Friday, November 8, 2013
Candidacy There is a good bit of foolishness in the Gospel tonight. We never think about these two parables, parables that lead to the third in this chapter of Saint Luke’s Gospel, the parable of the Prodigal Son. These two parables are also about prodigal things, lost sheep, lost coins. In overlooking them to get to the “good stuff” at the end of the chapter, or in over spiritualizing them, we may miss the point. Sure we get it that God is like the shepherd or that God is like the old lady. We get that. What we seldom get is how foolish they are. It is foolish to leave 99 sheep to look for one, but then God is foolish. It is foolish to spend the day looking for a lost coin. Of course, that is God. Is God foolish then? He must be. And he is foolish for a reason to tell us how to be more foolish ourselves. Are you prepared to be fools for God? Brothers and sisters, we must be. This evening I would like to take a bit of a different tactic as we look at the application of the principle of divine foolishness in our lives and in particular the lives of these men who will declare their candidacy for Holy Orders tonight. Lately I have been thinking a great deal about foolishness and thankfulness. Undoubtedly the season is upon us.. What in these days am I thankful for? I am thankful for my priestly life. The priesthood is not something I do. Like being a Benedictine, the priesthood defines me. It is written in my heart and mind certainly, but also in my limbs, in my actions. I think in the mind of every priest, no matter what he has to face there is always the conviction that being a priest is who I am. I can never put it aside. I feel in the priesthood a spiritual fatherhood, not in a paternalistic way, but in a heartfelt, perhaps heartbroken way. The spirit of the priesthood is engendered in love, not love for the loveable, but love for the erring, the troubled, the troublesome, the lost thing, sheep, coin, parishioners, or seminarian. The priesthood is first and foremost a passion for reality, for the tangible. This is experienced in what the priest does, make the Eucharist. In the Eucharistic celebration each priest has the audacity to hold up what for all appearances is a piece of bread and a cup of common wine and say, Here is God. That is real. It may also be seen in the world’s logic to be quite foolish. The priest must also look at the common things of life, the trials and misfortunes, the triumphs and victory. Again, foolish. He must say in every family situation, in every neighborhood reality, in the school, the funeral home, the store. He must say with his life: Here is God. Perhaps that is foolish. As a priest, I know God cares for you because I know God cares for me, even when I forget it. Priesthood is not something I do, it is the core of who I am, everything is about that reality. Everything centers on it and comes back to it even when I make wild jumps. Sin for me is neglecting my priesthood. Sanctity for me is fully living it. The value of my priesthood is not something that can be measured by the world. God can measure it. God does. It can never be summarized however even by all of the things I do. I know that I am a sinful man. We all are sinful. But I also know I am a forgiven man, my priesthood holds that promise for me. Fr. Julian recently commented on All Souls Day in his homily for the Latin Mass that he was looking forward to purgatory. He was looking forward to being made whole again. Priesthood is my way. Foolish. It is not the only way but it is my way to be saved. It also is the thing that leads me to understand that there is nothing more important than being saved. Can our brothers become candidates for that? Can they learn to be fools for God? What else is going on in this season of foolishness and thanksgiving? I am very thankful for the seminary. Being the rector of a seminary is not my job. It is also who I am. At least for now it is my mode of engaging m priesthood. I won’t say that it is all good times. Like life it is not. There are times of frustration, times to cry, times to mourn, times to feel a little sorry about things. But, O my, it is worth it. God has given me the honor of being the father of a community of 160 plus men of every age, varied ethnicities, quite varied eccentricities, faults and failures and almost hourly triumphs. What is it like to live daily in the company of 160 sons? What is it like to feel your pains? What is it like to experience your joys, even quite tangentially? It has a word to describe it. It is love. Most people would have a difficult time dissecting the presence of love in an all male community, but it is here in our community. That is not to say there is not a great deal of teasing and joking, sometimes quite practically. It does not mean that feelings don’t get stepped on every once in a while. It does not mean that there is no sense of failure or loss, theologically speaking it does not mean that there is no sin. There is always the ditzy sheep getting lost or the coin that throw itself away. Love means that we can find love, that through love we can clean it up. We can make it presentable, even precious quite precious to the world and most precious in the eyes of God. Every day I have the great privilege of watching my sons grow up (and some of you are older than me). As I get older I have begun to realize that you are the age of any sons I might have had. It feels natural. There is no one on this earth that can tell me that as I celibate I don’t know what fatherhood is. I know it in your sickness and your victory. I experience it in your laughter and doing crazy things. I understand it when discipline is necessary and it always hurts me more than it hurts you. I’m sure the shepherd had a few choice words for the lost sheep, but he knew and I know how good you are as well. I know it every day when I walk into the chapel and see you praying, or into the dining room and seeing you forget to use your napkins. I think I love you more in your failures than in your successes. Now that is foolish. You are all very different. All very unique, but I will claim you all, because God has given me the greatest vocation ever. He has given me seminarians, and faculty members, and staff who are so dedicated to what you do that it puts me to shame sometimes. God has given me a vocation that gets me up at 3:00 in the morning and makes me run and talk and lecture and joke belly-ache and cry until sometimes 11:00 at night and he has made me love it. He has made me love him through it. Now that is foolish. My brothers who will declare your candidacy tonight, I hope you have listened to this little bit of foolishness from your old rector. Not lost sheep or coins, but a few lost words and perhaps a few lost marbles. I’m not getting any younger you know. Tonight you are making your step into the world I have been so foolishly describing. As you move to make your candidacy, when it boils down, here is what I want to say to you: None of us lives for oneself, and no one dies for oneself. For if we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord; so then, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. And that, my brothers is foolish and it is the greatest vocation of all.
Tuesday, October 22, 2013
Where sin increased, grace overflowed all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through justification for eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. Growing up as a small Baptist child, this passage from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans was one that was drilled into my head. Of course, I used the King James version in my infancy. Where sin abounded, grace did much more abound. It doesn’t really matter. I think the point is clear. In our lives, we operate very much on a system of justice that metes out reward in a concomitant fashion. Say it more plainly Denis. We give back only as much as we receive. If you get a little, you give a little. Tithes are percentages. We might be much more at home, if we are honest, with the Old Testament principle of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. We like the ledger to look neat. And yet There is something profoundly wrong with the ledger. It is profoundly skewed. God has given us way too much. Life, talents, vision, the ability to do not only well but much more than well. God has given us the Son. The Son has laid down his life when he owned nothing on the ledger book. The reward of eternal life has been dumped on our head until we are likely to suffocate in its bounty And yet. We find it hard to give away. We horde our surplus like a miser pinching the last penny. We fail to offer to others what we have received. But that is not the worst of it. We also fail to believe, fail to accept the fact that we are gifted. I think about the book, The Help by Katherine Stockett. It is the story of the relationship between white employers (and families) and their black domestic “help” in the pre-civil rights south. The help effectively raise the children of their employers. There are countless scenes between the maid Abileen and the little girl she is raising. She perpetually tells the poor neglected child this simple truth: You is kind. You is smart. You is important. Is there any way that we can believe that God is holding us today and in his bounty is repeating continuously in our ear: You is kind. You is smart. You is important. We are always, ALWAYS, very willing to think the worst of ourselves, forgetting that we are a people picked up. God has paid an enormous price for us. We are kind. We are good. We are important. Can we believe? Can we be strengthened for service by what we receive here? There is sin here, but grace overflows all the more. Overflows from this altar into the hearts of faithful, lost people. I am going back to the psalm now: May all who seek you exult and be glad in you, And may those who love your salvation say ever, “The LORD be glorified.”
