Thursday, June 28, 2012

SS. Peter & Paul, Apostles

Almighty God, whose blessed apostles Peter and Paul glorified you by their martyrdom: Grant that your Church, instructed by their teaching and example, and knit together in unity by your Spirit, may ever stand firm upon the one foundation, which is Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, 
now and for ever. Amen. 

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Of Not-So-Famous People

Sirach, author of the apocryphal book of Scripture known as Ecclesiasticus, sings the praises of "famous men" (and presumably women!) in his 44th chapter. "Some of them have left behind a name, so that others declare their praise..." But the poet/writer also sings the praises of others, not among the "famous men" (and women) mentioned earlier: "But of others there is no [or, at least, little] memory; they have perished as though they had never existed; they have become as though they had never been born..." I’m pretty sure that he was writing about folks like me. It's not that we who might be in this category haven't done significant, even great things in our lives. But for most of us, those contributions to humanity simply won't come to public notice. In the end, it probably doesn't matter. I suspect Joseph Frederick Ignatius Hunt (1920-1993) would tend to agree.
The early Church venerated and honored, in addition to the "saints", a group of people known as "Confessors": people who'd undergone persecution and/or torture, but hadn't actually been killed. The title "Confessor" was also given after death to great Christian teachers who had lived noticeably holy lives. In the 20th century the Anglican Churches began to recognize well-known holy and worthy Christians by providing a liturgical collect and readings for their commemorations, and by allowing the option of further regional commemoration of local homegrown heroes of the faith. Joseph Frederick Ignatius Hunt is certainly among them.
Joseph was born in Spokane, Washington, the fourth child and first son of Joseph Frederick Hunt and Olga Mathilda Petersen. His father owned a title insurance company, and it was Joseph's intent to become a lawyer and participate in the family business. During the three years he studied at Gonzaga University in Spokane, he discerned a call to the religious life, left college, and completed a B.A. at the Benedictine Mount Angel Seminary. Entering the novitiate in 1942 , he took "Ignatius" as his religious name, and began his theological studies. In 1946 he was ordained a Roman Catholic priest and in 1948 professed his formal vows as a Benedictine monk.
Recognizing his superior intellectual gifts, Joseph was sent for post-graduate work at the University of Ottawa, where he earned his doctorate in Sacred Theology and was given a place on the faculties of both Westminster Abbey and the diocesan seminary in Vancouver, B. C. He spent nine years there teaching ethics, languages, and Scripture, taking time briefly in 1955 to make a study trip to the Near East with the Pontifical Biblical Institute. In 1958 he was named Professor of Old Testament at Conception Abbey Seminary, Conception, MO. 
My personal contact with Conception Abbey and the Seminary originated with a visit there in early February, 1968, to confer with then-Dean, Fr. James Jones, OSB, regarding the procedure for being laicized from the Catholic priesthood. Fr. James was practically the only recognized authority on the subject at that time, at least in that area, if not in the country. I remember him with great admiration and gratitude for his wisdom and kindness. 
In 1961 Joseph Hunt undertook advanced studies in the Old Testament and received a Bachelor in Sacred Scriptures degree and a licentiate in Sacred Scriptures from the Pontifical Biblical institute in Rome and the École Biblique in Jerusalem: no mean accomplishment! During these years he also taught summer courses at St. John's University, Collegeville, MN, and did further study at the University of Chicago and in both Rome and Nijmegen, Holland, under a Union Theological Seminary program. In 1963 he returned for three years to Conception Abbey and also taught summer courses at St. Louis University and the University of San Francisco.
The 1960's was a turbulent time in the Roman Catholic Church. Pope John XXIII opened the 2nd Vatican Council on October 11, 1962. This historic assembly of the world's Catholic bishops, the 21st Ecumenical Council, spanned a period of three years, addressing every aspect of the Church's life, and was carried out in four phases: October-December, 1962; September-December, 1963; September-November, 1964; and September-December, 1965, when Pope Paul VI closed the Council on December 8. The reverberations of the bishops' teaching throughout the Church, and, indeed, throughout the religious world, was monumental. Having lived through and been ordained during that period in a theological seminary, I experienced first-hand the on-the-ground ramifications of the Council. Contrary to what I had envisioned in Roman Catholic priesthood.
In 1969, the year I was officially laicized by Paul VI, Joseph Hunt made a similar difficult decision to leave the Benedictine Order and the Roman Catholic Church. And as I was led to do later in Northern California, he also became an Episcopalian, in the Diocese of Western Missouri. The year before, he had been asked to write an article, "Excursus: Israel and her Neighbors" for Fr. Raymond Brown's prestigious Jerome Biblical Commentary. During the 1969-70 school year he served as Professor of Languages at Olympic College, Bremerton, WA. He was received as a deacon in the Episcopal Church in January, 1970, and also married Carolyn Jeanne Frey that year. In April he was received as a priest, and in the fall of 1970 was named Professor of Old Testament at Nashotah House Seminary in Wisconsin. Hunt wrote literally hundreds of reviews for various journals, and made contributions to any number of encyclopedias and collaboration volumes. He wrote two books of his own: Understanding the Bible and The World of the Patriarchs. He was also editor of Old Testament Abstracts from 1978 to 1989.
In 1988, Father Joe became the appointed Confessor for the Order of Julian of Norwich, then based at the DeKoven Center in Racine, WI, and remained in that capacity until 1992. His own monastic experience and the evident holiness of his life endeared him to the entire community.
Fr. John Julian, founder of the Order of Julian, relates the sad last days of Joseph Hunt: "On his 70th birthday in 1990, Nashotah House seminary and the scholarly community honored him by the publication of a festschrift volume: The Psalms and Other Studies on the Old Testament, edited by Jack C. Knight and Lawrence A. Sinclair. Father Joe had planned to live the rest of his life at his beloved Nashotah House seminary, where he had been given the use of a house on the seminary grounds after his retirement. However, in 1991, a brash, new, and reactionary faculty member attacked Father Joe's orthodoxy in a classroom lecture, and the gentle old man – now 71 years old and almost blind – refused on principle to confront or combat his colleague publicly. He chose rather to resign his Professorship and to leave the seminary which had been his cherished home for twenty-one years and where he had hoped and intended to die. As he prepared to leave, he said to this writer, 'For twenty years the faculty at the seminary has been like a family. We didn't always agree on everything, but the last thing in the world we would have done is to attack one another. Now that has all changed, and I can no longer be part of what is happening.'"
Joseph F. I. Hunt served as priest-in-charge of the small congregation of Trinity Church, Mineral Point, WI and remained there until his death on March 13, 1993 -- "just before the colleague who had attacked him was discharged from the seminary faculty", as Fr. John Julian notes.
A "famous man" à la Sirach’s description? Probably not. But Joseph Frederick Ignatius Hunt is obviously worthy not only of Sirach's highest praises, but of ours as well
(Source: Fr. John Julian, Stars In A Dark World)

