On Lenten wandering

temptation-of-christFrank O’Hara has a poem called, “A Step Away From Them,” and in it, he describes wandering through New York City, watching workers, eating a cheeseburger, checking out cheap wristwatches at a kiosk, and his mind turns to several of his friends who have died. He asks himself if, in spite of all the activity he sees around him, the earth could be full if it is empty of his friends. The plenitude of life is brought about through meaningful connection, and a sense of permanent home is attached to the people we share our lives with.

This is so true, right? It really doesn’t matter how much money we make, where we live, or what we accomplish if we don’t have human relationship. Some of the richest, most accomplished people in the world are lonely and sad because they have no one. On the other hand, no hardship, no disappointment, no setback ever truly gets its claws in us as long as we have friends and family.

Some of the more difficult moments in my life have been transferring parishes. I’ve said goodbye to two parishes in Cape Cod, then at Epiphany when I left for six months, and then at Holy Infant. When a priest is transferred, he’s going to another parish where he will do the same things. He’ll say Mass, hear confessions, bury the dead, baptize babies…same stuff. So the only reason the experience of changing parishes is so fraught is because of the people left behind, that’s why if I ever get transferred again I’m forcing you all to come with me. They’ll have to drag me out of here kicking and screaming.

O’Hara ends his poem by writing,

A glass of papaya juice

and back to work. My heart is in my

pocket, it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy.

What he means is, that which is closest to our hearts, that which makes truly happy, is our connection with other people. For O’Hara it is in the way he meets Reverdy through his poems. For us, it could be reading a good novel, gathering at Church to pray together, volunteering at various things around here and meeting new and old friends, singing in the choir together, our families, our neighbors. The treasure of our hearts is people.

Pierre Reverdy is a French poet who wrote about wandering, of how, as we stand on the razor’s edge of time, we desperately try to avoid being cut to pieces by the relentless ticking of the clock that pushes us through life. A bit of background. In the 1920s, he lived in Paris and hung out with Picasso and Coco Chanel. All during that period he was becoming more serious about the Catholic faith, and formally entered the Church in 1926. He abandoned Paris and moved to Solesmes to live near the monastery there. In one of this poems, years before he moved, he writes that the, “door of the monastery is open.”

Reverdy’s faith always remained, as he said, “a bush full of thorns.” He often found himself at a crossroads, a place he returns to again and again in his poems because it combines the image of Crucifixion with the action of wandering. For Reverdy, it’s a frying-pan-fire type of situation. We can either wander off on our own and become lost, or we can remain right there at the Cross, and suffer. There’s a tension, because the only way to find a home in this world is through the sacrifice of love and the gift of ourselves to others.

Moses has great, poetic moments, too. He tells the people, “Arami oved avi,” which means, “A wandering Aramean was my father.” It’s a phrase that hearkens all the way back to the creation of the Israelites as a people. When Abram is called by God and given a new identity, there was no such thing as Israelites, and for many generations they were without home. Their condition was enslavement in Egypt and later to wander the desert. Moses told the people that this prayer, “Arami oved avi,” was to be on their lips as they brought the fruit offering to God. The fruit offering represents their connectedness to the Promised Land. The fruit came from their farms, their orchards, their homes. Their father Abraham may have been a nomad but it is God, his covenant and his blessings, that has brought them home. It’s a relationship, a promise between Man and God to share their lives with each other.

Our Lord does some wandering, too. He voluntarily allows Satan to tempt him in the desert for forty days. He returns to the place where the Israelites had lived in tents and had to pack up each morning for a day of walking. He does this because, as long as he is encountering and defeating temptation, as long as he is grappling with Satan on Satan’s territory, he will do so a traveler. To give into temptation immediately separates us from God and from each other. Sin destroys relationships, which is why sin is alienating and lonesome. It is this condition that Our Lord removes from us. He makes whole what had been broken.

It is the defeat of sin that grants us citizenship to the Promised Land. It is a return to God, to relationship and covenant with him, it is a personal relationship with Jesus, an intimate sense of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. It is gathering together as the priestly people to join with our great high priest in his sacrifice.

