Saturday, December 27, 2008

Holy Ground

Read a memorable quote from the writer J. D. Salinger today:  "All we ever do our whole lives is go from one little piece of Holy Ground to the next."  

If we have the eyes to see and ears to hear, we all discover sites of sacredness on our journey through life.  The obvious comes to mind: spaces specifically set aside for the sacred, like a church, a mosque, a synagogue, or a temple.  When  I was a young boy, Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Dayton, OH, was such holy ground.   Or it may be places consecrated through the centuries by people of devotion and prayer.  In May, 2007 I was part of a pilgrimage group which visited the chapel at Little Gidding in England.  The sacredness there was almost palpable.  Sometimes our holy ground is our very being, our soul, from which well up mystical realities, feelings, thoughts, inspirations to act.  There  are moments when we experience love and beauty beyond the ordinary, and we feel compelled, like Moses, to take off our shoes for all the holiness which surrounds us.  And we find holy ground also even in pain, uncertainty, anguish, and death.  My son, still in the hospital in Florida, isn't doing so well today.  We talked about a lot of things, including his need for an advance directive.  He said that he wanted to make sure, if the worst happened, that his life wouldn't be prolonged if it meant he'd have to continue in a non-responsive state.  "Right now I feel so close to God," he said, "closer than to my own body.  So it wouldn't be a bad thing to be with God."  Profound insight in the midst of suffering. Sacred words.  Holy Ground.  

How lucky I was that he shared that! And continuing the journey for another day, I proceed to the next "little piece of Holy Ground".  

John the Divine: Lover, Seer, Saint

"Everyone who sets one's heart on Jesus as God's Anointed One has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child.  By this we know that we love..., when we love God and do what God asks of us.  For this is how we love God, by doing what God asks of us. And what God asks is not burdensome.  Whoever is born of God has a power that is victorious when it confronts the world.  That victorious power is our faith.  Only the one who sets one's heart on Jesus, the Son of God, can succeed victoriously in struggling with the world...Those who don't set their hearts on God have, in essence, made God a liar by not accepting in faith the witness God has given in God's Son.  And this is God's witness:  God gave us unending life, and God's Son is the source of this life.  The one whose heart is set on the Son has life..."  
(1 John 5:1-12) 

(Stained glass window by Helen Maitland Armstrong, in the
Flemington Presbyterian Church, Flemington, NJ)  

Friday, December 26, 2008

"On the day of Stephen..."

Today, we celebrate the feast of St. Stephen, deacon and first Christian martyr.
His name means "wreath" or "crown".  Acts 6:8ff describes Stephen as a man who witnessed (Gr. martyr = witness) to others as one completely blessed with God's favor and a person of commanding presence and power.  Described also as one marked with great wisdom and the presence of God's Spirit, Stephen spoke with great conviction to his opponents: a religious group of people from Cyrene, Alexandria, Cilicia, and Asia, who hauled him before the Jewish Council.  Their take on what he said amounted, in their minds, to blasphemy, and they lost no time in stirring up others to buy into their interpretation, using some button-pushing terms:  "against the Holy Place and the Law", changing "the customs that Moses handed on to us."  

When confronted by the high priest to admit whether or not this was so, Stephen launched into a lengthy (according to St. Luke) apologia on Jewish patriarchal history, concluding with a pretty harsh indictment of the leaders' opposition to and execution of Jesus, "the Righteous One", calling them stubborn, "uncircumcised in heart", "forever opposing the Holy Spirit", and non-observers of the Mosaic law.  

Little surprise, then, that the opposition reacted with passionate and teeth-grinding anger.  Just before they carried out their verdict, which apparently was never in doubt, Stephen seems to have experienced a mystic moment and carried away by the impact of the vision, make the mistake of verbalizing it aloud.  That was the last straw! Luke graphically describes what happened next: "...They covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him.  Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul..."  Who, of course, grew up to be Paul, the fearless missionary and defender of the Christian movement, and who later regretted his collusion in Stephen's murder, and experienced his own death as a martyr, an indefatigable witness of Jesus.  

In some places, this day of St. Stephen is a time for contact with family and friends, a time when people visit one another.  In Slovakia, England, Australia, New Zealand, and Hong Kong, among others, it's observed as a day of good- will, called "Boxing Day", from the tradition of "boxing" gifts for others, especially those in need.

My visiting on St. Stephen's or Boxing Day took place with my daughter and granddaughter, and my soon-to-be son-in-law.  He and my daughter announced their engagement at Christmas.  He carried on the wonderful and courteous tradition of asking my blessing to marry her.  With great joy, especially at the prospect of finally being able to dance with my daughter at her wedding, I responded with and enthusiastic "Yes!"  We also "visited" my son, her brother, by phone to announce the glad tidings.  That brought joy to him and to us amidst the sadness of his being hospitalized for over a week now, and the prospect of many weeks to come.

With Stephen we, too, pray today: "Lord, receive my spirit."    


Thursday, December 25, 2008

My nature and his active nature are united in one 
person. Not in the person of the Word of God, but in 
the person of the man at prayer. And so what took place 
in Christ, through the virginity of the Most Holy 
Theotokos, when two natures were united in one person, 
in the hypostasis of the Divine Word, now takes place 
in me, through my virginal soul, in travail night and 
day, and finally giving birth, so that the two shall be 
"one flesh" (Gen 2:24), "one spirit" (I Cor 6:17), 
so that becoming one spirit, we will become one man. 

Aimilianos of Simonopetra, "On Prayer"
in The Church at Prayer: The Mystical Liturgy of the Heart

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

O Holy Night

Some say that ever,
`Gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour's birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long;
And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad,
The nights are wholesome,
Then no planets strike,
No fairy takes,
Nor witch hath power to charm,
                                        So hallow'd and so gracious is the time.

