Saturday, December 26, 2015

My Hopeful Christmas Reflection

It has now been a number of years since I last spent Christmas at home.  It is such a special time for everyone.  Going to bed on Christmas Eve, having trouble getting to sleep, waking up so excited, the magic of seeing the tree lit up with presents strewn about beneath it, wearing your pajamas, being together with loved ones...

Christmas in the seminary is beautiful too- the decorations start going up around the house in the days just before Christmas, there is a strong liturgical awareness which fosters a conscientious spiritual preparation, the special Christmas Eve dinner that we have together in our religious family, and then, on the feast of the Epiphany in January, the exchange of gifts.

As the years have gone by, I have noticed more acutely the absence of the external elements to which I became accustomed growing up at home.  There were times when the Advent preparation became more of a question mark for me, an unknown.  It has invariably been an externally busy time (#BlackFriday) in which I hear much about "preparing spiritually" to celebrate the Lord's birth.  That oft-cited "spiritual preparation" was often reduced to poetry in the background of the bustling and rapidly-passing days and weeks of Advent.  This year I asked myself, what are we supposed to do during Advent to actually, in fact, prepare for Christmas?  What is Advent supposed to be for us?  What is Christmas supposed to be beneath the surface of those traditional, cozy external elements?

This is the first year that I have been praying the Liturgy of the Hours during Advent and it shed lots of light on these questions of mine.  I was really impacted by how hopeful the Advent liturgy is.  "Come and save us, Savior of the world!  Come Lord, do not delay.  I will come to save you."  Countless such expressions are present throughout the season's liturgy.  It made me think and reflect on hope: it reminded me that I am a sinner; I am the one, today, who needs a savior; it reminds me that our savior was born 2000 years ago; it reminds me that our savior will come again in glory at the end of time to call the just, his friends, to their eternal reward.  As the Jews of the Old Testament looked forward to the coming of their savior, so, too, we look forward to our Lord's coming again.  So, I believe that Advent is to be an exercise of hope, and hope founded on our Savior's promises, rather than the merely superficial expectation and preparation of a party.  There is always that eschatological dimension which recalls that we live in the Christian era, namely, the time of the Church, situated between the life of the savior, his incarnation, birth, death, and resurrection, and his definitive second coming at the end of the world.

nativity scene here at the seminary

So, what is the Advent message?  Hope!  Dare to hope.  I was speaking to a priest recently who shared with me that he was cautiously optimistic about some upcoming changes.  With human things, a "cautious optimism" is often  the best we can muster.  The hard knocks of life tend to teach us this.  But with God, as one of the newly ordained Legionary priests recently said in the homily at his first Mass, we frequently find that we have hoped for too little. Allow yourself to hope!  Challenge yourself to hope! How?  Perspective: like Simeon in the temple, who rejoiced when he met the infant savior in Mary's arms, we too must remember that reality goes far beyond this world, beyond our problems here and now, beyond struggle, misunderstanding, poverty, hunger... yes, even beyond death.  Eternity awaits and our savior will come again to claim those who have waited for him.

Christmas. Exercise hope.  Contemplate the mystery, the incarnation, God coming to us like this...  Then reflect on how he speaks to us today- indeed, he speaks to us still!  But in a world of so much movement, when so many things in our lives are screaming for attention, we really need to carve out time for silence.  In the Old Testament, God spoke to Elijah in the gentle breeze that followed the earthquake.  To be sure, we do not need to wait for earthquakes, but creating prayer time, fighting to defend it, and then actually spending that time with God is absolutely essential.

God will speak to us.  We are truly desperate for him, for our savior.  He has come to us. We have every reason to hope!

nativity scene in St. Peter's Square

Monday, December 21, 2015

When Being Just is not Enough: St. Joseph

Speaking in prayer to St. Joseph:

"By all standards, you were doing the right thing- you were even going above and beyond.  When your betrothed was found with child things simply could not move forward.  It could easily have developed into a major public scandal for Mary.  It was her name that would have been tarnished, not your own. But you decided to do things quietly, extraordinary man that you were.  But that's when God intervened, and he intervened to teach us the lesson that being just, and even being more than just, is not always enough.  What God asked of you meant that the "right thing" was actually wrong.  Now people would surely think that the child was yours, and ill-begotten.  Or they would think that you were fool enough to wed a woman carrying another's child (which happened to be true).  It was the wrong thing to do on all counts, except for the fact that God was asking you for precisely this.  God asked you for a change, to bear the cross, to put yourself at risk, to let things go not out of control, but out of your control.  I know that it must be hard for you, that there must be so much that you do not understand, but please, St. Joseph, just and God-fearing man that you are, do not leave Mary and this child. Stay with them, O Joseph!"