Wednesday, October 2, 2013
My reflections this semester on the New Evangelization have taken the track, in case you have not noticed, that we might learn something new by looking back at the past. In doing so, we have been looking at Catholic authors who have contributed to the conversation about how the Church understands itself. In the first conference, I looked at the work of Tolkien, and in the second, the writings of Flannery O’Connor. In this conference, I would like to examine an important issue, the cost of New Evangelization. I doing so, I will draw on the writings of an undeservedly, near-forgotten Catholic author of the early 20th century, Robert Hugh Benson. What is the cost of the New Evangelization? Recently, I have been invited to a number of parishes to give talks on the New Evangelization. They have no idea that they are asking for something about which I know very little. Yet, they want to know. Our Catholic people, our priests and deacons, want to know. There is an excitement about the idea of the New Evangelization even when there is little highly formulated knowledge of what it is. We think it’s a program. We think it is a matter of offering some sort of adult formation, or parish renewal. We think that it is something that can be accomplished and perhaps put aside. I think not. I hold that the New Evangelization must be understood as a reorientation of Church life. It is our finding not a new program, but a new way of being. At the recent faculty gathering at New Harmony, I was involved with quite a spirited discussion of the place of the Church in culture. No one will deny the real challenges that confront the Church in contemporary western culture. Some would hold that the key to gaining credence, if you will, for the Church is in the denial of culture as a prevailing medium. That is not possible. Too strong of a “divinization” or exclusivity of Church life is to deny the essential incarnational character of the Church. Not to challenge the culture carries the opposite problem: too great a humanization of Church life. The Church cannot exist without culture, but the question is whether it will merely engage the culture as a collateral flotsam or whether it will guide the culture to an authentically Incarnational spirit. These are some of the challenges we face today, challenges far more sophisticated than whether or not we will serve soft drinks at the first CRHP meeting of the year. It is a challenge that requires intelligent leadership. It is a challenge that cannot be realized without facing the cost. What is the cost of the New Evangelization? Here I would like to begin by looking at our guide for considering this question, Robert Hugh Benson. Benson was born in England in 1871. He died in 1914, on the cusp of the First World War. Benson was the youngest son of Edward White Benson, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Ordained as a clergyman of the Anglican Communion by his father, he later converted to the Catholic Church and became a priest. He wrote many novels, touching upon the English reformation, spiritualism, his own challenges in the Anglican Communion and, perhaps, most notably, the end of the world, a subject he explored in The Lord of the World. Benson’s writing has been largely forgotten today, a truly sad circumstance when his works, written over a century ago, still speak timeless truths for those trying to navigate a new world. The height of Benson’s literary output was in the critical years of the early 1900s. Benson presents an almost prescient appreciation for the character of modernity. His conversion, his exercise of the priesthood and his writing, however, did not come without personal cost. In most of his works, he uses the various characters in the novels to address the question of the cost of discipleship. Some critics have remarked that Benson’s characters are often merely variants of himself. Certainly, most of his novels display the real consequences of discipleship, consequences that can perhaps offer us some insight, struggling as we are with the cultural question in a new century. What is the cost of discipleship? First, I would say it is a personal cost, a cost to self. The core of self-understanding in our time, I believe, is highly in doubt. Never in the history of humankind has there been such a focused and intense reflection on the self. Almost every received value of the culture offers us the ability to reflect upon ourselves. We are constantly thinking of ourselves, how something impacts me, how the world must revolve around me. Values are judged by self-understanding. Everything in our culture, from educational methods to advertising, is geared toward the promotion of self. And yet, in spite of this tremendous focus, we understand ourselves very little. We are constantly bombarded with a message that we cannot seem to incorporate: the message of selfishness. We cannot incorporate it because, in fact, it is inimical with human being. In a word, the morbid self-regard perpetuated by culture is unnatural. We are not made for ourselves; we are made for others. We realize ourselves only when we realize ourselves in the presence of the others. The others do not tell us who we are, but they help us to discover who we are by the very fact of their being present to us, by our engagement with them, living with them, loving them. I would say the New Evangelization is a kind of Self-Evangelization – that is, reintegrating the self into the group. The New Evangelization touches at the very core of personhood, before we find the need to postulate specific doctrine, etc. The New Evangelization calls us back to an authenticity, alone in which we can make our progress toward renewal. We cannot have renewal of the Church as long as the human condition remains compromised by false ideologies. There is a very telling moment in By What Authority?, one of his historical novels, when Benson describes the conversion of mind of a man named Antony, employed by the Archbishop of Canterbury during the reformation in England. He seeks with all of his heart the renewal of the Church, but finally comes to realize that the renewal cannot happen until he is renewed, until his household is renewed. He cannot find conversion until he gives into the conversion of the whole, rather than the conversion of the one. This tension of group over singular conversion seems to be an essential component of the New Evangelization. What is the cost of discipleship? Second, I would say it is a cost of ideals. That is, it is the cost of false ideals. The New Evangelization is a re-evangelization of ideals, what we find most important in life. Sometimes this can be hard to gauge in a consumer economy. At a recent meeting I attended, there was a discussion of the question of marketing and consumerism. It was noted that, years ago, the way to sell anything was through some sort of sexual connotation. Today, there is a greater likelihood of marketing being geared around nostalgia, particularly a nostalgia for “American values.” What we see consistently is a desire to manipulate the ideals of a culture. Ideals, however, are not really able to be manipulated. True ideals are revealed. They are innate in the human person. We seek that which is true, beautiful and good. We “naturally” perceive falsehood, the innate and that which is evil. Our dilemma is being socialized into a set of circumstances that we naturally perceive as false. We begin to doubt our instincts. Everyone is doing it. An example of this is modern communication technology. We are told we live in the information age. We have at our disposal a vast array of digital data. We can find out anything by Googling it. And yet, we have to ask ourselves: Are we better educated? Are we better informed? Or perhaps more substantially: Are we better people than in the “bad old days” when we depended upon the World Book Encyclopedia for information. Please note that I am not a technophobe. I believe in the value of technology. I, in a sense, believe that technology is living up to its promise. What I doubt is that we are very wise in our use of technology. Are we better people because of a Facebook culture? Are we closer to our friends because we have a snapshot of what someone had for dinner? I believe that technology can help us to live