Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Hope as the Form of Life

Hope, it seems, has made its way into Hollywood. Recently at the movie theater, for instance, I saw three distinct images of hope:
  • In the trailer for X-Men: Days of Future Past, Professor Charles Xavier implores his younger self, "Please. We need you to hope again." 
  • In the trailer for Noah, hope is implicitly held out as Russell Crowe's Noah builds an ark and must face down what seems to be a horde rather intent on taking the ark for themselves. 
  • In Catching Fire, President Snow chillingly observes, "Fear does not work as long as there is hope." 
Hope is, sadly, a misused word. "I hope I do well on this test" - even though I've not studied. "I hope I lost weight this week" - even though I ate an entire chocolate cake, albeit in thin slices, over the past seven days. 

Hope, in other words, often seems to be a sort of quixotic optimism, a sentiment expressing something like "I know the odds are against me, but...". If we think of hope like this, as though it were just like wishing on a star, we sorely miss the point. 

Hope, within the theological tradition, is always directed toward a future good which, although difficult to obtain, is still possible to be reached. Or, perhaps expressed more simply, hope is less a "pie in the sky" fantasy than it is a project toward which one must strive. 

This, I think, is one of the great themes present within the Hunger Games novels and movies. In the dystopian setting of the novel, hope has not be quashed under the foot of an oppressive regime: it springs up in unlikely places, offering a tantalizing glimmer of what might be. Hope does not cast away the darkness or the shadows. Indeed, it shows forth the darkness all the more severely. Nevertheless, it resists allowing darkness or death having the final response to human life. Hope reaches out toward goodness even as it recognizes that what it most desires appears to be out of reach for the mere mortal. 

And hope is, of course, the virtue of the mere mortal. It is the virtue that gives us to see ourselves as we are: finite and human. But it is only in coming to know ourselves and our limits that we can reach past them. The first act of a diet is to weigh oneself, of a new workout program to do a fit test. We do this, not to wallow in our current state, but rather in order to get a sense of the direction we need to move. 

At the start of a new year, how are we all called to be people of hope? That is, how are we called to a radical honesty that gives us to see, even if only as a glimmer, the distant good for which we may hope? 

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

'Twas the Mass Before Christmas

Per family custom, we attended the 5:00 pm Mass at our local parish. This is, mind you, the parish I made my First Communion (March, '88) and Confirmation (February, '94). I went there throughout high school, college, and graduate school. Since I don't stay with my parents when I visit Cleveland, it's  now the case that I only go to my home parish on Christmas.

Now, Christmas Eve Mass provides an annual "Choose Your Own Adventure" liturgy. One can choose to attend Mass in the church where there'll be packed pews, usually a well-amplified if not particularly talented group of singers, and lots of familiar faces. The youthful pastor will deliver a great homily and, overall, even liturgical dilettantes can't fault it on much (well, other than the music). Sure, you'll see the well-dressed C&E crowd who take your usual Sunday seats, but that can be forgiven if for no other reason than the comedic value of watching irregular attendees continue to answer "And also with you" when the correct  answer is "and with your spirit."

Or, one can take a risk (of one's immortal soul) by going into the gymnasium. While not quite a gladiatorial death-zone, it's pretty brutal. Last year I won and we went into the church. This year, I compromised and entered into the gym...err, I mean, overflow church.

And, be assured, it was something. I was very much touched by the strumming guitar and what were referred to as "bridges" and "interludes" which, as a musician, I interpreted as mistakes covered over by heavy chording. The most my family found itself engaged was when it saw "The First Nowell" listed in the book and assumed it to be an egregious typo. The homily was so incredibly profound that I'm still, 90 minutes later, attempting to get my mind around it. Yes, the message was that profound. Or, perhaps, it was that it wasn't delivered in coherent English so that any point that may have been embedded within was lost upon the congregation.

Let me tell you: Facebook certainly experienced a log-on surge from a Western suburb of Cleveland, because just about everyone whipped out phones to wish family members "Merry XMas" or "Happy Holidays" or, for the more risque, "Merry Christmas."

