Monday, December 8, 2014

The Immaculate Conception



Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception


Over the break I went to the movies to see The Theory of Everything. The title was quite promising.

The movie starred Eddie Redmayne and I have always liked him. It also had Felicity Jones. She seems like a nice, quiet person. She probably isn’t after all she is an actress.

The movie was about Stephen Hawking.              

Seemingly he knows everything, or at least the theory of everything, but I have known for a while that he does not because he does not believe in God. The movie was very well made. Eddie and Felicity didn’t disappoint, but I found it a bit depressing because it seemed to have at its core an essential lie, the falsehood that you can fail to acknowledge the supremacy of God and still find the truth.

Today we celebrate the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. It may seem a rather esoteric festival, a theological peculiarity, particularly in light of the earthiness of this season, the earthiness of a poor couple wandering the earth in search of home, the hominess of the King of the Glory silently insinuating himself into the womb of a poor Jewish girl.

The solemnity today may seem rather theological in the raw sense of the word, if we don’t have a pretty firm image of St. Ann and St. Joachim, the old couple whose life was incomplete without the little girl who would be their destiny and the destiny of the nations and the ages.

Today we celebrate a spark, a moment in time when the world was changed forever.
Today we celebrate something different. Today we celebrate not something that was. Today we celebrate what will be. Today we celebrate more, we celebrate what we have become.

What have we become? What do we want to become?
We want to be good, but sometimes we find it to be a struggle.
We want to be holy but sometimes I can’t resist temptation.
We want to be healthy, but I love Chicago’s pizza.
We want to be smart, but I absolutely cannot read for more than five minutes at a time without groaning.
Groan away, for today we celebrate a gift that leaves Mother Earth groaning, humanity groaning, angels groaning, hell groaning.
That gift of God brothers and sisters is the heart of the theory of everything. It is everything. And it is so simple. And it is so complete.

During this season of the year, I like to meditate on my favorite Christmas carol. I know it’s not quite time yet but I love it and we never sing it in this country. It’s not even in our books. It’s called “In the Bleak Midwinter”.

The words are by the Victorian poet Christina Rossetti. Her brother was the famous artist, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, but you don’t need to know that. Here are the last two verses. To me, they capture this season perfectly.

Angels and archangels
May have gathered here
Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air
But only his mother
In her maiden bliss
Worshiped the Beloved
With a kiss

What can I give him?
Poor as I am
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb
If I were a wise man
I would do my part
Yet what I can I give him
Give my heart

Brothers and sisters in light of the mystery, can we like Ann and Joachim, can we like Mary, can we open our hearts, can we give our hearts?
Can we put aside any petty differences we have?

Can we blush with embarrassment at the revelation that God’s time and our time, kairos and chronos have become so intertwined in a single act of fiat that we are forever treading clouds, treading the treadmill of eternal reunion that has yet to happen, will happen, is happening?
Can we see we see in the stare of this one and that one, can we see in their stares, through the streaking tears which speak of temporality. Can we see in our brother’s and sisters’ stare the fever of pure wonder, a fever that we pray from which we may never be delivered?

Can we see in the bread and wine, can we see in the beauty, the comeliness of the bread and wine, the soul of humanity and the substance of divinity written embryonically as the devil’s nemesis, the precious virgin of Nazareth?

Can we can? Will we will? Will our wills will?
Will we find out not too late that it’s not about scraping and wrangling? It’s not about your taste or my lack of taste? It’s not about any of that stuff we think is so important, so limitlessly dire.

It’s about a simple spark, a moment in time in which everything was changed forever.


Will we turn our lives over to God like Ann and Joachim did, like Mary did, like the baby Jesus did?

Brothers and sisters, will this day mean anything or is it merely the theory of everything that intrigues us?

Will we fly on snow clouds up to the throne room of the heavens and look around and think: This looks like a sandstone room. Will we see our brothers and sisters here, the teachers, the staff, the cleaning folks, the visitors, the cooks? Will we see them doing their jobs and blush to have stumbled upon angels unaware? Will we give our hearts, freely to God, freely to one another, those known and unknown?