Monday, June 25, 2012

"He must increase, I must decrease."

Almighty God, by whose providence your servant John the Baptist 
was wonderfully born, and sent to prepare the way of your Son our Savior 
by preaching repentance: Make us so to follow his teaching and holy life, 
that we may truly repent according to his preaching; and,  following his example, constantly speak the truth, boldly rebuke vice, and patiently suffer for the truth’s sake; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you 
and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen. 

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Parables For Patience

The discrepancy was huge. Jesus’ opponents must’ve ridiculed it. Undoubtedly, it must’ve bothered Jesus’ followers. There was all this talk about a kingdom, the reign of God. Yet all they saw was a common laborer, a carpenter, from Nazareth with a few motley Galileans, mostly fisherfolk. The discrepancy was huge. They weren’t wealthy or prominent or bearers of royal credentials. 
To address this discrepancy Jesus, sitting in a boat on the lake,  teaches his hearers, spread out before him on the shore, using two parables. His simple message is understandable and clear: the kingdom’s growth is God’s work and God’s business. From unpretentious beginnings God brings forth dramatic and fruitful results.
The first parable is unique to Mark the Evangelist. (4:26-34) It describes how seed grows secretly and silently while the farmer sleeps, then goes about his daily chores. The point of the parable is that God’s reign comes about through God’s power. It was meant to shatter the illusions of those who presumed to believe that they could, in any sense, manipulate or control God in sending God’s reign among us, or growing it. Detail after detail underscores this. The farmer plays a part only at the beginning of the process, as he sows the seed, and at the end of the process, when he harvests the crop. During the in-between time Jesus 
describes the farmer as one caught up in the daily cycle of sleeping and rising, as though hardly paying much attention to the seed, and even being ignorant of how it actually grows.  Meanwhile, under God’s loving care, nurture, and providence, without any human aid or supervision, the seed and the land accomplish their God-directed purpose. The seed grows and sprouts; the soil nudges and nurtures growth through successive stages, from blade to ear to full grain.
Jesus’ message isn’t meant to downplay the part you and I have, as human beings, in laboring to extend the reign of God. God has given to each of us important and unique tasks to accomplish, as well as the resources and gifts needed for that. But it remains God’s work, and the parable reminds us, warns us even, never to overestimate our role in the process or to disillusion ourselves that we can somehow “twist” God’s arm in order to create the kingdom in our own image. Jesus counsels us to be patient and to allow God to be God. 
But appearances are often deceiving. You and I find it hard to wait patiently because we’re programmed, especially in today’s technological society, to see, measure and record progress. We become “antsy” in letting God have the free hand, whether in our individual lives or in that of the parish and the Church. It’s easy to become geared to a “success mentality”, where we relate the energy we expend to results obtained, and we often panic when the results or feelings or programs, or whatever it is that we want or expect aren’t instantly there. We’re not used to God using a far different measure and way of calculating.
Jesus is trying to convey to his hearers and to us that God’s reign doesn’t follow normal human laws of growth. God’s will and kingdom unfold and evolve according to God’s perfect purpose and timetable. We’re simply asked to set aside our usual way of assessing how things are or ought to be, and to give God the free hand to be what God in fact is: the Giver of gifts.
God’s kingdom, growing under God’s guidance, is the known quantity. Jesus sets up a second comparison, in the unmistakable manner of a rabbi, by asking: “To what shall we liken it...what image will help present it?” He goes on to describe the amazing process of a small mustard seed blossoming into a huge shrub. Since his aim wasn’t to teach botany, we shouldn’t be too shocked to discover that the mustard grain isn’t, in fact, the smallest of seeds. Nevertheless, its growth is spectacular by any standard: shrubs of this kind in Galilee can measure 8 to 10 ft. high. That should give us hope and encouragement regardless of how small or insignificant we see ourselves or our skills and talents. Thomas Merton says something to the effect that “God writes straight with crooked letters.” And that’s the point: God does the writing, the building, the growing, the increasing.

The discrepancy was huge in Jesus’ time. It still is when we compare the powerful corporate organizations of finance, industry, medicine, education or government with the struggling group of Jesus’ followers whom we call “the Church”. As we look at the Church and at our own parish today, perhaps we wonder how well the phrase kingdom or reign of God really suits us. Perhaps that’s why Jesus gave us these two parables which continue to baffle both the world and us. But they’re always at hand for anyone who discerns their word, their message: even as the Eucharist which we share today, using unpretentious bread and wine, proclaims the life-giving presence of the Giver of all gifts. The message of both, the parables and the Eucharist, is for you and me to take heart. God continues going about God’s work. God’s reign continues to grow and thrive. God’s kingdom, as we so often pray, will come.