Painting of St. Joseph in the Church of Sant'Andrea delle Fratte in Rome

I recently heard of a particularly intriguing chapter from the life of Blessed John Henry Newman.  He was traveling through Italy, not yet having converted to Roman Catholicism.  He found himself in pursuit of the truth, examining himself and finding in himself no sin against the truth, and yet, uncertain as to why this disposition took such strong hold of him, crying out to God in prayer: "I have not sinned against the light!"  It seems he was convinced of having lived sincerely, authentically, humbly, and on all counts very well... but he had not yet lived as fully as he was being invited to live.  I imagine that St. Joseph found himself in a very similar dilemma- having done no wrong and yet being called to something greater, something deeper.  It is an invitation to let things go out of your control, but never our of God's control.

As Newman eventually did convert to Catholicism, so St. Joseph took Mary into his home.  Perhaps his opinion of Mary was not fully restored.  Maybe he still struggled to rectify her immaculate purity with seemingly compromising evidence of the child in her womb.  Maybe he took that to his grave.  But her witness during their years together must have been convincing.  I am reminded of Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter.  She had committed adultery and was subject to public embarrassment.  But her humble spirit and servicial attitude in the community eventually won the compassion even of those who had condemned her.  I am sure that in the case of the Blessed Virgin Mary, her humility and purity and kindness would have been so much more convincing.  She may very well have become like a daughter for St. Joseph.  Perhaps that was, in some way, how she loved him.  And at the prospect of being left alone, of being turned out by Joseph and having her name stained and tarnished in the public eye, her sentiment when he did the unthinkable and married her must have been one of most profound gratitude.  She, too, had allowed things to go out of her control and into God's control. In Joseph, the immaculate mother of the Lord found a kindred spirit.  May the Lord see fit to bless each of us with such graces, that we, too, may join their most august company.

O wonderful St. Joseph, faithful guardian of the holy family and holy man of prayerful docility, pray for us.

Friday, November 6, 2015

A Prodigious Prayer Primer: the Divine Office

Prayer.  (Sigh) I think that most can sympathize with the idea that I should probably pray a little more, I mean, more than I actually do pray, because of course I do pray a little bit...  Right?  There are obstacles to prayer at every turn: life is busy and I can't find time for prayer; prayer is more of an abstract idea that I find difficult to make my own; I always get distracted with 100 other things when I try to pray.

Here's something that could help with all these problems: check out the liturgy of the hours, also known as the divine office.  I have been at it for several months now and it has been helpful, enlightening, encouraging, and spiritually enriching.

Here's an example.  A little while back, it was Friday of the 22nd week in ordinary time, I was struck by the second antiphon in office of readings, which read "Lord, you know all my longings."  I was instantly brought to a deeper level of prayer and reflection, of contact with my human experience of life.  I was not thinking at that depth, but it brought me there and helped me bring those things to the Lord.

Then the second reading offered me another nugget- the reading was from a sermon by Pope St. Leo the Great, who lived in the 400's.  The nugget was his reflection on humility- in this virtue all classes and conditions of men coincide.  We are all sinners and yet all children of God.  This tells me something: it tells me that whoever is before me, whether it's Lebron James or a homeless person I will probably never meet again, I have a duty to love them and to proclaim the Gospel.  When it comes to salvation and eternity, we are all in the same boat- we must all be humble.

the liturgy of the hours can be prayed alone or with a group

Lights like this, passages that jump out at me and speak to me as a seeingly personal message, come with surprising frequency.  I encourage you to take up this form of prayer, or at least some part of it: the are several different combinations you could try. For those just starting, I often recommend morning prayer and evening prayer, as these are the most important hours, even if they are not the longest ones, of the day.  The other parts are centered on these two, and each can be done in 5-10 minutes.  If you have under five minutes, you could try the midday hour at your lunch break. If you are looking for something else for a little personal and spiritual enrichment everyday, try just reading the second reading in the office of readings- these are taken from various sources and always seem to offer novel reflections and ideas.  Whatever you do, it is key to approach this prayer with an attitude of listening, of docility, of desiring to hear the Lord's voice. He does speak to us when we make the time to listen.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Marvel of Martyrdom, or Martyrdom > Super Bowl

There was a side to my Latin teacher that I never knew existed. He loved Cicero. We translated some Virgil together. He love the style, the poetry of it. Awe and appreciation were his characteristic attitude when dealing with our translations. Then one day he really caught us off guard. It was just after super bowl weekend, February of 2008. We had seen the game and it was a thriller. The Patriots were riding an undefeated season and the Brady-Belichick combo was was after its fourth super bowl ring in seven years. It was a game for the ages. The Patriots drove down and took the lead with under two minutes left, only to let the Giants score, capping an epic drive and leaving the Patriots with the bitter taste of defeat, something they had not experienced during the entirety of that season. I believe that game had the second highest television rating of all time (at least to date).

