The mystery of a Father’s love

Michelangelo-Sistine-Chapel-GodA lot of us like to pride ourselves on how open-hearted we are, how we get along with everybody, how we give everyone a fair chance. But look closer and cracks appear in the facade – Well, no I’m not nice to that guy, but that’s because he’s terrible. No, I don’t talk to that person anymore, but she deserves it. In the end, it turns out that we live by the mantra Treat me well and I’ll treat you well, but cross me and we’re gonna have a serious problem – We’re all guilty of it to some degree at least.

The Kingdom of God operates a bit differently. It’s as if a man is scattering seed on the earth and then it mysteriously grows. The Kingdom of God is a living reality, the inclusion of human beings into his divine life. It is an extension of his love. Amazingly, God doesn’t really seem to care where the seed goes. He just scatters it.

I occasionally convince myself that I can make the landscaping look nice. Usually I’m pretty content to let the grass turn brown and die so I don’t have to mow anything and I don’t mind letting some weeds grow here and there, but occasionally I get motivated and try to clean things up and plant something nice, so I go out and get some bags of good compost, I choose the perfect spot, dig a perfect hole, put mulch around the plant, and I water it carefully. That’s not how God would garden. He would go out toss a bunch of seeds around, pray it rains, and go back inside for a cold drink.

It doesn’t matter if a person seems good, or holy, or if they dress the right way, or know enough from the Catechism, or if the are likeable or not. The Kingdom of God is for you, and if you allow heaven to take root in your heart, you will be welcomed and transformed from within. Grace is silent and we often don’t even know when it is at work. To all outward appearances, nothing may be happening. It’s like a seed germinating in soil. For instance, I often go to confession, pour out my wounded little heart…and feel nothing in return. I often say Mass and my feelings are vaguely conventional, I feel neither close nor far from God. Sometimes during adoration, I admit, I’m simply waiting quietly for the hour to be over. This isn’t how it is all the time, but it is enough of the time that I’ve come to realize that grace is beyond my ability to comprehend, because so often we feel so ordinary, and yet at the exact same time God’s grace is working miracles in us. It’s funny, we go around saying “God loves you,” all the time. Very true, and yet, sometimes I think, well okay, that’s not such a big deal because God loves everybody. As the Christian musician Rich Mullins once said about God loving him, “That don’t make me special! That just proves that God has got no taste.” And that’s exactly right! God doesn’t discriminate at all, he scatters the seeds of the Kingdom everywhere.

Or perhaps more accurately, this prodigality of God’s love proves a pretty amazing fact about us. It proves that even at our worst, our most ordinary, we are still pretty special. And we don’t need to compare ourselves to anyone else for that to be true.

I think a lot about that conundrum of how we treat other people. We do tend to treat those we like a lot better. We extend them more benefit of the doubt, do them more favors, forgive them more quickly. But God doesn’t do that, because that’s only halfway towards love. The challenge is to spread it out everywhere, to people who are not grateful, to people who do not like you, people who have made your life harder.

This being Fathers day we have a perfect example. Fathers are men who, and I’m stereotyping you guys but just go with it, here, Fathers often quietly go about their business without a whole lot of emotion or a whole lot of introspection. They have these kids, these messy, crazy, time-consuming little whirlwinds. They live in a mental asylum surrounded by inmates that they have created themselves. Dads don’t worry too much about what they’re receiving in return from their children. They simply love them, whether they’re behaving good or bad. They protect them, and provide for them. Those children may never be able to repay him, but Dad doesn’t care. Maybe this is why God chooses to reveal himself to us as Father. He doesn’t love us because we deserve it. He loves us because we are his children.

Heavenly Father, may we grow into your image.

