Friday, April 29, 2016

The God We Have Been Given, Not The One We Would Make

Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.
I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched.
My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God…

It is zeal for your house that has consumed me;
the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me…
But as for me, my prayer is to you, O Lord.
At an acceptable time, O God,
in the abundance of your steadfast love, answer me.

With your faithful help rescue me from sinking in the mire;
let me be delivered from my enemies and from the deep waters.
Do not let the flood sweep over me, or the deep swallow me up,
or the Pit close its mouth over me.

Answer me, O Lord, for your steadfast love is good;
according to your abundant mercy, turn to me.
Do not hide your face from your servant,
for I am in distress—make haste to answer me…
I looked for pity, but there was none; and for comforters, but I found none.
They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.
Let their table be a trap for them, a snare for their allies…

I will praise the name of God with a song;
I will magnify him with thanksgiving.
This will please the Lord more than an ox
or a bull with horns and hoofs.
Let the oppressed see it and be glad;
you who seek God, let your hearts revive.
For the Lord hears the needy, and does not despise his own that are in bonds.
Let heaven and earth praise him, the seas and everything that moves in them.

For God will save Zion and rebuild the cities of Judah;
and his servants shall live there and possess it;
the children of his servants shall inherit it,
and those who love his name shall live in it.
Psalm 69

Reflection – Well, the psalms are back at it today with lamentation and cries of distress! This is actually only about half of Psalm 69; I have edited it for brevity.

This psalm is distinguished, though, for being one of the psalms applied to Christ in His passion. First there is the ‘zeal for you house has consumed me’, which is quoted in connection with his cleansing of the Temple (John 2: 17), and then the ‘for their thirst they gave me vinegar to drink’ of course recalls his sufferings on the Cross.

It is significant that we see in these very human, very plaintive and poignant cries of human suffering and distress, something of the anguish of God expressed in Jesus Christ. It is always the tragic tendency of human beings, in the face of this or that calamity or affliction, of this death or that illness, this impoverishment or that terrible injustice, to conclude that ‘God doesn’t care.’ It is, in its own way, a logical conclusion—if God cares so much about humanity, and about me, then why did He allow this to happen?

This psalm—but more importantly, the real historical event to which it points of the suffering and death of God in Jesus Christ—is the answer of God to the question of ‘do you care?’ It is not the answer we were looking for. We wanted God to say, “Well, of course I care, and so now I am going to instantly take all your sufferings away.”

He will in the end (such is our Christian faith) do just that (cf Rev 22), but for reasons of his own inscrutable Divine Wisdom, here and now He chooses to show His caring not by removing our sufferings but by entering into them Himself in the only way He could—by becoming a human being with a human body and a human soul—and transforming suffering from within.

Why He went this route, He has not really chosen to explain to us Himself. Philosophers and theologians have done yeoman’s service on His behalf, but I’m not sure He ever asked them to do it, to be honest. In my own personal spiritual life, whenever I have asked God plainly why this or that suffering has come to me or to those who I love, the only real answer I get from Him is ‘Trust me’, and I think that is the best one of all.

At any rate, and I say this with all reverence and faith, this is the God we have been given, not the God we would make up for ourselves. A God who does indeed fully intend to end human suffering, to wipe every tear away in the final state of things, but who here and now does not do that, but rather enters into it to share it and shape it and make it the royal road to the kingdom. Psalm 69 and the other psalms that are taken up into the Passion narratives bear witness to this, and this is their abiding value in our Christian tradition.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Abel, Abraham, and Melchizedek

Our Thursday journey through the Mass has now taken us deep into the Eucharistic Prayer, on the far side of the Consecration. And so we come to this little gem of a prayer:

Be pleased to look upon these offerings with a serene and kindly countenance, and to accept them, as you were pleased to accept the gifts of your servant Abel the just, the sacrifice of Abraham, our father in faith, and the offering of your high priest Melchizedek, a holy sacrifice, a spotless victim.

What’s this about, and what has it to do with us and how we are to live our lives? I will leave aside the repeated prayer that God look with kindness open our offering and accept it—this aspect of things has been well covered in this commentary already. And last week I covered the whole reality of Jesus Christ the holy sacrifice, the spotless victim.

So why do Abel, Abraham, and Melchizedek barge in here? What have they to do with what we are doing on this altar? And why these particular three, when the Old Testament is filled with examples of men offering various sacrifices to God? Why not Noah or Jacob or Elijah or David or Solomon?