up to our authentic ideals. The real question is: Do we want it for that? There is a wonderful moment, again in Robert Hugh Benson’s novel, By What Authority?, when a very well-educated Protestant young lady named Isabel comes as a neighbor to a recusant family in England at the time of Henry VIII. She is very knowledgeable about Scripture and yet, under the influence of a local family, willing to suffer for their faith in a time of persecution, she begins to see the inner logic of the Church, which touches the inner longing of the person. She acts contrary to everything she “knows” in accepting a faith that seems most natural to her, yet it is a dangerous faith. Benson anticipates the thought of Pope John Paul II. The Catholic faith fulfills the inner longings of the human person, a longing often repressed by the cacophony of external false prophets. Third, the cost of discipleship is the cost of duplicity, or rather the relegation of duplicity. We are told of our responsibilities in the faith from the earliest days of our formation. We are also told about the responsibilities we bear to the social or secular order. In our time, these two are finding an increasingly distant rationality, or relationship. In his work, perhaps his greatest work, The Lord of the World, Benson has two decisive moments that touch very readily upon our modern condition. He has a character named Mabel who is a typical product of her time. She is married to a government bureaucrat. She is an unbeliever. She never really asks deep questions of herself, her marriage or her world. She has a mother-in-law, however, who is an old-fashioned Christian. The old woman is a source of embarrassment for her clever, modern son and a source of confusion for Mabel. When the old woman dies, however, Mabel is thrown into a state of questioning. Can she believe all that she has been told by the social order? Is there more to life than the secular and the political? Did her old mother-in-law have some older wisdom that may have taken her to a place of peace after death? These questions haunt Mabel to the point that she checks herself into an institution, where she is offered an out – euthanasia, a common practice among folks of her time who are confused and doubtful of the received wisdom of the time. The time comes. She accepts her medicine, but at the moment of death she has a vision. Benson tells us: Then an amazing thing happened—yet it appeared to her that she had always known it would happen, although her mind had never articulated it. This is what happened. The enclosure melted, with a sound of breaking, and a limitless space was about her—limitless, different to everything else, and alive, and astir. It was alive, as a breathing, panting body is alive—self-evident and overpowering—it was one, yet it was many; it was immaterial, yet absolutely real—real in a sense in which she never dreamed of reality…. Yet even this was familiar, as a place often visited in dreams is familiar; and then, without warning, something resembling sound or light, something which she knew in an instant to be unique, tore across it…. Then she saw, and understood…. Is there a way that we can see and understand before the threat of death is upon us? There is another moment in The Lord of the World that also bears a quotation. In the story, we come to the end of time, not just an end, but the end. The Church has gathered in one place together with the Pope. They are having a time of adoration. Then the end comes: … He was coming—and already the shadow swept off the plain and vanished, and the pale netted wings were rising to the cheek; and the great bell clanged, and the long sweet chord rang out—not more than whispers heard across the pealing storm of everlasting praise…. and once more PROCEDENTI AB UTROQUE COMPAR SIT LAUDATIO …. Then this world passed, and the glory of it. Here Benson hits upon something profound. If there is to be an end to duplicity in the world, it must come through a divine means. We are unable to dig ourselves out of the whole. However, that means has been given, given to us completely, in the Blessed Sacrament. Christ himself is the source of unity, the source of power. And it is only he. He does not share power, except insofar as he empowers those who receive him. The Lord of the World is the unifier of the world. But its power is all hidden, even at times from us. There is a study I often quote about Catholic perceptions of the Blessed Sacrament. Many in our faith so under-catechized do not appreciate the centrality of the Blessed Sacrament, not only to what we do, but to who we are. That lack of perception, however, does not keep the Sacrament from doing what it does. Christ’s purposes cannot be stifled even by the most concerted efforts of duplicity. He does unite. The New Evangelization is unification. This is our spiritual program. This is our destiny; this is our only hope, our most profound future. Finally, there is the cost of life and death. What we do here is life and death. One of the great contemporary myths promulgated by much of culture is that what we do here is something nice, something sweet, something, however, that is ultimately accessory to real life. There is a certain twist in the cultural perspective that makes us believe that religion is a luxury for the wealthy. Sometimes misguided voices in our own tradition can promulgate this myth. There is something, however, in this highly secularized society that longs for something. It longs for mystery. When it does not immediately find it in the Church, it seeks it elsewhere. Here we can mention that desire of modern humanity to find mystery in occult sources. Sometimes we find our modern fascination with things like Wicca, or witchcraft, voodoo, Santería, folk religions, quaint. Increasingly, people are fascinated with esoteric religions in the most rational, most enlightened culture in history. How is it so? It might be comforting to think of such fascination as innocent, as child’s play in the mystical world. I do not think this is true. Dabbling in the occult world is not only dangerous, it is diabolical. The evil of esotericism does not stem from its positive power; it stems from our reliance on a false power in opposition to a true Power. Benson has a very powerful novel called The Necromancer. It is the story of a young man named Laurie who is very much a product of his time. Born an Anglican, he converts to Catholicism, and finally he becomes ensnared in the world of spiritualism, a movement as much alive in Benson’s time as in ours. In the novel, Laurie becomes involved with a group of spiritualists. At one level, Benson portrays these folks for what they are – charlatans who play upon the gullibility of the weak and the mourning. In the midst of this play, however, Laurie gets drawn into the world of darkness, not because of its positive power, but because of his weakness of mind and character. He becomes spiritually dead by summoning the dead, necromancy. In the book, Laurie is rescued by a good Catholic young lady. Benson’s point is well made, however. There is danger in the seeming innocence of the esoteric. It is not, however, a positive danger, but a danger of veering away from the Truth of the faith. There is another point here, however. We may have ceased to see the Church as a matter of life or death because we have devalued the power of its supernatural energy. The Church, its ministers, its followers, its Sacraments are not mere manifestations of a social engagement for the wealthy. The Church is the empowerment of humanity, a power that exercises itself at the most elemental level of human experience. Perhaps the New Evangelization is a re-awakening of the Church to this Truth. It is not to be found in programs and exercises, in projects calling for the production of cookies and drink. It is not to be found in workbooks. It is not to be found in service projects. It is not to be found in buildings and facilities. The New Evangelization is to be found in the core of the human person. It is to be exercised as an act of human longing. It is to be realized in an authentic reclaiming of self even as we flounder in clouds of delusion. It is the clear day. It is our deepest desire. It is Christ himself alive in us, alive in the Sacrament, alive as the true Lord of the World.
