Dominicana (Dominican Students of the Province of St. Joseph)
It may well be the case that your parish priest preaches homilies that are—how do we say it gently?—uninspiring. Maybe you’ve come to him to ask a serious question about the faith concerning a teaching or mystery you’ve really struggled with, and he’s failed to offer satisfying answers. Perhaps he lacks charm and charisma, or falls short when it comes to offering the parish visionary leadership. He may well be a little impersonal, excessively shy, obnoxiously gregarious, slavishly bound to rubrics, overly political, or simply unexceptional. These may be the human realities of your priest…and you don’t have to like them.
Catholics often feel guilty if they’re unable to relate personally to their priest. Longing for their parish to incarnate the virtues of The Bells of St. Mary’s, people rightly have high expectations for their priests. Notwithstanding the faults of their beloved clergy, something lingers. For many faithful Catholics it’s hard to write off a priest. For better or worse, his office (his role) makes it difficult to treat him as if he were one more set of footprints stepping into, then out of, a life.
The simple fact is, the relationship of a priest to his people is not like any typical inter-personal relationship of our day. The people of God aren’t—strictly speaking—soldiers in an army, nor is the priest their commander. Parishes aren’t franchises, and the priest isn’t the office manager. Churches aren’t daycare centers, and the priest certainly isn’t a babysitter. So what, then, is the priest? How does he relate to his people?
The priest is a shepherd. Shepherds have a certain authority, like a military officer, but they exercise it differently. Sheep aren’t to be numbered off and subjected to evaluations according to certain performance standards: sheep are to be loved. Critics reject this image, saying it assigns the lay faithful the role of “mindless following,” and admittedly, like all analogies, it limps. However, it’s worth pointing out that being a shepherd isn’t exactly glamorous either. In reality, shepherding entails long, cold nights, exposure to the elements, mud, wandering, and lots of time alone. Our culture’s emphasis on egalitarianism and our deeply ingrained American democratic values can present considerable stumbling blocks to entering into this aspect of an authentic (healthy!) relationship with a priest.
Priests are physicians. A priest shouldn’t treat parishioners like employees. Far from focusing on stamping time-cards, filling out requisition forms, or accumulating benefits, the priest’s mission is to transform lives. As good doctors help patients to make much-needed lifestyle transitions, priests lead people to a closer relationship with God. Good doctors, and good priests, treat the whole person, communicating information clearly and patiently accompanying souls on their healing journey.
Finally, priests are fathers. Given the rate of disintegration of the natural family, we shouldn’t be surprised to see unresolved family difficulties come to the fore as seekers investigate religion. For others the problem isn’t the family, but the idea that the male priesthood offends the dignity of women. The lens of radical feminism or that of a fragmented family dynamic tragically discolors the image of the father. To cast light and dispel the discoloration, it can be helpful to consider the natural role of the father. At the biological level, fathers beget. They give life; they nurture and protect it. Fundamentally, the principle of bringing people to life invigorates priestly ministry. Fatherhood isn’t at its core about doling out discipline or dealing with dirty diapers—although any father will attest that these are important paternal duties. At its core, fatherhood is meant to strengthen and to animate.
Ultimately, relating to a priest isn’t about emotional satisfaction or some kind of quantifiable affectivity. Our relations with our priests are simply not like the connections we build or the bonds we forge in any other aspect of our life. We don’t have to like every priest we meet. Nevertheless, despite the challenges we may face with the priests we encounter throughout our lives, we should remember the difficulty of the task with which they have been entrusted, as well as that they are made of the same stuff as all human beings. Priests aren’t ordained because they are perfectly qualified or worthy or, in any simply natural way, deserving of the privilege of ministry; they are ordained because God has chosen to care for His people by means of frail human beings. And whether we like them or not, their frailty is a welcome reminder that God’s ways are not our ways, nor are His thoughts our thoughts (Isa 55:8). The One who redeemed the world by the foolishness of the cross continues to draw a people to himself through faulty instruments – instruments like you and me.
Image: Fernando Botero, Priest Extends
Rene Descartes famously proposed cogito ergo sum, “I think, therefore I am” as the foundation of his philosophy. Today, a popular approach to personal philosophy is, “I feel, therefore I am.” People with this approach explain the goodness of actions and define love by citing feelings as the primary criterion. They differentiate their love for pizza, their pet dog Fluffy, an “awesome experience,” their favorite sports team, and their family and friends, with distinctions in how they feel (“like” versus “love”), rather than considering if they willed the highest good of the other or made a sincere gift of self.
However, Facebook and other subscribers to the “gender identity” ideology do not simply want people to acknowledge how they subjectively feel about and view themselves. It seems the deconstructionist “gender identity” movement wants to present these perceptions as the fundamental elements of identity, even if they contradict the gift of a man or woman’s true, authentic body, a real part of his or her true, authentic self. They encourage people to present their self-perception to others as their newly constructed “authentic self” and even expect others to acknowledge it, or as Facebook states, “choose the pronoun they’d like to be referred to publicly — male (he/his), female (she/her) or neutral (they/their).” But to try to bend reality in this way to fit subjective feelings and perceptions is to court disaster.
“Exhibit A” of such disaster is the tragic case of “Nathan” Verhelst, born Nancy, a Netherlands woman who self-identified as a man. Enlisting technology to “magically” transform reality to fit Nancy’s self-perception, she underwent sexual reassignment surgery, which some champion as a “right” and even a “mercy.” However, after Nancy rejected her natural body, there were complications. Nancy felt she was “a monster.”
Now this is where affirming reality saves lives. No matter how much a person thinks they are a “monster” or how worthless they feel, their life, a gift from God, possesses great value and dignity. Presenting this truth is the real mercy.
Sadly, instead of challenging Nancy’s feelings with the truth, advocates of “self-determination” enabled Nancy to act on her despair and self-loathing, “helping” Nancy kill herself. And Nancy’s is not an isolated case. This assisted self-destruction is not a “right,” a “freedom,” or a “mercy.” This evil is a part of what Bl. John Paul II called the Culture of Death.
Fortunately, many recognize cases where self-perception misaligned with reality is harmful, including anorexia and body integrity identity disorder (amputee disorder), a less politically charged parallel to gender identity disorder. Thank God many also agree that depressed people considering suicide, addicts asking to feed addictions, and victims thinking they deserve abuse should not be enabled but need to be loved in truth.
To point out that difficulties occur when feelings are not in harmony with reality is not to deny the goodness or the importance of emotions. Our emotions are a beautiful part of human nature. They add a rich texture to our experience of life, enhancing our good actions by giving them added fervor.
On the level of our spiritual life, St. Thomas Aquinas, considering whether passion increases or decreases the goodness of an act, writes:
[J]ust as it is better that man should both will good and do it in his external act; so also does it belong to the perfection of moral good, that man should be moved unto good, not only in respect of his will, but also in respect of his sensitive appetite; according to Psalm 83:3, My heart and my flesh have rejoiced in the living God: where by heart we are to understand the intellectual appetite, and by flesh the sensitive appetite. – Summa Theologica Ia.IIaa.Q24.A3
It is important that, as God’s grace perfects us, our “sensitive appetite” – including our emotions informed by reason and reality – help move us toward the good. As Pope Benedict XVI described in Deus Caritas Est, eros, love of desire, can help move us toward agape, self-giving love.
Recognizing that emotions matter, our society advocates tolerance and fights bullying. Many grow up in broken homes, lacking healthy affirmation from family, and we should indeed affirm and protect these hurting people. People with “gender identity” issues are statistically more likely to have such vulnerability. But our response should be more than “tolerance.” It should be love.