Mind you, I'm never a fan of women and men wearing coats during the liturgy. I don't wear a coat when I'm eating dinner (suit or sport coat, yes, but certainly not a winter coat). Tonight, LOTS of people wore coats. I thought it was a fashion trend until Communion when the packed gym...errr, church...lost a third of its population. A sort of liturgical "Dine and Dash" as it were.

Particularly moving was the final rendition of "Joy to the World," at least for the two dozen of us remaining. I exaggerate, of course, because there were probably 100 of us still in there BUT at the conclusion of what seemed to be the final blessing they began to chat with those around them. When we were kids, we weren't allowed to leave until the priest had walked past us.

I decided to walk home from Mass. We live, after all, only a few hundred yards from gym...err, overflow church....to doorstep. I even got to walk past the main church, filled with its well-heeled worshippers. I stress "well heeled" because that's what I could see as I walked by: their heels. For, as it turns out, the overflow mass concluded a few minutes before the main church and the "dine and dash" that sapped 1/3 of our population gutted the main church. There were so many turkeys, bean casseroles with fried onions on top, and hams that were about to be burned that people fled the church as though it were on fire. Or they fled it as though they had just received Communion and ran out.

"All is calm, all is bright" - because right now, I'm drinking a glass of red wine as we prepare to celebrate this Eve of Christmas night.

The Duns Family Cousin

For any readers, know I write in slight jest -- totally truthful, but written with an eye toward humor. I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and many prayers for a happy and prayerful New Year!

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Trinity and Karaoke

In an interview given in 1990, Sandra Schneiders observed of the Trinity that, for Christians, "God is more than two men and a bird." While this should hardly come as a surprise, the observation nevertheless flies in the face of many artistic renderings of the Trinity. Indeed, I think it is the case that art attempting to depict the Trinity is at least partially to blame for the general irrelevance of the Trinity in the lives of most Christians. 

Think about it: when was the last time you prayed to the Holy Spirit? 

One way of thinking about the Trinity in a way that may be helpful is to think of the Trinity as the event of Karaoke of God's Kingdom

Karaoke begins with a song. What goes into a song? Well, first you need an author who writes Lyrics and composes Music. Consider:
  • Without the Author, you'd have neither the Lyrics nor the Music. These both flow from the Author.
  • The Lyrics tell us what the song is about. 
  • The Music gives us the rhythm that animates the Lyrics.
Notice, however, that the Lyrics and Music are distinct yet necessary. Lyrics might be nice but, without music, there's no sense of the song's flow. The Music may be beautiful or catchy but, without the Lyrics, there's no way to tell what the Author is trying to communicate. 

But, and here's the genius of Karaoke, the song must be performed. I've been to enough Karaoke bars in my lifetime to know that when someone gets up to sing a song by Aerosmith, or Michael Jackson, or U2, that the person is going to attempt to channel the way the song has been performed by someone else. This is done, to be sure, with radically varying degrees of success. Nevertheless, Karaoke is fun because it rests upon a person performing a song often made famous by one or more classical performances.

When we watch someone attempt Karaoke, we are watching a person perform the song by using his or her own voice to give expression to the Lyrics. The rhythm of the Music animates and guides the song, provides pitch and tempo, as the performer sings. In the one event of Karaoke, the performer attempts to express here-and-now the Author's Song using one's own voice and abilities. For those in the audience, it's impossible not to compare the performance to the "classical" renditions of the song, yet when the artist offers something novel or innovative, it's precisely this "play" on the classical performance that makes this particular event memorable. 

Christian discipleship is, in my imagination at least, very much like Karaoke. God has been made known in Word and Spirit, in Lyric and Music. Christians believe Jesus is the way the Song of the Creator should be performed, that Jesus is the "classic" showing us how to do this. The Holy Spirit, the rhythm of the Trinity, has been offered to all believers as the Music animating our lives and inviting us to make our own the Words of the song. We are, each of us, invited to take up the microphone...or the Cross!...and sing God's Song. 

