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Archive for the ‘Eternity’ Category

Yes, it’s Sunday – Quinquagesima Sunday, no less – but in other years we’d be celebrating St. Polycarp, so…why not?

Today is the feast of the great martyr bishop who was also a disciple of St. John the Evangelist.

Here is the old Catholic Encyclopedia article on him, which includes, of course, information on the sources for his life. 

Here’s a translation of the “Acts of Polycarp” – the account of his martyrdom sent from the Church in Smyrna.

He is in my Loyola Kids’ Book of Saints.  

……..

saints

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— 1 —

It’s that time of year…

…the time of year in which spring starts really spring, and the outdoor events and festivals start popping…

…and we can’t go to any of them because of Activities.

And we don’t even do that much. No spring sports – it’s just that with piano-related events and serving Mass and my older son’s work – we get kind of stuck on the weekends. Not that the youngest and I can’t go on our own – and we do – but still, it’s not the same. And I walk around in a continual state of low-grade irritation because of it.

Well, after this weekend, things should wind down. The last major piano thing will happen on a Friday, then the older kids’ exams begin and end..and then…freedom!

— 2 —

In case you missed it earlier in the week, I had a post on the present lackadaisical status of homeschooling around here. Nothing’s changed since Monday. In fact, it might have gotten worse.

Well, “worse” in terms of “academics” – but the reason is music: three lessons of three different types, plus extra practice with the teacher for that Friday event. If he were in regular school, he couldn’t do this – which is why we’re loading up on it now and trying to lay solid groundwork before he returns in the fall.

(Also earlier – a rambling Monday morning post.)

— 3 —

For some reason, in that Monday post, I neglected to talk about the one jaunt we were able to squeeze in between serving and something else on Saturday, which was a festival at St. Symeon Orthodox Church, located just down the road from us. We’ve lived here for five years, and it’s been interesting to watch it grow, as they’ve gone from meeting in a multipurpose building to constructing their church. The parish is part of the Orthodox Church in America (in its origins, associated with the Russian Orthodox, but now separate and rather oriented towards converts, and any more than that I will not venture because while there is nothing more confusing in contemporary Christianity than the Anglican communion, the Orthodox come mighty close.)

Anyway, they had a festival last Saturday, which means that we finally had a chance to see the interior of the church – it’s absolutely lovely.

 

 

— 4 —

Much has been written about the terrible case of Alfie Evans. I found these two to be particularly worth the read:

Carter Snead of Notre Dame wrote a piece for the CNN site that, I would imagine, introduced the fundamental issues in an accessible way:

Is this some fictional, dystopian, totalitarian nightmare? Sadly and shamefully, no. It is the reality of the modern-day United Kingdom — a nightmare from which the parents of toddler Alfie Evans cannot awaken.
Little Alfie Evans has recently passed away, but the struggle over his treatment provoked a worldwide conflict over parental rights, how to care properly for the seriously disabled, and the appropriate role of the state in such intimate and vexed matters. What it revealed is that the law of the UK is in desperate need of revision to make room for the profoundly disabled and their loved ones who wish to care for them, despite the judgment of others that such lives of radical dependence and frailty are not worth living.

— 5 —

And then, more strongly, Stephen White at The Catholic Thing:

Margaret Thatcher famously said, “There’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.” That was always a rather anemic view of social life, but the way the Alfie Evans case played out, one wonders if she may have overstated the case. Are there just individuals and their interests – and the state employing experts to instruct the former in regard to the latter?

Catholics know better, or we ought to. Pope Francis grasped what was at stake in the Alfie Evans case – meeting Alfie’s father, Tom, and tweeting his steadfast support. Statements from the bishops of England and Wales were mostly of the pastoral-by-way-of-not-taking-sides; in other words, flaccid and perfunctory. Some Catholics – British writer and papal biographer, Austen Ivereigh, for example – were indignant, insisting that protests against the abrogation of parental rights were somehow evidence of libertarian contagion coming from the American Church.

“The contention,” wrote Pope Leo XIII in Rerum novarum, “that the civil government should at its option intrude into and exercise intimate control over the family and the household is a great and pernicious error.” Pope Leo, it should be noted, was neither American nor libertarian.

When the ministers of the law, purporting to act in the interest of an individual, isolate that individual from the bonds of family, which are the very foundation of human society and which the law exists primarily to protect, they do violence to the individual, to the family, and to society. Again, Pope Leo put it well, “If the citizens, if the families on entering into association and fellowship, were to experience hindrance in a commonwealth instead of help, and were to find their rights attacked instead of being upheld, society would rightly be an object of detestation rather than of desire.”

Alfie Evans was treated – not as a person in full, the son of a father and mother – but as a naked individual whose dignity consists in his “interests,” and who was subject to the ministrations of impersonal forces of the state. The state made itself an object of detestation.

— 6 —

Ascension Thursday is next week. And yes, it’s still Ascension Thursday even though our episcopal betters believe us incapable of celebrating it then.


ascension_papyrus

Click on graphic or here for more on Daniel Mitsui and this piece.

Speaking of art – my friend and collaborator Ann Engelhart is on Instagram now – follow her here! 

— 7 —

Mother’s Day is a week from Sunday – have you considered this? I have loads here if you’d like a personalized copy – just go to the bookstore or email me at amywelborn60 AT gmail.com

amy-welborn-days

 

First Communion

For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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Once there were two brothers….

How many tales have begun that way?

Today’s first reading does not begin with that exact phrase, but it could, for it’s the story of Jacob’s deception of his father Isaac, and the theft of his brother Esau’s birthright.

Once there were two brothers….

