Sunday, February 18, 2018

Ad Fontes: 1st Sunday in Lent

Benedict left his home feeling the need for some time away from everything. He walked into a narrow valley going into the nearby mountains. He crossed the Anio River and followed the path up, up, past the ruin of a villa that had belonged to the Emperor Nero, that great terror of Christians. But Nero was long dead, and the Catholic Church was alive. Across the valley he could see more ruins, old Roman baths, still today not entirely gone. There’s no telling if it happened to cross Benedict’s mind that day, but the sight was a perfect symbol of his time. Rome was falling, mostly fallen. All around were the signs and glories of Rome’s greatness. People still thought Roman-ness was something to be proud of. They were still convinced it was the best thing going. And they were probably right. Even as it slid further and further into the slime, many of them couldn’t quite bring themselves to imagine the possibility that the whole Roman civilization might just fizzle out. People talk and write about ‘the Fall of the Roman Empire,’ but it didn’t really fall. It rotted. It slid.

This is the way the world ends
this is the way the world ends
this is the way the world ends
not with a bang, but a whimper.

Rome was the whole world as far as any of them knew, and it was mid-slide when Benedict decided to check out. He left the ruins behind and continued to climb, up to a point where the mountain became a sheer cliff and there was no more path to be struck. At the base of that vertical rise was a cave, looking over a little lake five hundred feet below. Benedict went into the cave.

For three years.

Subiaco today, with monastery
Then he founded the first great order of Christian monks, led a renewal of the entire Church, wrote a rule that is still followed today in monasteries around the world, and not incidentally, saved Western Civilization… and that’s not nearly as much of an exaggeration as you’d think. When barbarism and decay rotted out everything around them, the Benedictine monks prayed and worked in their monasteries, carefully and painstakingly copying and transmitting Plato and Virgil and Homer, along with Matthew and Mark and Luke and John. They guarded the embers through the long storm.

The place is called Subiaco, and Benedict’s three years there were not wasted time. They were not a delay before he got going. They were the fountain and source: without Subiaco, there is no Benedict. Without Subiaco, our world would be so different it’s impossible to even imagine what things would look like now.

Manresa today, built into a chapel
A thousand years later, a Spanish soldier named Ignatius found his military dreams shattered along with his shattered leg. This was a world falling apart, too, even if it was only his personal world. There’s no telling if he was thinking of Benedict when he went into a cave at Manresa for eleven months. But when he came out, he had the outline of the great Ignatian Spiritual Exercises, and the seed of the Jesuit Order that would be the Church’s finest and truest witnesses and missionaries, through the Protestant revolt and later in missions around the world.  There is no Ignatius without Manresa.

Catherine was also a sort of a cave dweller, if you count a little room in her parents’ house in Siena. Admittedly, she wasn’t the first or the last teenager to spend a lot of time shut in her room. But Catherine was purposefully imitating the desert monks and nuns. She didn’t have a desert or a cave so she had to made her room work… and it most definitely worked. After three years, having a mystical experience of espousal to Christ, she emerged into the life and work that would reform the Church, and even reform a Pope or two. She is now a Doctor of the Church… but it started with a teenage girl finding a desert to be with God.

St. Paul had his famous conversion on the road to Damascus, and then? He disappears entirely from Christian history for two to three years. He was praying and contemplating in the desert. When he emerged, he was… well, he was St. Paul.

Even at the start, when the Messiah was first recognized, it was by John, that wild man of the desert.

And into that same desert went Jesus himself, at the very beginning of his ministry. Forty days of fasting and prayer, and temptations too. And when He came out of the desert, He unleashed the Gospel. He started preaching the Kingdom of God.

Can I hit you with a pretty heavy quote from my man Hans Urs von Balthasar?

“We do not need to go out from our world in order to find the desert…. ‘The desert grows’ around us whether we like it or not; we can remain where we are. What we call our culture flees blindly from the meaninglessness which surrounds us on all sides, from the emptiness and ever present death; it refuses to die the absolute death of abandoning itself to the unconditional and precisely for this reason pronounces dead the God to whom it should itself die.”

