Friday, February 23, 2018

"Music always wins" S. Beckett

Since the first of the year I have been immersed in writing what I am sure is an extremely mediocre paper on Samuel Beckett. But I don't let the mediocrity, or downright horrible nature, of my work interfere with a taking a journey. Writing this paper has been a great journey. The works of Samuel Beckett have fascinated me for the better part of the past 15 years. I really came to Beckett through his dramatic works, his plays, especially his later plays. In fact, for my paper, entitled "Samuel Beckett: Good Friday's Child," I undertake an analysis of sorts of his play That Time but also draw from the work for which he will best be remembered, Waiting for Godot, as well as Not I.

Why am I writing a paper, let alone a paper on Beckett? I am pursuing a doctorate of ministry through Mount Angel Seminary in Oregon. The paper is my term paper for an amazing class (I have only had amazing classes in the program), The Catholic Imagination. It is a paper on the theological/pastoral phenomenon of hopelessness, despair, and the anxiety that arises from experiencing these things, something very common in advanced societies of late modernity. One aspect of Beckett I was able to mention only in passing was the profound effect music, especially music from the classical (the actual era, not just the general grouping of all musical compositions that are not folk, rock, punk, country, New Wave, rap, rhythm, etc.) and romantic periods.

Samuel Beckett, Photo by Jane Brown

Here is my passing mention of this:
The play features three voices: A, B, C. In his stage directions, Beckett specified “Voices A B C are his [the Listener’s] own coming to him from both sides and above.” He further stipulated that the voices “modulate back and forth without any break in general flow except where silence is indicated.” The voices are those of the Listener at different times of his life. A is the voice of middle age attempting to recall youth. B is the voice of childhood seemingly verging on adolescence. C seems to be the voice of old age. The play runs continuously, except for two 10 second pauses during the play, a seven-second pause at the start of the play and a 15-second pause bringing That Time to its end.

From the beginning of That Time to the first 10-second silence, the voices alternate in the pattern ACB ACB ACB CAB. Between the first and the second silence, the pattern is CBA CBA CBA BCA. Between the second silence and the play’s conclusion that pattern is BAC BAC BAC BAC. On my reading, this final pattern is chronological: youth, middle age, old age. In each of the play’s three sections, every voice speaks four times, which means each voice speaks 12 times total. In this way, That Time takes the form of musical composition. According to a number of commentators, Beckett wrote the lines for each voice separately, each in its entirety, prior to integrating them
Beckett was also deeply influenced by painting (see "Coming to terms with density of what we see").

Today, I ran across this piece by Sean Doran, which ran in The Guardian several years ago: "Why music struck a chord with Beckett." Doran begins his piece with a three word quote by Beckett: "Music always wins." Apart from noting that Beckett had a great fondness for several modern composers, namely Debussey, Ravel, and Poulenc, he was most drawn to and influenced by Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert, whom Doran described as Beckett's "holy trinity." I like Beckett all the more based on his distaste for Wagner, whose music has never done anything for me. I would disagree about Mahler, however. I love his Resurrection Symphony (Symphony No. 2).

Our traditio for this First Friday of Lent, an Ember Day during an Ember Week, is the second movement of Beethoven's Sonata Pathétique (Number 8 in C mminor, Opus 13). The pianist is Daniel Barenboim playing the piece live in Berlin in 2006.

As odd, perhaps even as offensive, as it might sound, Samuel Beckett is a member of my Community of the Heart.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Year B First Sunday of Lent

Readings: Gen 9:8-15; Ps. 25:4-9; 1 Pet 3:18-22; Mark 1:12-15

Our first reading, taken from Genesis, and our New Testament reading, which is a passage from St Peter’s First Letter, are explicitly about baptism. We begin Lent with a consideration of baptism, which is the fundamental sacrament of the life of grace, because Lent is about renewing, or, for our Elect, entering into, our covenant with God. From the beginning of the world, God has sought to make a covenant with humanity so that he can enjoy communion with us and we can enjoy communion with God, who is himself a communion- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit- as well as communion with one another and the with rest of creation.

Our Gospel today, occurs after Jesus’s baptism by John in the Jordan and tells of his forty days in the desert when he was tempted by Satan as well as ministered to by the angels. When he emerged from this intense forty-day experience, he began his public ministry with these words, which words constitute the heart of our Scripture readings on this First Sunday of Lent: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15).

The Greek word usually translated as “repent” is metanoia. Metanoia, in turn, is a compound word: meta + nous. Meta means, literally, “above,” “over,” or “beyond.” Nous is the Greek word for mind. Literally, repenting means to have a transformed or converted mind.

Repentance means being committed to overcoming many of your natural tendencies and reactions. To repent means possessing the mind of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 2:14-16). Repenting means being transformed so you can resist the temptation to think, speak, and act solely out of self-interest. Looking out for yourself first and last means thinking, speaking, and acting in ways that often trigger feelings of bitterness and negativity that result in a lack of empathy, or even sympathy, for others.