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The Eucharist is a true sacrifice

Toasting_Polish_Dachau

The oldest prison camp in Nazi Germany was Dachau. Over the course of World War II, 2,579 priests and seminarians were imprisoned there in starvation conditions and exposed to infectious diseases. The priests managed with the help of the Vatican to pressure the guards into allowing them a chapel to celebrate Mass, but the guards weren’t happy about it. They would come in during Mass and yell at everyone to line up, eat the bread, and get out already. They would target the priests for special torture and persecution. The camps were monitored by the SS but they actually put certain prisoners in charge. These men, called kapos, were all criminals and they would steal food from the priests and abuse them. Out of all the prisoners, though, it was the priests who never fought back, never cheated or took advantage of other prisoners, and always kept their dignity. Why? Because they had the Eucharist.

Two fellow prisoners describe the experience of going to Mass in Dachau.

Joseph Rovan says, “No longer could I recall the world of the concentration camp. Each one, for a precious moment, was restored to his original, fragile, and indestructible dignity…”

Marcel Dejean says, “We went to meet [Our Lord]…who held our lives in his hands; we rediscovered the idea of Love in the midst of suffering, hunger, egoism, hatred or indifference, and also a palpable sense of calm…the SS were no longer anything but a sad nothingness beside the splendid, immortal reality of Christ.”

Many of those men never saw the outside world again. They died in horrible conditions behind barbed wire fences while the war raged on. Their circumstances were desperate, but they had hope and they had joy.

What is it about the Eucharist that would make such a huge difference? Here is what we sometimes forget, or that us priests forget to remind you about – the Eucharist is a true sacrifice. There’s a Benedictine monk who wrote a series of reflections in front of the blessed sacrament and those reflections are gathered up into a book called In Sinu Jesu. He records Jesus telling him, “I want you to speak to the faithful of the Holy Mass as a true sacrifice…no one thinks any more to tell them that the action of the Eucharist renews My sacrifice upon the Cross, and that I am present upon the altar as upon the Cross, as both Priest and Victim. It is the whole of My sacrifice of love that unfolds before their eyes. You must tell them this.”

The Eucharist is a true sacrifice. This means that those men at Dachau who were in the midst of the greatest and final sacrifice of their lives knew that they were not alone. The Cross loomed before their eyes and was etched into the fabric of their being.

In my life as a priest, I encounter many people who are in the midst of sacrifice. Those who are in hospice feeling the end of life fast approaching, those who are in marriage difficulty and cannot figure out how to follow church teaching anymore, parents and single parents who feel the weight of responsibility, money issues, betrayal, doubts. At night, I walk and say my evening prayers inside the Church, trying to focus on praying for the people who sit in these pews, and I cannot get out of the way of my own thoughts. The Cross looms before our eyes.

We must turn to the Eucharist, and finding Jesus here, to truly understand what is happening on our altar. It is the death of God. It is the resurrection of God. Both of these realities are folded into one and are re-presented before our very eyes. It is not a symbol. It is not a reference to a previous event. It is the event.

The is the foundational event of the universe, and written into creation is the principle that suffering and redemption are flip sides of the same coin. When we are in the grip of one, we are also in the grip of the other.

Everything starts from the heart of Christ, who as Pope Benedict XVI points out, praises God in the midst of his own suffering, and through that action he changes the world. Every time you receive Christ in the Eucharist, you receive his Cross and his Resurrection, suffering and redemption, and you cannot emerge from the experience unchanged. The priests at Dachau were different than those who did not receive the Eucharist. They suffered with joyful dignity. Our Lord did not die as people expected him to, and at the moment he gave up the ghost he was glorified beyond compare.

On the feast of Corpus Christi, we recognize this true sacrifice. Today, give to God whatever it is that is in your heart and meet him in the Eucharist. He will transform you from within. This is the logic of Christianity, that we will be renewed from within and, having been changed ourselves, will become agents of change in the world. It is the logic of a grain of wheat that must be broken in order to grow. It isn’t the easiest way, but it is the way that accords with our human dignity and joins us to the splendid, immortal reality of Christ.

