Saturday, December 31, 2011

Solidarity, Part I

Solidarity was quite the word in 1980s and '90s. It's a great word in the Christmas season too. 
      When it comes to the amazing mystery of the Incarnation— God becoming man—I think people of all time can share in the wonder of it, but that certain aspects might strike people of a certain time or culture more deeply than other aspects for other peoples. 
      Of course, our main problem today is not being struck by it at all. Our ability to be appreciate what it is we celebrate at Christmas and experience awe is coated over with candy canes and commercialism.
      But when we do stop and think about it, we can of course be surprised by God's humility in being born into poverty. But being a less class-conscious society than others, this detail may not be as amazing as it was to other times and places.
      His weakness may be more thought-provoking to us, but not in the same way as to the cultures surrounding the Holy Land at the time, or even the dictatorships of the twentieth century. To them, strength was everything; might was right. To us who at least in theory have more compassion on the weak and vulnerable, it's rather the giving up of control that is more astonishing. 
      In our culture, we live and move and breathe in the illusion of control. We do have an extraordinary amount of control over our own lives, especially compared to times past—with all our technology, wealth, medical advances, etc. But it is an illusion. Occasionally, something enormous will break through the illusion and wake us up: earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, 9/11, etc. But we quickly fall back into a doze, especially if the incident did not touch us personally. The economic downfall has had some impact in showing us that even hard work and following worldly financial advice to a T is still not fail-proof protection from financial ruin. And all of us will eventually encounter illness or accident in our families or ourselves;  truly, any of us could die at any moment.
      When this truth does break through to us, it usually terrifies us. Or makes us angry, usually at God. So when we stop and think about the fact that Almighty God, who created the universe and can do anything, became a helpless baby, totally dependent upon His own creatures, it is astounding. Which of us would do that? We may admit, however grudgingly, when we have to, that we don't have complete control over our own lives, but how many of us would willingly give it up?
      The other element of the Incarnation that is particularly meaningful to our day is the depth of His coming to us—the absolute solidarity of the way He did it.
      Think about it. He could have just appeared in all His glory and delivered His message, voila! handing over a Bible already printed by Heavenly Press, infusing the disciples with all the knowledge they needed, and accomplishing our salvation in some much easier fashion. Or, even if He wanted to save us by becoming human—He didn't need to become a baby or suffer on the cross. He could have taken on flesh as an adult, appeared for a day, and suffered a mere paper cut. His blood is so precious, that a single drop is enough to save the universe.
      Why then did he come as a baby? In poverty, in weakness, in obscurity? Why did He live among His people for thirty years, an ordinary life as a craftsman in a poor village? Why did He spend three years teaching, preaching, and healing? Why didn't He just give the disciples a weekend workshop?
      In our fast-paced, sound-bite, bottom-line society, all this seems such a waste of valuable time. He could have done all that with much more time-efficiency.
      Why did He do it the way He did? Because He loves us. He wanted to spend time with us. And because He came not merely to tell us how to live but to show us.
      Our children often want to grow up quickly, to gain skills and knowledge in a day. We know they can't grow a foot overnight like the kid in the movie Big; nor can they become a virtuoso on their chosen instrument in a week or a month. We laugh at their impatience. But aren't we the same? We want to lose weight or grow in virtue right away, without any work.
      But that's not the way God has set things up. Anything worthwhile takes time and effort. And instead of merely telling us, “Suck it up; this is the way it is,” He came down here with usas one  of usand lived it too. They say that parents teach by example, and God is the best Father there is.
      No one in all the universe since its creation has expressed such solidarity as God did when He became a little human baby two thousand years ago. Solidarity defined.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Bethlehem—Closer Than You Think

