Thursday, May 31, 2012

"I Believe I Am So Called"

One of the first questions which an ordaining bishop asks a candidate for the priesthood is: " you believe that you are truly called by God and his Church to this priesthood?" The candidate responds: "I believe I am so called."At the ordination ceremony representatives of the Diocese and of the candidate's parish confirm the call to priesthood from the community of the candidate whom they present. Thus, the one ordained enters into the mission and ministry of the whole people of God, the Church, with the unique responsibility of presbyter.

48 years ago today, though in the Roman Catholic Church and according to its rite, I and my classmates accepted our call as priests of the Church. It was a day like no other and its memory lives on in our hearts and lives, wherever our journey has taken us these many years later.

My stepfather, Tom DeHaven, for whose funeral Mass I was celebrant only two short years after this day, and my Mom, Grace, who died in 2003, were full of pride and incredible joy on the day of my ordination. Thanks be to God that we were all together for this milestone. And thanks be to God for every day since then, whether it brought continued joy or new sorrow. I would do it all over again in a heartbeat!

I've always loved this poem written by J. B. Lacordaire:

To live in the midst of the world
with no desire for its pleasure,
To be a member of every family
yet belonging to none,
To share all sufferings; to penetrate all secrets;
to heal all wounds, 
To go daily from men to God
to offer Him their petitions,
To return from God to men
to offer them His hope,
To have a heart of fire for charity
and a heart of bronze for chastity,
To bless and be blessed forever...
My God, what a life!
And it is yours,
O Priest of Jesus Christ!
(Père J. B. Lacordaire)

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Prayer Book

The full name of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer is The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church according to the use of the Church of England together with the Psalter or Psalms of David pointed as they are to be sung or said in churches and the form and manner of making, ordaining, and consecrating of bishops, priests, and deacons. 

Parish worship in the late medieval church in England, which followed the Latin Roman Rite, varied according to local practice, and thus used a local form or "use". The most common was the Use of Sarum, found in Southern England. The Sarum Rite wasn't collected into a single book; rather the forms of service that were to be included in the Book of Common Prayer were drawn from the Missal for the Mass, the Breviary for the Daily Office, the Manual for the occasional services, baptism, marriage, burial etc., and the Pontifical for the services appropriate to a bishop: Confirmation and ordination. 

Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556), Archbishop of Canterbury first during the reign of Henry VIII, then during that of his son Edward VI, was largely responsible for producing books in English for use in the liturgy. In his early days Cranmer was somewhat conservative, an admirer, though a critical one, of St. John Fisher (c. 1459-1535), an English Roman Catholic scholastic, cardinal, and martyr. It may have been Cranmer's visit to Germany in 1532, where he secretly married, which began the change in his thinking. As Henry began diplomatic negotiations with Lutheran princes, Cranmer came face to face with a Lutheran embassy c. 1538. The Exhortation and Litany, the earliest English-language service book of the Church of England, was the first overt tip-off as to his changing views. His was not a mere translation from the Latin: its Protestant character is made clear by the drastic reduction of the place of saints. It borrowed substantially from Martin Luther's Litany and Myles Coverdale's New Testament, and was the only service to be finished within King Henry VIII's lifetime that might be considered to be "Protestant". 

It wasn't until Henry VIII's death in 1547 and the accession of Edward VI that a revision could proceed. Cranmer finished his work on an English Communion rite in 1548, obeying an order of Convocation of the previous year that Communion was to be given to the people under both elements of bread and wine. The ordinary Roman Rite of the Mass had no provision for any congregation present to receive Communion. Cranmer, therefore, composed in English an additional rite of congregational preparation and Communion, based on the Sarum rite for Communion of the sick, to be undertaken immediately following the Communion of the celebrant, in both elements. 

A year later, in 1549, this Communion service was included in a full prayer book, set out with daily offices, readings for Sundays and Holy Days, the Communion Service, Public Baptism, Confirmation, Matrimony, The Visitation of the Sick, and Burial. The Ordinal was added in 1550. The Preface to this edition, containing Cranmer's explanation as to why a new Prayer Book was necessary, began: "There was never anything by the wit of man so well devised, or so sure established, which in continuance of time hath not been corrupted." Although the Prayer Book is commonly attributed to Cranmer, the details of how it was developed are obscure. A group of bishops and divines, both conservatives and reformers, met first at Chertsey, then at Windsor in 1548, agreed only that "the service of the church ought to be in the mother tongue". Cranmer collected the material, including the above-mentioned Preface, from many sources. He borrowed much from German sources, particularly from work commissioned by Hermann von Wied (1477-1552), Archbishop-Elector of Cologne, as well as from Andreas Osiander (1498-1552), a German Lutheran theologian, to whom he was related by marriage. The Church Order of Brandenberg and Nuremberg was partly his work. Many phrases are characteristic of the German reformer Martin Bucer (1491-1551), or of the Italian theologian, Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499-1562), who was staying with Cranmer at the time of the finalising of drafts, or of his chaplain, Thomas Beccon (c. 1511-1567), one of the "Six Preachers of Canterbury". Nevertheless, Thomas Cranmer gets the credit for the overall job of editing the Book and its overarching structure including the systematic amendment of his materials to remove any idea that human merit contributed to their salvation. 

