29 April 2006

The Devil's poisoned bumperstickers

3rd Sunday of Easter 2006: Acts 3.13-15, 17-19; 1 John 2.1-5; Luke 24.35-48
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Paul’s Hospital and Church of the Incarnation

Why are you troubled? Why do questions arise in your hearts? What do you fear? What worry eats at your spirit, chewing your joy? Who took your peace?

I am convinced that for a whole lot of us it is the Devil who teaches us our theology, the Devil who instructs us in the faith. He uses half-truths, whispered hints at beauty, mumbled tries at goodness. He hands you a penny and calls you rich; he burps in your face and calls it a gentle summer breeze. And you buy it. We all do at one time or another. He tells us what we think we need to hear. What we wish were true. He lies and we believe it and we take notes and we repeat to him what he taught us because he fears the truth all the time as much as we do only some of the time.

The Devil doesn’t have to work up an elaborate theological lie to teach us when he can take the truth of the faith and give it a new spin, tweak it just a bit, perhaps “make it relevant for modern times.” His teaching works so well precisely b/c he begins with the truth of the faith and dips a single poisoned finger—just his pinky—into the edge of truth, hoping we won’t notice the spreading rot of dis-ease, anxiety, and fretting infection. Hoping we won’t bother to test his tasty, deadly dish until it is too late. But we do notice when we are troubled. We notice when we are confused. We notice when worry chews at our joy.

You know this already but it is a truth worth repeating: Christ suffered and died and rose again and it is written that repentance, for the forgiveness of sins, would be preached in his name to all nations. And so it has. And along with it the Devil’s slightly tainted, bittersweet version as well, chucked-full of half-baked half truths and raw lies. Here lie the lies that worry us, that thump our hearts and minds too sweetly, too gently to resist even when we know the gentle thumping is a bloody beating and the sweetness hides a poison.

So that we are not deceived I want to point to two of the Devil’s lies. The first is captured perfectly in the bumpersticker mantra: “God loves us unconditionally; God accepts us just as we are.” The second is as easily captured: “I have an adult faith; I’m into spirituality not religion.” These two are directly addressed in the readings.

To the first: “God loves us unconditionally; God accepts us just as we are.” Now, is this true? Yes. But it is only a half-truth. It is absolutely true that God loves us without condition, without prerequisite. Deus caritas est. God is love. And it is true that God welcomes us in, accepts us as He finds us—as sinners, as doubters, as deniers, in our ignorance, even in our defiance. This half of the truth is clear.

Listen again to Peter, John, and Luke for the other half: “You denied Christ to Pilate; you released a murderer in his place; you put the author of life to death; you acted out of ignorance; you worry, you question—but we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ, who is our rescue from sin. ‘Repent, therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be wiped away.’” God loves us unconditionally, accepts us as we are in order to change us. It is God’s love for us that motivates us to repentance. God does not love us so that we may remain in our sin. He does not love the thief so that we might come to see that stealing is OK. He does not love the adulteress so that we might come to see that adultery is OK. He loves the thief and the adulteress so that they will stop stealing and stop committing adultery. God loves us to change us.

To the second bumpersticker half-truth: “I have an adult faith; I’m into spirituality not religion.” At the heart of this often-heard contemporary mantra is the truth that as adult Christians we rely on a spiritual relationship with the Father, that is, we grow and flourish in a relationship with God based on love, trust, mercy, hope, and constant conversion. An adult faith moves beyond the mere formalism of religious obligation, the raw legalism of ritual observance into a living, breathing, maturing relationship where the conscience is well-formed by truth and goodness and beauty.

All true. But that’s only half the truth. Listen again to Peter, John, and Luke: “God has brought to fulfillment what the prophets preached: that His Christ would suffer and die; he is the righteous one who died for our sins and the sins of the whole world; he rose from the dead so that repentance and forgiveness of sins would be preached in his name; to know him as your savior is to keep his commandments; those who say they know him but fail to obey him are liars, the truth is not in them.”

Our second bumpersticker half-truth makes a distinction between “spirituality” and “religion” that allows the gullible to believe that there is a theological difference between “relationship with God” and “obligation to God,” a difference between “knowing Christ” and “obeying Christ.” This bumpersticker hopes to teach us that an “adult faith” is one where we are in relationship with God without any obligation to Him or His church and that we can know Christ as our Savior without obeying Christ as our Lord. More often than not the battle cry of “I have an adult faith” is usually a more educated way of saying: “I will do this my way or no way and besides you’re not the boss of me!” More adolescent whining than mature self-giving, isn’t it?

It is also the case that the distinction made here between “spirituality” and “religion” –that spirituality is about relationship and religion is about rules—is made so that we can privilege spirituality over religion, or better yet, exclude religion in favor of spirituality. This is simple impossible in a truly adult faith. Our spirituality is how we understand and live out our religion. Our religion is how we know that our spirituality is based on revealed and well-reasoned truths. To have an adult faith is to know Christ as Savior and Lord; it is to be in a right-relationship, a spiritual communion with the divine firmly grounded in revealed religion.

