Tuesday, December 10, 2013

I Will Send My Beloved Son: Advent 2013, Day 10

"What stands out as singular, surprising, and quite simply inconceivable is the attitude of the owner of the vineyard: 'What shall I do?' he asks himself; and, for some mysterious reason, knowing the fate his servants received at the hands of the wicked tenants, he nevertheless decides: 'I will send my beloved son.' " (Antoine Birot, "The Divine Drama from the Father's Perspective")

“It is not enough then for the word to come down from heaven; it must also be born from the flesh. Hence it cannot be uttered all at once; it cannot dispense with the lapse of time required by the entire life of Jesus." (José Granados, "The Word Springs From the Flesh)
Knowing what we'd do to Him, God's Son still said yes to His Father and consented to come among us, as one of us.

God could have sent Christ in the way the Jews imagined the Messiah would come -- in the way we imagine he will come again: as a fully grown man riding a cloud to the sound of trumpets and heavenly choruses. But he didn't. No; the coming of Jesus the first time took time, beginning with nine months in Mary's womb, and then thirty years of childhood and young adulthood, most of which we know nothing about (just like most of us can't remember much of the detailed minutia of our own lives).

It seems that the promised Second Coming also "cannot dispense with the lapse of time." It has been nearly two thousand years, and though predictions have been and still are common, here we are, still waiting.

The Scriptures are filled with waiting, and mostly they don't tell us why, but they do tell us how -- whether how we actually wait,
"Then they believed his promises and sang his praise. But they soon forgot what he had done and did not wait for his plan to unfold. In the desert they gave in to their craving; in the wilderness they put God to the test." (Psalm 106:12-14)
or how we should wait,
"You must return to your God; maintain love and justice, and wait for your God always." (Hosea 12:6)

"If we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently." (Romans 8:25)

"Judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes." (1 Corinthians 4:5)

"By building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life." (Jude 1:20-21)
But all our individual and communal waiting is as nothing compared to how (and how long) God waits for us.

Amen.

Vulnerability and Weakness Are His Weapons: Advent 2013, Day Nine

"He looks at the babe in the manger and sees a knight ... not because he sees the Christ-child as inhumanly powerful, but because the baby's vulnerability and weakness are his weapons.... God at war is a baby.... 'his battering shots are babish cries.' " (Diane Vincent, Associate Professor at Torrey Honors Institute, Biola University)
"In love he destined us for adoption to himself through Jesus Christ." (Ephesians 1:4-5)
Today a friend introduced me to a South African ministry called 1hope4Africa, which operates an orphanage called the Muphamuzi Baby Home. According to Unicef, there are approximately 3.7 million orphans in South Africa, about half of whom lost their parents to AIDS-related disease.

Around the world, orphans (some of whom are children who have escaped this world's growing embrace of abortion) wait to be adopted. During Advent, we wait (at least symbolically) for the birth of a child who will change that world.

How will He change the world? By changing us, if we allow Him to.

How will He change us? By transforming us into adopted children of His own Father, "so that we might exist for the praise of His glory, we who first hoped in Christ" (Ephesians 1:12).

And how do we "praise ... His glory"? According to St. James in his letter "to the twelve tribes," we sincerely praise him when we "care for orphans and widows in their affliction," or anyone else who is vulnerable and needs our help.

"The baby's vulnerability and weakness
are his weapons" -- whether the "baby" is an orphan or, with his parents, poor or homeless -- weapons against our empty praise.

Monday, December 9, 2013

We Are the Evidence: Advent 2013, Day Eight

"A thing can only be received according to the actual disposition of the one who is to receive it." (From introduction to Second Sunday of Advent Mass, Magnificat, p. 112)

"Not by appearance shall he judge, nor by hearsay shall he decide." (Isaiah 11:3)

"Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' For I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones." (Matthew 3:8-9)
"Show me the evidence!" This is the shout of the skeptic and unbeliever -- as many of us once were who now believe that the One for whom we wait, in both memory and longing, is the Son of God.

It is also sometimes, still, the shout of the believer who is waiting, hoping, crying for evidence that the Father hears her prayers.

But the evidence is not "out there." It isn't in a theory, or in a sign or a miracle.

We are the evidence -- to others, and to ourselves.

A couple of days ago I arrived at my favorite coffee shop when the only seat available was next to a man I'd never seen before who was perched in front of a rather large, fat laptop computer. I set up my own computer and began to work. Fifteen or so minutes later he stood up and began to put on his jacket. "It's chilly in here," he said.

I agreed. He explained that his strategy was to go outside, where it was seriously cold, for a bit, then to come back inside, where it would then, by contrast, feel relatively cozy.


"Plus, I'm gonna have a cigarette," he almost whispered, grinning sheepishly.

When he returned, he told me that two years ago he'd been a two-pack-a-day smoker, but now, as for the past two months, he is a two-cigarettes-per-day smoker. His intention is to reduce that to one per day come January, and to quit entirely sometime in 2014.

Before coming up with this plan, he'd tried hypnosis and a variety of other tricks, with no success. What finally motivated him to follow the path he is now on was a plea from his two-year-old son (who is now four).

As I listened to him share his story, I found myself thinking how all the gimmicks -- all the attempts to trick himself into quitting -- had failed, and what was actually working was a decision of the will -- or rather, many decisions of his will, one day at a time.

He is more evidence to me that when a person loves someone, he can repent and choose to change his life. He will be that same evidence to himself when he wants to make other changes that will improve his life and the life of his family, and perhaps the world. He will know he can do it.

God has nothing to prove to us, because he has already given us all the evidence we need -- our lives and talents, the planet and its riches, one another, and His Son. The rest of the evidence is up to us.

Amen.


Sunday, December 8, 2013

Goodness Is Something Else: Advent 2013, Day Seven

In the December issue of Magnificat magazine, between Friday, December 6th evening prayer and Saturday, December 7th morning prayer, Heather King writes about Madeleine Delbêl (1904-1964), who has been called by some "a French Dorothy Day." In seeking to learn more about Delbêl, I found one of her books (We, the Ordinary People of the Streets) available electronically. The book begins with three prefaces and an introduction. In the first preface (to the English edition, by David L. Schindler, Dean Emeritus of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC), I found these two paragraphs:
"We have come to realize what dry bread justice is when it is not preceded by or completed with goodness. When public funds are distributed on the occasion of an accident, when they come to provide assistance with the burdens of having children, when they accompany old age, these subsidies, pensions, grants, and benefits correspond to a kind justice ... but they do not in any way substitute for goodness. In such cases, it is not James or John himself who, in his misfortune or well being, finds help; instead, it is a condition or situation that is helped. General measures regulate collective categories. I resist criticizing the justice that society is able to achieve; criticism serves better to provoke progress in what remains to be achieved. What I am trying to say is that goodness is something else, it achieves something else. For a person to encounter the goodness of Christ in another person is in particular to encounter that person for what he really is." (Madeleine Delbêl)
"This 'who we are,' which has been so manhandled by the world, possesses a value that is absolutely independent of wealth, power, smarts, influence, strength, and success. The goodness of Christ works with us; even more, it hopes for something from us, from each one of us. The goodness of Christ is above all something else: an encounter which affirms for us that we exist, which makes us present to ourselves, which walks alongside us in a common life." (David L. Schindler)
These lines brought to my mind a much more recent article by American journalist Chris Hedges that I read earlier today at the suggestion of a friend. Hedges too decries the depersonalization of the individual human being, even in a society that claims to value the individual but instead mistakes "personal style and personal advancement ... for individualism." A society like this creates, on the one hand, in Hedges' words, an abundance of "superfluous human beings" ("Those who lose deserve to be erased. Those who fail, those who are deemed ugly, ignorant or poor, should be belittled and mocked. Human beings are used and discarded like Styrofoam boxes that held junk food") and on the other hand, categories of human beings who require society to provide them with justice rather than individual persons who need other individuals to be good to them.

