread, and wine, links together the Eucharistic mysteries with the agape love of the community.

I was the celebrant of the Mass that evening, and had the privilege of washing the feet of six of my MH sisters as well as six of my brothers, that particular rubric having changed this year.

Good Friday brought us hot cross buns for a simple breakfast, the traditional 'clacker' replacing the bells that normally signal the beginning and end of meals, said bells being a symbol of joy that is muted on that day. The afternoon service was one familiar, I am sure, to all readers of my blog. I myself was out in a parish on the Quebec side of the diocese for it--other priests were out helping in parishes as well for various liturgies.

Friday evening we had the Burial of Christ service, the Jerusalem Matins of the Eastern Church--a rich and beautiful service in which the lamentations of grief and loss yield slowly to the dawning hope of the resurrection, but still in a mode of solemnity and sober reflection.

Saturday morning at Lauds this mingling of sadness and hope continued as we sang the Byzantine hymn, "The Lord awoke as one asleep, and arose, saving us," a favourite moment for many of us in our movement towards Pascha.

The Vigil had the special gift this year of one of our guests making her profession of faith and being confirmed in the Catholic Church. We opt to go big for the Vigil--all the readings are read, and we take our time with every last rite. So it lasts about two and a half hours, and we settled into our post-Vigil collation around midnight, cracking together the eggs we had dyed a few days previously while proclaiming 'Christ is Risen! Truly He is risen' to one another. And then... the feasting began, and it hasn't stopped yet.

Yesterday and today (and tomorrow, too!) are days off, with nothing on the schedule but evening Mass followed by supper. People can sleep, go for walks, play games, hang out... eat when they want and do as they please within reason. In MH, where our ordinary life is very good and wonderful, but also very regimented, this is the great modality of festivity for many of us, to be a little less scheduled like that. And eating lots and lots of good food, especially the koolitch bread and paska spread that are our special Easter foods.

So that's most of it--all of the above of course required enormous work from everyone, so we are all a bit tired, but very joyful in it. The weather added a wrinkle, as we were hit by that same massive snow and ice storm that most of North America got, on Holy Thursday. The days since have been favourable to the sugar bush, and so many have gone up there on the days off to help collect the huge runs of sap that are flowing daily right now.

And that's that. Please be assured that as we go about all these most festive and joyful days of the year, our prayers and love are offered up for the world, and particularly for those suffering at this time. May Christ's Resurrection be in the end victorious in every human heart and win the world to the Gospel of mercy and love.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

The Meaning of Easter

And... since I seem to be in a bit of a 'bloggity' mood right now, here is the homily I will be sharing with the good folks in Otter Lake QC this evening, for your Easter reflection:

This liturgy, so filled with beautiful words, does not perhaps require a very long homily from the celebrant. We have heard, through the proclamation of the great Exultet, the Easter Proclamation that I was privileged to offer you (and I hope my French was not so poor that you were unable to understand me!), through the beautiful readings of this liturgy, and through above all the Gospel of the Resurrection of Christ, we have heard the message loud and clear: Christ is risen from the dead, and the world is reborn, recreated, in the glory and light of his Resurrection.

But the question may emerge at this point, after all this verbiage, all these words presenting us with this proclamation. Namely, ‘so what’? What difference does it make? What’s it about, really? Is it just a fabulous story of some amazing thing that happened 2000 years ago? Did it really happen at all? Is it just some sort of symbol of something or other – new life or some such thing? And what’s it all got to do with us – what practical difference does it make in your life and my life and the life of the world in the year 2016?

Well it is an amazing thing that did happen 2000 years ago, that’s for sure. And it is deeply symbolic as well – the Resurrection of Jesus has profound meaning for you and for me and for everyone, whether we always know it or not. But it is more than a symbol, and more than a historical event. It seems to me that the one word that sums up what Easter means for us, the difference Easter makes for us, is the word ‘hope’. Because of Easter, because Jesus died and then rose from the dead, really, we have hope. Real hope. Indestructible hope. Hope that endures not only for this life, but beyond it into eternity.

And hope is the deciding factor in the world. Those who have hope are the ones who can make the real difference in life, can make the kinds of choices we need to make if, in the year 2016, love is to overcome hate, and light is to overcome darkness.

It is hope that gives us the strength to do this. And the Resurrection of Christ gives us hope. How? Because in this resurrection, into which we enter and have a share in by baptism and persevere in by the life of grace nourished by the sacraments and by faith, we know that death is not the end of the story.

Every human life is a story; every human being has a story to tell. Some stories are happy and prosperous and filled with sunshine and laughter; other stories are filled with tragedy and sorrow. But all human stories seem to have the same ending, regardless, and that ending is the grave. Seemingly.

But the Good News is that there is One who has entered the grave, entered the tomb, and found the way out again. Because He is man, He could die, and did die. Because He is God, He conquered death and rose, and is alive. And He is here in this Church. And we eat His Body and drink His blood, and He lives in us. And because of that, when we die, our story does not end, but a new story begins, a story that has no end, and is all joy and beauty and glory.