A Prayer for Father's Day

Loving and Merciful God, our thoughts and prayers today are turned towards our fathers.
For those whose fathers have increased the joy in their lives, we give you thanks.
For those whose fathers’ presence is greatly missed may we take time to gratefully recall all they have given to us, providing for us in our growing.
For those whose fathers have recently been lost or who are facing the imminent loss of their fathers, may they find comfort in their grief, hope in their despair, courage in the love that their fathers have given them.
We give thanks, God, for the fathers who sustain and support us in our living, who love us no matter what!
We give thanks to you, O God, for all those whose gift for fatherhood is so strong that they have have used your gift to minister to others, providing guidance and stability, nurture and love.

We pray, too, for those men who, for whatever reason, have not been good fathers. We pray, compassionate God, for those whose fathers have been a source of hurt and pain, and have caused them to suffer. May their wounds be healed.  May they find in you, in us, in others, the nurturing and sustaining love which they need for growth and well-being.
We recall with sadness fathers who are separated from their children through life choices made by them or others. Give them the insight and wisdom, the courage and perseverance to parent in whatever creative and life-giving ways may be open to them. 
We remember to you single fathers and single mothers who struggle to be both parents to their children  -- to provide all the emotional, physical and spiritual needs without the constant support of a spouse or partner. May they find the strength, courage and wisdom for their task.

We pray for those fathers whose relationships with their children have been difficult or disappointing. 
We pray, too, for those who have been denied a chance to be fathers, and for those whose years of parenting have been cut short by the loss of a child. We turn to You, most holy God, knowing and trusting that you can console where consolation seems impossible.  May these  men receive comfort for their spirit, and peace and hope for living, that their gifts may not be denied to others.

Finally, we rejoice with you, O God, at the many fine men, who in spite of confusing roles and expectations in a rapidly changing society, have taken their place as fathers with open hearts, with willingness and joy.
And we join all fathers everywhere in praying that their children may be well and happy, and a source of joy for years to come. 
Hear our prayer, Loving Father, and give us always the assurance of your love, that we may in turn bring that love into the lives of others.  Amen.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Mystic of the Blessed Heart

In the magnificent two-volume collection, in a series on medieval religious women, Hidden Springs: Cistercian Monastic Women (Cistercian Publications, 1995, Vol. III, Book One), p. 211) Simone Roisin is quoted as saying: "The Vita Lutgardis by Thomas Cantimpré is a real hagiographic masterpiece, for it shows the story of God winning a human soul. And that soul, once possessed by him, became a source of divine providential intercession on behalf of humankind." That well sums up the life and character of St. Lutgard(is) of Aywières, commemorated today.

Lutgard, born in 1182 at Tongeren, in present-day Belgium, was an unlikely mystic. Her mother sent her off, quite unwillingly, to the nearby Benedictine monastery at Sint-Truiden, where she was accepted as an oblate. Though she remained there 12 years, she didn't much develop intellectually. She spoke only Flemish, instead of French or Latin. The monastery, not big on discipline, at that time permitted noble suitors to visit and court the women who weren't nuns. Lutgard had her sights set on a particular young knight, but in the midst of her pining for him Jesus appeared to her, showing his wounded side. "Never again," he said to her, "long for vain love: here you may see what you should think about without end, and why." Lutgard was changed forever.

This vision of Christ, choosing Lutgard as his bride forever, had a profound impact on her and, though she was only 15, she responded wholeheartedly and without reserve. Nevertheless, the courtiers continued to come seeking after her. Around 1200, when she was 18, one knight even succeeded in abducting her for a time, but Lutgard slid from her horse and fled into the woods. After a night of wandering about, she figured out where she was and reached the monastery within a few days. News of her abduction, understandably, had spread throughout the monastery and the town. Some put the worst interpretation on the event and treated her as a wayward woman. Her biographer, Thomas of Cantimpré, tells us that she'd asked God for humiliation. It seems her prayer was answered in spades!

Horrible as the experience was, Lutgard's abduction was a real teaching moment, and she underwent a sort of second conversion by setting aside her childish ways and taking the veil of a Benedictine nun at the monastery. From then on, Lutgard determined to hold nothing back in responding to the tender love of the Blessed Heart. Considering the Rule a mere minimum, for the rest of her life she was passionate in her service of Christ. So much so, that the other nuns rolled their eyes continuously at the "zealous convert", knowing that her ardor would eventually cool down! Yet she proved to be one of those rare individuals, possessed humanly of a strong, direct, outspoken and decisive personality, yet spiritually with an immense capacity for love of God and others, complete surrender to whatever God wished, and deep mystical wisdom despite her limited human intellectual capacity.

By the time Lutgard was 20 she'd been assigned to care for the sick who came to the monastery. Early on it became obvious that she had the gift of healing. So many folks with illnesses showed up that she began to complain to Jesus that they were taking up all her time so that she couldn't spend time with him. "Please take it away in exchange for something better," she begged Jesus. When he asked what she wanted, she sought a better understanding of the Psalms as an aid to more serious prayer. The Lord granted this, and even though Lutgard didn't know Latin, she still understood what was being said. But that didn't seem to be enough for the zealous young nun: "My Lord, I am only a common illiterate nun and the mysteries of the Scriptures remain hidden to me." "What else do you wish?", Christ asked. "Your heart", replied Lutgard. "I long for your heart, too", Jesus told her. "Let it be so, my Lord.", Lutgard responded, "Your love and mine -- let them be one and the same. Only then will I feel safe." Christ definitively called Lutgard to be his chosen one in this "exchange of hearts".