When Catholics talk about Saints, we're basically talking about holy women and men who have shown us throughout history different ways of performing the "classic." Saint Augustine, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Saint Teresa of Avila, Saint Ignatius, and Mother Theresa: each one, in a different era, performed the "Song" in a way recognized as fitting very well to the classic. 

If we think of the Trinity in terms of Karaoke, we may begin to see that each one of us is being invited onto the stage to perform. We've been handed the mic and the Music summons us to perform. At first, we may do this with hesitation: murmuring, stumbling, and fumbling throughout. Fortunately, it's not a one-shot deal: the Music keeps playing and we are invited, over and over, to try again. We are invited to keep an eye on the "classic" and model ourselves after it, making His words our words. 

Perhaps we should, all of us, pray first each day to the Holy Spirit:

Holy Spirit of God, give me the ears to hear your Music 
that I may surrender my inhibitions 
and risk performing the Good News.
Give me the strength to enter into the Song of the Creator,
to take the Word as my model and guide,
and to be enlivened by your Music.
Make my entire life one unending performance of the Gospel, 
a song sung in the Key of the Kingdom, 
so that I might perform in you heavenly chorus now 
as I hope to perform with you in Heaven's Eternity. 

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Undergoing the Spirit

So, 2013's Person of the Year is none other than Pope Francis. I'm sure he's breathing a sigh of relief that he beat out the the patroness of twerking, Miley Cyrus, and a man who unleashed deadly chemical weapons on his own people, Bashar al-Assad. I reckon Ted Cruz and Kathleen Sebelius canceled one another out. Without question, at least to my mind, of the ten nominees, the Holy Father's great gift has been to welcome a fresh, rejuvenating Spirit into the Catholic Church.

A friend asked me, several hours after yesterday's announcement, if I was "proud" of the Pope. I didn't know quite what to say. It would seem that I should be proud, or happy, but perhaps I was above all relieved because the Holy Father is "Person of the Year" because he points away from himself. I know some of the Pope's critics think he's putting on a show, that he's hamming it up for the cameras, but I think we're witnessing the read deal. This guy loves the Good News of the Gospel and he's giving all of us a glimpse of how it looks in one particular life.

Very often, we hear about an event "grabbed headlines." Celebrities, corporations, users of Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube: the temptation is always to thrust oneself into the spotlight, to grab attention for oneself.

The Pope is to be appreciated, not because of his office or some of his more attention-grabbing gestures, but because he affirms again and again that he is who he is because of his faith. In nine months, his public witness has done what countless homilies haven't managed: to call people to at least consider what it might be to open themselves up, to allow themselves to undergo God's Holy and creative Spirit, and to be born anew in faith.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Two Weeks Until Christmas

Jesus said to the crowds:
“Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened,
and I will give you rest. 
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,
for I am meek and humble of heart;
and you will find rest for yourselves. 
For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”
                                  ~Matthew 11:28-30

Two weeks until Christmas. It's a thought that stirs hope in children and teenagers, one liable of piquing anxiety in parents. There is, of course, so much yet to be done! Shopping, end-of-year deadlines, travel arrangements, wrapping, hiding gifts, cleaning the house, buying and preparing family meals, hosting guests...Advent, the season when we are called to prepare for the Lord's coming, seems more often to be the season of our mad rushing and running about. 

What is the status of your heart, your "inner home"? I think many of us would prefer not to say because our hearts are very messy and rather cluttered. And yet it is no small part of the Good News of the Gospel that the Lord, who was born into pretty wretched conditions, not only is willing but actually desires to be born again and again in your heart.

Be warned: this Jesus fellow is a funny sort of house guest. Should you muster up the courage to answer the door, to trip over the debris strewn across your heart's floor as you fumble with the latch, he'll step in and and quickly make himself right at home. He's a bold guest in this way: without hardly a word, he'll begin to do the cleaning, to buy and re-arrange furniture, to upgrade the houses' wiring, and basically renovate his new home. This isn't because he's a snob or snoot but because he is only too happy to take up residence in any available heart, any available space, willing to have him. 