The 1549 Prayer Book dispensed with the Latin, and with all non-biblical readings. It set up a rigorously biblical cycle of readings for Morning and Evening Prayer, according to the calendar year rather than the ecclesiastical year, and a Psalter to be read consecutively throughout each month. Cranmer provided that the New Testament, other than the Book of Revelation, be read through three times in a year, while the Old Testament, including the Apocrypha, would be read through once. 

The Book of Common Prayer was introduced on Whitsunday, 1549, after considerable debate and revision in Parliament. There is, however, no evidence that it was ever submitted to either Convocation. Neither reformers nor their opponents were pleased with it, indeed the Catholic Bishop Gardiner could say of it was that it "was patient of a Catholic interpretation". It was clearly unpopular in the parishes of Devon and Cornwall where, along with severe social problems, its introduction occasioned some of the "commotions" or rebellions in the summer of that year, partly because many Cornish people lacked sufficient English to understand it. The banning of processions and the sending out of commissioners to enforce the new requirements were particularly disliked. Apparently there was also opposition to the introduction of regular congregational Communion, partly because the extra costs of bread and wine would have to be paid by the parishes. Mainly, however, there was intense resistance to making part of regular worship a religious practice previously associated with marriage or illness.

Given this history, can we be surprised that, since 1549, there have been multiple revisions of the Book of Common Prayer, both in the Church of England and in the Episcopal Church here in the U.S. To quote Thomas Cranmer again: "There was never anything by the wit of man so well devised, or so sure established, which in continuance of time hath not been corrupted.

Lest We Forget...

Memorial Day is an annual federal holiday observed in the United States on the last Monday of May. It's a day for remembering the men and women who have given their lives while serving in the United States Armed Forces. Formerly called Decoration Day, it originated after the American Civil War to commemorate the Union soldiers who died in the Civil War, but by the 20th century it had been extended to honor all Americans who have died in all wars. It typically marks the beginning of the summer vacation season, just as Labor Day marks its end. It's common for folks to visit cemeteries and military memorials, particularly to honor those who have died in service. In many places across the country, volunteers place American flags military graves. 

By the early 20th century, Memorial Day was an occasion for more general expressions of memory, as people visited the graves of their deceased relatives in church cemeteries, whether they had served in the military or not. Annual Decoration Days for particular cemeteries, especially in the American South, are held on a Sunday in late spring or early summer, notably in the mountain areas. Oftentimes, in family graveyards where long-deceased ancestors, as well as those more recently deceased, are buried, this becomes an occasion for an extended family reunion to which some people travel hundreds of miles. The people gathered put flowers on graves and get reacquainted with kinfolk and others. There's often also a religious service and a "dinner on the ground," i.e., a potluck in which people spread dishes out on sheets or tablecloths on the grass. This practice probably began before the Civil War, and so may reflect the real origin of the "memorial day" idea. 

 The holiday's name gradually changed from Decoration Day to Memorial Day, first used in 1882, but not more common until after World War II. It was declared the official name by Federal law only in 1967. On June 28, 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, moving four holidays, including Memorial Day, from their traditional dates to a specified Monday in order to create a convenient three-day weekend, a concept not entirely acceptable to many. The law moving Memorial Day from its traditional May 30 date to the last Monday in May took effect at the federal level in 1971. After some initial confusion and unwillingness to comply, all 50 states adopted Congress's change of date within a few years. 

Scholars, following the lead of sociologist Robert Bellah, often hold that the U. S. has, in effect,  a secular "civil religion", one not associated with any specific religious denomination or viewpoint, which has incorporated Memorial Day as a sacred event. A sense of corporate and individual obligation to carry out God's will on earth, at least theoretically, is a theme lying deep in the American psyche. With the Civil War, a new theme of death, sacrifice and rebirth entered the civil religion. Memorial Day gives ritual expression to many of these themes, heightening in the local citizenry a sense of nationalism. The American civil religion has generally borrowed from different religious traditions, so that the tension between the two is minimally apparent. Nevertheless, the gravitation towards more evangelical and fundamentalist influences in recent years, blending personal motivation with attaining national goals, has been and should be cause for concern.

O Judge of nations, we remember before you with grateful hearts
the men and women of our country who in the day of decision
ventured much for the liberties we now enjoy. Grant that we may
not rest until all people of this land share the benefits of true freedom
and gladly accept its disciplines. This we ask in the name of
Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Anonymous Spirit