During the next 40 years St. Lutgard responded to that initial call over and over, and at the price of great austerity, suffering and many prayers for the salvation of all humankind in union with the Blessed Heart of love and compassion. Lutgard is a supreme example among the saints and mystics of tireless dedication and ministry to the whole Communion of Saints. As an example, Lutgard spent three periods of her life in prolonged fasting on behalf of the Church: 1216-1223 (age 34-41); 1223-1230 (age 41-48), at which time she and her biographer, Thomas of Cantimpré first met; and 1239-1246 (age 57-64). During this latter period she was completely blind!

Among her many gifts, perhaps three which stand out most in Lutgard's life are those of intercession, compassion and witness to the living Word. Simone Roisin notes: "Lutgard was gifted with an extraordinary power of intercession, through her Lord's Blessed Heart." She reached out, her own heart full of love and compassion, to people of all walks of life through healing, counseling and reassurance in order to bring them closer to God. She especially favored "dear sinners" and priests. Lutgard's compassion was equally directed towards comforting the sick whom she visited and who were at the point of death. As to her  witness to the living Word, Thomas of Cantimpré writes: "Though to the nuns of her abbey, Lutgard was a poorly educated woman, as indeed she was, I never knew anyone to speak more ardently or more truthfully about the mysteries of faith. I must confess that my own poor knowledge often prevented me from understanding her..." (Vita Lutgardis, Book II, Chapter 15)

St. Lutgard died June 16, 1246. Her funeral was held in the abbey church and she was buried on the right side of the choir, near the wall where she customarily prayed. One of the nuns, Sybil of Gagis, wrote this epitaph:

Lutgard glows
she led a blameless life.

She whom this stone shades
converses still with Christ.

Hungering and thirsting after heavenly thing, she shone; 
pure day, the Spouse's face, may these now be her light. 

She, a mirror for living, a flower enclosed, a jewel among her sisters;
there shone in her loving-kindness, compassion, and the 
glory of her way of life.

Friday, June 15, 2012

The Sacred Heart of Jesus: Icon of God's Compassion

"The solemnity of the Sacred Heart sums up all the phases of the life of Jesus recalled in the liturgy from Advent to the Feast of Corpus Christi. It constitutes an admirable triptych giving us in abridgment all the mysteries, joyous, sorrowful and glorious, of the Saviour's life devoted to the love of God and men...

Coming after the feasts of Christ, this feast completes them, concentrating them in one object which is  materially Jesus' Heart of flesh, and formally the unbounded charity [love] symbolized by this Heart. This solemnity therefore does not relate to a particular mystery of the Saviour's life, but embraces them all; indeed the devotion to the Sacred Heart celebrates all the favours we have received from divine charity during the year,...and all the marvellous things that Jesus has done for us...It is the feast of the love of God for men, a love which has made Jesus come down to earth for all by His Incarnation,...which has raised Him on the Cross for the Redemption of all and which brings Him down every day on our altars..." (Dom Gaspar Lefebvre, O.S.B., The Saint Andrew Daily Missal, pp. 783 & 785)

My friend, Fr. Leo Joseph, OSF, reminded me that the Franciscans celebrate this feast as the feast of the Divine Compassion. That seems to resonate better with a 21st century mentality, and is surely consistent with the passage from Matthew 11:28-29, used as the first option for the Alleluia verse prior to the Gospel: "[Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.] Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; [and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.]"

It's a stretch for people today, I think, to relate to the physical heart of Jesus as an object of devotion, despite the fact that there are numerous examples of previous noted Christian writers referring to it. Lesson iv in the 3rd Nocturn of Matins for the feast says that "during the course of past ages, Fathers, Doctors, and Saints have celebrated our Redeemer's love; and they have said that the wound opened in the side of Christ was the hidden fountain of all graces. Moreover, from the Middle Ages onward, when the faithful began to show a more tender piety towards the most sacred Humanity of the Savior, contemplative souls became accustomed to penetrate through that wound almost to the very Heart itself, wounded for the love of men..."

Nevertheless, Christians of our time seem more able to relate to the reality of Christ's heartfelt love and compassion for humankind as a model for their own relationship with the real women and men who enter their lives daily. The Litany of the Sacred Heart, approved in 1899 as a public prayer, alludes beautifully to the love and compassion of Jesus as being the source of many things which you and I need so badly, such as patience and mercy, of  generosity to all, of consolation, of peace and reconciliation, of hope, and of delight. The litany concludes with the versicle and response: "V.  Jesus, gentle and humble of heart, R.  Touch our hearts and make them like your own."

In this year when arguing, wrangling, mean spiritedness, and even violence have so often touched those, both in the areas of the political arena, the civil government as well as the Church, it's especially important for us to call upon God's compassion and love to empower us in our life and relationships with one another. Hopefully we can, with conviction, pray:
"Father, we rejoice in the gifts of love we have received from the heart of Jesus, your Son. Open our hearts to share his life and continue to bless us with his love...     

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Giving Thanks

A humorous story depicts Adam and Eve as they prepare to walk through the gates of Eden, having been summarily evicted by the Almighty. Eve is all upset and in a tizzy about what will become of them, and Adam, dutiful husband that he is, reaches over, pats her arm and says: “It’s okay, dear: we’re just in a period of transition.”

The beginning of the Genesis scene in the first reading (3:1-21) symbolizes a turning point in the human experience. Humankind bought the serpent’s lie and ignored boundaries set by God. Lure of forbidden fruit and lust for godlike wisdom proved to be heady temptations. In giving in to them, the first man and woman taste the bitterness of shame and fear. Their delightful nakedness now makes them self-conscious and uneasy. The magnificent garden which was their domain soon becomes a hide-out from the Creator. 