The words, “Arami oved avi,” continue to be prayed at the Jewish Passover meal, and remember that the Passover meal is the celebration of how the death of a spotless Lamb delivers them from death and bondage, showing how, for a Christian, the idea of wandering is connected with the Cross. Here, at the Cross, is where Our Lord puts an end to our aimlessness. Here is where he transforms our steps into a purposeful pilgrimage, our movement becomes a victory march to the Kingdom of God. Here, at the Cross, is where he takes his place in our hearts by offering himself up for our redemption. It is a human connection, our High Priest mediating for us, suffering with us, loving us, and finally, reconnecting us in a relationship with God the Father.

In Lent, we have an annual reminder to re-purpose our steps. Where are we going? The fruit offering was brought directly to the altar, which is the gate of heaven. The door is open. Beyond it, is home.


Words echo eternal, be sure yours are kind

The SowerTexting is a funny way of communicating, because we can’t see or hear the person. There’s no context to know if they’re smiling, if their voice sounds sarcastic, if they look angry…we just don’t know. Linguists say that fully 55% of communication is non-verbal, and those non-verbal clues are totally missing from electronic communication. I’ve sent emails before that were very short, you know, like, “Hey do you have that job done yet?” I’ve found out later that the recipient thought I was angry because the note was so short, but really I’m just lazy and don’t like to type!

My mom will often text me the phrase like, “I need you at our house tomorrow.” I read that and immediately revert into a teenager, because my mom can’t tell me what to do. When I think about it, though, it’s a common phrase she uses in speech and she doesn’t mean it to sound demanding. If she had said it to my face I wouldn’t have blinked an eye. It’s always helpful to assume positive motivations from the sender when we’re reading texts. It does a world of good.

We’re actually slowly developing a whole new language for texting, which is fascinating because emojis are fairly subtle and complex. You write something and put the little winking face after it which totally changes the words, or something seemingly as simple as LOL doesn’t really mean “laughing out loud.” It’s more an ironic smile, a way to take the edge off a phrase, a way to add missing context. It’s a whole new world out there, folks, which is unfair because I have a hard enough time communicating in real life. Negotiating what we say and how we say it is really tough. I would say it’s one of the more difficult challenges that each of us faces on a daily basis.

The Bible spends a lot of time addressing the way in which we speak. In a quick search I found fifty-four references. For instance, a proverb says, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” St. Paul says, “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth.” St. James says that if a person cannot, “bridle his tongue…this man’s religion is worthless.”

This is really an important topic: how we speak to others, how we speak about others, and the coarseness or gentleness of our speech. Our reading from the book of Sirach gives us three helpful metaphors for the power of our words.

A sieve that shakes out the husks

First, speech is like a sieve that shakes out the husks. The more we speak, the more words we put out there, the more our inner flaws are likely to be revealed. All the fine flour, the good stuff, falls out and what we’re left with are the husks, the part of the grain that’s no good for eating. As a priest, I end up speaking at every Mass, and I’m terrified of saying anything wrong or uncharitable, so I write everything down that I’m going to say and I only rarely go off script. It’s funny, there’s this idea out there that we should all just “speak our truth,” and be brutally honest and say whatever we’re feeling, as if it’s some sort of virtue to be brash and rude. It’s bad advice, because it gives free reign to all sorts of emotional reactions and reacting very quickly in all sorts of flawed ways. A wise person sifts out those husks ahead of time, thinks for a moment, and then says what needs to be said with charity and gentleness.

A clay pot in a furnace

Second, speech is like a clay pot in a furnace. We used to make these clay pots for art class in highschool and the moment of truth was always if the pot would crack when it was fired. If the clay wasn’t molded properly to remove the imperfections, the whole pot could be ruined. How do we speak when we are under pressure. Do we yell at our children? Say things we don’t mean, that are intentionally hurtful? Does profanity suddenly become a part of our vocabulary? It is important that we continue to exercise self-control over our words even when we’re stressed out.