Sunday, September 22, 2013
“When will the new moon be over,” you ask. It is a question we may have very well asked ourselves this week. On Thursday morning the harvest moon hung beautifully over the fields. And there does appear to have been a bit of full moon madness in the air these days. But of course the question in the context of the prophetic first reading is rhetorical. It is symbolic. When the moon wanes, there will be cover of darkness and folks can get on with their lives. They ask themselves: When can we get on with our lives as opposed to doing the work of God? Then they tell us what they will do: We will diminish the ephah, add to the shekel, and fix our scales for cheating! Amos chastises the People of Israel for a little cheating, a cheating they hope to return to when the festival is complete. During “religious times” we follow God’s rules. Afterward, anything goes. They live two lives. One in the temple, one on the streets One in the morning, another in the lack of watches in the night. Two lives, not only NOT unusual, it might be claimed that such is the interpretive lens of the Old Testament. And two lives are something we have become accustomed to though we may claim otherwise. We may say: I have given everything to God, look I’m here after all. We may say: Look how much I am suffering for the sake of God’s kingdom; after all, I have to live with these people, work with these teachers, and suffer under the yoke of these crazy monks. We may say many things and in this mode of self-congratulations, we may be tempted to use our breviaries as an extension so we can adequately pat ourselves on the back. We may claim the sacred as our natural habitat, indeed our true home, but is it so? Do we truly favor the world of formation above every other thing, above nights out, above chatting online, above my favorite website, above doing my own thing, above my tastes and preferences? I hope we do. But isn’t there a little part of us that seeks to diminish the epha, to add to the shekel, to fix the scales of our lives so that everything turns out in favor of our vision, our ideals, our proposals? Let’s be honest, because there can be nothing real in the realm of the spiritual life until the truth is faced, until we are willing to play with the cards that are dealt. We see that in Jesus. Jesus has an interesting take on an old theme in the Gospel, not I assure you an unusual circumstance. He turns things around. He puts things upside down. He makes the secular sacred and sometimes the sacred perverse, read, the Pharisees. As I was poking around the Gospel for this weekend an interesting image came to mind. A memory really. When I was a teenager my parents would often leave me alone at home while they went about their varied business, usually my father’s doctor’s appointments, his dialysis or his different treatments. It was fine with me. I didn’t mind being left to my own devices, but as a result I got into a rather curious habit. Not one of your typical teenage habits I assure you. I would rearrange the furniture. Not just move the chair here or the sofa there. I would move whole rooms. I would move my bedroom to another room, move my parents into another room, move the den to the dining room, the dining room to the living room. Looking back on this rather curious, and really exhausting habit, the most remarkable thing is that my parents, when they got home never commented. They took it in stride that this is what would happen. They took up residence in their new bedroom without questioning the motives. Perhaps they were too exhausted from real worries to be overly concerned about my eccentricities. It struck me looking again at the Gospel today that Jesus is doing the same, metaphorically rearranging the moral and theological furniture. People used to think of the Pharisees as the best thing since sliced matzah. Jesus says look again. Folks used to believe that tax collectors and sinners were the scum of the earth. Jesus invites us to have another look. The people of Israel used to think that they couldn’t live without the law, without the temple, without the rules. But Jesus offers a fresh vision. He twisted everything around. He moves these pieces here. He gives a new vision, and what is that new vision? It is shocking! There is no sacred. There is no secular. All is holy. All is good, all is a part of his vision. Are you waiting for the moon to wane in order to get back to your sinning? Are you hoping to God that what you think is wrong, or evil, or just plain distasteful will be rightfully judged so in the parousia? In Christ the moon is always full. The coming of Jesus is today. We are living now in God’s economy where the wicked are judged clean, where the soiled are discovered solvent, where there is hope even in the basest part of myself, hope for finding profit, hope for holiness, hope for a new world, even in midst of wickedness. Why? Because … Jesus is rearranging the furniture. I was thinking about a quote from Newman the other day (imagine that): Whatever, wherever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him; in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him; if I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. My sickness, or perplexity, or sorrow may be necessary causes of some great end, which is quite beyond us. He does nothing in vain; He may prolong my life, He may shorten it; He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends, He may throw me among strangers, He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide the future from me—still He knows what He is about. Whatever, wherever I am, I can never be thrown away What dishonest steward doesn’t need to hear that? In Christ there is a new economy, one not belaboured by our limited vision. Jesus is calling us, listen again to the words of the Gospel of St. Luke For the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. In spite of the encroaching darkness, all will be revealed. All is already known. Shine out! Even as the moon wanes. Beam brightly, so brightly that the dullness of our sins is burned away. All will become renewed as the bread is renewed. All will become alive as the wine is alive. All will, all will. All in God’s time
Thursday, September 12, 2013
In my conferences this semester, I am considering the question of the new evangelization. In the opening conference, I looked at some of the dynamics of this idea in light of the work of Tolkien. In this conference, I would like to delve a little deeper and look at some of the biases we bring to this project in light of our own cultural situation. Very specifically, I want to look at some of the cultural (and personal) dangers of really engaging in evangelization. When considering dangerous Catholicism, there is no better author than Flannery O’Connor. O’Connor was born in Savannah, Georgia, on the Feast of the Annunciation in 1925. She was the only child of her parents and had a precocious childhood lived literally in the shadow of the cathedral in Savannah. To describe O’Connor’s life as Catholic seems like an understatement. She took her Catholicism seriously in the most extraordinary way. Living as she did in the “Christ haunted” south of fundamentalism, her Catholic identity was always also an alterity. It was a twisted identity in the best possible sense. In her youth, she was afflicted with the disease that ultimately killed her father, lupus. She suffered with the illness her entire adult life and it often kept her a prisoner at home; her interface with a world beyond the little Georgia town where she settled on a farm with her widowed mother was almost exclusively through letters. She died at the age of thirty-nine, a crutched prisoner but with a soaring mind. She read the Summa in Latin for bedtime reading. Her works of fiction, while containing only minimal Catholic content, are so thoroughly Catholic as to be compared in ethos, if not in method, to the work of St. Thomas. There are many themes in her works: the unexpected nature of revelation, the means by which God communicates with His people, the shattered nature of the Christian vision in her own fundamentalist world, the hypocrisy of the Church. None stands out so much, however, as her ideas about the danger of Christianity. For Flannery O’Connor, authentic Christianity always implied danger, even death. Often in her series of short stories and in her two novellas, the “villain” of the story turns out to be the Christ-figure, doing damage to the fixed expectation of those centered in a false Christian ideal of upstanding piety and pre-destination. Here O’Connor stands in line with such contemporary writers as Dennis Covington. I have had the chance to mention Covington’s book in other contexts, Salvation on Sand Mountain. The New York journalist recounts his own descent into the dangerous world of snake-handling Pentecostals in northern Alabama. There is the very telling moment when he observes, “Christianity without passion, danger and mystery may not really be Christianity at all.” How about that for the new evangelization? Certainly this is the issue also being raised by O’Connor, albeit in a different context. What is the cost of discipleship? The project of the new evangelization is to tell the world the Good News about Jesus. There is no doubt that it is a message that the world needs to hear. In fact, the world can never be authentic to itself until it fully incorporates the message of Jesus, but at what cost? The cost of discipleship is great; in fact, it may look more, in O’Connor’s narrative economy, like mass murder and less like a game of bingo. The eradication of self is the very core of this dangerous project. What do we make of that? I propose that the new evangelization involves not only tearing down, but also building up. I see this as happening at four levels: in our dioceses, in neighborhoods, in parishes and, perhaps most significantly, in ourselves. Many dioceses today find themselves in the process of restructuring. In this area of the country, this is often especially critical. We are laden with parishes and parish structures that can no longer be feasibly managed, cannot be financially supported, are no longer viable. Many of these parishes existed in a time when transportation was not as readily available as it is today, when folks were very much bound to the land in farm communities. All of that was fine, until you consider that today things are different. If you drive today to Tell City, you will pass five parishes in a fifteen-mile stretch. Are all of these parishes needed? Today we have become accustomed to having a Mass when we want it. Is it reasonable to maintain five parishes in a fifteen-mile stretch? No parish wants to relinquish its history or its identity, but when does the vibrancy, the dynamic potential, of the Church supplant convenience and historical connection? What are we as Catholics? I wonder if we are not becoming accustomed to practicing a religion that is all too easy. If the facility is challenged, we bolt. What is the price of conviction in such a case? Brothers and sisters, we must realize that if the new evangelization is to take hold of us as a Church (in order for us to effectively announce the Gospel to the nations), then we must have thriving and active communities, not communities that are holding on by the thread of an outdated nostalgia. This may also apply here, and I assure you that I understand that describing what we are is not always easy, perhaps even here. I am reminded of the quote of O’Connor: “I take it that if seminarians began to write novels about life in the seminary, there would soon be several less seminarians.” And