Ask any ordinary Christian to name the two most important feasts of the Church year. The response will likely be: “Christmas and Easter”. I guess there’s a certain logic to that, but I think that a more appropriate response might be “Easter and Pentecost”. 
We read in Acts 19:2: “[Paul] said to them, ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?’ They replied, ‘No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.’” Up to maybe 35 or 40 years ago, that would’ve been most Christians’ typical response. Someone has referred to the Holy Spirit as “the forgotten God”. Even if we have heard of the Holy Spirit, chances are that many of us aren’t at all sure what that means or, rather, who that Person is. If you had to describe what image comes into your mind when you think of the “Holy Spirit”, it wouldn’t be unusual if you visualized a sort of blur.
There are at least a couple of reasons why our understanding of the Holy Spirit is so nebulous. For openers, the Christian Scriptures don’t say a great deal about the Holy Spirit. There are only some 19 references throughout the four Gospel accounts. Even what is said there isn’t always clear, leaving us with a somewhat vague image of the Holy Spirit.  Secondly, it’s hard for us to distinguish what is characteristic of one Person of the Trinity from that of the other two Persons. Normally, it’s easier for us to relate to one God, rather than to the individual Persons of the Trinity. Theologically, that’s sound. St. Thomas Aquinas, great medieval theologian and doctor of the Church, says that the only difference between the three Persons-in-one-God is in the relations they have to one another. The Father begets the Son; the Son is the only-begotten of the Father; and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. That, of course, sounds very technical and confusing. What Aquinas means to say is that the Spirit’s mission is inseparably bound up with the mission of the Father and of the Son. Finally, the Holy Spirit is nebulous because of a sort of “anonymity” of the Spirit. The Spirit works in us, according to St. Paul, but it’s sure hard to tell just when or how the Spirit does this.
It’s a bit like when we eat food or take medicine. The energy burned up when we work comes from the food we take into our bodies. But in lifting a box or dashing up the stairs, we don’t say: “That’s good granola from breakfast causing this to happen.” If you have a headache or some other pain and take an Advil, usually the headache or pain goes away. But you don’t trace the medicine through your system in order to track each and every stage of its effects. It works “anonymously”. We know that only through its overall results.
So it is with the Holy Spirit. In the Creed we profess to set our hearts on “the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life.” This Spirit of God and of Christ is Holy precisely because the Spirit gives us wholeness of being: the Spirit is creative and life-giving. Being in relationship with God the Holy Spirit gives me a new and conscious awareness that I’m alive in the Spirit. That’s a source of tremendous hope. Additionally, being in relationship with God the Holy Spirit gives me a new orientation to everyone and everything around me, a truly enabling and transforming experience.
Two questions from the Outline of the Faith, found in the Book of Common Prayer (p. 852) are quite relevant to all this: 1) “How is the Holy Spirit revealed in the New Covenant?” and 2) “How do we recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives?” The answers given to these questions, surely not the “last word” by any stretch of the imagination, may stimulate our thinking and prayer during the “long, green season” of Pentecost. The Holy Spirit’s whole mission is to “lead us into all truth” and to “enable us to grow in the likeness of Christ”. Over the course of our lives, through all the ups and downs, we gradually come to recognize and experience the Holy Spirit’s presence when we finally truly “confess Jesus as Lord” of our lives. The other side of that coin is that the only way we can come to such recognition and experiencing of the Spirit is by finding true peace, shalom, as it’s expressed in Hebrew. That involves learning how to become integrated, made whole, made ever increasingly one with, God, ourselves, the other people who come into our lives, and the creation around us. It’s what Jesus was hinting at when he said: “I repeat, you’ll be able to tell them by their fruit.
Perhaps the most moving and beautiful testimony to the reality of the Holy Spirit for me is a poem written by St. Teresia Benedicta of the Cross/Edith Stein (1891-1942), Jewish philosopher and Carmelite nun, whose canonization as a saint in Rome in 1998 I was privileged to witness. The poem, “And I Remain With You: From a Pentecost Novena”, was apparently one of her last, if not the last, having been written at the Carmel in Echt, The Netherlands, in the summer of 1942 (she died in August at Auschwitz). I urge you to read the whole poem, from which I’ll share just two stanzas below.
  1. Who are you, sweet light, that fills meAnd illumines the darkness of my heart?
You lead me like a mother’s hand,
And should you let go of me,
I would not know how to take another step.
You are the space
That embraces my being and buries it in yourself.
Away from you it sinks into the abyss
Of nothingness, from which you raised it to the light.
You, nearer to me than I to myself
And more interior than my most interior
And still impalpable and intangible
And beyond any name:
Holy Spirit--eternal love!....
  1. Are you the sweet song of love
And of holy awe
That eternally resounds around the triune throne,
That weds in itself the clear chimes of each and every being?
The harmony,
That joins together the members to the Head,
In which each one
Finds the mysterious meaning of being blessed
And joyously surges forth,
Freely dissolved in your surging:
Holy Spirit--eternal jubilation!
(The Collected Works of Edith Stein, The Hidden Life: Essays, Meditations, Spiritual Texts, Translated by Waltraut Stein, Ph.D., ICS Publications, 1992, pp. 141 & 145)

Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Vigil of Pentecost

The liturgical Easter season has run its course once again, and today we prepare for the celebration of the feast of Pentecost. Pentecost completes Easter. The events of the Resurrection and Ascension during the past 50 days occurred, in God's providence, so that the Holy Spirit might become our "portion and cup", our "goodly heritage", as Psalm 16:5-6 so beautifully puts it. Fr. Karl Rahner expresses it another way in this striking statement: "[The Holy Spirit] is ours to such an extent that, strictly speaking, we can no longer say what man is if we omit the fact that God[self] is man's possession. God is our God: that is the glad tidings of Pentecost."
(The Eternal Year, Helicon, 1964, p. 106)

In most parishes, the liturgy is accompanied by special joyous music and, in many places, by the reading of the Gospel passage in several languages by parish members. The Day of Pentecost: Whitsunday, the feast's official name according to the Book of Common Prayer, also traditionally merits the (unofficial) wearing of specially-colored clothing, probably in imitation of this feast's liturgical color, red. My good friend and colleague, Fr. Leo Joseph, OSF, pastor of St. John's Episcopal Church, Lakeport, CA, has a splendid explanation of the background for this in the latest parish newsletter. It's too good not to pass on to you.