From confusion to clarity – the dogma of the Trinity

trinity-rublev

In Bishop Herman’s most recent St. Louis Review article that he wrote about today’s celebration of the Holy Trinity, he tells a story about teaching a 2nd grade class at Epiphany. He doesn’t say when but I assume it was quite a while ago. He was trying to explain to the children about the Trinity and told them it is very complicated. One little girl in the class raised her hand and said, “No, it isn’t,” and proceeded to explain it quite well. My question is – which one of you was that? Because I need some help.

The Trinity, as I’m sure you’ve been told before, is a mystery. When the Church uses the word mystery, she doesn’t refer to something like Sherlock Holmes and the Hound of Baskervilles. It isn’t as though Benedict Cumberbatch is going to walk through the door and suddenly enlighten us to the meaning of the clues. By “mystery,” the church means that, by definition, we will never fully understand because the answer eludes our logical abilities. There are lots of mysteries in life: the Trinity, who put the empty milk carton back in the fridge, why the word abbreviation is so long, men might say that women are a great mystery.

Being asked to take a risk of faith in the Trinity is not beyond the sort of leaps we take every single day. Take men and women for instance. Somehow, even though no person can fully know another person, men and women every day take a leap of faith and commit to each other in marriage. Every mystery has its origin in the heart, and these mysteries speak to the fact that life is so much more than surface level. Eternity hums with every beating heart, and every beautiful thing is fathered forth from the God who is beyond change, the God who is vast beyond imagination.

Often, explanations of the Trinity begin with abstract theology, which kind of misses the point. We know the Trinity not through theoretical argument, but through history. God reaches out and interacts with us. He communicates and gets involved. Books are written about him. This means that we know about the Trinity first of all by the way in which God has entered into and changed our lives. This is what he has been doing since the beginning of time.

Evelyn Waugh, a Catholic writer and convert who has been very influential in my own faith journey, traveled to the depths of Ethiopia in the 1930s. While there, he went to the monastery of Debra Lebanos and observed a Mass in the Coptic tradition. In most of the Eastern traditions, the liturgy has barely changed since the first century. The entire sanctuary is closed off and the laypeople never see the altar. There’s also lots and lots of incense and chanting, lots of highly symbolic actions. Thinking about how different Mass is, Waugh makes an interesting observation. He says,

“I had sometimes thought it an odd thing that Western Christianity, alone of all the religious of the world, exposes its mysteries to every observer.” By this he means the astonishing fact that, at Mass the laity can see the altar and actively participate in the Sacrifice. There’s a priesthood of believers here and your presence adds to the fruits of the Mass but it’s kind of amazing that even non-Christian guests are welcome be here and see it all.

Waugh goes on, “Many people regard the growth of the Church as a process of elaboration – even obfuscation; they visualize the Church of the first century as a little cluster of pious people reading the Gospels together…with a simplicity to which the high ceremonies…of later years would have been bewildering.” This is exactly the conception that I grew up with! I’d always thought that the Church became more ritualistic and complex over time. It’s actually the other way around.

Waugh says, “At Debra Lebanos I suddenly saw the classic basilica and open altar as a great positive achievement…I saw the Church of the first century as…dark and hidden as a seed germinating in the womb; legionaries off duty slipping furtively out of barracks, greeting each other by signs and passwords in a locked upper room…candle-lit, smoky chapels of the catacombs. The priests hid their office…their identity known only to initiates.” The early Church struggled with and ultimately held onto the truth with heroic stubbornness. All around were the mystery religions of pagan cults, crazy ideas, heresies, and confusion. St. Paul spends great amounts of time warning about them, and the early Church Fathers debate and clarify and pray to figure this stuff out. The rational, light-filled, transparent worship of the Church is the result of thousands of years of development. Now we have priests praying at altars while the mysteries unfold in clear view.

This is exactly how the dogma of the Trinity has been clarified. It did not emerge fully formed as a simple, rational idea and then over the years become enormously complex, but is the result of the historical action of the Trinity in the Church through the ages. And as we experience God’s action in our lives, the life of the Trinity begins to make more and more sense because we are sharing that life more and more.

