Reverent prayer is more effective

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Year B Lent 5

I don’t know if you all are aware of this, but I’m basically a male model. A few years ago, Catholic Saint Louis Magazine came and took pictures of me in an article about people who dress well for Mass (a helpful parishioner informed me that he read it, looked at the picture, and drew a mustache on me). Before all the kids starting doing it and it became cool, I was already wearing bow ties on a regular basis, which is another way of saying that I am a nerd. But it has always been important to me to dress well for Mass. It is my way of being reminded that when we step into the presence of God on Sunday, it is the most important moment of the week. You may notice that attitude carries over into the way I dress as a priest, too. The way I look at it is that wearing beautiful garments is a reflection of the glory of God.

It’s funny, I remember as a kid watching my dad go off to work at Southwestern Bell each morning in suit and tie, and today almost everyone in that same office wears polo shirts. I’m saying all this not as a setup to tell everyone to wear bow ties, although that would be amazing, but as a way of pointing out that we are far more casual as a society today than we were even twenty years ago, and that holds true in more ways than merely the way we dress.

Formality is considered stuffy or artificial and people want to relax, which is not all that bad an impulse. We tend to relax more in the presence of people we know and trust, and it comes with a sense of belonging and security. When it comes to prayer, it’s wonderful to realize that not every prayer must be a rosary or a written prayer. Christ is our brother, the saints are our friends, and speaking to them spontaneously and naturally is a sign of a strong, healthy relationship.

To me, casualness and formality is a both/and situation. Both have their place. If our private prayers are marked by intimacy, our public worship is marked by formality. This is because the form of the Mass is the container in which we hold our spiritual devotion. Without it we lose focus and spend our time trying to reconstruct the container.

When we have a certain expectation for how we pray, it is actually liberating. I remember when I first encountered the Mass I fell in love with the fact that we often act in unison. We cross ourselves at the same time, kneel at the same time, pray the Lord’s prayer together. In this sense, the formality is comforting. It’s a relief from constant self-consciousness, and we don’t have to fret about what to say or do next. The form of the Mass is important in the same way it’s important that the human body have a form, with specific shape and attributes. The beauty is created by the harmony and elegance of the parts working in a stable, understandable way.

One of the under-rated virtues that is encouraged by formality is reverence. There’s a really startling detail in the letter to the Hebrews, “[Our Lord] was heard because of his reverence.” His prayer was marked by deep emotion, but also by reverence, and this is what carried his words to heaven directly to the ear of God the Father.

Our worship must be reverent. If we had to define the word, we might say that reverence is the virtue that inclines us to show honor and respect for God. It is an interior disposition. However, like any virtue, it will always be reflected in our external actions.

How do we increase our reverence at Mass?

First, prepare for Mass ahead of time. We do this by the way we live our lives during the week. Do we pray regularly? Do we do any spiritual reading? Do we have any mortal sins on our conscience that need to be confessed?

Second, grow closer to Mary and the Saints. They reverenced Our Lord more than anyone. For instance, St. Josemaria Escriva says, “When you approach the Tabernacle remember that he has been awaiting you for twenty centuries.”

Third, renew your faith in the Real Presence. The Angel who appeared to the children at Fatima spoke of reverence before a Holy God. At one point the Sacred Host and Chalice were suspended in the air, and the angel prostrated himself in total reverence and taught the shepherd children to do the same. Every knee shall bow to Jesus. Pope Leo the Great says, “True reverence for the Lord’s passion means fixing the eyes of our heart on Jesus crucified…The earth…should tremble at the suffering of its Redeemer.” By reminding ourselves that Jesus is really, substantially here, we receive Him not only out of Godly fear, but out of love. It is easy to honor and respect those we love.

Fourth, don’t judge others during Mass. We all show reverence in our own way, and even though we pray together in a formal way, there is legitimate diversity and freedom within that formality. My Sunday best might not be your Sunday best. Someone else’s reverence in the way they hold their hands during the Lord’s Prayer might not be the same as yours. People ask me this all the time; as a priest, the book tells me to hold my hands like this in the orans position, which is a sign that the priest is gathering up the prayers of the people. The book doesn’t say what you do with your hands while you pray, so I won’t either. It would be clericalism for me to demand one way or another. You pray the Lord’s Prayer in the way that is most reverent for you. From this, we see how there is freedom within our formality.