He's not remodeling the house in order to flip it for a profit. He's remaking it because he loves you and this is his gift for you: a new home, a new heart.

It's probably much easier, in our busy lives, to pray for things that will, in all likelihood, resolve themselves: Christmas dinner will be fine, the kids will have a great Christmas, your mother--in-law won't be the demon you fear. 

It's far more difficult to muster up the courage to pray Advent, to pray, "Come, Lord Jesus." For this Jesus shows up with blueprints and ideas for us we may not at first understand, with paint samples and design schemes for our hearts that frighten us. And yet, in the business and rushing of our lives, today's Gospel breaks in upon us: Jesus doesn't issue a new deadline, a new demand, but simply an invitation: be with me, let me take control, and I'll bring to you peace. 

Have we the courage to pray the great prayer of Advent, the prayer that risks more than we can imagine: Come, Lord Jesus! 

Monday, December 09, 2013

On the Immaculate Conception

Today, the Catholic Church observes the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. My father and his brother, Jack, derive waggish delight in querying this celebration: nowhere, of course, is there anything in the Bible about Mary's own conception.

My father and uncle, mind you, were both raised Missouri Synod Lutherans. That makes a wing of my family "arch-Lutherans."

So, here's the thing. The Church isn't celebrating a teaching but, rather, an event. As Herbert McCabe wrote, today we celebrate God's gift to humanity that "Mary was as holy as she could be said to be." It arose because, in and through the prayer and liturgy of early Christians, they realized that the shape and character of Jesus' life had an earthly source, a human model. Just as any parent teaches a child to speak, to eat, to get dressed, so also must parents do things like teach children manners, how to face adversity, and especially how to love. The insanely perfect way Jesus showed love for others - so perfect that we killed him for it - drew attention to Mary: what must have been the case in order for Jesus to love well? His mother must have loved perfectly, too.

Start with our experience. You know the adage, "The apple doesn't fall far from the tree." Parent/Teacher conferences were inevitably illuminating - and sometimes sobering - when in the vast majority of cases I found that if I was teaching a kid who was a big jerk, his parents were also more than a bit jerky. Of course, I was blessed to teach vastly more great kids and it was not seldom that I'd meet the parents are realize why the kid was so great: very often (but certainly not always), great kids come from great parents.

Today's Solemnity is hardly about Mary. It's all about Jesus: what must his family have been like for him to have loved so boldly? The way Jesus loved, like the way he spoke and dressed, came to him from his parents. Jesus' ongoing "Yes" to the Father, to his Abba, was a "Yes" he was raised to say. Indeed, today's Gospel passage marks, for Christians, the "Yes" that changed history: Mary's "Yes" to God.

Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato,
"Madonna with the Christ Child"
Gabriel does not impose anything on Mary; instead, the angel proposes. Such is her freedom to say "yes" even though she couldn't possibly know how that single word would change the course of history.

I love the painting on the right because Mary simply beholds her son - as new parents so readily do - and loves him. This is an image of human freedom, of having one's priorities ordered properly. She doesn't have to do anything other than be who she is: a loving mother, teacher and model, to her son.

The way Mary looked at Jesus over the years shaped the way Jesus looked at others. I doubt seriously whether Mary relished having to change diapers, feed at odd hours, or bandage scraped knees and cut elbows. And yet, surely, she must have shown great loving attentiveness because when Jesus is an adult, he too shows such loving kindness for others.

Very often, an image of Mary has been used as a cudgel to encourage women to be docile or subservient. Truly, this is a shame. I would offer Mary as the antidote to a great many of the ills and pressures facing women and men today. For, in our society, we place such a strong priority on achievement, on grasping success, on fitting into the image of success our society holds out for us.

Mary, by contrast, doesn't conform her life to any cultural norm or expectation. She has the courage to answer her vocation from the depths of her heart: her "Yes" does not carry the security of a 401k, a good job prospect, or success. Her "Yes" to God meets God's "Yes" to our human mess, to God's willingness to enter into our history to offer us a share in God's life.