the helmet catch

In Latin class the following week, one of the seminarians jokingly asked the professor if he had enjoyed the game. We did not know what to expect- for all we knew, he may not even have watched the game! He almost did not know how to answer. He paused and reflected. He had an aura about him almost like one about to touch or speak about something so profound, so sacred... he fumbled for words. What he finally found and shared went something like "that was probably the most extraordinary sporting event I have ever seen, possibly of all time." He communicated to us the most profound respect, an awe, an incredible value- we had never even heard him speak of Latin or Cicero this way. It was shocking.

Ignatius of Antioch

Yesterday we celebrated the memorial of St. Ignatius of Antioch who died a martyr in the very early Church. Before leaving for Rome, St. Peter had been bishop in Antioch- Ignatius was his immediate successor there. Tomorrow we celebrate the North-american martyrs Isaac Jogues and John de Brebeuf. The word "martyr" can become so cliche for us. We celebrate their feasts, we talk about how they died for the faith. At times we even visit Churches where we are reminded of how these saints gave their lives (burned alive, tortured, given to wild beasts...) because they would not deny their faith in Jesus Christ. During his trip to Rome, Ignatius would write, "let me be food for the wild beasts, for they are my way to God. I am God's wheat and shall be ground by their teeth so that I may become Christ's pure bread... He who died in place of us is the one object of my quest. He who rose for our sakes is my one desire... Give me the privilege of imitating the passion of my God." We are dealing with something else here. This is not a pragmatic leader interested in furthering the interests of his "corporation." Think about it, he could easily have told the Romans that, sure, he will burn some incense to their gods. His heart would not have been in it- would we have held it against him? It would have been a way to ensure some measure of peace and allow him to continue leading the budding Christian community at Antioch. Christianity was nothing at the time and it seems that this bishop of an important city is throwing his life away. When we stop to think about it, it seems like a helplessly poor, impulsive decision to go to his death willingly like this. Yet he approaches his imminent death rejoicing.

Isaac Jogues

Similarly, Isaac Jogues, even after returning to France from the missions, could not resist returning to America to preach the Gospel in those lands. I trust you are familiar with the story. These men's lives, and particularly their deaths, are too frequently grossly under-esteemed by us. Often their truly incredible witness and their consuming passion for Jesus Christ and their christian faith is lost on us and does not move us as it ought. It should mean much, much more to us than an incredible sporting event and so many other entertainments to which we are so devoted.

In his book On the Way to Jesus Christ, Cardinal Ratzinger wrote: "I have often said that I am convinced that the true apologetics for the Christian message, the most persuasive proof of its truth, offsetting everything that may appear negative, are the saints, on the one hand, and the beauty that the faith has generated, on the other." I pray that this may be true in each of our lives as well.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Set Out on your Spiritual Journey!

It's not too late. It's the most important dimension of your life. It should be our bedrock, our foundation.

Spiritual life is dynamic, constant, intimate. What are our needs? We need to be loved. We need to be known. We need to be seen as we are, accepted, appreciated, and loved unconditionally. We also need to love, to express love, to do good, to be a blessing for others, to let love pour forth from the goodness of our hearts. All this can happen in spiritual life. It's what we most desire.

I had a great confession recently. Father told me to set out in the spiritual life with even more ambition and trust than ever. We are not alone in our spiritual endeavors. If you have set out already, keep it up! If you have not, go for it!

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Cross is Meant to Lift us Up

Crosses come and go. There are times that are particularly intense, crucible-style, and times that are more peaceful. Crosses can be physical or moral, can be personal or suffering with and for others. Regardless of how they come, crosses always seem to catch me off guard. My initial reaction is to resist, to deny the cross, to distance myself from it. 

Little by little, as God seems to insist that this cross is for me, this resistance transitions to an acceptance. As we experience this, we can end up claiming the cross, owning it. Claiming the cross has immense spiritual benefit. Suffering is a privileged place from which we can see into Christ's heart and what he suffered in his passion, what he suffered to save us. He opens his heart to us through suffering. Seeing his love we are motivated to love in our turn. Psalm 126:5 says "those who sow in tears shall reap with cries of joy."

We find that this relationship changes everything. In John 10:10 Jesus tells us "I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly." This is the divine pedagogy. It is a way of re-framing problems in faith and discovering unexpected solutions in the Lord.

John 3:14 says "as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up..." So must each of us be lifted up. So Christ saved us and so he continues, through us, to realize his work of salvation. "When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men to myself." (John 12:32) The cross is to bring us to new heights of spiritual life.