A tree and its fruit

Third, our words are like the fruit on a tree. A tree that has been watered and cared for will produce beautiful fruit. When we speak, it is a formulation of an idea that is already being held in our mind. We will speak in such a way as to bring that inner image to fruition. A person who wants to speak well must take care what he puts in his mind. Are we allowing ourselves to be shaped by intemperate speech? Dwelling on the wrong sort of things? Once a word is said, that word is decisive, it’s out there for all the world to hear as your opinion, an expression of your inner thoughts, so be sure it is what you really mean. A fruit is a delight, and the scripture writers often speak of how they love pleasant and wise words. Quick speech and a lack of discretion brings quarrels, but wise speech is a bit slower and brings healing. It is encouraging, positive, honest, and gentle.

I had a cup of coffee with an old college friend recently, and he said to me that he still remembered something interesting I said about a book twenty years ago. That was a really bracing experience for me, to realize that something I don’t even remember saying had a positive effect on a friend all these years later. I’ve also met people who remembered things I’ve said that I dearly wish I had never said. Words are easy to say, but difficult to erase once said. They have a power that goes beyond what we imagine. Mother Teresa says that the echoes of words are truly endless, so be sure yours are kind.

Our Lord says, “A good person out of the store of goodness in his heart produces good,” and, “from the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks.” If we want to be the sort of people who are always kind and encouraging and thoughtful, that others want to be friends with and love to talk to, and to stop the cycle of regretting harsh, hurtful words we wish we’d never said, we will only accomplish that by placing Jesus at the center of our hearts. When our thoughts are of him, when we spend the day constantly talking to him and listening to him, he becomes the source of goodness from which our words spring forth. Remember, when God speaks, he creates, and this creation is pure goodness. Our words are a creative force. Shine like lights in the world as you hold on to the word of life.

In the stillness / Between two waves of the sea

A picture I took in the Mississippi River valley, an area he would’ve loved

Today, we’re here to pray for my grandfather, Carl George Hiram Rennier, born August 23, 1932 and died this past Sunday February 17. Carl came from a large family, with many loving brothers and sisters. He was married to my grandmother, Elaine, for 63 years, which is a testament to a faithfulness and love that is so beautiful it makes my heart hurt. I always knew how in love they were when we would sit down at a restaurant and my grandfather wouldn’t even look at the menu because he knew my grandmother would always order the right thing for him. Carl had two sons, Steve and Greg, two amazing daughters-in-law, Kim and Ann, six grandchildren of whom I was his favorite, and eight great-grandchildren. From our family, a sincere word of thanks and gratitude to you all for being here to pray with us.

There are a lot of stories that could be told about my grandfather, how he got all his shirts from the thrift store for 50 cents apiece and thought you were a rube if you spent a penny more. How his handshake was that of a southern Missouri farmer until his dying day. How he could never pass up the seductive wonders of the buffet at Ponderosa. I’m going to leave the stories, though, for my dad at the eulogy.

He never said anything, but I know that over the final years of his life my grandfather must have been frustrated with declining health. For many years, he couldn’t hear very well, his memory began to fail him, and he wasn’t able to spend as much time in the yard as he liked, but he dealt with it by setting those around him at ease. Never a showy man, his faith was quiet but sincere. He went to mass every Sunday. Even when he couldn’t hear the homily, he came.

Offering this Mass for him takes me back to the beginning. I’m a convert to Catholicism and there was a period of time when I wasn’t sure if I would ever be a priest. I had been an Anglican priest for a number of years and was a bit lost without that vocation, so when I finally was ordained by the Catholic Church, I said a number of those first masses with tears in my eyes. Here we are again, saying a Mass and barely holding it together.

My grandfather was a simple man, uncomplicated, and because of that was very wise. And here we are with him at the end, but what we call the end is also a beginning. This is where we start. The poet TS Eliot once spent some time in the cemetery, and as he looked at the grave monuments, he wrote, “any action/ Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea’s throat/ Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start./We die with the dying: /See, they depart, and we go with them.”

