04 February 2006

Misericordia veritatis

4th Week OT (Sat): 1 Kings 3.4-13; Mark 6.30-34
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory, Irving, TX
Hear it!

Compassion moves Jesus to teach the crowd. Not a need for attention, a hunger for the adulation or the warmth of the spotlight. It is his love for them that compels him to stay a little longer to teach, to go one more hour to show them the Way. He looks out over them and sees clearly the reason for his time among them: they are sheep without a shepherd, hungry souls needing the solid food of truth and compassion. And so, he stays to teach them many things. And they stay to be taught.

What does it take to teach and what does it take to be taught? More specifically, what does it take to teach the faith and what does it take to be taught the faith? Maybe there’s even a more basic question here that needs to be asked and answered first: why is it even necessary to teach and to be taught the faith? Why can’t we be solitary learners? Individual souls seeking truth? Captains for our own exploratory faith-vessels?

There is an element of individual effort in learning the faith, of course, some sense of being the unique soul seeking out the Face of God in order to better reveal Him to others. But my question is more about the nature of the faith itself than it is about the comparative effectiveness of diverse learning styles. The nature of our faith requires that it be taught. We can come to trust God without being told to, without being tested by a professor. But can we come to the fullest possible understanding of what that trust means for us without authoritative instruction, without the experienced witness of a teacher to poke, prod, stir-up, and direct?

As a shared trust in God, a witness passed on and handed down, our faith is not simply about feeling a connection with the Divine, not merely an affective jolt or glowy attraction to Something Transcendent. We trust a person, Jesus Christ. Not an idea. We have faith in the Son our Father sent to teach us. Not a system of principles or some sort of cabbalistic academic jig-saw puzzle.

Dominicans are committed to teaching misericordia veritatis, the compassion of truth. This is the mercy that the truth reveals, the compassion evident in exposing the truth. And we do this best as a fraternity, as an Order of Preachers. Not as singular friars motivated by academic incentive or the lure of the spotlight, but as a family committed to God’s Self-revelation in scripture, in His creation, and in the unique person of Jesus Christ.

As teachers of the faith, all of us must come to both the content of revelation and its subjective affect with the humility that true compassion requires. It is not enough to rehearse publicly propositional declarations of the faith. Nor is it enough to gather together and vigorously emote. The fullest possible understanding of the faith comes when we obey—listen to—what has been handed on to us and when we experience personally, run into, the man, Jesus Christ—in one another, the Church; in the memorial of his sacrifice for us, the Eucharist; and as living witnesses to his compassion.

To teach the faith is to show godly pity, mercy, to those starving for the truth of Christ. To be taught, to be a disciple, is to tame pride long enough to admit a basic ignorance and the need for instruction.

The crowd followed Jesus to a deserted place and with compassion he taught them many things. We, his students, his apostles, can do no less.

03 February 2006

On the Habits and Spirit of Dissent

When we talk about a “Spirit of This” or a “Spirit of That,” I think we mean to point out a deeply seated habit of assenting to and doing This and That. A Spirit of Charity points out a habit of assenting to the call to charity, being charitable, and doing charitable works. The Spirit of Disobedience points out a habit of assenting to the temptation of rebellion, being rebellious, and actually rebelling. To say then that a person or institution is “possessed of a Spirit of X” is to say that this person or institution is habitual assenting to, being, and doing X.

If all of this is true, then I think we can learn something about the Spirit of Dissent by looking at the Habits of Dissent among those charged with teaching the faith in the Church. This includes both clerical and lay teachers, elementary-secondary teachers, and teachers in college, seminary, and schools of theology.

Habitually, dissent looks like…

…anger: a consuming frustration, disappointment, rage toward the Truth
…hatred: a self-defining loathing for the apostolic faith
…willful ignorance: a refusal to learn, a refusal to be disciplined (to be a student)
…pride: an utter failure to be humble in the face 2,000 years of teaching
…arrogance: an expression of pride that manifests as dismissiveness of authority
…entitlement: an obsessive assertion of prerogative/privilege over service
…idolatry: the raising up of Novelty and Trendiness as final ends
…rebelliousness: revolting against legitimate authority in favor of private choice

What feeds the Spirit of Dissent? (NOT a comprehensive list)

1. The hermeneutics of suspicion. This is a method of reading texts that requires the reader to approach the text suspiciously, that is, to be deeply skeptical of the text’s author, his/her intent, his/her credentials, any and everything about the text: origin, timing of publication, method of publication, drafts, editions, private/public comments of the author—all of the “histories of production”—every possible scrape of information that could add to the interpretation of the text. Reading the text is a matter of holding in perpetual suspension all of this info, one’s own socio-political identity/agenda, and all of one’s deeply held prejudices against anything that looks/sounds like Truth. This method is especially popular among dissenters because it varnishes their dissent with the very thin veneer of academic respectability. Typical suspicious statement about an authoritative text: “We need time to look at the document in its fullest possible context and ask questions about how it applies to our current situation…”