Fifth, do the little things. Some things that work for me are: Genuflecting before entering and leaving a pew or whenever passing in front of the Tabernacle, bowing my head at the name of Our Lord, putting on my Sunday best, keeping silence before the Lord for a few minutes before and after Mass, and saying a prayer of thanksgiving after receiving the Eucharist.

It is so edifying to see the reverence of people here as they pray at one of the shrines, how you leave flowers for Mary and the altar, or watching parents teach their children to kneel for Jesus. This reverence builds up our community, and if we believe the Scriptures, makes our prayers more effective. It isn’t a magical formula to do this and kneel here and God will reward you, it’s more the fact that our external reverence creates a more prayerful disposition. When we reverently pray, it focuses us on lifting up our hearts to God. Cardinal Newman says that reverence is a natural impulse in anyone who loves God, and it stirs up in us, “feelings of awe, majesty, tenderness, devotedness and other feelings which may especially be called Catholic.”

Even more importantly, you might notice that in the time of Christ, a group of men came looking for Jesus at the Passover. They wanted to meet him and honor him. This reverence marked the beginning of his glorification, his Passion, and his revelation to the world as Savior. Our reverence, the way we pray together as a people, it shows clearly that God is with us.

O Lord may we love you and honor you.

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What is your life worth?

little-princeYear B Lent 4

Have you all been to the new wing of the Art Museum where they keep all the modern art? Do you like it? I don’t know if you all know this but I actually have an art degree from college and I don’t want to brag but I fancy myself a mediocre painter. I occasionally do little tours through the museum and focus on looking at and talking about a handful of paintings at a time. I took a group from Holy Infant a year ago and some of them hadn’t seen the new wing. I told them I’d be happy to wait on a bench for them to return but I’d already been in the new wing once and had no desire to ever return. So they went off and returned about 15 minutes later with such disappointed, confused looks on their faces. Modern art is odd, and it doesn’t seem to take much skill, and it kind of makes you angry to look at because it’s so ugly or pointless. I personally feel that all of these reactions are justified, so if you don’t “get” modern art don’t feel like you’re uneducated or not classy enough. It really isn’t very good. And yet, that artwork is worth millions and millions of dollars.

So what is it worth?

It’s worth whatever someone is willing to pay for it.

To take another example, one of my favorite books is The Little Prince. The Little Prince was written by a man name Antoine de Saint-Exupery, who was born in 1900 to an aristocratic French family. During World War II he flew reconnaissance missions in an airplane over Germany. On July 31, 1944, he took off in a Lockheed P-38 Lightning to fly on a mission over occupied France—and disappeared forever without a trace. It’s interesting that the book he wrote, Little Prince, involved an airplane crash. During his life, he was married to a woman named Consuelo, and let’s just say their marriage was troubled. He loved her very much, though, and she appears in the Little Prince as a Rose. The Prince has a garden consisting of a single rose. The Rose is vain and demanding, but also fragile and precious and it is his whole world.

It isn’t as though other roses don’t exist or that he doesn’t know about them. His rose looks just like all the other roses. So why does he love it so? He explains, “It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.” In other words, the eye of the lover sees most clearly. And isn’t this the way it always is? It is our family that values us the most, who love us no matter what happens, who know us most deeply. And they don’t merely know facts about you, they know who you are. They see what it is that makes you so uniquely you, so easy to love.

Saint-Exupery loves his wife beyond all words and his character the Little Prince explains that he loves the rose to the point of giving his life for her. He wouldn’t die for just any flower, though, saying to a field of roses, “You’re beautiful, but you’re empty…One couldn’t die for you. Of course, an ordinary passerby would think my rose looked just like you. But my rose, all on her own, is more important than all of you together, since she’s the one I’ve watered. Since she’s the one I put under glass, since she’s the one I sheltered behind the screen…Since she’s the one I listened to when she complained, or when she boasted, or even sometimes when she said nothing at all. Since she’s my rose.”

What is a rose worth? To Saint-Exupery, this particular rose was worth everything.