A few weeks ago, the third season of the FX series Fargo concluded. Fargo is a different kind of television series. It is “inspired by” the Coen brothers movie of that name, but takes from the film, not the exact plot, but rather setting, tone and general theme: The Fargosetting of the upper Midwest, the tone of black humor, and the general themes of randomness and of human beings using their free will for evil, but also in very stupid ways that always end in someone’s death.

Accident, serendipity and just the craziness of being in the wrong place at the wrong time play a huge role in this universe – as they do in life, in my opinion, which is why I am so strongly drawn to the series, I think.

That said, although I enjoyed the first season of the series, I never got around to watching the second – I think it coincided with a busy time of life, and then I never could catch up – but I did watch this recently concluded third season, and, in contrast to some viewers, who saw it as a definite downturn, I liked it a lot – and in ways thought it was stronger than the first season.

I’ll hasten to say that the seasons of this program are not intricately connected – the first and second were, but the third (I think) is a completely different story with different characters doing similar, but different things.

There’s too much going on for review in a single blog post – and you can certainly get that in other places. I suppose what I’ll do then, is just focus on what pulled me into this third season of Fargo. I won’t say, “And why you should watch it,” because people’s tastes vary so widely, I never assume that others will agree with my reading, listening or viewing preferences. And come to think of it, you probably shouldn’t watch it. There. Does that cover my bases?

Fargo was wild and arresting, but as with all wild and arresting creations out there these days, you have to be careful and ask: Is there a point to this, or is it just random visual flailing to get my attention and make me think there’s Something Serious going on here? That happens a lot – in my opinion, it happened in Twin Peaks (the original – didn’t watch the recent reboot or whatever) – and is pretty much the norm These Days, since the norm for quite a bit of artistic energy in the modern era is just about the startling superficial image, and not really about anything – since there’s no substantive Anything for anything to be about.

So with Fargo, I held my judgment until the end. I suspected it was about something real, but I couldn’t be sure if I was being taken for a ride or not until the end. And then the end came, and while it was the most deeply satisfying ending I could have envisioned, like the ending of The Sopranos – it fit. Fargo seemed to me about something real, after all.

And what was it?

It was about all those things I spoke of at the beginning, those matters which fascinate me so much – how we are in the place where we’re in at any given moment, not so much because of our deliberate choices (no matter how much we like to think that’s the reason), but because of chance, accidents and the good and evil that’s happened in the past.

But Fargo was also about the nature of truth – and how much of what surrounds us, and what we construct our lives around is just fable, myth and self-serving lies – but – BUT – truth does exist. There is a true story, and there are, indeed, still small voices in our midst, doggedly witnessing to that truth, usually at a great price.

Fargo begins and ends with interrogations of accused men by government officials.

(My discussion will be as spoiler-free as possible. So if I’m vague…that’s why.)

The first scene of the series us to East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall. A man has been hauled in for questioning. He protests his innocence and indeed maintains, with increasing panic, that he is not the man accused and there is no rational reason to suppose him to be.

Fargo

The government official, cool and calm in his assertions, constructs a narrative, and the narrative is that the man in front of him is guilty. He is imposing a new identity on this man, and this narrative that he is a criminal is now the “truth.” It is now a true story.

The series ends in another small room, decades and half a world away from the first scene. Another government official sits behind a desk facing another accused man. Truth again is the issue, but this time, the dynamic is different. The official and the accused face each other, each maintaining the truth of their stories. Identity is again at the core, but now the roles are reversed. The accused has assumed identities in order to avoid detection of his criminal activities, and the official is maintaining, calmly and coolly, that she knows the truth of who he really is. She knows the true story.

There is only the faintest direct connection between the two scenes – one figure common to both narrative strands – who is, by the way, not physically present in either one. But this character’s existence serves to reinforce that other important Fargo theme of the role of random human connection in the course of life.

In between the two scenes are ten episodes in which characters are seduced by greed, deluded, killed, in which they face the truth and construct more lies, and most of the time face the consequences of their actions as the universe – bizarre and mysterious, but ultimately just, it seems – doles them out.

For the reason the events in that last scene came to the point that they did are this, in part:

Decades ago, someone traveled to Los Angeles with literary and filmmaking stars in their eyes, was exploited and mistreated, and bearing the physical consequences of this mistreatment, decided to leave it all behind, including his identity, and change his name to one he saw on a toilet bowl.

And

Decades ago, two brothers (ah…here we are) watched their father die. One brother knew the real value of the inheritance and tricked his brother into letting him have what was most valuable, traded for what the younger brother thought he wanted and needed at the moment, but was of little value beyond that immediate moment.

And here we are in this moment – dealing with the fallout and making our own present-day choices, carrying that weight.

Given that this is a crime drama, of course the choices are heightened and expressive of the most deadly sins – primarily greed and pride – always pride – here. And you watch fargoalong, filled with dread as characters you know have a glimmer of good in them insist on making decisions that range from the stupid to the short-sighted to just evil.

Along the way, Fargo gives us gorgeous cinematography, memorable images and intriguing metaphors – bridge plays a huge role, and along the way we dip into Peter and the Wolf, and find ourselves in a mystical bowling alley – a la Big Lebowski, but different – and excellent acting. Ewen McGregor plays both brothers, and while some critiqued his accent at times, I thought he was fabulous – the greatest challenge being when McGregor must play the brother Ray pretending to be his brother Emmitt.

Fargo_-_Emmit_and_Ray_Stussy

The central character here, though, is really the villain – one mystery man V.M. Varga, played by David Thewlis, whom some of you might know from Harry Potter – he played Professor Lupin.