Repentance means being resolved, with God’s help, to meet every situation you face, however unfair it may seem, with understanding and an empathetic heart. While true repentance brings you to an awareness of your alienation from God, from other people, and from the rest of creation, at the same time it transforms the way you perceive the world, others, and yourself. By repenting, you come to see that penances are not punishments and that to live in a penitential way means to live selflessly in imitation of Christ out of love for God and neighbor and to discover in this true joy.

St Olaf Parish Elect, Candidates, Godparents, Sponsors and some deacon at today's Rite of Election/Call to Continuing Conversion at The Cathedral of the Madeleine

As noted, the prefix meta refers to something that comes to us from beyond ourselves. So, at least in the first instance, metanoia, that is, true repentance, is a grace. The ability to truly repent is not something we are capable of on our own. To relate it to the last sentence of Jesus’s proclamation, to repent includes believing in the Gospel. To believe in the Gospel means not only believing that Jesus is the Good News and the kingdom of God in person, it means following him and living as his disciple, which means committing yourself to a life of conversion, a life of growth and change. Being a Christian is about living in relationship, in communion with God, other people, and the whole of creation. Our gathering for Mass should build us into a community rooted in Eucharistic communion, rooted in Christ.

It is by faith, which is our response to God’s initiative, that we are transformed. As St. Peter tells us in our second reading, our transformation begins in the waters of baptism, which “is not a removal of dirt from the body but an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,” who “suffered for [our] sins… the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous, that he might lead [us] to God” (1 Pet. 3:18.21). It is by being baptized, then, that we enter into a covenant relationship with God. Rather than using water to destroy, in baptism, God uses water to give us life in keeping with the covenant he entered into with Noah.

In our Christian tradition, Lent cannot be understood apart from the final stage of preparation for those preparing to be baptized at the great Paschal Vigil. At the Vigil, our Elect- Tiffany, Magnin, Dahliana, and Brennan- will be baptized into Christ. To this end, by their participation in the Rite of Election [earlier today] yesterday, they went from being Catechumens to being those elected by Christ in the person of Bishop Oscar to receive new life through rebirth in baptism, which is life eternal.

The bishop also called our Candidates- Scot, Paul, and Brad- to continuing conversion. They are called to convert over the course of Lent so they are ready to have their baptism confirmed and enter into full communion with Christ and his Church at the great Vigil.

For those of us already baptized and fully incorporated as members of Christ’s Body, this intensified period of prayer, fasting, and alms-giving is a time to actively renew our own baptismal covenant, to repent and begin living lives more conformed to Christ. At the great Paschal Vigil, we will renew the promises we made when we were baptized. An indispensable means Christ has put at our disposal for this time of renewal is the Sacrament of Penance. By making a good confession, receiving absolution, and making satisfaction for your sins by carrying out your penance, you are restored to the grace you first received in baptism: the state of original grace, the state of communion.

My friends, Lent is about conversion. It is not about making ourselves uncomfortable in small and trivial ways. God is always seeking to transform us. The transformation God seeks, which requires your cooperation because God never forces you, is to become who you are, who God, out of love, created, redeemed, and is now sanctifying you in and through this Eucharist to be. Once transformed, God entrusts us with the mission of reconciling the world, of restoring it to the state in which all things were originally created, the state of grace: the state of communion. “Lent” means springtime. Spring is the time when what appears to be dead comes to back to life. Today, on this First Sunday of Lent, Christ calls each one of us and all of us together back to life.

Repenting is how you come to know that the Lord’s ways “are love and truth” (Ps. 25:10).

Friday, February 16, 2018

"Hunger stays 'til it's fed"

Well, it's Friday again. My, how a week flies by! Today is not the first Friday of Lent. The First Friday of Lent is next Friday. Today is the Friday After Ash Wednesday. Hence, the first 4 days of Lent are a kind of warm-up, a time to get started on your preparation for the great Paschal Vigil, for Easter, when we will renew our baptismal promises. Lent is only a holy season if we use to express our hunger and thirst for holiness.

Our hunger and thirst for holiness can only be satisfied by Christ. This is why the Eucharist is so vitally necessary. Being satisfied by Christ means being transformed and conformed more and more to his likeness. Christ-likeness is made most manifest by our care for those in need. So, in terms of the Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting, and alms-giving, one's holiness is made manifest by selflessly giving to and personally helping those in need.

I am convinced that there is a wholeness to prayer, fasting, and alms-giving. I also convinced that fasting connects prayer to alms-giving in a variety of ways. Without a doubt the most concrete way fasting connects prayer to alms-giving was highlighted by Pope Francis in one his homilies: "You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. That's how prayer works." The means you use to feed the hungry is what you go without while fasting. When you fast, you either do not eat anything or you eat very little. What you do eat because you are fasting is to be given to those in need. I think fasting also shows those of us who live in affluent societies and who are relatively well-off that we can and, in most instances, should live on far less than we are accustomed to consuming. This, in turn, should turn more towards God. There is no "magic" to any of this. Fasting is not glamorous. It can be and usually is a bit difficult. If you fast, chances are at some point you'll grow hungry and want to eat. It is then that you turn to prayer, acknowledging to God what you are really hungry and thirsty for- righteousness, true righteousness, not fake righteousness or self-righteousness.

