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O Sapientia

12/17/2014 - 7:30am

There seem to be a few different groups of test takers.

Some start studying too late, fretfully scouring over their notes right up until the exam gets passed out. There are also those who have the material down, but hate the day or two before, restlessly awaiting the exam just to get it over with. The smallest group of students consists of those undaunted by the whole process. Having studied all along, they waltz into the room and emit rays of confidence as they take their test, naturally making their classmates sick.

In high school, I fell into the second category. Once I was mildly confident in the material, study seemed useless. I couldn’t wait fast enough to take the test and for the ‘dead time’ to be over.

Preparing for Christ’s nativity, of course, reminds us of our ultimate preparation in life, and it isn’t anything like that of my agitated anticipation of a tenth-grade French test. Plans in this world are always attached to a deadline: once it’s over, it’s over. Our preparation for eternity, to fall prostrate before the throne of the Divine Majesty and ceaselessly worship our Creator, doesn’t even begin to compare with any temporal counterpart.

Another difference: since we don’t know God in any considerable way like he knows us, we recall our need for him to prepare us. The type of personal effort that stems solely from our own initiative leads to that anxiety-filled anticipation. Since God’s not the one who has to prepare to meet us, we learn in anticipatory seasons like this to hope in his salvation, not our own.

This theme of Advent intensifies tonight as the “O Antiphons” begin. Over the next seven evenings at Vespers, the Church will sing out in the antiphons of the Magnificat  a different divine name of Our Lord, each connected with a prophecy from Isaiah.

These chanted titles and subsequent descriptions refer to Our Lord as:

Sapientia (Wisdom)

Adonai (Lord)

Radix Jesse (Root of Jesse)

Clavis David (Key of David)

Oriens (Dayspring)

Rex Gentium (King of the nations)

and

Emmanuel (God with us)

Tonight we call upon “Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from one end to the other, mightily and sweetly ordering all things,” and beg him to “teach us the way of prudence.” This infinite Wisdom directs and prepares us at every moment of life, not just in our minds but in all we do, as long as we are open to be guided by it. The Lord gives us endless opportunities daily to grow in wisdom, knowledge, and love of him; through prayer, the Mass, Scripture, the wisdom of the saints, general life experiences, etc. We can never have a ‘dead time’ in between our preparation and our end. Our life is our preparation.

And so, that ‘unnatural’ group of students who took in a steady diet of material each day, who had every reason to be confident when the appointed time came, they become our spiritual archetype. We continue to grow in knowledge and love of God — provided we don’t give into the idea that we’re ever ‘absolutely ready’ and can just stall until the ‘test day’ comes. Flannery O’Connor notes this well, “When we get our spiritual house in order, we’ll be dead.”

Image: Medieval illumination, students in class

Categories: Dominican Vocations

Doctrine Saves

12/16/2014 - 7:30am

It’s a bold claim. “Doctrine”—the word doesn’t exactly conjure images of heavenly harbors or paradisal sands. It hits the ears about as pleasantly as “doctor exam,” “doctoral dissertation,” or “indoctrination.” If the word had a smell, it would probably be the smell of old-book must—the smell of dead letters on acidic paper playing host to acrid fungal spores (I’d rather not think of its taste). Doctrine divides. The letter kills. How can we say that doctrine saves?

To see the goodness of Christian doctrine, how sweet its sound, it first helps to recall what it was like to be aged about three. Yes, you, dear reader, like me, were once three. And at the time, we had the rather obnoxious habit of asking all who would listen, “Why?” It was the most sensible question for us to ask at the time, because we knew, as if by instinct, that the world had a lot of explaining to do.

This is in part because, truth be told, neither you nor I chose to exist—not at that time, not in that place, not to those parents, not as this type of creature, not in this strange world with its storied history. No one asked us. Then, subito! There we were, thrust into history, tuned into season three of The Human Drama without a clue as to what happened in seasons one or two. What are we doing here? What are we to do? How did it begin? How does it end?

Perhaps our despair of these questions is the reason “doctrine” sounds so dismal. Perhaps we never got satisfying answers. Perhaps the answers seemed too abstract, too impersonal, too frightful or demanding. Perhaps we heard the telling of so many fragmented and conflicting stories that we gave up on ever putting the pieces together. Whatever the reason, somewhere along the line, we grew out of our questions. Doctrine lost its existential spice, its invigorating aroma, its sweet saving sound.

There is hope, of course, to recapture the flavor. Advent is a time when the Author of doctrine sets us up to be awestruck again. In times past, the God who placed us dazed and confused in season three of the cosmos spoke to us through the prophets, but in these later days, he sent us his Son. The Word became flesh, doctrine incarnate:

In these later days, he spoke to us through a son, whom he made heir of all things and through whom he created the universe, who is the refulgence of his glory, the very imprint of his being, and who sustains all things by his mighty word. (Heb 1:1-2)

By the voice that creates, we learn our origin. By the Word that sustains, we know our way. By the Son that radiates glory, we achieve our destiny. Divine love that creates, redeems, and saves; a glorious company forged in filial obedience, self-denial, and hope; an inspired Church commissioned to pass on the flame of God’s teaching—not exactly acrid book must, that!

Sacred doctrine saves because it is the last speech of the first Son, the living legacy of the God-man born in a manger, destined to conquer death by a death born of love: “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” (Jn 11:25-26).

His doctrine has the power to change everything—to give hope to the hopeless, to give sight to the blind—and the power, praise God, to save even a wretch like me.

Image: Pieter Brueghel the Younger, The Preaching of St. John the Baptist

Categories: Dominican Vocations

Advent Journey: From Nazarite to Neonate

12/15/2014 - 7:30am

The figure of John the Baptist personifies this season of Advent – assiduously preparing for the coming of the promised Messiah; fasting; enduring physical discomfort; crying out day and night; conveying the need to look within ourselves and root out anything not fit for the kingdom of heaven that is so near. With his tough, observant character, John the Baptist has been identified as a kind of Nazarite, a type of ascetic found among the Hebrew people in biblical times.

In many ways, the patients in a hospital share a lot in common with this great saint.  Like John the Baptist, they too cry out day and night, enduring discomforts and even fasting so that they and their doctors and surgeons can look intently within them and root out physical corruption.  The difference is that their cries and concern are focused inwardly on their bodies rather than outwardly on the awaited Savior.

These patients’ behavior is human and natural, even necessary for healing.  Unless a patient clearly and promptly communicates his pains and other symptoms to the doctor and nurses, he cannot expect healing.  Similarly in the spiritual life, an intense inward focus and self-examination prepare the way back to health.  It demands honesty and a readiness to change, commitment to a course of hard work in filling in all the deficiencies and pulling down the peaks of painful excess – building a highway to health.  It is the Baptist’s invitation to renewal through examination of conscience and repentance.  It is where we must begin our Advent journey.

In the hospital, however, there is always the danger that so much attention to one’s own broken self can fix our vision on the suffering that is before us and turn our eyes away from the happiness for which we are preparing.  Every patient in the hospital undergoes suffering and faces this temptation.  One type of patient, however, usually triumphs easily and with joy – the new mother in the maternity ward.  The mother stands out among patients as the only one naturally looking beyond herself – she is focused on the tiny, fragile human life in the bassinet next to her bed. She has suffered, make no mistake, and is doubtless still in pain from the labor she just endured, as if all the sufferings of the past nine months were distilled into the long hours of birthing the child.  But the child is a sign of Jesus’ promise that whoever offers up his or her own good, giving his or her life for God (who is love), “will receive [everything back] a hundredfold now in this time, with persecutions, and have eternal life in the age to come” (Mark 10:29-30).  From a self-oriented perspective, the newborn promises his mother much persecution over the next few decades – sleepless nights, heaps of dirty laundry, and all sorts of bills related to a child who can’t even talk to her (and a hundredfold in the teenager that is to come, perhaps)!  Yet from the mother’s selfless perspective, the baby is a promise of great reward.  He blesses his mother with love, the free and total gift of his whole self.  The infant points the mother to her life’s goal, her happiness.

Happiness is something that lies outside of ourselves – something related to us yet beyond us at the same time.  This relationship is an opportunity to live selfless love.  Love reverses the direction of our concern – transferring it from our own good to the good of the other who is nonetheless akin to us.  Patients must be able to make this transfer if they want happiness once they return to health.