In Fargo, Varga is the man in charge of some sort of mysterious global entity that steps in to loan Emmit Stussy – the Parking Lot King of Minnesota – some money. The trouble begins when, seeking to repay the loan, Stussy discovers that he’s been had – that the money was not so much a loan as a buy-in to the company, and bit by bit, Varga and his people are taking control.

How sin begins: We open ourselves up to a bit of shadow, and find ourselves in its grasp.

Varga, played by Thewlis is mesmerizing and -yes – disgusting. The character is bulimic. He gorges himself with all manner of food, methodically and greedily, and then vomits it out. As a consequence, his teeth are rotting away – the work of stomach acid. Food is not nourishment here. It is something else, something to fill need both deep-seated and pressingly immediate, then to be vomited out.

FARGO -- Pictured: David Thewlis as V.M. Vargas. CR: Matthias Clamer/FX

Varga’s bulimia is echoed in his other actions, as he takes in more and more money, more and more property, and vomits it all out in the form of, first of all elaborate self-justifying tales of false history presented as fact, and secondly, human lives.

This character is, to me, an embodiment of the deadly sins, as he perverts what is good, ingests it, takes it all into himself, but for no purpose except for the consumption, discards it, spews out self-justifying lies, and ultimately rots away.

The villain in the first season of Fargo was named Malvo and was played by Billy Bob Thornton, who is always a pleasure to watch in anything, even when he’s playing a villain. Some critics prefer his villain to Varga, but to me, there’s no contest. Thornton was good, but there was an element of the plot and character that I found so unrealistic – even in the heightened, unrealistic world of Fargo – that I lost interest in him. (If you watched it – I’m talking about the dentist part). Varga was weird and lived on a level of exaggeration, to be sure, but there was, at times, fear in his eyes. He wasn’t invincible.

Which, lest you think this is all about the darkness, is the point. As is the case with every Fargo iteration, the beating heart of the series is a police officer – usually female – who is doggedly and patiently pursuing the truth and believes in justice. Here, she’s played by Carrie Coons (of HBO’s The Leftovers) and the character is certainly more than just a symbol of conscience. It’s her stepfather whose murder sets off another chain of events in the series, and although she is not onscreen as much as other characters, it’s clear she is subject to the same dynamics of the universe as they are: she is in the place she is in, both professionally and personally, because of weird, random things that happened in the past. What to make of it all? What’s the truth? And how do you live with it right now?

 

We like to think that life, as we’re living it, is the result of conscious choices that we and others have made.  We read history this way, don’t’ we? We know how the story ends, so we read it as a narrative with decisions and steps leading up to that ending.

But it’s not that way. The way it is, instead, is a way of missteps and accidents, and while I can know some of it, most of it I won’t know.  We do live in the midst of a narrative, but it’s not because there’s no True Narrative to be known – it’s because we’re too small, as God tells Job, to even begin to grasp it. But someday, we will. We cling to hope that we will, we try to find the True Story as we go, and try not to fabricate too many false narratives on the way.

That mystery and strangeness is at the heart of life, and it’s at the heart of the Scriptures – a messy narrative full of human weakness, a story of God working and ultimately victorious, not just through the saints and their great works, but even through the poor sinners  and their weaknesses, crimes and lies.

 “Are you really my son Esau?” 
“Certainly,” Jacob replied….

****

Note: I have a theory about the connection between the bowling alley and Nikki’s fate – but I’ll wait to discuss it in the comment section at some point. 

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Internet memes and catchphrases come and go. Some strike us as cute or even surprisingly and succinctly descriptive when they first pop up, but then most of them wear out their welcome within days – hours, now, it seems.

Things. Like. This. Worst. Ever.

Well, one that I encounter on Twitter now and then that I’m not tired of yet is this and variations:

#ReadaDifferentBook

 

(Variations: Read Another Book. Watch A Different Movie)

 

The inspiration?

It’s the tic, among those who observe and comment on Life and Events  – which is everyone now – to filter everything through one of a very few pop culture filters. Usually:

The Hunger Games

Game of Thrones

Harry Potter.

Maybe, once in a while Star Wars.

But seriously: every battle, political and otherwise, is made to reflect off The Hunger Games, every power struggle is Game of Thrones and every bad guy is Voldemort.

Read A Different Book.

The point is about cultural narrowness and ignorance, but it’s about more.

The larger point is about just that – scope – as well as maturity. It’s that the world is bigger than the couple of books that captured your fancy and blew your mind when you were an adolescent, and it’s time to grow up. Really. Just grow up.

I think about this all the time. In fact, I think about every morning when I look at the Scriptures for the day and glance through pray some of the daily prayers.  I realize how differently I see the world and even just my life because this is the Book I read.

And not just “the Book” in the narrow sense of the Scriptures. I mean the entire “book” of revelation, of the meaning of all that is as it’s been revealed by God and understood and lived and passed down. It’s the only book, it seems to me, that is able to make sense of absolutely everything – as much sense as can be made by us in the limits of the here and now – whether that be goodness, evil, joy, sadness, politics, suffering, injustice, heroism, creativity, power – and powerlessness.

I have a lot of different kinds of people on my social media feeds. I don’t pay a lot of attention to any of those feeds, and hardly ever engage in particular on Facebook and Twitter (they’re in my life mainly to keep up with and communicate news, and I have never felt overwhelmed by either) – but I do see the opinions flow, and, oh my, over the past few months, there has been so much agony over the political scene. I wrote about this before – here – in which I said to those dismayed at the Trump election…welcome to my world – by which I mean the world of people not thrilled with the direction of Western culture and political life.