I suppose that's probably enough from the soapbox for the Friday after Ash Wednesday.

Our Friday traditio is Prefab Sprout's song "Appetite" -

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Ash Wednesday: our Lenten journey towards Easter begins

Today Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, many Methodists, and Presbyterians, as well as sundry other Western Christians, begin our annual observance of the holy season of Lent.

Today, Ash Wednesday, nearly as many Roman Catholics will turn up for Mass as turn up on Christmas. Of course, in return for their effort each one, at least in the U.S., will receive a black smudge of palm ashes on her/his forehead. The popularity of Ash Wednesday is difficult for me to fathom, especially given that the number of people who come to Mass on Ash Wednesday is likely greater than those who turn up on Easter. Speaking only for myself, if I did not believe Christ rose from the dead I sure as hell would not participate in Ash Wednesday! I'd just keep reading Beckett, who at least does some pointing beyond.

I find it interesting that Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation. Hence, there is no requirement to attend Mass on pain of sin. Each Roman Catholic between the ages of 14-60 is obligated to fast. Fasting means no eating the meat of warm-blooded animals and, if you eat, what you ingest over the course of the entire day should not amount to more than one small meal. I know, to state things that way is to run the risk of taking a legalistic approach. But having some guidance is most useful. Fasting is the lost spiritual discipline. In a society of plenty, it is difficult to fast, to voluntarily go without food. The link between fasting and alms-giving is also something that has faded. The link between the two is quite simple: I go without and give what I go without to someone in need. This is faith in action. Another word for faith in action is love.

I think another thing that bears noting is that Lent is not a time for self-improvement. The disciplines of prayer, fasting, and alms-giving are focused on more intensely so that our love of God and neighbor, by the grace of God, might increase. Dorothy Day once challengingly averred something along these lines: I only love God as much as I love the person who I love the least. When it comes to focusing on love, true love, Ash Wednesday puts the comparatively shallow Hallmark holiday of Valentine's Day to shame. For Christians, it is the Cross, not a heart, that is the sign of enduring love. As St. Gianna Molla observed: "Love and sacrifice are closely linked, like the sun and the light. We cannot love without suffering and we cannot suffer without love."

Each Lent there is a quote by James Kushiner to which I turn. I turn to it because I think it gets the spiritual life just right: "A discipline won't bring you closer to God. Only God can bring you closer to Himself. What the discipline is meant to do is to help you get yourself, your ego, out of the way so you are open to his grace."

Another insight I find useful each Lent was provided by theologian Owen Cummings in an article he wrote about Lent that appeared in the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament's U.S. publication Emmanuel quite a few years ago:
It is a pity that we think of Lent as a time when we try to make ourselves uncomfortable in some fiddling but irritating way. And it’s more than a pity, it’s a tragic disaster, that we also think of it as a time to indulge in the secret and destructive pleasure of doing a good orthodox grovel to a pseudo-Lord, the Pharisee in each of us we call God and who despises the rest of what we are
The quote is from a sermon by the late Passionist priest, Fr. Harry Williams.

Lent is not a time to inflict the wrath of God upon yourself. In the first instance, God has no wrath toward you, only love. Lent, which is derived from an Old English word, means springtime. Springtime, of course, is that time when things that appeared to be dead come back to life. Christ, the Good Shepherd, came so that you and I might have life and it more abundantly (John 10:10). An abundant life is a self-sacrificing life.

Lent is a time that we prepare to renew our baptismal covenant with God at the great Paschal Vigil. I think the introduction to the Intercessions for Ash Wednesday Morning Prayer states this beautifully:
Today God our Father brings us to the beginning of Lent. We pray that in this time of salvation he will fill us with the Holy Spirit, purify our hearts, and strengthen us in love
I pray each one of you has a blessed Lent.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

"Let us then go to him outside the camp"

Readings: Lev 13:1-2. 44-46; Ps 32:1-2.5.11; 1 Cor 10:31-11:1; Mark 1:40-45

From the outset, Mark's Gospel shows us that Jesus is the healer, the one who makes us whole. By "made whole" I mean wholly human. To be fully human is to be holy. Being holy means nothing other than to love perfectly, to love like Jesus, that is, to love without exception. "The glory of God," according to St Irenaeus, "is a human being [Greek neuter anthropos] fully alive." In its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council taught:
He Who is "the image of the invisible God" (Col. 1:15), is Himself the perfect man. To the sons of Adam He restores the divine likeness which had been disfigured from the first sin onward. Since human nature as He assumed it was not annulled, by that very fact it has been raised up to a divine dignity in our respect too. For by His incarnation the Son of God has united Himself in some fashion with every man. He worked with human hands, He thought with a human mind, acted by human choice and loved with a human heart. Born of the Virgin Mary, He has truly been made one of us, like us in all things except sin (sec 22)
In today's Gospel, Jesus did something an observant Israelite was never to do: "he stretched out his hand [and] touched" a leprous person (Mark 1:41). While the man was made clean, Jesus was rendered ritually unclean.