Into that setting of an original plan so dreadfully fouled up, God is depicted walking “in the cool of the evening breeze”. Notice the switch in grammar, a shift reflecting a change in relationship between God and the couple. No longer is there a mood of newness and freshness: with new light, and goodness, the couple joined in mutual helpfulness, the invitation to be fruitful, multiply, and enjoy God’s world. Here we sense only a mood of awkward interrogation, a sort of battle of wits. Something has gone awry and God wants to know why, and God begins to press the uneasy couple with insistent and pointed questions.

At the same time, even with the questions there’s a hint of God’s characteristic grace and lovingkindness. Though their embarrassment and anxiety have driven the man and woman into hiding, God takes the initiative to seek them out. “Where are you?”. Almost playfully, as in a children’s game, God gives the couple an opportunity to reveal themselves with minimal embarrassment.

 Yet, God’s questions are met with only a series of evasive answers. Adam and Eve fail to use the space which God offers them to voice the real reason for their avoiding God. As you and I have done so many times since then, Adam deals with the symptom, not the cause: “I was afraid because I was naked; and I hid myself.” It’s sometimes easier for us to confess our fear and shame, than it is to own up to our selfishness. In response, God removes any wiggle room and crowds the man with back-to-back questions: “Who told you that you were naked?”, “Have you eaten of the trees?” Only his selfish actions could cause Adam’s shame as God puts him on the spot. In typical human fashion, Adam projects the blame elsewhere: implicitly on God, when he reminds God: “The woman whom you gave me to be with me...”; then, on Eve: “...she gave me the fruit of the tree...and I ate.

 God then turns to Eve who, in admitting her part in the debacle, quickly singles out the serpent for blame. The whole scene is a tragic, bitter moment in human history. We can imagine ourselves crying out with God: “How could you?! Why would you?!

 The original couple, created from nothing out of sheer love and commissioned to oversee all of creation as responsible stewards, have shirked their responsibility and, as a consequence, forced the God who blessed them to pronounce judgment against them. God is depicted first as cursing the serpent, whom the Book of Revelation (12:9) associates with Satan, the Adversary. The judgment also spills over onto the whole human family, then and to come: there will be constant enmity between good and evil; woman will bear children in great pain; husband/wife relationships will be a continual struggle for equality and balance; human beings will endure hard work and sweat in order to produce food from the cursed ground. And, when all is said and done, human beings will die and return to dust.

 What was a state of continual grace and happiness is now a state of continual misery, which St. Julian of Norwich describes variously as a continual “muddle”, an imprisonment, and our natural and highest penance. Theologian Phyllis Trible speaks of the couple’s “shared sin”: “Whereas in creation man and woman know harmony and equality, in sin they know alienation and discord. The suffering and oppression we women and men know are marks of the fall, not of our creation.

 It’s a story of total disruption and displacement. Life’s basic relationships are left in shreds. Human beings hide from the God who created them. The man protects his reputation at the expense of his helpmate. The woman degrades herself to the level of an animal, declaring herself weaker than the serpent. God the loving Creator is made to render harsh and prolonged judgment on creation.

 Yet, despite all this, God remains present. St. Mark, in today’s Gospel (3:20-35), testifies that God is there, present, in Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus’ relatives received news of God’s reign, his presence, with some embarrassment. A bit red-faced at the reports of his seemingly wild claims, his wondrous healings, and the controversies which these generated, they try to hustle Jesus into hiding. No family likes to hear that one of their own “is beside himself”. So they send a message in from their place in the crowd asking Jesus to come home. Jesus, who had once preached, “The one who loves father or mother more than me isn’t worthy of me...”, instead of responding to them, looks out over the crowd of his followers and says, “Here are my mother, my sisters, and my brothers.” Jesus practiced the priorities of God’s reign as truly as he preached them.

 Jesus‘ opponents, the Scribes, greet his words and works with blasphemy. They see his power over demons, not as the work of someone deranged or psychotic, but as that of Satan’s agent. Beelzebub or Beelzebul was a particularly insulting term because it can mean either lord of the high place or lord of the dung. Jesus rebukes their utter stupidity: “How can Satan cast out Satan?”, he asks. Kingdoms and houses divided against themselves don’t survive. If the Adversary rises up against himself and is divided, you can be sure that he won’t stand: his end is in sight. Jesus warns them that they’re blaspheming against the very Spirit of God by crediting the Spirit’s work, done through Jesus, to the power of evil. It’s what Jesus calls in another Gospel passage the “unforgiveable sin”: the only one which Jesus can’t and won’t forgive. 

Jesus‘ disciples turn out to be the heroes of the story, if you will, because they actively and obediently set themselves to the tasks of God’s reign. They involve themselves so intensely in Jesus‘ ministry that they hardly find time to eat. They sit before him, minds and hearts open, drinking in all that he has to say about God’s will and reign. Jesus responds by publicly acknowledging them : “Here is my family! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Jesus, the second Adam, through his death/resurrection/ascension/and glorification, dedicates himself to God’s will and undoes the work of the first couple’s disobedience.

 As you and I actively share in that same life-giving process which we call redemption, we become, in and through our Baptism, family to Christ and to one another. The “outer nature”, our humanity, St. Paul reminds us in the Epistle (2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1), remains weak and disoriented, but now we have and are something more. We have the “inner nature” of daughters and sons of the Father who renews us, as Paul says, “day by day”. That is our hope. That’s what enables us to never “lose heart”.