That is why in Advent the figure of John the Baptist gives way to that of the infant Jesus of Christmas.  The baby surpasses the Baptist.  This is one way to make sense of Jesus’ puzzling words “there is none greater than John the Baptist, yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (Mat. 11:11).  The infant alone can confer citizenship in the kingdom of heaven:  The child enables its mother to pass out of herself and into a new life, which is bound up with another’s. For each of us, our greatest good is found in God, whose children we are.  Created in His image and likeness, we are indeed related to this Ultimate Good – indeed, doubly so, since the Son deigned to take flesh and unite Himself to our very humanity so that we could become the adopted, grace-filled sons and daughters of God.  Let us then follow John the Baptist’s cry all the way to the cry of the infant Jesus.  He calls us to make this journey from the Nazarite to the infant Nazarene:  “Amen I say to you, unless you be converted and become as little children, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mat. 18:3).

Image: Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, St. John the Baptist as a Boy

Categories: Dominican Vocations

Pilgrimages to Our Lady’s Shrines

12/12/2014 - 7:30am

Last year on Thursday, December 12, in the midst of final exams, a number of us student brothers took a Study Break Pilgrimage to visit the Chapel of Our Lady of Guadalupe across the street at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. On that clear and chilly afternoon, we prayed the rosary and sang the Salve Regina, resting a bit before returning to study some more.

Albino Luciani – who was to become Pope John Paul I – notes in a 1977 letter that Marian shrines are living centers of piety and part of the geography of our lives as Catholics, with literally thousands of them all around the world. The four major international Marian shrines draw especially large crowds of pilgrims: Lourdes, Fatima, Aparecida (Brazil), and Guadalupe, whose feast we celebrate today. Some of the shrines are large, like Our Lady of Czestochowa in Poland, and others are small, like the statues and paintings in our parish churches.

Luciani regularly visited the Shrine of Pietralba in Northern Italy, and as Patriarch of Venice, he joined in annual pilgrimages to different Marian shrines around Italy and Europe, including Lourdes and Fatima. Quoting St. Thomas Aquinas and Pope St. John XXIII, Luciani notes that the Marian visions do not consist in any revelation of new doctrine, but provide guidance for living our lives. The message of Mary is always one of prayer and penance, which lead to conversion of heart, bringing us closer to Christ.

Luciani reminds us that all of these Marian Shrines help us to pray. As little sanctuaries, we can rest the burdens and cares of our souls there, if even just for a few minutes.  Shrines, he writes, are

calling [us] to eternity, waiting for us. Rising usually out of town, we reach them with a journey, and abandon for a short while the house and the daily affairs, arriving at them as on a spiritual island, a piece of [our] anticipated future life.

Marian pilgrimages, therefore, are not about visions or dramatic supernatural appearances. We may travel to the places of visions, but we do not come to Mary for the sensory experiences. We come to find Christ, and Mary always points the way to her Son.  In the Gospels we see that Mary keeps and ponders all the words and actions of Jesus in her heart, even those she does not yet understand (Luke 2), and teaches us to do whatever Christ tells us (John 2).  Because of Mary’s example, all the Marian shrines remind us of the call to prayer and penance.  For this reason, Luciani concludes in his letter that Marian Shrines “are most useful and do great good.”

Let us take some time this day to go visit Our Mother, journeying a little, so that resting our burdens even if just for a few minutes, we may remember our heavenly homeland and pray for the strength and conversion necessary to reach that final goal.

Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, ruega por nosotros.

Image: Our Lady of Guadalupe Chapel, National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception (Washington, D.C.)

Categories: Dominican Vocations

It’s Only Human: Jeep Wranglers & What it Means to be Man

12/11/2014 - 7:30am

I have wanted a Jeep Wrangler since I was seven years old. Obviously it would be red, not with a hard top, but with a cloth top. You might think this preference impractical given the winters of the Midwest—where I grew up—but, the cloth top is clearly superior. The cloth top allows you to cruise around lake country, blaring your jams (aviators optional), without a care in the world. Well, I take that back, there is one care: the Jeep Wrangler itself. Don’t mess it up. It’s not some 30-year-old pickup you “borrowed” to go muddin’ from your Grandpa’s farm. You don’t drive the Wrangler down a road that’s just been sealed, either, because that loose tar will destroy it. There are rules to keep the Wrangler in good shape.

Some people may argue that Wranglers were built for roughing it, and mud, scratches and dents which mar them over the years are simply signs of use. The fact is, though, they look best not when they’re covered with mud, but when they’re factory new. Just look at the Jeep website if you doubt me. The pictures Jeep displays on its site show gleaming, pristine vehicles climbing over rocks surrounded by pine trees.

It’s all well and good to have this conversation about Jeep Wranglers, that is, about whether or not it’s proper to be dirty. What if we asked this question about humanity, though? What if we start talking about people, rather than Jeep Wranglers, or sin, instead of mud, scratches and dents?

There’s an all-too-common phrase that people use when they want to pardon someone’s faults.  “It’s only human,” they say. Of course if we take this to mean, “people sin,” then I voice no objection. Mud and gravel typically mar the Jeep Wrangler, and sin, since the fall of Adam and Eve, mars the human condition.

But sin cannot be a defining characteristic of what it means to be human. In an interview with Beliefnet, the shock rock musician Marilyn Manson once said,

All the seven deadly sins are man’s true nature. To be greedy. To be hateful. To have lust. Of course, you have to control them, but if you’re made to feel guilty for being human, then you’re going to be trapped in a never-ending sin-and-repent cycle that you can’t escape from.

Manson speaks of the depths of human depravity, but his perspective on it all is just as depraved. For, indeed, we don’t delight in sin, because it ruins us. The best Jeep Wrangler is one without scratches, and our humanity is the same way. The problem with Manson’s thinking above is that he believes sin is somehow integral to what it means to be human. Sin may be a reality, something which sullies the present human condition, but that’s all it is.  Sin is a blight; it’s not who men and women were meant to be.

Advent is restorative therapy for our mangled souls. Escaping from cycles of sin and vice is impossible on our own, but the message of Advent is the coming grace of the Word, the grace of Jesus Christ. Faith in God’s providence can be had. Chastity is possible. We can live divine charity. We can grow in grace and virtue. But only if we open our hearts to cooperate with the work God can do in us.

Image: Jeep Wrangler

Categories: Dominican Vocations

Did the Virgin Mary Tickle the Baby Jesus?

12/10/2014 - 7:30am

When you picture Mary holding the Christ-child, what do you imagine her doing? Gazing into his eyes? Nursing him? Just holding him close? Thanks to the new Picturing Mary exhibit at D.C.’s National Museum of Women in the Arts, you can add another loving mother-son activity: tickles.

This magnificent exhibit of Renaissance and Baroque depictions of Mary covers all the familiar Marian topics, from standard Madonna-and-Child images, to crucifixion scenes, to Mary’s role in Christian life, etc. Amid all that splendor the curators have tucked away two little gems, Andrea Pisano’s bas-relief Madonna and Child (1340) and the painter known only—and promisingly—as the Master of the Winking Eyes’ tempera on the same theme (c.1450). What makes these images so striking—besides the winking eyes—is that, judging from their postures, facial expressions, and hand positions, Jesus seems to be fighting a losing battle against an onslaught of motherly tickles.

Bred as we are among the mountains of solemn and prayerful images of Mary presenting the Christ-child for our adoration, can these artists be allowed the license of depicting Mary and Jesus in such an ecstasy of whimsy? Ought the Orthodoxy Police haul them to prison for their outrageous presumption in showing the infant God-man choking with delight? Yes, we know that the Son of God became man, that he ate, slept, walked, was crucified, died—all these human things we see in the Gospels. These mostly seem fair enough for artistic presentation (although you’ll never find a representation of Jesus eating), but being caught in a fit of filial giggles? Surely this is beneath the divine dignity.

Master of the Winking Eyes, Madonna and Child (Madonna col Bambino), ca. 1450; Tempera and gold on wood panel, 23 1/8 × 15 1/4 in.; Grimaldi Fava Collection

Master of the Winking Eyes, Madonna and Child (Madonna col Bambino), ca. 1450; Tempera and gold on wood panel, 23 1/8 × 15 1/4 in.; Grimaldi Fava Collection

Happily, Pisano and the Master of the Winking Eyes have discovered and shared with us the divine intoxication of God’s true humanity in Jesus Christ, and how radically complete and all-the-way-down that is. When the Word was made flesh, he really became like us in all things but sin; and even then, he took on our sinful nature without suffering its moral brokenness in order to purify, heal, and elevate it, so that through his life, death, and resurrection, every good thing humans do can be a place where they meet Christ. That means that Jesus is as human as it gets: he got exhausted, took naps (although he had nowhere to lay his head), took baths, trimmed his beard, learned to walk and talk, and, as little babies are wont to do, squealed and squirmed with joy during mother-son playtime.