                                                                                                       Hamlet – Act 1, Scene 1

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Advent of Love

Bernard of Clairvaux (1090 or 1091-1153) was without doubt one of Christianity's greatest preachers.  Aside from his questionable involvement in cheering along the Crusaders, his sermons generally bespeak a man who truly loved God and who, as a Cistercian abbot, diligently taught his monks that their whole lives were to be spent in the labor of love.  

In one of his Advent sermons, Bernard speaks of the threefold benefit of the coming, the "advent", of Jesus into the world: the greatest of all demonstrations of love.  In the opening lines he declares: "If we celebrate the Lord's coming with devotion, we are doing what we ought to do. What is more, the One who has no need of our goods not only comes to us, but comes for our sake."  He goes on to explain that the cost of Christ's medicine for humankind gives some hint of the danger of its illness.  And the variety of gifts which Jesus brings, he adds, points up the multiple kinds of needs and weaknesses that we have, far too many to cover in a sermon.  So, he singles out three of them which he takes to be common among us all: 1) our blindness and propensity to be easily led astray; 2) our feeble efforts and weakness in trying to choose the good and do it; and 3) our human frailty, weak resistance and powerlessness in the face of evil.  

The punch line in this remarkably short sermon of only 22 lines (would that all we who are clergy would exercise our homiletic skills in such fashion more often!) is this: "This is why he came into the world: that by dwelling in us, with us, alongside us, he might illumine our darkness, lighten our labors, and ward off all dangers."   And all that, a no-strings-attached gift of love.  Well, maybe one little string: that we, in turn, pass that same gift on to each other.  

A quintessentially simple pre-Christmas message with immensely profound implications in each of our lives.  I think my friend, brother Toby from Starcross Community, must've been reading Bernard's sermon recently.  He sent an email on Sunday to offer comfort in my dealing with my son's current illness: "As you know," he wrote, "God is with you and needs nothing from you...all shall be well."  (For many of you, his comment "God is with you" will call to mind the familiar Advent hymn which has been sung and played so often over the past four weeks: O come, O come, EmmanuelEmmanuel, the Hebrew phrase for God with us.) Bernard probably couldn't have summed it up any better than that!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Thomas: the Apostle With Ants In His Pants

"Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith."  (Frederick Buechner)

My Roman Catholic training to the contrary, I've always sorta figured that we're supposed to have doubts.  How boring to claim to have all the answers! Where would be the excitement, the challenge, the exhilaration of pushing the envelope a little? I think Buechner has it exactly right in his wonderful image.  Doubts, like ants (especially fire ants), on our spiritual backsides will get us going every time, stir things up a bit, enliven our conversations with one another, especially if we happen to disagree on a particular matter of faith.

I think poor Thomas the Apostle has been given a raw deal.  After all, we generally refer to him as "Doubting" Thomas.  As I read John 20:24-29, Thomas doesn't actually say he doesn't believe.  He merely says, in a rather forceful way, that he needs to see the mark of the wounds and actually place his hand into the wound in Christ's side.  I think he must have been what we call a "visual learner".  He wasn't the kind who could simply take the unexamined word of his fellow apostles.  I have a hunch that, given their obvious human weaknesses on occasion in regard to faith, if he disbelieved anything it was their accuracy and supposed understanding of what was really going on in relation to Jesus the Master.  They'd all certainly done their share of bungling during their years with Jesus before he died.  Why should Thomas simply take at face value their glib proclamation that "We have seen the Lord"?

This makes sense in light of John's account of the subsequent reappearance of the Risen Christ the next week when Thomas was present, and Jesus, knowing the kind of person who Thomas is,  invites him to come to him and test the wounds out for himself.  Thomas' immediate reaction, without the blink of an eye, is to say "My Lord, my God."  John doesn't even say that Thomas, at that point, actually needed to do an actual probe.  He recognized in Jesus' risen presence the reality of the being before whom he stood, and he responded with a simple faith-response far more genuine, I think, than any of his fellows had ever done.  

Being able to ask pointed and provocative questions of faith seems to me a much more wholesome enterprise than spouting off pat, dogmatic answers on issues of great complexity and nuance.  Doubt, I believe, can be a healthy thing, causing us to push back the horizons of our convictions.  Someone has said that doubters might be described as those who are conscious of gaps in their faith and are desirous of filling in those gaps, at least as much as that is possible. Sometimes, it would seem, refusing to admit doubts of faith may indicate that a person has stopped growing in faith for whatever reason.

I once read a story about a dedicated church scholar, a man who'd devoted his life to a careful reading of Scripture and serious study of theology.  During one of his lectures he was very open about how, despite all his learning and study, he still continued to wrestle with many questions of faith.  A woman, coming away from the lecture, was heard to say:
"I came to be inspired, but the speaker has so many doubts I can't really get anything out of what he said.  How can someone who doesn't believe be a professor of Christian theology!"  Her closed mind obviously missed the message. Her mind was made up and she didn't wish to be confused with the facts! In effect, he'd try to suggest to his audience that knowledge shouldn't be confused with faith, nor doubt with lack of faith.  I wonder how she processed the story of "Doubting" Thomas when it came up each year!

Robin Van Cleef puts a nice spin on this topic which is at the heart of the Thomas story:

I look for Easter evidence.
The whole world is looking too,
searching for some sign,
some sure signal
that Christ is alive.
But all I ever seem to see
are other persons.
And ever so often
along comes someone
whose very life
is a resurrection song,
a hallelujah.

I guess that's all we have.
I guess that's all we need.
I guess that's what I need to be as well.