" Tomorrow is Pentecost! It is the day each year when not only the priest and deacon, but all of you are encouraged to wear RED. This also includes the gentlemen of the parish, you must have a red shirt or at least a tie in your wardrobe. So let's show our colors!
'Why red? Didn't this day used to be called Whitsunday in the old Prayer Book?'  'Why, yes Virginia, it did!' 'Well, why did they change it -- just to make me feel old and confuse me?'  'No, but of all the divine mysteries, this is one that I can unravel for you.'
The color red is is a powerful symbol of love, Divine Love, which was shed abroad upon the Church by the descent of the Holy Spirit on that first Pentecost. Red is also a vivid sign of tongues of fire, the form that Love took in its lighting on the heads of the Mary and the disciples on that morning. Red also stands for the blood, their own blood, that the disciples were bound to shed, if necessary, in proclaiming the Good News and living the teachings of Jesus. 
The use of red vestments and altar adornments only goes back to the late Middle Ages, but has been in constant use ever since. The older English Church tradition called for the use of the "Best Vestments" for this day, no matter what color that may be.
As far as I know, the use of the name Whitsunday, and the season Whitsuntide, is uniquely English and refers to the white garments that the neophytes, or newly baptized, wore on this day and the week following their baptism on Whitsun Eve. As we remember from the celebration of the Vigil of Easter, the public administration of Baptism was regularly done at that time, but since England did not share a mild Mediterranian climate, the formal celebration of Baptism was deferred until late Spring or early Summer so as not to lose too many new converts in an era when Baptism still involved a copious amount of extremely cold water!
With the advent of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, the title of the day was styled The Day of Pentecost: Whitsunday; and the Sundays following were numbered after Pentecost, as the Roman Church used to do, instead of after Trinity, as the English Church always did. But in the meantime the Romans changed their numbering of those Sundays to "In Ordinary Time". Now if all of this makes sense to you, I recommend that you listen to an old recording of Anna Russell's explanation of Wagner's Ring Cycle!"

Friday, May 25, 2012

A Conversation With The Venerable Monk of Jarrow

For some time, blessed Venerable Bede of Jarrow, I've had what could be called a "quiet" devotion to you. Today I read again the last sentence of the Preface to your History of the English Church and People, written for King Ceowulf and completed in 731: "I earnestly request all who may hear or read this history of our nation to ask God's mercy on my many failings of mind and body. And in return for the diligent toil that I have bestowed on the recording of memorable events in the various provinces and places of greater note, I beg that their inhabitants may grant me the favor of frequent mention in their devout prayers." I'm sorry to confess, dear Bede, that I'm conscious of that wish mostly on the yearly celebration of your feast day. Nevertheless, there are other periodic reminders, and at least today I did pray, not for any "failings" of mind or body, but in thanksgiving for your humble life all those years there at Jarrow, for the immense contribution you made as holy monk, a writer, a scholar of history, and as an observer, a commentator, a man sensitive to the human and spiritual lives of the women and men of the Church and of the world of your time. One thing I believe we share in common is a deep connection to the Communion of Saints.

As I read that sentence above, I pick up hints of what you might have been like. Obviously you probably expected that people would "hear [and] read this history". Your humility, nevertheless, is apparent, though I have to tell you, Bede, there's hardly been a author I've ever read that hasn't praised others for making their book possible and wonderful, but have taken on themselves responsibility for any "failings". Maybe that's just something authors do,   have always done, maybe even before you! You mention the "diligent toil" which went into your history, and who could argue with that after reading it. You probably already know this, but I can tell you now that it was all worth those years of hard work. It ain't perfect, and that's not just my opinion; there are gaps, again, as you're probably already well aware. But we're so very thankful for what you've given us. I thought of this when I visited your tomb at Durham Cathedral in May, 2007. You may have heard me clunk my copy of the History down on the tombstone as I knelt down. I brought the book along on the trip specifically so that, in actually touching it to your tomb, I could take home some tangible connection to you. What you wrote about St. Hild (Hilda) was also valuable as background for our visit to the abbey at Whitby on another part of that same trip. I don't suppose you two ever met, which is a shame because what a session that would've been!  You could probably have filled us in on a few more facts from her life and work.

I would love to have been with you there at Jarrow as a quiet observer each day when you were doing your research, poring over those old manuscripts, writing by candlelight. I'm guessing that, as you put all this together over the years, you must've thought, while at prayer, about all the folks you were writing about. I wonder how that shaped what you finally wrote about them. There were probably a few over whom you gritted your teeth! Were there times you had writer's block? Seems only natural that you would've had those times. But I'm guessing you were monastically grounded enough to have dealt with that patiently. And how in the world did you manage to write so much other stuff?! I mean, a work the size of the History would've been legacy enough for most people, but you were a virtual manuscript machine! Again, we're truly grateful. Even if we don't read all of them!

Your plea above for your hearers/readers to make "frequent mention in their devout prayers" again tells me how connected you were to the outside world and to the Church, how you realized that monastery walls were no barrier to the shared aspirations, dreams, hopes and prayer to your contemporaries or to us who would follow you, even many centuries later. 
When our pilgrimage group toured Lincoln Cathedral on the trip in 2007, our guide was a wonderful man named John Campbell. His tour was very rich in information and exciting, mainly because he was so enthusiastic about his task. At one point, we learned that he was from...are you ready for this?...Jarrow! He had nothing but good to say about you, by the way.  In fact, he fairly glowed as he spoke about you and about how happy he and his family were to live in the same place that you blessed by your presence for over 60 years. 

I hope that, as you asked all us, like John, who followed you to pray for you, that you're also returning the favor. There's really no doubt in my mind that you are. That said, I'm going to sign off here, using a prayer that you yourself composed and probably said everyday. 