And it really hasn’t abated – the agony and rage, that is. The frantic anxiety. It’s still there, and what I see and hear in it is just narrowness of vision and experience. And it just seems that a lot of it is the fruit of the loss of the cosmic. Oh, a lot of these folks would say that au contraire, they are super cosmic  and tuned into the universe, but no, they’re not, because their universe is not a meaningful one and their universe, in the end, holds no mystery, no grace and no depth of a common bond of love.

It’s what I’ve noticed about myself. When I don’t situate myself consciously in that book – of all that God’s revealed and what’s offered to me through the Church in this life of grace, I lose my footing and more importantly, my perspective.

So  yeah,  #readadifferentbook. No, it’s not a program for health and wellness. It’s not a formula. It’s not even a promise.

To me, it’s just common sense. When your worldview is small and cramped, self-selected and self-curated and mostly materialist, you will understand your life and Life differently than you would if your worldview is informed by a truly global, historically-rooted, cross-cultural experience – and that’s not even taking the whole revelation aspect into account, is it?

The season finale of Fargo airs tonight, and I’m quite curious to see how it works itself out. The potential is there for aggravating, superficial pretense, or brilliance casting about for truth.

(This is related to the rest of the post, yes)

The major theme of Fargo  – set in the same world as the Coen brothers’ movie, but a different story, as it is every season – is, well, story. And truth. Characters must confront the lies they’ve told themselves and others in the past, and the consequences. They have to adjust to new realities. The world they find themselves in is not what they’d believed the world to be about. And lurking, descending amid all the chaos are the storytellers who are purveying lies and constructing a story which you are invited to join – if by “invited” you mean coerced by those who’d toss you off a parking lot deck  if you say ‘no.’

A few characters are attempting to stay real – really real – though, and they are, not surprisingly, the characters most filled with hope. They’re confronting this evil, but their relationship to it is different. Why?

In the last episode, one of these characters, a beat cop named Winnie, is consoling Gloria Burgle, the former small-town police chief, recently demoted in the course of a reorganization and frustrated by her superiors’ failure to see the truth and the seemingly unbeatable power of the evil she’s been trying to track and face down.  Here’s the conversation. They’re in a bar.

"fargo season 3"

Winnie (toasting): To showing up and fighting back.

Gloria: It’s over. The good guys lost.

Winnie: For the present – but Jesus wins in the end

Gloria: I’ll drink to that.

Me, too.

 

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From my favorite old-school 7th grade catechism, With Mother Church. 

EPSON MFP image

From B16 in 2007

It is a moving experience each year on Palm Sunday as we go up the mountain with Jesus, towards the Temple, accompanying him on his ascent. On this day, throughout the world and across the centuries, young people and people of every age acclaim him, crying out: “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

But what are we really doing when we join this procession as part of the throng which went up with Jesus to Jerusalem and hailed him as King of Israel? Is this anything more than a ritual, a quaint custom? Does it have anything to do with the reality of our life and our world? To answer this, we must first be clear about what Jesus himself wished to do and actually did. After Peter’s confession of faith in Caesarea Philippi, in the northernmost part of the Holy Land, Jesus set out as a pilgrim towards Jerusalem for the feast of Passover. He was journeying towards the Temple in the Holy City, towards that place which for Israel ensured in a particular way God’s closeness to his people. He was making his way towards the common feast of Passover, the memorial of Israel’s liberation from Egypt and the sign of its hope of definitive liberation. He knew that what awaited him was a new Passover and that he himself would take the place of the sacrificial lambs by offering himself on the cross. He knew that in the mysterious gifts of bread and wine he would give himself for ever to his own, and that he would open to them the door to a new path of liberation, to fellowship with the living God. He was making his way to the heights of the Cross, to the moment of self-giving love. The ultimate goal of his pilgrimage was the heights of God himself; to those heights he wanted to lift every human being.

Our procession today is meant, then, to be an image of something deeper, to reflect the fact that, together with Jesus, we are setting out on pilgrimage along the high road that leads to the living God. This is the ascent that matters. This is the journey which Jesus invites us to make. But how can we keep pace with this ascent? Isn’t it beyond our ability? Certainly, it is beyond our own possibilities. From the beginning men and women have been filled – and this is as true today as ever – with a desire to “be like God”, to attain the heights of God by their own powers. All the inventions of the human spirit are ultimately an effort to gain wings so as to rise to the heights of Being and to become independent, completely free, as God is free. Mankind has managed to accomplish so many things: we can fly! We can see, hear and speak to one another from the farthest ends of the earth. And yet the force of gravity which draws us down is powerful. With the increase of our abilities there has been an increase not only of good. Our possibilities for evil have increased and appear like menacing storms above history. Our limitations have also remained: we need but think of the disasters which have caused so much suffering for humanity in recent months.

The Fathers of the Church maintained that human beings stand at the point of intersection between two gravitational fields. First, there is the force of gravity which pulls us down – towards selfishness, falsehood and evil; the gravity which diminishes us and distances us from the heights of God. On the other hand there is the gravitational force of God’s love: the fact that we are loved by God and respond in love attracts us upwards. Man finds himself betwixt this twofold gravitational force; everything depends on our escaping the gravitational field of evil and becoming free to be attracted completely by the gravitational force of God, which makes us authentic, elevates us and grants us true freedom.