And so we have hope. And because of that hope, we can persevere in love, in charity, in kindness, in goodness, in living the Gospel of mercy to the very end of life no matter what it may cost us. Because life for us is not a dreary trudge towards the grave, but is lived bound for heaven and for eternal joy and glory, we can lay down our lives for one another and for the world, like Christ did. And it is this kind of love and mercy and generosity that the world needs so desperately in the year 2016, and it is this love and mercy and generosity that the Risen Lord Jesus wishes to give us this Easter. Amen.

Happy Easter

Well, after the long Lenten fast from blogging, I will indeed be resuming the regular blog shortly. I may not quite get to the 'week in review' tomorrow, though, it being Easter Sunday and all.

But I just stumbled across a blog post from four years ago that spoke to me today. I am shortly off to celebrate the Easter Vigil in a parish on the Quebec side of the diocese, celebrating it in both our official languages, to boot.

So the words of the Easter Exultet, the great proclamation of the feast, are much in my mind these days, and here is something I wrote about it a few years ago, reprinted in full in this post. Here it is, and a most happy and joyful Easter to you all:

I would like to add one more thought about light and illumination.  On Easter night, the night of the new creation, the Church presents the mystery of light using a unique and very humble symbol: the Paschal candle.  This is a light that lives from sacrifice.  The candle shines inasmuch as it is burnt up.  It gives light, inasmuch as it gives itself.  Thus the Church presents most beautifully the paschal mystery of Christ, who gives himself and so bestows the great light.  Secondly, we should remember that the light of the candle is a fire.  Fire is the power that shapes the world, the force of transformation.  And fire gives warmth.  Here too the mystery of Christ is made newly visible.  Christ, the light, is fire, flame, burning up evil and so reshaping both the world and ourselves. 

“Whoever is close to me is close to the fire,” as Jesus is reported by Origen to have said.  And this fire is both heat and light: not a cold light, but one through which God’s warmth and goodness reach down to us.

The great hymn of the Exsultet, which the deacon sings at the beginning of the Easter liturgy, points us quite gently towards a further aspect.  It reminds us that this object, the candle, has its origin in the work of bees.  So the whole of creation plays its part.  In the candle, creation becomes a bearer of light.  But in the mind of the Fathers, the candle also in some sense contains a silent reference to the Church.  The cooperation of the living community of believers in the Church in some way resembles the activity of bees.  It builds up the community of light.  So the candle serves as a summons to us to become involved in the community of the Church, whose raison d’être is to let the light of Christ shine upon the world.

Let us pray to the Lord at this time that he may grant us to experience the joy of his light; let us pray that we ourselves may become bearers of his light, and that through the Church, Christ’s radiant face may enter our world (cf. LG 1). Amen.
Easter Vigil Homily, 2012

Reflection – We were all quite happy this year to see the bees restored to the new English translation of the Exultet. The light of the candle is once again “fed by melting wax, drawn out by mother bees to build a torch so precious.”

What an extraordinary image this is, what a poetic genius the anonymous Latin author of this hymn was, and what a powerful interpretation Pope Benedict gives it in this Easter homily.

When you look at the Paschal Candle in your church, do you think of it as a summons to become involved in the community of the Church? I have to admit, that thought has never remotely crossed my mind… but it will now.

‘This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine…’ That’s a catchy and very sweet song, but the theology in it is lousy, you know. The light is not mine. It would be better to sing ‘This little wax of mine, I’m going to let it burn.’ Or, ‘This little life of mine, I’m going to let it die….’ so that Christ’s life in me may shine out.

And that all our little waxes may melt together to create, not just  flickering flame that burns for a minute and then dies, but a torch, a fire, a blazing firebrand illuminating the night of the world not for a minute but for millennia. This is the Church.

Each of us is a ‘mother bee’ (yes, I know that only the queen bee is literally a mother in the hive), bearing in our lives that little bit of wax, that little contribution of sacrificial love that goes into the Candle. To each of us, in ways impossible to understand, predict, or control, the light and fire of Christ comes. We grow warm, we melt, our lives are taken up into this light and fire. We become part of the light of Christ shining into the darkness. This is our Christian faith; this is Christianity.

I was serving at a retreat this past weekend where a speaker challenged the retreatants, “What does it mean to be Catholic?” My own answer, which I gave in my homily yesterday, was that it means we believe that Jesus is alive, that He gives His life to us by the gift of the Spirit, and that this life given to us is one of love and mercy for the whole world.

This little light of His – I pray that it may shine, may it shine, may it shine, may it shine. There – I fixed the theology, even though I ruined the rhyme. Can’t have everything.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

This Week in Madonna House - March 13-19

Well, I'm not quite sure what to put in this column today. Happy Passion (Palm!) Sunday to you all. Life in Madonna House has been intensely busy, but it is pretty much all about the immediate preparations for Holy Week. The cooks, the choir, the librarians, and the handicraft people (the latter two of whom manage the house decorating) have been in high gear getting ready for this most sacred and intense time of year.