Death is the mark of an ancient curse – The fall of Adam and Eve, original sin, and the loss of Paradise. Every action pulls us further downstream. Because the Garden of Eden is our home, every moment away from it is to feel like a traveler. There’s a haunting element to the movement of time, and as we make our way through life, if we pause to look back, nothing that we have passed by seems the same. There are pieces of ourselves left behind, unrecoverable. Death is not a part of God’s plan for us, and we aren’t here to rationalize it. We are here to pray. My grandfather was a good man, and a faithful man, but he was not a perfect man. He has reached a stage in his pilgrimage where he is now at the very threshold of making it home, and he is very much in need of our love and prayer. He loved to spend time with his family, and we are still his family. Death is unavoidable, but love is a transcendental reality that reaches across time and space, the one thing of which we are aware that has no beginning and no end. This is the mystery and beauty of the communion of saints.

At the heart of the beatitudes is the great virtue of love, that which is strong and quiet, unrelenting and sacrificial. As Our Lord begins to elaborate, each phrase is more gripping than the next as we realize that he is putting before us an upheaval, a reversal of curse and blessing. The blessings are curses and the curses are blessings. Woe to those who go through life with no faith, without accepting the heroic challenge to seek eternal meaning in the midst of distraction. Woe to those who seek temporary advantages such as wealth, pleasure, or fame and neglect the truly important treasures that linger inside the shadow of the Cross.

Blessed are they who mourn. A happy person faces death straight on. No distraction. No avoidance. Our Lord orients his entire life towards his ending, his great sacrifice of love that has upended the curse of death. This is the meaning of our existence. Take it seriously, because it is only through Christ and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass that we can approach our end and, although we may have tears in our eyes, look that moment square in the eye and know that it is also a beginning. It is a very simple but very difficult task, and Eliot says that when we circle back around, we will know that place as if for the first time, because this time, we will have been drawn there not by chance but by the voice of love. We are birthed and brought into being by the voice of God calling out in love, we are reborn by the voice of God calling us into new creation in his Church, and we are called from this life by the voice of God who seeks to draw us closer to himself. We must listen closely.

This past week, I was traveling. I spent a day at the beach watching the waves hit the shore as the sun glinted off the glassy sand and children yelped for sheer joy in the waves as they broke apart, and I thought of my grandfather. TS Eliot says that God is but, “half-heard, in the stillness/Between two waves of the sea.”

In the end it was all very simple for Carl Rennier. He would sit with his family, watch and listen. His last thoughts were of family. His wife, his two sons, and his mother who he never met because she died giving birth to him. Well, now he’s in the arms of both of his mothers. One he’s meeting for the very first time, the other is our Blessed Mother Mary, who has been holding him in her arms for all his life.

The curses are blessings

Titian’s Ecce Homo

When I’m at the St. Louis Art Museum, I always look at three paintings. The first is the Ecce Homo by Titian. That’s the best painting there. I look at the Water Lilies by Monet. And I never tire of looking at Vincent Van Gogh’s painting of a village in the south of France. Van Gogh was born in 1853 in the Netherlands to a father who was a protestant pastor. From his earliest age, he was the worst of all pastor’s kids. He had a horrible temper and made the lives of his parents miserable. He had no friends, couldn’t keep a job, and when he finally decided to be an artist he was not a very good painter. He wanted to paint, actually, like Titian, and late-period works by Titian use a lot of subtle color variations which Van Gogh interpreted to mean painting in fifty shades of brown. You can see one of his early compositions at the St. Louis art museum and it’s shocking how different it is from his later work.

An early Van Gogh

Vincent Van Gogh lived a life of suffering. He developed intense psychological disabilities, was institutionalized, and while there could only paint through a small window in his cell. He also had a type of epilepsy that threw him into increasingly dangerous seizures. The end of his life is a bit of a mystery. He may have shot himself, which is what he said happened, but it seems more likely that he was actually shot by a child, because the children used to run after him and mock him when he went out to paint, and the theory is that an accident happened as he was being bullied by kids. During his lifetime, he sold all his paintings to his brother. No one else bought them.