Isn't is what Jesus did for the leprous man what he wants to do for each one of us? He desires to heal us, to make us whole, to restore our full humanity, which means restoring us to God, to ourselves, and, last but certainly not least, to each other. How he does this is described well by a passage from the fourth Servant Song found in Deutero-Isaiah. Deutero-Isaiah, which Scripture scholars tell us, was written during the Babylonian exile, a time of great affliction for Israel:
Yet it was our pain that he bore,
our sufferings he endured.
We thought of him as stricken,
struck down by God and afflicted,
But he was pierced for our sins,
crushed for our iniquity.
He bore the punishment that makes us whole,
by his wounds we were healed (Isa 53:4-5)
Jesus Heals the Leper, by Rembrandt, 1655-60

Our passage from Leviticus makes it clear that a leper "shall dwell apart, making his abode outside the camp" (Lev 13:46). While not a direct result of being rendered unclean by his contact with the leprous man, but rather due to the man's inability, despite the express command of the Lord, to keep what Jesus had done for him to himself, the Lord was relegated to remaining "outside in deserted places" (Mark 1:45).

St Paul, in our second reading, tells the Christians of ancient Corinth to imitate him as he imitated Christ (1 Cor 11:1). How did Paul imitate Christ? He imitated Christ by not seeking to do what benefited him but by seeking the good of everyone else for Christ's sake, which is to say for the sake of the Gospel (1 Cor 10:33). In The Flowers of St Francis, a literary work consisting of vignettes from the life of St Francis of Assisi, there is a beautiful story of Francis encountering a leprous man in a deserted place. While the saint did not heal the man of his physical disease and the deformities it caused, he affirmed the man's full humanity, not by merely touching him, but by hugging him. This is depicted beautifully, that is to say wordlessly, in Roberto Rossellini's amazing cinematic version of The Flowers. You can watch it here.

Despite being relegated to "deserted places," "people kept coming to [Jesus] from everywhere" (Mark 1:45). In the final chapter of the anonymously-written Letter to the Hebrews, we read:
The bodies of the animals whose blood the high priest brings into the sanctuary as a sin offering are burned outside the camp. Therefore, Jesus also suffered outside the gate, to consecrate the people by his own blood (Heb 13:11-12)
The inspired author then exhorted his readers/hearers: "Let us then go to him outside the camp, bearing the reproach that he bore" (Heb 13:13). We bear the reproach he bore by bearing the reproach of others, especially those who our many of our fellow Church-goers are quick to dismiss and to exclude. I think perhaps the main lesson from today's readings is that nobody is excluded from God's reign. Notice that Jesus did not inquire about the man's worthiness. He simply heeded his plea. Those who run the greatest risk of being excluded from sharing in God's reign are those who are bent on excluding others now.

Friday, February 9, 2018

"Miserere Mei Deus"

I made it to Friday. I hope to did too. At least for me, this week that is no small achievement. Because I haven't had a chance to post, there is a lot on my mind. The foremost thing on my mind today is Lent. The holy season begins on Ash Wednesday, which this year falls on 14 February- the liturgical memorial of Saints Cyril and Methodius, brothers who evangelized the Slavic peoples. In other words, at least on the Church's calendar during when Ash Wednesday does not fall on this date, it is not St. Valentine's day.

I am often asked, "What are you reading for Lent?"

This year I am re-reading the Gospel According to St. Mark several times. Each time I am going to read a different English version. These will include the New American Bible, the Revised Standard Version, the Jerusalem Bible, the New Revised Standard Version, the King James Version, David Bentley Hart's New Testament: A Translation, and Eugene Peterson's The Message. For at least one of these readings, I am using Rowan Williams's Meeting God in Mark: Reflections for the Season of Lent.

Since this year marks the fortieth anniversary of its initial publication, I am re-reading Richard Foster's Celebration of Discipline. I am supplementing that with Renovaré resources, especially Nathan Foster's podcasts on the disciplines.

Finally, I am reading Rowan William's Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer.

I would encourage everyone reading this to read Pope Francis's Message for Lent before Wednesday (it's short).

Since there are 4 days before our Lenten journey gets underway, it's a good time to bring up fasting and its importance for the spiritual life. How about this year we not and avoid and evade fasting? I mean true fasting, not "fasting" from this, that, or the other thing but actual fasting from food. Fasting is a spiritual discipline taught by the Lord himself to his disciples and proven by disciples over the course of the Church's pilgrimage through time.