Genuine loving affirmation does not mean approving every idea, action, expression, and feeling someone has. It does not pretend that emotions determine reality, nor is it afraid to challenge harmful lies and deceptive feelings, but seeks to educate both thoughts and feelings.
Genuine affirmation loves persons in truth, both affectively and in action, recognizing their immense value and dignity and accepting them unconditionally as fellow children of God. True love is grounded in this fundamental reality and, desiring the highest good for others, seeks to help them see and live in the light of this truth.
Christ told no one to “tolerate your neighbor as yourself.” He calls us to something higher, to love one another with all the messiness and difficulty that entails. As we encounter heated words, inflamed passions, and each other’s wounds, let us not forget Jesus’ reminder, “Whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40)
Image: Edgar Degas, Madame Jeantaud in the mirror
Can there be any redemption in the dark Netflix political thriller House of Cards? Within the show, probably not—morally speaking, Frank Underwood is so far back in the woods, he’d have to come out to hunt. But for viewers, the inky darkness in which the characters live and die might be just the ticket to finding something better.
Watching the show is certainly no penance. Its dark glamor is addictive, and the excellent writing and acting keep the viewer’s attention even through some uneven or tedious plot development. Though the series succumbs periodically to the modern tendency to be needlessly crude or explicit, its overall artistic merit is undeniable.
Some have criticized the show for being at times unrealistic in its portrayal of American politics. I daresay the show is almost entirely unrealistic as a portrait of the policy debate in Washington. House of Cards shows a fantasy world where malevolent, long-term planning is what’s really running the plot in D.C., rather than that familiar, shortsighted incompetence to which we’ve grown accustomed. The show has nothing to say about the entrenched ideological differences that define our contemporary political sclerosis. After all, the main character is a white, South Carolina Democrat whose signature political successes include breaking teachers unions and raising the retirement age. The creators might as well have begun the show with “Once upon a time, in a land far, far away…”
Such criticisms miss the point. House of Cards is a drama—well, maybe a melodrama—about power and human nature. Like Shakespeare’s historical plays, the show takes considerable liberties with political realities for the sake of exploring timeless themes. House of Cards is much more Richard III than All the President’s Men. Therein lies the show’s greatest strength. As viewers, we are drawn against our better judgment into sympathy with a truly villainous anti-hero—and thereby learn something valuable about ourselves.
Underwood’s asides are in keeping with the original British version of the series, which in turn imitated Shakespeare’s hunchbacked political fiend. As the plot unfolds, we get to hear what Underwood really thinks—every knowing glance and cutting aside reveals his double game. Some of these moments are conventional fourth-wall comedy, letting the viewer in on the joke and making predictable plot developments delightful. But by letting us into Underwood’s internal monologue, the creators make it almost impossible for us to assure ourselves that, deep down, he is good at heart.
There’s no such easy way out in the House of Cards universe. Instead, we are confronted with the cinematic version of nature without grace. The different characters of the show try making various things their final end or ultimate goal, and we follow these choices to their eventual outcomes. Peter Russo pursues sensual pleasures—drinks, drugs, and sex—and is ultimately enslaved and destroyed by them. Remy Danton’s clients are concerned mainly with wealth, but are ultimately outbid by others who see money as the subordinate, instrumental good it is. Vain politicians make fools of themselves seeking fame and glory, while naïve idealists give their all for causes that ultimately never satisfy. And then, of course, we have the Underwoods: a Francis and Claire who couldn’t be further from Assisi, ruthlessly, relentlessly pursuing power.
Even as Francis Underwood reaches the summit of power, one can practically feel the consequences of his past actions breathing down his neck. If anything is certain in the story arc, it is that there will be—there must be—a fall. For it is in the very nature of power that it refuses to be held by anyone for long. And then what will it all have been for? In a rare moment of introspection, Claire once asked her husband that very question. Their marriage, while disturbingly candid and intimate, is fundamentally selfish—reflected most obviously in their decision to remain childless. “For us,” he assures her. I wonder.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust—House of Cards is bracing for its obstinate refusal to let us out of the utter darkness. On its own, it could lead to a certain type of despair: all these varieties of human grasping, striving, and climbing end in frustration—and death. All the different ends that men try vainly to jerry rig as ultimate goals give no lasting peace and satisfaction.
As Christians, we should be grateful for the lesson, and meditate on it especially as we start the season of Lent. “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity” (Eccl 1:2). Even though we profess God as our final end, how often we lie to ourselves by half-measures, taking transitory and secondary goods and making them into ersatz final ends. House of Cards provides an opportunity to explore the way we lie to ourselves, and consider what our inner Frank Underwood might say were he to break our fourth wall.
So is House of Cards unexpectedly fitting material for Lenten reflection? You might very well think that—I couldn’t possibly comment.
Image: House of Cards (Netflix)
Mardi Gras, Shrovetide, Carnival, Fat Tuesday, Shrove Tuesday – the names for today, the day before Ash Wednesday are many and varied, but they all say essentially the same thing. It is a time of great festivity and celebration before the somber season of Lent commences. Such celebrations are also common among the Orthodox and Eastern Rite Catholics. By a quirk in the calendars, Easter falls on the same day this year for both the East and the West, which means that our Eastern brethren are actually celebrating the second day of Lent today. However, last week, they held their own festivities.
The last week before Lent is called “Maslenitsa” in Russian, and in imperial Russia it was a time of great celebration. Maslenitsa marked the close of the winter balls in the major cities and was a time of outdoor revelry with sleigh rides, snowball fights, and the visiting of family and friends. Snow jumps were often constructed in St. Petersburg. Maslenitsa was and still is most famous for its pancakes, from which the feast gets its name.
These festivities are designed as a celebration, but they serve a practical purpose as well in preparation for Lent. In the Orthodox faith both meat and dairy products are not permitted throughout the entire season of Lent, so finishing off all those meats and rich foods before the season starts is also a matter of prudence. The Orthodox take a gradual approach to abstinence with meat being forbidden the week before Lent begins. Hence, the famous pancakes that give Maslenitsa its name are some of the rich fare still permitted in the final week leading up to “Great Lent.”
Traditionally Mardi Gras and the time shortly before Lent were not simply about celebration and gluttony. Shrovetide takes its name and its origins from individuals having their sins “shriven” in confession on the days leading up to Lent. No doubt, the need for confession came in part from the excesses of the celebrations themselves. In Russia the last day of Maslenitsa, known as “Forgiveness Sunday” (a name for this Sunday common to the Orthodox tradition), is a day on which all the people ask forgiveness of each other.
These steps towards the Lenten Journey are ones of celebration, but also of cleaning out and ultimately freeing oneself up to walk more closely with the Lord. One of the purposes of Lent is to help remove some of the deeper habits, distractions, and sins that cause us to turn away from God – things deeper than the occasional bit of gluttony and partying to excess. It is in part a journey into the desert that accompanies Christ during the 40 days that followed his baptism. In the desert, one is removed from the comfortable surroundings, parties, and traditional pillars of support. In the desert of Lent it is easier to see temptation for what it is, no longer nicely gilded, but something against which one needs to fight. Observing Shrovetide properly can prepare us to take up the traditional Lenten practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, which are intended to help us follow Christ more faithfully.
So let us enjoy this day, and as we commence our Lenten Journey, let us resolve to strip away some of the vices that separate us from Jesus and thus to walk more closely with Him.
Our Lady, Refuge of Sinners, pray for us.
