The path to self-knowledge


QueenofHeavenYear B Ordinary 2

The Catholic novelist Walker Percy writes that one of of the ironies of being a human being is, “A stranger approaching you in the street will in a second’s glance see you whole, size you up, place you in a way in which you cannot and never will, even though you have spent a lifetime with yourself, live in the Century of the Self, and therefore ought to know yourself best of all.”

That irony is so true and we in St. Louis know it very well, which is why every single one of us immediately asks of each other which high-school you went to. It’s funny, when people ask me that and I say, “St Charles West, class of ’99!” the response is always to get a funny look in their eyes and say, “oh, well, I guess I could be friends with you, a public school graduate.” I’m just a poor public school kid, so that apparently says a lot about me. I never got the chance to go to SLU High and learn to tie a bow tie or go to St. Mary’s and hope I could be mayor of St. Louis some day, but at least that’s better than those of you who went to school somewhere other than St. Louis, because you’ll never quite be one of us (one of us!), which is why you get that strange look when you tell people, “Oh I went to high school in Florida.” It kind of means you’re an outsider who is kind of untrustworthy. Sorry.

I really do find the question fascinating because it’s a way of making connections and sorting out questions of identity. We’re often shaped by our backgrounds in ways that we don’t even realize ourselves. The judgments of others, while certainly full of error especially if you base it off something as goofy as high-school attendance, those judgments can reveal insights to us about our own selves that we aren’t actually aware of.

Walker Percy asks, “Why is it possible to learn more in ten minutes about the Crab Nebula in Taurus, which is 6,000 light-years away, than you presently know about yourself, even though you’ve been stuck with yourself all your life?”

As a society, we know how to make a nuclear bomb, how to make a machine that flies through the sky, we can walk on the moon, and yet we often make fundamental errors about our very own behavior and motivations. The shocking truth is that we even though we have so much knowledge, we know less than ever before about our selves and how to be happy.

I do think that these issues are more extreme today because of how much pressure there is to find identity in earning potential, material possessions, and how much advertising can distort our sense of personal value. But the problem of self-identity has been around for a long time.

St. Augustine says, “We are restless Lord, until we rest in thee.” He then confesses how his playboy lifestyle kept him not only from knowing God but also from knowing himself. He was partying and dating and seeking fame, but in the end he lost his own self identity and felt more and more restless. Finally, when he was in his mid-30s, he figures it out, writing, Late have I loved thee, O Beauty so ancient and so new…thou wast within and I was without, and I sought thee out there.” But in the end, he discovers, God and fulfillment and self-knowledge cannot be found out there. We can only know ourselves by taking a hard look within, because it is in the human heart that God first speaks to us. And this is the secret to knowing yourself – God knows you better, far better, than you know yourself.

Perhaps you think that you are insignificant. God knows you are not. Maybe you think you are merely average, or unimportant, or unlovely. God knows that you are none of these. God looks at you and he sees a soul that he has created, that he has knit together in your mother’s womb, that you have a soul that is made for eternity and you are infinitely valuable. You are a person worth dying for.

CS Lewis tells a story in which he imagines a new arrival first experiencing heaven. In it he sees a beautiful woman whose robes are majestic. She walks through heaven, followed by a long train of immense beings bearing flowers and dancing, of youths and maidens singing, and of dogs and cats and birds and horses.

The newcomer is amazed: It’s Mary, the Mother of God!

“Not at all,” says his guide, “It’s someone ye’ll never have heard of. Her name on Earth was Sarah Smith and she lived at Golders Green.”

The newcomer is confused. “She seems to be . . . a person of particular importance.”

Nope, it’s Sarah Smith and she lived at Golders Green.

But she is great. The guide explains “Every young man or boy that met her became her son—even if it was only the boy that brought the meat to her back door. Every girl that met her was her daughter. Every beast and bird that came near her had its place in her love. In her they became themselves.”

In her they became themselves—that is an astonishing claim. Such is the elevating power of the love of Christ.

Through the love that we have for each other, through the power of Christ’s death and resurrection, through our baptismal identity as children of God – we become ourselves.

Our Lord calls Simon and give him a new name – Peter. He calls Samuel to his true vocation and stays with him always. St. Paul is clear, we are united with the Christ, one spirit with him. He is as close to us as we are to ourselves, and he knows us through and through.

In the world, human identity is muddled and confused. In Christ, we become ourselves. We no longer need to compare ourselves to others or fear for the future. You are chosen. You are treasured. You are forgiven. You are loved beyond all compare.