Lift us up, Lord. Challenge us with the cross. Give us the courage to bear it, to find you in it, and to grow always in our knowledge of and love for you.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The First Christian Feast

Do you know which was the first feast day celebrated in the early Christian Church? Christmas comes to mind right away, though I am not sure if that is because I have logical reasons why I think it should be first or rather because it is my favorite feast day of the year. The answer is actually Easter, the Lord's resurrection. Reflecting for a moment, I have to say that it makes perfect sense. Everything else would have been pointless without the resurrection- it is what gave Jesus Christ not only credibility, but supremacy. He is the savior! No one else has conquered death. St. Paul wrote: "if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain." (1 Cor 15:14)

What do you think the next feasts to be added to the liturgical calendar? Sorry, still not Christmas. The second and third celebrations for which we have evidence are the feasts of the Ascension (Acts 1:6-11) and Pentecost (Acts 2- see picture above for how they celebrate Pentecost at the Pantheon!). At first glance, I would say that Christmas is more important than these feasts. The logic, though, is that these two feasts complete the celebration of Easter, the paschal mystery. Jesus said that he would leave us, but he promised that, after his resurrection, he would send us his Spirit. Pentecost marks the conclusion of the celebration of Easter-tide.

After these feasts, they also added feast days marking the days of the Lord's passion- Holy Thursday and Good Friday, along with Palm Sunday. The picture here may not look familiar, but it is the crucifixion. As a matter of fact, it is one of the earliest depictions of the crucifixion we are aware of as it may date to as early as the 5th century. It is on the large wooden doors of the Church of Santa Sabina here in Rome.

When we learned about this progression recently in Liturgy class, it really struck me because while the other feasts are truly important and significant, the celebration of Easter is the single, most significant feast in Christianity. Really, it is definitive and indicative of what sets Christianity apart. It is not so surprising, then, that this fact is witnessed even in the historical development of Christian worship.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Receiving Communion

The question was recently posed to me, "why don't Catholics allow other Christians to receive their communion?" The truth is that I was hardly satisfied with my response. So here we are.

The Eucharist is the "source and summit" (Lumen Gentium, 11; Catechism of the Catholic Church #1324) of Catholic faith and life. It is sort of like the cherry on top, except that it is more like a solid-gold-orb on top. With the cherry on top, the main event is the ice cream. But with the Eucharist, everything else is preparation, is "on the way to" the Eucharist. It is the main event, that which is most precious.

When I approach the altar to receive communion, it is a sign of my communion with the Catholic Church, of my adherence to the teachings and truths she proclaims, of my loyalty to the Pope and the Bishops, the successors of the apostles. Receiving the host, the Body of Christ, is the epitome of my union and communion with the body of Catholic Christians with respect to all of these implications.

In addition to the perspective of communion, one ought to be in a state of grace to receive the Eucharist. This implies the practice of confession, the sacrament by which we are restored to this state of grace, by which we are picked up from our falls, in which we accept the infinite mercy and love of God. In other words, confession restores us to communion with God, of which our reception of the Eucharist is symbolic.

The Eucharist is communion. It is communion physically, literally, figuratively, and spiritually. It is a sign of my communion with God and of my communion with the Catholic Church.

For further reading, you may consult numbers 1395, 1396, 1400, and 1415 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Monday, March 9, 2015

On the Lenten Journey

We are in the third week of Lent. It is entirely possible that you feel like me- worried that I have already lost some time and that Easter will be here before I know it  and that Lent will have passed me by and I will have accomplished nothing.

Know what I mean?

Don't worry. Lent is a journey. If you have felt this, I would say that it is a good sign; it is evidence that the Holy Spirit is present and inviting you to go deeper, just like he led Jesus into the desert (Matthew 4:1). Does that sound familiar? So keep your chin up. Lent is a journey and it's better to start your preparation for Easter now than on Holy Thursday. Pray. Listen. Follow the Holy Spirit's inspirations. Try to correspond to what he is telling you and communicating to you.

If he is asking you to give something up, start scaling back your intake of social media or of food, your time on Netflix or playing video games- whatever it is for you.

If he is asking you to give more, see how you can serve your neighbor, how you can reach out, how you can spend more time in prayer or in prayerful reading of sacred scripture or of some other spiritual book. See what will help you most.

Lent is a time to go to the desert. It is a time to encounter God, a time for renewal. We are made for God. When we take him seriously, he does not disappoint. As Fr. John Bartunek, LC wrote in his book The Better Part, "If we truly know him, we will delight in serving such a Lord, and we will go out of our way to be worthy of him."