Today's Solemnity looks at Jesus through Mary's lens: how did he learn to love freely and recklessly, to follow the Spirit in his heart? He did so because he was loved into loving. Mary shows all of us, men and women, the character of a redeemed life. The "yes" or "amen" we utter at the Eucharist looks forward to the day we are united, forever, at the Eucharistic feast of heaven. In Mary's "Yes" we see how humanity's perfect response to God brings into a sinful and fallen world God's "Yes" to humanity.

Friday, December 06, 2013

The Enduring Problem of Abusive Priests?

It was with no small amount of disappointment that I read this morning's story, run in the New York Times, reporting on the newly established papal commission on sex abuse. It's not that I'm disappointed that a commission has been created, of course, but rather the story's superficial reporting. 

Up front, I want to say: the sexual abuse of minors is an unconscionable crime and anyone who perpetrate such a heinous act, whether clergy or not, must be held accountable. What interests me this morning is how the story is being told and why it is disingenuous for them to report in such a way. 

Let me pick a few key lines that will help to illustrate this:
  • "...Pope Francis will establish a commission to advise him on protecting children from pedophile priests..."
  • "The announcement was a forthright acknowledgment by the Vatican of the enduring problem of abusive priests..."
  • Citing David Clohessy, from SNAP: "A new church panel is the last thing that kids need." 
  • From Anne Barrett Doyle, from BishopAccountability.org: "But we are concerned that the commission will be toothless and off-target."
  • "An aloof theologian, Benedict resigned in February..."
  • "Even as Cardinal O'Malley announced the commission, parts of the church were bracing for new disclosures. The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis told its priests that a new report would illuminate the prevalence of abuse in its parishes."
First issue: what time is this story taking place? The way the story is written, you would think that new reports of clergy abuse of minors come to light each day. Here and now, in 2013, the "enduring problem of abusive priests" continues unabated. And yet, as I wrote about in April, this is not quite true. We do know that, as of 2011, over 80% of reported cases took place before 1985. Since 2002, reports of new acts have become increasingly less common. This does not deny that clergy abuse continues to occur - we are, all of us, aware how endemic sexual abuse throughout the world - but it does question whether the present situation is as dire as it would be made to seem. 

What of the new disclosures in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis? How new were those disclosures? Again, consistent with the John Jay Study, the majority of reported cases took place between 1950 and 1985. If almost a 30-year old story is considered new, then I guess the fall of the Berlin Wall is breaking news.  

Second issue: the rhetoric of abuse. With statistically only 5% of priests with allegations against them exhibited behavior consistent with a diagnosis of pedophilia, it is a misnomer to label this an issue of "pedophile priests." 

David Clohessy is correct in his statement, but not in the way he might expect. This commission is the last things kids need: anyone in religious formation over the last decade, at least in the USA, has been saturated with learning to recognize sexual abuse and with becoming sensitive to the importance of boundaries. Although it may be the last thing "kids need," it may be just what the Church needs: an advisory panel able to give a realistic view of the failure of of many within the Church to grasp the scope of the problem.

There are bishops in place, here in the USA, who have failed in their duties as shepherds. It is scandalous to me that they are still in leadership roles: off the top of my head, I can name three who should resign due to sins of ommission, the sin of not acting decisively even when it was obvious action was demanded. 

One final issue. I think it wholly uncharitable to describe Pope Benedict as "an aloof theologian." Under Benedict's papacy, the Church took enormous steps in the direction of addressing the sexual abuse of minors. The progress made within the Church should be seen as a model for other organizations: Boy Scouts, Big Brothers and Big Sisters, after-school programs, and schools could all benefit from the energy and programming initiated thanks to Benedict. He was certainly not uninformed and hardly aloof. He may seem as such in comparison to the gregarious Francis but in his own way, Benedict was very much engaged with the life of the Church. 

I think it easy to succumb to the sensational - and clergy sex abuse is sensational - within reporting. Sensation sells. Yet this story not only perpetuates fatuous stereotypes, but it misses an opportunity to draw attention to what is a pressing issue for our entire society: the protection of our young. 