Image: Leonid Solomatkine, Maslenitsa
The weather around Washington D.C. these days is not quite cold enough to threaten frostbite, but a far cry from the warmth of spring. That means that if you stationed yourself outside of 487 Michigan Ave many of the friars rushing by would be wearing the distinctive black cappa (a two-piece cape with a hood) that earned us the name Blackfriars.
Now, I remember back in college that the only reason anyone in their right mind would step outside wearing anything like a cape would be for a Renaissance Fair or the premiere of one of the Lord of the Rings movies, and there were serious debates about whether those folks really were in their right minds. Basically it would only be as a costume to relive some bygone era or some otherworldly fantasy.
So is the Dominican studentate full of a bunch of wanna be minstrels or wizards? Despite getting mistaken for Jedis and LARPers, even sans cappa, the answer is a definitive “no.” Why, then, do we wear this odd outfit every day for prayers and class and meals and at ministries around the city? Simply nostalgia or fantasy? Well, yes and no.
Let’s start with fantasy. I hope I don’t have to convince you that we don’t believe that we’re living in a world of dwarves and elves and goblins. Nevertheless, there is necessarily something other-worldly about our life, not in the sense of being disconnected from reality, but rather of being rooted in the fullness of the truth of this world which cannot help but point beyond itself.
Dominicans are a varied lot, with backgrounds ranging from the arts to the sciences, from law and economics to philosophy and theology, and everything in between. We bring all the skills and truths that we learned in our previous studies to the study of the scriptures and tradition of the Church to probe the depths of our faith. We use the tools of philosophy and theology to engage the world around us and the revelation that God has given his Church.
At its best, this study feeds our prayer and our relationship with God and, with His grace, overflows into preaching. This preaching is not simply a matter of telling a neat story, or giving an interesting insight. Since the days of St. Dominic himself, Dominican preaching has always been ordered to the salvation of souls, our own, of course, but ultimately those of the entire world. Dominican life is fantastic in that it is oriented to the ultimate realities and is driven by the desire to draw others to that reality.
What, then, about nostalgia? If by nostalgia you mean a chance to escape the present by reliving the past, setting aside the modern conveniences to reenact a way of life long dead, then, no, that is not our motivation. You are reading this on a Dominican blog, so I hope I don’t have to defend that claim much further. But if by nostalgia you mean a connection to history, we are motivated by being incorporated into an 800-year-old tradition with roots even deeper in the monastic life of the earliest centuries of Christianity.
In some ways we are constantly looking backwards, seeking the inspiration of Blessed Henry Suso, St. Catherine of Siena and a long line of spiritual guides and mystics in our prayer, of St. Albert the Great, St. Thomas Aquinas and a host of theologians and teachers in our studies, of Bl. Jordan of Saxony, St. Vincent Ferrer and countless gifted preachers when we stand before the people of God. Above all we look to our Holy Father Dominic who was inspired to found this Order of Preachers in order to bring together the life of study and the life of prayer and to allow their fruits to overflow in preaching to the people of God.
This connection to our history does not drag us back but propels us forward. It provides a confidence in the Dominican life and charism and a confidence that the lofty, other-worldly aspirations that St. Dominic had 800 years ago are not out of date and are not out of reach. The habit and the cappa are just one part, undoubtedly the most visible part, of our incorporation into that Order, hoping that our poor sinful selves might play some small part in the history of God’s fantastic salvific plan for our world.
Image: Lorenzo Lotto, St. Dominic Raises Napoleone Orsini
This is the fifth of the series on Preaching the Divine Attributes.
Sometimes it can feel like God is so far away. Why? Sure there is the obvious, “Well, I’m a sinner.” But, sometimes God feels far away even when we’re in a state of grace. Why does He do this to us?
After all, in a solemn moment of self-revelation, God manifested Himself in a burning bush and gave Moses his name, “I AM WHO AM.” Then, while the Israelites were stuck in the desert, God did the unthinkable and came to dwell among them. Not in an Athenian temple or a Roman basilica but in the tabernacle of a movable tent. There, God was close to His people, remaining with them and guiding them by night and by day.
And if this wasn’t enough, God desired an even greater proximity to His people. So “the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us” (Jn 1:14). In the Incarnation, Jesus showed us just how close God was willing to come to be with His people. No longer was His presence in the tabernacle good enough. Now God desired to take on flesh, to be joined to humanity, and to make a virgin His new tabernacle. God became so close to His people that He literally walked among them.
That was all thousands of years ago, but what about now? Just as Moses relied on God’s support, just as the nation of Israel followed the cloud and the pillar of fire through the desert, and just as the apostles walked and talked with the Incarnate God, so too wouldn’t it be helpful if God were present with us to guide us on the way? After all, thanks to Jesus’ ascension to heaven, hasn’t God left us without His presence again?
Not at all. Jesus said to us, “I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Mt 28:20). This is especially true when we consider the Eucharist. In the Eucharist, God has done something even more marvelous than speak from a burning bush or descend into a tabernacle in the wilderness. Now, God enters into us. For a short time, we become His tabernacle where He transforms us through the power of His grace, communicated to us via His eucharistic Body and Blood. Each and every day, God comes down on our altar where He continues to manifest His great love for His people and to show us just how near He really is.
Sometimes God might feel far away, but God is not a God who is transcendent in such a way that He won’t come near us. Rather, because of His divine immanence, He is simultaneously present to us. He was immanently present in a special way to the Israelites in the wilderness and to His people in the desert tabernacle. Now, on our Catholic altars and on our tongues, He is immanently present to us again. As in the Old Testament period and now in the more profound way of the Eucharist, God comes to be with His people and to guide us on the path to heaven.
Image: Jackson Pollock, Blue Poles
This is the fourth of the series on Preaching the Divine Attributes.
Have you ever noticed the way some companies try to sell their products by raising them to the level of a symbol for something beyond their intrinsic value? I recently saw a commercial for an electronic gadget in which the device was never referred to—not even once—during the entire commercial. Instead, through impressive images of nature, human culture and play and the gravitas of the narrator’s voice the viewer was reminded that he or she was a “member of the human race,” that we live for things like art, beauty, passion, and love. And then we hear the nineteenth century American poet Walt Whitman asking about the meaning of life and man’s place in it, concluding that your life—even life itself—is a wonder, a kind of play to which each one may contribute a verse.
At first glance, it seems strange to sell your product by implying a higher meaning to the product (making it a mere means for satisfying some deeper desire). Then again, we human beings do this all the time. The world is built this way; we are built this way. We are always hunting for the touch of a more profound, more beautiful, and deeper meaning.
We are confronted with a world that alludes to something beyond itself, to a truth beyond experience and a meaning not of this world. This allusiveness conveys to us an awareness of a spiritual dimension of reality, our relatedness to transcendent meaning. We hunger for meaning, for truth, for goodness—this is how we know we are alive and we won’t be satisfied with anything less than a meaning, a truth that transcends all classification and division and is as extensive as reality itself.
But how does a man lift up his eyes to see a little higher than himself? The grand premise of religion is that man is able to surpass himself; that man who is part of this world may enter into a relationship with Him who is greater than this world; that man may lift up his mind and be attached to the absolute. How does one find a way in this world that would lead to an awareness of Him who is beyond this world? How does one find the way to an awareness of the transcendent God?
I believe the answer starts with a recovery of a Biblical view of the world and of life: an awareness of the sublime, of wonder, of mystery, awe, and the grandeur of reality. The world itself can give no answer to man’s ultimate wonder at the world. There is no answer in the self to man’s ultimate wonder at the self. Without this awareness, the world becomes flat and the soul a vacuum. The recovery of this awareness will give us eyes to see that everything in the world and in history bears the imprint of He-Who-Is-Beyond-Everything, calling us beyond everything so that He might give us everything.