2. Identity Politics. This complex network of self-serving nastiness allows the reader of authoritative texts to “read through” his/her “social location” and come to an understanding of the text that best assists in the creation and advancement of his/her identity. Circular? You bet. But that doesn’t matter at all because dissenters celebrate the…

3. Death of Reason as a metanarrative. This is an important move for the Habit and Spirit of Dissent in that it allows the reader of authority and tradition to discard the pesky habits of rational discourse and rely totally on affectivity. Assertions of personal need, experience, and “hurt” overwhelm rational argument by sheer force of emotionalism and the fear of causing additional “hurt.” Typical affective statement about an authoritative text: “I am deeply wounded by this document. It fails to understand me.” End of discussion.

4. Failure of humility, triumph of pride. The Habit and Spirit of Dissent is fundamentally about the failure to understand and accept the necessity of authority in defining and teaching the faith. Pride tells us that we are basically independent creatures, freed from any and all obligation, beholding to none (including and especially God!). Humility in teaching the faith means that we begin my assuming the authenticity of the witness we’ve received. In other words, we start this whole project by trusting the Holy Spirit to do what He said He would do: to guide His church, to keep Her free from error though the apostolic tradition. The Habit and Spirit of Dissent begins by assuming that the apostolic tradition as received is deeply flawed, in desperate need of repair, and that he/she is the One to accomplish this healing through radical reformation and revolution. The model for this reformation/revolution is almost always secular in origin: ecclesial democracy, spiritualized psychotherapy, fetishization of various secular or non-Christian philosophies (Marxism, feminism, Eastern thought), ad. nau. Typical prideful statement about an authoritative text: “Most Catholic theologians disagree with Dogma X. The latest research indicates that Dogma X is an outdated assertion of ___________ [insert Current Dissenter Object of Derision, e.g. papal authority, institutional identity, gender domination, etc.].”

Teaching the faith means teaching with the mind of the Church. On this subject, the constitutions of the Order of Preachers reads: “In all things the brethren should think with the Church and exhibit allegiance to the varied exercise of the Magisterium to which is entrusted the authentic interpretation of the word of God. Furthermore, faithful to the Order's mission, they should always be prepared to provide with special dedication cooperative service to the Magisterium in fulfilling their doctrinal obligations” (LCO III.1.80).

A failure to dissent is not a failure to question. As a Dominican, I am trained to question. The Catechism recognizes a legitimate form of doubt (nn. 157-159). But notice where the burden of assent and belief rests: on the student, not the teacher. We can legitimately fail to understand, fail to “get it,” and in that failure, doubt. This is why we need faithful teachers, power masters of the faith who begin by trusting God, putting their own agendas and issues behind them, and putting forward the clearest picture of our apostolic faith that their gifts allow.
At its root, public dissent on the part of Catholic teachers is quite simply the spirit of entitled narcissism, the habit of petulant self-worship.

Beheading prophets!

4th Week OT: Sirach 47.2-11; Mark 6.14-29
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Serra Club/Church of the Incarnation, University of Dallas

How many prophets have you beheaded?

No one likes a tattle-tale or a Know-it-all. Who likes to be shown their mistakes or told that their lives are a mess? And who wants to hear from a stranger that one’s “lifestyle choices” are an offense against God? I mean, who here wants to open his or her life to the evaluation of someone who may or may not share your values, understand your personal struggles, or respect your “comfort zones”? Who here will invite into your private life the unflinching stare of a prophet, one sent by God to reveal His will for us? I don’t see any takers! This isn’t surprising. I would find hard to do.

Our culture worships at the altar of privacy, of not having our lives interrupted by anyone who might suggest to us that one choice or another is foolish or damaging or sinful. Think about how our culture of individualism and license almost requires us to structure our lives, manage our choices, with layers of protection against criticism, against any kind of intrusion into the libertine progress of Self. Thick layers of political correctness protect our self-selected identities against the realities of nature. Pseudo-therapeutic prattle guards us against the discomforting, dispassionate rule of reason. Frequent and urgent appeals to “freedom” insulate us against public responsibility. There is no room for the prophetic in a land where every choice is a right, every decision a matter of private conscience, and every action beyond public judgment.

OK! Maybe we haven’t gone that far just yet. But I have to ask: is there room for the prophetic here? Is there room in the public life of this nation, and in the personal lives of its citizens, for a prophet, a true prophet of God, to look us over and pass judgment?

A prophet like John the Baptist is in the business of annoying those in charge. He was born to herald the coming of the Christ. He preached a crystal-clear and highly focused message of repentance. And he had the infuriating habit of pointing out those who most needed to repent. He lost his head for his trouble. An unpleasant warning against being prophetic, against taking the time and trouble to make trouble for those in charge.