These two half-baked half-truths steal from us the breath of life, the food and drink of our holiness. They promise us treasures and give us Crackerjack prizes. They are Happy Meals pretending to be the Heavenly Banquet. The bald-faced, open-handed, simple truth of the faith is this: God loves you—w/o condition, just as you are. God wants you to live with Him now and forever. God’s love for you and His desire for you to live with Him now and forever is all you need to repent of your sin, to come to Him in obedience, and to be radically changed, made into something utterly new, truly perfected in Him.

Why are you troubled? Why do questions arise in your hearts? We have an Advocate with the Father. Therefore, repent and be converted; be at peace and witness to his mercy; keep His word and…beware devils selling poisoned bumperstickers.

28 April 2006

Takes a beating...

2nd Week of Easter 2006 (F): Acts 5.34-42; John 6.1-15
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory and Church of the Incarnation

Hearing the account of the apostles before the Sanhedrin in Acts this morning, I just couldn’t help thinking of the old Timex watch commericals: “They take a beating and keep on ticking!” If that’s too irreverent for a homily, I apologize. But I just have to think that the apostles, filled to the brim with the joy of the Lord, might chuckle as well, seeing in the dark humor of their predictament—the ripping sting of the scourge—the powerful effects of the Father’s favor. Here, between the Resurrection and the Coming of the Holy Spirit, do we see the powerful effects of the Father’s favor in our lives?

Here we are between Easter and Pentecost and we find ourselves pushed by the elation of the Resurrection and pulled by the expectation of the coming of the Holy Spirit—the joy of Christ’s defeat of death by emptying the tomb and the hope, the sure promise, of the help of God’s Spirit. To be delighted in the Lord and expectant of his coming again seems to me to be the perfecting recipe for holiness, the formula for feeding our growing right-relationship with God. We are at once convinced of his historical resurrection, the actual emptying of his tomb on Easter morning, and we are hopeful, expectant, sure of the coming arrival of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

Living faithfully, flourishing in this between-time, this between-place graces us, gathers us up with Christ, raises us to the Father, offers us to Him in sacrifice, to be made holy and pure, and set aside, preserved to receive his sanctifying Spirit—the Love of the Father and Son for one another, the Love that creates, redeems, and blesses; the Love that washes dirty feet, surrenders to unjust authority, suffers a bloody beating; the Love that carries a cross to the city dump, takes nails in hands and feet, and dies, accepting, willing, freely, and for us; the Love that death cannot contain, cannot corrupt; the Love that returns to the Father—blood returning to the heart, breath to the lungs.

With this love heavy in our hearts, with hearts weighed in the exceeding good will of the Father, we are pushed by the Resurrection and pulled by Pentecost, but do we see the powerful effects of the Father’s favor in our lives? Those eating the barley loaves and the fish with Jesus and his astonished disciples saw the wealth of God’s grace, His limitless favor. The apostles, bloody again from another beating, saw the wealth of God’s grace, the honor done them—to be found worthy to suffer for His name.

What grace astonishes your life? What honor do you receive for His sake? What blessings find their way to your work of perfecting holiness? If your righteousness, your right-relationship with the Father, is a merely human work, a work of your will discordant with the Father’s will for you, your perfection “will destroy itself.” If your work at perfecting holiness accords with the Father’s will, it will be invincible, undefeated even in death.

This time, this place between the Empty Tomb of Easter and the Mighty Rushing Wind of Pentecost is the time and place to ask yourself: do I see the Father’s favor in my life? Have I made my life a constant prayer of gratitude?

Can I take a beating and keep on ticking?

27 April 2006

Reading List: Catholic Spirituality Fall 2006 U.D.

Christian Spirituality: History of the Catholic Tradition, Fall 2006
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP, PhD

Aumann, Jordan. Christian Spirituality in the Catholic Tradition, Ignatius Press, 1985.
Egan, Harvey. An Anthology of Christian Mysticism, Liturgical Press, 1991.
O’Connor, Flannery. Three By Flannery O’Connor, Signet Classics, 1983.

(NB. All texts found in the Egan anthology unless otherwise noted. Additional texts TBA found on-line or distributed in class)

Patristic/Late Antiquity (JA, 1-74)

Origen, Commentary on the Song of Songs
Gregory of Nyssa, Commentary on the Song of Songs
Evagrius Ponticus, The Praktikos
Augustine of Hippo, Homily on Psalm 41
John Cassian, Conferences, 10: On Prayer
Pseudo-Dionysius, The Mystical Theology
Gregory the Great, Homilies on Ezekiel
John Climacus, The Ladder
Maximus Confessor, The Four Hundred Chapters on Love

Early Medieval (JA, 80-140)