To get that question out of the way, Abel was the first one recorded to make a acceptable sacrifice to God (Gen 4:4), Abraham’s sacrifice of his son Isaac (which God did not ultimately ask him to make) shows that God desires not merely this or that offering from us but faith and trust (Gen 22: 1-19), and the offering of Melchizedek, the mystery man, of bread and wine (Gen 14:18) has always been seen (and indeed is developed at length in the letter to the Hebrews) as an type of Christ and his priestly offering.

The three together root the sacrifice of the Mass, what we are doing here and now this day on this altar in this church, with this whole unbroken line of humanity, all flesh coming before God to seek communion with Him. We are so often such petty little creatures, wrapped up in our own problems and concerns, living like ants who cannot see anything beyond the immediate near horizon.

At this moment of the Mass we are called to know ourselves as part of the vast body of humanity, extended through time and space, a single entity made by God and for God, seeking God, at times rebelling and running away from God, yet perpetually returning to the source who made us, who loves us, and who desires us to enter this offering of love and communion.

By calling us out of the here and now and reminding us of our spiritual ancestors the Church calls us to solidarity with all humanity. I would suggest that this especially means being mindful of our solidarity with those members of humanity who may be outside the immediate body of believers, the Catholic Church, or even of the whole Body of Christ that are the Christians spread throughout the world.

All people, whether they know it or not, are called into this communion. Furthermore, all people of good will are striving one way or another for this communion, although they may call it by very different words and understand it quite differently. But anyone who is sincerely striving for the good, the true, and the beautiful is essentially bringing their goods to the altar of God hoping that He will find it acceptable, whether they would put it that way themselves.

We know that it is only in the offering of Christ that this hunger and thirst for the good, the true, the beautiful, for communion in love and the final transcendence of our humanity into divinity is realized. But we also know that our God is a merciful God and that He looks with great pity and tender concern on every human being He has made, and that the whole action of His grace in every human heart is ordered towards making that person’s life-offering one with the Life-Offering of the Son.

And so this little moment of the Eucharistic Prayer which we may wonder at, not think too deeply about, and then move on from, in fact calls us to a profound solidarity with every human being on the face of the earth, a deep prayer that the Lord will find us all acceptable in his sight, and that all flesh will at last come into the Temple of God and make to Him the sacrifice pleasing to Him, which is our faith and union with Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Let's Talk About Conscience

I would like to spend Wednesdays on the blog looking at some of the gnarlier questions of Catholic teaching and theology. I realize from both my priestly ministry of spiritual direction and my presence on Catholic social media that there is quite a bit of misunderstanding of Catholicism, even among Catholics. And of course some of the issues I hope to treat are hotly contested, widely rejected, and bitterly opposed. As those who know me and have read me for years know, that sort of thing only encourages me to keep writing about it. I don’t mind being disagreed with, but fiercely resist efforts to silence me.

Let’s start with something a bit less juicy, but fairly central in many of the hard questions of our day. Let’s talk about conscience. Now, in a single blog post I cannot do justice to the whole theology and philosophy of this matter, but let’s talk about why the Church insists on the primacy of conscience (cf Catechism of the Catholic Church 1782) and what that really means.

Conscience is the practical intellect, that part of our reasoning faculty by which, examining a decision that is to be made, we determine what is the good course of action, also known as the moral good. We determine the right thing to do, and we determine this right thing to do by the exercise of our conscience.

This is not moral relativism. Those Catholics and others who bridle at the mention of the word conscience are hearing it in a morally relativistic way, but that is simply not what the Church means by it. Using one’s intellect to determine what is the right and moral course of action is no different in essence from using one’s intellect to solve a math problem. You indeed have to do the solving (or, if you are using a calculator, you can have someone else do the solving for you), but nobody claims you can decide that 2 and 2 are five or that you can divide by zero and come up with a rational number.

And if you are doing math in the service of some practical project—building a house or paying your taxes—making mistakes in the numbers will have practical effects in the world. The house will fall down and kill you and your family; the taxes won’t get paid properly and there are legal consequences to that.

Conscience is much like that; we use our intellects to determine the right course of action. If we determine wrongly, and do something that is in fact morally wrong, we may be innocent in intent, but the wrong is still done. And actions are morally wrong, not by some arbitrary law given by a heedless Lawgiver, but because they are harmful to us. Some harms are immediate and obvious (reckless driving causes a crash) and some are long-term and gradual (smoking causes lung cancer), but the harm is done nonetheless.