Benedict and Catherine and Ignatius and John and Paul changed the world as disciples of Jesus, who truly redeems the world. We are supposed to change the world, too. But there is no pattern more clear and consistent in Christian religion than this: the mission, the apostolate, the fruitfulness starts in the desert. It’s so necessary that the Church asks us to do it every year. Not necessarily to go somewhere, but to find the desert where we are… to find our Subiaco, our Manresa, our little quiet room.

Every Christian needs these times. We need times of simplicity, and starkness, and quiet. We need to make them happen by whatever means necessary.

A side note for those of you who have little ones in the house… I’m sorry, I promise I’m not trying to make you cry. If you tell me quiet time for God is mostly unachievable, I believe you. You can ask God for the miraculous grace you need to make up for being human and not being able to do the impossible. But none of us should have to ask God to make up for us being lazy and not wanting to do the difficult.

We need the desert time. And in truth, we hunger for the desert time. Even if we aren’t very good at actually making it happen, there’s a hunger for simplicity and recollection. Part of Lent is to return to that core, that basic core of who we are as sons and daughters of God. These forty days should be cleansing, renewing, a return to our Baptism. 1st Peter said it’s not a removal of dirt from the body, but an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

We give things up, and simplify our lives, and give away some things, and let ourselves feel some hunger, and return to prayer. Because we all get caught up so easily and so often in stupid stuff that doesn’t matter. Stupid stuff that doesn’t matter! Some of it never could matter. Some of it might matter if we offered it to Jesus, but we don’t. This return, this desert time, it’s essential. Our souls need this like our bodies need oxygen.

However you’ve chosen to observe this particular Lent, please make it about your relationship with God, and not about some kind of self-improvement project. If we come out of this a little more virtuous, that’s fantastic, that’s beautiful. But the real point is to come out of it with more love, for God and for our neighbor.

The world says God is dead because the world fears death, fears the obvious meaninglessness of most of what we call our culture, fears the absolute and unconditional. For all the bluster about love, the world runs away when it sees the real thing. We love this broken world, and we are called to serve it, and to save what can be saved, like Benedict and Catherine and Ignatius. But we can only truly serve the world by not being entirely part of it, by stepping back and reconnecting with the God who is our only happiness and our only hope. It starts in the desert.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Connecting: 6th Sunday OT 2018

There’s this really common thing now where people say they love Jesus and have a relationship with Him, but they want no part of ‘religion.’ Jesus is good, religion is bad. When people talk this way, you have to ask what they mean by the word ‘religion.’ Usually they mean something like ‘a bunch of empty rituals and traditions that you focus on instead of having an actual relationship with Jesus.’ But that’s not what the word means, and never has been.

If you look into what it actually does mean, you find something really beautiful. Do you know where the word comes from? The Latin, “religio,” has two parts: “ligare” means to tie together, to connect… like your 'ligaments' tie your bones together. And “re”, meaning what it always does, to do something again. “Re - ligare”… to bind back together. To reunite what was torn apart. To restore and bring back what was alienated.

If you want a symbol for being cut off and alienated, you can’t do better than the first reading from Leviticus. The person with leprosy is totally cast out. He can’t approach anyone. If he wants to communicate, the best he can do is stand a long way off and shout at you. He can’t even dress like other people. The goal is to be as far removed from society as possible, but if he absolutely must be out and about, he has to go around shouting “unclean, unclean,” so that people know not to come near him.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Have you come to destroy us? 4th Sunday OT

Reading the Gospels, people generally have a tough time recognizing Jesus as the Son of God. Even the Apostles take a long time to get it through their heads. For some others no miracle is enough: they can watch a dead man rise and still not believe in Him. But you know who always recognizes Him, immediately?


In this story and in others, it’s the demons who actually best understand what they’re dealing with. They hate Jesus, but that’s because they understand who He is, better than the humans in the story. “I know who you are - the holy one of God!” Evil is quicker to react to God’s presence than lukewarmness or curiosity, because evil sees the threat He poses. It knows that when Jesus shows up on the scene, one of them has to lose… and it won’t be Jesus. So we get this open conflict, this resistance.