Naturally, not all of the human acts of Jesus are fitting subjects for artistic display, but I think there’s something remarkably liberating about the way that Pisano and the Master of the Winking Eyes offer praise to God by showing the baby King of the Universe getting tickled by the one whom the Father will crown the Queen of Heaven. I’ve spoken elsewhere about why Jesus is never depicted as laughing in the Gospels, and why that’s no reason to insist that Jesus never laughed tout court. Art like these two rare images—neither of which has ever been on American soil before, by the way—enables the beholder to experience in a dim but real way the splendor of Christ’s perfect joy that is constantly hidden in plain sight in the Gospel texts. We can laugh with the giggling, writhing Christ-child because we know that this be-tickled body is the same body that he will offer freely out of love to go hungry, to walk all up and down Israel, to preach the good news, to heal the sick and the blind, to suffer injustice, to be scourged, to be crucified, to die. The same body that is Jesus’ on the cross is on display in these two lovely images; the same humanity is what makes both possible. And in the resurrection, this same body, this same humanity, has risen from the dead and has become all humanity’s path to heaven.

All this, ultimately, is why Pisano and the Master of the Winking eyes have given us a perfect gift for Advent (and, since the exhibit is continuing from December 5, 2014, to April 12, 2015, a perfect Lenten gift, too): they show us that by adoring the God-man in his divine humanity, we are taught how to see him as he is; we are taught to understand the perpetual gift of love that he offers to God every moment of his life; we are taught that the adorable babe we await at Christmas is the same true God and true man who will suffer and die on the cross and be raised on the third day; and we are taught that this same too-ticklish flesh is now reigning forever at God’s right hand in heaven. So I say thanks to these two great artists, and to the National Museum of Women in the Arts for bringing them stateside.

Image: Andrea Pisano, Madonna and Child (Madonna col Bambino), 1340; Carved marble with majolica, 33 × 34 in.; Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence; inv. 2005/407

Both images courtesy of the National Museum of Women in the Arts

Categories: Dominican Vocations

Guilty Pleasure and Peaceful Leisure

12/09/2014 - 7:30am

We all struggle with it, at some level. No matter how much we tell ourselves that we are going to be diligent workers and focus on the task at hand, there remains the temptation to set aside our work and indulge in a more immediately rewarding activity: guilty pleasure. But there is something distinct about this kind of distraction that can make it all the more tantalizing. Now, guilty pleasure can be said in different ways. I’m not talking about the I-know-I’m-a-dude-but-I-really-like-Taylor-Swift’s-new-song guilty pleasure, but the I-have-a-lot-of-work-to-do-but-I-really-want-to-take-a-break-and-do-something-else-that-I-enjoy guilty pleasure. While petty and often mind-numbing distractions, such as surfing the web instead of the Summa or writing blog-posts instead of papers, provide little fulfillment, we tend to identify some of our guilty pleasures with activities that produce something more substantive, something like happiness.

Whether it entails running an extra mile or two, or baking a tray of cookies while avoiding other work, we still feel like we have accomplished something after we have engaged in these sorts of diversions. And yet, there remains that killjoy lurking in the shadows throughout these supposed moments of leisure. Even when we indulge ourselves with alternative activities, telling ourselves that a break from work is needed, that respite can prove to be more of a burden. Rather than re-energizing us for more focused and productive work, it often drains us of our motivation to accomplish the task at hand.

But, you might object, we can’t always be working! And you would be right. We are not robots, nor are we angels. We have physical bodies that get worn out and need to rest from time to time. However, when that break is ill-timed and becomes a source of distraction from the task at hand, the peaceful nature of that rest is destroyed as the disturbing annoyance of guilt sets in. Sure, I really feel refreshed after a chat with the brother down the hall, but I still have my reading to do and my paper won’t write itself on its own.

When I was in college, a few friends and I formed a group called the Guilty Pleasure Club, which we ironically formed for this express purpose. The group’s activities usually consisted in watching portions of a BBC miniseries in the midst of the semester, at which time we had papers and problem sets to complete or, at the very least, parties and mixers to attend. Such scandalous behavior was the basis for our identification of the group’s activity as guilty pleasure. Each time and often to our chagrin, the work we had put off prior to our activities was there to welcome us again. Especially if our sessions were ill-timed, we would find that our attempts to unwind and rejuvenate had only led to heightened pressure and perhaps panic, as we frantically tried to work up the motivation to complete our term-papers and problem sets.

While such activity may have been harmless in itself, or even good as a form of rest and relaxation, it did not produce much good fruit. The problem was that, while the substance of our activity was fine, typically the circumstances and sometimes even the intentions were not. Taking a few hours’ break in order to give our minds a chance to rest can be a good thing. However, it is no longer a good thing when that break occurs the night before a deadline and a significant portion of work remains undone. The problem was even more obvious when we meant only to put-off our work, rather than seek to rest for the sake of our work.

In these cases, what kept our guilty pleasure from being forms of peaceful leisure was our failure to organize our breaks so that they did not get in the way of our work. In a more Thomistic turn of phrase, we did not properly order our breaks to the proper ends; we needed rest in order to better accomplish our assignments, but instead we were taking breaks in order to avoid that work. As a result, instead of being able to fully enjoy our breaks, we noticed that these moments of respite were marred by the nagging sense that we should have been doing other work at those times. On the other hand, in the few cases we had successfully planned our meetings in actual moments of free time, we found that we much better enjoyed ourselves and felt more rejuvenated.

Ultimately, our final goal is the eternal rest and bliss of heaven, and so the consummate guilty pleasures are those that distract and lead us away from this end. As a result of our fallen natures, we unfortunately can delight in our sins, even though they entail separation from our true happiness. One of the challenges of the Christian life entails learning to deny ourselves these pleasures, not for the sake of mortification in itself, but for the sake of attaining the truest happiness. As such, we can turn to the right pleasures on earth, for our deepest satisfaction is found in activities that authentically build us up now and for the life to come. Though this final rest cannot be found in this life, we can enjoy rewarding peace when our much-needed breaks and pleasurable pursuits aim to help us achieve our final goal. In this way, our guilty pleasure can become peaceful leisure.

Image: Benjamin Constant, Contemplation

Categories: Dominican Vocations

Interview for New Album

12/08/2014 - 7:30am

Dominicana Audio sat down with Fr. James Moore, O.P., Br. Vincent Ferrer Bagan, O.P., and Br. Innocent Smith, O.P., to discuss the new album from the Schola Cantorum, Ave Maria: Dominican Chant for the Immaculate Conception. This interview features excerpts of the chants from Ave Maria, discussion of the role of beauty in preaching, as well as commentary on the music, its place in the prayer life of the friars, and the work of recording the album. For more information about previewing and ordering the album, see dominicanablog.com/records.

 

Image: Cover Art, Ave Maria: Dominican Chant for the Immaculate Conception

Categories: Dominican Vocations

The Missionaries of Charity: Loving Jesus in Our Neighbor

12/05/2014 - 7:30am

This is the fifth post in a five-part series marking the opening of the Year of Consecrated Life.

In my second semester here at the House of Studies, I had the opportunity to work with the Missionaries of Charity at their house in Anacostia, just outside DC.

On one of my visits, there were various families from the neighborhood gathered for an Easter party. I went to the kitchen and asked one of the sisters what I could do to help. She looked at me, standing there in my Dominican habit, and said, “You’re a Dominican. Preach to them!”

Another day, I came to their soup kitchen. How was I to help? The sisters asked me to pray the rosary with the homeless men gathered in the hall. Were they Catholic? No. Some of them weren’t even Christians. The sisters didn’t find this relevant. “Go give them rosaries and pray the rosary with them,” I was told. So I did. We prayed the rosary together, me and twenty non-Catholics.

At the end of the year, as a kind of review (according to the protocol of our training for priestly ministry), I asked the superior of their house if there were any concerns she had about me as a candidate for the priesthood. She seemed puzzled. I tried to explain. “So, since I’m studying for the priesthood, my ministry supervisor would like to know if you have any concerns about me as a potential future priest.” She didn’t need much time to think up an answer. “You should be ordained as soon as possible!” she replied. Her logic was clear: We need priests. You’re an unmarried Catholic man. Let’s get you ordained!