Christ came to us as an individual human being, and during His life on Earth He approached us as individual human beings. He didn't wave his hand over the crowds and heal all the sick among them. Instead, He healed individual persons as they came to him, and still does. So, when He commands us (in John 15:12) to love one another as He has loved us, isn't this what He means?

Amen.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

A Brief Prayer for the Sixth Day of Advent 2013

"On that day the deaf shall hear the words of the book, and out of gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see. The lowly shall increase their joy in the Lord, and the poor shall rejoice and exult in the Holy One of Israel. For the tyrant will be no more, and the arrogant will have gone. All who are alert to do evil will be cut off -- those whose mere word condemns a man, who ensnare his defender at the gate, and leave the innocent and truly righteous with an empty plea. Therefore thus says the Lord, who redeemed Abraham: Jacob shall not then be ashamed ... when his children see the work of my hands in his midst. They shall ... be in awe of the God of Israel. Those who err in spirit will acquire understanding, and those who find fault will accept instruction." (From Isaiah 29:18-24)
This passage from the first Scripture reading at this morning's Mass intrigues me. Could it be that it implies not the absolute destruction of those who perpetrate all sorts of injustice -- poverty, tyranny, arrogance -- but rather their redemption -- by "the Lord, who redeemed Abraham"? Is it possible that (even in our own future) "the tyrant will be no more" and "the arrogant will have gone" not because they will have been destroyed but because they will have been transformed -- like "those who err in spirit," who will "acquire wisdom," and those who "find fault," who will now, instead, "accept instruction"? 

This is my prayer.

Amen.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

O Gracious Light: Advent 2013, Day Five


It was the second weekend of Advent 2008. I had said yes to spending several hours in adoration and prayer on the Saturday evening of a Rachel's Vineyard retreat being held at a monastery about twenty miles west of my home.

Dusk arrived and as I was preparing to leave my apartment, a wet, icy snow began to fall. Major accumulation had not been forecast, but driving conditions were predicted to be not good.

I set out anyway. For the second half of the trip, it was all I could do to keep my windshield clear. Nevertheless, I arrived safely at the monastery in time to begin my solo shift.

For two hours I prayed in front of the Mary-shaped monstrance holding the Body of my Lord in her heart. I worshipped with my whole body, flowing my limbs into every yoga posture I could remember, breathing deeply in and out as I held each position like the beads of a rosary, repeating the words not just with my mind but with my tongue and heart too, oblivious to what was happening outside the walls and windows of the cozy makeshift chapel.

When my shift was finished, a layer of snow and ice lay on the ground. A nun led me to a simple room in which I was to spend the night.

After preparing for bed and turning out the desk lamp, I parted the heavy curtains on the west-facing wall and looked out the room's only window. All I saw were three twinkling lights floating in the frigid, shimmering darkness. It wasn't until the morning that I could see they were perched atop tall lampposts in the monastery's parking lot.

I crawled into bed at about eleven o'clock. An hour later I awakened with these words in my mind: "Be not ashamed." They repeated over and over again like gently insistent bells. "Be not ashamed. Be not ashamed. Be not ashamed." Underneath or between or inside them was another voice: "Get up. Write this down."

So I did. Then I turned off the desk lamp again and slid back between the sheets. I was soon again asleep. In the morning, by the time I'd had a shower and eaten breakfast, the evidence of the previous night's storm had melted and I was able to return home--with a message I have never forgotten.

Oh Gracious Light, so pure and bright,
Dispel the darkness of our hearts
That by your brightness we may know the light

Incarnate Word, grant that the light
Deep enkindled in our hearts
May shine forth and give us divine life

Dayspring of life, true light from Light,
Pour into every broken heart
Peace and virtue, bind it by the light

O Jesus Christ, holy and blessed,
We sing thy praises in our hearts
God of heaven, giver of all life

Bring your peace, hope, and love
Bring your peace, Gracious One*

Amen.


*Lyrics from "O Gracious Light," The Brilliance, Advent, Vol. 2

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

How to Make Ready to Receive the New-Born Jesus: Advent 2013, Day Four

"Earnestly indeed may you long for Christ's Advent, and prepare your heart to be his dwelling-place.... Jesus gives himself to none but those who anxiously look for him. Choice food is thrown away on such as cannot taste it, and so those who long not after God's presence cannot value him as they ought. Our Lord hears 'the desire of the poor' (Ps 10:17) and bends his ear to listen to the sighing of their hearts after him, for that is all he cares for in the children of men. When their sighs reach him, he comes into their souls ... [and] that which is conquered by love is kept by recollection and contemplation." (Saint John of Avila, from Letter to a Young Lady Telling Her How to Make Ready to Receive the New-Born Jesus)

"The believer is essentially 'one who remembers.'" (Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, 13)

"That which is conquered by love is kept by recollection and contemplation." Though it may seem that more often than not God does not answer my "sighs" in the manner in which I imagine He ought to, He always answers me with some sense of His presence, even if just in a memory of how I felt it on some other occasion. Such recollection never fails to be enough when I truly need it. In this way He allows me to conquer Him over and over again with my love and longing. And because He allows me to "bind" Him "by a single hair" (Song of Solomon 4:9 Douay-Rheims), I cannot help but continue to pursue and "keep" Him through contemplation.

In Advent and always.

Amen.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Advent 2013, Day Three

"If we start without confidence, we have already lost half the battle and we bury our talents. While painfully aware of our own frailties, we have to march on without giving in, keeping in mind what the Lord said to Saint Paul: 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness' (2 Cor. 12:9)." (Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, 81)
I come to this current attempt at daily blogging not from a place of strength but with a tentative heart still broken in several places, fearful of exposing it to further misunderstanding and misuse. For the third day in a row, but more so today, it has been difficult to compose something that feels safe yet meaningful. All day I have been wondering why I have thought continuing this blog is necessary or desireable.

Partly from personal interest and partly in preparation for a work project, I have been reading Pope Francis's recent Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, "The Joy of the Gospel," and it is the paragraph quoted above that gave me courage to consider posting here today.

Then I looked back at the Lectionary for today's Mass, and found encouragement there as well, in the Communion Antiphon: "What I say to you in the darkness, speak in the light, says the Lord. What you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops" (Matthew 10:27).

Yet even with these two trustworthy nudges, I was tempted to forgo posting here today. Then I happened to open up a blog post about a statue of Jesus' mother that the blog's author has fondly nicknamed Our Lady of Brokenness. She writes:
Most of us try and cover up our brokenness in life, even after healing, but I know in my own situation some of the scars are still visible and if I start to scratch at them then they begin to bleed again.

So I am happy to have this statue of Our Lady close to me in the morning and at night as a reminder of my fragility and weakness which I become more aware of as I age.

I sometimes see it in others as well, not because I look for it, but because I recognise traits of myself. However, I am consoled by the truth that if I also witness love in others it can only be because love dwells in me also.
So, I entrust all of the words in this blog (not just today's post) to you who, for whatever reason, are reading this, believing that if you perceive the love intended here, it is because you too have love in your heart, and praying that this mutual love, if it exists, will one day lead to wholeness, in our broken selves and in our broken relationships.