Celia found herself gazing at the night sky, amazed at the countless stars that seemed brighter than she’d ever seen them before, then wondered where she was. She looked around and saw a glow in a hillside nearby. The light was streaming from what appeared to be a sizeable cave, and in the radiance spilling out she could see a line of people winding up to it.
      As she drew nearer, she noticed the people beside the cave were dressed in the ancient garb of the Holy Land. Just as she drew up to one side of the cave, she saw some men leaving, who looked rather grubby and shabby, with long sticks in their hands. No, not sticks, she realized…crooks—they were shepherds! She quickly tried to see past them into the cave. She gasped. There was the manger, and the baby, and a beautiful young woman, with a bearded man nearby. Somehow, some way, she was at the stable in Bethlehem.
      The last shepherd was rising from lying prostrate, to kneel by Mary, who was holding Jesus. The old man took the tiny baby’s hand in his, and immediately the little fingers curled around the hardened, aged thumb, while the man kissed them reverently. Then he clumsily got to his feet and shuffled off.
      Next came the wise men, much more splendidly dressed, but who also knelt and with great humility, obsequiously laid their gifts at Mary’s feet.
      Following them came what Celia supposed must be townsfolk from Bethlehem. Many followed the example of the shepherd, kneeling and touching the babe with awe-filled countenances. Others seemed more awkward, and went through the same motions but with faces marked by doubt and discomfort. Celia was indignant: why were these people here if they didn’t believe? Didn’t they know this was the Messiah? Hadn’t they heard the witness of the shepherds and the words of the wise men?
      More and more figures were still lining up in the twilight outside the cave. What a lot of people lived in Bethlehem! thought Celia. But as they came into the light, she saw that they were dressed differently. First came some in togas, then others in long gowns and tall caps or in armor. But after a while, she forgot about their clothes in watching their faces. Among these too were mixed those who clearly recognized the Christ in the little infant, and those whose reverence and kiss were belied by the speed and uneasiness of their movements.
      Gradually, there was a change in the expression of these “barely believing ones”, as Celia came to think of them. Furtiveness or hypocrisy came to be replaced by boredom and nonchalance. These people were in modern clothes and slouched in line, looking around at their neighbors or off into space. They sauntered over to the infant and tapped His little hand like workers clocking in a time-card, and then strolled away as if they were sleepwalking.
      Then Celia recognized one of these dreamy ones coming out of the cave: it was herself!—in the very outfit she had worn that morning to Mass. She watched herself amble down an aisle and plop down in a pew, while the choir concluded the Communion song.
      A chill trickled down her back, then she woke up.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

A Life of Adventure

Even when we're convinced that maybe we could use a little more  self-denial in our lives, we're not always sure how to go about it. We might read about the self-floggings of medieval monks or the sometimes extreme penances of saints in past ages. The Church doesn’t encourage these practices today, but rather emphasizes three forms: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. That doesn’t mean, however, that she forbids any other form of mortification--far from it. Nor do we need to fall back on extreme practices of the past. It’s not hard to find simple but effective penitential opportunities; they’re all around us, every day.
      G. K. Chesterton once wrote that “an inconvenience is an adventure wrongly considered.” How life-changing a motto this could be! What is it about an adventure that is so much more appealing than a duty or an inconvenience? It must be the idea of being heroic, courageous, meeting a challenge bravely, for noble reasons, in defense of others, etc. Yet all of that resides potentially in every difficulty we meet each day. 
     It doesn’t feel like it. No dragons are in sight. But responding to a difficulty with Christlike charity and patience requires heroism, and the courage to die to oneself. It can also be done for noble reasons—such as the love of God (nothing nobler!)—and in the “defense” of others, if we turn it into a sacrifice that we offer up on another’s behalf. And if no dragons are visible, that doesn’t mean they aren’t there. Don’t doubt that you’ll have to fight the world, the flesh, and the devil, at the very least in your thoughts and inclinations, in order to rise to this challenge.
       This, in essence, is not all that different from the “Little Way” of St. Thérèse of Lisieux.  As a child, she had been trained to look for chances each day to do something for Jesus—ten chances, specifically, even being given a little string of ten beads with which to count her sacrifices. As a young woman, reading about and being daunted by the impressive acts of mortification of the saints who lived before her, she decided to continue her practice, but instead of striving merely for ten, she would make it her way of life. She would use every opportunity—whether it be a crack in her pitcher or a fellow nun who consistently splashed her during the washing each day—to turn something unwanted, unpleasant into a gift to God.
      Though many modern Catholics are familiar with St. Thérèse’s Little Way, she wasn’t the first to discover it. Brother Lawrence, a seventeenth-century French monk, and Jean-Pierre de Caussade, an eighteenth-century Jesuit and spiritual director to nuns, both wrote about the powerful efficacy of doing one’s duty and accepting whatever crosses might come along, out of love for God. In Practicing the Presence of God, Brother Lawrence advocates this method as a means to encounter the Lord throughout the day. Fr. Caussade describes essentially the same method as a means of spiritual growth that leads to what his work is sometimes titled, The Joy of Full Surrender (also known as Self-Abandonment to Divine Providence).