Each of these memories sticks in my head as typifying the Missionaries’ approach to ministry. What is that approach? Simply put, they’re for real. They take loving Jesus really seriously. They search the globe looking for those places that stand out like sores on a body, and when they find them, they go there and wash them. And this is done with the kind of no-nonsense attitude which makes it possible to serve in the most downtrodden of places. While most of us spend our time trying to think up creative ways to love our neighbor, the MC’s just move in and do it.

Because of this characteristic, the Missionaries of Charity help keep all of us on target. Whatever our walk in life, they help us to remember that charity really is what it’s all about, and that we can love Jesus by loving our neighbor.

All religious are called to wake up the world, to remind the world of the important things in life. Carthusians do this by living lives of contemplation, reminding us of our supernatural calling to intimate union with God. My Dominican brothers and I aspire to do this by preaching the Gospel to the world.

The Missionaries of Charity do the same thing in their particular way. But because they have chosen the most tangible of ways to love their neighbor, they serve as a particularly tangible sign. Seeing them, I am reminded of what Christ’s love for me looks like. Seeing them, I am reminded that my own life is supposed to be an expression of love, and that that love has to be for real, not just an idea. Seeing them, I am reminded that a life of love entails big-time sacrifices, but that it also brings joy.

Whatever it is that we do, the Missionaries of Charity remind us: it is nothing if it has not love.

Image: Tânia Rego, Missionaries of Charity during the World Youth Day (WYD) in Rio

Categories: Dominican Vocations

Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam

12/04/2014 - 7:30am

This is the fourth post in a five-part series marking the opening of the Year of Consecrated Life.

God has greatly blessed the Church through the Society of Jesus. Since its founding by St. Ignatius Loyola in 1540, the Society of Jesus has arguably been the most influential religious order in the Church. The Jesuits have given the world some of the greatest scholars, missionaries, and preachers to ever live. Furthermore, much of modern Catholic thought and practice has developed from Jesuit spirituality. The Jesuit charism has helped shape how religious life is understood today. Through understanding the particular graces God has given the world through the Jesuits, we can all learn how to become more faithful Christians.

One sign of a true charism is that holiness is continually found throughout the history of an order, rather than just the particular witness of a charismatic founder. The Jesuits exemplify this. They have given the Church great saints throughout the centuries and continue to do so to this day. From St. Ignatius and St. Francis Xavier, to St. Edmund Campion and St. Robert Bellarmine, to modern exemplars like St. Alberto Hurtado and St. Jose Maria Rubio, the Jesuit charism has continuously formed great men in service for the Church.

At Boston College (a Jesuit university), four Latin quotations adorn the portals of the central rotunda of the main building. They read “Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam,” “Quis Ut Deus,” “Mater Dei est Mater Mea,” and “Quid Hoc Aeternitatem.” These four phrases exemplify the graces St. Ignatius brought into the world, as well as what the Society of Jesus can teach us. Let us look at each in turn:

Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam – For the Greater Glory of God: This is the defining Jesuit motto and character. If we do not live to know, love, and serve the Lord, then our lives lack meaning. Religious life should orient the lives of those bound by its form to live life completely for God. The Society of Jesus reminds us that all of our actions should flow from Him and be directed back to Him.

Quis Ut Deus – Who Is Like God: This phrase, a literal translation of the name of St. Michael, reminds the religious that nothing should distract us from our service to God. Many things present themselves as goods in opposition to God. However, as St. Michael told Lucifer, and as the Jesuit charism reminds us, nothing should be sought outside of God Himself. Moreover, this phrase reminds us of the goal of religious life: striving to be like God by growing, through his grace, in holiness.

Mater Dei est Mater Mea – The Mother of God is my Mother: This saying is a personal favorite of mine. Our Mother in Heaven is a powerful intercessor, the Mediatrix of all graces. Religious life must be lived with a special affinity and affection for our Heavenly Mother. The Jesuits remind us of this in a special way with their own devotion and fidelity to Mary.

Quid Hoc Aeternitatem – What Does this Matter for Eternity: The professed religious must always keep his focus on eternal life. Our vows free us to focus more profoundly on the things of God. Religious life means nothing if it is not directed to the salvation of the souls of its members. The Society of Jesus, with its focus on finding Christ in all things, exemplifies the value in giving up all things in order to serve Christ more faithfully.

The Jesuit charism has much to offer aspiring Dominican Preachers. Radical fidelity to the Church, devotion to Mary, and a commitment to the apostolic life express the Jesuit charism. These three things should also define and inform the Dominican way of life, and our preaching for the salvation of souls ultimately redounds to the greater glory of God.

I personally owe much to the Jesuit order. I graduated from both a Jesuit high school and a Jesuit college. It was at these institutions that I was first exposed to religious life. Through these interactions, I became drawn to the living out of the evangelical counsels. I, and countless others, have been drawn to following Christ more fully because of the graces God has given the world through the Society of Jesus.

Image: Peter Paul Rubens, St. Ignatius of Loyola

Categories: Dominican Vocations

Vita Franciscana

12/03/2014 - 7:30am

This is the third post in a five-part series marking the opening of the Year of Consecrated Life.

When, on that fateful day in 1205, Francis of Assisi impulsively gave away his luxurious clothes to a poor soldier, the man who would become the world’s most revered saint opened his life–his very heart and will–to a series of divine interventions. God would pour grace upon grace into the vagabond beggar of Assisi, and through him offer the Church one of her most extraordinary witnesses of Christian discipleship.

I understand that I’m in the minority here, but I was always kinda nervous about St. Francis. I know, I know… He’s probably the best-loved saint in Christendom, and I just said he makes me a little uneasy. But here’s why: the thing about truly holy men and women is that they’re totally unpredictable. Because they’re given completely over to the designs of the Holy Spirit, you never know what’s going to happen around them. Thus St. Francis, about whom there are stories of erratically repairing a dilapidated church, throwing himself on thorn bushes, venturing to the Holy Land during the middle of a war to try and convert a Muslim caliph, and spontaneously casting off his clothes.

Christ Crucified

Yet it is out of the life of St. Francis that the essential marks of Franciscan spirituality can be discerned (though, we should note, the brothers and sisters who give their lives following in Francis’ footsteps–even down to our own day–inevitably lend their own, subsequent contributions!). We can reasonably say a fundamental mark of Franciscan spirituality is a compelling Christocentricity. For St. Francis, it’s all about Jesus. When he embraces the mysterious leper, St. Francis cradles Christ, despised and scorned (Isa. 53:3).

The crucified Christ calls St. Francis three times from the San Damiano cross, “Francis, go, rebuild my church.” St. Anthony of Padua, noble son of Francis would later preach: “Christ stands in the middle of every heart; he stands in the middle, as the axis, so that from himself all the lines of grace may emanate to us, we who are on the circumference, who revolve around him and walk about him” (Sermones dominicales et in solemnitatibus, in octava Paschae). So marked by Christ was Francis that he would literally bear the wounds of Jesus on his own body. St. Bonaventure writes, recalling the moment when St. Francis received the stigmata (the wounds of the crucifixion), “that angelic man…descended from the mountain [La Verna, Alverna] carrying with him an image of the crucified, not handmade on tablets of stone or wood, but inscribed in the members of his flesh by the finger of the Living God.” Devotions to Christ, such as the Christ child in Nativity scenes or the Stations of the Cross, have been handed down through the centuries, marking the Franciscan way of life.

Because of the closeness in ideals and mission of St. Dominic and St. Francis, Dominicans refer to the beloved saint of Assisi as “our holy Father Francis.” His witness reminds us that our mission is always to preach “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2).

Love of Lady Poverty

St. Francis, and his sons and daughters, possess a radical love of poverty. For the Franciscan soul, simplicity of life is simply a must. In this way, Franciscan life imitates Christ, the poor one who is Lord. Il serafico poverello (the seraphic poor man, i.e. St. Francis) dearly loved Lady Poverty. In fact, legend has it, St. Francis once replied to friends (who were teasing him about his new way of life, asking if he ever intended to marry), “yes, a fairer bride than any of you have ever seen” (Sg 5:9). The organic development of the Franciscan Order posed many complications as to how poverty would be lived, even forcing adaptations to Francis’ ideal. Nevertheless, the substance of poverty–Queen of the Friars Minor–holds pride of place in Franciscan life and prayer. I get anxious when the fridge looks on the empty side or when I don’t have money to pay for something, but the Franciscans I know delight in these moments. Crying “God will provide,” they bound ever onward, and, you know, they’re never disappointed.