Following the Liturgy of the Word, at the beginning of the Eucharistic Prayer where the Lord comes into our midst, the Church invites us to lift up our hearts: “Sursum corda!” In the language of the Bible and the thinking of the Fathers, the heart is the centre of man, where understanding, will and feeling, body and soul, all come together. The centre where spirit becomes body and body becomes spirit, where will, feeling and understanding become one in the knowledge and love of God. This is the “heart” which must be lifted up. But to repeat: of ourselves, we are too weak to lift up our hearts to the heights of God. We cannot do it. The very pride of thinking that we are able to do it on our own drags us down and estranges us from God. God himself must draw us up, and this is what Christ began to do on the cross. He descended to the depths of our human existence in order to draw us up to himself, to the living God. He humbled himself, as today’s second reading says. Only in this way could our pride be vanquished: God’s humility is the extreme form of his love, and this humble love draws us upwards.

Seems appropriate that this will be my reading for the week:

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Today’s my day in Living Faith. It’s here. 

The scene described was around Sorano. Some shots from that walk:

 

More at Instagram (they have a new feature in which you can put up to ten photos or videos in a single post. Follow me!)

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All right then, now that I have vented, some reading. And perhaps the reading will make more sense having read the venting and knowing that these writers have a common reference point: the Scripture readings for Quinguasesima Sunday, which are 1 Corinthians 13 on love and Jesus’ speaking of his coming passion and healing of a blind man.

Of course, you can check out this post for some links to readings I dug up last year.

Reading Vintage Lent, you might come away with a slightly different sense of self than much contemporary Spiritual-Speak delivers. You – the person embarking on this Lenten journey – are not a Bundle of Needs whose most urgent spiritual agenda is to feel accepted, especially as your energy is consumed by staring sadly at walls erected by rigid hypocritical churchy people.

No. Reading Vintage Lent, you discern that you’re a weak sinner, but with God’s grace for which your Lenten penance makes room, you are capable of leaving all that behind, and you must, for Christ needs you for the work of loving the world.

Here, as per usual, is an excerpt from my favorite vintage Catholic text book, published in 1947 for 7th graders:

Then this, from a book of meditations tied to the Sunday Scripture readings, published in 1904. It’s called The Inner Life of the Soul, and it really is quite a nice book. Not all older spiritual writing is helpful to us – the writing can be florid or dense in other ways, it can reflect concerns that perhaps we don’t share. This isn’t like this, and the reason, I think, is that the chapters were originally published as columns in a periodical called Sacred Heart Review.  The author is one S.L. Emery, and contemporary reviews of the book indicate that many readers assumed that the author was male, but a bit more research shows that this is not true. Susan L. Emery was, obviously a woman, and is cited in other contemporary journals for her work in translating Therese of Liseux’s poetry. 

Anyway, Emery’s reflections, which tie together Scripture readings, the liturgy, the lives and wisdom of the saints and the concerns of ordinary experience, are worth bookmarking and returning to, and, if I might suggest to any publishers out there…reprinting.

What I think is important to see from this short reading, as well as the Ash Wednesday reflection that follows, is how mistaken our assumptions and stereotypes of the “bad old days” before Vatican II are. Tempted to characterize the spirituality of these years as nothing but cold-hearted rigidity distant from the complexities of human life, we might be surprised at the tone of these passages. The call to penance is strong. The guidelines are certainly stricter and more serious than what is suggested today. But take an honest look – it is not about the law at the expense of the spirit or the heart. Intention is at the core, and there are always qualifications and suggestions for those who cannot or are not required to follow the strictest reading of the guidelines: those who are young, old, or sick, or, if you notice, the laborer who must keep his or her strength up.

The season of Lent is at hand; in three days Ash
Wednesday will be here; our Mother the Church calls
upon us to fast, and pray, and to do penance for our sins.
Each one who cannot fast should ask for some practical
and methodical work of piety to do instead ; and perhaps
few better could be found than ten minutes’ serious medi-
tation, every day, upon the Passion of our Lord. This
practice can be varied in many ways, some of them being
so simple that a child might learn them ; and God alone
knows of what immense value to us this practice, faith-
fully continued through one Lent, would be. Let us con-
sider, then, by His assisting grace, that most helpful spiritual
devotion called meditation.

In our day the necessity is really extreme of keeping
the minds of Christians filled and permeated with an abid-
ing sense of the love and care of Almighty God for each
individual soul. The ceaseless hurry and worry prevalent
amongst us, to become rich, to be counted intellectual, to
know or to have as much as our neighbor, tends to destroy
that overruling sense of spiritual things which would give
ballast and leisure to our souls. Then, when earthly props
fail us, and loiieliness, sickness, or great trouble of any kind
confronts us, the utter shallowness of our ordinary pursuits
opens out in its desert waste before us, and our aching eyes
see nothing to fill the void. The ambition dies out of life.
If we have means, people begin to talk of change of scene
and climate for tired souls who know but too well that they
cannot run away from the terrible burden, self ; though their
constant craving is, nevertheless, to escape somehow from
their “ waste life and unavailing days.” The unfortunate,
introspective and emotional reading of our era fosters the
depression, and suicide has become a horribly common
thing.

Even a Christian mind becomes tainted with this pre-
vailing evil of despondency, which needs to be most forc-
ibly and promptly met. Two weapons are at hand, — the
old and never to be discarded ones of the love of God and
the love of our neighbor. …

….
Oh, if in our dark, dark days we could only forget our-
selves ! God, Who knows our trials, knows well how
almost impossible to us that forgetfulness sometimes seems ;
perhaps He ordains that it literally is impossible for a while,
and that it shall be our hardest cross just then. But at
least, as much as we can, let us forget ourselves in Him
and in our suffering brothers; and He will remember us.

