Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Homage to Michael, Gabriel and Raphael, Archangels

          This great feast is an occasion once each year to reflect upon the singleness of purpose characteristic of this sublime order in God’s creation, the order of Archangels.
Pope St. Gregory the Great reflects in the passage assigned to the Office of Readings for the Feast that it really isn’t a tragedy from the point of view of heaven that we only know by name these three of the rank of Michael, Gabriel and Raphael. The Prophet Daniel recounts his vision: “A thousand thousand waited on him, ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him.” Countless hosts of angels, as another passage goes, sing God’s praises night and day. Pope St. Gregory the Great teaches that all these thousands upon thousands are well-known in heaven, named or not. The singleness of purpose of each (the 100% correspondence between “what you see” and “what you get”) is what, name or no name, makes that angel or archangel readily recognizable in heaven. It is a situation very different from that of our world, where there is any amount of duplicity, or simply where folks live lives unknown, or are forgotten as they become more absent from society by reason of their physical frailty caused by chronic illness or advanced age.
          For some odd reason today, I cannot help but think of another passage in the Gospel where the Sadducees, who did not believe either in spirits or in the resurrection from the dead, attempted to stump Jesus with the consequences for heaven of the case of the Levirate marriages of a woman to all seven brothers who died one after another leaving no children and the question of whose wife she’d be in heaven. Young people and perhaps old jump too quickly to the conclusion that when Jesus corrects his questioners saying that heaven is otherwise, and that there people will be like the angels, not giving or taking in marriage, that His point had to do with either urges or bodies as we experience them in this world. I think rather that Jesus was saying something positive about knowing and being known in heaven; He was talking about optimal communication amongst persons and singleness of purpose, not different from that demonstrated by Michael, Gabriel and Raphael, whom we know from Scripture.
           Perhaps that is why Raphael in the Book of Tobit is my favorite. He is truly the messenger of healing and hope for both blinded Tobit and Sarah in her desperation. Under the tutelage of Raphael, Tobias becomes both a model adult son and the kind of bridegroom that the best sort, the most wholesome sort which dreams are made of.
          God may not have a task in life for you or me that requires sending an archangel, named or unnamed, to our aid. Perhaps our guardian angel will do. Nevertheless, I rejoice once a year at being able to reflect upon the ultimate in terms of transparency and singleness of purpose as evidenced in the witness of the three archangels we do know by name. Michael, Gabriel and Raphael fulfill God’s will; they are His messengers and our champions in the fight against all which is contrary to His light in our world and in our lives.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Wisdom’s Week

          The First Readings at Mass for all of this the 25th Week in Ordinary Time have come from our Old Testament patrimony of wisdom literature. The passages are all terribly familiar, treasured and esteemed words to live by. My favorite of the week was Wednesday’s:
“Every word of God is unalloyed, he is the shield of those who take refuge in him. To his words make no addition, lest he reprove you and know you for a fraud. Two things I beg of you, do not grudge me them before I die: keep falsehood and lies far from me, give me neither poverty nor riches, grant me only my share of bread to eat, for fear that surrounded by plenty, I should fall away and say, ‘The Lord – who is the Lord?’ or else, in destitution, take to stealing and profane the name of my God.” (Proverbs 30:5-9)
Speaking for myself, in all honesty, I must confess that living with a sufficiency has always been a great challenge for me. It’s like packing for a trip: airline baggage weight restrictions are about the only effective motivation that keeps the “just in case” change of trousers out of the overnight bag. Sadly enough the extreme cases we encounter of people attached to material things are all too common. Although I cannot bring myself to watch such shows, I can imagine it’s like the reality TV programs out there about people who hoard, with something about “buried alive” in the title of the show.
Even detachment of a measured or moderate sort is all too rare. I still remember as a young priest, watching with amazement one of the priest mentors from my childhood as he moved to a new assignment. I am sure he was 30 years ordained at the time and yet he could still pack all of his personal belongings into his car, have elbowroom sufficient to drive and have a clear view of the road behind through his rearview mirror. He was the rare one even then when a priest’s base salary was $125.00 per month and not much was left over for frills or impulse buying. Somehow we still managed even back then to possess too many things beyond our personal library of books from the seminary. What was true then is all the more so now: yes, believe it or not, you can have too many pairs of dress socks!