     So let us pray that the Lord will change our mind-set, and give us a heart that appreciates the gift of penance—whether it’s one we choose or one that chooses us. May He help us to recognize in each opportunity the chance to make reparation for our sins, the chance to show Him how sorry we are that we have hurt or disappointed or offended Him, the chance to show Him that we love Him, and the chance to help build His kingdom by participating in His redemptive sacrifice on the Cross. Penance is not something to avoid, but a gift to be embraced!

Adapted from excerpts of my recent article, "Mortification for Moderns" in Voices, available at

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Why Is Advent Penitential?

Last week we left this question hanging.  I’m guessing one very good reason Mother Church arranged it so, is that this idea of preparing for the Lord’s coming by repentance and penance is in the Bible.
      Last week’s gospel was about how God sent John the Baptist to preach repentance in preparation for Christ’s public ministry. In Luke the quote from Isaiah is longer: ”Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God."
In our day of cars and paved roads, this passage might be a little lost on us. If we think about it, we can understand somewhat why a straight road without hills is preferable, especially if we’re prone to carsickness. But imagine traveling by horseback or chariot or perhaps a primitive kind of carriage. It would take a long time, and the more hills and curves, the longer and more tiring the trip. And even though the roads built by the Romans were far better than any dirt road, without maintenance even they could get pretty bumpy.
The call of John the Baptist is a call to each of us. The Lord, our King, wishes to come to us. We want His road to be pleasant and easy. Working to make this road straight and smooth honors him, and also makes his coming swifter, for he has a direct path to our hearts.
St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross say we are all called to contemplation—that the experience of enjoying the presence of God is possible for each of us—but what may keep it from happening is the clutter of other things in our hearts: sins and worries and attachments to anything but Him. Recall Jesus’ parable of the seed that fell among thorns: “They are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature.” Teresa and John advise that we have to let go of all that to have God. The point of penance is to detach us from these things. That’s where straightening our crooked paths and smoothing out our rough ways comes in—that is, cutting out the sins and the faults.
Lowering the mountains and filling the valleys is also crucial. We need to look at ourselves to see where there’s too much of us: Is there too much of me in my conversations? Is there too much of my preferences in family or group decisions? Is my pride too great to allow me to apologize? Is there too much self-indulgence in my enjoyment of food, drink, TV, the Internet, reading or any otherwise licit good?
And where I am absent, where do I fail to extend myself? Is there too little of my attention to my children’s or spouse’s or co-worker’s conversation? Or to their needs or wishes? Is too little of my mind given to thinking of others, or too little of my time spent in helping them? Is there too little of my life given to God? When I do pray, do I give Him too little opportunity to talk to me, or do I do all the talking?
     Years ago, in choir, my friend Suzanne and I both had trouble adjusting to the gender-corrected version of the "Prayer of St. Francis". We'd start to sing the old line "it is in giving to all men..." but hearing others sing begin the new words "of ourselves" we'd correct ourselves after the word "to", so we'd end up singing, "it is in giving to ourselves that we receive." Now while an advertising agency might jump on this, it's hardly what St. Francis had in mind. But it ties back into the mountain-valley image. Where am I giving to myself instead of giving of myself?
We need to cut down our hills and mountains—our pride and other areas where self looms large—and instead fill up our valleys—our personal deficiencies, the areas where our love is shallow. We need to dig into the mountain of self and turn to fill in our valley of shallow love. For example, we can cut off a negative comment or thought and instead say something positive or pray for the person we find annoying. Or we can cut down on some self-indulgence and instead spend our time and energy doing something for someone else.
      But why Advent? Why not all year round? It’s not that we should only work on this during the Church’s official seasons of penance. Rather, there are so many incredible mysteries of God to ponder and so many ramifications on our own lives that it’s hard to keep them all in mind all the time, so Mother Church sets aside certain times of the year to highlight the most important ones. The fact that Almighty God became a human—and a poor, helpless infant one at that—deserves its own season of celebration and contemplation. And that time of feasting deserves a time of fasting to prepare for it. And don’t we clean the house when we’re expecting guests, especially an important one? Penitence is cleaning up our souls.
We don’t live in Palestine two millennia ago, so we can’t participate as directly in the tangible, visible coming of Christ. But He’s coming again. We don’t know when the Second Coming will occur—it could happen during our lifetime; it could happen another two millennia later. But He will come for each one of us at the end of our own lives—and that could happen any day, any moment. So yes, we should be preparing for that coming all year round, all our lives long.
      But it’s hard to remember that all the time. So the Church reminds us periodically, and that’s what Advent is all about.