yet this realism is essential. We must accept what is presented, not as an end but as a means to a greater end. Where we are is always the lesser reality; it is a stepping stone to where we are going. This applies even to our virtues. I am reminded of O’Connor’s words at the end of the short story, “Revelation.” “She could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.” I wonder how much that must apply to parishioners, priests and perhaps even some bishops if we are to see any thoroughgoing movement in the restructuring of dioceses. Second, I believe that part of our task in the new evangelization is restructuring neighborhoods. In my estimation, we must do this in order to announce the central truth, the reality of the Incarnation. A temptation that we often face today is a pulling away from “the world” in order to create an ideal world in Christ. Needless to say, this necessarily involves fewer and more focused people. Brothers and sisters, it is a false, and I would say heretical, goal. Jesus says in the Gospel of St. Matthew: “Go out to all the world and tell the Good News.” If we are to make the message of Christ known, we must learn to speak it in different tongues as did the apostles on the Day of Pentecost. The new evangelization is wide and broad within and without the Church. Flannery O’Connor said: “Our sense of what is contained in our faith is deepened less by abstractions than by an encounter with mystery in what is human and often perverse. We Catholics are much given to the instant answer.” The world is complicated. The world has to be sorted out. This begins at home. As Catholics, we must not think that we need only create pristine places of worship to act as refuges from the world. We are not refugees; we are citizens. How do we meet the challenges of our neighbors in a practical sense? What does politics in an authentic Catholic mode look like? I don’t believe we have much of an idea of that. How can helping my neighbors, without recourse to specific Catholic content, be evangelization? It can and it must. If we can learn to encounter the mystery in what is human and often perverse, we will have arrived at a true life in Christ. If we can only “protect” ourselves from the others who are not like us, and sometimes those others are under the roof of our churches, then we fail to be exemplars of grace; we fail to be agents of evangelization. We must be determined to find Christ in the mess. We must be completely determined. Third, we must consider the importance of restructuring parishes. What is the condition of our parishes today? Certainly, some of them are thriving centers of proclamation. Many of them are teaching and preaching the message of Christ in a way that is gaining souls for God and enriching the Christian vocations of the parishioners and, indeed, the priest. Many of them are celebrating vibrant liturgies that call to mind the ancient traditions of our Church in the midst of new modes of expression. Many of them are educating children and adults in a continually growing faith tradition. Many of them are living Jesus in the heart of the world. Many of them are serving the needs of the poor and the outcast. Many of them have open arms to welcome home the erring. Many of them are places of solace and refuge, true temples of Christ in the secular city. Many of them are places of peace in a world teetering on the brink of constant war. Many are and many are not. Many of our parishes are just getting by, not striving for excellence but striving for existence. It may be the case that all of our parishes in every diocese are still needed, but I wonder. Should we consider consolidating places, not to hamper the authentic spirit that has maintained itself historically in different place, but rather to insure that the message of the Gospel is truly shared, truly spread? Every Mass is a gift to the world, but every Mass is also a catalyst for a living Church and not merely a service of convenience to those who may be lost in an overweening sense of nostalgia. Combining parish resources gives us the ability to do more, to be more and to announce the Good News more effectively. All of this requires a sensitive engagement with the pastoral context. The future of our various parishes is not something that can be defined in a boardroom and much less on a ledger sheet. It is an issue that must be dealt with sensitively, in the spirit of the impetus of the new evangelization. I also go back to the question of what we are searching for in parishes, or perhaps, in a consumer-based culture, what we are “selling.” So often we get it wrong. The basic principle of any salesmanship is “give the people what they want.” We don’t know. So many parishes, so many programs are being rewritten along the lines of popular ideals, pop culture, crazy engagement, music, whatever. Please listen: People want transcendence not immanence that does not signal transcendence . Reform yourselves to become a transcendent-oriented group of seminarians and you are on the way to becoming someone truly useful in ministry. What the People of God do not need is another Internet-addicted, texting, porn-loving (I use pornography in the wide sense here), Facebook-addled junkie. What the People of God are starving for are real men who can talk and listen and preach and celebrate Mass and, in celebrating Mass, celebrate a world beyond the insipid pabulum being vomited upon them at every turn. Another question we might ask is: What is the condition of our presbyterates? Renewing an understanding of presbyterates is essential in renewing the evangelical fervor of the Church. The image of the presbyterate, the fellowship of priests working together to enliven the goals of the Kingdom, speaks to the very nature of the Church as a community of faith. The community of the priests demonstrates to the People of God what they ought to be, what they can be. If presbyterates are divided, if factionalism holds forth, if a “Lone Ranger” mentality is the order of the day, how do we expect the Christian people to understand themselves other than divided, factional and Lone Ranger Christians? If priests do not, as a group, support and promote the teachings of the Church, can we really expect that Catholics will do so? Is it reasonable to believe that the Church will be better than the priests who celebrate its sacraments? Returning to O’Connor for a moment, one of the interesting aspects of her life story was the dedication she had to her various communities, first to her family, to her parish, to her community, to her various publics. O’Connor understood the centrality of community to Catholic life, even if that community was not often exemplified in her fundamentalist south. She understood that the triumph of good over evil would only come through a faithful people. What is the condition of this parish, this local expression of faith? I think of the line from O’Connor in her short story, “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” in which she describes the convent as being located between “a filling station on the one side of it and a firehouse on the other.” That is a bold image of the Church. Are we going to be something new? Are we going to be a place where men can truly be filled with the Spirit of Christ? A filling station is a moving-on place. Are we going to be a firehouse that tames the rampant flames of the self-serving cultural imperatives of popularism, individualism, other isms? The interesting thing about the image is that a filling station is the most likely place for an explosion. The fireman puts it out, but not without risk. The risk is great. One of the primary risks for us is challenging what people seem to hold most sacred, when in fact the seemingly sacred quality of secularism is a confounded myth. O’Connor wrote: “You don’t serve God by saying: the Church is ineffective, I’ll have none of it. Your pain at its lack of effectiveness is a sign of your nearness to God. We overcome this lack of effectiveness simply by suffering on account of it. To expect too much is to have a sentimental view of life and this is a softness that ends in bitterness. Charity is hard and endures.” I might paraphrase by saying: Formation is hard and endures. That is putting aside and brings me to my last point: Restructuring ourselves. Here, we come to the most significant aspect of the new evangelization: restructuring ourselves. It is also the most significant. One of the great fault lines of the Church today is the erroneous belief that, in a modern setting, the Church ought to conform to my personal ideals and tastes. No one says this outright, but many, many practitioners of our faith hold it. Sometimes it manifests itself in small ways, such as: I don’t like that song, we ought not to sing it. Even the rector is sometimes guilty of that. As priests, this tendency can become dangerous when I attempt to rewrite old scripts, not in a new language, but in my own language. Flannery O’Connor finds herself frequently addressing this kind of bias, we might say prejudice, in her writings. She pokes a bit of fun at old Protestant ladies who refuse to see what is real and insist that the world is somehow going to wake up one day and bow to her ideals. In fact, O’Connor sees this as the essence of “bad” Christianity. Is it not where we often find ourselves? I have a fixed image of what ought to happen, but it cannot be mine, it must be ours. There are some here who only accept what they like, what they find meaningful and they “put up” with the rest. If we find ourselves constantly in the state of putting up with the less than ideal, we may need to wake up to the fact that this may not be the place for us. But be aware, there is no place, short of the grave, that will ever live up completely to our expectations. Those expectations are ours, not the group’s. Being a member of the group means restructuring myself to find my meaning only in the group. This is called love, and it is a virtue little expressed in the contemporary world. Love of self, self-rule, self-denomination, self-deception is not love. Love always finds its particular expression in sacrifice of self for the good of something greater, or Someone greater, the almighty. Flannery O’Connor, writing in a letter to Ben Griffith, talks about her recent speaking engagement in which no one “got it.” She tells him: “In a few weeks, I’m going to talk to some more ladies in Macon and I am…interested in making up a good case for distortion, as I am coming to believe it is the only way to make people see.” O’Connor uses distortion as her means of getting the attention of her contemporary audience. “When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs as you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock; to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind, you draw large and startling figures.” Finally, I think of the great image from the end of the short story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” In describing the quintessential hypocritical grandmother, the serial killer (read Jesus) tells his comrades. “She would of been a good woman, if it had been someone there to shoot her every minute of her life.” It might be true for us as well. Let’s just call it formation. I was recently reading the seminal book of Ross Douthat called Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. At the very end of the book, Douthat sums up nicely his program. He says: “The quest begins with a single step – over the threshold of your local church, back through the confessional door, or simply into an empty room for a moment’s silent prayer.” Perhaps that is the new evangelization.