Monday, December 02, 2013

Monday, First Week of Advent

Today's Gospel contains a line familiar to any regular communicant: "Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof; only say the word and my servant will be healed." Well, except that we have taken out "my servant" and replaced it with "my soul."

What may remain unheard, however, is the "leap" the centurion makes. Here is a man, a member of the military elite, with both soldiers and slaves beneath him. He, like many of us, is accustomed to giving orders and having them obeyed. Beyond the realm of business, just think of the ways we give others orders: giving directions to a taxi driver, ordering coffee to one's specifications, trying on new shoes/clothes, ordering in a restaurant.

In this scene, however, the one accustomed to giving orders now realizes his own powerlessness. Moved by the plight of his paralyzed servant, he approaches Jesus and appeals to him for help.

Fortunately for the servant, he did not have to log into any website or wait to find out if the centurion's plan included him in its coverage. Instead of questioning the status of his insurance, Jesus provides the centurion assurance: "I will come and cure him."

I think it a great temptation, both to those used to being charge and to those more advanced in spiritual development, to think ourselves wholly independent. It's easy to convince ourselves that we are "self-made" and that all we have, all we have earned, we have gotten through our own labor. The centurion's "leap," if we may call it that, was to recognize his own powerlessness to help another. Instead of puffing himself up and blaming others for the plight of his servant, he swallowed his pride and risked a great deal of honor to come to this Jesus fellow, this itinerant preacher, to ask for help.

In our own lives, where do we need to swallow our pride and ask this Jesus for help? Is there someone in our household, someone in our life, or some place in our heart that is "paralyzed, suffering dreadfully"? It may be an addiction, a sense of shame, a long-lasting affliction...it need not matter. Is there a person, or place within ourselves, we know to be broken and in need of healing? Do we dare to ask? 

Sunday, December 01, 2013

The First Sunday of Advent

If you ever want to note how out of step the Church's readings are from mainstream culture, you need look no further than today's readings

Let's think about our culture. Although some stores seem to have put out Christmas decorations in October, so that witches and cobwebs fought with reindeer and snow globes, we are now not surprised to see and hear the sounds of Christmas. If you listen carefully, though, the decorations and music that entice us into stores, the smells of cinnamon and clove that try to remind us of the warmth of the family kitchen...they carry with them a message. 

23 days until Christmas! 16 days until Christmas! Buy now before it's too late!

The church of consumerism, whose high priests are marketing agents, sure know how to spin a deal, how to hawk their wares, how to make us anxious about potentially not being prepared for Christmas. And so, we buy. We buy early and often. Our journey toward Christmas is not a hopeful journey but, rather often, one fraught with anxiety over whether one has bought the right gives, will receive the right gifts, will have the house cleaned on time. 

It's just that, the image of preparedness they sell and expect us to buy is measured in the end by mounds of wrapping paper and bills that come in January. 

In Paul's letter to the Romans and in Matthew's Gospel, we hear quite a different story. Paul and Jesus both encourage us to be alert, to be ready. They know that we are in a period of Advent, a time of approach. Where our commercial society tells us that we are prepared if we are ready to give gifts, the Bible counters by reminding us that we are ready only when we are prepared to receive grace, when we can open ourselves to and welcome the coming of the Holy One. 

The liturgical season of Advent - just a few short weeks - reminds us explicitly what it means to live a Christian life. We are to be the people who, in each day, are mindful of the present and are able and willing to open our houses, to open our hearts, to King of Kings. We need not buy a red carpet, or purchase expensive glasses to make him feel welcome: the human heart and all that is in it are quite sufficient. 

As we begin this journey of Advent, we might wish to reflect on a question. Which gives me more energy and calls me into action: the constant refrains from stores to buy, buy, buy - or - the promise of Scripture that the Holy One is coming, is coming into our lives, and nothing we can buy can coax him into our lives. We can but open our hearts and lives and say "Welcome." 

Flute playing priest finds YouTube fame