I know that the fellow in The Theory of Everything, Stephen Hawking, might know everything. He might, I don’t know him. But this I do know, if he doesn’t believe in God, he knows nothing of significance.

I saw another film over the break called Cloud Atlas. I read the book a while back and at first I thought I liked it and then I thought I didn’t and then I didn’t know which means it was probably a great  book. I saw the film and it was a roller coaster. I don’t recommend it and I really highly recommend it. It is about what happens when you finally give in and leave “godding” to God. It tells a long story about realizing that you are caught up in a drama that you didn’t write and that’s also ok.

It’s about how we meet mystery in the cold of a bleak midwinter and realize that a bed of straw looks a great deal like revelation. And then we are embarrassed at how the turning of the universe, its tuning, its truth is caught up in an old man and an old woman and an unexpected girl who had no power whatsoever and all the power there was, all the power there ever was caught in a moment in time, in the piercing act of one immaculate conception.

The author of Cloud Atlas said it well: There ain’t  no journey that don’t change you some.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Advent Week 1 Monday


Advent Week One - Monday

We are just inside the door of Advent. Today we stand on the threshold of a new liturgical year and at the end of a formation term. Some people believe that new years are the time for making resolutions. This does not always work so well. Not that resolutions are not important, they are. It’s just that the so often these kinds of resolutions fail to pan out, and then we lose hope.

And yet Advent is a season of hope. The majestic first reading today sets the tone:

From Zion shall go forth instruction and the Word of the Lord from Jerusalem.

There is so much hope in this season of dreariness, a hope that rings out in the darkness like bells before buckets on street corners. It is a season of hope.

Advent also seems to me to be a season of power, retiring yet potent power.

I have the image of Mary, so young and frail braving the desert sands to go to Bethlehem to fulfill the kingdom of this world which has surreptitiously become the Kingdom of God and it started very small.

It started small, but it is a season of faith in smallness.

The centurion in today’s Gospel surprisingly knew that. He knew he needed only to get a nod, a movement of the Divine hand or will to accomplish untold miracles. He had faith when the faith of those around him failed. That faith cured his servant.

I think this centurion is very interesting.

One, it is very interesting that it comes in the Gospel of Matthew because the Gospel of Matthew is all about the Jews. It is interesting to me that such faith should be found not in a Jew in Matthew but in a gentile. When I think about this centurion I have to ask myself: Is this Roman official going to show up later in the Gospel? Is he going to be casting lots for Jesus robe? Is he going to thrust his lance into the side of Jesus? Or is he going to be the one to offer testimony: Surely this man was the Son of God? Is he going to turn out better or worse because of what the Lord does for his servant today?

The second thing I find interesting about this Gospel is that Jesus has some power in this passage. Jesus has power and you know sometimes I think we forget that, or we try to second guess that. Jesus has power

Every day we say our prayers. Every day we pray for Jesus to do this or that. We say we have faith but you know, when push comes to shove we begin to question.

Jesus, are you going to help me out here or not?

Jesus I’m waiting. And we begin to get a little cynical about it, a little hard-edged about it don’t we?

But I want to say one thing today, one thing on this first Monday of Advent:

Jesus has answered your prayers already. Jesus answers your prayers the moment you ask him to, just as he did for this centurion in the Gospel today.

Jesus has already answered your prayers and the question of the day is: Are you ready to receive that answer?

Maybe you are, but I wager that if you are like me, you are not.

Jesus intends to answer your prayers and do it right away, just as he did for this centurion.

Jesus intends to answer your prayers but sometimes he needs to get us ready to receive that answer.

Jesus has already provided us with what we need, but are we ready to receive it?

Jesus has answered your questions, but can you hear that answer, can I hear that answer mired as we are in the mud of our own self-interest.

I can tell you this: Jesus is going to answer your prayer, but the real prayer that we have to offer is this.