Image: Jackson Pollock, No. 5 (1948)
This is the third of the series on Preaching the Divine Attributes.
Often God is depicted as an old man—but is he really old? Over all these centuries, has God aged? Christian prayers do not mention God as old, but instead as eternal. But what does that mean? It means that God is not in time—God does not think back on what he did yesterday, nor ponder what he will do tomorrow, for such temporal concepts simply do not apply to him. This does not mean that God is stuck in time, like a bug in amber or a caveman in a block of ice—God is not frozen in time, but beyond time itself.
God is beyond time because he is not a part of the created world. The world we see around us is subject to time—these things can have a past, present, and future, or they can simply not exist at a certain time. But God is not one of those things; instead he created those things. If God were just another thing in the created world, then the obvious question arises: ‘how did God create himself?’ But God is not one of those created things, rather he is above and beyond them—they depend upon him but he doesn’t depend on them. That’s why it would sound strange to say, “I see a tree, and a squirrel, and a bench, and, oh, there’s God!” God just isn’t that type of “thing.” There is a great chasm between God and those things he created.
Think of Tolkien and his book The Hobbit: Tolkien created The Hobbit, but is not himself subject to the time within his novel. Thus as Bilbo ages within the book, Tolkien does not age accordingly. But Tolkien is still within time—he was once living and now has already grown old and died. He was not in the fictional time of The Hobbit, but was in the real time of this world. However, God is not in a different time than us, but in eternity instead.
Things in this world of time are spread out over time. I am not the same today as I was yesterday, nor as I will be tomorrow. The Hobbit is similar—it cannot be entirely present in a moment, but must be read over time. To read the first chapter is to not be reading the second or third, and so the book can only exist spread out over time. But God is not spread out like that, rather he is always fully present. It would be as if one could read all of The Hobbit in an instant rather than line by line over time. Because God is in eternity rather than time, he is always fully present and fully alive in a way that the things of this world are not.
As the author of time itself, God rules time from eternity: God is the Lord of time. As Tolkien created and determined the plot in The Hobbit, so God does for the real world. While we often do not understand the meaning of what happens around us or know how things will turn out, God does. We do know that this world is not written as a tragedy—God is good and his love prevails. We know this because he has told us—he has given us the cliff notes for our world. He has given the Bible. Because God is the author of this world and because he is good, we can trust him to guide us even when difficulties seem insurmountable. We know that he can and will turn everything toward the good in the end. Unlike an old man, God will not forget about us.
Image: Jackson Pollock, Galaxy
This is the second of the series on Preaching the Divine Attributes.
God never wakes up on the wrong side of the bed. God never has a bad day. God never suffers. A slightly fancier way to say this is that God is “impassible.”
But doesn’t that drive a huge chasm between us and God? How can God really know and love us if he does not stand shoulder to shoulder with us in suffering? Doesn’t “impassible” really mean unresponsive and uncaring?
To be certain, Jesus Christ, true God and true man, willingly, truly suffered the pangs of death on the Cross in his human nature to which divinity was united. And so it can never be rightly said that God lacks compassion or solidarity with his people. But in the Godhead—the divine essence—no suffering ever clouds the sunny sky of God’s perfect and eternal happiness.
The act of suffering can be very meaningful to us, because great love can be shown in willing to suffer for someone or something. Yet even then, suffering is not intrinsic to love. Love has its own reality that does not depend on suffering for its existence. Suffering, in itself, is an evil, a lack of a good. God is love, and there is no lack of good in him, either of moral good or of any other kind.
This impassibility of God is the unshakeable ground of our great hope for true and lasting happiness. When we speak of heaven, we speak of union with God and sharing in his happiness. Because of this, we can be sure that for those who belong to God, suffering will never have the last word. No matter how deep our sorrows run, from this vale of tears we can look with confident hope to the new life where God “will wipe every tear from [our] eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain” (Rev 21:4). God, whose life is perfect blessedness that no suffering can invade, is able to make good on this promise, and desires to do so with the dynamic energy of his unfathomable love.
Image: Jackson Pollock, Eyes in the Heat
This is the first of the series on Preaching the Divine Attributes.
It’s complicated . . .
The part that comes next doesn’t matter. Whatever it is, it won’t be good. Complicated relationships? Bad. Complicated questions? Bad. Complicated answers? Bad.
To make the point a bit more pointedly, here’s a challenge: can you name even one time you’ve finished a job, turned to a friend, and said, “well, at least that was complicated”?
I didn’t think so.
Few things are as universally negative as complexity. Unfortunately for us, few things are as universally true as life’s complexity. Why is it so hard to pay the bills? To raise the kids? To be a good husband or a good wife? Why are friendships as easy to break as they are tough to build? Why (to use the words of Saint Paul) is it so hard to do what my will intends?
Because we’re complicated creatures, whose emotions, intentions, thoughts, and desires swirl chaotically around that mysterious center-point we call our soul. Arriving at self-knowledge is a little like trying to grab a tornado with one hand. Coming to know ourselves and others is like trying to double-fist them. It’s no wonder we mess things up: wherever we go, we trail behind us the twin tornadoes of “me” and “you,” like riotous toilet paper stuck to the back of both shoes.
And that’s before we add sin to the mix. Sin speeds up the whirlwinds, launching cow-, tractor-, and house-sized problems at our already-rickety lives. It separates us from God, separates us from each other, and even separates us from ourselves. To shift metaphors slightly, sin sets us adrift without port or anchor in a storm of our own devising.
Who can save us from our sins? Who can calm the chaos of our lives? Who can simplify our complexities?
Only someone entirely free from all complexity and chaos. Only someone who is totally, perfectly, and radically simple. Only God.
Nothing disturbs God. Nothing rattles him. He is not plagued by self-doubts or second-guesses. Simply put, God is pure simplicity (and that italics is crucial: there’s no division in God at all—not in his love, not in his thought, not even in his being). And when God enters our lives he brings that simplicity with him.
Jesus Christ took on all the complexities of our humanity so that we can take on the simplicity of his divinity. Full of love and compassion, Jesus once said to a friend, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but only one thing is necessary” (Lk. 10:41). He says the same to us today. And what is that one necessary thing? The God of divine simplicity himself.
When we focus on him, everything else falls into the background. When we make him our all, nothing else matters. When God becomes our simplicity, our peace, and our joy, he stills the whirling complexities of our lives, and we begin to hear his voice in a calming whisper: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all the rest shall be yours as well” (Mat. 6:33).
Jackson Pollock: Shimmering Substance
What are “the divine attributes”?
Unless you read the Catholic Encyclopedia for fun, chances are you have no idea (or you think they’re an indie band). If that sounds about right, you have nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, you’ll find yourself in pretty much the same boat as everyone else.
As it happens, the answer isn’t all that complicated: the divine attributes are God’s character traits; they describe what God is like.
So why care?
Clicking on the link above will treat you to flowing sentences of golden prose like “our natural knowledge of God is acquired by discursive reasoning upon the data of sense by introspection,” followed by obscure scriptural snippets. Which is to say, if God “dwells in light inaccessible,” it sure seems like he’s splitting the rent with his coterie of characteristics. Which is to say, even if theologians can wrap their minds around the divine attributes, your average Christian can’t.
But that’s just wrong. The Christian life is about friendship with God, and friends know what their friends are like. God’s character traits can be known and loved by all of us. Our new series, Preaching the Divine Attributes, will prove it to you. Our goal is to free God’s qualities from their ivory-tower prison, and to let you make their acquaintance, all in less time than it takes to listen to a weekday homily.