"I implore you, good Jesus, that as in your mercy
you have given me to drink in with delight the words
of your knowledge, so of your loving kindness you will also
grant me one day to come to you, the fountain of all wisdom,
and to stand for ever before your face. Amen."      


Monday, May 21, 2012

The Trappist Martyrs of Tibhirine, Algeria, 1996

On the night of March 26-27, 1996, seven monks from the monastery Notre-Dame de l'Atlas of Tibhirine in Algeria, belonging to the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance (O.C.S.O.),  or Trappists, were kidnapped and later killed during the Algerian Civil War.

At about 1:15 AM on March 27, 1996, some twenty armed men arrived at the monastery of Tibhirine and took seven monks into custody. Two others, Fr. Jean-Pierre and Fr. Amédée, who died in 2008, escaped the kidnappers' notice, hidden in separate rooms. After the kidnappers left, the remaining monks tried to contact the police, but the telephone lines had been cut. Because of the curfew in force, they could only wait until morning before driving to the police station in Médéa. 

On April 18, the Armed Islamic Group (GIA - Groupe Islamique Armé) issued communique #43, demanding      the release of GIA leader, Abdelhak Layada, as the price for the monks' lives. On April 30, a tape with the voices of the kidnapped monks, recorded ten days earlier, was delivered to the French Embassy. On May 23, the Armed Islamic Group's communique #44 reported that the Armed Islamic Group had killed the monks on May 21. The Algerian government announced that the monks' heads had been discovered on May 31; their bodies were never found. A funeral Mass was celebrated in the Catholic Cathedral of Notre Dame d'Afrique (Our Lady of Africa), Algiers, on June 2, 1996, and their remains were buried in the cemetery of the monastery at Tibhirine on June 4. The surviving two monks of Tibhirine left Algeria, to live in the Trappist annex near Midelt in Morocco, where the late Father Bruno had been superior. 

The circumstances of the Tibhirine monks' kidnapping and deaths remain controversial. In 2008, the Italian newspaper La Stampa reported that an anonymous high-ranking Western government official, then based in Algeria and in Finland, had told them that the kidnapping had been orchestrated by a GIA group which the DRS (Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité, the Algerian state intelligence service) had infiltrated , and that the monks had then been killed accidentally by an Algerian military helicopter attacking the camp where they were being held captive. In 2009, the retired French general, François Buchwalter, who was military attaché in Algeria at the time, testified to a judge that the monks had accidentally been killed by a helicopter from the Algerian government during an attack on a guerrilla position, then beheaded after their death to make it appear as though the GIA had killed them. Ex-GIA leader Abdelhak Layada, who was in prison when the monks were killed, but was later freed under a national amnesty, responded by claiming that the Armed Islamic Group had indeed beheaded them after negotiations with the French secret services broke down.

In 2010 Xavier Beauvois directed an incredibly wonderful film version, both cinematographically and acting-wise, of the Tibhirine monks' story: Of Gods And Men (originally Des Hommes et Des Dieux). The film premiered at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival where it won the Grand Prix, the festival's second most prestigious award. It became a critical and commercial success in its domestic market, and won both the Lumière Award and César Award for Best Film.

Brother Christian, prior of the Tibhirine monastery, left behind a letter which he had written on New Year's Eve, 1993, to be opened by his community and family in the event of his death. He and the other monks were well aware of the growing tensions in Algeria, and that he, and they, might well become "a victim of terrorism which now seems ready to engulf all the foreigners living in Algeria". In the letter he assures those left behind that, while he doesn't desire such a death, indeed doesn't feel worthy of such an offering, he could never rejoice "if the people I love were to be accused indiscriminately of my murder. To owe it to an Algerian, whoever he may be, would be too high a price to pay for what will, perhaps, be called, the 'grace of martyrdom', especially if he says he is acting in fidelity to what he believes to be Islam. I am aware of the scorn which can be heaped on Algerians indiscriminately. I am also aware of the caricatures of Islam which a certain Islamism encourages. It is too easy to salve one's conscience by identifying this religious way with the fundamentalist ideologies of its extremists. For me, Algeria and Islam are something different: they are a body and a soul. I have proclaimed this often enough, I believe, in the sure knowledge of what I received from it, finding there so often that true strand of the Gospel, learnt at my mother's knees, my very first Church, in Algeria itself, and already inspired with respect for Muslim believers..."

The remarkable ecumenical spirit of Brother Christian's comments and his deep respect for another culture brilliantly shine through, both in his actual letter and in the movie's portrayal. The other element which is hard to miss in what he writes is his obvious sense of, as he puts it, "...JOY in everything and in spite of everything...this THANK YOU...sums up my whole life from now on..." His closing line reflects the epitome, not only of graciousness and selflessness, but of deep holiness: "And you also, the friend of my final moment, who would not be aware of what you were doing. Yes, I also say this THANK YOU and this 'A-DIEU' to you in whom I see the face of God. And may we find each other, happy good thieves, in Paradise, if it pleases God, the Father of us both. Amen! In sha 'Al ah!The Scripture text which comes immediately to mind is: "Greater love than this has no one than to give one's life for one's friend." What an eloquent witness the martyred Tibhirine Trappists have left for our times!  