I am convinced that it is fasting that connects prayer to alms-giving. It is practicing these disciplines together and along with frequent reception of the sacraments of Penance and Eucharist that we give ourselves spiritual support and succor as we seek to make progress on all those other sinful and unhealthy things that beset us. In his Lenten message for this year Pope Francis wrote:
Fasting weakens our tendency to violence; it disarms us and becomes an important opportunity for growth. On the one hand, it allows us to experience what the destitute and the starving have to endure. On the other hand, it expresses our own spiritual hunger and thirst for life in God. Fasting wakes us up. It makes us more attentive to God and our neighbour. It revives our desire to obey God, who alone is capable of satisfying our hunger
Sadly, I've already seen a few, but, as Lent approaches, I expect to see more well-intentioned Catholics posting no need to fast memes and quotes saying things like - "It's better to hug your dog with great affection than to fast from food." In an effort to help with discernment, I think it is important to consider that many of these quotes by well-known spiritual masters and saints of the past date from a time when observant Catholics were obligated to fast a lot, some might say excessively. But in an age when virtually nobody fasts and the major concern of far too many Catholics going into Ash Wednesday, at least by many in wealthy countries where over-eating is a daily occurrence, is "How much can I eat and still be considered to be fasting?", such things strike me as spiritually ill-advised.

I love my dog, by-the-way. I hug her everyday. I will likely hug her on Ash Wednesday. One effect of fasting, of choosing to go without, is that it makes me more thankful for what I have and more conscious of what others don't. Fasting strengthens my commit to work for justice.

Not being a fan of or a participant in pre-Lenten excesses, like various kinds of Mardi Gras celebrations (we do make pancakes on Shrove Tuesday- the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday), on this final Friday before Lent, which is a penitential day normatively observed by Roman Catholics by abstaining from the meat of warm-blooded animals, our traditio is the King's Chapel Choir singing Psalm 51. This Psalm is often called by its Latin name Miserere (Mei Deus). The Latin title is simply the opening words of the Psalm, or, more accurately, the beginning words of the Psalm's third verse. This is the first Psalm for Morning Prayer each Friday, regardless of the week of the psalter (it is a four-week cycle). For me and many people who pray what are known as the hinge hours of the Liturgy of the Hours (i.e., Morning and Evening Prayer), it is the first Psalm we pray during Lent due to the fact that the Psalms and Canticles for Morning Prayer are taken from Friday, Week III, of the psalter:

Sunday, February 4, 2018

I will rise when Christ heals me

Readings: Job 7:1-4.6-7; Ps 147:1-6; 1 Cor 9:16-19.22-23; Mark 1:29-39

Weeks during which I take my spiritual discipline seriously, I practice lectio divina with the readings for the coming Sunday. I find this beneficial both personally and as a preacher. This past week I managed to do this. Of course, at the center of the Bible and of each Sunday's readings one finds the Gospels. In our Gospel for this Sunday, Jesus is clearly presented as a healer of body and soul. It seems to me that Christians in who live in advanced societies are somewhat uncomfortable with Jesus being portrayed as such, at least as strongly as the Gospel of Mark portrays it.

Our first reading, which marks a rare occasion on which we read from the Book of Job in the three-year Sunday lectionary cycle, occurs after Job has been afflicted and has been upbraided by his friend Eliphaz, who wants to know what Job has done to earn God's wrath. Of course, Job, who is a just man, has done nothing to deserve what happened to him. In a very human, which is not to say sinful or disgraceful, manner Job rues his life. It's interesting that the lectionary reading is Job 7:1-4 and, skipping verse 5, 6-7. Once this gap is noticed, the question it prompts is almost inevitable. What does verse 5 say? It says: "My flesh is clothed with worms and scabs my skin cracks and festers." Apparently, this is too grotesque to proclaim in the liturgy. As a result of the state in which he finds himself, Job looks forward to death with no hope. The conclusion of the passage: "Remember that my life is like the wind my eye will not see happiness again."

If I had to venture a guess, very few Catholic preachers dealt with the reading from Job at all, or, if they did, they did so in a cursory manner. This is sad because Job's words are words with which many people are familiar. Life is often difficult in a variety of ways. I think we make a mistake in rushing too quickly past suffering, misery and their effects. In a rush to reach Easter, you can't leap Good Friday in a single bound, nor should you want to, which is not the same as saying you need to go out and find ways to suffer. Don't worry, if it hasn't already, life will cause you to suffer. Rushing too quickly past pain, suffering and misery, I believe, truncates and attenuates the power of the Gospel, the power of which lies in experience, not words.

Paul, too, in our second reading from 1 Corinthians, is complaining. Among other things, he trying to make sense of the suffering he endured while proclaiming, or endeavoring to proclaim, the Gospel. I don't mind sharing at this point that the phrase on which I meditated from the Job was "When shall I rise?" It's important, however, to put the phrase in context. In the context of the passage and even the verse (verse 4) in itself, the phrase is not a metaphysical question: "When I lie down I say, 'When shall I arise?' then the night drags on; I am filled with restlessness until the dawn." It is about making it through a long night of suffering. In the reading from Paul's letter I found something of an answer to the question "When shall I rise?" I shall rise when I do everything for the sake of the Gospel. Doing everything for the sake of the Gospel means living selflessly as a sacrifice for others without complaining, seeing it as a blessing, the lifting of a burden, not an imposition of one. At least for me, self is the biggest burden I carry.