Look for our series on the Divine Attributes over the next week:
Divine Simplicity: 24 February
Divine Impassibility: 25 February
Divine Eternity: 26 February
Divine Transcendence: 27 February
Divine Immanence: 28 February
Image: Jackson Pollock, No. 1
We will but suggest the parallel amazement of some earnest Nazarene who had known and followed his dusty and travel-worn Master through the dry sunlight of Galilee, restored suddenly to this world and visiting, let us say, a Mass in St. Peter’s at Rome, at learning that the consecrated wafer upon the altar was none other than his crucified teacher. -H.G. Wells
A prophet keeping vigil for the dawn of world socialism, H.G. Wells’ gaze was firmly fixed on the future. The past, on the other hand, was much less reliable. C.S. Lewis famously described Christianity as the myth become fact; Wells, as might be expected, wrote it off as fairy tales.
If the Gospel is myth made fact, then the Holy Father, the Vicar of Christ, could also be considered a sort of walking myth. The secularist is simultaneously intrigued by the traditions and practices of the Papacy, while contemptuous of their purpose. The modern world is both skeptical and egalitarian: remaining hierarchies and distinctions are regularly flattened, and the authority and mystery of the past is frequently spurned. Yet these same skeptical moderns are fascinated by the ceremony and reverence that surrounds the successor of St. Peter. Why do people of this enlightened age still heed the teaching that comes from the Petrine throne?
When asked of how the laity are distinct within the ranks of the Church’s hierarchy, Bl. John Henry Newman observed that the hierarchy would look foolish without them. Imagine the absurdity of a Eucharistic procession without parishioners, or a newly elected Pope stepping out onto the balcony of St. Peter’s to bless an empty square and a vacant city. All the honors and titles of the Papacy are comprehensible only when they are understood within the Pope’s mandate to serve the Church. St. Gregory the Great understood this, taking to himself the title Servus Servorum Dei (Servant of the Servants of God) as a rebuke against the self-aggrandizing title adopted by another bishop. However, this title cannot be attributed solely to a diplomatic kerfuffle:
You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mk 10:41-45)
Although the Lord’s commission has not always been given to men who would seem worthy of it, the Chair of St. Peter remains. The Church celebrates this tomorrow, the twenty-second of February, in honoring Christ’s institution of the Petrine ministry. Our Lord was not afraid to distinguish the dignity of certain scribes’ office (and the obedience owed them) from their manifest inadequacy for the task. And so it can be with the men we invariably call “Holy Father.” As wonderful and saintly as many of them have been, this story is centered not on the white-clad figure sitting in the chair, but upon the King of Kings. It was He who entrusted that same throne to an unlikely character–a fisherman–all those centuries ago.
The earnest Nazarene postulated by H.G. Wells would likely not marvel so much at what has changed in the Church over the past two thousand years. While such wonders as St. Peter’s Basilica and Bernini’s Throne of St. Peter might come as a surprise to an early Christian, such marvels are not nearly as baffling as H.G. Well’s estimation of the Church, which, while aspiring to transcend history, amounts to a set of abstruse theories advanced by a man trapped in his own era.
Image: Lawrence Lew, O.P., Lateran Throne Room
Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the Gospel will save it. (Mk 8:34-35)
These words from tomorrow’s Gospel have been lived admirably by all of the Church’s saints. They have all imitated Christ in His self-denial and suffering. Some of them, such as St. Francis of Assisi, St. Catherine of Siena, or St. Pio of Pietrelcina (popularly known as Padre Pio), have been so configured to Christ that they shared His stigmata. Plenty of others are known for their extraordinary penances. St. Simeon Stylites, for example, lived on top of a pillar for thirty-six years.
But if anyone can be truly said to have taken these words of the Lord to heart, it is St. Peter Damian, whose feast we celebrate tomorrow. Pope Benedict XVI said that of all the mysteries of the Christian faith, the mystery of the Cross fascinated this saint the most. The Holy Father emeritus also noted that he described himself as “Peter, servant of the servants of the Cross of Christ.” As Benedict said, the Cross was so attractive to this monk because it was the supreme act of God’s love for mankind that wrought our salvation.
St. Peter Damian, an extremely learned man, entered the eremitical life at the Hermitage of Fonte-Avellana about the year 1035 when he was approximately 28 years old. There he lived very ascetically, authored a work on the life of St. Romuald (who had written the rule followed at the hermitage), and within a very short time became prior of the place.
The saint is most famous, however, for his efforts to reform the Church, which was ailing in many ways. The sin of simony and clerical licentiousness were particularly rampant in his time. Simony was so widespread that in one of his letters (of which we have a vast collection), we find Peter commending Bishop Gebhard of Ravenna as being “almost the exception in standing unconquered and unshaken” by this “evil beast.” It was this reforming line of work that required his greatest self-denial.
Not only did St. Peter Damian expend himself in traveling, writing, and teaching – often gaining only criticism, hatred, and personal attacks in response – but he also in 1057 was deprived of his beloved life of solitude altogether when he was appointed Cardinal-Bishop of Ostia. He begged in several lengthy letters to be relieved of such a burden, but these requests were denied. He was so enamored with his chosen manner of life that he was once moved to write
…O eremitic life, holy life, angelic life, blessed life, preserver of souls, hall of heavenly gems, and court of the senators of the spirit. Your fragrance excels that of all herbs, your flavor is sweeter to the taste of the enlightened soul than dripping honeycombs or any honey.
Despite his love for the contemplative life, Peter obediently gave this life up in order to better aid the Church in saving souls.
St. Peter Damian, pray for us that we might put Christ at the center of our lives!
Image: Titian, Christ Carrying the Cross
I hope no tonge moght endure, I judge no tongue e’er found before
No saverly saghe say of that syght, Words to say that splendid sight,
So was hit clene and cler and pure, So clean it was, so clear, so pure.
That precios perle ther hit was pyght. That precious pearl there so bedight.
- from the Middle English poem Pearl (14th century)
What’s in a word? The glib phrase, saying or chatter we choose could mean friendship or conflict, battle or appeasement. Why do we put stock in these vocal sounds? Do words help or hinder us in describing the world? What about in describing God?
Four points may help us see why we use words, especially to speak of God.
First, words tell what we know. Words are signs of ideas, and our ideas are likenesses of things. They are the building stones to any poem, prose, or tweet that join subject to predicate in conveying our thoughts. Words declare our knowledge (or ignorance) which in turn rests on our experience. Words reveal the time, place, doing, suffering, how-much-of and meaning of a thing so far as we know it.
Second, words can point us to God. Faith pertains to divine truth, and we name God by many phrases (to name some common ones from the Psalms: light, life, rock, merciful, almighty, just, true). Words articulate what’s real. Our names for God reveal something that is real about God.
But do these earthly names rightly reflect the divine? How can ours, bounded by limited experience, portray God? So asks St. Augustine:
What happened in my heart when I said “God”? A certain great and perfect substance was in our thoughts transcend[ing] every changeable creature of flesh and soul…. living, eternal, omnipotent, everywhere present, everywhere whole, nowhere confined…
- St. Augustine, Homilies on John, Tractate 1.
Pseudo-Dionysius suggests the same:
The higher we ascend, the more our words are limited…. just as now, when we plunge into the darkness which is beyond intellect, we encounter not merely a shortage of speech, but a complete loss of words and thought…. And after the complete ascent we are wholly voiceless…
- The Mystical Theology, Chap. III
Do not words, then, butt up against their limits in describing God? The final two points help address this question.