Epiphany is about more than the magi

adoration-of-the-magiYear B Epiphany

For a long time I thought that the Epiphany was only about the 3 Wisemen, but it’s actually about much more. The feast of the Epiphany has three major significations. The first is the arrival of the Three Kings, or Magi. The second is the Baptism of Our Lord. The third is the Wedding at Cana.

In the daily office, the connection is made clear in the antiphon for the Benedictus, which reads, “Today the Bridegroom claims his bride, the Church, since Christ has washed her sins away in Jordan’s waters; the Magi hasten with their gifts to the royal wedding; and the guests rejoice, for Christ has changed water into wine, alleluia.”

The wedding at Cana is the first public miracle Our Lord performs, and it is closely connected with his revelation in the Mass. The Water and Wine are mingled in a sign of Our Lord’s union of human and divine, both of which are fully present in him. At Cana, he first reveals himself in his public ministry. He is the Son of God, and in him all ordinary creatures are revealed to be potential vessels of divine grace. Consider our own souls, as small and insignificant we seem, God creates his grace there by his own desire and so shifts the character of our being.

The Baptism, too, re-shapes the soul. The person who emerges from its waters is not the same person who entered. Our Lord is the exception, because he had no sins to be left behind and was already fitted for supernatural virtue before he ever stepped into the Jordan, meaning that he did so not for his own benefit but for ours, and so he reveals that he will join us in our death and become the principle by which we rise.

And of course, the Magi make this connection between the Epiphany and the Death and Resurrection of Our Lord even more clear. They bring him gifts to prepare him not only for his burial but also to recognize his rightful place as resurrected King and Prophet. Like the Magi, our lives are re-oriented when Our Lord is revealed. We are drawn into his orbit and confront questions of our own creation and subsequent re-creation. He is center of our existence.

The magi bring him gifts. We must bring him more. We bring him our very selves, because without him we are nothing. We belong to him, and he to us.

But first, we must find him.

The Magi are looking, seeking him in the beauty of the night sky, pondering the mystery of the stars, seeing how the heavens reflect the heart of their creator. And once they see the sign that lights the way, they are willing to follow. The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins ponders the separation of human from God, writing, “Moonless darkness stands between.” The only path through that darkness requires trust in divine providence, for if, “darkness covers the earth, and thick clouds cover the peoples,” as the prophet Isaiah writes, it is also true that, “Upon you the LORD shines.” It is God who beckons us home. It is he who arrives on Christmas day to close the divide, to light our path through the dark and cold desert. Hopkins writes it is the Bethlehem-star that leads us to the side of Christ, and it is by his side in adoration that we are freed from the darkness of the sinful people we have been in the past. Whatever sins we are willing to name, he forgives. Whatever sorrow we bring him, he accepts. Whatever joy we retain, he renews. Hopkins asks of the Christ child, “Make me pure, Lord: Thou art holy; Make me meek, Lord: Thou wert lowly.”

The light that cuts through the darkness illumines not only the path forward but also our own faces with the very glory of God. Isaiah writes, “Then you shall be radiant at what you see, your heart shall throb and overflow.” Hans Urs Von Balthasar comments on this, writing, “The light came to illumine those who sit in the shadow of tombs, and such illumination required that the radiance of the light be recognized and that one be oneself transformed into streaming light.”

This is the festival of adoration. The crucified and risen Lord has beamed into the gloom and what can we do but fall on our knees and love him? He is with us always, and our adoration rises with every breath we draw, and is marked by every beat of the heart. Don’t take his life within for granted. Pause for a moment, contemplate the gentle rising and falling of his own heart within you, and fall down in adoration before the radiance of eternity himself.

God loves your less-than-perfect family

home alone

Year B Holy Family

This year I re-watched my favorite Christmas movie, and probably the greatest of all time – Home Alone (You thought I was going to say It’s a Wonderful Life or something like that but I tricked you). It’s a film that sits right at my level of low-brow humor – bad guys getting hit in the face with paint cans, bad guys stepping on glass Christmas ornaments and falling down, bad guys getting hit in the face with a hot iron… It’s cinema magic. There’s actually a scientific breakdown on youtube about how, in real life, those criminals would’ve ended up in the hospital very quickly as a result of those booby traps. But underneath the ridiculous slapstick veneer of the movie, there’s actually a rather touching story about family: what happens when we argue, or feel ignored and unappreciated, how difficult it can be to grow up in the midst of all these other people who are also trying to grow up, how hard it is to be the perfect parent, how easy it is to treat each other poorly.

Families can be, let’s say, stressful. Brothers and sisters fight. They take up your space. Take your toys without asking. Husbands and wives find relationships strained and difficult at times, or simply find themselves in desperate need of some alone time. Children, as much as we love them, have a habit of driving parents completely crazy at regular intervals. And from the perspective of children, parents can be troublesome, too, and aren’t always perfect. But in the end, we wouldn’t want to live without our families being in our lives in some way or another. We may, in dark moments, want them all to just disappear, but in the end, each individual emerges from their family better for it.