Sunday, December 21, 2008

Good News: The Impossible is Possible

(Today I celebrated the Eucharist and preached at Emmanuel Episcopal Church. Grass Valley, CA.  The message, seen below, is timely, especially for me and my family,  as we grapple with the news received on Friday that my son, Andrew, has had a recurrence of Bickerstaff's brainstem encephalitis, the same illness which levelled him eight years ago.)

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He’d just finished a long teaching session in the synagogue. She’d been sitting quietly toward the back of the room, taking in all he’d said. She waited until most of the others had left, then, approaching him, smiling, she took his face in her hands and said, “Jeshua, blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that nursed you!” His warm hand reached up and grasped her hand cradling his cheek as he smiled and observed, “Ah, but rather blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it.”

At that moment his mind began to wander back to when he was a young boy, to that day when he’d talked with his mother, Miriam, as she worked in the kitchen. The kind of quiet spontaneous conversation a boy enjoys with his mom. He’d asked all sorts of questions: the kind that young boys often ask when important issues and things that don’t make sense come to their minds, in no particular order.

His mother had paused as he somewhat delicately asked how he’d come to be: how he’d been born, and why Joseph was his “stepfather”. With a far-away look in her eyes, Miriam spoke softly of the day, many years ago, when she was a young woman, not much older than he was now. She and Joseph had just been betrothed, which for a Jewish couple such as they, meant that she was married to him, for all practical purposes. True, she hadn’t gone to his house to stay as yet, but that was the next step.

This particular day she’d been on her way to the well to draw water, when suddenly she felt what could only be described as a Presence: something like a dream and yet as though it was really happening. She heard words spoken to her, though not verbally, that sounded as though they were intended for someone else. There must’ve been a mistake! “Hail, O favored one. The Lord is with you.” She knew that she was a good Jewish girl: Anna and Jehoiakim had raised her such. But this was language for someone “special”, someone very close to the Holy One: not for someone as ordinary as she!

Trying very hard not to seem afraid, she nevertheless could feel herself trembling. But the Presence continued, gently but persistently, with the astounding announcement that she would soon become pregnant, immediately, in fact, and that it would be a boy, a son, and that his name would be Jeshua.

“How nice,” she remembered thinking momentarily. “Jeshua: ‘he saves’”. A name familiar to her from among her relatives. But then, in an instant, the impact of this registered with her. “This can’t be right,” she thought, “my betrothal hasn’t yet been consummated!” All these images of a great son, and thrones, and never-ending kingdoms suddenly terrified her. “How can this be, since I have no husband,” she whispered. “I’ll be stoned if they find me pregnant before Joseph and I are together.”

As she related the story to Jeshua, she’d paused briefly, sitting very quietly, then continued. The unseen Visitor had spoken about the Spirit and about the Most High’s power overshadowing her. Even as she heard this in her heart she could feel in her body that it had already been done. Something was different. Something was new.

“The child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.” The Visitor went on to tell her of her cousin Elizabeth’s pregnancy, all of which she had verified when she’d visited Elizabeth shortly thereafter. Then came words which continued to ring in her ears all through the days of her pregnancy and beyond: “For with God nothing will be impossible.”

She’d then told Jeshua how, in that strange and sudden moment as she continued on her way to the well that day, she began to make some sense of it despite her confusion. From somewhere deep inside she’d summoned up the courage to articulate what she was now feeling: “I am the Lord’s handmaid; let it be to me according to your word.” She’d heard and kept the word.

Jeshua’s mind came back from his reverie, back to the present, back to the synagogue, back to the smiling face of the older woman in front of him. From the expression on her face, as she looked him straight in the eyes, he knew that she understood what he’d just said: “Blessed, rather, are the ones who hear God’s word and keep it.”
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We draw this season of Advent, of expectation, of the Coming, to a close just as we began it. As a community of hurt, we take a hard and honest look at all the suffering, discontent, frustration, pain, disappointment, and uncertainty which characterize our lives and the lives of those around us. We acknowledge their persistent reality, knowing that they will continue as long as we await Christ’s coming.

But we wait as a community of hope and of faith also. We hope and believe because God’s word, through “the revelation of the mystery” and “through the prophetic writings”, assures us that “God... is able to strengthen you” and, as with David, assures us: “I have been with you wherever you went...” During these four weeks of Advent the Holy One has spoken to our hearts: of comfort and rejoicing, of the power of the Spirit of God. The Good News, the gospel, is intrusive speech which changes us from within if we but allow it do so.

The Good News which has come to us proclaims that what we thought impossible, God has made possible. We no longer have to remain a community of hurt. We can be in the world in a new way.

Scripture scholar, Walter Brueggemann, says that “...the life of faith is bracketed between the invitation to impossibility which begins things and the summons to praise which closes things...” “Blessed are they who hear the word of God and keep it.”

If you and I are to live as persons who glorify God, then we must be ready to embrace deep displacement in our lives. We must be able to face and live with impossibility. We must have the “obedience of faith”, to which Paul refers in the Epistle to the Romans, even as Mary did, in order to trust that God will make possible, even in us, what you and I thought and think at times to be impossible.

That necessitates our being open enough to reorganize our lives together around that powerful word of God which nullifies all our old assumptions and presuppositions and securities. It calls for not only hearing the Word, but keeping it, day after day, even in the face of contradiction.

Advent’s question is: “How can this be...?”

And the answer is Christmas: God as Word become flesh; Good News that in Jesus (the One who saves) all our impossibilities are now possible.

All that is left is for us to generously respond: “Let it be done...according to your word!”

Friday, December 19, 2008


Over the past few weeks I've been reading from Wisdom from Dorothy Day, a selection of her past articles in books and in The Catholic Worker newspaper, pulled together by editor, Patricia Mitchell.  If anyone knew a lot about community, it was Dorothy Day.  