Third, we can use what we know about creatures to speak of God.We make statements from words to know things through them. Since we know creatures better than God, we start from the partial goodness of creation to speak of its perfect Creator. Every creature has some type of goodness and perfection, and from these traits we are led towards the complete and simple perfection of God. Creatures, then, act as a sign-post which point our thoughts and words towards God. But since our knowledge is based on creaturely pictures, our words need cleansing before naming God’s simple existence.
Lastly, we should note that God speaks to us by being truth himself. God is truth inasmuch as he exists, and so any verbal portrait of God will stand in reference to his unpictured existence. But God does more than simply listen to the descriptions we give him. God is active in the cosmos as its first and sustaining and redeeming cause, and pours truth into heaven and earth, our minds and our lips as we speak of him in reason and in faith. We can use words to speak about God because he has taught us the correct words to use. As Primal Truth he grounds our phrases in his existence. This is why he is best named He who is (Exod. 3:14), the closest written English can approach to describing personal infinity. Our naming God, then, is less like painting a far-away figure and more like plant-life that grows from the earth receiving rain.
Language doesn’t hinder but helps us attain God. Like a ladder’s steps, words are how we climb heavenward. In this way faith’s language is like Christ’s incarnation. Just as God uses small words to contain our faith’s truth, so his spoken Word took on our manhood and, in love, became little:
I cannot find the time to write you [a] long letter….nonetheless…I send you a very little word, the Word made little in the crib, the Word who was made flesh for us….Read over this Word in your heart, turn it over in your mind, let it be sweet as honey on your lips…that it may dwell with you and in you forever.
- From Bl. Jordan’s letter to Bl. Diana for Christmas, 1223
Image: Giotto, St. Francis Preaching to the Birds
Anyone regularly reading the English-language news media would get the impression that the Catholic Church has a long list of bans. Perhaps most famously the Church is said to ban contraception (especially condoms), women’s ordination, abortion, married priests, and remarriage after divorce. Even newspapers that call themselves “Catholic” sometimes write about the “Church’s ban on contraception.”
One could get the impression that the cardinals working in the Holy See spend all their time passing new laws and penalties. Yet, in the Code of Canon Law, which structures the Latin church, only 89 of the 1752 canons fall in the section dealing with penalties. While participants in abortion, murder, and simulated ordinations of women face ecclesiastical penalties, the vast majority of the Church’s pronouncements in moral matters fall within its teaching office, not discipline.
Newspapers often find themselves ill-equipped for religious stories. The problem is so common that a few religion reporters started a blog 10 years ago to address the situation. The natural tendency of those used to covering stories that involve American politics is to look for the liberal or conservative angle, and to see every pronouncement as an exercise of political power.
It’s not just the media that finds itself inclined to confuse Christian teaching with political control. John Shelby Spong, a bishop in the Episcopal Church (the American branch of the Anglican Communion), claims that hell was invented to control people.
When the newspapers report that another state has banned talking on a cellphone while driving or smoking in public buildings, they mean that the government has used its coercive powers to regulate a human activity (presumably for the common good). The result of a state-imposed ‘ban’ is that if you are caught in violation, the state will punish you with a fine or jail or community service.
But the Church’s authority in moral matters is typically different. The Church indeed has a coercive authority that she exercises in certain extreme cases (for instance, excommunicating priests who dare to violate the seal of confession and so reveal people’s darkest secrets). For the most part, however, including for many hot-button moral issues, the Church prefers to utilize her teaching authority. This is a far cry from the potentially violent authority of the state; sinners probably need not fear halberd-wielding Swiss guards breaking down their doors. What the New York Times might call the Catholic Church’s “ban” on contraception is actually the Church’s teaching that “any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation—whether as an end or as a means” (Humanae Vitae 14)—is immoral.
The pope and bishops don’t simply decide what they think is best; instead they apply doctrinal and moral principles to present circumstances. As the First Vatican Council’s dogmatic constitution Pastor aeternus says, “the Holy Spirit was not promised to the successors of Peter that they might disclose a new doctrine by his revelation, but rather that, with his assistance, they might reverently guard and faithfully explain the revelation or deposit of faith that was handed down through the apostles.” While a new state legislature might lift the ban on trucks in the left lane, we shouldn’t expect a new pope to suddenly teach that contraception is acceptable.
Furthermore, the Church’s moral teaching isn’t about deciding who goes to hell and who doesn’t. The mission of the Church’s moral teaching is to show man the road to happiness. The avoidance of hell is the least of the benefits of living a life in union with God.
The Church is not primarily looking to sort out sinners or protect society from bad people; she is looking to heal sinners. As with any true physician, the first step is diagnosis. Identifying the sin helps us to find the right road to happiness.
When you plead guilty in court to texting on a highway before a judge, he fines you. When you plead guilty in the confessional to anything before a priest and resolve to make amends, he in the person of Christ forgives you.
Image: Vladimir Makovsky,Verdict
Salty. Now there’s a word that well describes fishermen. Along with it comes a string of supporting adjectives: Terse. Somber. Laconic. Matter-of-fact. Proud. Quiet.
Everyone’s familiar with the stereotype, whether you grew up in Baltimore, or simply were forced to read The Old Man and the Sea in high school. During college, I spent two summers working on salmon boats in Alaska. It’s true that fishermen are just these sorts of men. Sure, they know how to keep themselves sane on long hours with little sleep – telling stories, some hoot-n-holler, discussing the state of the union – but at the end of the day, they come to get a job done. Out on the water, there are exhilarating moments, hauling in a full net of fish, or graceful mornings trolling on a glassy surface and laying out lines in the early dawn. But these men don’t come up north just to breathe in clean air and get poetic. They’re there to catch fish and make money.
Last December I was on a flight sitting next to a tugboat captain. He was quiet and had a large beard, which the stewardess said reminded her of Zac Brown. I’m a talker, so we talked, and I asked him why he chose his profession. He replied very simply, “Well, my old man drove boats and showed me how… I’ve spent all my life in boats.” I was fishing for something like, “What kind of meaning do you find in your work?” He basically shrugged his shoulders and responded, “This is just my work. What else would I do?” It quickly occurred to me that those on the lookout for “deeper meaning” are often outside viewers, like journalists, or inquisitive neighbors prying for some material for their blog posts. Real working men, like our tugboat captain, simply work. They like it or don’t like it, but it’s their life.
I like to think of the early Simon Peter as one of these men, not looking too much into why Jesus wanted to go to the other side, but just gathering the men to make it happen: “Alright, the Master said we’re going to the other side, let’s load up and get rowing.” But God has a way of changing men, if they hang around him long enough. At first, Jesus embraces the facts of his friends’ lifestyle. They leave their nets, but then he borrows their boats: He preached from their boats (Lk 5:3), worked miracles (5:6), slept in boats (8:23), and escaped the crowds by boat (Mk 6:32). Why this method? Because they had the means, and it meant quicker travel between the villages of Galilee. Because water acts as a natural microphone in teaching the crowds. Jesus, too, can at times be simply practical.
Then right under their proud noses, within their familiar context, he begins to work something deeper. How exactly will he make fishermen into fishers of men? Simply by pushing their hard-earned skills past their breaking point. Let’s consider the Storm at Sea (Mt 8:23). They’re making a night passage, the boats are overwhelmed by waves, and Jesus is asleep in the stern. The disciples cry out for him, “Save, Lord!” But Jesus isn’t a fisherman. He’s spent his life carving wood and laying stone for houses. He doesn’t captain boats. They do. Here’s where these practical men in an entirely practical situation (i.e., “We’re drowning”) find themselves caught in the net of a life lesson: Right here in their area of expertise, these grown men fall to pieces. And only then do they finally start to piece together their need for the Lord. Before he would teach them, “Unless you become like little children,” they learned dependency in the boat with God.