Here’s the thing, though, about him. As he suffered, and failed, and descended into the grip of a disease that he knew was destroying his mind, his personality transformed. He became kind and gentle. His pain was alchemically changed into virtue. His painting changed, too. It began to explode onto the canvas with a beauty that is almost violent when you see it. This is a man who loved so much that it pierced his heart. His pictures describe a soul that has been made beautiful through suffering.

Van Gogh’s painting became almost painfully beautiful

The reason I dwell on Van Gogh is because his life is an embodiment of the beatitudes. The beatitudes that Our Lord gives to us are a reversal, they represent a subversion of expectations – happiness is in mourning, wealth is in poverty, and the heavenly banquet is discovered through hunger.

We hear the beatitudes so often, they’ve become the sort of aphorism you cross stitch and hang on the nursery wall, but they really are jarring. The blessings are curses.

In giving the beatitudes, Our Lord refers back to the teachings of the Old Covenant. For instance, in Deuteronomy 28, it says, “the LORD will make you abound in prosperity, in the fruit of your body, and in the fruit of your cattle, and in the fruit of your ground.” These are the blessings of the Old Covenant. Obey God and you’ll have health, wealth, and a big adoring family. Conversely, disobey God and experience infertility, famine, poverty, war, and exile. This nightmare scenario actually ends up happening as the Israelites drift away from God.

Remember that the Old Covenant, while very real, is completed and developed by the New Covenant. This means that parts of the Old Covenant are upended by Christ as he brings out their inner meaning. The real blessings, the ones that endure beyond death and truly make us happy, they intersect with this life, but in their fullness they are in the next life. So, if there’s a choice between being rich or making it to heaven. Choose heaven. If we must travel a harder path here to build up treasure in heaven, it’s worth it. God doesn’t curse us now and bless us later, but the attractions of this world become a curse if they come between us and God. This is why it can be a great blessing to experience poverty, hunger, and mourning, because they strip away anything that stands between us and God.

I’m reading a lot of poetry right now by a 20th century poet, Pierre Reverdy, who converted to Catholicism in the 1920s and moved to live near the monastery at Solesmes, France. But he found his new faith to be a far more conflicted and challenging experience than he had bargained for. It brought him not clarity but darkness. It didn’t salve his spiritual wounds but opened them up. His poetry frequently focuses on the idea of change, of finding an eternal meaning within the relentless flow of time, of reaching out and wrestling with the curse of human mortality to unlock the hidden blessings within, that moment in which all the movement quiets and we are finally home. He writes “the street is black/the night comes gently/and the spirit surrenders”. He speaks of how his heart is racked, and there is muffled laughter behind him. When he turns around, nothing is the same. It is his story of conversion, but it is also the story of how he is a stranger traveling through a strange land. The blessings are curses.

The prophet Jeremiah also speaks of a turning around, a lingering glance backwards at all the things we are asked to leave behind for the sake of the Gospel. It can be very difficult, and a life of faith is not the easiest path.

But here is the reversal – The curses are blessings. If you mourn, your will be happy. If you are poor, you will be rich, if you are ill, you will be whole. If you suffer, you will be blessed. Jesus changes everything, because the cross which is an ancient curse, becomes through him the avenue by which everything is redeemed. We join ourselves to the darkness of the Cross, so that we might then, and only then, participate in the glory of the resurrection.

Where do we find real happiness? It is in Jesus alone. The crucifix. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Making our lives a gift to others. That is how the curses are transformed into blessings.

Rejoice and be glad, for great is your reward in heaven.

The Eucharist is a burning flame

00028939At every Mass, the ending is that phrase, “Ite, missa est,” meaning “Go, the Mass is ended.” You can tell it’s a big moment, because at times we might even sing it to a somewhat difficult, melismatic tune. The priest Ronald Knox who was a really good 20th century writer, talks in one of his books about how when he was still a young deacon he was nervous to sing it for the first time. He says, “I went out into the drive after breakfast to have a last rehearsal all by myself, and the moment I started I-i-i . . . every single rook in every tree in the drive got up and left, so I felt like St. Francis preaching to the birds.” When not even birds can stand to hear your singing, you know you’ve got some work to do. Knox became despondent and wondered why it’s so necessary for the clergy to demand that you all go away now. After all, you’re beginning to think about breakfast and don’t need all that much motivation to leave.