But let’s not limit the reach of this gospel to the worn view that those in charge need to be annoyed by prophets. Too often modern-day prophets appoint themselves and operate out of secular political agendas that have little or nothing to do with the gospel. Let’s open this gospel to the question of how open are we to the prophetic? How accommodating we are to the possibility that God might send a prophet into our lives to knock us around, call us out, pin us to the mat of holiness and name sin “Sin.”

Can we hear a prophet? I mean, is your life structured in a way that allows you to hear and listen to a voice summoning you to righteousness? How do you react to fraternal correction? Defensively? With angry appeals to “need,” “freedom,” and “rights”? How do you hear challenges to your choices? As threats against personal privilege? As denials of your liberty or judgments against your worth as a person? How many prophets have you beheaded?

The Good News is that we can structure our lives in such a way that any prophet sent by God to give us the Once-Over would find nothing to complain about. We can live lives of brilliant humility, humility so spotless it blinds, humility so simple it bears undeniable witness. This is possible. But only with Christ. Only with him as our advocate, our brother, and our King.

01 February 2006

Can't go home again...

4th Week OT (Wed): 2 Sam 24.2, 9-17; Mark 6.1-6
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory, Irving, TX

At Christmas, my sister-in-law, Marilyn, asked me: “How does it feel different being a priest?” Before I could give a moderately profound answer, my mother’s voice came from the kitchen, “He loves it! He gets to be a Big Shot!”

When I go back home to Mississippi I am “David” and “Dave.” Not “Father” or “Father Philip.” I am just the chubby blonde kid who read too many sci-fi novels, avoided as much outdoor work as I could, and rode off to my high school job at McDonald’s every afternoon. I am not the former college English teacher, the 41 year-old Roman Catholic priest, or the Dominican preacher with four university degrees. I am just David. Son of Glenn and Becky. Brother to Andy, brother-in-law to Marilyn, and uncle to Megan and Melanie. Home is where I end up to be who I always was.

Jesus goes to Nazareth, his hometown, with his students and teaches in the synagogue. Like every other place he’s been, the people who hear him preach and teach are astonished at his wisdom, truly awed by his mighty deeds. That astonishment and awe are short-lived, however, when someone remembers Jesus from his days among them as a carpenter’s son, the son of Mary, the brother of James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas. Once they realize that he’s a local boy, they take offense at his apparent pretense. They knew him as a boy, knew him as a teenager, and now they cannot see him as the Christ. They take offense. And cannot believe.

Jesus is amazed at their lack of faith. This does seem astonishing to me. Think back over the last week and remember that there were all sorts of creatures recognizing Jesus for who he is: the unclean spirits ordered by Jesus to silence, the legion of demons he tossed into the swine, and Jairus whose daughter Jesus healed. All knew him and he was able to provide miraculous healing, evidence of the Father’s favor and his own power as the Christ. But the Nazarenes knew him as well. And this made no difference to their belief. Why?

Jesus says that it is because a prophet has no honor among his own kin and in his own house. We find it difficult to accept that the divine is knowable to us through the ordinary, through the plainly familiar. We cannot know God fully as He Is through any created medium, of course; but He does reveal Himself to us in creation, in his creatures. And each of us is a unique revelation of the Triune God, an exceptional showing of the Divine for others.

With all of our flaws, faults, defects and problems, we shine out to the world what happens when a creature, a human creature, takes seriously the promise of salvation, chooses to live a life in Christ, and takes on the apostolic charge to be the traveling salesman of God, His itinerant preacher, His compassionate healer. We have to see Jesus as an alien, a foreigner, before we can accept him as a brother, our Savior—good practice for allowing those odd sorts, those strangers and outsiders to do their work in revealing Christ to us.

Jesus is amazed at their lack of faith! Would he be amazed at our faith? Would he be astonished at how well we’ve come to learn and live everything he’s taught us? Faith is the habit of trust, given to us by God and nurtured by our cooperation with Him. Faith is given and grown. Never earned or sold. Faith is what makes the radically alien, the otherwise foreign, knowable, approachable, and lovable.

Jesus is the carpenter’s son. He is the son of Mary and brother to James, Joseph, Judas, and Simon. He is at home here. And we cannot fail to do him honor.

29 January 2006

What are you anxious about?

4th Sunday of OT: Deut 18.15-20; 1 Cor 7.32-35; Mark 1.21-28
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St. Paul’s Hospital and Church of the Incarnation, University of Dallas

Hear it!