Self-reliant. Now there’s a word that well describes all of us. Along with it comes a string of supporting adjectives: Stubborn. Limited. Insecure. Distracted. Cynical. Quixotic. Green.
Fishermen are really like all men: I’ve seen them attack each other, and I’ve seen them pray together; I’ve seen them cry in remembering the past, and laugh at cheap jokes. Some wander the docks patting backs, still trying to fit in with the guys, and I’ve seen others who are noble straight through, who have braved some mighty storms, standing steeled and firm behind the wheel. Yet despite our fluctuations, written in every man’s nature is this instinct for self-reliance. Challenges are around every corner, and we must protect and provide. We must take control. But life always has its ways of reminding us of our weaknesses, and no one is exempt from sooner or later facing their failures. That’s why fishermen, within an inch of their lives, call out to a carpenter: they know they need God, and God is with them. Then like the great myths of old, he rises from sleep and shouts at the storm until it turns to a whisper. They murmur among themselves, “What sort of man is this, that even wind and sea obey him?” It’s no great feat getting the winds to obey their Creator’s voice; getting men to listen from their hearts is a far greater difficulty, which often requires a touch of dramatics.
In the end, it seems likely that Jesus led them into this storm on purpose. The great saints have known that faith grows best in darkness. They have learned that God allows certain storms in our life, so we may cast ourselves on him more and more. That’s why a landlocked nun, frail and lacking all the virility of the apostles, could say to Jesus from her heaviest agony, “You may sleep in my boat, I will not wake you” (Therese of Lisieux, Poem 17).
Image: Eugene Boudin, Rough Seas
I love irony. If Socrates were still alive, he and I would be BFFs (although he might only admit to being BFWGRLOMs: Best Friends until We Get Reincarnated and Lose Our Memories). Kierkegaard and I are like this (here it would be helpful if you could imagine me wrapping two fingers around each other). And I won’t even admit how much time I waste reading The Onion (or how much time I spent in college producing my own knock-off version).
There are people who dabble in irony here and there—they might tell the homeless man on the bus that his theory about alien electricians rewiring D.C. street lamps to flash hypnotic messages is “very interesting,” or play Chumbawamba’s 1997 hit “Tubthumping” at a party to get laughs. But Serious Irony Aficionados (arguably the real 1%) like me know that this is mere child’s play. Much like the magicians in the movie The Prestige, the S.I.A. makes irony a way of life: he drinks PBR because he actually likes it; he uses thrift-store mugs because he genuinely likes his morning cup of coffee wishing him a Happy 80th Birthday, Dad; most tellingly, when people ask him whether he really likes something or just likes it ironically, he doesn’t understand the question and refuses to answer it.
By now you might be wondering why I’m talking about irony on Valentine’s Day. After all, what could possibly inspire irony in a holiday dedicated to True Love, in which lovers exchange cards with mass-produced expressions of someone else’s love in them, schoolchildren double as ad agents by handing around glossy cards on which brand-name animated characters profess improbable degrees of affection and encouragement, and teachers are forced to admit to students that this is the one day in the year they’re allowed to eat chalk, and then only if it has LUV YA stenciled on it in red lettering?
The point here (and I swear there is one) is that irony is not really about being snide or feeling superior: it’s about love. While the casual ironist may use irony simply to mock or degrade other people’s loves, the S.I.A. plunges into the heart of irony and finds real sincerity there; he looks into things commonly considered cheap, banal, or hokey and discovers real goods that have been overlooked, and that are really worthy of love. For the S.I.A., his tastes are not a wry joke or a pose; he has let himself be open to the goodness of the things he meets, and has learned to love them.
Believe it or not, I’m not making this up. Kierkegaard (remember the fingers-wrapped-around-each-other thing again) argued that the dynamic of irony is to break men out of their selfish individualism, to point out the limits of the finite so that men may turn to see the limitless infinity of divine communion for which they long. Irony can of course be corrupted into a purely negative attack that tears down everyone else’s sincere labors and points nowhere but the empty void; but used according to its proper nature, irony is a positive vision that helps people to see that the wounds of the world are actually windows whereby one can see the light of divine love in a new way.
In fact, it’s actually helpful that Valentine’s Day provides such ample fodder for ironic delight, because the way our celebrations of Valentine’s combine irony and love can help us get to the unexpected heart of the ultimate irony of love: that God, who is utterly perfect and complete in himself, desired out of sheer generosity to create each of us, to sustain us in being out of love even as we kick and scream and sin and generally make ourselves ugly in his sight, to send his Son to be born, die, and rise again in order to restore the divine life in our hearts, and that he does all this not after we have tidied ourselves up, but while we were still sinners. From our point of view, it is ironic that God would love creatures who are so unlovely.
And that’s why the genuine movement of love that underlies the S.I.A.’s action can be a distant foreshadowing of the supreme, redemptive love of God. The S.I.A. struts around with a six-inch belt buckle that says TEXAS superimposed on a cowboy riding a bull surrounded by stars because he has properly identified the goodness in it that others have overlooked. But God does more than simply remind us to attend to the goodness our sins have covered over; by his gaze of love, by the regenerating power of his grace, he brings about the goodness that he sees, transforming us from within to make us love in a way that befits the loveliness he sees in us.
So Serious Irony Aficionados of the world, unite! This Valentine’s Day, go ahead and get your sweetie that figurine of a penguin on a surfboard wearing a Hawaiian shirt that says “Stay Cool, Baby.” You’re right, it would be hilarious. And if your beloved happens not to be as captivated by its beauty as you are, remember that only in heaven will the love of God transform our gaze so perfectly that we will love as he loves, when every sneer shall be wiped away, and insincerity shall be no more, neither shall there be misunderstanding nor snarking nor blank stares any more, for the former things will have passed away (cf. Rev 21:4).
Image: Rene Magritte, The Song of Love
In between lectures, panels, and papers feeding the mind with philosophical fare, the conference presenters found themselves around a table enjoying a common meal. Among these academics of diverse creeds and professional interests sat one unusual philosopher. In most respects, I am told, he was as usual as philosophers can be, but he had the curious habit of asking profound and unsettling questions without the slightest pretension—questions that sought after great rooms of truth without heed for elephants standing in the way. On this occasion, the philosopher’s question came by way of a personal anecdote:
It was a day like any other. The philosopher was walking down a crowded avenue accompanied by a priest friend of his. As they walked, they began to notice a commotion on the side of the street to their left. A large crowd had gathered, joined by an alarming silence and a low anxious murmuring. The philosopher and the priest ran up to the crowd, weaving between faces dazed, pained, and blanched. Emerging into the center of the scene, their worst fears were confirmed at the sight of a woman’s body, broken and bleeding, on red-stained pavement. She had jumped, but her body had proved more resilient than she had anticipated. Half-conscious, she moaned in the throes of death.
As the priest knelt to hear any word of remorse, the smallest sign of repentance, the sirens of an ambulance blared louder and louder. Her broken body was loaded onto the vehicle, and the priest hopped inside beside the stretcher in order to offer last rites to the woman, leaving his philosopher friend to accompany them remotely with his prayers. As she took her last ride, the woman revived enough to communicate. Holding her hand as her life slipped away, the priest assured her, “God is love.” Leaning in close to hear her muted voice amidst the screaming sirens, he heard her pray, “God is love . . . God is love . . . God is love . . .” She died before they arrived at the hospital.