Dorothy wrote in October, 1950:  "Writing is an act of community...comforting, consoling, helping, advising on our part, as well as asking it on yours.  It is a part of our human association with each expression of our love and concern for each other."

I was tempted not to write today.  Feeling very scattered, anxious, worried.  My son was taken to the hospital in West Palm Beach, FL on Thursday and lies in the medical ICU, diagnosis undetermined at this time.  In an earlier post I referred to his illness seven years ago, and I can only hope that this isn't a repeat.  Anyway, my conscience urged me not to forsake at least this short piece today, so here it is.  In the spirit of community, may I ask for your good thoughts and prayers for Andrew.

"Essentially each one of us is alone," says Dorothy, "and that makes us first realize our helplessness and then our need of each other and responsibility to each other..."

COMMUNITY:  a nine-letter word, and what holds it together is "U"!

Dorothy Day sums it up: "We cannot love God unless we love each other, and to love we must know each other...We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community." (From The Long Loneliness)

(Photo of Dorothy Day from the Milwaukee Journal)

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Grace and Mercy

Mom was 24 years old in 1939 when I had my first haircut.  The picture on the right is one of the last pictures I took of her before she died at 88, five years ago today.

Throughout my years of active ministry, I often began sermons and retreat talks by saying: "I was conceived in Grace, and born of Grace, because my mother's name is Grace."  Mom gave me the wondrous gift of life which I've been privileged to pass on to my children, Nicole and Andrew.  Early on, Mom instilled in me faith, honesty, respect for others and a fiercely independent spirit. She gave me the gift of belonging to my extended family, every member of whom I love, even though we're so separated by distance and time.  As any family, we have our eccentricities, petty disagreements, and failings; but when the chips are down we always come together to be there for one another.

My Mom had five sisters, seven, if you count the two who were stillborn.  Florence, my godmother, died in 1974 at age 61 of cancer, but the remaining four, Mary Jane, Suzanne, Rita, and Joan, are alive and well, two into their 80's already and two just shy of 80.  Remarkable, really, since their mother, Clara, died at the early age of 50.  "The girls", as they were often referred to through the years by friends of the family, were and are like older sisters to me, since I grew up as an only child.  That was before I discovered, many years later, that I had four half-brothers and three half-sisters!

One of the hardest days of my life was in 1995 when I had to put Mom in a nursing home as a last resort.  She lived out her final years in a place called Mercy Siena Woods.  When she died she was buried from her home church, Our Lady of Mercy.  Those who cared for Mom at the nursing home, one of them a pastoral assistant from the nuns' branch of the Precious Blood community in which I was ordained, surely witnessed to her the meaning of mercy.

I  learned only in the 1980's of Mom's frustrated desire as a young woman to have been able to follow in Florence's footsteps as a registered nurse.  After my father deserted us in 1939, Grace was a working mother with a latch-key child. Mom reflected on those days one time when we got into a deep conversation; I'll never forget it.  "...Do you know what a feeling that is when you're sitting there with not a cent in your pocketbook, and no way of getting anything, and running around with holes in the bottom of your shoes..?"  Mom was tough.  She got her first job at a big department store in Dayton, Elder-Beerman.  "...When I worked down there at Elder's," she said, "I'd come home and I'd bring my paycheck home and I would get the bus fare to get back and forth to work, and if there was enough to go around, I might get a dollar or two...I can remember how I used to practically hide in the locker room on my lunch hour because I couldn't afford to go out to eat any place and I didn't want anybody seeing me eat my...peanut butter and jelly sandwich, or what I used to take, whatever it was..."  Once she got home, especially if Grandma wasn't feeling well, Mom would cook supper, then get the younger girls bathed and ready for bed, and maybe have a little time for herself.  It couldn't have been easy.

I asked Mom what she thought she might have done had she not had all those responsibilities in the family.  She replied wistfully, "I have no idea, honey, I have no idea.  I was leaning toward [being an artist] when I was in high school.  I took art and I had those one or two good pictures...but I never kept it up..."  When I was a young boy I remember seeing some of her charcoal drawings, and they were magnificent!  Our conversation that day came to an end with Mom making the observation: "...You don't realize how much can happen in a lifetime..."  Indeed!

Mom was raised in the "old school" of Catholicism, which, for good or ill, engendered a good bit of guilt and fear.  She was scrupulous throughout her life.  She had her share of holy cards and statues and prayerbooks and religious magazines.  But aside from all the externals, deep down there was a tremendously deep, pure faith and a sense of justice which she passed on both to me and to my children.  I'll always remember Mom's love for the children of our family, and in general.  I often sat in amazement, watching her interact with them, wondering how she could relate so easily and joyfully, whatever their age.  Children seemed to delight especially in her hearty laugh and in the security they felt when she hugged them, blessedly endowed as she was with an ample bosom, which she often referred to as her "water wings".  Particularly in her younger years, Mom was a generous and giving person, remembering every family member's birthday, anniversary, or special occasion.

I suppose if I have one thing to hold against my mother, it was this:  she learned to drive back in the early 1970's, when she was in her 50's, which terrified me and probably many in my family! My first wife and I were living in Louisiana at the time, and Mom called to say that she was coming to visit us in New Orleans.  When I told her I'd pick her up at the airport, she informed me that she was driving down from Dayton solo.  We prayed an awfully lot until she arrived! But Mom was unphased by the long drive, which I had done myself several times.  The thing which truly galled me was that she made better time driving there than I'd ever done!

As I was thinking of something to say at Mom's funeral, a lyric from the song His Eye is On the Sparrow, kept rolling around in my mind.  I'd heard it sung when I was very young in a movie starring the inimitable Ethel Waters.  