Healing Peter's mother-in-law, by John Bridges, 19th century

I will rise when Jesus heals me.

Living for the sake of the Gospel requires me to be a man of prayer, which, in turn, requires me to go to deserted places. A deserted place is a place devoid of people. In our Gospel, Jesus has spent the day not merely surrounded by people but engulfed by humanity. While Mark gives some indication that not everyone was healed, he gives no indication that Jesus turned anyone away. I think it's fair to say, for Jesus, it was an exhausting day. Nonetheless, the Lord arose before the dawn the next day in order to go to an empty place and pray. We also learn in very clear terms that Peter was married.

His disciples, perhaps awakening and realizing he was gone, "pursued" or "hunted" for him. I am no expert in Koine Greek, but I like the term "pursued," preferring it to other English words one might employ in translation. They pursued Jesus. They found Jesus. What did they tell him? "Everyone is looking for you." But he did not say, "Okay, let's go back to Capernaum." They left and went to other Galilean towns and villages.

We have a tendency in our spiritual lives to want to go back to those "good times," times when prayer seemed easy, answers immediate and generous, etc. Because it is part of life, in the spiritual life there is no going back. Jesus calls us ever forward. It seems to me that this truth is a source of tension in the Church at present. As the barque of Peter sails over the ocean of time it is not unusual to encounter choppy waters and even gale force storms but we're always headed for the farthest shore despite the temptation to head back.

I realize this a bit disjointed but I think sometimes writing and sharing unvarnished thoughts can be useful.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Solemnity of the Presentation, Candlemas, Christ our Light

Yesterday being Friday and the first Friday of the second month of 2018, I had planned to post a traditio. But life supersedes blogging. Actually, I posted more in January than I thought I would, even though I missed posting thoughts on the Sunday readings last week. Nonetheless, yesterday we did celebrate the Solemnity of the Presentation of the Lord. Since it was a solemnity that fell on a Friday, I enjoyed a Philly cheese steak sandwich for lunch. I also unapologetically ate a lovely potato, cheese, and sausage dish for supper.

The Presentation of the Lord is the Church's commemoration of that day when Mary and Joseph brought the infant Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem in order to fulfill all the Law of Moses required with regard to a firstborn son. This is set forth in St. Luke's Gospel (2:22-38). This marked the beginning of Jesus's perfect fulfillment of the Law, doing is his own person what Israel, throughout her history, was unwilling and incapable of doing on her own.

Traditionally, the Solemnity of the Presentation of the Lord, which marks the outer most boundary of Christmas, has also been known as Candlemas. Because of this, part of the observance of this solemnity has consisted and still consists in many places of blessing candles brought to Mass by the faithful. In our day, the age of electric lights, these blessed candles are used for devotional purposes in our homes. Like holy water and blessed salt, these blessed candles are sacramentals. According to the Second Vatican Council, sacramentals "are sacred signs which bear a resemblance to the sacraments: they signify effects, particularly of a spiritual kind, which are obtained through the Church's intercession" (Dogmatic Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, sec. 60-61). By means of sacramentals, Christians "are disposed to receive the chief effects of the sacraments" (Ibid). I don't mind sharing that I brought home a blessed candle for use when I am depressed and/or feeling anxious.

It is in the context of this lengthy pericope in the second chapter of St. Luke's Gospel, that Simeon, who, along with the prophetess Anna (she receives short shrift) recognizes in the baby Jesus the fulfillment of their hope, that of their people, and, indeed, the whole world, filled with the Holy Spirit, like so many in Luke's Gospel and its sequel, the Acts of the Apostles, sings what subsequent tradition knows as the Nunc Dimittis (Luke 2:29-32). Nunc Dimittis are simply the Latin words for the beginning of this hymn: "Now you [may] dismiss..." Along with the Blessed Virgin's Magnificat (Luke 1:46-56) and the canticle of Zechariah, known as the Benedictus (Luke 1:67-79), the Nunc Dimittis is one of the three so-called "Evangelical Canticles" given us in the first two chapters of St. Luke's Gospel.

These three canticles are occupy a central place in the liturgical prayer life of the Western Church. Each is recited every day in the Church's prayer, known as the Liturgy of the Hours. The Benedictus and Magnificat are part of what are known as the "hinge" offices of the Liturgy of the Hours. These hinge offices are Morning and Evening Prayer. Traditionally, Morning and Evening Prayer are known as Lauds and Vespers, respectively. The Nunc Dimittis is part of Night Prayer, known also as Compline, which, along with the Office of Readings, constitutes the second tier of the Liturgy of the Hours, after the hinge hours.

It is from the words of the Nunc Dimittis that Candlemas comes to be:
Now, Master, you may let your servant go
in peace, according to your word,
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you prepared in sight of all the peoples,
light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and glory for your people Israel (italicizing and emboldening emphasis mine)
Simeon, who, with Anna, was among the most of Israelites, recognized that God's salvation, while from the Jews, extends to everyone. In the words of the hymn by Rev. F. Pratt Green: "Christ is the world's light, Christ and none other; born in our darkness, he became our brother."