Amen.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Jesus as Human, Adam as He Should Have Been: Advent 2013, Day Two

"He is fully human, ideally human. Subject to the same temptations, says the author of Hebrews, but focused upon the will of God where Adam wavered.... Jesus as human, Adam as he should have been...." (David Nystrom, Provost and Senior Vice-President of Biola University)
"If you are what you should be, you will set the whole world on fire!" (St. Catherine of Siena, 14th century)

The first of these two quotes is from day 1 (December 1) of Biola University's online advent calendar, which I did not discover until today, December 2. The meditation offered by David Nystrom accompanies an icon of Christ "found at the Monastery of St. Catherine at the foot of Mount Sinai." The icon is guessed to have been "written" in the sixth century A.D.

So, Jesus is what God had in mind when He created the first man. But Adam failed to live up to his Creator's intentions. So God Himself finally took on the flesh and blood of His creatures Himself -- not just in appearance but in actuality, being conceived in, carried in, and born from a woman's womb. And this time the man, Jesus, got it right.

But how does that help the rest of us ordinary human beings? Didn't Jesus have an edge over us, being not just a man but also 100 percent God? Aren't we still screwed?

No: that's why Jesus said more than just "imitate me." He knew that on our own we couldn't do a better job of being who we were meant to be after He lived, died, and was resurrected than we could do before He came. That's why He also said "eat me," and gave Himself to us as food:
"Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert.... I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.... I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you.... For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.... the one who feeds on me will have life because of me." (John 6:48-51)
"This saying is hard," He acknowledged, and many followers left Him because of it. But the Twelve stayed. When He asked them why, Peter said, "To whom else would we go? You are the one who has told us what we need to do to have eternal life." Peter also said, "We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God." The Holy One of God: the One for whom they -- not just the Twelve but all people, whether they realized it, as the Israelites did, or not -- had been waiting.

As we now wait.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Preparation and Unfolding: Advent 2013, Day One

"God himself assumes the form of the creature, and he puts whatever else he has to say to man into the preparation and the consequent unfolding of his incarnation.... The Church's contemplation goes on. The contemplation of the individual member participates in it, nourishes and invigorates it." (Hans Urs von Balthasar, Prayer, pp. 243, 276)
In the malls and halls of secular society, retailers and revelers have been promoting the so-called Christmas season since before Thanksgiving; among Christians, however, the celebration of Christmas--the Church's formal remembrance of the emergence of Jesus Christ from His Mother's womb--shouldn't really begin until December 25th. Until then, Christians ought to be focusing on the season called Advent, from the Latin verb advenire, "to come."

Most non-Christians know that the season that precedes the remembrance of the death and resurrection of Jesus is a time of preparation, of meditation on the events leading up to Good Friday and Easter, of self-examination and course correction. Most people, including many Christians, don't realize that Advent is meant to serve the same purpose as Lent, and like any family preparing for the changes and responsibilities that accompany the birth of a child, the Church and its individual members should prepare each year for the coming of Jesus, as though it was the first time.

What do you need to do to be ready?


Amen.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Why I Want to Win This Week's MEGA Giveaway from Brandon Vogt

"Lewis once described Arthur Greeves as his 'First Friend' and Owen Barfield as his 'Second Friend.' What was the difference? He said a First Friend shares all your interests and most secret delights and sees the world as you do: 'he and you join like raindrops on a window.' And the Second Friend? He shares your interests but approaches them from a different angle: 'He has read all the right books but has got the wrong thing out of every one.' The discussions and arguments provide a seedbed for affection." (Milton Walsh, Second Friends: C.S. Lewis and Ronald Knox in Conversation)
Today a young man named Brian Vogt, who is Content Director at Word on Fire, a Catholic ministry founded and run by Fr. Robert Barron, is accepting entries at his blog for his latest "Giveaway." This week's treasure is a collection of books about C. S. Lewis, who died fifty years ago today. A half-century later, few people have not heard of Lewis, who is still widely known and broadly influential through his many fiction and nonfiction books, most notably the Chronicles of Narnia and Mere Christianity.

Vogt provides several options for entering his Giveaway. One option was to post on my blog about which of the six books offered is most appealing to me and why. The choice is easy: Milton Walsh's Second Friends: C. S. Lewis and Ronald Knox in Conversation, published by St. Ignatius Press in 2008. Saying why is easy too. There are two reasons. The first is because at a time in my life when my Christian faith was as small and weak and hidden away as an oven's pilot light, a "Second Friend" arrived in my life, and for nearly a decade, like a match striking over and over and over against a hard surface, got and kept enough of a fire going to enable a bit of baking in the oven (including but not limited to this sporadically kept blog).

Apparently Lewis (who came to his adult Christian faith through the desert of atheism) and the less-well-known Knox (a convert to Roman Catholicism) spent time together only once, at a lunch to which they had both been invited by a mutual friend. So the book's title refers not to an actual friendship but to the sort of friendship the author believes Lewis and Knox would have experienced if they'd had the opportunity. The book, then, is not about a friendship between two men, but about two men who found the one friendship that matters most: the one with Christ--which is my second reason for wanting this book: because it is my relationship with Christ that endures beyond the limitations and failures of the Second Friendship that drew me back to Him.

Even if I don't win this book from Brandon Vogt, it is now on my list of must-reads, and I am grateful to Vogt for bringing it to my attention.

Amen.

Monday, November 4, 2013

The Saving Ridiculousness of Kolya and Zaccheus

In his Sunday Angelus message to the crowds in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis praised the "ridiculous" actions of Zaccheus, the short tax collector who climbed a tree in order to be able to see Jesus in the crowds. "This external gesture, a little ridiculous, nevertheless expresses the interior attitude of a man who seeks to bring himself above the crowd in order to have contact with Jesus.... he is ridiculous, but it is a gesture of salvation." (Kerri Lenartowick reporting in the National Catholic Register, November 3, 2013)
When I read this morning that on Sunday Pope Francis referred to Zaccheus as "ridiculous," it reminded me of some lines from an enticing chapter of Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov that a friend recently sent to me:
"Karamazov, tell me, am I very ridiculous now?"

"Don't think about that, don't think of it at all!" cried Alyosha. "And what does ridiculous mean? Isn't everyone constantly being or seeming ridiculous? Besides, nearly all clever people now are fearfully afraid of being ridiculous, and that makes them unhappy. All I am surprised at is that you should be feeling that so early, though I've observed it for some time past, not only in you. Nowadays the very children have begun to suffer from it. It's almost a sort of insanity. The devil has taken the form of that vanity and entered into the whole generation; it's simply the devil," added Alyosha, without a trace of the smile that Kolya, staring at him, expected to see. "You are like everyone else," said Alyosha, in conclusion, "that is, like very many others. Only you must not be like everybody else, that's all."

"Even if everyone is like that?"

"Yes, even if everyone is like that. You be the only one not like it. You really are not like everyone else, here you are not ashamed to confess to something bad and even ridiculous. And who will admit so much in these days? No one. And people have even ceased to feel the impulse to self-criticism. Don't be like everyone else, even if you are the only one."
Merriam-Webster's defines ridiculous as "arousing or deserving ridicule: extremely silly or unreasonable: absurd, preposterous." The key word here, it seems to me, is deserving. A deserved treatment or response is warranted, earned, just.

Was Kolya in fact "ridiculous"? Did he deserve ridicule, that is, to be criticized, judged, shamed? Alyosha's response wasn't "no, you aren't." In fact, he implies that Kolya was not only ridiculous but in fact was "bad." Yet his response to Kolya's tentative confession was, in Kolya's word, "consoling."