St. Paul says that we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus. In other words, we are his best work of art. We are his rose.

What are we worth in his eyes? “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” We are bought with a price. Our sins had led us to death and destruction and God simply could not let that happen. Would he die for you? Absolutely he would, because he loves you beyond all reason. He sees you, he knows you, and you are precious in his sight.

The value that God places on your head is his very own life. God, we know, is infinitely majestic, so if he pays for us with himself this means that he has placed a worth on you that cannot be quantified, you are infinitely valued. If you are an artwork, sometimes it seems as though the artist has made a mistake, or as though you aren’t as beautiful as the other artwork, realize when he gazes upon you he does not agree. He doesn’t make mistakes and he certainly does not regret the price he has paid to redeem you.

Give him everything you have in return. Give those around you who you love everything you have. He doesn’t count the cost, let’s not count the cost either.

Is the Eucharist only a symbol?

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Year B Lent 3

Flannery O’Connor, the Catholic novelist, was once at a dinner party when the conversation turned to a religious topic,as the only Catholic there she was expected to have a comment. They were talking about the Eucharist and how it was a beautiful symbol. She broke in, saying, “If it’s just a symbol, to hell with it.”

It seems to me that the impulse to turn the Eucharist into a symbol, meaning it’s still a piece of bread and a cup of wine but they represent some other truth, that’s the same impulse that’s offended by the Crucifixion of Christ. God chose a visceral, punishing, bloody way to redeem humanity. He did this for a number of reasons:

  1. The Crucifixion reveals the true cost of our sins,
  2. It allows Jesus to participate fully in the suffering that we experience as we approach our own deaths,
  3. It respects our self-determination in the sense that his sacrifice is for anyone accepts it, but not all will, and
  4. It respects the fact that sin affects us physically, and so the death and resurrection of Our Lord are physical, and
  5. It is a picture of the depths of God’s love for us.

The Crucifixion is central to our faith, without it we are lost, and yet St. Paul is already have problems with some who rejecting the Cross and trying to intellectualize Christianity. The Cross is a stumbling block. It is offensive. This still rejection still happens today when we over-emphasize peace and kindness and sharing and forget that the crucifixion was a very real, very violent event. When we come to Mass, what is presented to us on the altar is not a symbol – It is the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ. With him, it’s all or nothing.

Looking at our Gospel reading, Our Lord is in Jerusalem standing in the Temple built by Herod the Great. Herod had constructed it on the ruins of the 1st Temple and he had made it bigger and better, some of the blocks of stone in the walls weighing many tons. The Temple, says Our Lord, will be pulled down and rebuilt in 3 days – but he isn’t talking about Herod’s Temple, he’s talking about the Temple that is the Body of Christ. The Temple, this temple, the Church, is for one purpose only – to house the Bread of Life.

The Eucharist is the source of our community and it’s summit. Jesus, the crucified and risen Lord, is why we are here. There are benefits to coming to Church: community, friendship, neighborhood solidarity, good music, middling homilies, a place that supports children and families and seniors…but every thing and every activity here is sheltered in the shadow of the Cross. Ultimately, even if there were no other benefits, we would come to Mass because God deserves it and because it is how we are united to him.

I remember back in the days when I was intrigued by the Catholic Church but not yet ready to be received. I would lurk in places like Holy Family Cathedral in Tulsa where I lived at the time and St. Francis de Sales in south city when I was in town visiting family. I knew that there was something precious in a Catholic Church, that the sanctuary lamp burned red with the Passion of Christ. A Catholic Church is alive, even when no one is here, and Our Lord patiently bides his time in the tabernacle. I guessed the power of the sacrament but didn’t understand it, and yet it was obviously more than a symbol.

The Eucharist is Jesus, his very essence. It is the reaching forth of creation into the bones and marrow of existence to be re-created by the power of the Cross. We don’t simply consume the Eucharist as a nice little ritual. We encounter God and are made one with him, his death, his resurrection – through it, he consumes us and we enter into love itself.