          O Lord, I make the words of Proverbs my own: give me only my share of bread, lest… or lest… Ouch! It’s a prayer I need to work on to make it as free as possible, with no dread or fears or hesitations factored in.
          This and Ecclesiastes’ refrain about vanity have been echoing through my head this week as I look at the news or page through the daily papers. More than anything else, I would say Wisdom is a challenge to your and my pretenses, whether they center on recognizing that for me at age 60 there is no longer the “time for certain occupations under heaven” or our not being surprised at Iphone mirror pictures a certain Eddie Long is supposed to have taken of himself duded up in spandex. “…give me neither poverty nor riches, grant me only my share of bread to eat, for fear that surrounded by plenty, I should fall away and say, ‘The Lord – who is the Lord?’ or else, in destitution, take to stealing and profane the name of my God.”
          Beyond moderation and discipline, wisdom’s call first to the ministers of the Church and then to all who have been buried with Christ in baptism, involves self denial. I always have to laugh at these women in the commentary boxes on web pages who gravely and almost triumphantly announce their discovery that the lifestyle of prosperity gospel preachers does not conform to the image of Christ. Why are they surprised and why do they think they are risking something by making such a statement? The whole mendicant movement, St. Francis, St. Clare, St. Dominic, was based on a society-wide conviction that Christians followed Christ in His poverty. St. Albert the Great, even after he was made a bishop, continued to walk cross country never riding a horse or taking a carriage, as did his prize pupil, St. Thomas Aquinas (Jesus walked and so did centuries of His disciples). The perception about the rightness of following Christ in His poverty has not changed or been otherwise since the Lord Jesus Himself sent out His first missionaries without walking stick, traveling bag, extra tunic or sandals. “…give me neither poverty nor riches, grant me only my share of bread to eat, for fear that surrounded by plenty, I should fall away and say, ‘The Lord – who is the Lord?’ or else, in destitution, take to stealing and profane the name of my God.”
          It is only our vanity which would have us hold to other or seek to justify an approach modeled on the success-oriented movers and shakers of this world. I can remember back in the seminary in Rome one year we had the venerable old Father John Tracy Ellis, a church historian, as our scholar in residence. In a very candid moment, he expressed skepticism concerning the heroic virtue of Fulton J. Sheen. Fr. Ellis had lived in a New York rectory with him and found him too full of self, too vain. Although shocked by this criticism at the time and wanting to dismiss it as perhaps sour grapes, I must admit that nowadays seeing some of Sheen’s old TV programs on EWTN it is hard to miss certain details about the way he dressed for TV and that “wardrobe” or someone eliminated the bow from the archbishop’s ferraiolo… Granted, the look is more tailored.
          The object of the exercise is not to criticize, not even to put down the proud and condemn vanity. It is to give the proper content to what we call good example. Although some people are indeed hard to please, there are a lot of seekers out there among the young who condemn us for our attachment to electronics, cars, jewelry and clothes. I think their search is honest; it is a search for Christ where He is to be found. If we would represent or present Him, we should be coming from where He is to be found.
          It’s not as easy as cleaning out the overstuffed sock drawer or weeding out clothes you haven’t worn in forever and then purposely dressing down, while going about subdued. There’s nothing particularly brilliant about that sort of pretense or posturing either. It’s not simply a matter of resisting the upgrades, updates, new models or whatever. We need not be told that a big, beautiful watch as jewelry will not draw anyone to the truth which is in Christ alone. The point is that more often than I am willing to admit I am chasing after my own comfort and convenience; I can be demanding; my vanity or my attachment to things effectively excludes me from the list of those who are seeking. “Flashiness” or “Tailoredness” might be a point of contact with a world caught up in the material, but by the same token it is a capitulation and not a gain, as that world is passing away.