Our very late Friday traditio, therefore, is not difficult to guess. It is a choral version of the Nunc Dimittis, composed by Gustav Holst and sung by the Exeter Cathedral Choir:

Friday, January 26, 2018

"Where is the harmony...sweet harmony?"

At the expense of appearing to be a bit out-of-line, in light of a recently publicized letter signed by more than a dozen faith leaders here in Utah calling on the Utah Legislature, which is currently meeting in its annual legislative session, to pass hate crime legislation, I have to state that I am not in favor of hate crime laws. Why? Because they strike me as too 1984-ish. Frankly, I am alarmed at the prospect of the state establishing thought crimes.

According to Bob Mims, religion reporter for the Salt Lake Tribune, Senate Bill 86, sponsored by Sen. Daniel Thatcher, a Republican from West Valley City, "punishment for a class A misdemeanor could be meted out at a harsher, third-degree-felony level if the crime targeted a person based on 'ancestry, disability, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, national origin, race, religion or sexual orientation.'"

Do I like hate? Of course not. I hate hate. But I love haters. I don't mind saying that I often find Jesus's command to love haters the most difficult thing about being a Christian (see Matt 5:43-47). It's a command I often fail to heed. Hate is ugly and sometimes leads haters to engage in illegal behavior such as vandalism and/or assault, even murder. The Tribune provided the full text of the letter on the same webpage as Mims's article. To wit: all of the examples given in the letter are already illegal acts. Making a bomb threat, for example, is illegal. Is it worse to threaten a building full of worshipers than, say, a building full of federal employees? Is it worse to threaten a Catholic school than a public school full of children whose religions run the gamut from devoutly Islamic, to Jewish, to Hindu, to Protestant, to Mormon, to Catholic, to to children being raised with no religion?

Will such hate crime laws have a deterrent effect? This is an important question not least of which is because many people who favor hate crime legislation oppose the death penalty. I oppose the death penalty. Opponents of the death penalty, such as myself, frequently argue, based on the available evidence, that the prospect of receiving the death penalty does not deter violent crime. Can hate crime laws be shown to have a deterrent effect on alleged hate crimes, an deterrent effect over and above existing laws?

What Alasdair MacIntyre identified in his landmark book After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory as "emotivism" strikes me as the driving force behind such laws. I know my stance on this will not be popular with some people who read my blog. Opposing hate crime laws means having to endure the accusation that I think crimes against certain groups are alright. To be clear: such crimes are not alright, which is why such acts are already illegal, usually felonies. I am in favor existing laws that protect persons and property. Equality under the law, like the presumption of innocence, is fundamental to a free society.

Prudence, a virtue I sometimes lack, prohibits me from being too critical of the letter but I found its invocation of the death of Mormon church founder Joseph Smith, Jr. and his brother Hyrum more than a little historically dubious, but that is another issue for (perhaps) another day. It bears noting that the Mormon church was not signatory to the letter. Whether the Mormon church not being a signatory to the letter means it does not support SB86 or whether it is simply due to the recent leadership transition necessitated by the passing of church president, Thomas S. Monson, I do not know.

Does my criticism of the letter's use of the killing of the Smiths as an example as to why such laws are needed mean I don't think Mormons should be protected under the law? Of course not! They should be; Catholics should be; atheists should be; Jews should be; Muslims should be; Wiccans should be; homosexual people should be; transgendered people should be. All people by virtue of being human should be protected under our laws. A just society demands such universal protection. But nobody should be "more equal" than anyone else. If you assault me, you already commit a crime, even if you assault me for being an annoying Catholic cleric.

As Senator Thatcher's bill makes clear, all offenses that would be subject to hate crime penalties are already illegal and, therefore, carry criminal penalties. It is often the case that perpetrators of these kinds of crimes can be subject to civil litigation too. At least in my view, the culture of encounter that Pope Francis is calling on Catholics to create is not fostered by hate crimes legislation and will not be brought about by the state, only by people committed to peace, love, and understanding enough to act. In terms of what government can do, I think restorative justice proceedings in cases that racial, religious, or other kinds of similar animosity may have played a role might prove effective at healing such rifts within our communities.

I recently watched an episode of Sarah Silverman's I Love You America, one in which she interviewed former white supremacist, Christian Picciolini. In the episode, Picciolini averred - "The secret to stopping people from becoming extremists is to understand that in most cases they're not monsters, they're broken human beings doing monstrous things." I think this episode of Silverman's program provides a great catechetical lesson on fostering a culture of encounter. In that same vein, I think people who sponsor and advocate for hate crime laws are well-intentioned. I am not completely closed-minded about this but I have yet to be presented with an argument for hate crime laws that refutes the concerns I have expressed. I agree with the end supporters of hate crime laws are trying to achieve, I just disagree with this means of trying to achieve it.