I did a search for “Quinquagesima” on Archive.org and came up with lots of Anglican results, but here’s a bit of an interesting Catholic offering – an 1882 pastoral letter from the Archbishop of Westminster to his Archdiocese. The first couple of pages deal specifically with Lent, and the rest with Catholic education, which is interesting enough. But for today, I’ll focus on the Quinquagesima part. He begins by lamenting a decline in faith – pointing out the collapse of Christian culture. And then turns to Lent:

We are once more upon the threshold of this
sacred time. Let us use it well. It may be our last Lent, our
last time of preparation and purification before we stand in the
light of the Great White Throne. Let us, therefore, not ask
how much liberty may we indulge without positive sin, but how
much liberty we may offer to Him who gave Himself for us.
” All things to me are lawful, but all things edify not ; ” and
surely in Lent it is well to forego many lawful things which
belong to times of joy, not to times of penance.

The Indult of the Holy See has so tempered the rule of
fasting that only the aged, or feeble, or laborious, are unable to
observe it. If fasting be too severe for any, they may be dis-
pensed by those who have authority. But, if dispensed, they are .
bound so to use their liberty as to keep in mind the reason and
the measure of their dispensation. A dispensation does not
exempt us from the penitential season of Lent. They who use
a dispensation beyond its motives and its measures, lose all
merit of abstinence, temperance, and self-chastisement. If you
cannot fast, at least abstain. If you cannot abstain, use your
dispensation as sparingly as can be, and only as your need re-
quires. If in fasting and abstinence you cannot keep Lent,
keep it by prayer, and Sacraments, and alms, and spiritual
mortifications. Chastise the faults of temper, resentment, ani-
mosity, vanity, self-love, and pride, which, in some degree and
in divers ways, beset and bias if they do not reign in all our
hearts. In these forty days let the world, its works and ways,
be shut out as far as can be from your homes and hearts. Go
out of the world into the desert with our Divine Redeemer.
Fast with Him, at least from doing your own will ; from the
care and indulgence of self which naturally besets us. Examine
th^ habits of your life, your prayers, your confessions, your
communions, your amusements, your friendships, the books
you read, the money you spend upon yourselves, the alms you
give to the poor, the offerings you have laid upon the Altar, and
the efforts you have made for the salvation of souls. Make a
review of the year that is past ; cast up the reckoning of these
things ; resolve for the year to come on some onward effort,
and begin without delay. To-day is set apart for a test of your
charity and love of souls. We may call it the commemoration
of our poor children, and the day of intercession for the orphans
and the destitute.

Finally…do you want to be correct? Well, here you go.

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 But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us.”

-1 Samuel 8:19

Some post-election thoughts. These are very specific. I have a lot more, but who knows what will become of them.

As I watched the course of the presidential campaign over the past couple of years, my long-held convictions about a fundamental problem with the shape of the process were confirmed. The reactions of the supporters of Clinton since the election have only deepened those convictions.

It all comes down to this: the office of the presidency has become too important. 

There are both spiritual and political dimensions to this.  I’ll take the political first.

So most of you, I trust, are familiar with the United States Constitution and the general shape of our government. There are three branches: executive, legislative and judicial. The intention of the founders was to create a system in which power would be balanced and checked. Hence the term “checks and balances.”

The President is the head of one of those branches – the executive.

He is the head of the executive branch which “executes” the laws that the legislature enacts and the judicial branch evaluate in terms of their constitutionality.

Here is Article II of the Constitution, which delineates the powers and responsibilities of the president. 

He is not the king. He is not a “ruler.” Moreover, he is not the representative of anyone’s soul, identity or deepest yearnings.

But of course, that limited sense of the president has not held.

I sometimes think, although it was probably inevitable, that it was unfortunate that a hero was chosen as our first president. It sets the bar high and imbues the office with an aura prone to idealization and idolatry – hence the 1865 fresco in the rotunda of the dome of the US Capitol, The Apotheosis of George Washington– which depicts Washington rising to the heavens in glory. “Apotheosis” means deification. 

washington

How much better it would have been, I think, if John Adams had been our first president!

The temptation of make too much of the presidency is also an extension of this country’s deeply-rooted sense of its own role in Divine Providence, beginning with the Puritans, continuing through the Revolution and formation of the nation and reaching a peak of sorts in the 19th century.

The expansion of the federal government, especially the executive branch, has not helped.  Beginning with the Progressive Era then escalating, of course with the Great Depression and World War II – big, global problems that seemed to call for big solutions that, once in place, are all but impossible to roll back. And yes, books have been written on the “Imperial Presidency.”

But now we are at a point at which people spend years of their lives, sacrifice their family and personal lives and spend hundreds of millions of dollars to attain this office, an office which has far more power than the founders intended, partly because the branch of government which it heads has far more power than it should.

Yes, there are and always have been profound differences in views about the shape and direction that the United States government should take. People with varying views group themselves in political parties to put forward their view and bring it into power. So in a way, yes, the President does “embody” something and that something can involve not only administrative responsibilities but the ideals that shape this direction. Fine.

But it’s too much. 

There is something wrong when the country is more or less constantly thinking about the president: who it is now, and who it will be in a few years. Don’t you resent the obsession and the attention to the office of the presidency? I do.

It seems to be a sign of a fundamental instability and lack of a core, as well as celebrity culture.

And of course politicians play on this. “Make America Great Again.” “Build a better world for our children.”  It’s all part of the same thing.

Which brings us to the spiritual, as it always does.

Over the past few days, protests have broken out over the country, centered on the meme #NotMyPresident. The anger, shock, dismay and yes, grief, is on full display.

When I look at this on the news or on my social media feeds, I see, above anything else, a spiritual vacuum.