St. Francis reminds us of the crucified Christ, concerning whom we preach that “though he was rich, yet for [our] sake [he] became poor” (2 Cor 8:9), and so we should have a special love for the poor.

The Goodness of Creation

In my more misanthropic moments, I can fall prey to the temptation to reduce St. Francis to a tie-dye-wearing, tree-hugging, flower child. No saint is greater honored in gardens, nor is any saint depicted so often accompanied by animals that look like they fell out of a Disney cartoon and were turned to stone. Furthermore (that’s right, I’ve chosen to further incriminate myself), the legends of the life of St. Francis–one of which is called the Fioretti or ‘little flowers’–pass on stories of St. Francis preaching to the birds and “brother wolf.” Even St. Francis’ famed hymn, the Canticle of the Sun, anthropomorphizes the world, singing of “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon.” It’s almost too much for my little realist (stoney?) heart to bear…

The fact of the matter is, however, that the goodness of creation does need to be sung. Dangerous heresies of times past, like the teaching of the Manichees or their 13th-century heirs, the Albigensians, have preached the depravity of nature and the dangers of the world. The Franciscan love of creation ardently contests such faulty thinking, praising goodness wherever it is to be found. Linked with Francis’ warning about the danger of sin (his Canticle sings, “Woe to those who die in mortal sin!”) and with his love of sinners, exemplified in his desire to do penance, the Franciscan view presents a glorious harmony between the mystical body of Christ and the nobility of what God Himself has made.

St. Francis reminds us Dominicans that the Christ we preach one day “will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body” (Phil 3:21).

For the Church

Today Franciscans distinguish themselves by offering the Church a remarkable witness of the Evangelical life, particularly in their service to the poor. The Holy Father himself took the name “Francis” because in the conclave a cardinal said to him, “Jorge, remember the poor!” Soup kitchens, inner-city parishes, healthcare ministries, schools with generous scholarships: these couldn’t contrast more starkly with the shadows of the world today. The Franciscans care for many of the sites of the Holy Land (including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre) and contribute widely to Catholic scholarship and education. Ultimately, the Franciscan life, witnessing joy and hope, touches those forgotten ones as only one radically given over to Christ can.

Image: El Greco, St. Francis Meditating

Categories: Dominican Vocations

Carmelite Spirituality: A Vocation to Love

12/02/2014 - 7:30am

This is the second post in a five-part series marking the opening of the Year of Consecrated Life.

“What your child is coming to do is to reveal to you what she feels, or, to be more exact, what her God, in the hours of profound recollection, of unifying contact, makes her understand” (Bl. Elizabeth of the Trinity, “Let Yourself Be Loved”). This “unifying contact” that Bl. Elizabeth of the Trinity speaks of is at the heart of the Carmelite vocation. Just as Elijah heard the “still small voice” on Mt. Carmel, Carmelites seek God in hours of silent prayer and recollection, hoping that He will draw them ever more deeply into loving union with Him.

Carmelite Origins

The Carmelite life takes many forms. Its tradition traces the order’s lineage back to the prophet Elijah himself, but most historians agree that the order, while taking inspiration from Elijah and other ancient hermits on Mt. Carmel, began in the mid-1100s. Originally the Carmelites were a strict, eremitical community of men. In the mid- to late 1200s, however, repeated Saracen attacks forced the brothers to depart Mt. Carmel and settle in other lands. A couple of groups settled in Europe and became mendicants. Led most notably by St. Simon Stock, they took up residence at many universities and devoted themselves to study and the active life while maintaining an ascetical and contemplative dimension. A couple of centuries after the order arrived in Europe, several groups of women asked the Prior General to become affiliated with the order. He gave them the rule and constitutions and organized them into monasteries. In the 1500s, the reforms of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross led to the establishment of the Discalced Carmelites for both the nuns and the friars. Today this twofold organization of the Carmelites – the Order of Carmel (a.k.a. the Ancient Observance or O. Carm.) and the Order of Discalced Carmelites (O.C.D.) – still exists. For the women, in addition to monastic communities, there are now communities of active sisters who undertake such apostolates as caring for the elderly or teaching children. More recently there have also been communities of hermits organized, both men’s and women’s, which follow more closely the original Carmelite way of life. They are under the authority of the Prior General of the O. Carms. Lay men and women can join the Carmelites by becoming members of the Third Order.

A Vocation to Love

St. John the Apostle said in his first epistle that “God is love.” The mission of the Carmelites is to let this Love permeate the entirety of their being, conforming them to Himself. They also share in Love’s thirst for souls and recommend the rest of us in the Church to Him. St. Therese of Lisieux is one Carmelite saint who epitomized this sort of life. She once expressed an interest in and desire for a myriad of vocations and all of their great works. She finally recognized, however, that all of her desires could be satisfied in leading to the fullest the life of charity to which all Christians are called. She summed up her vocation as a Carmelite nun in these words: “O Jesus, my Love, at last I have found my vocation, my vocation is Love! … In the heart of the Church, my Mother, I will be Love! … Thus I shall be all things: thus my dream shall be realized!” St. Therese was able to focus singularly on perfection in this loving union with God and so served as an example and a source of encouragement and strength for the rest of the Church. In doing so, she took her cue from her venerable Carmelite forbears.  St. John of the Cross, for example, had written centuries earlier that “an instant of pure love is more precious in the eyes of God … and more profitable to the Church, than all other good works together, though it may seem as if nothing were done.”

Carmelite Spirituality

Carmelite spirituality has a few well-known characteristics. The first is that it is thoroughly Marian. Throughout their history, Carmelites have had an intense devotion to the Mother of God under the title of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. As part of this, they promote the popular devotion of wearing the Brown Scapular which Our Lady gave to St. Simon Stock as a sign of favor and protection. Secondly, Carmelites are renowned for their mysticism. When they arrived at the universities of Europe, the friars wedded their knowledge of God gained in their experience of the eremitical life to the science of theology, especially as taught in the school of St. Thomas Aquinas. The mystical theology that resulted has been and continues to be a great boon to the Church. It of course aided and in turn was aided by the great mystics of the order who have already been mentioned. St. Teresa of Avila, who wrote such spiritual masterpieces as The Interior Castle and The Way of Perfection, and St. John of the Cross, whose works include The Ascent of Mount Carmel and The Dark Night of the Soul, have led countless followers to a deeper union with God through their insights into prayer, contemplation, the states of the soul and its acts and experiences. Carmelite spirituality is also very ascetical. Mortifications and penances are undertaken to free the soul from attachments to whatever is not God. Reading about these can often make the Carmelite life seem harsh and joyless, but Carmelites are frequently noted for their deep and abiding sense of joy. It is a natural result of focusing on and achieving union with the Highest Good and Ultimate End of life.

Mutual Edification

The Carmelite masters benefited much from the teaching and influence of Dominicans as noted above.  I think Dominicans in turn can benefit from the example of the union of knowledge and love that the great Carmelites have set. The two orders have many things in common. A focus on contemplation, the theology of St. Thomas, and Marian devotion are just a few of them. At times, though, the Dominican emphasis on the intellect can overlook the role of experience and the affections in the spiritual life. Learning about the Carmelite life can help spur us on to pursue unifying contact of the whole of man with the Divine.

Image: St. Simon Stock, Carmelite Saints Chapel

Categories: Dominican Vocations

Benedictine Benedictions

12/01/2014 - 7:30am

This is the first post in a five-part series marking the opening of the Year of Consecrated Life.

Benedictine Learning

In the year 529, St. Benedict laid the foundation for his monastery at Monte Cassino. In the same year, Plato’s academy was shut down. The light of learning passed from Greek hands to communities of monks to be kept burning through the dark ages ahead.

Benedictines are widely known for preserving the Catholic written tradition through the early medieval era. Monasteries were oases of learning, where texts were copied and preserved in the scriptoriums, and where the young were sent for their schooling. This model led in turn to developing cathedral schools and eventually the great universities of Europe. It is hard to imagine what the Catholic Church would be like today without the role of the Benedictine preservation of wisdom. Yet while this may be one of the Order’s greatest fruits, it’s not the only one.