It is 12:34am. 1:13am. 2:56am. 3:32am. Finally, it is 4:45am. The professionally calm voices of NPR pop on my radio. With weirdly deceptive ease, a sort of earnest calm, they narrate what happened while I watched my clock in the dark: a car-bomb in Iraq kills 27, a drought in Texas fuels wildfires, the nuclear threat from Iran and North Korea grew overnight, scientists with more money than sense drag us closer their genetic, Frankensteinian utopia, the icecaps melted some more, the ozone layer thinned, the rainforest lost another 12,000 acres…there are one-eyed kittens! three-legged calves! swarms of locusts! rivers of blood! hailstorms of frogs! An angel of Death in the street! The radio pops back on. 4:53am. Get up, Philip! No Snooze button is big enough to tame this world’s worry, this time’s anxious passing.

Paul writes to the always-worried Corinthians, “Brothers and sisters, I should like you to be free of anxieties.” He would like for them to be released from the slavery of their doubts, the chains of their mistrust and the need for total control. He would like for them to be able to live in the world and not flail around panicked about what’s next. What’s After This? Where’s the plan? The map? The schedule? Paul would like for his Corinthian brothers and sisters to be rested in the Lord’s promise of mercy, settled into an enduring trust of their Father, and focused on all the things Christ left them to accomplish.

The Corinthians are being distracted by the requirements of family life, worried needlessly by the demands of husbands and wives and children, taken away from the difficult work, the hard labor of preparing for the Coming of the Christ again. Paul, and all those Jesus left behind, waited for their beloved Master to return to them, to come back for them and take them away. They were anxious about many things, but most anxious about the apparent delay in his return. Paul’s admonishment to them: don’t become too attached to the needs of this world…the things of this world demand their own kind attention, their own kind of sacrifice…stay free for Christ and do what he has asked you to do.

What are you anxious about? What unclean spirits worry you? Do you know the name of the fearfulness that gnaws at your gifts, your trust, your patience, your ease? Do you know the name of the spirit that moves you to hide from God, moves you to ignore God, moves you to defy God? You can all say, “Sure, Father, it’s the Devil!” Yes, it is. But more specifically, can you identify, point out the spirit that steals your peace?

Jesus goes to Capernaum to teach in the synagogue. People are astonished at his teaching, stunned at the authenticity and authority of his message. He speaks the Word, teaches and preaches a Word of power and might, claiming for himself the authority of his Father and, in doing so, claiming for the Father the lives, the souls of those who hear and heed his Word. But notice who is anxious, notice whose peace is rattled: the unclean spirits!

The human spirit there is gifted, graced with the boundless love of God. The unclean spirit is fearful. The human spirit is astonished, opened, enlightened, touched by glory at the Word proclaimed. The unclean spirit is dreadful, nervous, shaken, and most definitely stirred! The people there leap forward to grab hold of the Word and they hold on to the Word as if it were a hurt child, a wandering friend too often lost. They embrace the hope, the expectation of eternal life, the renewal of their lives with the Father, the reconciliation that the God-man, Jesus, makes real. He was sent. He is sent. And he will be sent again.

Moses spoke to his people and said, “A prophet like me will the Lord, your God, raise for you from among your own kin; to him you shall listen […] I will put my words into his mouth; he shall tell them all that I command him.” Our Lord will send a prophet, a voice to speak His Word to us and we will listen. We heard Elijah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah. We heard Amos and Isaiah. And much more recently, we heard John the Baptizer. We heard the Name he spoke to us, the announcement of the Good News of our Savior’s arrival in the flesh. And then we heard the Christ Himself teach us salvation, preach to us the Way of Life through him. We believed. We heard and we believed.

And yet we are still capable of anxiety. Why? I think we forget Who we are dealing with. I think we trudge along, so habituated to hearing the Bad News, that the Good God has done for us is lost in the swirling headlines, crowded out in the competition for our limited attention, our squeezed time. We forget what we have said “Amen” to here. We forget what we have asked for here. We come here to remember. And still we forget.

Here’s a reminder, just a reminder to put a little fear into the spirit of forgetfulness that may be haunting us. This morning/evening, if you participate fully in this Eucharist, you will say “Amen”—“it is so”—to the presence of Christ among us. He IS here. You will thank him for his Word proclaimed and thank him again for his Gospel. You will say amen to his ancient teaching and amen again for taking care of your needs. You will say amen to His blessed Name and amen to his coming Kingdom; amen to His will done in all creation and amen to your need for His daily food; amen to his mercy and yours and amen to his protection from evil. You will say “amen” to offering bread and wine, your body and soul on that altar of sacrifice, to be blessed, transformed and given back to Him. You will say amen to His peace and share it. Amen to the Lamb of God and his sacrifice for us. Amen to his supper. And amen and amen for the Holy One of God who teaches with a new authority, preaches with a new authenticity the Word of Life.

What are you anxious about? What spirits worry you? Remember what you have said amen to here this morning/evening. Remember what you have sacrificed and who you are. Our Lord wants us free of anxieties. Our Lord wants us freed so that we can spread the fame of the Good News everywhere: The Holy One of God is here!