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Post-Ascension, Pre-Pentecost Waiting

On Thursday, we celebrated one of the major feasts of the Church, the Ascension. It’s sandwiched in between the 50 days of the Easter Resurrection season and the Pentecost feast, followed by a long season after Pentecost. Since Ascension Day falls each year on a weekday, unfortunately, few Episcopalians in our society have the opportunity to reflect on its Scriptures and its powerful message. 
Did you ever wonder why doctors’ clients are called “patients”?? If you’ve ever sat in a waiting room you catch on pretty quickly that patience is a virtue.
We often wait for something extraordinary or significant: a birthday, graduation, wedding, discharge from the military, retirement. We mark the time, we wait for the “big day”. Whether it comes in the mail or by telephone, we wait for news of winning the lottery, a letter from a loved one, acceptance into college, news about a new job, results of a medical test, or a refund from the IRS. It involves a mixture of excitement and dread: Will they call? Will the letter arrive? Will the news be good? And if the expected news doesn’t come, we wait another 24 hours, wondering: Will it come tomorrow?
People’s lives interconnect in hospital waiting rooms or rooms near intensive care units, as we wait with our own or others’ family and friends for a loved one to come out of surgery or to hear news about them. If they could speak, these rooms would tell us the stories attached to our waiting: joyous and hopeful ones; anguished and sad ones.
Often in waiting a sort of community develops. Perfect strangers become comrades, if not friends, supporting and praying for one another, cheering each other on, and performing random acts of kindness. We share stories about our lives, our struggles, our hopes, our fears. Once the personal crisis is resolved, we go separate ways, most never to see one another again. Yet in the waiting we’ve been awakened to the possibility of how we might touch others’ lives.
The rag-tag band called the Apostles had followed Jesus and observed him as he spoke profound words and did astonishing things. Catching a hint of his greatness, they began to believe that the waiting would surely end in glory: except that the glory came in the form of a cross, outside Jerusalem’s walls, and what kind of glory is that!? As Jesus talked about the suffering he was to face, he prayed that they would be one. But, in the end, instead of being one they one-by-one abandoned Jesus. They never really understood.
Three days afterward, the cross of shame and defeat became a symbol of victory. Jesus, risen from death, appeared to them even as they waited in near-despair. It began to look again as though the waiting would, after all, end in glory. Then, after a short post-Resurrection time together, Jesus did a strange thing. When they asked him about restoring the kingdom, Jesus told them that it wasn’t for them to know. And before they knew it, “he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight...” Not literally, of course, not as a sort of divine “elevator” trick, but rather as an image powerfully conveying the true meaning of Jesus’ return to the Father, traditionally called “the Ascension”. 
Interestingly, the Scriptural focus on the Ascension isn’t heavenward, but earthward: “...Men of Galilee,” ask the men in white robes in the opening verses of today’s first reading from Luke’s Acts of the Apostles (1:15-17; 21-26), “why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” Jesus had recently ordered his disciples to hang tight in Jerusalem, to wait there for the Father’s promise, assuring them that the Spirit would come and empower them to be witnesses, not only in Jerusalem, but even “to the ends of the earth.”
Post-Ascension...Pre-Pentecost...waiting. Uncertainty as to what’s going on; powerlessness; questioning.
Once Jesus left, this fragmented group now held onto only some impossibly dark (from Good Friday) and impossibly ecstatic (from Easter and the Ascension) memories. That and Jesus’ promise of the Spirit to empower them, even in the midst of an unbelieving world. In today’s Gospel (John 17:6-19) Jesus says, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost...” Jesus had given them his word when he was with them, and asks the Father, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth...” What do you do, though, during the waiting time in between his leaving and the appearance of the Spirit?
Luke says the disciples acted in two ways: 1) “they devoted themselves to prayer...”; and 2) they did so “with one accord...”, “together”, “with one mind”. We really don’t know what characterized their prayer. But in light of their restoring wholeness to the group by choosing Matthias to replace Judas, as today’s first reading from Acts records, and of their later dramatic experiences of the Holy Spirit, their prayer likely consisted of several things: a frank and honest admission of their inadequacy and brokenness; an appeal for guidance as to what steps they should take in faith, given who they were and the available human resources they had; and, finally, a plea that the gift of God’s Spirit be given not for their own comfort, or for going forth to preach having all the answers, but that they might humbly learn how to reach out to others who have endlessly diverse needs, to “know” these people even as they have been known by the Father and the Risen Jesus.
Any of us, individuals or parishes, can fall victim to post-Ascension, pre-Pentecost waiting, feeling paralyzed and trapped between two realities: on one hand, the overwhelming reality of the Resurrection and Ascension, and of the Risen Lord’s invitation to us to bear witness to these events; on the other, a sort of global inertia in the face of the realities challenging the world and us, who are the Church.
Two questions suggest themselves in our post-Ascension, pre-Pentecost mood: 1) What kind of witnesses are we? 2) What is it, exactly, to which we’re to bear witness? O. Wesley Allen, Jr. observes that “The church, like the rest of society, can hardly agree on anything. We argue about the nature of sin and salvation, economic justice, who God is, military policy, worship styles, sex, inclusive language, and so forth...But by God, or better, through Christ, we ought to be able to pray together...”
Throughout history God has answered such prayer by raising up faithful witnesses, folks inconspicuous either by their numbers or by their successes, even faithful witnesses not exempt from their own blind spots and stupidities. The only remarkable thing about them is their openness to be guided by the saving grace of the Risen One whom they strive to know intimately, and to Whom they willingly bear witness in their daily lives and actions.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Ascension: Not Separation, But Fullness

In his book The Eternal Year (Helicon, 1964, Chapter XI, pp. 97-104), Fr. Karl Rahner gives the most plausible theological explanation that I've read of the meaning of a feast which has mystified countless Christians over the ages. People in the 21st century have pretty much figured out by now that the New Testament's spatial references to the Ascension ("he was taken up") or hints of a sort of "divine elevator" aren't to be taken literally. Yet as the Church continues to tell us that the Ascension is one of its major feasts, unfortunately it's celebrated traditionally on a weekday when most folks work or are engaged in their multiplicity of activities and busyness. That makes it unlikely that they'll make time for such a liturgical observance. No wonder, then, that we ask why it's important at all, or what significance can it have for our spiritual lives.