Benedict the Founder

St. Benedict lived at the convergence of two eras. The age of martyrdom had ended 200 years previously, giving rise to a new radical way of living for God – monasticism. The word in its original Greek, monasterion, has for its root monos, meaning “alone.” The suffix sterion implies a place for living. The monastic movement, begun in the deserts of Egypt, blossomed into a spiritually competitive culture, each man trying to outdo the other in a whole host of sometimes mysterious ascetical practices – standing on poles, long-term fasting, and the like. Even when these men lived in community, the goal of desert common life was independence. It was the beginners who lived together, hoping to reach an advanced stage, where they were ready to journey out to the wilderness alone.

Like some of his forerunners, St. Benedict had a different vision. Men joined Benedict’s monastery not to be trained in holiness and then depart for solitude, but rather to achieve a holy solitude all the while in the midst of the community. After several attempts at establishing this life with varying degrees of success, St. Benedict founded the monastery at Monte Cassino, where at last he wrote his now famous Rule of life, which would lay the groundwork for a balanced and sustainable model of monasticism for ages to come.

Benedictine Lessons

While the evangelical counsels (poverty, chastity, and obedience) are common to all religious orders, each community understands them differently in light of its particular charism. Benedictines profess stability, conversion of life, and obedience (which includes chastity and poverty). The vow of stability, as one writer puts it, teaches us that “God is not elsewhere.” Our attention may be pulled in every direction by this fast-paced world of ours, but Benedict teaches us that if we want to find God in this world, sometimes we have to stay put. Only when we stop, when we make time for silence, can we learn to listen in silence before God and before our neighbor. This leads to the second vow, conversion of life. For we are converted whenever we grow close to something as great as God. And what is that conversion, that change in us? Humility. Finally, obedience is a part of our life whether we like it or not. In our lives we are always subject to someone, whether it’s a boss at work or calling our mother on her birthday. Benedict says, though, that one needs a spiritual father. Only when we’re obedient to a truly holy person can our own prayer life take off.

There are two further lessons unique to Benedict which we can learn today. The first is from the motto of his Order, Ora et Labora (Prayer and Work). For Benedictines, the two are intertwined, as they begin in the chapel and the kitchen with the same invocation: “O God come to my assistance, O Lord make haste to help me.” On the one hand, prayer is a sort of work. They “clock in” at different hours of the day to pray the psalms, and they spend a required amount of time in Lectio Divina (prayerfully reading Scripture) every day, to “plow the soil of the heart.” Prayer may at times be beautiful and fulfilling. It’s best when it’s consistent. On the other hand, Benedict prescribed work to his brothers. This was a) for their own sustenance and the feeding of the poor, and b) to keep the brothers from idleness. How much do we see our own work aimed at supporting our own family and the poor? And how much do we see it as keeping us from idleness? Our work may not consist in baking bread or tending beehives, but Benedict reminds us that all work can be made into a holy activity.

The second lesson is hospitality. “All guests that come to the monastery should be received like Christ” (Rule, 53.1). Benedict himself had learned from his twin sister, Scholastica (see story here), that God delights in hospitality to guests. I knew an old priest whose last words were, “We don’t realize the blessing we have in each other. Mary visited Elizabeth. Love grows when we visit one another.” We may not always feel that love grows with every visitor, but we’re called to treat them that way. Each knock on the door is an invitation to the virtue of hospitality.

Benedict and the Dominican Order

The Benedictine life has influenced the Dominican Order in numerous ways. St. Thomas Aquinas, one of our greatest saints, spent nearly a decade as an oblate at Monte Cassino. The Benedictine practice of Lectio Divina is one of the forms of prayer enshrined in our own Constitutions. Their preservation of learning made possible the rise of the universities, the original setting for much Dominican ministry. Perhaps most importantly, though, the Benedictines remind us that sanctity is never a solo affair. As noted in the Rule that we Dominicans follow, the Rule of St. Augustine, “The chief motivation for your sharing life together is to live harmoniously in the house and to have one heart and one soul seeking God.” Through the intercession of this holy founder of Western monasticism, may we all encourage one another to grow in holiness, so that all may be one (John 17:21).

Image: Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P., St. Benedict

Categories: Dominican Vocations

Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation

11/28/2014 - 7:30am

In celebration of this Thanksgiving weekend, we have reprinted below a 1789 proclamation of George Washington. More information on it can be found here. Although Black Friday has begun, may we not forget to continue our days in gratitude and recollection before God. And may we continue to pray for our nation, ever mindful of the many blessings the Lord has bestowed upon us.

The Editors

 

Thanksgiving Proclamation

Issued by President George Washington, at the request of Congress, on October 3, 1789

By the President of the United States of America, a Proclamation.

Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor; and—Whereas both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested me “to recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness:”

Now, therefore, I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal and manifold mercies and the favorable interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquillity, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed; for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted; for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and, in general, for all the great and various favors which He has been pleased to confer upon us.

And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations, and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions; to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually; to render our National Government a blessing to all the people by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed; to protect and guide all sovereigns and nations (especially such as have shown kindness to us), and to bless them with good governments, peace, and concord; to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us; and, generally, to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as He alone knows to be best.

Given under my hand at the City of New York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789.

Go. Washington

 

Image: Charles Willson Peale, George Washington

Categories: Dominican Vocations

Wishing Everyone a Happy Eucharistia

11/27/2014 - 7:30am

From its beginning, the Christian faith understood itself as the fulfillment of the Jewish faith, the new and everlasting covenant that God established with man in order to draw all things to himself through Jesus Christ. Jesus instituted the Eucharist, the “source and summit of the Christian life” (Vatican II, Lumen gentium 11), at the traditional Jewish Passover meal with his Apostles on Holy Thursday. The Feast of Passover was a rich cultural context, within which the Jewish people were introduced to the significance of what Christ would do in the Eucharist. Passover recalled God’s saving intervention on behalf of his people to bring them forth out of slavery in Egypt. Several Fathers of the early church saw this as a foreshadowing of God’s salvation of all mankind from slavery to sin. Additionally, the Israelite people were protected by the blood of a lamb, which, as St. Paul points out, foreshadowed the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ, “our Passover lamb” (1 Cor. 5:7). Over the course of salvation history, God, in his wisdom, had prepared a people and developed a culture that conveyed truths about God that were immediately recognized by the Jewish people, but that also pointed toward a deeper and more profound truth – one that was revealed in Jesus Christ.

The Passover is a cultural touchstone par excellence by which to understand the sacrificial nature of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Yet while the Jewish people were uniquely chosen and prepared by the Lord, there are rituals and celebrations embedded within many cultures that can be useful for understanding various truths of our faith. Today, in the United States, we celebrate another meal, Thanksgiving dinner, a uniquely American feast with its own historical context and meaning. From childhood, we hear that when our European ancestors came to the New World they faced sickness and food shortage, but God intervened to save them from starvation through the generosity of Native Americans, who shared their food and showed the early settlers how to live off the land. In celebration of God’s goodness to our forerunners, we annually celebrate Thanksgiving Day, when we gather with family around a feast and give thanks for all of our blessings.

As the Jewish Passover meal highlights the sacrificial nature of the Mass, I propose that our own Thanksgiving feast provides an American cultural reference to help us understand the celebratory and unitive aspects of the Mass.

First, there is the name itself. St. Paul uses a form of the word eucharistia when he describes Jesus’ institution of the Eucharist: “And when he had given thanks (Greek: eucharistésas or “eucharisted”), he broke it, and said, ‘This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me’” (1 Cor 11:24). By the end of the first century the Mass came to be known as the Eucharist. “Now as regards the Eucharist, give thanks after this manner…” (Didache 9:1). The Greek word eucharistia, which we translate Eucharist, means “giving thanks.” As we are reminded at every Mass, it is right and just to give thanks to the Lord our God.

Second, sharing a meal unites people in a certain communion. Far more than most meals, our Thanksgiving feast draws people from across the country to travel long distances to come together with their families, to share in a greater common unity. This is a step toward understanding the way in which the Eucharist brings us into a holy communion with God and with each other, or as the Catechism says, “communion in the divine life and the unity of the people of God” (CCC 1325). The Eucharistic feast is meant to unite all of humanity in Jesus Christ as sons and daughters of God. Like Thanksgiving dinner, the Eucharist brings together family – God’s family.