The reason for the Ite, Missa Est is buried in the Latin. Missa. Mission. You go forth now, begin your Christian mission. The whole purpose of a Mass is to first convert us into the image of Christ and then set us upon our mission. Life is a kaleidoscope of different fates and circumstances. We are brought here for this moment at this time, the one Body of Christ. We are fed from his Body and Blood, strengthened for our missionary activity. By receiving him at communion we become tabernacles and carry Our Lord with us into the world, each of us to our different lives, to a unique mission. No one can do it for you, it is your path alone.

Now, the prophet Isaiah has perhaps the most startling vocation story in all of the Scriptures. He speaks of falling into a vision in which he becomes shrouded in the glory of God, a glory that warps the boundaries of time and space as he sees God both seated upon a throne within the Temple but also overflowing and defining the space itself as the train of his robe wreaths the area in smoke. This is the smoke of an incense offering which is kept burning in the temple. It’s an offering that drifts into the sphere of the angelic as the Seraphim, who are the highest order of angel, sing the Sanctus in voices that rattle the very stones of the doorframes. These stones that make up the Temple, if you’ve ever seen them, are massive, so Isaiah is witnessing a scene of many magnitudes of power, and in fact he becomes frightened, saying, “Woe is me. I am doomed.” At that moment, a Seraphim takes a burning coal from the altar and touches it to Isaiah’s lips, an act which burns away his sins and prepares him for his vocation as a prophet.

In the sense that this vision is highly symbolic, frightful, and filled with awe, we might place it in the category of apocalyptic literature, just like St. John’s Apocalypse. Here’s where I always get a bit rattled – apocalyptic literature is about the Mass. The calling of Isaiah is the story of his Ite, Missa Est. If we had the eyes to see, it would quickly become apparent that we are standing at a threshold. We are in the presence of God, surrounded by angels and saints, and great mysteries are veiled here. The mass is a cataclysm wherein we stand at the edge of time, on the brink of eternity, and our great high priest places his vulnerable and fiery heart on the altar, blazing like a coal. This is the end of the world and we are at it. That must have been how Isaiah felt.

The burning coal is a type and image of the Eucharist. St. Ephraem says, “In your bread hides the Spirit who cannot be consumed; in your wine is the fire that cannot he swallowed. The Spirit in your bread, fire in your wine: behold a wonder heard from our lips.” St. Robert Southwell once had a vision of the Christ child at Christmas, and already Our Lord is aflame, saying, “My faultless breast the furnace is…love is the fire.” The Eucharist burns with the fire of God’s love. You may have heard that, when you receive the Eucharist, it has the effect of forgiving your venial sins. This is because, just like the unworthiness of Isaiah was burned away by the coal, so to does the Eucharist do the same for us when it touches our lips. The effect of receiving this glorious sacrament at Mass should be to inflame our hearts with love for God and one another, and make us eager to fulfill the mission of the Church: “Here am I! Send me!”

When we look to the Gospel, we leap to a different metaphor for vocation. We might call it fishing in the dark. The future disciples, who are professional fishermen, catch nothing all night and their nets are empty. Our Lord teaches them how to fish, and although the metaphor is different, the process is the exact same as what happens to Isaiah. You may be asking yourself some hard questions right now about your vocation and just where you fit into God’s plan. It’s funny, we’re always told that we are important and God has a purpose and destiny just for us, and it’s true, but the destiny is embodied in millions of small actions and influences that perhaps we never even notice because we’re too distracted or jealous of other people. Our lives are always in flux and we all find there are times we’re more or less fishing in the dark, completely lost and helpless during a transitional phase. For all of us, the fishing lesson is the same – Seek repentance. Practice detachment and abandonment of worldly goods. Slow down and reflect. Know yourself, your spiritual state. Encounter Jesus and allow the burning coal of his love to kindle a fire in your soul.