Lord, let me know your will and let me do your will. Thy will be done. We pray it every day but we don’t believe a word of it and we don’t think we want it. But Jesus has answered all your prayers, all my prayers, now let us mature in the faith, let us rise to receive the answer our God has so richly provided

Truly Advent is a season of hope, a season of power, a season of faith, but …

I think Advent as a time of preparation, as a time of expectations remains foremost a questioning season even in the face of miracles like the one we have in today’s Gospel.

In this season, in the darkness that surrounds us, in the depths of hopelessness, things begin anew and the earth itself asks questions, we ask questions.

Who is the king of Glory, the Lord the valiant in war?

We ask: Who?

Who is powerful in this world? Will we ever see that person? Will that person move through the shifting sands of time as obscurely as the babe of Bethlehem?

Who is the most important person in my life? There is only one right answer.

Who holds the key of life and …

And we ask: What?

What if I could fly?

What if I could get up in the morning?

What if folks just dumped their wallets and purses into the Sunday collection?

What if angry people could pray, even in suffering rather than looting and stealing?

What if God is like Boutin?

What if God has a Ciganero blanket?

What if virgins had children?

What if voices cried in the wilderness?

What if the Lord of Glory ruled the world from a throne of straw in a stable?

What if you were my brother and you were my sister and we were all connected even over time because we have one Father?

What if

And we ask: When?

When Lord will you heal me of this affliction?

When will I finally discover who I am?

When will the Chicago Cubs win the World Series?

When will my parents respect me as a grown up?

When will I be free of caring what my parents think?

When will we see him face to face?

When will the Lord come again?

When is today?

And, of course, we ask: How?

How can my life be transformed by a man who lived 2000 years ago.      

How can the main course from Tuesday’s dinner ingeniously reappear as both soup and desert on Thursday?

How can an angel fit into Mary’s tiny house?

How can God become a little boy?

How can I become a little boy so as to see the greatness of God and angels?

How can I continue to ask the important questions of hope, power, faith?

How can I not only stand on the threshold but walk through the door.

The Lord has an answer for every one of these questions. He has an answer to every prayer.

He has called the nations to receive that answer and the answer is found for us in the ironic dialogue of the cross, the centurion’s weapon. Horizontal and vertical is his way and he hangs right there in the middle.

What can we say? We can say in the face of all these questions. Thy will be done.

We can say that or we can speak the words of that Roman official. We can say:

Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed

 

December


Reflections for December

I have a lot of odd images in my mind, that (fortunately) never make it into the public sphere. In this month of December, I am thinking about babies. Contrary to most folks, I do not find babies “cute”. In fact, I really do not know what “cute” means. I find babies mysterious. Not mysterious in terms of where they come from. I do know that. I find babies mysterious because no one really knows what they are thinking. Sometimes we think we do, for example, when they want to eat, or go to the bathroom. We know that, seemingly. But what about those odd grins, those suddenly bright eyes? Some cultures believe babies have a different sight or sense than the rest of poor mortal humanity. Entire mythologies have been constructed about babies. I love them and I find myself more intrigued as I get older, after all I am approaching (or have approached) grandpa age. In this month of December we are awaiting a baby. We also celebrate, in gleeful tandem the conception of that baby’s mother, Our Lady.  Rather than being a month of winding down, that inevitable slouching toward temporal oblivion, December is a month of gearing up. We are looking forward as much as we are remembering the long passed. December is full of Mary and Jesus. It is also full of Isaiah the prophet, of John the Baptist, the forerunner, of John the revelator, of Holy Innocents.  In December, I often think of the Holy Innocents. Undoubtedly as in their own day they get swept away in the tide of Messiah fever. I am sure they didn’t mind being swept away. They had somewhere better to go. One of the odd images that crowds my mind is that of the innocents. I think of all those babies in heaven wearing golden diapers and in their nursery countless others who seemingly never counted either. I think of the 54 million innocents killed by abortion so that parenthood could be “planned” and their parents could have a “choice.” December is the past and the future. We must acknowledge that the coming of Jesus was fraught with danger in the coldest month of the year. We must also acknowledge the very bad job we had and have of receiving him. We must acknowledge our sin in standing by in these past 40 plus years of legalized abortion and doing very little while these innocent souls and their confused parents were caught up in a whirlwind because God never forgets. If December is the month of expectation, I cannot wait for the day when I arrive in heaven.  There, tumbling out of the nursery will be all of these babies. Perhaps in heaven they won’t seem so mysterious. Perhaps above they can talk, those who never had voices while they briefly sojourned this earth. What will they tell? Perhaps they will tell their privilege in being ever like the Lord of Glory who comes to us in the mystery of a newborn baby, born of poor parents in an obscure place. Perhaps they will tell of their finally being wanted by God who is often as mysterious as baby. Perhaps they will offer us, finally, some true insights on the meaning of December’s hopes and dreams in the shadows of night. Perhaps they will. I know they will.