I sing because I'm happy, I sing because I'm free;
His eye is on the sparrow, and He watches over me.

The loving God knows and cares for each of God's sparrows.  But Scripture reminds us that God's love and compassion for each of us goes unimaginably far beyond even that.  One need only think about one's own personal and family history to know how true this is.  Another name for that is God's forgiveness, God's mercy.

"You don't realize how much can happen in a lifetime..."  Thanks to the God of mercy for the life of Grace Elinor DeHaven.      

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Doctor of God's Love

St. John of the Cross

1542 - Juan de Yepes born to Gonzalo de Yepes & Catalina Alvarez
1545 - John's father, Gonzalo, dies
1545-46 - Family moves to Toledo, then back to Fontiveros
1547 - John's brother, Luis, dies
1548-51 - Family moves to Arévalo, then to Medina del Campo
1551-58 - Attends school; apprentice in various trades; acolyte at La Magdalena
1559-63 - Studies humanities and philosophy with Jesuits; works in the hospital in Medina
1563 - Enters novitiate at Carmelite Monastery at Medina
1564 - Profession as a Carmelite
1564-68 - Attends University of Salamanca: 3 years in the arts, 1 year in theology
1567 - Named prefect of students; ordained priest in July at Salamanca; first meets Teresa of Avila in September or October
1568 - Finishes theology at Salamanca; begins work with Teresa of Avila in the first house of discalced Carmelite friars;
accompanies Teresa to Valladolid (August) and stays several months to learn Teresa's way of life; moves to Durelo (October) to set up a monastery; appointed subprior and novice master at first house for discalced friars at Duruelo
(November 28)
1572-77 - Vicar and confessor at the Monastery of the Incarnation at Avila
1577-1578 - Abducted and imprisoned by his Order for 9 months for being too strict; composes poems: The Spiritual Canticle, For I Know Well the Spring, The Romances, and On the psalm "Super flumina Babylonis"
1579 - Founds the university college in Baeza and becomes rector
1580 - John's mother, Catalina, dies
1582 - St. Teresa of Avila dies in Alba de Tormes, October 4
1591 - John of the Cross dies at Ubeda, December 14
1675 - Clement X beatifies John of the Cross, January 22
1726 - Canonized a saint by Benedict XIII, December 27
1926 - Declared a Doctor of the Church by Pius XI, August 24

This may sound a bit suggestive, but I relate it only because it actually happened.  In 1964 our class of newly ordained priests was sent to St. Anthony's Parish in Detroit, MI, for a year-long Tirocinium (beginners' training): regular parish duties; daily and weekend Masses in nearby parishes; counselling; teaching religion at St. Anthony's Elementary and High Schools; taking classes at the University of Detroit; and helping set up a neighborhood social service program. One of my classmates, who taught in the high school as I did, opened one of his classes by asking: "Who can give me a four-letter word describing something very important in our lives, something which we all like to do."  Predictably, his question was met with a flurry of self-conscious snickers and giggles from adolescents whose hormones were raging full blast at that time.  The cogs in their dirty little minds were in overdrive suggesting another word, but one farthest from my classmate's mind just then.  He was thinking of the word "love".

"Love" is a commonly used word, especially in church circles.  How could it not run the risk of becoming devalued of its deepest connotations.  Thanks to people like John of the Cross, open minds and hearts are able to capture the true richness and beauty of love, especially as it relates to God.  I wish I had been much more open during my early seminary days.  John of the Cross, mistakenly, had the reputation then of being too profound, to heady for the likes of us lowly seminarians. When, finally, we were deemed ready to be exposed to his teaching (within the last year or so of our theological training), the presentation was so dry that many of us literally fell asleep as the professor droned on.  Sadly, he didn't even notice, or if he did, he never called us on it, as he proceeded with his lifeless presentation!  It was only recently, when I was in my 60's, that I finally picked up and completed reading John of the Cross' major works.  I was astounded! In a good rendering (try the ICS translation by Kieran Kavanaugh, OCD and Otilio Rodriguez, OCD) it's not only fairly easy reading, but one can't help being tremendously inspired by its uplifiting poetic character.

Some samples:  

From The Sayings of Light and Love, 60: (see above) "A la tarde te examinarán en el amor."  "When evening comes, you will be examined in love."

From The Spiritual Canticle, 19:  "andando enamorada, me hice perdidiza y fui ganada."  "...stricken by love, I lost myself, and was found."

From The Dark Night, 5:  "¡Oh noche que guiaste! ¡Oh noche amable más que el alborada! ¡Oh noche que juntaste
Amado con amada, amada en el Amado transformada!"  "O guiding night! O night more lovely than the dawn!
O night that has united the Lover with his beloved, transforming the beloved in her Lover."

From Letter 26 To Madre María de la Encarnación, discalced Carmelite in Segovia, July 6, 1591:
"Think nothing else but that God ordains all, and where there is no love, put love, and you will draw out love..."

In June, 1998, I visited the Convento de la Encarnación in Avila, Spain, home to both St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross.  The tour of the three open rooms was very moving.  From various objects on display, I gather that Teresa and John must have been rather short people!  It was exciting to view writings from the very hand of "La Santa", as well as John's original drawing of the Cross (shown above), a chalice which he used, and the chair where he sat to hear confessions.  Regarding the latter, when I returned from the trip, I wrote to my former boss, spiritual director, and dear friend, Fr. Bob Lechner, C.PP.S., about my visit to Encarnación.  He wrote back: "If my memory is reliable, I sat where John of the Cross sat to hear the nuns' confessions.  [Fr.] Jack Behen [another C.PP.S. priest] tells me that this makes my buns second-class relics.  Do with that what you can."  



Saturday, December 13, 2008

Rejoice always!