The Real Presence, or transubstantiation for you intellectuals, is impossible to explain. St. Thomas Aquinas lived at at time when the Real Presence was being challenged, so here is the smartest man who ever lived defending the dogma of the Church, but he was under a lot of pressure and one day he was in the chapel praying because he was beginning to doubt himself. Christ himself came off the crucifix in a mystical vision and said to Thomas that was teaching correctly. But even so, at the end of his life during his long decline into death he said that everything he had thought and said was like straw. Not wrong, but vanishingly insubstantial compared to seeing the face of God.

In the end, we can say what the Eucharist is not. It is not bread anymore, it is not a mere symbol, but saying what it is will never get to the true reality, and that is because we are being drawn up to a reality that far outweighs our own, and to a love that is so vast that it drowns us in its waters.

How should that affect the way we treat the Blessed Sacrament? How we pray before him? How we receive him? St. Maximilian Kolbe says, “Be a Catholic. When you kneel before an altar, do it in such a way that others may be able to recognize that you know before whom you kneel.” I see that in the reverence I see in parishioners at Adoration, and in the way many of you receive Christ so very humbly on your tongue, how you kneel down before and after Mass to pray before the tabernacle. Cardinal Sarah, who is the prefect for the Office of Worship at the Vatican recently encouraged all of us to renew our reverence for the Eucharist. He tells a story about Pope St. John Paul II, saying, “John Paul II could never sit in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. He forced his broken body to kneel. He needed the help of others to bend his knees, and again to stand. What more profound testimony could he give to the reverence due to the Blessed Sacrament than this, right up until his very last days.” What a beautiful witness!

It only makes sense in a homily on the Eucharist to give the last word to Jesus. In a book of meditations before the Blessed Sacrament, a Benedictine monk records the words of Our Lord spoken to him,

“If you would be with Me in My sufferings, come to Me in the Sacrament of My Love…come to My altar, and abide there with Me.”

Who’s afraid of reality?

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I read a story a few years ago about a woman named Mary Anne Marks, who had graduated Harvard at the top of her class, valedictorian. She gave the commencement address at graduation, which is a huge honor. At Harvard the speech is entirely in Latin, at Yale we were always more into ancient Greek but whatever. The sky was the limit for this woman, she could have done anything she wanted , achieved anything, made a ton of money, run for political office, become a professor in whatever field she chose. Her choice? To become a Dominican Nun. Before entering the convent, she did an interview with a reporter, who said, “You are a Harvard graduate. Aren’t you surrendering all the possibilities that entails by entering a convent?” Mary Anne replied, “Yes, if one doesn’t see becoming a well-educated, intellectually alive nun as one of the possibilities…”

I had a discussion once with a friend, Eric, and he was asking me about monks. As in, what do they do all day? Well, they pray. Doesn’t that somehow seem a waste, though? He was fairly friendly to the idea, he was simply trying to sort out the contemplative life and what it meant. Others are far less friendly. Monks and nuns, they’ll say, are running away from real life. The pressures of work, errands, paying bills, dealing with family, this is real life and those who don’t participate are quitters.

To a lesser extent, the same charge is leveled against all religious people. You’re wasting your time at Church and when you pray. You only believe in God because you think he’ll rescue you from real life but he’s a fairy-tale. Or the preferred politically correct way of phrasing it today: I’m spiritual but not religious, which is code for: I’ve changed the definition of God from the all-powerful ground of being, the creator of all things, and made him into my own image because that feels more realistic to me. The bonus then being that God agrees with whatever beliefs I happen to have. This, to many people is realistic and reasonable.

So, I guess my question is – What is reality? And who is running away from it?

First, don’t forget that reality is more mysterious than we think. G.K Chesterton writes, “[Learned men in the modern world] talked as if the fact that trees bear fruit were just as necessary as the fact that two and one trees make three. But it is not. […] You cannot imagine two and one not making three. But you can easily imagine trees […] growing golden candlesticks or tigers hanging on by the tail.” Reality is a pretty crazy place, and much of what we accept about it as ordinary is actually amazing. Scientists in Australia just pulled a fish out of the sea called Blobbie, the most ugly animal in the world. I love it. Trees don’t make candlesticks, they make fruit, and we can eat it, and it tastes delicious! That’s amazing. There is this thing trees make called coffee, and when you roast the bean it becomes the elixir of life. That’s amazing. Musicians can use an instrument to make sounds that somehow fit together and move our emotions to the point of tears. That’s amazing.