 Overriding all the apparent evil around us, there’s a greater presence. In and through the Risen One, God continues creation by helping us to build new relationships based on caring, commitment and love. “Paradise Lost” has been regained, and in the regaining something even better comes to be. Because of that, we offer our “thanksgiving, [which is another word for Eucharist] to the glory of the Lord.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Priest & Poet

Icon of Gerard Manley Hopkins 
by Fr. William Hart McNichols, 2004

I don’t recall my first exposure to the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, but I think it was early on in my college seminary days. His use of alliteration was a draw in my own humble attempts to do poetry. More than that, though, it was the depth of his thought and meaning that fascinated me. The pages of my original copy of his work, published by Penguin Books in 1954, is now very fragile and faded. Looking through it again, I notice personal notations: “before the Deluge”, referring to his “prediluvian age”, and “vexatious”, defining his term “cumbrous shame” in one of his early poems, The Alchemist In The City. In his The Habit of Perfection I’ve underlined the verses:

Be shellèd, eyes, with double dark 
And find the uncreated light... 
Palate, the hutch of tasty lust, 
Desire not to be rinsed with wine... 
And you unhouse and house the Lord...” 

Both of those poems were written between 1865-1866. Of the poems written between 1876 and the time of his death, my three clear favorites are: God’s Grandeur, The Windhover, and Pied Beauty, among which it’d be hard to say which one I like best. He uses wondrous images and phrases: “It will flame out, like shining from shook foil...”; “Generations have trod, have trod, have trod; And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil...”; “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things...”; “ his riding Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing, As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend...” Hopkins captured, in one sentence from To R.B., what I most wished for at the time in trying to write poetry, and in living my life: “...I want the one rapture of an inspiration...

 Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J. (1844-1889) was an English poet, who converted from Anglicanism to the Roman Catholic Church, and became a Jesuit priest. His popularity and fame as a leading Victorian poet came only posthumously. He experimented in prosody, especially sprung rhythm, and his use of imagery established him as a daring innovator in a period of largely traditional verse. Gerard Manley Hopkins was born in Stratford, Essex, now in Greater London, as the first of nine children to Manley and Catherine Hopkins. His father founded a marine insurance firm and, at one time, was the British consul general in Hawaii. He also served as church warden at St John-at-Hampstead, and was a published writer whose works included: A Philosopher's Stone and Other Poems, Pietas Metrica, and Spicelegium Poeticum, A Gathering of Verses by Manley Hopkins. He wrote poetry reviews for The Times, as well as one novel. Catherine Hopkins was the daughter of a London physician, very fond of music and of reading, especially German philosophy, literature and the novels of Charles Dickens. Hopkins’ parents were deeply religious High Church Anglicans.

 Hopkins' first ambition was to be an artist and painter, and, taught early on by his aunt, he continued to sketch throughout his life. He became a skilled draughtsman and found that his early training in visual art supported his later work as a poet. His siblings were greatly inspired by language, religion and the creative arts. Milicent (1849–1946) joined an Anglican sisterhood in 1878. Kate (1856–1933) later helped Gerard to publish the first edition of his poetry. His youngest sister,Grace (1857–1945), set many of his poems to music. Lionel (1854–1952) became a world-famous expert on archaic and colloquial Chinese. Arthur (1847–1930) and Everard (1860–1928) were both highly successful artists. Cyril (1846–1932) joined his father's insurance firm.

The family moved to Hampstead in 1852, near to where John Keats had lived, and close to the wide green spaces of Hampstead Heath. At ten years old Gerard Manley Hopkins went to boarding school at Highgate School for nine years, where he exhibited an ascetic spirit. While studying Keats's poetry, he composed The Escorial (1860), his earliest extant poem. Hopkins, an unusually sensitive student and poet, studied classics at Balliol College, Oxford (1863–67). At Oxford that he forged a lifelong friendship with Robert Bridges, eventual Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom, which aided in his development as a poet, and his posthumous acclaim. Hopkins was deeply impressed with the work of Christina Rossetti, who became one of his greatest contemporary influences, and whom he met in 1864. He also studied with the prestigious writer and critic Walter Pater who tutored him and remained a friend until Hopkins left Oxford. In Oxford Hopkins was a keen socialite and prolific poet, but became alarmed at himself for changes in his behavior and became more studious, recording his "sins" in his diary. As an undergraduate he engaged in “romantic” friendships, though they tended to be idealised and spiritualised. He found it hard to accept his sexual attraction to other men, really all his life, including a deep infatuation for Digby Mackworth Dolben. There's no reason, however, to believe that he didn’t remain celibate throughout his life. He exercised a strict self-control in regard to his homosexual desire, especially after he became a follower of Henry Parry Liddon and Edward Pusey, the last member of the original Oxford Movement. This was a time of intense scrupulosity for Hopkins and he seems to have begun confronting his strong homoerotic impulses and began to consider religious life.

 In July, 1866 Gerard Manley Hopkins decided to become a Catholic, and traveled to Birmingham to consult with the leader of the Oxford Movement, John Henry Newman. Newman received him into the Church in October, 1866. In May, 1868 Hopkins firmly "resolved to be a religious." Less than a week later, he made a bonfire of his poems and gave up poetry almost entirely for seven years. His conversion to Catholicism estranged him from both his family and from some of his acquaintances.

After he graduated in 1867 Hopkins was given a teaching post at the Oratory in Birmingham by Newman. While there he felt the call to enter the ministry and decided to become a Jesuit. Hopkins began his novitiate in the Society of Jesus at Manresa House, Roehampton, in September 1868, then moved to St. Mary's Hall, Stonyhurst, to study philosophy in 1870. He took the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience on September 8, 1870. He was conflicted about continuing to write because he felt that his interest in poetry prevented him from wholly devoting himself to his vocation. Nevertheless, after later reading works by Duns Scotus, he saw that the two didn’t necessarily conflict. He continued to write a detailed prose journal between 1868 and 1875. He also wrote music, sketched, and for church occasions he wrote some "verses", as he called them, as well as sermons and other religious pieces.