And I say all this full well knowing that many families are broken or full of trauma. Even in these instances, the absence of what ought to be is revelatory of what we seek. Even those who don’t have a natural family to speak of always have the family of God, after all Mary is our Mother and Christ our brother. When the scriptures refer to us as “brother and sister” it isn’t simply an accident of language. It’s a description of a fundamental, life-changing relationship. You have a family. So whether we like it or not, we are all part of a family.

Today is the celebration of the Holy Family, and it’s worth noting that in the Gospel we do not find explanations but rather what Pope Benedict refers to as “an event which is worth more than any words.” It is the simple description of what it was like to grow up in a 1st century, Jewish family. The Holy Father says, “God wanted to be born and to grow up in a human family. In this way he consecrated the family as the first and ordinary means of his encounter with humanity.” That is fascinating. What he means is that the family, not Church, is the way in which we first meet Jesus. He could have arrived on earth in any way he chose as a fully grown adult – but he chose to have a mother and father.

And, in spite of the fact that at least 2 out of the 3 members of that family never sinned, it wasn’t perfect. Mom was a teenager and the circumstances of the pregnancy seemed suspicious. They had to flee as refugees to Egypt for a time because Herod was seeking to kill Jesus. At the age of 12, Our Lord was lost for a time and his parents were frantic until they finally found him in the temple. They were constantly facing up to a difficult and challenging future, knowing that it would be marked by death and loss. In short, this family may be holy but it is also human.

This is the kind of family that God loves. His presence in the midst of it sanctifies each and every other family and draws us into that love. A family doesn’t have to be perfect, that isn’t what makes it successful. The vocation of a family is to stick together and be there as each member is set on a path of discovery about God and the special plan he has prepared for every single person. It is a school of virtue and a domestic Church. This formation is irreplaceable. We can’t get it at school, or at work, or from friends, or even at PSR or Bible studies. It has to happen in the family, because this is the primary structure of human relationships. Your family will make you holy, and help you find God, and help you find your place in the world. It has its ups and downs, and you may be thinking that your family could never provide any spiritual support, that it isn’t even close, and that may take some hard thinking and praying to see how God has led you to where you are and how to find the good from any situation, but however your family delivered you to the place you are now, it is what has made you uniquely yourself.

All of us could benefit from meditating on the Holy Family and imitating them in always keeping Jesus in the center of our shared life together.

Parents, pray with your children. Help make your home a joyful, gentle, supportive environment where mistakes can be made and growing up is nurtured. When it comes to the faith of your children and the reality that God loves them and they are valuable in his eyes, you are far more important than your priest.

Children, honor your parents. Even when we think they have been unfair in the past or don’t understand us, they have often given to us more than we know.

Brothers and sisters, don’t get too competitive or allow unhealthy rivalries to sever the bond between you.

And to all of us who find ourselves in the midst of an all-too human, messy family, don’t give up on it. Let the Holy Family be your guide. If we gather round Our Lord as the source of our unity and strength, he will never let us down. Even if our families bring us joy and sorrow, anxiety and security, or the occasional wish for alone time along with our bond, this is the way God has chosen to save us and the way he reveals himself to us.

Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, pray for us!

St. Robert Southwell’s Christmas poem

Robert_SouthwellYear B Christmas

Not everyone knows this, but William Shakespeare had a distant cousin, the now-sainted Robert Southwell. Southwell became a priest at a time when it was actually illegal to be a priest in England, during the 17th century under the reign of Queen Elizabeth. He government was secularist and aggressive and, like so many other martyr-priests before him, Southwell offered secret Masses at night and spent his days hiding like a rat in a priest hole. Eventually he was caught, sent to the Tower of London, and paid for his faith with his life, but he spent his time in prison well. In addition to being tortured for three years, he wrote poems. He wrote really, really good poems. So good, in fact, that Shakespeare says that out of the two or them, Southwell is more talented. It’s funny, he’s one the greatest poets of the age, but instead of lasting fame he received a martyr’s crown. I imagine that now that he is heaven he is happy with the trade.

One of the last poems he wrote was actually a Christmas poem called “The Burning Babe.” In it, he describes standing the winter snow and having a vision of a child, all on fire but unharmed like the burning bush that Moses saw. The child says,

‘My faultless breast the furnace is;
The fuel, wounding thorns;
Love is the fire, and sighs the smoke;
The ashes, shames and scorns;

And then Southwell wakes from his vision and remembers that it is Christmas day. He has spoken to the Christ child, newly born and yet already crowned with thorns, surrounded by fire and tears.