Third, as we give thanks to God for all that he has given us, this gratitude naturally overflows into generosity. We consider it a normal part of Thanksgiving to see churches, food pantries, and other local groups sharing with those in need, aware themselves that all that we have, we have received from God. Beyond material provisions there is a desire to share Thanksgiving itself. In a similar way, after we are nourished at Mass from the twofold table of the Word and the Eucharist, we want to share this thanksgiving, this eucharistia, with others.

The people of God are sent forth from Mass with the words, “Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord.” As D.T. Niles said, “Evangelization is just one beggar showing another beggar where to find bread.” Specifically, it is sharing the bread for which every human soul hungers, the Bread of Life, Jesus Christ.

And, feasting on this bread, our thanksgiving extends from the present into eternity. In the Book of Revelation we hear of a great multitude praising God in heaven: “It is in this eternal liturgy that the Spirit and the Church enable us to participate whenever we celebrate the mystery of salvation in the sacraments” (CCC 1139).

As we celebrate our Thanksgiving feast today, may we thank God for the Eucharistic feast to which he invites us in every Mass, where even now we participate in the eternal thanksgiving of the blessed in heaven. May we also, in a spirit of thanksgiving, go forth to invite as many people as possible, to join us in our eucharistia, so that we may be joined together with the great multitude of God’s family, enjoying the heavenly feast of the Lamb for all eternity.

Image: The First Thanksgiving

Categories: Dominican Vocations

“Papa Go Sleep, Papa Go See Jesus”

11/26/2014 - 7:30am

“Papa Go Sleep, Papa Go See Jesus”

This is what my two-year-old nephew Gabriel said when my sister and brother-in-law brought him to the casket at my grandfather’s funeral. Shortly after saying one last goodbye to his dear “Papa,” Gabe, in a bolt of energy began to run around the room of the funeral home, almost with reckless abandon. From one side to the other, he ran freely, as every child is compelled to do. Occasionally, he would stop and grab some attention from the family and friends present before continuing on his merry two-year-old way. There was a life and joy within Gabe that day.

In contrast, I was at a wake for my grandfather. As I knelt before the casket, looking upon my “Papa” one last time and praying for him, I couldn’t help but think of Gabe and what he said.  At only two years old, Gabe didn’t understand the concept of death. For an energetic two year old there is no such thing as death – there is only life. Even when it seems that things stop and change, it is just one more step in the timeline of life. For Gabe, even if he couldn’t fully grasp it, our Papa’s death was a new step, pointing toward a new way of life.

As family and friends spoke kind words of consolation, saying things like, “I’m sorry for your loss,” and, “He was a good man,” all I could think about was the end which Gabe alluded to: my Papa was going to see Jesus. With that, the beauty of it all dawned on me. We were in a place that most would recognize as sad and somber, and yet Gabe in his innocence of heart recognized the truth of it all and what we are made for.

So many people have a great fear of death because the only life they know is the one that they have created for themselves. Death disrupts this life. They have decided what their life is going to be like, what they are going to pursue, how they are going to prioritize, and it is for no one else to determine its ends and means. They think they are in control, but when death’s dark hand comes knocking, they frighten and realize how little control they actually had. The life they have created will be snatched from them in an instant, and some would rather take their own life, rather than see all that they have created be taken away. Death comes and conquers their lives. There is no triumph here, only capitulation. So they are scared, and rightfully so.

Yet, I was amazed at the sign Gabe was for everyone in that funeral home. As the body of my grandfather laid quietly in its casket Gabe ran with life. Gabe’s running was an image of true Christian death, where life is changed, not ended. Eternal rest is not so much a deep and peaceful sleep, but a fullness of life in every aspect: it is life with Jesus. Life is what we are made for. We find death unnatural and repugnant because in our very core, in our very being, we know it is foreign to us. And to its face, unlike so many, Gabe said “no.” In so few words, Gabe really said to us, “See! Go see the Lord and run with Him! Go see the Lord and you will have life!” Death has no gain, death has no victory, death has no triumph. The only triumph of death is the life of our Savior because in His death life is given to us, here and hereafter, forever and always.

So Papa went to sleep, but Papa went to see Jesus. May God grant us grace and love so that we can one day go see Jesus too.

Photo Credit: Brett Davies, Making the dream happen

Categories: Dominican Vocations

5 Tips on Prayer with St. Thomas Aquinas

11/25/2014 - 7:30am

Prayer, St. John Damascene says, is the unveiling of the mind before God. When we pray we ask Him for what we need, confess our faults, thank Him for His gifts, and adore His immense majesty. Here are five tips for praying better– with the help of St. Thomas Aquinas.

5. Be humble.

Many people falsely think of humility as a virtue of a low self-esteem. St. Thomas teaches us that humility is a virtue of acknowledging the truth about reality. Since prayer, at its root, is an “asking” directed at God, humility is crucially important. Through humility we recognize our neediness before God. We are totally and entirely dependent on God for everything and at every moment: our existence, life, breath, every thought and action. As we become more humble, we recognize more profoundly our need to pray more.

4. Have faith.

It’s not enough to know that we’re needy. To pray, we also have to ask someone, and not just anyone, but someone who can and will answer our petition. Children intuit this when they ask mom instead of dad (or vice versa!) for permission or a gift. It is with the eyes of faith that we see God is both powerful and willing to help us in prayer. St. Thomas says that “faith is necessary… that is, we need to believe that we can obtain from Him what we seek.” It is faith which teaches us “of God’s omnipotence and mercy,” the basis of our hope. In this, St. Thomas reflects the Scriptures. The Epistle to the Hebrews underlines the necessity of faith, saying, “Whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Heb 11:6). Try praying an Act of Faith.

3. Pray before praying.

In old breviaries you can find a small prayer that begins, “Open, O Lord, my mouth to bless your Holy Name. Cleanse, too, my heart from all vain, perverse and extraneous thoughts…” I remember finding this slightly amusing– there were prescribed prayers before prescribed prayers! When I reconsidered it, I realized that although it might seem paradoxical, it gives a lesson. Prayer is utterly supernatural, and so it is far beyond our reach. St. Thomas himself notes that God “wishes to bestow certain things on us at our asking.” The prayer above continues by asking God: “Illumine my mind, inflame my heart, that I may worthily, attentively and devoutly recite this Office and merit to be heard in the sight of Your divine Majesty.” The attentiveness and purity of heart needed to attain to God in prayer is itself received as a gift– and we will only receive if we ask.

2. Be intentional.

Merit in prayer– that is to say, whether it brings us closer to heaven– flows from the virtue of charity. And this flows from our will. So to pray meritoriously, we need to make our prayer an object of choice. St. Thomas explains that our merit rests primarily on our original intention in praying. It isn’t broken by accidental distraction, which no human being can avoid, but only by intentional and willing distraction. This also should give us some relief. We need not worry too much about distractions, as long as we don’t encourage them. We realize something of what the Psalmist says, namely, that God “pours gifts on His beloved while they slumber” (Ps 127:2).

1. Be attentive.

Although, strictly, we need only be intentional and not also perfectly attentive to merit by our prayer, it is nevertheless true that our attention is important. When our minds are filled with actual attention to God, our hearts too are inflamed with desire for Him. St. Thomas explains that spiritual refreshment of the soul comes chiefly from being attentive to God in prayer. The Psalmist cries out, “It is your face, O Lord, that I seek!” (Ps 27:8). In prayer, let us never cease to search for His Face.

Photo Credit: Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P.

Categories: Dominican Vocations

Saint Who?

11/24/2014 - 7:30am

Today is the feast day of St. Chrysogonus. You may think you know nothing about him, but if you go to Mass regularly, chances are you’ve at least heard his name: “With Linus, Cletus, Clement, Sixtus, Cornelius, Cyprian, Lawrence, Chrysogonus, John and Paul, Cosmas and Damian, and all the saints.” Thus runs one part of the Roman Canon, one of the Eucharistic prayers of the Roman liturgy. Today is also the feast day of St. Colman of Cloyne, St. Andrew Dung Lac, St. Columbanus, St. Alexander, and St. Anthony Nam-Quynh. In fact, according to one calendar, it is the feast day of over thirty saints and blesseds, and one would find similar numbers for practically every day of the year.

Most of these saints are unfamiliar to us. So why does the Church recognize and celebrate so many saints? Isn’t it a bit much? I suggest three reasons that the Church puts these men and women forward for our veneration: their numbers inspire hope, they manifest the infinite variety of God’s goodness, and they remind us that holiness is ultimately ordered to the glory of God.