Kolya responds to Alyosha's compassion with words that could have been spoken by the equally "ridiculous" Zaccheus:
"Oh, how I have longed to know you, Karamazov! I've long been eager for this meeting."
Isn't this precisely why Zaccheus climbed that tree? And when Jesus saw him perched there he called to him, "Zaccheus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house." And Zaccheus did come down, "and received him with joy" (Luke 19:6).

I haven't read enough of The Brothers Karamazov to know precisely what difference Alyosha's compassion made in how Kolya lived his life. For Zaccheus, however, the encounter with Jesus was clearly transformative. In the words of Pope Francis, Zaccheus' eagerness was "a gesture of salvation," and it resulted not only in words of repentance but also in actions: "Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over.”

The encounter between Kolya and Alyosha resembles the way many of us feel when we first encounter Jesus: we feel both known and loved. "How you know it all before hand!" Kolya declares, and "Oh, how I love you and admire you at this moment...!" Alyosha warns that the future will not be easy: "You know, Kolya, you will be very unhappy in your life" (though he does soften the message with the previously demonstrated consolation, "but you will bless life on the whole all the same," which also seems to hint at authentic conversion in Kolya). And even Kolya recognizes the gravity of the relationship: "Do you know, all this last month I've been saying to myself, 'Either we shall be friends at once, for ever, or we shall part enemies to the grave!'"

I will close with what appear to be the words with which Pope Francis ended his message about Zaccheus:
He is Father, always watchfully and lovingly waiting to see revived in the heart of his child the desire to return home. And when he recognizes this desire, even if simply hinted at [as Kolya hinted to Alyosha about his own sense of being "ridiculous"], and many times almost unconscious, he is immediately next to him, and with his forgiveness makes the path of conversion and return lighter [as Alyosha did for Kolya].

Brothers and sisters, let us also call upon the name of Jesus! In the depths of our hearts, listen to his voice that tells us, "Today I must stop at your house; I want to stop at your house and in your heart," that is, in your life. And let us welcome him with joy.
Amen.

Monday, September 2, 2013

The One Essential Work

"Some of the most inspiring work in America is being done quietly.... serving the least, the last, and the lost brings renewal that comes from the deepest well of human change: the human heart." Daniel R. Coats, "Foreword," Street Saints, by Barbara J. Elliott

"You have called some to serve by work and some to serve by waiting ... some to work in public ways and some to serve in the privacy of the home ... some to serve in religious ministries and some to serve in the secular world ... some to serve in active ways and some to serve by suffering." Intercessions from Labor Day 2013 Morning Prayer, Magnificat
Today in the United States, the annual holiday known as Labor Day was observed, or at least noticed, by most of us. Often the word labor is used to refer to physical work, and to the people who do such work. It is also used to refer to the body's work of birthing a child.

But not all labor requires observable physical expenditures of effort and energy. This morning's Magnificat prayers acknowledged not only waiting and work done at home as callings from God, but also suffering. For many people, these three experiences--waiting, working in privacy, and suffering--are often intertwined and simultaneous. It is difficult to accept waiting and suffering as callings from God when we haven't asked for them and don't want to say yes to them. It is particularly difficult when we have blame to aim--whether at another person (or other people), ourselves, or God.

Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said in a Christmas message, "God called the shepherds while they were still at work doing their duty. The best place in all the world to be for a higher summons is at a post of duty. Nowhere else are great temporal and spiritual blessings to be sought. When the Lord has a great gift or message to give to one of his children He sends it to the place where that person ought to be found. It matters very little what we are doing; what does matter is that we are doing our duty."

Some of the most powerful moments of my life have been when I've realized how an earlier difficult and painful experience, season, or even whole era of my journey prepared me to do something, to contribute, to make a difference in a way I hadn't imagined until it happened. When I say prepared, I don't mean God deliberately allowed me to be hurt in some way so that I would be prepared for a later scheme. I mean what biblical hero Joseph meant when he said (in Genesis 50:20) to his brothers who had sold him into slavery many years before, "Even though you meant harm to me, God meant it for good, to achieve this present end." Despite the intentions and resulting actions of human beings, it is God's intention to accomplish good in any case, through those who choose to cooperate with him, whatever the circumstances.

And what is the good that God always intends to accomplish? According to today's evening prayer, it is this: "God's great work is the creation and redemption of the world wrought through the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. The one essential work in which we are all called to participate is God's transforming love." Let us begin to participate by letting that love transform us, even if, for a while, that means waiting, working alone, suffering, or all three.

Amen.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

And So Are We: The 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

“When you hold a lunch or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or your wealthy neighbors, in case they may invite you back and you have repayment. Rather, 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." Luke 14:12-14
"We are all created by one Creator, who establishes the members of the Body of Christ not according to our judgments but according to His own knowledge." Guigo de Ponte, 13th-century French Carthusian monk
"In most cases, people ... are far more naive and simple hearted than one generally assumes. And so are we." Fyodor Dostoevsky, Chapter 1, The Brothers Karamazov
I arrived at Mass this morning just in time to hear the opening words ("In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit") and to slip into one of the few remaining empty seats near the front of the sanctuary. I found myself standing next to a woman about my age. On the other side of her sat an older woman who I, over the next hour, surmised was her mother. When they left the pew at the end of Mass, the older woman leaned her left hand on a cane and her right hand was wrapped gently around her daughter's arm.

My almost-eighty-two-year-old stepmother ("bonus mom") is not Catholic, but I have had the joy of sitting next to her at a Catholic Mass on several occasions. One time was about nine months ago, at the funeral Mass for a longtime family friend. We had more than an hour's ride to return home, a mostly quiet journey, during which she twice broke the silence to tell me, "They said and did things at that service that seemed like they'd been doing them for thousands of years." A week or two later she went to Christmas morning Mass with me at a nearby monastery, the residents of which are mostly women her age, give or take a decade. During Communion, one of the altar servers, not knowing that my stepmom isn't Catholic, came to her in the pew and asked if she would "like to receive Jesus." "Yes," she replied. And so she did. Given the question and her answer, it seemed completely appropriate.

As on most Sundays, today we had lunch together in the public dining room of the retirement community where she lives. Afterward, we settled in at the dining-room-size table at the end of her hallway, where we indulged in our other Sunday habit: seeing how much of the current jigsaw puzzle we could assemble before one or the other or both of us got tired. Almost four hours later, on my way home, I stopped for another cup of tea. There I ran into an almost-eighty-year-old friend who just this weekend had moved out of the three-level house where she'd lived for many years with her husband (now departed) into an apartment in a retirement community similar to the one where my stepmom lives. She told me, among other things, that one of her new neighbors had invited her in for tea and a tour of her apartment, and on a large board in the center of her bed lay a large completed puzzle. The neighbor explained that her granddaughter would be arriving soon, and that the young woman, who doesn't bother trying to put puzzles together, loves to take them apart.

The first day of a new month seems as good a day as any to make a new commitment to blogging. Some days I will feel like fitting a few more pieces into the puzzle. Some days I will feel like taking the puzzle apart and putting it back in the box. Both kinds of days will be, like everything else, gifts from God.