Now I am not, so far as I am aware, currently possessed by a demon. But this resistance... I have to say it's something I can relate to all too well. Can you? Is there something inside you, like there is inside me, that wants very much to keep Jesus from coming any closer? Some part of you that realizes the threat He poses, the conflict and change He will necessarily bring? That knows that if Jesus isn’t kept at a safe distance, things are going to change?

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Laughing at the March for Life: 3rd Sunday OT

May I quote the opening of a Weekly Standard piece from today?

“Considering they were protesting what they call “the greatest human rights violation of our time,” the crowd that gathered on the National Mall Friday morning for the March for Life was oddly upbeat. Church and school groups who had traveled across the country to show their opposition to 45 years of legal abortion in America chatted and laughed, enjoying the mild January sunshine. Teens toting “Defend Life” signs snapped pictures of one another mid-jump, with the Capitol Building in the background.”

I haven’t been able to attend the March for a while, but I know exactly what that journalist means by “oddly upbeat.” I kept having these moments of self-awareness like “I’m here to protest something unspeakably sad… why am I smiling? Why are we singing? Why is this kind of a blast?” Shouldn’t the gathering of a hundred thousand people to protest what they believe to be the killing of sixty million innocent lives be the most depressed, the most downcast, the most mournful and bitter event ever?

Sunday, January 14, 2018

One Question. 2nd Sunday OT 2018

The story of God calling Samuel has a troubling side and an encouraging side. On one hand, it’s a dark time for God’s people. There are a number of problems, one of the biggest being bad priests. That is heartbreakingly relevant; there was another disgrace this week. It hurts.

No explanation or theology is going to make it not hurt. But if we’re students of the Bible, we’ll learn from Samuel as from so many others that God has ways of working around sin. Sometimes the medicine is hard, though. In Samuel’s time there is devastation and wrath. Eli and his sons will be dead in the next few verses. Israel’s enemies will swarm over her and crush her. Worst of all, the Ark of the Covenant will be lost, carried away by the Philistines. Remember what the Ark was to them: it was God’s dwelling in their midst. It was where they looked for holiness and assurance. With that stripped away, they seemed forsaken and abandoned — not just sinful, but having lost even the hope and principle of renewal.

It’s in this dark context that Samuel hears a voice. He misunderstands at first. No one is hearing God’s voice very often those days, the story says, so it’s no surprise God doesn’t get through to Samuel right away. But God keeps at it. He doesn’t give up on Sam and eventually, with the help of Eli, the boy understands. “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Epiphany 2018

The story of the wise men from the East is a story about coming to meet Jesus. That’s going to make it a very interesting story, if you agree with me that coming to meet Jesus is the most important thing — and the best thing — that can possibly happen to a human being.

The Biblical details are sparse. We know that magi, usually translated ‘wise men’, followed a star to where Jesus was. They brought Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh. They arrived via King Herod but chose to avoid him on the return journey.

There’s a reason that this first reading from Isaiah 60 is paired with the story of the Magi; Israel always knew that their mission was to reveal God to everyone. They were the chosen people, but they weren’t chosen only for their own sake. Their purpose and mission was to reveal God to the rest of the nations. Isaiah dreams of that mission being fulfilled. He dreams of all the nations streaming toward Jerusalem to worship the God of Israel.

If you look at the Church of Jesus Christ today, you will see that dream fulfilled to a great extent. Isaiah’s words, and all the Bible, have been translated into every language, taken to every corner of the Earth. If you go to the main centers of the global Church… the seat of Peter in Rome, or the Holy Land… you will see something very like Isaiah’s vision, all nations streaming toward the Temple of God.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Where I'll stay: Christmas 2017

Last year a 6th grade student in Belleville wrote a Christmas Prayer. It was shared in the Christmas mailing from the Poor Clares' convent. It has totally charmed me and I’d like to let Caroline be the giver of our Christmas message today. Here’s the prayer:

O Jesus, Emmanuel
O King of Kings,
O Messiah, O Savior,
O Prince of Peace,
O Lord of Lords,
O Baby Jesus,
Happy Birthday
and have mercy on me.
Please bless me.
Please save me.
Please show me the way.
Lead me to Your Heart,
And that’s where I’ll stay.