Fr. Rahner speaks of Jesus' departure from the realm of space/time as leaving us all with a sense of loss.  Yet, Rahner says, "It is alarming that we feel no grief." (p. 97) Jesus' fellow human beings at the time, particularly those who followed him, must've felt the goodness, compassion and comfort which he radiated in his words and actions, not to mention the understanding of God, his Father, which he attempted to communicate to us. "...we were able to imagine something about God besides the abstractions of philosophers. At last, there was someone who knew something, and yet did not have to speak with clever eloquence. Someone we needed only to touch, someone we dared to kiss. Someone we slapped on the shoulder in a friendly way, and he did not get all upset about it. And in these trivialities we had everything -- everything incarnate: we had God, his mercy, his grace and his nearness. The eternal Word of the Father had compressed himself into our flesh..." (pp.97-98) 

For all the talk about and defense of Jesus' humanity through the centuries, it's been my experience and that of others that when you start talking about its logical implications and reality, most Christians resist. They seem unable to handle it. So embedded, in their view of Christ, is his divinity that his humanity, except for a few of the early Fathers of the Church, gets only something of a token nod. "Yes, but..." And so, says Fr. Rahner, we acknowledge that Jesus is gone, and we accept it with indifference. It's almost as if we assume that Jesus had bigger and better things to do than remain here on earth, and, Rahner suggests, who wouldn't, after the way those who arrested Jesus, judged him, and sent him off to be crucified treated him? "Can a person like me believe in you and love you? I hope so, Lord. Have mercy on me!..." (p. 98)

In this regard, that Jesus the Christ returned to the Father, Rahner points out something very significant, one of those "logical implications" of the humanity of Jesus. " faith and my consolation are centered on this: that he has taken with him everything that is ours. He has ascended and he sits at the right hand of the Father...The absolute Logos shall look at me in eternity with the face of a man. Those who theorize on the beatific vision forget this. As yet, I have read nothing about this in any modern tract in dogma [the original of this book appeared as Kleines Kirchenjahr in 1953]. How strange! At this point pious ascetics read into the silence of the dogmaticians some sentimental anthropomorphism about joy. And what is more, they even dare -- on their way to the beatific vision -- to bypass the humanity of Jesus. As though we can do this so casually! Whoever 'imagines' things this way obviously is not sufficiently aware that God's revelation was a man..." (pp. 100-101)

When one begins to put all this together, as Rahner has done, and takes the time to seriously reflect on and pray over it, the importance of the Ascension hits one with a force which takes the breath away! When Jesus speaks of "the Spirit whom I will send...who will lead you into all truth", he's not kidding us with flowery language. The Spirit, who actually is already with us and in us, isn't present in some vague, shadowy, general sort of way, e.g., through the Commandments or through some nice "lovey" dispositions or attitudes. According to Rahner, the One Jesus give us is "...his actual spirit, the Spirit that proceeds from him as the living, given reality of his divine life...Because [Jesus] wanted to come close to us definitively, he has gone away and has taken us with him...The reason for this is that his Spirit...upon whom Christ from eternity to eternity bestows the eternal fullness of life from the Father, the Spirit over and above which there is nothing that Christ could give in all eternity -- this Spirit is already in us now..." (p.104) In the Ascension, Jesus, the human and divine Anointed One, God's Son, returns home with all that is ours, making it possible for you and me to share God's own life, Godself.

Fr. Rahner concludes: "We notice nothing of this, and that is why the Ascension seems to be separation. But it is separation only for our paltry consciousness. We must will to believe in such a nearness -- in the Holy Spirit."  

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Making A World Where It's "Easier To Be Good"

Imagine someone standing at Columbus Circle or Union Square in New York, chanting: "To give and not to take -- that is what makes man human." Such a person was Peter Maurin. His life-long goal was to promote order and justice, to contribute to creating a society "where it was easier to be good." His friend, close associate, and co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, Dorothy Day, spoke of him thus in April, 1972: "He talked about the 'Thomistic doctrine of the Common Good.' But he lived the folly of the Cross. He gave himself to all, would talk for hours and listen, too, even to a madman who came in one night and spent the night in talking. No one else would listen to him...Peter recognized the dignity and the tragedy of each human being and treated each with respect.

Born Aristide Pierre Maurin in 1877 into a poor farming family in the village of Oultet in the Languedoc region of southern France, Peter was one of 24 children. After spending time with De La Salle Brothers, Maurin served in Le Sillon, a movement founded by Marc Sangnier which aimed to reconcile Catholicism with French Republican and social ideals, and to provide an alternative to Marxism and other anticlerical labor movements. He moved for a short time to Saskatchewan, Canada, to try his hand at homesteading. Devastated by the death of his partner in a hunting accident, he then traveled to the U.S., eventually settling in New York. 