Amen.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Beyond the Brutal One-Child Policy

On Tuesday, May 21, the New York Times, which has clearly shown itself to be supportive of the practice of abortion, in the United States as well as around the world, published an op-ed piece by Ma Jian, a novelist who lives in London, in exile from his native country, China. Ma Jian’s forthcoming novel, The Dark Road (due in June), illustrates the effect of China’s one-child policy on an ordinary Chinese woman and her husband. Ma Jian’s piece in the Times (which, like the novel, is translated by Flora Drew, his “life partner”) addresses the one-child policy. Beyond the obvious, several portions are disturbing to me:
  • According to Ma Jian, in China, each province has a "family planning bureau" with “family planning officers” who are charged with enforcing the Chinese government’s one-child policy. In the United States, our president (as well as many other members of our government) is an unabashed supporter and promoter of a very wealthy and influential organization called Planned Parenthood, the country’s largest provider of abortions. If I wasn't uncomfortable with this before (and I was), I am now. We all should be.
  • Reminiscent of the horrors we heard about in the recent trial of late-term abortionist Kermit Gosnell, Ma Jian describes what happened to one woman who "was eight months pregnant with an illegal second child and was unable to pay the 20,000 yuan fine (about $3,200)." She was "dragged" by "family planning officers ... to the local clinic, bound ... to a surgical table and injected [with] a lethal drug into her abdomen. For two days she writhed on the table, her hands and feet still bound with rope, waiting for her body to eject the murdered baby. In the final stage of labor, a male doctor yanked the dead fetus out by the foot, then dropped it into a garbage can."
  • According to Ma Jian, "China has the highest rate of female suicide in the world," yet the pro-abortion party line in the United States, despite evidence to the contrary, is that "post-abortion syndrome," which can include attempted or successful suicide, is a myth invented by ideologically motivated anti-abortionists.
  • The wording that follows the comment about suicide sounds disturbingly like pro-abortion (aka "pro-choice") rhetoric: "The one-child policy has reduced women to numbers, objects, a means of production; it has denied them control of their bodies and the basic human right to determine freely and responsibly the number and spacing of their children." Is Ma Jian only against forced abortion? Is the issue here not the killing of unborn children but rather who chooses? This sentence feels out of sync with the rest of the article, especially when, in the next paragraph, Ma Jian calls the unborn what (or who) they are: "Baby girls are also victims of the policy. Under family pressure to ensure that their only child is a son, women often choose to abort baby girls or discard them at birth." Babies. Girls.
  • "Under family pressure"many abortions "chosen" in the United States are due to "family pressure.
Ma Jian closes his piece forcefully: “Ending this scourge is a moral imperative. The atrocities committed in the name of the one-child policy over the last three decades rank among the worst crimes against humanity of the last century. The stains it has left on China may never be erased.” It still isn’t clear to me whether the author’s outrage is directed only at the one-child policy and the brutality used to enforce it, or at the killing of all unborn babies--the girls and boys--who are all “victims of the policy,” whether in China or the United Kingdom or the United States. I hope it is the latter.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

In Memory of Her

"I tell you, among those born of women, no one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he." (Luke 7:28)
It was 1990, give or take a year. I'd been living in San Francisco since late May 1988, and working for a publisher in the city's Financial District since September 1988. I spent a lot of time at the office, so it was bound to show up in my dreams now and then.

One night, I dreamed that I stood at the end (or was it the beginning?) of one of the long fifth-floor hallways. A woman was walking toward me from the other end. As she got closer, the moment came when I realized, this is my mother! Yet, she looked different than I had ever seen her before. Slender, dressed in a simple but elegant businesswoman's suit, she radiated health, and peace.

How could this be? My mother had died of cancer in 1974, when I was sixteen. I hadn't seen her in more than fifteen years.

"But, but," I stammered. "I thought you died."

"Can we talk someplace private?" she asked.

I led her to an empty cubicle. I don't remember if we stood or sat down.

"I didn't die," she assured me. "I just had to go away and get myself together. I'm fine now."

I awoke wet with sweat and tears.

I couldn't think of anything from the day or week before that may have triggered such a dream. And I was the last person I would ever have expected my mother to visit from "the other side." Her death had only seemed to confirm and intensify my already-existing feelings of emotional disconnection and abandonment. I had long felt that she didn't like me, and that I was a great disappointment to her. Yet here she was, acknowledging that she had not been "together," and offering me reassurance that she was now "fine." She didn't say "I'm sorry," yet it felt like an apology, and a promise, that if she could be "fine," then one day so could I.

I went to early Mass at the Monastery this morning. After the homily, which addressed the Gospel reading, the priest said, "Don't worry, I haven't forgotten what today is." He asked everyone to be seated for a moment—everyone except the mothers. I hesitated. In recent years I have become brave enough to acknowledge, when asked if I have children, that, yes, I am mother to one child, who didn't live long enough to be born, but he is waiting for me in heaven. This answer is meant not to honor me—because I don't deserve it—but to honor my child, whom I have promised never to allow to be forgotten.

So I hesitated, and then I sat down—feeling neither brave nor worthy enough today. Yet, as I sat with my eyes closed and my hands open, listening to the blessing offered to the standing mothers by the priest, I could hear in my heart, as though someone were whispering without words, "Receive the blessing." And my heart whispered back, "Thank you!"

Later in the morning I joined my stepmom for the worship service at the Mennonite-run retirement community where she lives. The woman who began the service mentioned Mother's Day in her first sentence. But then she said something that surprised me: she asked everyone in the congregation to remember especially those for whom Mother's Day is difficult, either because they are children whose mothers are gone, or because they are mothers whose children are gone, or because their thoughts of their mothers are filled with pain and even anger. She prayed that God would help us "to remember those things without the hurt." She didn't ask God to take away the memories, and she didn't admonish us to forget; rather, she prayed that, through Christ, God would give us the grace to remember but with freedom from the pain.

Then she said that God had a gift for every person participating in the service today. And I knew I had already received mine.

Throughout the day my mind has returned again and again to the story told in Luke 7 about the "sinful woman" who bathed Jesus' feet in expensive ointment, then wiped them with her hair. When Simon, Jesus' host, chastised him for allowing this "sort of woman" to  touch him, Jesus replied that this repentant woman had shown him far more love than Simon, who had failed to perform even the customary courtesies owed to guests in those days. "Her many sins have been forgiven," Jesus pronounced, and that is why "she has shown great love." A briefer version of the same story is also told in Matthew 26, where Jesus adds, "Wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done"—she who certainly is considered by many to be one of "the least in the kingdom of God"—will be spoken of, in memory of her."

Who was this woman? Was she someone who would have sat down when a blessing was offered for mothers only? Was she someone whose memories of her own mother were fraught with pain and anger—until Jesus allowed her to touch him?

Amen.

Friday, March 29, 2013

A Letter to Jason After Kissing the Cross

Dear Jason,

We never met while you were here but I'm someone who cares for your dad, so I hope you won't mind a letter from me.*

When I was leaving your dad's house last night, I felt a powerful urge to kiss your forehead in the beautiful painting of you that was sitting on the chair next to the front door. I began to lean toward you, then suddenly felt shy, so I just bowed to you instead. Almost immediately I was sorry I'd held back.

This afternoon I went to the "Good Friday" service at my church. Part of the hour-and-a-half-long remembrance was an ancient practice called Veneration of the Cross. A simple wooden cross the size of a man's body was carried up the center aisle to the altar by one of the robed deacons, who stopped several times on his journey to cry out, "Behold the wood of the cross, on which hung the salvation of the world," to which all the gathered responded, "Come let us adore." Each time we said that, I couldn't help feeling strongly that a word was missing: "O come let us adore HIM," like in the Christmas song "O Come All Ye Faithful." It's HIM, my heart protested, not the cross that matters.

And then we all had to file out of the pews and up to the foot of the altar and kiss that cross—and all I could think about was how much I wish I had kissed your forehead last night. It would have meant so much more to me than kissing that cross, which wasn't even the real cross that Jesus died on. Oh, OK, I know, that painting wouldn't have been your real forehead either. But for some reason it feels to me a lot more real and important than an unbloody unused cross.