The Trinity has been God’s nature from the very beginning, but in the beginning it was all very confusing – waters formless and void, strange gods, and floods. When Moses arrives he talks about how God the Father is, in essence, coming out of hiding. God is speaking clearly, forming the Israelites into his chosen people, giving them the law. The Father reveals to them his filial concern and abiding love for his children.

Then, the second person of the Trinity appears when the time is right. Our Lord is made incarnate and reveals even more clearly that the Trinity is a relationship of persons, a father and a son, and that the Trinity has broken itself open and poured out its love upon humanity.

Finally, before he leaves Our Lord promises the arrival of the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. Now God not only walks among us as a fellow human being, but he rests in the very hearts of those who invite him in.

First, the Father, then the Son, then the Holy Spirit until the entire Trinity is arrayed before us. Each revelation drawing us closer as God makes himself more and more vulnerable. Each further intermingling of God’s life with ours is a step out of the darkness and into the light. He’s holding nothing back, and if he is, ultimately, unknowable this is because he has no end and every time we come closer to him he has more to reveal.

Through the power of the Spirit we are joint heirs with Christ, children of the same Father, meaning that the Trinity has drawn us entirely into its mystery. His thoughts are not our thoughts, but his heart speaks to ours.

Behold, says Our Lord, I am with until the end of the age.

Links

If you think about it, Mass is kind of awkward – or – Why I recieve communion on the tongue – Dappled Things

I’m super into Dorothy day right now. Here’s an article about how much beauty helped her faith. Dorothy Day and the communion of beauty – Dappled Things

How to win friends and influence people according to St. Philip Neri – Aleteia

Why I ended up with too many children – Aleteia

2 Ways parents prevent their sons from becoming real men – Aleteia

The Ascension is the Enthronement of Imagination

ascension

Today is the Solemnity of the Ascension of Our Lord. Having risen from the grave, Christ must now rise to the right hand of his father. St. Augustine says, “Let our hearts ascend with him,” meaning that just as Jesus brought us with him out of the grave and into the sacramental life, so too does he bring us with him to heaven in the Ascension.

Christ is our Head. We are the Body. We are connected still, and where he is we are also. The Ascension is a fellowship and what happens at the altar during the Mass, quite literally, is an ascension. It’s tempting to think that when the bread is consecrated, Our Lord comes down from heaven into the host. That picture is actually backwards. What happens is the Host becomes a gateway to heaven and when we encounter the Real Presence of Jesus, it is because we are drawn up into heaven to his presence.

If you’re a church nerd like me, it’s kind of interesting to think about the metaphysics of transubstantiation, but what does it really mean for our lives to say that we are lifted up to the Lord?

Well, first it means that God is far different than his detractors suppose.

He is not, as some might allege, angry at his creation. He is not out to get us, not looking to reject the unrighteous or declare us inferior. God, for some reason that I cannot fathom, notices us and desires the best for us. It’s kind of a mystery, if you think about it, why God loves us so – but he does – he takes on human flesh, he makes the body sacred, he has a mother and a father, he has friends. God cries, and worries his mother, and feels lonely in the abandonment of Gethsemane. I don’t know, maybe as a kid he had a dirt-bike like I had and built a ramp for it and bloodied his nose. The point is, God is right here in the midst of it with us. Everything you care about, he cares about: your children, your family, your hobbies, your job, what keeps you awake at night, everything.

This is the second reason the Ascension is really important. When Jesus ascends to Heaven, he takes us and everything we care about and enthrones us with him.

People all the time want to talk to me about how they’ve rejected God. It’s weird, they see a priest and just cannot wait to inform him that they’ve evaluated and dismissed everything he holds dear. I think they just want to talk and don’t know how to start, but they may as well hand me a note that says in all capital letters, “YOUR LIFE IS A LIE.” The problem is, when these people begin to describe to me the God that they don’t believe in, I’m not actually familiar with that God. Reject God if you want, but you should actually know what you’re rejecting, not just some distant, demanding patriarch, but the spark of divinity that makes every single thing in this world so amazing.