Maurin's vision to transform the social order consisted of three main ideas: 1) Establishing urban houses of hospitality to care for the destitute. 2) Establishing rural farming communities to teach city dwellers agrarianism and encourage a movement back-to-the-land. 3) Setting up roundtable discussions in community centres in order to clarify thought and initiate action. There are still Houses of Hospitality, each autonomous, but inspired by Maurin and operating according to his principles. There are also other farms, all different, but all based on the idea of the personalist and communitarian revolution

For 10 years, Maurin no longer practiced his Catholic faith "because", as he put it, "I was not living as a Catholic should." In the mid-1920s, he worked as a French tutor in the New York suburbs, and at this time, inspired by the life of Francis of Assisi, underwent a religious conversion. He ceased charging for his lessons and asked only an appropriate donation from his students. Perhaps this was motivated by St. Francis' view of labor as being a gift to the greater community, rather than as a way to promote oneself. Maurin began composing what would later be called his Easy Essays

Peter Maurin first met Dorothy Day in December, 1932, when Dorothy had just returned from Washington, D.C., where she had covered the Hunger March for Commonweal and America magazines. Dorothy had prayed, at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, on December 8, 1932, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, for inspiration for her future work. She returned to her New York apartment only to find Maurin awaiting her in the kitchen. He'd been urged by George Schuster, then editor of Commonweal, to look her up. Maurin began immediately to share with Dorothy his ideas and convictions, the sources on which he relied, and the way he viewed all facets of daily life through the lens of his quest to make the world a place "easier to be good". 

Since Dorothy Day was already a trained journalist, Maurin suggested she start a newspaper to "bring the best of Catholic thought to the man in the street in the language of the man in the street." He initially proposed the name Catholic Radical, but the paper was eventually called and distributed as The Catholic Worker beginning on May 1, 1933, right in the midst of the Great Depression. Maurin's ideas served as the inspiration for the creation of houses of hospitality for the poor, for the establishment of the Catholic Worker farms, and the regular roundtable discussions, all beginning shortly after the publication of the first issue of the newspaper. 

Shortly after the paper's first print run in early May, 1933, Peter Maurin left New York for the boys' camp at Mt. Tremper, where he worked in exchange for living quarters. The Catholic Worker emphasized political and union activity, with the intention of fighting social injustice. Maurin felt that this wasn't radical or "personalist" enough. He believed that there should be more stress on life in small agricultural communities. He used to say, “There is no unemployment on the land.” 

For much of his life, Maurin lived in Easton, PA, where he worked on the first Catholic Worker-owned farming commune: Mary Farm. He joined those of the Catholic Worker movement who picketed the Mexican and German consulates during the 1930s, and also traveled extensively, lecturing at parishes, colleges, and meetings across the U.S., oftentimes in sync with Dorothy Day's speaking tours. 

In 1944, Peter Maurin began to lose his memory. His condition progressively deteriorated until he died, age 71, at Maryfarm near Newburgh, NY, on May 15, 1949, which, interestingly, happened to be the feast of St. Dymphna, patroness of mental health, the anniversary also of St. John Baptiste de la Salle, as well as of the Papal social encyclicals, Rerum Novarum (Leo XIII, 1891) and Quadragesimo Anno (Pius XI, 1931). In the June issue of The Catholic Worker, Dorothy Day describes his passing: "At eleven that night, Hans [Tunnesen] said, Peter began coughing, and it went on for some minutes. Then he tried to rise and fells over on his pillow, breathing heavily. Hans put on the light and...others came too, and there"e were prayers for the dying about the bedside. He died immediately, there was no struggle, no pain. He was laid out at Newburgh the first night, in the conference room where he had sat so often, trying to understand the discussions and lectures. Flowers were all about him from shrubs in the garden and from our neighbors. He wore for shroud a suit which had been sent in for the poor. There was no rouge on his grey face which looked like granite, strong, contemplative, set toward eternity. There was a requiem Mass in our chapel...Peter was buried in St. John's Cemetery, Queens, in a grave given us by Fr. Pierre Conway, the Dominican. Peter was another St. John, a voice crying in the wilderness, and a voice saying, 'My little children, love one another'..." At the Maurin's wake, many people were seen to surreptitiously touch their rosaries to his hands, showing their esteem for his sanctity. 

The Staten Island Catholic Worker farm, currently in Marlboro, NY, was named after Peter Maurin following his death, as would have pleased him.  His own words are fitting: "Cult, Culture, and Cultivation. When the Irish scholars decided to lay the foundations of medieval Europe, they established Centers of Thought in all the cities of Europe as far as Constantinople, where people could look for thought so they could have light. Houses of Hospitality where Christian charity were exemplified. Agricultural Centers where they combined (a) Cult — that is to say Liturgy (b) with Culture that is to say Literature (c) with Cultivation— that is to say Agriculture." (From his Easy Essays

One can somewhat appreciate the major forces which motivated Peter Maurin's quest for justice and equality by simply looking at a list of authors he had recommended for Dorothy Day to read: Fr. Vincent McNabb, Eric Gill, Jacques Maritain, Leon Bloy, Charles Peguy, Don Sturzo, Romano Guardini, Karl Adam, Nikolai Berdyaev, Peter Kropotkin, Emmanuel Mounier, and Hilaire Belloc.

"The future will be different", Peter Maurin said, "if we make the present different.