In 1874 he returned to Manresa House to teach classics. While studying in the Jesuit house of theological studies, St Beuno's, near St Asaph in North Wales, he was asked by his religious superior to write a poem to commemorate the foundering of a German ship in a storm. In 1875 he took up poetry once more and wrote his famous poem, The Wreck of the Deutschland. It was inspired by the Deutschland incident, a maritime disaster in which 157 people died including five Franciscan nuns who had been leaving Germany due to harsh anti-Catholic laws. It depicts not only  the dramatic events and heroic deeds but also tells how Hopkins reconciled the terrible events with God's higher purpose. The poem was accepted but not printed by a Jesuit publication, further causing his ambivalence about his poetry, most of which remained unpublished until after his death.

 Hopkins was at times gloomy. Though he’d left Oxford with a first class honors degree, he failed his final theology exam. This failure almost certainly meant that, though ordained in 1877, Hopkins would not progress in the order. Though rigorous, isolated and sometimes unpleasant, his life during Jesuit training had at least some stability. The uncertain and varied work after ordination was very hard on his sensibilities. Only a month after he’d been ordained, Hopkins became the subminister and teacher at Mt. St. Mary’s College, Chesterfield. In July, 1878 he was made curate at the Jesuit church in Mount Street, London. In December he became curate at St. Aloysius’s Church, Oxford, then moved to Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow. While ministering in Oxford he became a founding member of Oxford University Newman Society in 1878, established for the Catholic members of Oxford University. He taught Greek and Latin at Mt. St Mary's College, Sheffield, and Stonyhurst College, Lancashire.

In 1884 he became professor of Greek and Latin at University College Dublin. His English roots and his disagreement with the Irish politics of the time, as well as his own short stature, his unprepossessing nature and personal oddities demonstrated that he wasn’t a particularly effective teacher. His isolation in Ireland deepened his gloom, as his poems at that time reflect. They crystallized the melancholy dejection which plagued him from then on. Several problems contributed to Hopkins's depression and stifled poetic inspiration during the last five years of his life. He had an extremely heavy work load. He disliked living in Dublin, away from England and friends. His general health deteriorated as his eyesight began to fail. He felt confined and dejected. As a devout Jesuit, he found himself in an artistic dilemma. To subdue any egotism which would violate the humility required by his religious position, he decided never to publish his poems. But Hopkins realized that any true poet requires an audience for criticism and encouragement. This conflict between his religious obligations and his poetic talent caused him to feel that he had failed them both.

After suffering ill health for several years and bouts of diarrhea, Hopkins died of typhoid fever in 1889 and was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery, following his funeral in St. Francis Xavier Church on Gardiner Street in Dublin. He is thought to have suffered throughout his life from what today might be diagnosed as either bipolar disorder or chronic unipolar depression. He battled a deep sense of melancholic anguish, even though on his deathbed he said that he was happy and that he “loved his life”.

Hopkins’s poetic language is often striking. He uses simple imagery as well as splendid metaphysical and intricate concepts. He can leap from image to image, expressing how each thing sums up its own uniqueness, and how divinity is reflected through all of them. He uses archaic and dialect words, but also coins new ones. He often creates compound adjectives, in order as one commentator observed, to concentrate his images, “communicating the instress of the poet’s perceptions of an inscape to his reader.” Undoubtedly, Hopkins was somewhat influenced by the Welsh language which he acquired while studying theology at St. Beuno's College in Wales. The Welsh practice of putting emphasis on repeating sounds suited his own style and is prominently featured in his poems. This reliance on similar sounding words with close or differing senses is best appreciated and understood by reading his poems aloud. A key feature of Hopkins's poetry is the concept of inscape, derived in part from the medieval theologian, Duns Scotus. Exactly what inscape means is uncertain, and is, perhaps, known only to Hopkins. It appears to be expressive of the individual essence and uniqueness of every physical thing, communicated by its instress which ensures the transmitting of its importance in the wider creation.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

"O Sacred Banquet In Which Christ Is Received"

"...See today before us laid
The living and life-giving Bread, 
Theme for praise and joy profound:
The same which at the sacred table
Was, by our incarnate Lord,
Giv'n to his apostles round.
Let the praise be loud and high;
Sweet and tranquil be the joy
Felt today in every breast;
On this festival divine,
Which records the origin
Of the glorious Eucharist.
On this table of the King,
Our new paschal offering
Brings to end the olden rite.
Here, for empty shadows fled,
Is reality instead;
Here, instead of darkness, light..."

(From the Sequence Lauda Sion for Corpus Christi)