What we see all around us is not ordinary. Why? Because it draws on an infinitely deep well that is connected to eternity. The surface level is only the surface level, reality goes infinitely deeper. It’s a window into the heart of God. To me, it’s almost overwhelming, which is why I, like many of us, am not a monk. Monks and nuns actually bathe in reality much more intensely than we do. I have my phone to fiddle with, television to watch, errands to tend to, these are not the substance of reality, quite the opposite, they are coping mechanisms to escape reality.

The monk who sits alone in silence before the Blessed Sacrament, who wrestles with his inner demons, the christian who spends time alone with God, who confronts his sins in the confessional, the person who seeks virtue and simply spends time slowing down, looking, and seeing that everything is a sign of the world beyond this one, these are the pilgrims seeking reality, who aren’t content to live on the surface.

Socrates says that wonder is the beginning of wisdom. No one is better at wide-eyed wonder than children, which is why we’re so thrilled about it when children are here at Church making noise and squirming and asking really simple but deceptively profound questions. It’s why I love doing stuff with them like burying the Alleluia and drenching them with holy water, because they give us permission to see the reality of the world with childlike innocence, and innocence is a far more reliable guide to truth than world-weary cynicism.

Children and nuns are wise in a way that other, more supposedly sophisticated adults don’t actually understand. Kids ask good questions like, “Why do eggs turn into birds”, and, “How do the turtle and the snake live in harmony in that cage at the zoo.” I don’t know! It turns out that we don’t know everything, that the world is enchanted. It’s like a fairy-tale in which the true meaning of all things is gathered up into one, over-arching story about how much God loves us and how he made this strange, wild, beautiful, dangerous world all for us, but it takes a certain innocence, a naivete that is willing to stop and stare for a while, to see it.

This reminds me of the Father Brown story where he’s talking to some criminals and he knows every single one of their scams and how rip people off. He knows every detail of robbery and weaponry. How? Because this innocent priest hears confessions and he is far wiser than he seems. The saints are innocent, but they are so profound because they live more deeply in the real world than we do.

Lent is a step into reality. The Christian life is a journey into reality. That is why it is so uncomfortable. It’s easier to remain where we are, to embrace mediocrity and live life as usual. It’s harder to challenge ourselves.

Our Lord leads us to a transfiguring revelation. Like with St. Peter, he wants to show us what is really happening under the surface. St. Peter saw Our Lord every day and he saw the flashes of the miraculous ripping through the damaged, weary villages, he heard the teaching and the way in which ordinary things like farming and trees and fishes were shown to be much more significant than he had ever thought possible. Because the Crucifixion was such a difficult event to endure and it would test the faith of the disciples, Our Lord gave them the gift of seeing the transfiguration. What would happen on Mount Calvary was exactly what was happening when his garments glowed brighter than the sun. Both are moments of glory for those who have the eyes to see.

The Catholic writer Evelyn Waugh, who was a convert, says it’s like we’re in a looking-glass world, an absurd caricature, and then you become Catholic and step into the world as God has actually made it. And it is limitless, and wonderful.

Challenge yourself this Lent to spend time with Jesus, to leave behind sins and cynicism and see that this world is marked by his presence. We have the opportunity every day to live more and more innocently, and this is the beginning of wisdom.

O Lord, give us the eyes to see.

The Church is the Ark of culture

noahs arkYear B Lent 1

Noah’s Ark seems like this quaint little story we all learned about from our children’s Bible at bedtime. Noah stands on top of a tiny boat while elephants and giraffes crowd around him, and over their heads is little rainbow. I personally have a lot of questions, like where did the dinosaurs live on the boat, why did he bother saving weird animals like jellyfish, that sort of thing.

Noah’s Ark, though, fits seamlessly into the grand salvation story of the Scriptures, and the early Christians were fascinated by it. St. Peter says that the boat floating through the waters prefigures baptism. The Ark itself is often compared to the Church. For instance, St. Hilary writes, “The Church is the Ark into which Jesus enters with all His faithful followers.” He then goes on to even explain the raven that Noah sends away from the boat, saying, “The sinner leaves the Church as the raven once left the Ark.” St. Augustine says, “The contemporaries of Noah would not believe in his warnings as he was building the Ark, and thus they became frightful examples for all posterity. Christ our God is now building His Church as the Ark of Salvation, and is calling upon all men to enter it.”