Gaudete, gaudete! Christus est natus  
Rejoice, rejoice! Christ is born 
Ex Maria virgine, gaudete!  
Of the Virgin Mary, rejoice! 

Tempus adest gratiæ  
The grace for which we have so longed 
Hoc quod optabamus,  
Is now at hand; 
Carmina lætitiæ  
And, in return, we devoutly offer
Devote reddamus.  
Songs of joy

Deus homo factus est  
God has become man, 
Natura mirante,  
And nature marvels
Mundus renovatus est  
As the world is made new 
A Christo regnante.         
By Christ who reigns. 

Ezechielis porta  
The closed gate of Ezechiel 
    Clausa pertransitur,     
Has been passed through; 
    Unde lux est orta     
And where the light arises 
    Salus invenitur.           
Salvation is found. 

    Ergo nostra cantio,     
And so let our song 
    Psallat iam in lustro;     
Now be sung with splendor
    Benedicat Domino:     
May it bless and praise the Lord
    Salus Regi nostro.     
Greeting to our King!

Gaudete Sunday, as this third Sunday in Advent is called because of the ancient entrance song bidding the people to “rejoice”, was designed by the early Church as a “breather” during the four Advent weeks before Christmas. Though this period had a mildly penitential character early on, that idea has been somewhat modified over the centuries. The Church chose texts for this Sunday pointing to the joy of anticipation of Jesus’ coming, and changed the penitential purple or violet vestments to rose-colored ones. 

Back in 1999, just after my son had been stricken with Bickerstaff’s encephalitis, I went to Mass on the 3rd Sunday of Advent at one of the Catholic churches near Vanderbilt University Hospital in Nashville, where he was hospitalized. I was feeling pretty low, to say the least, and needed some uplifting joy. The young priest emerged from the sacristy clad in a sheer, rose-colored vestment (similar to the one Benedict XVI is wearing above), greeted the congregation, and said: “You know, a person has to be pretty comfortable in his sexuality to come out dressed in this vestment!” Needless to say, the laughter that ensued was at least a small consolation to me. My son’s eventual complete recovery over the next year and a half was even more of a consolation!

The Christian Scriptures summon us to JOY. Psalm 126 sets the tone: “The Lord has done great things for us, and we are glad indeed...Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.” Paul, in the first letter to the Thessalonians, puts an exclamation mark to that by shouting: “Rejoice always...

But what does it mean to rejoice? On the face of it, there should be an easy answer. But things need sorting out in this often hassled and harried time of the Christmas holiday season, when we sing a lot about joy, while many people, especially this year, face staggering depths of depression.

The joy of which the Scriptures speak isn’t the same as “pleasure”, nor satiation, nor even the emotional high which we call “happiness”. This kind of joy is the steady assurance that our life’s inconsistencies and incongruities will be resolved: an assurance that what has already happened and is about to happen will enable you and me to sort out life’s conditions. This kind of joy isn’t delight in possessing something, but delight in the intense reality of being oned with God and of sharing God’s love among one another.

I think it can be safely said that our society today isn’t a very joyful society. You can figure that out simply by observing people, especially during this season, in the pushing and shoving of the shopping malls, or in any other place where peoples’ guards are down. There are a lot of bored, distracted, tired people wandering around our stores and streets: and they’re certainly not advertising joy.

Though people of faith live as a minority in the midst of a  joyless culture, they are invited to participate in the scandalous, subversive activity of joy, by doing what the surrounding society seems incapable or unwilling to do in its sorry weariness. Genuine joy undermines frantic activity. It shakes us free from a world that controls us by keeping us constantly fatigued and joyless. And the basis of this alternative activity of rejoicing is the conviction that something special, not yet widely known in the world, has been and is being disclosed by God’s graciousness to anyone who will listen. The good news of God’s Word in Jesus to humankind, a community of hurt and hope, is that the Promised One has come and is coming: coming to transform us and our world from the bottom up. “...He will do it,” says Paul!

This promised change is described in concrete terms: that a “new heavens and a new earth” will be created; that rejoicing will prevail over weeping and distress; that people’s needs will be met; that things will endure; that people’s efforts will bear fruit, not frustration; that the elimination of violence, and the building up of harmony and peace are possible. In a passage from the Hebrew Scriptures which Jesus himself used in the synagogue of his home town, Nazareth, Isaiah, in Chapter 61, speaks of healing for those crushed or oppressed or despairing; of the cancelling of debts; and of release for prisoners: of general amnesty for all. A total transformation is foretold, a newness over which all will rejoice.

Such change and transformation, Isaiah says, is the work of “the Spirit of the Lord” who initiates the moves which lead to comfort, to resoration, to righteousness, to rejoicing. It’s the Spirit who brings newness to all those places where everything is hopeless.

Paul is clear in his direction to the Thessalonian Christians: “Do not quench the Spirit.” This becomes more understandable as you look throughout the whole epistle where the Holy Spirit is seen as the power which formed and continues to transform God’s people. The Spirit has made the Thessalonian church exceptional and noteworthy, in the midst of a world which is dis-spirited. And so, Paul advises them not to resist or squelch the Spirit in times of challenge and suffering. It’s this “Force”, this resilient free power of God, the Holy Spirit, who will work an utter newness in the world and its inhabitants, so closed to God’s coming in. As in Genesis, the Spirit of the Lord blows upon chaos to make a new creation. This Holy Spirit now comes to breathe upon human hearts and to usher in a new world, a new creation in human beings. This Spirit speaks of newness from God, a newness not at all derived from anything presently available in the world.