A week later, the same priest was saying Mass at a monastery of cloistered nuns. As he was preparing to leave, one of the sisters asked to speak with him. Taking off his coat, the priest prepared to hear her confession, but as he sat down, the sister began to relate a very peculiar dream she had had the night before: “In my dream a woman, beautiful and beaming, appeared to me and made a strange request. She asked me to tell you something. She said, ‘Tell father that he was right. Tell him that God is love.’ Father, what do you make of that?”
The dining academics had ceased putting fork to mouth at the first gruesome details of the story. Their discomfort had given way to engrossment, but with the abrupt end of the philosopher’s story, their discomfort was returning quickly. Slowly scanning the bewildered faces of his table companions, the philosopher’s own broke into a broad grin. “Well,” he asked, “what do you make of that?”
The philosopher’s name is Norris Clarke (†2008). The story was related to me by a man who had the fortune of sitting at his table.
Image: Vladimir Makovsky, The Meal
Today is the birthday of Abraham Lincoln, a true master of political oratory. Though this sort of oratory is distinct from preaching, some of Lincoln’s gifts and insights as a speaker are as relevant for the latter as they are for the former. Lincoln was a masterful story-teller, who understood the power of narrative to explain and persuade. At the same time, he was admirably brief and succinct, especially at crucial moments in his career. In both of these qualities, Lincoln showed an appreciation for the power of words to move men’s souls.
Lincoln loved to spin a good yarn, and rarely missed an opportunity. When asked a question about public policy in a debate, he would relate a story from his tenure as a country lawyer. This would, of course, infuriate his opponents, but he frequently made his points this way. Lincoln understood that listeners far more easily grasp a story than a cold recitation of facts or opinions. Not only does it help with memory, but using stories satisfies a deep human need to find meaning and purpose in events. A good preacher knows this, and draws the people sitting in the pews into the great story of salvation history, the unfolding of God’s providence. We take our place within this narrative, and play our part in the whole. But it takes the power of preaching to lift us out of our time and place and to lay before us the God’s-eye view of the stage.
Of course, Lincoln didn’t always just ramble his way through endless anecdotes. He knew the importance of being brief and succinct at particular moments—even when it proved jarring at first. On November 19, 1863, Lincoln gave what seemed like a ridiculously short coda to the main event at the dedication of the national cemetery at Gettysburg. Edward Everett, a famous national orator of the period, preceded Lincoln on the stage. He was an astute scholar, a former president of Harvard, and a world traveler. He gave a two hour oration full of brilliant classical allusions and a detailed retelling of the battle. After he sat down, Lincoln stood and delivered his famous address, which was 278 words long, and lasted around two minutes. In his short address, Lincoln minimized the importance of what he said that day:
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.
How right—and yet how wrong—he was! Lincoln’s short address sticks in the mind, even if it attracted criticism when it was first delivered for not being suitably grand. The ideals he articulated have long been part of the American national ethos: freedom, sacrifice for the common good, and dedication to the Union. But he concretized and memorialized them succinctly for all time.
This is true for homiletics as well. A daily Mass homily can be two minutes long, yet contain a seed of truth that germinates for a life time. An insightful sentence, pondered over, can reset the course of a life. Saint Anthony, considered the father of monasticism, went out into the desert after hearing, “Go, sell all you have and give to the poor, and come follow me.”
Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address ended with this stirring passage:
With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan–to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.
Words like these have tremendous power. They can move armies and alter lives. With simple words, Lincoln consoled and encouraged a mourning nation. His speeches inspire many to this day. Good preaching, though, reaches even deeper: it disposes the soul to receive the movements of grace, even as God works through the preacher to call his people back to communion. Lincoln’s words, like the man himself, now “belong to the ages.” More powerful still are the words that flow from the eternal Word himself!
Image: George P.A. Healy, The Peacemakers
In the south of France, outside the town of Lourdes, stand thousands of pilgrims, waiting in line before pools of water in the ground next to an otherwise inconspicuous cave. Many of them have come seeking a miracle at these pools, having heard stories of many cures and healings that transpired there. A young woman from Spain, with a broken arm, pushes ahead of a group of American pilgrims. As she argues with the people in line and complains about how long the people in front of her are taking, the priest who leads the American entourage looks back on a similar cure that he witnessed, and how he first came to this place…
During World Youth Day in Paris, a young electrical engineer decides to make a side trip to a place which he saw in a movie. As a child, he had heard of the miracle of Our Lady of Lourdes through the acclaimed film The Song of Bernadette, which his mother had seen in the theater. As he approaches the grotto, he notices several pilgrims in front of him, making various requests for health, wealth, and happiness in prayer to Mary, the Mother of God. All the while, he wonders what sort of prayer he would make, mindful of the fate of the girl in the movie who saw the lady in white…
In the midst of the Second World War, a Jewish author and his wife are running for their lives. Already forced to flee their native Austria for France, they fear the advancing Nazi troops, who are intent on deporting all French Jews to the concentration camps. Hoping to escape to Spain, they meet with resistance, as the Gestapo has just arrived to barricade the border. Without food or shelter, among the thousands of refugees, Franz and Alma Werfel scramble for a place of refuge. A family informs them that their best chance to find relief is the town of Lourdes. The locals, lay and religious alike, take Werfel and his wife under their care, and as he listens to their stories of Bernadette, he promises to God and to Mary that if he ever makes it out of war-torn Europe alive, he would halt all his other writing projects and sing forth these stories as an act of supreme gratitude…
On a cold February afternoon, a peasant girl of 14 years is gathering firewood with her sisters for her family to keep warm for another day, while their father continues to look for work. Separated from the group, she comes to a cave that is often used as a garbage dump. What follows is beyond the stuff of legends. In an indentation in the rock, the girl Bernadette sees a woman dressed in white, with a blue sash and yellow roses on her feet, matching the rosary she carries. Bernadette returns time and again to the grotto, not knowing who the lady is. Yet she follows her instructions to drink from the spring, where there was once only grime and mud, and to have a chapel built on the site. As the lady’s appearances generate controversy, despite the miraculous physical healings that begin to occur through the water, she makes her identity known through a message that the barely literate Bernadette cannot fathom:
“I am the Immaculate Conception.”
By affirming this theological point, defined as dogma by the Church just over three years prior, and after centuries of debate, Our Lady of Lourdes demonstrates how God works his power to heal and to save, both through her and through the elements that surround the apparition. The visionary Saint Bernadette receives the calling to the contemplative religious life, and her story, and that of the miraculous waters, spread throughout the land…
Werfel and his wife, after their stay in Lourdes, flee Nazi-occupied France and re-establish their lives in America. There, he keeps to his promise. He composes the historical novel The Song of Bernadette within a year, and his retelling of the stories that comforted him during his time of flight soon become a Hollywood film. The movie’s tagline says it all: “For those who believe, no explanation is necessary. For those who do not believe, no explanation is possible…”
The young man enters the pool, turns to our Lady, and prays: while others ask for Mary’s help, he offers himself as a gift to the Blessed Mother. The next year, he joins the Dominican Order, whose friars from around the world lead several annual trips to the site of the apparitions and miracles. As leader of the National Lourdes Pilgrimage, he brings many more people the graces of Our Lady of Lourdes, year after year…
This most recent pilgrimage is no exception, though the graces are not always of the kind expected. After all, more miracles occur during the Eucharistic processions than at the spring itself. Some visitors find insight into their own vocations, and the Spanish woman with the broken arm is healed—not in her bones, but of her impatience—and leaves the grotto with great peace. Her spiritual comfort, despite not finding the cure she had wanted, may be difficult to explain. Yet when the God who operates through humble and unexpected means, such as his own birth in the flesh and the apparition of Our Lady of Lourdes, is at work, no explanation is necessary.
Image: Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P., God’s Own People