 

My Weekly Reader


My Weekly Reader

I started the month of November with Charles Taylor, A Secular Age. It was hard going but most definitely worth it. It is one of those books that require you to go through the paragraphs twice and then, move on.  I tried reading a little commentary book that someone had given me but I became more lost in the commentary than in the book, true of Scripture, true of Taylor. The very complexity of Taylor led me back to Cloud Atlas, a book I read several years ago. The book is by David Mitchell. He has a new book out called The Bone Clocks, which I have not put on my wading boots and read. Mitchell is obsessed with time. Cloud Atlas follows a number of characters from the 1700s until sometime in the far distant future (they are reincarnated). Ultimately I balk at the metaphysics but the book is really about redemption more than anything else. It mediates on how sometimes an act has consequences, both positive and negative over a long time. I then decided to try the film and somehow it worked out easier on film. If you get a chance to read Cloud Atlas, run, but read it while running. Speaking of the hard-to-read, I went to Mississippi with a group of seminarians. We had a grand time, or at least I did. The purpose was to visit Square Books in Oxford, a very worthy pilgrimage. We also went to William Faulkner’s place in Oxford, Roanoke. Let me tell you, there is nothing in the world I love more than Southern literature. Like Flannery in the Catholic mode, Faulkner’s writing has a heat in it (some would say an insanity) that comes from humidity. So decided to re-read for about the fifth time, Sanctuary.  I didn’t feel up to Snopes. When Popeye and Temple and Harace showed up, I remembered what “home” was. I think William Faulkner fought with his Southern roots. He certainly kept re-inventing himself, but breeding will out as they say down yonder. The trip to Oxford was glorious not only for Square Books but also lunch at the Atlas, chicken and dumplings and turnip greens and of course, pie. When I got weary of Billy, I turned to the other great Mississippi standby, Eudora Welty. Delta Wedding captures every southern cliché possible and there is nothing wrong because Mississippi cultivates clichés. I read through Delta Wedding and then looked at the autobiography. One thing I have always thought about Eudora Welty is that, unlike Flannery, or Walker Percy, or Thomas Wolfe, or even Faulkner, I have never really known what Welty was up to.

I went to Texas for Thanksgiving armed with various tomes of the South to keep me company as Thanksgiving was lived out. My mother had other ideas. We had a Madea marathon. If you don’t know about Madea, don’t worry. I now possess the collected video works. The problem with Madea is that after hours and hours of watching and listening, she starts to get to you. Again, if you don’t know what I’m talking about … run. After Madea, I re-read, Why I live at the PO by Eudora. I saw and understood. The next thing for me was a book Taryn recommended called The Dog of the South by Charles Portis. If I could have afforded to give up my head I would have laughed it off. The book is all about crazy people in Arkansas. I was glad to know they had their share as much as Mississippi. On Saturday, I flew to New York for an oblate meeting on Long Island. Coming home from the meeting, we passed through Great Neck and I thought about the Fitzgeralds.  I really, really don’t like The Great Gatsby, but I understand that the light is still burning. I might have liked to see the light.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Candidacy

For I am already being poured out like a libation,
and the time of my departure is at hand.
I have competed well;
I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.