Oh! Suddenly I think I know why I wanted to do that: because your forehead is where the wound—a bloody one—was made that ended your life here. Now I know why I couldn't care less about kissing a cross on Good Friday: it's Jesus hands and feet I'd rather kiss. And his pierced side, from which his earthly life flowed, like yours flowed from your forehead.

I decided to write you this letter after watching a video someone posted on Facebook this evening. It's not pretty to watch, and it's about Jesus' mother's feelings, but as I listened, all I could think of was your father's broken heart:
"O my Jesus, my loving son,
I watch you and my heart is torn apart.
O my Jesus, my gentle one,
who came to me straight from the Father's heart:
As I see your bloodied face
I almost cannot bear
the memories of when I held you close.
You've been such a good son,
you've done the Father's will....
O my son, God's precious one,
how I long to hold you close and make it go away.
O my son, God's holy one,
I cannot stop the pain,
but with all my heart I promise I will pray.
O my son who healed the leper,
and gave the blind eyesight,
O my son who showed us true love,
how could this be right?
O my son, my precious one,
I see the cuts and bruises everywhere,
and I remember when
you giggled on my lap
And now they've tortured you and stripped you bare
O my son, God's holy one,
How I long to hold you close and take it all away....
I cannot stop the pain,
But with all my heart I promise I will pray,
O my son.
A few lines in the song don't seem to apply at all and will, I'm afraid, remind your dad of his anger if he hears them: "This is the sacrifice for love you freely choose" and "we've known all along that this just has to be." Of course the manner and timing of your death did NOT have to be! Nor was your death a freely chosen sacrifice! Yet, as I began to write this paragraph, a question came to my mind: Was this death somehow the result of you choosing to love? To love your unworthy friend whose recklessness (like the recklessness of Jesus' friend Judas) made you pay the price?

This is the only thing that would make even a speck of sense to your dad.

I pray with all my soul that he will very soon have all the answers for which he aches. And that those answers will give him a peace that he can live (here) with and in—a peace that "the world" (this world without you in it, which will always, 'til the end, hurt) "cannot give."

With love, from your dad's friend

P.S. If you haven't already, please find my son Daniel and kiss his tiny forehead for me.

* Jason was killed early Sunday morning, March 3, when his car, in which he was the passenger and which was being driven in the wrong lane by a friend "under the influence," collided hard and head-on with a milk truck. Jason was only twenty-one.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Radical Grace: Music of Hope for the Sorrowing

Today was the 39th annual March for Life in Washington, DC. I participated in the occasion only by the grace of technology, sitting at my computer watching EWTN ("the Catholic channel," the only network to give "airtime" to the entire march, for which I and many others are deeply grateful) and reading (and writing) posts on Facebook. I assumed that at some point later in the day I would end up posting some sort of reflection here in response to all the thoughts and feelings stirred up in me by the day's events.

During a break in EWTN's focus on the march, I took a break too and noticed that my Australian friend Renato Bonasera of the group Radical Grace had "liked" a comment I'd left on his Facebook page a few days ago in response to his invitation for friends to review his soon-to-be officially released album His Grace Is Enough. I decided to seize the moment and write down my thoughts as I listened again to these songs I had downloaded from iTunes some months ago. As I did so, I discovered, to my delight and blessing, that I was listening to songs with a message perfect for today.

If I had to sum up His Grace Is Enough in one word, it would be hope, and each of this EP's five meditative songs will inscribe that word's meaning onto you, whether you listen to them once or over and over, as I sometimes do.

The song that shares the album's title describes empathetically how I have felt many times in my life—"all alone ... strength has gone, the flames extinguished in the night," etc.—but then reminds me what has sustained me many times before—"His grace"—and not because I have remembered where to turn, but because "someone calls your name from a distant place," and I reach out, not so much to take His hand as to let Him take mine. This is the grace: not that I seek Him, but that I, the lost sheep, am sought and found—and not just once, but again, and again.

"How sweet the sound" indeed is the album's fifth track, "Amazing Grace," a fresh, soothing rendition of a song that was already etched as deeply in my psyche as a song first heard before I could sing it could go—I had thought. I am inexpressibly grateful to hear it again today—the Feast Day of St. Paul, one of the most famous and important recipients of the grace that invites conversion; and a day on which I am powerfully reminded what it means to be "a wretch like me."

The album's middle song, "The Joy of Loving Jesus," not only calls us to be joyful in our faith, but actually imparts that very feeling—in "mind and heart and soul"—by means of its memorable melody, layered harmonies, and bouncy rhythm. Its lyrics, borrowed from the Scriptures, remind us who we love with such joy, and why: He is "the rock of salvation" (Psalm 18, Matthew 7:24-27, 1 Corinthians10:4) and "the peace He gives" is "one that the world cannot give" (John 14:27), and "where can I hide from his love?" (Psalm 139:7). Psalm 139 is, appropriately for today, the psalm that prays to God, "You formed my inmost being; you knit me in my mother’s womb.... When I was being made in secret ... your eyes saw me unformed" (verses 14-16). To discover that treasure hidden in the field of this song is an unexpected blessing.

The album's fourth song, "Our Lady of Sorrows," offers its hope in the form of reminding us that even when we, like Our Lady, stand at the foot of the Cross, suffering "along with her son," she is there with us, "sharing the Passion of our Lord," and ours. Before today, I realize now, I hadn't really seen in this song's lyrics the gift that Mary's union with her son in His Passion offers to a mother whose only child's life also ended with him bleeding and broken, leaving her own soul "pierced by a sword."
Imagining the face of her baby
Slumbering, protected from harm
Watching your son, two hearts beating as one
Shedding His blood, redeeming the lost
This Mother's Son shed His blood to redeem the mother of mine.

Finally, the album's second song, "No Need to Fear," sums up, in my view, this EP's message of hope. It is musically the most beautiful piece in the collection, I think (because of its violin and guitar interludes). It is Bonasera's worthy contribution to the music of Divine Mercy, a prayer to which I happen to know he is quite partial.
All your miseries my child
like a twig in a roaring fire
have been consumed
in the flame of my love
Your heart is known to me
Satisfied it will not be
but by my love alone
And there's no need to fear
no need to worry
when there is mercy in your soul
And there's no need for despair
no need for anguish
My heart is mercy for your soul
Let no fear or disturbance be
Let your soul draw near to me
though as scarlet be your sins
Souls who place their trust in me
graces in abundance see
and wonders unimaginable
A twig I am indeed, but the roaring fire I all too often experience is not the the flame of His love but instead my own pain, fear, and anguish. Thank you, Renato Bonasera and Radical Grace, for giving me a new prescription for the medicine of Divine Mercy, Joy, and Hope.

It is with unimaginable wonder that I recommend to you tonight His Grace Is Enough.

Amen.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

"Many Women Will Still Choose": Choose What?

"There is no law that will end the practice of abortion, only laws that can protect a woman’s right to choose it...."
Choose what?

In yesterday's New York Times, author Kate Manning described at length a variety of gruesome ways in which women would "end a pregnancy" before the legalization of abortion. (She is wrong, by the way, when she says "the United States Supreme Court made abortion legal on Jan. 22, 1973"; even the pro-abortion Guttmacher Institute acknowledges that "legal abortions were already available in 17 states under a range of circumstances beyond those necessary to save a woman's life" at the time of the Supreme Court's ruling, which "made abortion legal nationwide.")