In Advent, people of faith wait each day for this transforming Spirit whom they, in the tired, bored, joyless, and closed corners of their hearts, finally won’t be able to resist. The decisive change wrought by God’s Spirit isn’t done in some nebulous heaven. The Holy Spirit works, here and now, in flesh and blood human beings, up close and personal, through an identifiable, historical agent: Jesus of Nazareth, confessed to be the Lord who comes.

There’s a remarkable and famous painting of the Crucifixion by Matthias Grunewald in the Museum of Unterlinden in Colmar, Germany. It has a fascinating history, both as to its creation and as to its preservation during World War II. The particular thing to notice in it is the figure of John the Baptizer on the right hand side, poised in a dramatic gesture, pointing his ascetic, bony finger directly at the figure of the suffering Jesus.

I see that as a sort of icon of what John the Baptizer does in John’s gospel account (Chapter 1), as he identifies Jesus, for the Jerusalem leaders, as “the One whom you do not know.” The question which is usually focussed on (and preached on) in this gospel account is “Who are you?”, asked twice of John the Baptizer. The leaders of Jerusalem want to find a label for John, to categorize him. If they name him, they can dismiss him. But John refuses to play their game. Deeply aware that “He [Jesus] must increase, but I must decrease”, John, in essence, tells all who will hear him that that is the entirely wrong question. The real question is: “Who is Jesus?”, and John’s gesture in the Grunewald painting eloquently points to the answer. Jesus is the One who has come and given everything he has for other human beings, in love. The One who, in dying, sets loose the Spirit of God on them and on their world. The One who calls and invites all who are willing to show that same kind of giving love to one another. The One who will, in the end, draw all into the completeness of God’s being, which is love.

These last two weeks of the season of Advent might be thought of as the gracious gift of the Spirit of having not only our hopes and expectations, but even the questions which nag us, reframed and reformed. The Christ is the One among us whom we don’t know, an unseen, unknown Power which disturbs our sense of control and predictability. He, the Powerful One, won’t fit into any of the neat boxes which we try to build for him. He’s always beyond our comprehension. We can’t label what God in Christ is doing in our joyless lives so that they can be safely contained, so that we don’t actually have to change the way we live. The One whom we do not know is already among us through His Spirit, meeting us, inviting us to be one with Him. He calls us to share John the Baptizer’s role of pointing to Him, the source of true joy, to embrace the Christ in one another, our neighbor: in compassion, in justice, in love, and in joy.

Are you satisfied?

In the spring of my freshman year in college, 1956, I asked my Natural Science instructor, Fr. Norman Schmock, C.PP.S. , to be my spiritual director.  Until now I'd never really thought about why, exactly, I chose him out of all the other priests available at St. Joseph's College.  He was quiet and soft-spoken in class, and rarely smiled.  Without saying a word, he possessed a firm, though not overbearing, authority; we just knew that he meant business in that class.  The other thing which drew me to him were the eyes: the kind I've seen occasionally in others, the kind that I imagine truly "holy" people possess because they penetrate realities of which the rest of us get only a few hints.

I never knew much about Fr. Norm's personal life.  His obituary simply stated:  "He was born April 17, 1918 in Cleveland, OH.  He was ordained as a Missionary of the Precious Blood in 1943.  He taught science and math at St. Joseph's College, Rensselaer, IN, and at Calument College, Hammond, IN."      

Whatever the reason that brought us together, the first time I walked into his room and sat down his gentle blue eyes looked straight into mine and he asked, "Are you satisfied?" Without hesitating, I replied, "No."  "Good," he said, "then we can work together."   He wrote to me 38 years later, in 1994:  "...So, after all these years, you are still not satisfied! Good! That's for heaven.  Keep pressing on...God will surely find us..."  Undoubtedly we discussed my years-long fascination with the Trappists, but, as I recall, it wasn't until a month or so later that he broke the news to me that he himself was going to enter the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky that summer.  I felt three emotions: profound sadness, deep joy, and definitely a degree of envy!

Throughout his monastic life, for the next 45 years, Norm was known "Fr. Hilarion" .  Eventually he became one of several hermit monks at Gethsemani, along with Thomas Merton, who had been his Novice Master.  In fact, Hilarion, Merton, and Fr. Flavian Burns are mentioned in Michael Mott's book, The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton, speculating at an informal "convocation" they had over glasses of wine at Merton's hermitage (of course!) about who might succeed Abbot James Fox, who had recently resigned.  Merton, favored by some, didn't want the job, in fact had taken a vow not to do so.  I don't know whether or not Hilarion was ever considered; I suspect his humility would almost certainly have led him to decline.  Fr. Flavian, it seems, was destined to become the new abbot.

On August 9, 2001, I visited Gethsemani Abbey, the first time I'd been there since a retreat in 1956.  It has changed tremendously since those days! Perhaps even more so in the seven years since.  After a brief delay at the information desk, the Brother Guestmaster told me that Hilarion had had a recent "spell" with his heart and was staying in the Infirmary.  He sent one of the lay workers to accompany me through the labyrinth of hallways.  As I arrived in his room, he was sitting by the window, reading.  He looked up as I entered, stood, and the 45 years since we'd last seen one another evaporated as we embraced.  He looked much as when I'd last seen him, obviously a bit older and perhaps a tad more frail.  But still, the clear, beautiful, peaceful eyes reflecting a lifetime of divine secrets.  

We talked for an hour and a half or more: about our days at St. Joe's, about people in the Precious Blood community.  It was clear that his bond with them was as strong as ever and that they, we, had been long in his prayers.  At length, sensing that this might be the last time that I would see him, I raised the possiblity of taking his picture.  With a slightly pained expression, he indicated that he didn't want that, and I didn't press the issue.  Our visit ended with a mutual assurance of continued remembrance and prayer for one another, then a slightly prolonged embrace and a whispered "Till we meet in heaven."