These early Scripture interpreters went into a genuinely mind-boggling amount of detail, even down to explaining that the wood of the Ark represents the cross, the door in the side represents the wound in the side of Christ, the way in which the very ratios of the dimensions are reminiscent of the human body, six times longer than it is wide, how there is only one Ark and one Church by which to be saved. Carpenters, you might be interested to learn that the Ark used no nails to hold it together, only pitch. St. Augustine sees in this the way in which the Church is held together at its most fundamental level by the love of Christ. You may have noticed that Noah didn’t close the door after everyone was safely aboard, it was God himself who closed it. In the same way, Our Lord takes care that we are safe and secure in the heart of the Church.

Suffice it to say, I’m fairly confident that Noah’s Ark represents the Church. Just to make this a bit more confusing, though, we have to remember that Noah’s Ark overlaps thematically with the Ark of Covenant that Moses later made. Both are repositories of God’s saving grace, the Ark of the Old Covenant even more explicitly so, and further, remember that the Blessed Virgin Mary has become the Ark of the New Covenant. Each subsequent Ark is a development as God’s plan becomes more and more clear. To say that Mary is the Ark aligns perfectly with our understanding that Mary is the Church, so in joining the Church we are not entering an institution but rather into a relationship with our spiritual mother.

Noah’s Ark only carried eight people. Everyone else chose to remain outside, the only people willing to accept the invitation are those willing to accept the precepts of the Church.

People often ask me why I entered the Church. Typically my answer is to stutter a bit, mumble about Jesuit poets or something, and then say that I have no clue how to explain it. I will say this, it wasn’t the abstract result of an intellectual process. I did read the Catechism and ask lots of questions, but what was the driving factor? It was the strength of Catholic culture. I’ve heard many others say the same. The Church is a megalith, unyielding and majestic, frustrating and mysterious, but because of the strength of who she is, she is never irrelevant. Her culture is so comprehensive that she causes a huge amount of angst out there among non-Catholics, but that is exactly what is so great about her. She is so much bigger on the inside even than she seems from the outside, and once you’re on the inside what had seemed so imposing turns out to be all tenderness and beauty.

I came to faith because of beauty, which may sound whimsical but I can explain. I know I’m always quoting poetry at you, but that’s because the Church herself is a poem. Poetry is the language of might be and what ought to be, the language of hope. It reaches through the cracks in the universe and reveals a world of immeasurable breadth and depth, that reaches out and grapples with the very essence of the divine. The priest Romano Guardini says that the poetic language of the Church is a “truly mighty style.” Benedict XVI says that beauty is like an arrow that wounds the soul. For instance the other night I was here praying and the choir was practicing. They sang the most beautiful lullaby to the crucified Lord that hearing it almost hurt, but that wound of beauty is good because it forces us to lift up our eyes and not be satisfied with life as usual. The flooding sea is all around. We are in the Ark and destined to sail forever.

The Ark is a depository of life and culture, our saving grace in a world that is riven with sin and strife. The work of protecting Catholic culture is the work of saints. Vatican II emphasized the importance of beauty and culture to our worship and faith, because they are intimately connected with truth. The beauty and culture of the Church is her truth. Reading good books, Gregorian chant, creating a home full of prayer and joyful celebration of saints, fasting meat on Fridays and fish frys and, I guess, eating spaghetti with your fish because that’s just what you do, all that stuff – that is why I entered the Ark.

This is the culture that built western civilization, created the scientific revolution, and produced the greatest works of art in the history of mankind. Fulton Sheen says the world is busy destroying everything we have built, but the Church has kept the negatives and when the moment comes we will be ready to reprint the photos.

Most of all, here in the Ark is the living presence of God. All of our culture is built up on the simple truth that this world is created by him and every beautiful thing is a reflection of his beauty, most of all the human soul.

O Lord, keep us in your Ark and welcome us into your kingdom