As I read her several opening paragraphs that ask "Why would a woman" do this, that, or another thing to herself, the image that came to my mind was of a woman sitting in a bathtub of hot water and slitting her wrists with a knife and bleeding out into the water. Why would a woman do this to herself? She would do it because she wanted to die, or at least as a cry for help, as a way of screaming, "I hurt!"

I've known women who cut themselves just to feel the pain and see the blood, because they needed to experience something louder than all the pain they were already feeling and felt helpless to end. When a woman who feels this kind of pain and engages in this kind of behavior does get someone's attention, every effort is made to help that woman find healthy means to end her pain and her self-abuse.

Yet when a "desperate" pregnant woman is willing to do dangerous, damaging things to herself (not to mention to her prenatal baby, which of course Manning doesn't mention, not even once, not even by any of the common euphemisms, such as fetus), some women would encourage her and even help her to do it!

What if Manning had written an article listing the many ways that a "desperate" woman "determined" to end her life's pain could do so by ending her life? What if she had included a rant against social, religious, and governmental efforts to prevent women in such pain from killing themselves? What if she had raged against social, professional, and legal efforts to provide help for women suffering mentally and emotionally, and advocated for government funding of programs to help women end their own lives? (Sadly, this may not be so far-fetched in a world where the legalization of assisted suicide is an increasing possibility.)

Why indeed, Ms. Manning, would pregnant women do all the horribly dangerous things you have listed? The only reason you have given is "to control their own bodies."

Really???

Again, according to the pro-abortion Guttmacher Institute (in a 2005 report), the most frequently cited reason for abortion in 2004 was that "having a baby would dramatically change my life" (74%); the second most common reason given was "can’t afford a baby now" (73%); and the third reason identified was "don’t want to be a single mother or having relationship problems" (48%). The only body-control related reason given was "physical problem with my health," cited by only 13 percent of respondents (and what is meant by that is not clear).

If a woman wanted to kill herself because a health-related issue would "change her life" or because she was having financial or relationship problems, would Ms. Manning recommend that she just go ahead and kill herself so she could end her suffering? Wouldn't she instead give or find help for her to live with her health issue and solve her financial and relationship problems? Then why not do the same, in every instance, for every woman distraught because she is pregnant?

Back to the question of the day: What does a woman who chooses abortion actually choose? According to science (and understood intuitively by most individuals, societies, and religions for millennia), abortion ends the already underway life of a new, unique human being who is being nurtured and protected within his mother's womb as he grows and develops to a point when he will be physically able to breath air. Abortion kills that human being either directly (as in "partial-birth" late-term abortion) or by removing the child from the source of his nutrition, sometimes dismembering him in the process.

That is what a woman chooses when she chooses abortion. And there's a reason that abortion, even a legal early, chemically induced one, is so dangerous to women: it forcibly interrupts a natural process. Like cutting and suicide, it is an act of violence—against a woman and her prenatal child. It is an act of violence not only against their (the mother's and the child's) bodies, but also against the mother's mind, heart, and soul.

This is why people like Manning focus on "the pregnancy" and "the procedure" and on such bogus reasons as the need to control one's own body: so they don't have to say—to themselves or to others—what abortion really is and what choosing it really means. Rather than offering women and their children life-supporting options and support, they ignore the real reasons that women with little human beings growing inside them become desperate and determined and willing to risk their lives (legal abortions still sometimes cause the death of the mother) in order to end their own children's lives.

In the process, they abandon women who need help and turn them into women complicit in murder, thereby adding to their burdens rather than easing them.

I have every right to comment on this topic, because I was one of these misguided women, and although I have found peace in my soul through my faith in the forgiveness offered to me through Jesus Christ, I carry, and will carry with me every day of my life, the burden of my own complicity in my child's death. It is a cross that I am willing to bear (and to accept help to carry) rather than lay down prematurely, because by carrying it I remain always conscious of the consequences of what I did and am motivated by that stinging awareness to do whatever I can to help others hold out for real help rather than accept the lie that abortion is the answer.

Amen.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Why Epiphany Is (or Should Be) a Pro-Life Holy Day


"Be a star and, like the Magi, lead others to Jesus and His Mother."

This sentence from the homily I heard at the Epiphany Mass I attended on Sunday morning has been replaying in my mind ever since.

Until now, I have never wanted to be a star, preferring to work behind the scenes, building the set, sewing the costumes, setting the stage, finding the necessary props and providing them to the players at just the right times. To be the kind of star this sermon calls us to be, however, is not, it seems to me, inconsistent with my natural tendencies and preferences. This kind of star anyone can be, even someone who builds sets, sews costumes, and provides props as needed by those who like the spotlight.

In the Epiphany story, the star and the Magi are inseparable. If there had been no Magi, seeking a sign and willing to follow it, the star would have gone unnoticed, its purpose lost. And if there had been no star, the Magi would not have known which way to turn.

What was the star, really? There are theories, some science-based, some not, but ultimately it matters less what, technically, the Magi saw, and more that they saw and responded—out of their belief and faith.

Yesterday's homily also made the point that the Magi found not only Jesus, the child Messiah, but also His mother. This is important not only because the Church teaches that Mary was and is a necessary part of the Incarnation and God's plan of salvation. It is also important because it reveals that we cannot and should not see and respond to any child—whether prenatal or born—without seeing and acknowledging the dignity of his or her mother, and vice versa: we cannot and should not see and respond to any mother without seeing and acknowledging the dignity of her child—including and especially her prenatal child.

To treat a mother with dignity means not telling her that her prenatal child is a soulless clump of cells that can be gotten rid of with the same attitude as one would excise a tumor. It means treating her the way Mary's husband, Joseph, did—doing whatever it takes to support and protect her and her child. It means seeking and finding her and her child, bearing gifts, in order to honor them both.
O, while the star of heavenly grace
Invites us, Lord, to seek Thy face,
May we no more that grace repel,
Or quench that light which shines so well!*
Amen.

* From "What Star Is This, with Beams So Bright," Charles Coffin, 1736.
** Revised approx. 8:53 pm.

On the Twelfth Day of Christmas, My True Love Said to Me....

This past Saturday, January 5, the twelfth day of the Christmas season, was the Feast Day of St. John Neumann. The child of a German father and a Czech mother, Neumann was born in Bohemia (which now constitutes the  central and western portions of the Czech Republic). He knew early on that he wanted to be a priest. I was intrigued to learn that, as a seminarian, his studies included not only theology but also astronomy and botany. In 1836, he came to New York, where he was finally ordained a diocesan priest in June of that year. In January 1842 he joined the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, a community of priests and brothers known as the Redemptorists. He remained in the United States for the rest of his life, dying suddenly on January 5, 1860.

There are several ways in which, in a sense, our paths have crossed.

(1) The parish of which I am a member bears his name.

(2) Like my polyglot father, Neumann learned languages with ease, eventually hearing confessions in at least six languages, including Spanish, French, Italian, Dutch, and Gaelic.

(3) In 1852, four years after becoming a U.S. citizen, Neumann was made Bishop of Philadelphia, where I spent more than twenty of the earlier years of my life. During his tenure, he built dozens of churches and nearly one hundred schools. His body is buried in Philadelphia, at a shrine dedicated to his memory.

(4) In 1976, shortly before I was received into the Roman Catholic Church at Temple University's Newman Center, the Center's new building was dedicated. Cardinal John Krol presided over the dedication ceremonies. During the reception that followed the dedication Mass, the Cardinal wandered among the participants introducing himself. When he encountered me, he asked, "Is your name Dolores?" When I replied that it was not, he told me he had been watching me sing in the choir during the Mass and had wondered if my name was Dolores because I had "such sad eyes." He then handed me a small plastic box containing a medal a little larger and fatter than a silver dollar. On one side was a picture of the Cardinal, on the other, a picture of then Blessed John Neumann, who was fully canonized by Pope Paul VI in 1977.