Wednesday, September 4, 2013
This summer, I re-read a wonderful book by Julian Barnes called, The Sense of an Ending. It is the story of a man named Tony Webster, a middle aged fellow who believes that he has everything worked out, everything settled. His solitary life is lived by following strict schedules and routine ways of going about things. He likes it. He is boring. He thinks he has everything under control. Except of course he doesn’t. A few visitors from his past remind him that life is full of challenges and that most of the time, the challenges, and indeed life itself are beyond our control. Most of us love control. We like living with the idea and the ideal that we can make things happen, that we can keep things from happening and mostly that we can predict precisely how things are going to come out. In our lives, we live from moment to moment filled with the supreme confidence that we can do it by ourselves. In fact, it is a cultural imperative. We even think that we can control God. We can take him as we want him, and put him away when it suits our schedules and our needs. That means, of course, that most of us flee conflict. In our lives we avoid anything that makes us uncomfortable, that creates situations of argumentativeness, that makes us, well, all too human. There is a problem however, and that is God cannot be controlled. In fact our attempts to put God in a bottle or box, to place God precisely in the paradigm of my issues and my situation are often what cause the most trouble in our lives. We are somewhat caught off guard by what we hear in the Gospel: Take up your cross. Now, how can anyone want to do that? How can anyone claim to DESIRE to be crucified? Or at least this is the usual misinterpretation of the Gospel. But in point of fact what we are asked to do here is not take up the cross of Jesus, the instrument of torture and death. We are asked rather to take up the cross, the CHI the X of the Greek alphabet. Now you are wondering where all of this is going. That is precisely the point. Who isn’t wondering where things are going? If we are really paying attention to life and not merely trying like Tony Webster to keep things under control, if we are really living then we have to continually stand in that rather uncomfortable place, the crossroads. The crossroads is that place where we are faced with decisions, moment by moment decisions that can take our life in this direction or in that. In Julian Barnes’ book, he states that there are two kinds of people, those who have “clear edges” and those who imply mystery. Authentic living resides in the later. Conflict, perpetually seeing the options that God affords each of us is the only authentic way of living. All of us live with conflict even when we try to hide its crenelated edges. We try hard to get rid of conflict and thus create a life that is not real, a life hidden behind the barriers of falsehood such as alcohol, drugs, sex, the pursuit of money, just name it, after all, your read about it every day in the news. The cross is inevitable, choice, options, openness, opportunity. Every day we are faced with these, sometimes of our making, often not. Jesus says: Embrace the cross. Another way of saying this is really live. What doors will be open to us if we just lose control, if we give control to God? What possibilities are awakened when we realize that we are living in a world in which there is neither Jew nor Greek, male or female. What if Saint Paul’s ideal was a reality and things were not quite as predictable as we something think or wish they were. What if little miracles could happen? All of the little mechanisms we have in place to keep things orderly are broken open in the profound message of the Gospel,. So it is with each one of us. In the novel, The Sense of an Ending, the protagonist Tony Webster learned more about life when he realized that he knew so little. John Henry Newman remarked famously, the more we know the more we know we do not. Perhaps in our age, that is the new evangelization. Today we gather in this place of formation to begin a new formation year. In my rector’s conferences this semester, I would like to address the question of the new evangelization. However, before we can consider ourselves as agents of the new evangelization, we must ask: What are the challenges of our world? Perhaps we must ask even more: What are the challenges in us? Authentic evangelization cannot happen until the world is ready to receive the Good News. It also cannot happen if its proclaimers are unable to be channels of the Good News. These challenges are not merely acts of the will. Our true questions in advance of a new evangelization are quite profound: How can the seminary provide the impetus for a new world vision? Or perhaps even more profound: What precisely is the new evangelization? To begin this conversation, I want to focus on two contemporary figures in Catholic thought. The first is Christopher Dawson. When I was planning my Eucharist lectures for this year, I had an epiphany (a fairly rare occurrence I assure you). Why is the question of the Eucharist so difficult to grasp in the Church today? Why is it the case that a large section of the Catholic population neither understands nor accepts the received Catholic ideal of Eucharistic presence? Dawson wrote two books that address the cultural crisis of contemporary faith. The first is called The Formation of Christendom. In this book, he outlines the way in which the Church transformed the prevailing culture in the late antique period and beyond, seeing in the medieval synthesis the important means by which the Church and culture found its authentic coalescence. The book is interesting, but even more fascinating is its sequel, The Dividing of Christendom, in which he relates the means by which this unique synthesis of faith and culture were dismantled in the misspoken renaissance, the reformations and the so-called enlightenment of culture in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. These are theories which ignite the maelstrom of cultural discontent that has come full-force into our contemporary ideology. These are theories such as individualism, the fluidity of the social order, the un-examined ideals of democracy, the sense of contemporary “freedoms” which often act in precisely the opposite way. In The Formation of Christendom, Dawson states: “Catholicism does not rest on the consensus of human wisdom – even on its highest and most spiritual plane – but on a divine revelation which is also an act of creation.” In other words, the culture paradigm of Catholicism is not a choice among equally viable choices, it is the human character in its fullness, which in the economy of the Incarnation is also the Divine Character. Now we can turn to the second contemporary figure, J. R.R. Tolkien. To begin my remarks, I would like to say a few biographical words about Tolkien. John Ronald Ruel Tolkien was by education and profession a philologist, primarily focusing on Icelandic languages. Perhaps we do not see this as a very promising beginning for a man destined to re-establish the primary mythic basis of Christianity in the Twentieth Century. Tolkien was born in South Africa to English parents in 1892, the closing years of the Nineteenth Century. At an early age he moved with his mother and brother to England, leaving his father in Africa. He would never see his father again as he died a short time later. Raised by his mother, the entire family converted to the Catholic faith when Tolkien was in his teenage years. His mother also died young and Tolkien and his brother came under the protection of the Oratorian Fathers of Birmingham, still in the early twentieth Century very much under the influence of Newman’s memory. After his education at Oxford he married and later fathered children, one of whom became a priest. Tolkien’s life is interesting enough and his career is fairly straightforward for Oxford scholars of this time. However, during his long teaching sojourn in Oxford, Tolkien met some very important friends among them, C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams who formed a social and intellectual group known as the Inklings. It was in the context of the Inklings that Lewis invented his allegorical world of Narnia and Tolkien created the mythos of Middle Earth. Tolkien’s best known works, The Hobbit, published in 1937 and The Lord of the Rings, which finally appeared in 1955 are just the most widely read aspects of a larger project. Tolkien’s novels are the result of a vision that incorporated thousands of pages of writing on the history of Middle Earth, the creation of entire languages, mythic origin stories and many other writings which have never been published. What Tolkien intends with the saga of Middle Earth is nothing short of the demonstration of what true myth is which is nothing short of this: In our creative capacity we are participating with the Divine vision. Catholicity in Tolkien’s writings is less about its specific content and more about its method. His Catholicism speaks to the world not as another world-view or an alternative vision, but as Truth, not only a truth but the Truth, the Truth for which all are striving, at least implicitly and the Truth that is our primordial center and destiny. Here Tolkien differs distinctively with his long-time colleague and friend, C. S. Lewis. For Lewis, who advocated the extensive use of allegory as a mode of Christian storytelling, the symbolic world stood in the midst of another world, the world of distinct secularity. In The Chronicles of Narnia, the world of Narnia represents a type of existence that existed apart from the world, a world for the few and the select, or elect. Tolkien’s Catholic