          Why is all of this so hard or awkward? Why do we have examples of heresy on the side of poverty as well? Maybe the Gospel of Saturday of this Week can help, if nothing else, to console us in our plight:
“At a time when everyone was full of admiration for all he did, Jesus said to his disciples, ‘For your part, you must have these words constantly in your mind: The Son of Man is going to be handed over into the power of men.’ But they did not understand him when he said this; it was hidden from them so that they should not see the meaning of it, and they were afraid to ask him about what he had just said.” (Luke 9:43-45)
          Let us pray for each other in our struggle to be content with a sufficiency of bread, lest we be unmindful of the Lord or lest we be a source of scandal by our chasing after things.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

In Favor of Prayer

          If you were to ask me what it was that I liked, enjoyed or appreciated most about the book Prayer for Beginners by Peter Kreeft, I would say that Peter (despite any superlatives or absolutes one may wish to highlight from the book) understates the value of prayer and thereby succeeds in making both the topic and its exercise more approachable. He sells prayer well, which is an essential component to include in any book out there for beginners. Why shouldn’t an author try and “sell” prayer on its benefits, just like you sell jogging, swimming or some other healthful activity or exercise? To make my point, let me quote from an early section of this little primer (for which I don’t have a page number as I read it on Kindle):
“Why pray? Because only prayer can save the world. Some say that prayer, and “the spiritual life”, or “the inner life”, or the soul’s private love affair with God, is an unaffordable luxury today, or an irresponsible withdrawal from the pressing public problems of our poor, hurting world. I say just the opposite: that nothing, nothing is more relevant and responsible; that nothing else can ever cure our sick world except saints, and saints are never made except by prayer. Nothing but saints can save our world because the deepest root of all the world’s diseases is sin, and saints are the antibodies that fight sin. Nothing but prayer can make saints because nothing but God can make saints, and we meet God in prayer. Prayer is the hospital for souls where we meet Doctor God.”
          You may object that this definition of prayer and others throughout the book are not in the least understated, but rather high-flown and ambitious, like this one which comes later in the book:
“We must become in fact what we are by right: we must become wholly God’s. This is why prayer is so important: it sets us firmly on that road. Prayer is essentially the practice of the presence of God, and that is the road to Heaven. There is no alternative. God is the only game in town. All other roads are dead ends.”
Regardless of the “-issimos”, to my mind he still understates by comparison with the expectations from prayer to be found in the writings of some of the great mystics; he is less likely to scare you off than let’s say a treatise on interiority by St. Teresa of Avila or some awesome poem by St. John of the Cross.
          Much of Peter’s little book refers to an old classic by Brother Lawrence. Perhaps he would have us read that book? I just may. In any case, I don’t regret having read this little tome and hope others profit by the read.
          Although Peter Kreeft is far from alone in saying it, his shared statement bears repeating and in this case has given me new insight into the urgency with which some of my favorite “saints” give themselves to praying whenever they can: “…that nothing else can ever cure our sick world except saints, and saints are never made except by prayer.”
This summer watching the EWTN series Signs of Life, hosted by Mike Aquilina and featuring Dr. Scott Hahn, the two men shared an experience common to their first experience with receiving spiritual direction. Both were told they would be praying a lot more. Both were skeptical, but after the fact they both rejoice in the difference which just prayer alone (as much as you can quantify it without the complements of study and Scripture reading) has made in their personal lives and their sense of the presence of God.
I am still reading another Kreeft book: A Refutation of Moral Relativism. The “absolutist” in the dialogue holds out little hope for Western society, permeated as it is by Godless relativism. Perhaps as a philosophical exercise Kreeft’s book limits itself time and again to stating that the absolutist cultures have been the enduring ones: Mosaic, continuing in Christ, Moslem, and Buddhist. Relativists are self-destructive and do not endure. A person who prays, who lives in the presence of God, and hence a saintly person is ready to submit his heart to truth. Kreeft’s protagonist in the book puts it this way: “That’s the essence of all true religion: submission of the heart to truth, to God, to what God is: truth and moral goodness. That’s why I say that the honest and moral atheist is a religious man and the relativistic churchgoer is not.”
Our discourse on prayer, obviously Christian prayer, takes us much further. Yesterday’s memorial of the Korean martyrs reminded me that sanctity has never been a trait which necessarily attracts or wins others over.