Considering the vast number of saints recognized by the Church gives us hope, because the saints remind us of how effective God’s grace is. Not a single one of the saints became holy purely by his own efforts. The grace of God transformed them, fixing their broken nature so that they might become the images of God he created them to be (Gen 1:26-28), conformed to Christ, the perfect “image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15). If God has worked such a transformation in so many men and women throughout history – men and women who were just as broken as we are – then we can be confident that he can do the same for you and me.

The saints also manifest the inexhaustible richness of God’s goodness. God calls people from all cultures, times, and places, and from all walks of life. The same God who knocked a first-century Jewish tentmaker to the ground, irrevocably changing the course of his life, also invited a small Albanian Sister of Loreto to found a new order and set the world on fire. Doctors, priests, monks, scholars, virgins, mothers, Europeans, Americans, Africans, Asians – no state in life, no culture is beyond the transformative power of God’s holiness. The Church gives us saints from every age and from every region of the world to teach us that no situation is outside the immeasurable grace and mercy of God.

Finally, the saints remind us that all our striving after holiness is ultimately for the glory of God. With so many saints on the Church’s calendar, some of them are bound to be forgotten or at least neglected – and they’re okay with that! Holiness is not about attracting the praise of others to yourself, but about drawing others to praise God, who is wonderful in his saints. With the Blessed Virgin Mary, the saints sing, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord!” In imitation of their Lord, who humbled himself to the point of death, death on a cross, they, too, humble themselves for the glory of God. Through the intercession of St. Chrysogonus – and of St. Colman of Cloyne, St. Andrew Dung Lac, St. Columbanus, St. Alexander, and St. Anthony Nam-Quynh, indeed of all the saints – may we be strengthened to do the same.

Image: Michele Giambono, San Crisógono a Caballo

Categories: Dominican Vocations

Poverty in Spirit

11/21/2014 - 7:30am

I recently visited a hospitalized woman in her seventies. She was very sick and could eat nothing without pain. No one knew the cause of her illness. Nor was it known where she would go if she ever got out. She was in between living arrangements and, for lack of funds, had already failed to secure housing at a number of places. She had always been poor. Her father had left the family when she was a girl, so from a young age she had worked and helped to raise her younger brothers. Now she was in a similar situation, for her husband had died years ago and could leave her no financial support. Sitting with her, I was reminded that Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor,” and wondered about what he meant.

It was the first thing that Jesus said when he sat down to deliver the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:3). The qualification “in spirit” is not so much a relaxation of the counsel to be “poor” as a precision about its true significance. One can be materially poor and still be seriously sinful. And if mere poverty were blessedness, it would make no sense to give alms.

According to one major tradition of interpretation, “poverty in spirit” means humility, especially humble subjection to God. This is the habitual and lived recognition that without God we can do nothing. In fact, as creatures, without God we cannot even exist. Ours is a poverty not only of power but of being. And in Adam we marvelously declined to live in God’s garden and ended up hungering after the husks of swine—and no one would give us any (Lk 15:16). The poor man, the beggar, turns out to be an icon of the human being, seen in his ultimate context.

Maintaining this perspective is not easy. And here we catch another glimpse of why Jesus used the word “poverty” instead of “humility.” It is very praiseworthy to earn a living, to support one’s dependents, and to contribute to the Church and one’s civil community. But it is also true that the pursuit of money has the power to distract us from God, and the use of money threatens to inflate our sense of control and status. In short, it may happen that “the care of this world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word” (Mt 13:22). As Jesus makes clear, the danger is surprisingly real: “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Mt 19:24).

When the disciples responded despairingly, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus assured them, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Mt 19:25-26). In the knowledge of Christ, it is possible for the prosperous man to subject all money matters to God—to make mammon serve him!—to tithe, to support one’s family, to give alms, and in general to live with an appropriate simplicity. Intimate knowledge of the riches of Christ gives the lie to the idea that money can make us totally self-sufficient, or that worldly success will plead our case on the day of judgment.

If riches make us forget our utter dependence on God, the lack of riches makes us remember. This is part of the blessedness of being poor. But material poverty has its own problems; in particular, it can lead to despair. Again the answer is Christ. Though he was rich, he became poor, to bestow his divinity on those who trust in him.

At the end of our discussion in the hospital, the bedridden woman looked back on her difficult life and echoed St. Paul: “I count it all pure joy.” And I think it likely that she did.

Image: James Tissot, The Beatitudes Sermon

Categories: Dominican Vocations

Axioms of Faith

11/20/2014 - 7:30am

One of the greatest joys that I have found in my religious life as a Dominican friar has been the opportunity to use my previous studies in mathematics to talk about matters of the Catholic faith; grace does perfect nature, after all.  So, when I was assigned to work at an all-girls’ high school for ministry this year (a task made less daunting by the Dominican Sisters who run the school), I jumped at the chance to give guest lectures in one of the math classes, among other pastoral activities.  While explaining to the geometry class one day the differences and similarities between axioms and theorems, I found an opportunity to draw a parallel, as it were, to the logic of belief.

It is often the case that geometry is the first class in which students are introduced to the method of mathematical proof.  Beginning from principles (axioms and postulates), the students devise logical arguments to demonstrate that the desired conclusions are true, and the same type of demonstration occurs in theology as well.  While a theorem of geometry is proven in this way, an axiom (from the Greek axios, “worthy”) is proposed to us as worthy of belief, without having been proven.

While a high school textbook would include more axioms (also known as postulates), the first systematic textbook on geometry was built on only five axioms.  This book is the Elements of Euclid, who lived in Alexandria in the third century before Christ.  The first four axioms are facts that appear intuitively obvious, such as “Two points determine a line,” and they show how to use a straightedge and compass, the two tools used by ancient Greek geometers.

The fifth axiom, however, is not so obvious, and it is often expressed in geometry textbooks as the “Parallel Postulate”: Given a line and a point not on it, there exists a unique line through that point parallel to the given line.  No one before Euclid had identified this principle, but his whole system of geometry would break down without it.  Other famous results, such as the Pythagorean Theorem for right triangles, or the fact that the angles in any triangle add up to 180 degrees, depend on this non-intuitive axiom.  For centuries, mathematicians have tried, and failed, to prove this axiom using the other four.  Others have devised alternative systems of geometry that neglect or even deny Euclid’s fifth axiom, which lead to radically different results, such as spherical geometry (where even parallel lines could meet, like lines of longitude at the North Pole) or hyperbolic geometry (where lines in a plane that are not parallel could never meet).

A similar phenomenon occurs in the realm of faith.  Just as the geometry book gives some statements as postulates when they can in fact be proven (though with difficulty), the Catholic faith proposes some ideas for belief, such as the existence and uniqueness of God, that can also be demonstrated.  These proofs rest on principles that are as self-evident as Euclid’s first four axioms; for example, St. Thomas begins his first proof for the existence of God, “It is certain, and evident to our senses, that in the world some things are in motion.”  Yet the proof itself requires some knowledge of metaphysics, and it is easy to make mistakes in the argument; therefore, the Church proposes that we take the existence of God on faith, so that anyone can come to believe in Him.

Yet there are many statements of faith that are neither obvious, nor can they be proven. Take, for example, the Trinity, that the one God is three Persons; or the Incarnation, that God took on human nature in the person of Jesus Christ; or that this same Jesus rose from the dead.  These articles, or axioms, of faith, can only be believed as true, if one is to study Christian theology, or more generally, to live the Christian life.

Some theologians have tried to prove these articles (a truly good God should become man to show forth His goodness, right?), but like the attempts to prove the Parallel Postulate, they fall short, as they cannot argue with certainty.  Countless other thinkers have denied articles of faith because they are not self-evident and not subject to the standards of rational proof– but in doing so, they end up in a world even stranger than that of non-Euclidean geometry.  By believing something contrary to the articles of faith, one could end up walking around in circles (like the spherical case) or diverging along any path imaginable (like the hyperbolic case), rather than living in an intellectual relationship with the living God who leads us on the straight-line path towards the infinity of eternal life.

Furthermore, while the last postulate that holds plane geometry together may come from the mind of Euclid, the axioms of faith can only be revealed by the God who loves us to the point that He communicates His inner life to us and calls us into His company.  Because they are revealed by the God who loves us into being, these axioms, like the Trinity, Incarnation, and Resurrection, are truly worthy of our belief, and with God’s grace, we can take them on faith as the basis for living each day of our lives.

Image: fdecomite, Hyperbolic Paraboloid Variation

Categories: Dominican Vocations