vision could not abide such a distinction. Tolkien dislikes allegory because he does not really believe there is another, non-allegorical world. The entire world is encompassed in the far-reaching myth of Christianity. It is a daring vision that promotes not only the universality of the Church, but its permanent center in human existence, an existence overshadowed by the Holy Eucharist. I believe what Tolkien is promoting, and indeed what I am recommending is the centrality of the Euchological in contemporary discourse. Do we see the world as decidedly centered in the reality of the Holy Eucharist? Is the Blessed Sacrament the working center of our lives? To me, this is the new evangelization. We must live by this principle, this ideal if we are to make any sense at all of what we do in the context of our lives as followers of Christ every day. We must learn, we must speak the cadences of evangelical speech, a form of speech geared toward building up the human enterprise rather than tearing it down through the constant barrage of critical, indeed hateful engagement. Our language must perpetually be the language of praise and blessing, even when we understand that praise and blessing as authentic challenge for us to live better lives. Evangelical speech is not grounded in an unfocused and unrealistic sense of good feeling. Evangelical speech is grounded in the Truth which we proclaim in Jesus Christ. We speak Good News to one another when we challenge one another to higher living, to better living. We speak Good News to one another when we challenge one another to be saints, realizing full well that preaching with our lives is the most effective evangelical speech there is. Praise and blessing are not highlights of life. They are a means of life, a way of life, a true life. Opposed to evangelical speech is evangelical terrorism, murmuring, complaining, criticizing, back-biting all disguised as the promotion of a value which, brothers and sisters, is not at all worth pursuing. I will state again what I have said many times. When charity fails, when good will breaks down, there is no longer any evangelical goal worth pursuing. In our lives in the world (not just in this place but in the world), the responsibilities of an Evangelical People take hold of us. What are they? First Authentic listening, Here we must learn that the first skill of a priest is to learn to listen, listen to what people are saying in confession, in the hospital room, in the prison cell, and in the daily engagements of life. We must learn to authentically listen to the needs of others even when we do not fully understand those needs, even when those needs are not our needs. Authentic listening means learning to keep silence while the story of the other is poured out. It means authentically appreciating the story of the other, even when that story is not our story. Second we must learn to speak, speak sparingly but meaningfully. Trivial, useless speech that intends to cause laughter or impress others with its very triviality, is not Christian speech. That is not to say that there is no place for humor in our discourse (in spite of what the Holy Rule says). There is room for humor, and even a bit of silliness, but ultimately we must ask ourselves: Does it build up or does it tear down? Is our speech meaningful? One criticism I often hear about our common life is that our table conversations tend to be fairly focused on the trivial. While I think a little small talk is not a bad thing, I tend to agree with this criticism. The question of table conversation, or casual conversation, or small group discussion, or even theological reflection may not be bad will, but a lack of skill, an inability to engage the other in somewhat meaningful discourse in which there is no technological interface. We must learn to speak meaningfully to one another, maybe that starts at the table tonight. Third we must act. How willing are we to act as evangelical people? Our lives here and our lives in the future as priests are lives poured out. They are not lives that look primarily to self-preservation. The opposite is true. Martyrdom is our goal, a martyrdom frequently realized in the mundane events of daily life, in the momentary yet momentous opportunities that come every day in the priesthood and often go un-noticed, surprisingly even by ourselves. Tuning into the smaller things of life and maximizing the minute encounter truly separates the men from the boys, so to speak. Life must be filled with action, but it must be action laced with subtlety. Subtlety is a lost art. Can we revive it? Finally, this evangelical life is lived by a full awareness of what might be termed organizational literacy. This means knowing where we are, knowing the people around us and knowing and understanding the mission. Brothers and sisters we are called to a ministry, an important ministry that is also a supernatural call. That ministry is not in some future place, at some distant time. That ministry is here. It is now. We are called in our evangelical call to be Christ for one another and if we can learn to be Christ for one another we can certainly learn the skills, the ways and means of realizing Christ for a world that so desperately needs to be totally open to him. Tolkien was a great writer, I believe, because he was completely imbued with an authentic Catholic identity and ethos. What does an authentic Catholic identity and ethos offer us? I believe it offers us the opportunity, if we are truly attuned to our own Catholicity, it offers us the opportunity for four things. The first is cultural re-appraisal. In our world today we are asked to accept without question the cultural cards we are dealt. Brothers and sisters, they are marked cards. Tolkien demonstrates in his writings that we live in a mixed world. One way he accomplishes this is through his characters, All of Tolkien’s characters are somewhat flawed, they are all “on the way” to perfection. Here Tolkien captures perfectly the dilemma in which we find ourselves, we are folks on the way to something better and something greater, our destinies in God, but we often do not realized it. Our lack of intention, our lack of realization does not however change who we are. Elves are selfish, human beings are weak, dwarves are greedy, and halflings are, well half, but for Tolkien if all are half we are all half full rather than half empty. All are in the process of becoming perfect by becoming authentic to themselves. That is a profound Christian message. While Middle Earth is a decidedly mixed lot, Tolkien is also convinced that those who are pure of heart are able to see its goodness and to understand and ultimately reject its evil. Good is not a matter of learning only. It is also something that is innate in the human person. We naturally recognize goodness. We abhor evil instinctively. We are confused when our natural predilections are contradicted by the social message telling us that something is good when we know it to be evil in the depths of our hearts. The second evangelical tool we are offered is cultural regeneration. If we are down, we are not out. Just as we have it within us to recognize the Truth, so we have it within us to do the good. In The Lord of the Rings Tolkien demonstrates the worth of the human spirit in the courage of the hobbits. What is true and good is not often easy, or at least it may not appear to be, but doing the good is ultimately easier than doing wrong because to do wrong is contrary to our spirit, it is alien. As we learn to do the good (and think and engage the Good) then it becomes easier, it becomes not second nature because it is our first nature. Third, our goal as Catholics is cultural reinvigoration – we do not take the culture for granted. Everything is changed by our authentic presence in the world. In The Lord of the Rings, the hobbits return to Hobbiton after their adventure. They are not the same. Having engaged the world, having confronted evil, having learned the good, they are different. They cannot return to their homes, their familiar surroundings with the same spirit. It is interesting that I often hear seminarians expressing this after a year or so in the seminary. They are not the same men that left home. They do not engage their “hobbit holes” with the same spirit they had before. An authentic search for holiness in the depths of myself often means, in the words of Thomas Wolfe, you can’t go home again, at least not the same. As we progress in Christian life, home is no longer where I grew up. It is not even my rectory, my monastery, my assignments. Home is heaven. We know that as we move through life and we become increasingly homesick as we progress. At the end of the Lord of the Rings, Frodo realizes that he cannot live in Hobbiton anymore. He must go to the Grey Havens. He must set sail toward that distant shore, toward eternity. Finally, there is cultural re evangelization. Having gone “there and back again” we know, we come to know, that evangelization, even the new evangelization must begin in my own heart, by my own hearth, in my own home. What is new about the new evangelization is not the need or means, but the understanding of whom. It is us. In light of these cultural challenges we have to ask ourselves, what is the condition of our seminaries, of these privileged places where we hope to instill in each one the authentic spirit of the Church? When we look around at our new men here today, all of us are aware that not all of them will rise to the priestly state. Perhaps some of them are wondering that too. Ultimately, perhaps strangely, that is not our goal. Our goal is to make each one here a better person for having been here. Our goal is to sharpen the Christian identity