“Saint Agatha Yi Kan-Nan, Widow and Martyr (1813-1846)
… Agatha’s father, however, angered by the conversion of his family, punished Agatha by ordering her to live with her deceased husband’s family. These relatives, touched by Agatha’s gentle disposition, came to admire her to the point that one sister-in-law also became a Catholic. Agatha ultimately bought a home of her own. She was known to be deeply devout, mortifying herself with frequent fasting. Her fellow Catholics revered her for her exceptional chastity, deeming her “as clear as a mirror and as pure as snow.” On July 10, 1846, Agatha was arrested for her faith by agents of Korea’s pagan regime...” (Magnificat, Monday, September 20th, 2010, page 292)
“Some say that prayer, and “the spiritual life”, or “the inner life”, or the soul’s private love affair with God, is an unaffordable luxury today, or an irresponsible withdrawal from the pressing public problems of our poor, hurting world. I say just the opposite: that nothing, nothing is more relevant and responsible; that nothing else can ever cure our sick world except saints, and saints are never made except by prayer.” (Prayer for Beginners by Peter Kreeft)

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Our Lady of Sorrows

          During my annual retreat last month, while speaking with my director about my reading list, we shared a bit about some of our favorite authors. Come to find out my director is quite high on Peter Kreeft and was surprised that I had never read any of his books. Subsequently, I picked up two titles at random on Kindle: “Prayer for Beginners”, which I read and liked, and “A Refutation of Moral Relativism”, which I am still working on. I don’t think I will become a Kreeft fan, but he’s good. Anyway, the book on moral relativism is doing what a book should do and setting off all sorts of thoughts; it’s getting the “wheels” turning.
          This little preface is meant to explain or excuse my rather odd meditation for today’s memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows. Read St. Bernard or anyone else on the mystery of the Sorrowful Mother and you will know that the primary direction of this day invites us to pause to contemplate her compassion, her share in the sufferings of her Son. Today’s liturgy is one of those few in the calendar which has kept its Sequence, albeit an optional one, the Stabat Mater.
STABAT Mater dolorosa
iuxta Crucem lacrimosa,
dum pendebat Filius.
AT, the Cross her station keeping,
stood the mournful Mother weeping,
close to Jesus to the last.
Cuius animam gementem,
contristatam et dolentem
pertransivit gladius.
Through her heart, His sorrow sharing,
all His bitter anguish bearing,
now at length the sword has passed.
O quam tristis et afflicta
fuit illa benedicta,
mater Unigeniti!
O how sad and sore distressed
was that Mother, highly blest,
of the sole-begotten One.
Quae maerebat et dolebat,
pia Mater, dum videbat
nati poenas inclyti.
Christ above in torment hangs,
she beneath beholds the pangs
of her dying glorious Son.
Quis est homo qui non fleret,
matrem Christi si videret
in tanto supplicio?
Is there one who would not weep,
whelmed in miseries so deep,
Christ's dear Mother to behold?
Quis non posset contristari
Christi Matrem contemplari
dolentem cum Filio?
Can the human heart refrain
from partaking in her pain,
in that Mother's pain untold?
Pro peccatis suae gentis
vidit Iesum in tormentis,
et flagellis subditum.
Bruised, derided, cursed, defiled,
she beheld her tender Child
All with bloody scourges rent:
Vidit suum dulcem Natum
moriendo desolatum,
dum emisit spiritum.
For the sins of His own nation,
saw Him hang in desolation,
Till His spirit forth He sent.
Eia, Mater, fons amoris
me sentire vim doloris
fac, ut tecum lugeam.
O thou Mother! Fount of love!
Touch my spirit from above,
make my heart with thine accord:
Fac, ut ardeat cor meum
in amando Christum Deum
ut sibi complaceam.
Make me feel as thou hast felt;
make my soul to glow and melt
with the love of Christ my Lord.
Sancta Mater, istud agas,
crucifixi fige plagas
cordi meo valide.
Holy Mother! pierce me through,
in my heart each wound renew
of my Savior crucified.
Tui Nati vulnerati,
tam dignati pro me pati,
poenas mecum divide.