This is so important for us to realize. The joy of Christmas, the overwhelming sense of goodwill and happiness, the angels shouting the good news, the children dressed up like sheep in the Christmas play, tomorrow morning when we’re all tearing into the gifts and throwing wrapping paper all over the living room, our local crew from Babe’s who go through the neighborhood caroling and having a great time, all of this hits so close to our hearts not because this is a holiday where we simply play around for the sake of having a good time, the joy of this Day is because it is very, very serious. God has joined us, and even in his crib as an infant he is ready to abandon his own life to save us. And the good news is that, because God takes sin and death seriously, we can too, without guilt but embracing forgiveness and the freedom to move on to the future because he has finally provided a way for us to conquer our weaknesses. And when we take our spiritual life seriously and come to the side of the Christ child and adore him and repent of our sins, love becomes the fire that burns away our past and we are made ready for the future. This is how much God loves you.

It isn’t simply December 24(25) today. It the anniversary of the day the world changed forever. Christmas is a privileged opportunity to meditate on the meaning and mystery of our existence, to encounter anew the merciful kindness of God and his saving power. With humility and rejoicing, may we make ourselves ready to receive his gift.

The steady advent of Christ

maryYear B Advent 4

For decade after decade, from the very beginnings of God’s revelation of himself to the Israelites on Mount Sinai, through all the years wandering in the desert and even after King David had established the nation of Israel as a regional power, God dwelt in a tent. The technical word for the tent is “tabernacle.” In many churches, such as our Basilica Cathedral, the altar itself is covered by a baldichino, which is reminiscent of a tent covering over the presence of God. When the Israelites were on the march, the tribe of Levi was in charge of taking down the tent, packing up all the sacred items that were inside not least of which was the ark of the covenant, and protecting them during the day’s travel. A lot of effort was put into designing the tabernacle and furnishing the inside with costly items of devotion, and much of the way the sanctuary of a catholic Church would traditionally have been arranged was based on the instructions of God to Moses about how to worship him.

King David became powerful and wealthy and, because he was a man after God’s own heart, he desired to build a permanent home for God, a temple. You have to look at our reading from Samuel very closely, but God says No. The reason he declines the offer is because David in his life has fought many wars and has blood on his hands. He is not the man for the job and the time isn’t right. It will be David’s son Solomon who will build the temple.

Before the advent of Christ, God revealed himself progressively so that he could create a people for himself, a people with a vocation to create for him a home. He gathered them up, protected them, gave them the law, and all of these strange guidelines about food to eat because he was creating a people who were distinct from the tribes around them. It took centuries, but God is patient. He began by calling Abraham out from the pagans, then giving the law to Moses, then having a temple built where sacrifice might be offered, and finally, when the time was right, when everything was prepared, he took on human flesh and made his home with the Virgin Mother.

Today is Our Lady’s Sunday in Advent. Pope Paul VI, when he was working to revise the liturgy, wanted to envelop the Christmas mystery in the gentle presence of the Virgin Mother. He restored the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, on January 1, eight days after the nativity of Our Lord, so what he have is the Christ child, wrapped in swaddling clothes in the manger, surrounded entirely by the love of his mother. We celebrate Mary both before Christmas and after.

When non-Catholics ask me why the Church honors Mary so much, the reason is because she is indispensable to the advent of Christ. Her womb was his home for 9 months, and she knew him with the intimacy that exists only between mother and child. She nurtured him with her very body, gave him her flesh, and became the very home of Our Lord on earth.

This connection still exists. The prayer over the offerings at this Mass asks the Holy Spirit to bless the Bread and the Wine that are laid upon the altar in the same way that he “Filled with his power the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary.” In other words, the womb of Mary is a type of altar, and every time Our Lord becomes present to us through the words of consecration at the Mass, he arrives via the virginal womb. In this way, she has become the temple. In fact, she is a far greater temple because what the temple of the Old Testament only hinted at is made fully present in her. The birth of Christ is the fulfillment of everything that God has prepared from the beginning of time.

Lord Alfred Tennyson, in a poem called “Crossing the Bar” that used to be read at every funeral, talks about death and journeying to heaven as being a like heading out onto the deep and vast ocean. He writes,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,

Too full for sound and foam,

When that which drew from out the boundless deep

Turns again home.

We are made by God and our home is with him. The tabernacle, the Temple, the womb of the Blessed Virgin – all are models for the way he has built for himself a dwelling within us, within our very hearts, and somehow, someway he draws us steadily towards our eternal destiny. As he draws near, make your heart ready to receive him and he will guide you home.