of each one no matter where he or she may go away from this place. Our goal is to assure that you are prepared to receive the call that will come, God willing, one day from your bishop or religious superior. We must prepared for that call. This is indeed a house of discernment, but that discernment (on your part) is only authentically realized when you give yourself fully to being formed for priesthood, not in standing back and trying to do that work yourself. God will call you in time or He will make apparent to you that you are called to something else. All of us are called, to live our lives in full complement to the Gospel of Christ. There is no other vocation. We live those lives in different states, but there is no other definitive call. We are defined by Christ. Our resting and our rising is defined by Christ. The work we do in this place of prayer is defined by Christ. Our toil in the classroom and the library is defined by Christ. Our recreation, our eating, our friendships and relationships with family; all is defined by Christ. Everything we do is manifested in that essential relationship and our sole reason for being on this earth is to give him glory. That is the new evangelization. When we realize that, we have evangelized ourselves and when we are fully alive in the Gospel, we will speak, we will act, and we will be in and for Christ and his Church. What is next in the new evangelization? This summer I was pursuing an article on CNN about the faith of the millennial generation. The evangelical author had something interesting to say. Let me quote her at length: Time and again, the assumption among Christian leaders, and evangelical leaders in particular, is that the key to drawing twenty-somethings back to church is simply to make a few style updates – edgier music, more casual services, a coffee shop in the fellowship hall, a pastor who wears skinny jeans, an updated Web site that includes online giving. But here’s the thing: Having been advertised to our whole lives, we millennials have highly sensitive BS meters, and we’re not easily impressed with consumerism or performances. In fact, I would argue that church-as-performance is just one more thing driving us away from the church, and evangelicalism in particular. Many of us, myself included, are finding ourselves increasingly drawn to high church traditions – Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, the Episcopal Church, etc. – precisely because the ancient forms of liturgy seem so unpretentious, so unconcerned with being “cool,” and we find that refreshingly authentic. What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance. Perhaps that is at least the start of the new evangelization. In my conferences this semester, I want to spend some more time reflecting on the new evangelization. In doing so, I want to focus on the writings of some other great Catholic authors. In my next conference I will address the question: How do we accurately diagnose the contemporary situation? I will use the writings of Flannery O’Connor to look at this important question. In the third conference, I will address the existential question that stands at the center of our contemporary dilemma. What should we be (become)? In this context I will consider the writings of the pries-novelist, Robert Hugh Benson. Finally I will ask the important practical question: How do we get there? Gerard Manley Hopkins, that least pragmatic of priest-poets will hopefully assist in answering this question. A few months ago I came across a quote from a contemporary of Tolkien, a great philosopher who said in speaking to his dearest friend. Promise me you’ll always remember you’re braver that you believe, stronger than you seem and smarter than you think. In our troubled world, I believe that this may well be the new evangelization. That may well be the true sense of an ending, or a beginning.
Sunday, September 1, 2013
Sunday When you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you. It seems that Jesus always has a slightly different take on old themes. Here we have a wedding, or perhaps more to the point a wedding reception. The wedding, in Jesus’ day as today was an opportunity to show off, to “grand it up” a bit not for a few hours, but for days. I was reading a story online this summer about a woman who had gone broke buying taffeta dresses to wear to the dozens of weddings she worked as a bridesmaid. I remember a wedding that I had once in Memphis in which the people wanted to drape hundreds of yards of fabric in the Church hall because the color of the hall, beige, did not match the wedding colors well. Who among us has not witnessed the at times scandalous excess poured out of punch bowls or skewered on little sticks. The average wedding today costs about 20,000 dollars. Now … Can you imagine a pack of homeless people wandering in to the country club in the middle of the boring speech-making at the goofy wedding reception for Tiffany and Webster? Really? We are not certain how Jesus’ wedding plans worked out. After all (as we know very well) it’s sometimes quite the project to round up “the others” for an old-fashioned eschatological engagement. And that is really what we are talking about. Jesus wedding is less of what we think and more of an image of our impending, indeed our already real nuptials with God. We know the wedding. What about the reception? Who are these guests? Which, of course, is another way of asking: Who are we? We think of ourselves as blessed. We are generally pretty good people. We tend to be nicer here in this house of formation, at least for the most part, than our wretched colleagues “in the world”. We have many gifts. We have the gift of vocation, the gift of receptiveness. Some of us have other gifts and talents that we are generous in using for the sake of the kingdom. I’ve mentioned all of that before. Some of us have other gifts, the gift of perfect knowledge about the lives of other people. The gift of prophecy, again about others, the gift of other-directedness in our attitudes, our criticisms, our analyses. But are these gifts the greatest things we have? We hold on to them, the good and the bad, but are they the greatest thing, proud as we are? We have folks not so very far from us who need someone to talk to them. Are we listening to the silent syllables of their outstretched hands? We have folks not so very far from us who struggle daily with demons that might consume them when the means of exorcism is as close to hand as my shoulder. There are men here who love the world and all it contains, who are examples of incarnate faith and we have men here whose faith is so shallow that they might drown in a puddle of their own folly at any moment There are people here who are so loving, so generous and there are people here who are so judgmental, so negative. We have folks who have sacrificed much and we have folks who seek to sacrifice nothing. Who is this community? It is a community of the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind. But there is no problem with that. Thanks be to God. Thanks be to God for calling us wretches together for: When you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you. What we receive here brothers and sisters is a great treasure held in earthen vessels What we receive here is the priceless gift of fellowship harbored up in the seclusion of our wastefulness What we have received here is the gift of understanding calcified by our prejudice What we have received here is the gift of quiet confidence riddled with the buckshot of self-deception What we have received here is the gentle yoke of humility which weighs down our pride What we receive here is the living God, present to us in word, in sacrament and in the presence of the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind. Us. What we receive here is the bridegroom who lays down his life for us, dies for us, pours out his love for us in the gentle cadences of wine splashing into a cup, of bread broken in the beauty of fellowship. And here it is now, here it is today, not in some distant future in some promised place Here among the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind And here in this place here Don’t you know a sister who needs you today? Don’t you know a brother who is hurting? Perhaps you know a parent who is lonely today. Certainly you know a friend who needs a friend. You must know someone who needs you, needs your kindness more than he needs your judgment, needs your support more than he needs your condemnation, needs your love, needs your love to live, authentically live. Can we love until it hurts us? Can we give without ever once counting the cost? Can we offer ourselves as living sacrifices on the altar? What are we doing here if not rehearsing the eschaton? What are we doing here if we have not realized … you have approached Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and countless angels in festal gathering, and the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven, and God the judge of all, and the spirits of the just made perfect, and Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, O my brothers and sisters the secret of this place, the secret of our life together is the full realization that in the economy of God: Things are not always what they appear to be. We are beggars. Beggars are kings. We are blind. The blind see perfectly. We are lame. The lame leap like stags of the heart. We are poor We are made rich in God. Rich in God, wedding guests, wedding bride. The covenant has been sealed with the precious blood poured out at Calvary. And now as in all good weddings, we turn to the feast. Here we are enrolled in heaven. Happy indeed are those called to the wedding of the Lamb