We have lived through another election season. Midterms. I suppose the outcome was a great surprise. The large headlines and the exclamation points at least indicated so.

And now all of those candidates in the different races, except for one, have gone away disappointed. Billions of dollars were spent. Promises were made. Some were broken. Some will be broken. Signs were printed and thrown away. The signs were ditched, Mitch was not. Still, those forlorn candidates knew the rules. Only one could win, the others must lose.

What about our candidacy? What about the liturgy of the Church we celebrate tonight? What is fulfilled as we move forward toward Holy Orders? What promises will be made and broken? Who will win and who will go away disappointed? Brothers and sisters, there is little doubt, that even in so excellent and rarified an environment as Saint Meinrad, we are not immune to a bit of competition. We engage it daily, subtle and not so subtle, one-upsmanship, promises made, vows to be fulfilled, perhaps a little display of masculine camaraderie that might degenerate into bullying. But tonight we celebrate another kind of candidacy, a move toward Holy Orders that is, while not definitive, at least defining.

Tonight our brothers present themselves to the Church in a new and more intentional way. What is the nature of that presentation? For an answer, we need only look to the rite itself.
Do you resolve to complete your preparation so that in due time through Holy Orders you will be prepared to assume ministry within the Church?

It is a question about context. Will you find the meaning of your life, exemplified in the new status you will receive, will you find the meaning of your life in ministry and service, will you find the meaning in your life in your formation for the same?

The second question, then, blatantly asks are you resolved to give faithful service to the Church? Is that not the reality that I am constantly harping about?

Tonight you present yourself to this community of faith, a microcosm of God’s Church, drawn from every nation and language, you present yourself to the Church as one who is willing to be a deacon and later a priest.

What will be the markers of success? I think there are three: 
The first is a dangerous life of prayer. There are three things that the Church requires of its priests: celebration of the Eucharist, celebration of the sacraments and prayer. There is nothing else that you are preparing for, so plan to give to these things your all. Give until it hurts.

Prepare yourselves for a life lived on your knees before God on behalf of the people you serve. Our ordination prepares us for this and demands this of us: pray regularly, constantly before the mercy seat of God.

Saint Paul tells us in the first letter to the Thessalonians to: Pray without ceasing for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

The time has passed for you to be considering your commitment to a life of prayer. The time has long past for you to be lamenting your inability to pray, to get up in the morning. The time has passed for preparations. Now is the time for action. Pray until it hurts, not for yourself or your needs. Pour out your love, your life of prayer on behalf of the Church you have promised, will promise to pray for without ceasing.

Give your time to God. It is amazing to me that men have so much difficulty paying attention to our Lord in prayer for 15, 30 minutes, one hour, when they can give their undivided attention to a football game for hours on end. Where is the passion for prayer that we pour out on sports, on politics, on the crazy things that happen in our classes, on harping and griping with one another?

Your generosity in prayer is the marker of your success. And brothers, it is dangerous. It requires something of us, not only our time, but our souls, our lives. I have nothing to do all day except celebrate the sacraments and serve God and I do that best on my knees. Wear out your knees; have knee replacements not because of too much running but because of too much kneeling before the throne of the almighty, a throne mightily insinuated for us in this chapel, before this tabernacle. Here is the Holy of Holies our ancestors in faith worshipped before and died to preserve. Here is the altar of rough stones, that is, the new covenant spoken of in the Book of Maccabees. Here is the temple not made by human hands, that sanctuary of God. Give your life to God in its mighty shadow.
Live a dangerous life of prayer and never look back. Never count the cost. Die in your vestments and you will have lived a most successful life.

Second: Service until death. Brothers and sisters, there is nothing more beautiful in this life than to serve one another. We live to serve. It is a cheerful service. If we compete with one another, it is in service. We live it in hospitality, the desire to open my life and my room to all who come. We live it in volunteering, in doing small things with great love, in setting up the dining room, in cleaning the chapel, in preparing food, in the formal ministries we exercise and the informal ministries that are as close to us as our beating hearts.
From a human standpoint, service until death is built on three things: giving, giving and giving.