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Honorable Holy Trinity

There’s an ancient legend about a holy bishop walking along the seashore one day, trying to figure out the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.  He comes upon a young child running back and forth between the water’s edge and a bucket on the sand.  The bishop watches the child for a time, then asks, “What are you doing?” “Putting the ocean into my bucket,” says the child. “But that’s impossible,” the amused bishop responds. Not nearly as impossible,” the child says, “as your trying to understand the mystery of the Trinity.”   
On this Sunday we celebrate that great mystery.  The Holy Trinity is humanly incomprehensible: who can understand it even a little bit? In 48 years as a priest I don’t think that I’ve ever given a satisfactory sermon about the Trinity.
It’s a bit like the Oriental gentleman in another story to whom a well-meaning missionary was speaking about God the Father who created us, about God the Son who died and was raised up for us, and about the Holy Spirit of Love who appeared as a dove over the head of Jesus when He was baptized.  After listening politely to the explanation, the Oriental gentleman said:  “Honorable Father -- ah, very good.  Honorable Son -- also very good.  But Honorable Bird -- I do not understand at all!”  And so, I can honestly say: “Honorable Holy Trinity -- I do not understand at all.
Nevertheless, let’s reflect together, at least, on what is, perhaps, the most important truth about the Holy Trinity: viz., that to know God as Three and, at the same time, as One is really about responding to God’s invitation to a relationship with God -- not just having information about God.
Let me tell you two stories of my own:
First, there was a man who lived in a city in the Eastern United States.  When he was young he decided to devote his life to God with the religious Brothers of the Sacred Heart in Metuchen, New Jersey.  After awhile he decided that God wasn’t calling him to this vocation, so he left the order of the Brothers.  
He eventually married a woman and they had two children: a boy and a girl.  But a few years later his wife became ill with tuberculosis and died.  Circumstances forced the man put his two children in the care of some nuns at an orphanage.  
After a few years he married a second time and this wife bore him a son.  By this time the man had begun treating treating people as an orthopedic therapist.  Then, though no one seems to know what happened, the man disappeared one day, and left behind his young wife and his son who was now two years old.  For eleven years the wife and her son didn’t know where the man had gone.  But one day he was found and arrested by the police for failing to support his wife and child all those years.  He paid for a short time, but then disappeared once again.
The second story is about this man’s only son from the second marriage.  This boy grew up fatherless, without ever knowing or remembering his father.  He had only a few pictures of his father from long ago: some photos of his father in a white medical uniform; several pictures of the boy sitting in the car with his father on the day when the boy had his first hair cut; another, happy picture of the father, the mother, and the boy at a lake, holding up a string of fish; a picture, also, of his father when he reappeared after eleven years: in jail clothes.   
As the saying goes: “Like father, like son.”  The boy, now a man,  also married and had two children, just like his father: a boy and a girl.  He loved them both.  When they’d ask him, “Whom do you love the most?”, he’d say: “I love you both the most because I love you each differently, just as you are.”  
The man’s relationship with his own son was special because he could be for that boy the father whom he never knew.  He made sure to say to the boy “I love you” and to hug his son.  The man enjoyed it when his son asked to do things with him and for him, things which the man hadn’t be able to do with his own father.  Just to be called “Daddy” was magical!
The man in the second story, when he had his own son, experienced a love which eventually turned his loneliness and separation into wholeness.  His experience taught him about three important things: creativeness, expressiveness, and oneness.  And so you might say that this man was taught, in a rudimentary way, what the Holy Trinity is.
The first story which I told was about my own father, Robert.  The second story is about me and my son, Andrew. Until he sustained a major illness, Andrew was a professional ballet dancer and choreographer for over twenty years.  In him I’ve been blessed to see fatherhood from the other side.  In my son I see what is expressed when one creates in love.
I’ve also had some intuitions about the gift of love which binds relationships into one.  Fifty years after my father disappeared, I found my oldest stepsister and she was able to tell me much that I didn’t know about my father.  Perhaps the most important thing which I learned from my stepsister was that my father really did love me, and that he had carried a childhood photograph of me with him for all those years. Unfortunately, I also learned that my father had died in 1973.  My sister told me that he had married twice more, and that I had a total of four stepbrothers and three stepsisters, now ranging in age from 86 to 45!
I love my father because without him I wouldn’t have had the gift of life, nor would I have had the chance to express the potential goodness which he had. I love my son, for in generating him and enabling him to go far beyond my own capacities and potential, I am, so to speak, “glorified”, and affirmed.
The Scriptures and the Creeds of the Church have always proclaimed these very characteristics about God the Holy Trinity: divine creativeness, divine expressiveness, and divine love which unifies.  They also affirm that the life-giving Word of the Father, by which the world and creation came to be, is no other or different Word than that which is embodied and expressed in the person of Jesus, and is made continually present to the Church by the Holy Spirit.
St. Paul concludes his second Letter to the Corinthians with a wonderful blessing: proclaiming God’s creativeness, expressiveness, and unifying love:  “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.”  Blessing is, perhaps, the most unique way of proclaiming the Good News.  It reminds us that we have life and faith only because God, Creator, Word-in-flesh, and Breath of Love, is committed to us and is with us always.  The former Catholic Bishop of Tanzania, Christopher Mwolenka, writes:  “The mystery of the Trinity is not a doctrine dealing with a division of power in the Godhead, but a statement about the way in which God shares [God]self with the creation and calls us who believe not so much to explain as to imitate that sharing by sharing our own lives with the creation.

The God of Scripture is one God, the God which Isaiah, in the first reading, calls  “Holy, Holy, Holy”, whose glory and presence fills the whole earth.  But that God also chooses to relate to us through God’s “many-ness”, God’s Trinity:  God as Father is our secure, providing protecting Parent;  God as Word in Jesus, the only statement, in flesh, of the real God’s-honest-truth on which you and I can stake our very lives; and God as unseen yet Present in the deepest part of us: warming, comforting, helping, loving.
In the mystery of Pentecost, which we celebrated last Sunday, the Father and Jesus send the Spirit, whom author John Taylor calls “The Go-Between God”, to make the Holy Trinity more intelligible to us.  Taylor says: “The Holy Spirit is that power which opens eyes that are closed, hearts that are unaware and minds that shrink from too much reality.  If one is open towards God, one is open also to the beauty of the world, the truth of ideas, and the pain of disappointment and deformity.  If one is closed up against being hurt, or blind towards one’s fellow-men, one is inevitably shut off from God also.  One cannot choose to be open in one direction and closed in another.” 
Some might consider that a hard saying.  But it accords with who the thrice-Holy God is. And God cannot contradict Godself.  Nor can we. For you and I would be no more successful in rejecting what God is and wants us to be than the child who would try to put the ocean in his bucket, or the holy bishop who would fully comprehend the mystery of the Holy Trinity. 
Honorable Trinity -- I do not understand at all.
But I did have a dream shortly after my first visit with my younger stepbrother and two stepsisters.  In it my father and I met and embraced one other, communicating without words, and then walked off together.  I felt utter joy and peace.
So it must be in the community of the Trinity.
So it can be, if we let it be, in the community of our lives with one another.