For more on penitence, see my article "Mortification for Moderns," recently published in Voices

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Purple = Penitential

This title is not a statement of a personal dislike for the hue— actually most shades of purple are among my favorite colors. Nor am I making a clever remark about the disadvantages of being royal or ruling (purple traditionally being considered “regal”), such as, that it can be a royal pain. There's certainly plenty of truth to that, and given that the high-school play I'm directing, Schiller's Mary Stuart, very pointedly makes this point, it wouldn't be surprising that it would be on my mind, since the performance is in less than a week. (Eeek!)

      No, I'm actually trying, in the midst of Christmas music and escalating visions of red, green, and gold, to remember that it's Advent. And the liturgical color of Advent is purple (the same as Lent). A visual reminder of an almost forgotten fact: Advent is meant to be a penitential season.
      Before grappling with the question Why would Advent be penitential? it seems more pertinent (picking up on my Purgatory post of last week) to ponder Why do penance at all?
      Didn't Jesus on the cross take away for us all the punishment due to sin? In a sense, yes, and yet, Paul says, “In my flesh, I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church” (Col 1:24).
      How could anything be lacking in Christ’s sufferings for His Church? He’s God! He’s perfect, so His sacrifice had to have been perfect, and if perfect then complete. Right? Yes and no. If His sacrifice is “lacking” or “incomplete,” it’s not due to a failure on His part. Rather, it’s because He left room for us to be a part of it. After all, we are His Body. How can the Head suffer and not the Body?
      If after dinner, I only do the dishes, and wait (somewhat impatiently) for my children to bring them to me, as well as to put away the leftovers, clear and wash the table and counters, and sweep, it is not because I am incapable of doing those tasks. In fact, I could do them a lot better and faster by myself! But I purposely leave them undone, so my children can participate in the job. This is primarily for their sake. I want them to learn what it means to be a family, to be responsible, to be disciplined, and the different tasks involved in keeping a home clean. Similarly, God is perfectly capable of cleaning up the universe all by Himself, but He leaves some of the work to us.
      Because we need it and justice requires it.
      Wait a second, why does justice require it? Didn’t Jesus pay the price for us on the cross? He most certainly did. He paid the eternal penalty for our sins—something we could never have done, no matter how hard we tried. However, there is also a temporal penalty due, which we are obligated to pay.
      Look at it this way. If the ten-year-old son of a billionaire managed to get hold of some powerful explosives and blow up a mall one night, no one would expect the boy to pay for it, because, obviously, being ten, he couldn’t. If his father stepped in and paid the damages, the boy wouldn’t owe the debt anymore, right? His father wouldn’t expect him to pay him back. But wouldn’t it be wrong for the son to do nothing? Mowing the lawn and taking out the trash cheerfully every week for years and years wouldn’t make much of a dent in a debt like that, but it might make an impression on his father. Wouldn’t it be only right for the son to do whatever he could to show his gratitude to his dad? Wouldn’t it be the just and loving thing to do, and a sign of his true repentance? And the state would still require something from the boy himself—community service of some kind, as a way to make reparation for the damage he had caused.
      Similarly, our sins have not only eternal effects but temporal as well. Sin is not committed in a vacuum, but affects other people, even the most private and hidden sins (for instance, they weaken our character, which affects how we treat others). We likewise need to make reparation to our fellow man and to show God our true repentance and gratitude. There is a temporal debt that we owe, and if we do not “pay” it in this life, then we’ll need to do so after death, in Purgatory. This is where penance comes in, “community service” not for the state, but for the Kingdom.