Four and a half months after our visit, Fr. Hilarion died; unfortunately I didn't learn of it for another year and a half.  I was reading the May, 2002 issue of the Precious Blood community newsletter, when a small four-line obituary box caught my eye, with his last name misspelled: "Fr. Hilarion Schmoc":

"Fr. Hilarion Schmoc[k] entered into his new life in Christ on December 13, 2001...
He became a monk in 1956  and lived his life as a hermit.
When he died his final words were, 'Ah, God at last.'" 

So like what I would have expected Hilarion to say! Probably a first reaction, on that feast day of Santa Lucia, "holy light", to his first glimpse of the Presence in which he'd lived his mortal life and where he'll continue living unendingly.

"Till we meet in heaven..." , dear friend!   

Friday, December 12, 2008

Our Lady of Guadalupe

God of power and mercy, you blessed the Americas at Tepeyac with the presence of the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe. May her prayers help all men and women to accept each other as brothers and sisters. Through your justice, present in our hearts, may your peace reign in the world. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

En 1531 una mujer parecida a un indio americano humilde, Juan Diego, en Tepeyac, un noroeste de la colina de lo que es ahora México D.F. Ella se identificó como Maria, Madre de Dios. Ella solicitó que una iglesia es construida en el sitio de la aparición, y Juan Diego preguntado para someterse su petición al Obispo local. Cuándo el Obispo vaciló, y pidió un signo, la Madre de Dios respondió enviando a su mensajero, Juan Diego, a la cima de la colina para reunir a mediados de diciembre un surtido de rosas para tomar al Obispo. Muchas personas creen que en Tepeyac Maria entraron su cuerpo glorificado, y con las manos físicas verdaderas volvió a arreglar las rosas en el tilma de Juan Diego.

En el proceso, Maria también izquierda para nosotros una imagen de ella misma imprimió milagrosamente en el tilma de Juan Diego, hecho de cactus-tela de mala calidad. Debe haber empeorado dentro de 20 años, pero todavía no muestra signo de decaimiento 477 años después y todavía desafía toda explicación científica de su origen.

El mensaje de Maria del amor y la compasión, y su promesa universal ayudar y proteger a toda humanidad, así como la historia de las apariciones, es descrita en el Nican Mopohua, un documento de siglo XVI escrito en el idioma nativo de Nahuatl.

Los milagros innumerables, las curaciones, y las intervenciones son atribuidos a la intercesión de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. Anual, entre 18 - 20 millones de peregrinos visitan la Basílica, lo haciendo uno de cristiandad la mayoría de los santuarios frecuentados. Enteramente 25 Papas han honorado oficialmente a Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. Su Santidad John Paul II visitó su santuario cuatro veces: en su primer viaje apostólico fuera de Roma como Papa en 1979, y otra vez en 1990, 1999, y 2002.

La fiesta de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe es celebrado el 12 de diciembre. En 1999, Papa John Paul II, en su homilía para la Masa Solemne en la Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, declaró la fecha de 12 de diciembre como un día santo litúrgico para el continente entero.

¿Por qué el nombre Guadalupe?

El origen del nombre Guadalupe siempre ha sido un asunto de controversia. ¿Por qué, pareciendo a un nativo hace Nuestra Señora a norteamericano del imperio azteca recientemente conquistado y hablando con él en el idioma nativo de Nahuatl, se refiere a ella misma como de Guadalupeî, un nombre español? ¿Qué es exactamente la conexión de la Virgen de Tepeyac con la estatua de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe en Estremadura, España? Papa Gregorio el Gran dio al S. Leander, el Obispo de Sevilla, una estatua supuestamente milagrosa que fue perdida durante 600 años, entonces luego encontrado en 1326 por un vaquero, Gil Cordero. Esta estatua fue denominada Guadalupe para la aldea situada cerca del lugar de descubrimiento. En otras apariciones de la Virgen María ella parece identificarse como la Virgen María o la Madre de Dios, o por otros títulos, asumienda el nombre del lugar o la región donde tales apariciones ocurren, por ejemplo, Lourdes, Fatima, etc. Algún asidero que porque muchos de los conquistadores en México fueron originalmente de Estemadura, ellos pueden haber importado la devoción española a Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe a México. Otros suponen que el nombre vino acerca de a causa de la traducción de Nahuatl a español de palabras utilizadas por la Virgen durante una aparición a Juan Bernardino, el tío enfermo de S. Juan Diego. Si Nuestra Señora utilizó la palabra azteca de Nahuatl de coatlaxopeuh, quatlasupe pronunciado y notablemente semejante en el sonido a la palabra española Guadalupe, podría significar: coa o serpiente; tla, un nombre que termina que puede ser interpretado como el, mientras xopeuh puede significar para aplastar o erradicar, que resona con Génesis 3:14-19 -- así, la Señora que aplasta la serpiente.

La imagen de la serpiente sería muy familiar de la historia Mesoamericana. Los sacerdotes aztecas ejecutaron anualmente a miles de habitantes de la tierra, los hombres, las mujeres y los niños, en sacrificios humanos a los Dioses. En 1487, en justo una ceremonia cuatro día de largo para la dedicación de un nuevo templo en Tenochtitlan, los unos 80.000 cautivos fueron matados. Las mismas prácticas, que en la mayoría de los casos incluyó el canibalismo, fue común también en culturas más temprano Mesoamericanas, con Olmec esparcido, y tolteca y humano maya rituales esparcidos de sacrifico humano. Un símbolo casi universal de esa religión fue la serpiente. Los templos fueron decorados generosamente con figuras de serpiente. Los sacrificios del humano fueron anunciados por la paliza prolongadas de baterías inmensas, hechos de las pieles de serpientes inmensas, y podrían ser oído por lo que a dos millas.