Here’s a secret that non-Church-goers and adherents of a secular, Godless society don’t want you to know. The kind of life they seek and desire in the end turns out to be really, really boring. We saw that just this past week with the big fashion show in New York where all the celebrities wore Church-themed outfits. A lot of Christians were offended when they saw the pictures, and I can certainly see why. It made me angry too, mostly, though, because the clothes were so boring. Without the spark, without the Christian imagination and the sacramental outlook on life that maybe, just around the corner is a love so dangerous and white-hot that it will burn you if you get too close and we only see it by the shadow of its flame. Without that, all those deeply intriguing symbols of faith, the Cross, the Papal miter, images of the blessed Virgin and saints, all of it was emptied of excitement and became bland. If you’re a designer and all you can think to do with the regalia of the Pope to make it exciting and dangerous is to show more body parts, your imagination is dead. Take a simple counter example, the papal robes of John Paul II. They’re fanciful and odd, and not at all a costume. They are the sign of the spiritual power of St. Peter. John Paul wore those clothes when he stared down bloodthirsty communists, when he offered mass for a million people, when he knelt before the Blessed Sacrament, when he blessed the people of Rome as he was dying. The Catholic imagination is far more daring than anything else out there. Take, for instance, the angel costume on one starlet. It was risque and had big wings and seemed dramatic, but compare it with Ezekiel’s description of a real angel, wheels upon wheels of fire, covered head to toe in eyes, hovering in place but seemingly always on the move, so powerful that human words fail to describe it. Nice try Hollywood, but your imagination isn’t nearly as adventurous as that of the Church.

This is the third reason the Ascension is important. Through it God redeems our imagination.

Because God has returned to Heaven and prepares a place for us, we are able to live in hope and to dream. CS Lewis once said, “I believe in Christianity as I believe the sun has risen, not only because I can see it, but because, by it, I can see everything else.” In other words, when we internalize the heart of religion and begin to see the way that God sees, suddenly the world shifts into focus, and what we see is endlessly fascinating. This is why G.K. Chesterton says that the imagination makes facts into wonders. Secularism, on the other hand, imposes a mechanized view of the world. Everything is functional, everything is practical, everything is physical, and nothing is a mystery. This is not wisdom, it is the impoverishment of the imagination.

Sometimes this functional attitude creeps into the Church. For instance, I might arrive here thinking that the purpose of the Mass is to see what I can get out of it. The function of the mass is to give me self-help type advice, or to give me a certain feeling. In fact, our worship isn’t about what Jesus offers us, although he does indeed offer us infinite riches. Our worship is about encountering the splendor of God, seeing him in all his glory and giving him the adoration that he deserves. For this, we need the imagination. All of the sensible things that Catholicism is so good at, strange but beautiful garments on the priests, singing, visual arts, incense, architecture, this is all instructive. Plato is helpful on this point when he writes about how Socrates learns from a little old lady the value of imaginative, sensible beauty and how through it we ascend to the realm of eternal reality.

Kids are good at this, by the way. Observe how they watch during Mass, the types of questions they’re asking, the way I can invite them to trace the letters in the Gospel book and they’re wide-eyed and eager to do so. These things excite their imagination and are formative in their ability to encounter God.

We adults must also continue to form our imaginations. St. Edith Stein says that we ought to think of ourselves like plants. With a plant, there is organic growth which does not, “come about wholly from within: there are also exterior influences which work together to determine its formation . . . just so, in the soul’s formation, exterior factors as well as interior ones, play a role.”

So now do we see why God takes a human body and ascends to heaven? Here are our three points again: 1) God is with us entirely, 2) we ascend with him, and 3) he is the fulfillment of our imagination. He loves us so much, and he made all of this for us. We aren’t meant to be bored here on earth, we’re meant to be endlessly amazed, and through this world that he is redeeming right along with us we are lifted up as Heaven unfolds before our eyes.