Let me share with thee His pain,
who for all my sins was slain,
who for me in torments died.
Fac me tecum pie flere,
crucifixo condolere,
donec ego vixero.
Let me mingle tears with thee,
mourning Him who mourned for me,
all the days that I may live.
Iuxta Crucem tecum stare,
et me tibi sociare
in planctu desidero.
By the Cross with thee to stay,
there with thee to weep and pray,
is all I ask of thee to give.
Virgo virginum praeclara,
mihi iam non sis amara,
fac me tecum plangere.
Virgin of all virgins blest,
Listen to my fond request:
let me share thy grief divine.
Fac, ut portem Christi mortem,
passionis fac consortem,
et plagas recolere.
Let me, to my latest breath,
in my body bear the death
of that dying Son of thine.
Fac me plagis vulnerari,
fac me Cruce inebriari,
et cruore Filii.
Wounded with His every wound,
steep my soul till it hath swooned,
in His very Blood away.
Flammis ne urar succensus,
per te, Virgo, sim defensus
in die iudicii.
Be to me, O Virgin, nigh,
lest in flames I burn and die,
in His awful Judgment Day.
Christe, cum sit hinc exire,
da per Matrem me venire
ad palmam victoriae.
Christ, when Thou shalt call me hence,
be Thy Mother my defense,
be Thy Cross my victory.
Quando corpus morietur,
fac, ut animae donetur
paradisi gloria.
While my body here decays,
may my soul Thy goodness praise,
safe in paradise with Thee. Amen.

Blame it on Peter Kreeft or whatever but, with the Stabat Mater foremost in my mind, my head is swimming today with reservations and objections to this island’s present mantra: “multiculturalism”. Proceeding along the pattern of my thoughts from yesterday, my concern focuses on today’s all too frequent apostasies from Catholic faith, as they contrast to the Sorrowful Mother who kept her station at the foot of the Cross.
          The multicultural thing is perhaps only so acute because of a music evening I attended which offered an enjoyable introduction to classic Japanese drums, flutes and strings before attempting a “musical fusion” with steel pan and percussion, a seemingly embarrassed sitarist being thrown in for ample measure and to ensure a politically seamless coverage of the “multi” part of the cultural landscape. I guess I was supposed to applaud indiscriminately the various original compositions and improvisations without really knowing the classical greats of the Far East which should be their measure. All of a sudden not only moral values are relative, but everything short of racing against the stopwatch becomes “fine to very fine”, just like those silly public schools years ago which banned all forms of evaluation of a student’s accomplishment so as not to stifle creativity or the unfolding person. Maybe it is only because of the stopwatch or the scoreboard that competitive sports remain recognizable; everything else becomes a smear on the canvas of life. In any case, with this type of virtuosity which nobody else dare judge we are far from embracing the Cross or sharing in Mary’s compassion for Christ’s suffering. My evening was spent in a realm which either never knew or has apostatized from the faith of our fathers and mothers. “Multi” excludes priority, hierarchy, yes, value.
          Most of us as children in parochial school sang the Stabat Mater at the Stations of the Cross on Fridays during Lent. Most of us would have understood even as children that the real world of baptized people saw their place with Mary at the foot of the Cross. Some of those children, as the years went by, balked for themselves and in their own personal lives at the humiliations Mary suffered while keeping her station. A big or little insult or pain, a situation which could no longer be faced except as clothed as a penitent, became easier to flee, and any number of folk out of pride and a measure of hurt turned their back on Mother Church and went over to brethren who would embrace them for the cut of their wallet or their social respectability. They left the Sorrowful Mother to keep watch alone.
          The people in the wilderness yearned for old Egypt, but by God’s merciful love were given a chance to approach the Tree of Life and be caught up in the embrace of the One Who was delivered up for our sins. Choosing life is not an epic saga; we need not be dashing knights on a cinematographic quest in HD, 3D and surround sound; we need but hold tight to our Mother’s hand, to her whose soul as Simeon had foretold was pierced through, as she beheld her tender Child.
Make me feel as thou hast felt;
make my soul to glow and melt
with the love of Christ my Lord.