There is room, of course, and if your conscience demands it, an obligation to express hesitation and opposition to a stated program of action with which you disagree or feel some aspect of your life to be threatened by. But even so, most people would, you know, wait for the person to actually take office and make decisions to make a judgment on how to react to that. To engage in this kind of protest at this stage is nothing more than attempts at intimidation.

No, what I sense goes deeper, and it’s not just the events of the last couple of days that lead me to that, but also the spiritual dimension of what I wrote above.

It’s too much. It shouldn’t be that important. 

But for some reason, it is. Why?

Well, when God has been chased out of your life, when the transcendent is simply what you make it to be, it is almost inevitable that the inborn yearning that we have for certainty in identity, belonging and meaning will be transferred.

Basically, this: If the election of the head of the executive branch sends you spinning and feeling distraught because the president doesn’t represent your values and moves you to disrupt your life to cry out  #NotMyPresident! …the presidency is too important to you. It’s become an idol.

It is possible to have high expectations of our leaders’ competence and abilities without deifying them or expecting them to embody your personal values and be crushed and outraged  and moved to violence and hatred when they don’t.

Perhaps a good way to get my point is to take it down a level. Think about the governor of your state. The mayor of your city or town.

When you consider who to vote for those offices, what enters into your decision-making? I’m going to guess it’s pretty practical.  I would think it would seem pretty strange to deal with the identity of your governor or mayor in the deeply personal way that some seem to be dealing with the presidency.

I don’t vote for mayor, governor, Senator or President, looking to have my ultimate personal values reflected or my sense of the ideal human being or social construction represented. After all, then I would never vote, would I? And if a candidate I vote for happens to win and hold office, I don’t look to he or she to do anything but move the workings of government in the general direction which he or she promised, and do as little harm as possible.

I can understand being upset. I really can. I can even sympathize with the identity politics aspect of this and the disgust with Trump’s personal character. Absolutely! Perhaps you are saying that you will be “embarrassed” to have Trump as president. Well, there are some of us who have been mostly  “embarrassed” by the president of the United States since the Gerald Ford days, more or less continually, for various reasons, so it gets to a point at which you realize…he’s just the president and there’s no need for me to tie who I am, even as an American, to the identity of who the president is today. 

So yes, the angst seems totally out of proportion to what this office *should* be about. I mean…who among us who was alive and sentient in, say 1977, looks back and says, “Gerald Ford! His presidency was satisfying because it represented me and satisfied my soul!” ?  Or..”That Ford presidency really did a number on me. Never been the same since, and what is life, my friends, anyway?”

So yes, resist.

Resist the temptation to put your trust in kings.

Resist their attempts to exploit your yearning for meaning and the transcendent.

Resist…and be free. 

 

62891614

 

 

 

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A Birmingham-based writer and acquaintance of mine had a piece about mental illness and faith published in the Washington Post today. It’s very good, and I’d recommend anyone in any kind of pastoral ministry read it:

The Scripture for this morning was John 16:16-24. The pastor read the verses aloud and said a short prayer. As soon as he began talking through his main points, I braced myself for the disappointment I knew was coming. I suspected he wouldn’t take this opportunity to discuss things such as depression and anxiety in the Christian life.

I was right.

Although much of what he said was good and biblical, he didn’t mention mental illness. Instead, he said if you aren’t experiencing joy, you should examine your life and repent of any sin that might be blocking it.

I don’t want to hijack Charlotte’s excellent piece for my own purposes – but, well, old habits are hard to break. My tangent is to observe how this attitude reflects the dangers of superficial religious practice in which definitions of things like “joy” and “peace” have been untethered from hundreds of years of tradition – which means, basically, “human experience” – and come to mean not much more than what the culture-of-the-moment says they mean.

For indeed, traditional, historic Christian spirituality may not have understood the nature of mental illness the way we do today, but it did embody an understanding of the complexities of the human person, accept a mystery of how our particular personalities interact with the transcendent, and provide understanding pathways of how to navigate that.

It also points out to me, once again, why emotion-based religious events are so terrible. Usually I say something like “inadequate” or “flawed” when I talk about this, but I think I’ll just move on and say that gatherings in which individuals are manipulated into a certain emotional state by music, environment, rhetorical tricks, guilt and even personal witness are terrible.  Defining “great worship today” by the tears shed or emotions felt by the hundreds swaying along to your music makes me think, Fascist! 

Back to Charlotte’s point. This is an important one, and I think her treatment is balanced and fair. It’s not, she says, that every word spoken should revolve around the reality of mental illness, but neither should it be ignored, especially when speaking of the practice of spirituality.

Therese Borchard has been writing about the issue of spirituality and depression for many years.

I know someone who read this book – A Catholic Guide to Depression –   and found it very helpful.

****

This brings another, somewhat related point to mind.

I was talking to someone who knew a younger teen who was experiencing some faith questions. In fact, this young person had reluctantly determined that he must be an agnostic. Why? Because he didn’t and couldn’t seem to feel anything. 

When I heard this, my heart cracked a little and then I experienced a moment of clarity, in which my sometimes inchoate skepticism about youth ministry all pulled together and made sense.

I thought about all of the youth ministry programs that I see and am somewhat familiar with, that my kids are invited to participate in. They’re all emotionally-based. One one level, they’re about the emotion of enjoyment and fun, based on the assumption that this is necessary in order to just get them in the door. Moving to another level, they tend to emphasize other emotions – joy, remorse, connectedness, excitement –  from retreats to Adoration events that feature praise music and personal witness.

What if you’re a kid who searches for evidence of truth mostly through your head and not through your emotions? 