While it is a repeat from about a year ago, our Friday traditio is Nick Lowe's "What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love, and Understanding?" The last time this was our traditio it was performed by Elvis Costello. For today we'll let Nick take it away:

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Year B Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Jon 3:1-5.10; Ps 25:4-9; 1 Cor 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20

In our Psalm response, we implored the Lord to teach us his ways, which indicates we want to learn his ways in order to be his disciples and participate in his mission of reconciling the world to the Father.

If Lent is the time we devote each year to preparing for Easter, then this relatively brief period of Ordinary Time after Christmas is this time during which we prepare for Lent. Each Lent the Lord invites his Church to learn his ways by practicing them and not merely thinking or talking about them.

Our Gospel today is St. Mark’s account of the beginning of Jesus’s public ministry. It’s important to be reminded that the beginning of the Lord’s public ministry was preceded by his baptism by John in the Jordan (Mark 1:9) and by spending forty days “in the desert” being “tempted by Satan” (Mark 1:13).

According to Mark, Jesus began his public ministry with these words: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). There are two things that bear noting about the Lord’s proclamation. First, he is the kingdom in person. This reality was captured well by the great third-century theologian and Scripture scholar, Origen, with his use of the Greek word autobasileia, which translates into English as “the kingdom in person.” Wherever Jesus is, there is God's kingdom. The second aspect of the Lord’s proclamation that requires some attention is the final sentence: “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”

Translating Jesus’s words about repenting and believing in a very literal way it would be rendered be-you-repenting and be-you-believing. This, in turn, tells us two things: that repenting and believing are on-going activities; it also indicates that repenting comes before believing. Most of the time we think of believing as acquiring a certain degree of knowledge, learning the Lord’s ways through study and instruction. Then on the basis of this understanding we set about, with God’s help, to reshape our lives. It was St. Anselm of Canterbury who averred, “I do not seek to understand in order that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand” (Proslogion, sec. 1).

Metanoia is the Greek word translated as “Repent” in our Gospel reading. When we hear the word “Repent” we usually understand this to mean something like expressing sorrow for one's sins. But metanoia means to change one’s mind, to be converted, to be transformed from within. You are not transformed merely by thinking good thoughts, or having orthodox beliefs – though orthodoxy, or correct belief, ought to lead to orthopraxis, correct behavior, but, sadly, too often it does not. What transforms or converts you is what you do, how you act. You learn to be Jesus’s disciple by doing, like an apprentice.

The Lord’s way is the way of loving others by selflessly serving them. Our first reading today is one of the very few times we hear a passage from the Book of Jonah proclaimed during Sunday Mass. In the context of the narrative, our reading occurs after Jonah is delivered to the seashore nearest Nineveh by the “great fish” (Jonah 2:1). His unconventional delivery was necessitated by Jonah’s refusal to obey God’s call to go to this large pagan city and call them to repentance.

It’s important to recognize that God’s call for Jonah to go to Nineveh is analogous to God calling a Jewish prophet to go to Berlin in the mid-1930s and call on Nazi Germany to repent. Recognizing this is important to understanding not only why Jonah initially refused to go but why he booked passage on a boat headed in the opposite direction. Though none too happy about it, he went and called the Ninevites to repentance. It was not only to his surprise but to his great chagrin that the people of Nineveh heeded his message and repented. The Book of Jonah is not an historical book, it is a comedy, it’s a joke. The punchline is: the Ninevites converted but the prophet who called on them to do so did not.

Nineveh responded to Jonah’s proclamation by putting on sackcloth and by fasting. Along with prayer and alms-giving, which mainly consists of selflessly serving others, not just chucking your spare change into a cup, fasting is one of the Lord’s ways we need to learn. How rarely we fast! But fasting is what connects prayer to alms-giving.

Lent begins with a fast. Receiving ashes on our foreheads is our way of symbolically putting on sackcloth. It may surprise many people that Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation. In other words, the Church does not obligate you to attend Mass on this day, but the Church does obligate you to fast, at least if you are 18-59 years of age. But people who are at least 14 are obligated to abstain from meat. And people who are 60 or older and are able, are encouraged to fast and or abstain. Too often the first question we ask about the two days per year the Church obligates us to fast (i.e., Ash Wednesday and Good Friday) is, “How much food can I eat and still consider myself to be fasting?” This is not repenting and believing, it’s not only wanting to have your cake and eat it but to have it frosted with some kind of imputed holiness, magically granted that requires nothing from you.

For Christians, it is always the end of the world until the end of the world. In our New Testament reading from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle tells the Church to live in a peculiar and self-denying manner because “the world in its present form is passing away.” We must never lose sight of the fact that the mission of the Church, the work of God’s people, is to hasten the passing of the world in its present form, preparing the way for God’s kingdom.

That Jesus issued his call to the two pairs of brothers in today’s Gospel with great urgency is revealed by their immediate and decisive response. They grasped that the moment they heard the Lord call was their time of fulfillment, not the next day, the next week, or in five minutes. Jesus calls you today with no less urgency.