In a sermon titled "God's Will the End of Life," Neumann spoke of the question that some of us have asked after realizing "the vanity and unprofitableness of the world": "Why then am I sent into it?"
"The world professes to supply all that we need, as if we were sent into it for the sake of being sent here, and for nothing beyond the sending.... O this curious, restless, clamorous, panting being, which we call life!—and is there to be no end to all this? Is there no object in it?...

"If there was one among the sons of men, who might allowably have taken His pleasure, and have done His own will here below, surely it was He who came down on earth from the bosom of the Father, and who was so pure and spotless in that human nature which He put on Him, that He could have no human purpose or aim inconsistent with the will of His Father. Yet He, the Son of God, the Eternal Word, came, not to do His own will, but His who sent Him.... He came on earth, not to take His pleasure, not to follow His taste, not for the mere exercise of human affection, but simply to glorify His Father and to do His will. He came charged with a mission, deputed for a work; He looked not to the right nor to the left, He thought not of Himself, He offered Himself up to God.... He sacrificed every wish of His own; that we might understand, that, if He, the Creator, came into His own world, not for His own pleasure, but to do His Father's will, we too have most surely some work to do, and have seriously to bethink ourselves what that work is....

"God sees every one of us; He creates every soul, He lodges it in the body, one by one, for a purpose. He needs, He deigns to need, every one of us. He has an end for each of us; we are all equal in His sight, and we are placed in our different ranks and stations, not to get what we can out of them for ourselves, but to labor in them for Him. As Christ has His work, we too have ours; as He rejoiced to do His work, we must rejoice in ours also."
He ended this sermon with a prayer:
"O my Lord and Savior, support me in that hour in the strong arms of Thy Sacraments, and by the fresh fragrance of Thy consolations. Let the absolving words be said over me, and the holy oil sign and seal me, and Thy own Body be my food, and Thy Blood my sprinkling; and let my sweet Mother Mary breathe on me, and my Angel whisper peace to me, and my glorious Saints, and my own dear father ... smile on me; that in them all, and through them all, I may receive the gift of perseverance, and die, as I desire to live, in Thy faith, in Thy Church, in Thy service, and in Thy love."
May this desire and this end also be ours.

Amen.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

On the Eleventh Day of Christmas, My True Love Said to Me....

Yesterday, January 4, was the Eleventh Day of Christmas. It was also the feast day of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first person born in the United States to be declared a Saint by the Roman Catholic Church.

In Emmitsburg, Maryland, there is a basilica—a very large, grand church—dedicated to honoring the life and legacy of this woman. It is built on land where St. Elizabeth worked, died (on January 4, 1821), and is buried.

In early October 2012, I spent a couple of days in Emmitsburg, and more than a few hours in that basilica. At one point, I entered a small prayer room outside the main sanctuary. On the wall to my right, written large, was this quote from Saint Elizabeth Ann: "If it succeeds, I bless God, if ... it does not succeed, I bless God, because then it will be right that it should not succeed."

These are countercultural words in a world that measures human worth on the basis of "ability to succeed," and attributes success (and failure) to human effort (or lack of effort) alone. But the Office of Readings for yesterday tells us to "work in the world yet without becoming immersed in it" and without "adopting" the "spirit of the world," "for the world in its present form is passing away" (1 Corinthians 7:31).

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton's comfortable world "passed away" with the "failure" of her husband's business and his early death due to tuberculosis, which left her with five small children and no money to support them. She turned for help to God and His Church, becoming a Catholic in March 1805. For the rest of her life she made doing the will of God the scale of her "success."

I sat for a while in that little chapel at the basilica and thought about the many "failures" of my own life. When I finally stood up and turned around to leave the room, I noticed another quote written big on the back wall: "Be but faithful to God with your whole heart, and never fear. He will support, direct, console, and finally crown your dearest hope."

The word that jumped out at me from those two sentences, and still does, was "console." Merriam-Webster's defines "console" as "to alleviate the grief, sense of loss, or trouble of; comfort." If wholehearted, fearless faithfulness enables us to receive God's support, direction, and fulfillment of hope, then why is consolation necessary?

Because for now we experience God only "through a glass darkly" (1 Corinthians 13:12) and thus our faith is not wholehearted and fearless, and we fight constantly against that darkness in ourselves.

In a talk given to her "spiritual daughters," Seton once said,
"We know certainly that our God calls us to a holy life, that he gives us every grace, every abundant grace; and though we are so weak of ourselves, this grace is able to carry us through every obstacle and difficulty.

"But we lack courage to keep a continual watch over nature, and therefore, year after year, with our thousand graces, multiplied resolutions, and fair promises, we run around in a circle of misery and imperfections. After a long time in the service of God, we come nearly to the point from whence we set out, and perhaps with even less ardor ... than when we began our consecration to him."
This is why (as God knew and knows) we needed and need Jesus to "show us the Father" (John 14:8). In John 14:7-11, He said
"If you know me, then you will also know my Father. From now on you do know him and have seen him.... The words that I speak to you I do not speak on my own. The Father who dwells in me is doing his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else, believe because of the works themselves. Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these."
This is why (as the Church knows) we also need the witness of the Saints: because they show us the truth of Jesus words, "whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these."

Amen.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

On the Tenth Day of Christmas, My True Love Said to Me....

Writing for the Twelve Days of Christmas has been a one-day-at-a-time educational process. I haven't (mostly) peeked ahead, but have let each day's focus be enough for that day.

This morning I awoke several hours before I needed to and couldn't get back to sleep for at least an hour, so I began to make use of the time, as I often do, by whispering Our Fathers, Hail Marys, and Glory Be's until my mind wandered, pulling myself back into prayer as soon as I realized my thoughts had drifted. One time when I caught myself, it occurred to me that I could just call out (quietly, of course) Jesus' name over and over, so that's what I did, and soon I was sleeping again.

When I found out later in the morning that today the Church would celebrate the feast of the Most Holy Name of Jesus, I felt like I'd been hugged by invisible arms.

I was seventeen and in my first long-term relationship with a "boy" (a young college man, actually). A few months after we'd started spending time together, he asked me one day, "Why don't you ever call me by my name?" People, he said, like to hear others say their name. Don't just say, for example, "Good morning." Say "Good morning, Paul."

I don't know why I didn't do that naturally and needed to be so instructed, but I have never forgotten his words, or the lesson. As I began practicing what I'd been taught, I discovered I liked it—both ways: I liked saying other people's names, and I liked hearing others say my name. I still do (though I have to admit—and again I don't know why—I still have to practice this courtesy consciously, almost forty years later).

Jesus' name was revealed to both Mary and Jesus by an angel announcing His conception. "Everyone," says St. Peter in Acts 2:21, "shall be saved who calls on the name of the Lord"; and "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins," he says in Acts 2:38. The Apostles performed acts of healing "in the name of Jesus Christ" (such as in Acts 3:6); they suffered "for the sake of" Jesus' name (see Acts 5:41 and 9:16, for instance); and they "preached boldly in the name of the Lord" (as Acts 9:29 tells us). And in Acts 10:43, Peter teaches that "everyone who believes in him will receive forgiveness of sins through his name."

Whether I speak your name, you speak my name, or either of us speaks the name of Jesus, why is there such power in it?