For I am already being poured out like a libation,
and the time of my departure is at hand.
I have competed well;
I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.

The faith and the service we are called to is not divisive. It does not know strangers. It does not evaluate need according to creed. We do not make radical decisions about personal orthodoxy and then persecute those we find unworthy. We do not carry on heated conversations in our rooms that we would be embarrassed to offer in the chapel.

The life of discipleship and priestly service is the action of the Good Samaritan who sees the problem and promises to fix it, paying back all those who have helped him on his return. Service fixes us in the inn of life and it places us there with everyone, literally everyone, even those who deride, who hate our faith. Whenever I think of the inn, I think of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and the way in which Chaucer illuminates the life of the Church through the image of rough pilgrimage.
Our lives as ministers of the Gospel present us in the inn with the poor, with the unloved and unlovely, with the heretic (and let’s face it, that is most of us and usually the ones pointing the finger most strongly). It is with the stupid, the pitiable, the leperous, the unacceptable, the barbed, the uncultivated. Continue the list.

And we make lists, don’t we, of those who are acceptable and those who are not? Perhaps we make lists here. This professor is acceptable; this one is not. This seminarian is orthodox and therefore okay; this one is not. Brothers and sisters, I reiterate to you what I have said often before. There is no doctrine worth preserving, no liturgical practice worthy of maintaining when charity is tossed out the window. Ideology that is soundly Catholic, solidly Christian, is an ideology built on service.  I can preserve the purity of the faith all day, but if that rarified quality is maintained in a palace surrounded by the ditches of neglect, suspicion and even abuse, then that palace must be destroyed. And I can assure you it will be torn down.

If you are living your priesthood ideologically, if you are preparing for an ideological priesthood, you are not living the priestly life at all – you are purchasing a one-way ticket to hell. And all of your agenda-driven mess will make no difference if it conducts you to that place where the fire is never quenched and the worm dies not.

But we do not need to fear that here. Here we see men who are dedicated to pouring out their lives in service. As rector, through these years, I have never asked a man to do something that he failed to do. I hope I never have the experience, but rather that the ready step of service inclines him in the direction of the ditches of life where there are so many to be cared for, so many to be wrapped in caring arms, so many to be brought to the inn of the Church for merciful deliverance.
Finally, build a community of love. Building a community of love means going out of your way for the one whose attention warrants not one second of your time in your mottled opinion. Building a community of love means primarily not tearing down. It also means seeking the lost sheep.
Seek the lost sheep.

Seek the atheist. Seek the liberal or conservative. Seek the divorced and remarried. Seek the dumb bunnies. Seek the complainer. Seek the noisy. Seek the nosey. Seek the poor. Do we even know the poor? Do we care about them at all? Are they the stray sheep, the one who got away? I can assure you we need not look far. Look to your families, your old friends, your fellow seminarians; look in the all-revealing mirror.

Seek the stray. Please God, we need to seek the stray because that stray sheep, brothers, is us. We are the one who got away and the Good Shepherd went looking for us and found us in the rolling hills of Southern Indiana. He found us in the crevices of the complex origami of our judgment.
Brothers, my sincerest prayer for you is that you will learn to find the love of God, that love for which you pray ceaselessly, that love which you serve to own. My prayer for you is that you will find that love in the mundane things of life, the tending to the flock and the sweeping of the floors.  Find God in the parish, in your presbyterates, your religious communities, your families, your daily lives.
The Holy Father says our concern must be for the marginalized. Let’s not make those folks the ones we marginalized in our judgmental priesthood, our delineating diaconate.

For I am already being poured out like a libation,
and the time of my departure is at hand.

I have competed well;
I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.

It is election season and we must run the race so as to win. We have been given a promise by Jesus the Lord that, in this real election, all of our candidates might be victorious, all might gain the promise of which they have so ardently campaigned, not only election to Holy Orders but with all of us eternal life.