Meanwhile we priests have been busy in liturgy preparations and also helping out in some local parishes with Lenten reconciliation services.

The men are busy to some degree with Holy Week preparations, but also simply with their usual round of work keeping this place heated, the cars on the road safely, and all other matters of physical infrastructure what they should be. The sugar bush is not running this week, as temperatures have gone back down into sub-zero ranges. This is good, though, as it will prolong the season further when it does warm up again. Among the men's work was a planning meeting for some imminent renovations to be done to our women's guest dorm, due to start after Easter when our guest numbers tend to go down.

Right now the women's guest dorm is pretty much full, while the men's dorm is... not so much. What's wrong with you guys? Don't you know what an awesome place MH is? We have a few really wonderful long term men with us now, but not too many coming for shorter stays. To be honest, I always feel like people are missing out on so much--our life is pretty incredible here, you know! So if you are a young man (19-35) or know a young man who might benefit from a stay at MH... well, we have room, is all I'm saying.

But to be honest, I'm not sure what to say about this time of year. It is very busy and full, but there's not much to tell. Lots of cooking and cleaning and sorting and organizing.

We did have a lovely feast day of St. Joseph just yesterday, a feature of which was a display of photos of all the lay men staff of MH. He is the patron saint of our laymen's department, and so we honor them in a special way on this day. We had a festive Mass in the morning followed by coffee cake at breakfast, and then in the evening a truly epic feast-day supper with all the trimmings.

And... well, that really is about it, to be honest. Sorry for the lousy blog post this week, and I do fully intend to return to the regular blogging schedule after Easter. Know that we are united with all of you in prayer and in worship as we journey through this most magnificent and sacred season of the year towards the joy and delight of the Easter feast. I hope to meet you at the Upper Room, Calvary, and the Empty Tomb!

Sunday, March 13, 2016

This Week in Madonna House - March 6-12

So, to get the big news item out of the way first… another week, another sobornost! Last week I mentioned that the Madonna House women’s department had completed their election, and that Elizabeth Bassarear had been elected by sobornost, that is, by unanimous ballot, to be the next director general of that department.

This week it was the turn of the MH priests, and I am happy to report that we have elected Fr. David Linder to be the next DG of priests, succeeding Fr. David May in that position. So in a period of about five months all three branches of MH (the lay men completed their election in November, with Larry Klein being elected) have reached this beautiful gift of sobornost, of unity of mind and heart, in the matter of electing our leaders for the next four years. Elizabeth will begin her term of office in November, and Fr. David his term in late July.

So of course all of that is a great gift and a great joy for us. The MH community really is unique in that we elect our directors by unanimous ballot, but we consider this to be a vital part of our spirituality, the call to a unity so profound that it can only come from God. And it is always a holy thing when this unity is expressed in something so concrete and practical as an election, so it has been a ‘thrice-holy’ time in MH lately.

What else is going on? Well, for the men’s department, the sugar bush is the big push. 1500 taps are in, and the sap is flowing freely. Weather conditions have been ideal for this—below freezing at night, and warm sunny days. They have already done their first boil, and the buckets and vats are filling up, literally, as I write these words and you read them.

The warm days also means major thawing of snow, and so of course it is the season of flood control, lots of little trenches being dug into the ice to ensure that water flows away from the buildings, not towards them.

For the women, preparations for Easter continue apace. One of our applicants working in the kitchen asked the woman in charge of the kitchen something about the liturgies for Holy Week. She answered that she really couldn’t remember what we do… but she could remember in detail the menus for each meal. In other words, the kitchen is stepping into high gear for the great feast days of the year. St. Raphael’s has been a place of pysanky making, the Ukranian Easter eggs being a large part of our paschal décor. They also have quite a bit of other work to do getting ready for the Triduum. The sacristans also are hard at work preparing for this busy time.

Basically the men are dealing with what’s gushing at them in the here and now, while the women are all getting ready for what will be gushing at us in a couple weeks time. And the priests have been running around doing missions (I was giving one locally this week, for example), and also getting ready for our own Triduum responsibilities. We will be helping out in some of the parishes in the diocese which lack resident priests.

So we are much in the moment and its duties these days. Meanwhile, the seasons are changing in other ways. The applicants and staff have both ended their classes for the year; the guests will have their last class on the Catechism this coming Wednesday. Our gardeners are busy doing early spring work: the apple trees are being pruned, and the lettuce is planted in the greenhouse.

So it’s a pretty busy time around here these days—all of this is going on against the backdrop of our ordinary work, all the little and not-so-little stuff that is getting done here day in and day out. It is really a beautiful and vibrant season of the year here, with much expectancy and joy even as we pass through the final weeks of Lent. And know that we are praying for all of you and lifting up our troubled world to the throne of God through it all.