Adults can look at all of this with some perspective. We can separate the emotion from the core of faith. We can understand that for a lot of us, that emotionally-based stage – the affective stage  – is important and maybe even necessary. It was for me, when I was a senior in high school, and was deeply moved and felt an individual, very emotional encounter with Christ at a class retreat at the Jesuit Retreat House in Atlanta. But that was one moment, and perspective taught me that there was more to faith. The holistic nature of Catholic spirituality taught me that this type of intensity was rare, and didn’t define faith – my faith.

But teens?

Most of them probably don’t understand this. I’d say that the vast majority don’t. They just haven’t lived long enough. And so picture a kid whose personality and character is not oriented towards truth-seeking via emotion. Perhaps this stuff even makes them feel uncomfortable. They’re in all of these youth ministry events in which they’re constantly preached at about feelings of joy and happiness as the definition of faith, in which other kids are crying because Jesus is so real to them…

…and they’re not feeling it. They’re not crying. It’s not intense for them.

Does that mean I maybe don’t have faith? At all?

*****

(What helps? Correctly defining faith, to begin with. Start here.)

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For years, I have been answering the question, “Why go to Mass?” for myself and others. You probably have, too. It  tends to comes up.

I answered it for high school students. I discussed it with adults. I talked about it, wrote about it. I answered it for my own children, and I contemplate it myself.

The answers we give teens and young adults these days – and let’s focus on them –  tend to flow from a particular focus: YOU.

Go to Mass because you will get something out of it. You will be happier. More at peace. You will feel closer to God. Your week will be off to a great start! It’s awesome!

There’s nothing (not much) wrong with this. Taking for granted that the salvation of one’s soul is, indeed, about yourself, other self-centric concerns aren’t ignored even by spiritual writers from the past. Francis de Sales:

Strive then to your utmost to be present every day at this holy Celebration, in order that with the priest you may offer the Sacrifice of your Redeemer on behalf of yourself and the whole Church to God the Father. Saint Chrysostom says that the Angels crowd around it in adoration, and if we are found together with them, united in one intention, we cannot but be most favourably influenced by such society. Moreover, all the heavenly choirs of the Church triumphant, as well as those of the Church militant, are joined to our Dear Lord in this divine act, so that with Him, in Him, and by Him, they may win the favour of God the Father, and obtain His Mercy for us. How great the blessing to my soul to contribute its share towards the attainment of so gracious a gift!

Introduction to the Devout Life

From a 1958 high school textbook:

His goodness to us in instituting the Blessed Sacrament is beyond measure. He comes to the altar at the call of the priest and comes to dwell in our souls and in our bodies, transforming us, comforting us, bringing that ‘peace which the world cannot give.’

Of course this is why we go to Mass. God graciously created us for life with him, and after Baptism, this is the core of it. Everything is there in Him, and there it is we find our true selves, which means we find peace and yes, happiness.

But when it comes to encouraging young people to go to Mass and like it, by George, I tire of the appeal to the self. I tire of the appeal to the self in relation to all contemporary spirit-talk, as a matter of fact.

For in a culture dominated by economics and the market, the line between evangelism and marketing is quite thin. It is challenging for evangelizers to make their case without thinking of their listeners as consumers who must be sold on the personal benefits of their product. Impossible, apparently

But the appeal to the self and its feelings is not enough, and it’s not true to authentic Christian spirituality, which is rooted, not most of all in how our spiritual acts will make us feel, but how they reflect our duty to love God and neighbor, since that is where authentic peace is found. The spiritual masters know a lot about the mystery of emotion, most of all that emotions can reveal, but emotions can also distract and conceal. Our emotions can tug us forward and lead us to a real place with God, but just as quickly, they can mislead us into thinking God is present where He isn’t – or absent when he is quite near.

So I am afraid that if I were to ever return to the classroom, my patience with coaxing, marketing and promising good feelings as a selling point for Mass would be shot at this point.  I wouldn’t even bother. As I have gotten older, as one does, and witnessed more and more suffering in the various circles of my life, near and far, the reasons for going to Mass have flipped. The urgency I feel (ah!) about me going to Mass, about my kids and everyone I know going to Mass is not about inspiring or soothing feelings we might derive from the experience.  After the basic, no-other-reason-is-necessary – duty to give thanks to God and join in Christ’s sacrifice, I really just want to say…….

the world needs prayer. You need prayer. I need prayer. Your friends need prayer. So many sick people. Have you heard? Violence. Despair. People afraid and lost.

How about we try to stop being so lazy and self-centered  and pray for each other?

You didn’t make it to Mass this week? Forget about yourself..don’t you care about anyone else enough to get out of bed, turn the phone off, put some decent clothes on and bring all the people you say you care about into the presence of the only One who can give any of us real peace in our suffering?

We are all so scattered, we are all so busy, and even when we take the time, our spiritual and corporal works of mercy reach one person at a time, for a moment.

Our hands, no matter how expert, can heal and cure, but not for all time, and only until the next pain strikes. Our understanding words can help, our contributions can turn life around, our time can save someone’s sanity. All of this is true.

This is what we can do, what we are called to do, what we are mandated to do.

But as we know to our frustration, even this, even at the level of the saints, is only so much.

In the Mass, those walls crumble. We enter into the Presence of Infinite Love poured out on Calvary for every person in the entire world. We are right there.

Knowing the hurt, confusion and fear, knowing the physical suffering, knowing the spiritual isolation that haunts the world, how can I say no to the chance to bring this mystery of human suffering into the presence of the greater Mystery of Love?

So there you go. My new pitch to the Kids:

Try to stop being such a selfish jerk. Go to Mass and pray for your mom. She needs it.

You think it will sell at youth group?

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