It is absolutely vital that people exercise their consciences freely. Sometimes it comes up in pastoral ministry that a person wishes they didn’t have free will, that God would just tell them directly moment by moment what to do and even completely take over their volition. This is not the deal God has with us, though. The reason we must exercise our conscience is rooted in the very purpose and goal of God’s creative and salvific will for us. He made human beings so that there would be creatures of flesh, material creatures, who could freely choose to know Him and love Him, who could make a free choice to enter communion with Him and so give glory to God.

There is much more that can be said on that front (I hope to write a book about it some day). But that is the fundamental reason why conscience is primary and free will absolutely necessary. God does not violate us, does not force Himself on us, does not make us know Him and love Him (this is also why He hides Himself from us, painful as we find that hiding).

Conscience being free and primary does not do away with the moral law and with moral doctrine or teaching. That is really quite silly if you think of it. If I have a really hard math problem to solve, I am actually grateful to have a calculator, both to save time and to protect me from costly errors. And I trust the makers of the calculator to have created an instrument that provides reliable calculation.

Well, it is no different with conscience and morality. The ‘Maker’ of the moral law has provided us with a sure and trustworthy instrument to provide us with helpful guidance and answers, to save us from needlessly laborious moral reasoning and preserve us from deadly errors. And that instrument is the Catholic Church in its teaching office.

People often bridle at this. “So it comes down to just do whatever the Church tells you, then? Phooey!” Well, calm down there. For one thing, the Church is not telling me right now to write this blog post, nor is it telling you to read it. There are vast swaths of life we all live each day where we are making free choices that the Church offers us at best general principles to decide with (e.g., I should use my writing and intellectual gifts to help people, you should read helpful things).

The Church simply tells us that 2 + 2 = 4 and not 5. Sex is for marriage. Don’t steal - other people’s property is to be respected. Don’t tell lies. Don’t kill people. That kind of thing. Most of us can find quite a bit of freedom in our lives within the walls of the moral law; those walls enclose quite a vast estate of human action and choice.

Well, there is much more to be said about conscience – I wrote a whole series about it a while ago that you can access by clicking on the ‘talking about conscience’ label at the bottom of this post. But that’s more than enough for one day. My conscience is telling me to post this up and move on with the next duties of my state of life, and I guess I’d better obey it!

Sunday, April 24, 2016

This Week in Madonna House - April 17-23

Well, this week in Madonna House was a fairly quiet and ordinary one from what I could tell. To be honest, I was so busy in my own corner of things, catching up from my time away out West that marching bands could have been passing through the dining room daily and I might not have noticed it.

The sugar bush has ended for the year, the warmer weather finally bringing in something that resembles spring, more or less. And so the men who manage this operation have pulled the taps and buckets from the trees and are now in the process of cleaning everything—taps, buckets, barrels, lines—finishing up the final syrup making and bottling everything, and then putting it all away for the year.

All of which needs to happen because with spring of course comes the great push in the farm and in the gardens. In the gardens there is a great raking going on to clean up the ground for the new growth. The farm is just beginning the field work, and the vegetable gardens have begun the greenhouse planting (it is, of course, still far too cold at night for anything outdoors).

The lambing season ended with some unexpected late lambs born this week. I did not hear a final count on that. Speaking of the farm, while it is my firm policy on the blog not to mention names of my MH brothers and sisters, a number of transfers were announced this week involving it, and there is a whole shifting around in the MH laymen’s department as a result of those moves. The particular men who have worked on our farm have been doing that service in the family for many, many years, and it is good to see some new blood coming in to take on that vital work.

The MH women, meanwhile, had an afternoon of reflection this week, an unusual event for them. All of the community is in a real time of transition these days, with the change in our leadership having a ripple effect in the lives of many of the staff, and so it was good for them to come together and reflect on the essence of our life while going through the changes that are the business of the day.

For our post-lunch spiritual reading in this year of mercy, the community has been reading my book Going Home, on the parable of the prodigal son. I ran across this very fine article, though, on the problems of technology and the spiritual ramifications of those problems, and we spent two very good days reading and discussing it.

Well, I hardly know what else to say. We are awaiting the arrival of all the local directors of our various mission houses and will be beginning our annual meetings shortly. I am quite certain that there is work going on in all corners of the house, much of it concerning spring and the change of seasons, that I am blissfully unaware of. I myself am basically spending my days going from person to person, my many directees, to pick up the threads of spiritual direction after being away for ten days.

And in all of it, know that we are striving to love God and neighbor, and offer our lives through, with, and in Jesus to the Father as an oblation of love for the world.