Symeon the New Theologian, Hymns of Divine Love
William of St. Thierry, The Golden Epistle
Bernard of Clairvaux, On the Song of Songs (sermons)
Aelred of Rievaulx, On Spiritual Friendship
Richard of St. Victor, On the Four Degrees of Passionate Charity

Medieval (JA, 80-140)

Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias
Francis of Assisi, The Stigmata
Hadewijch of Antwerp, Letters
Bonaventure, The Soul’s Journey into God
Mechtild of Magdeburg, The Flowing Light of the Godhead
Jordan of Saxony, Libellus (selections, handout)
Gertrude the Great, The Life and Revelations of St. Gertrude
Angela of Foligno, The Book of Divine Consolation

Late Medieval/Early Renassiance (JA, 8-140)

Catherine of Siena, The Dialogue
Anonymous, The Cloud of Unknowing
Julian of Norwich, Showings
Catherine of Genoa, The Spiritual Dialogue

Dionysian/Devotio moderna (JA, 144-175)

Meister Eckhart, Blessed Are the Poor, et al
Gregory Palamas, The Hagioritic Tome
Henry Suso, The Supernatural Experience, et al

Post- Tridentine (JA, 178-211)

Ignatius of Loyola, A Pilgrim’s Journey
Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle
John of the Cross, The Dark Night
Blaise Pascal, An Experience of God

Modern (JA, 218-277 and handouts)

Therese of Lisieux, My Vocation is Love
M. Faustina Kowalska, Divine Mercy in My Soul
Rainer Marie Rilke, First and Ninth Elegy, Duino Elegies (handout)
T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets
Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer
Flannery O’Connor, The Violent Bear It Away (novel)
Pope John Paul II, Rosarium virginis mariae (excerpts)
Pope Benedict XVI, Deus caritas est

23 April 2006

The victory that conquers the world

2nd Sunday of Easter 2006: Acts 4. 32-35; 1 John 5.1-6; John 20.19-31
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Paul Hospital and Church of the Incarnation

Who indeed is the victor over the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? The victory that conquers the world is our faith. And so, peace be with you.

You might think that Jesus would take it easy after his passion, his death, his descent into Hell, and his resurrection! What better time, what better excuse would any of us have to take a break—“I was betrayed by my friends, beaten by the police, nailed hands and feet to a cross, left to die, stabbed by a spear, buried in a tomb, spent three days in Hell, and then my Father raised me from the dead. Yea, I think I’m gonna take the week off, relax, catch up on my reading, do the spa thing…” That would be me anyway. Jesus, on the other hand, has a much better work ethic than I do and seems particularly energized by his trial and tribulations; he’s revved up to continue his ministry, appearing to Mary Magdalene and the woefully hard-hearted and doubting disciples several times over the last week.

The disciples are wallowing in anxiety, self-pity, disappointment, and maybe even a little shame at their failure to better defend their teacher and friend against the self-serving powers of the Temple and the Empire. Are they reluctant to believe that he is truly risen b/c they are embarrassed to confront him? Maybe. They don’t seem all that ashamed when they finally come around and see Jesus for who he is. Maybe they are reluctant b/c they do not look like victors over the world; they do not look like those who have believed and conquered the world in faith. They are despondent, worried about many things, depressed, crowding together to comfort one another in their waiting, in their despairing anticipation.

What are they waiting for? What has paralyzed them so? Frozen their spirits and slowed their hearts? Why aren’t they out there in the world claiming victory in faith? Why aren’t they out there proclaiming the conquering Word risen from the dead and living among them? Why can’t they see? Why can’t they hear? Why won’t they believe?

Faith releases control, surrenders all possible options, gives up on freely available alternatives and the multiplicity of choices. Faith recognizes the powerful singularity of Truth, the breathtaking beauty of raw reality, the Very Good of all creation. Faith reorders priorities, reschedules plans, reorganizes futures. Faith is the seed of a covenant of love, a promise of boundless mercy and unconditional favor. Faith places you in the conquering good will of the Father—His will that you love, that you be loved, and His will that we keep his commandments. Faith comes first. Trust is primary. Then plans in faith, then philosophies in faith, then theologies in faith, then sciences in faith, then politics in faith…

The disciples will not believe absent the presence of Christ among them for the same reasons that you and I are not likely to believe. We like control. We need nearly infinite options, unfettered choices. We love the idea of relative truth—My truth, your truth, or no truth at all! We value human justice above divine mercy and cannot let go of vengeance. We have plans, expectations, back-up plans, important worries, dire anxieties, vitally important worries, extremely dire anxieties; we have schedules, deadlines, due dates, things to do, places to be, people to meet! And I don’t have what I need! And I don’t need what I have! I have sins; I have BIG sins. I’m a big sinner! A huge sinner! Lock the doors! Be afraid…!! Hell is rushing up to meet me and I’m running as fast as I can to meet the Devil….faster and faster and faster and…

And Jesus stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” He showed them his hands and his side, his passionate wounds. As the disciples rejoiced, Jesus said, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” He breathed on them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” And he gave them the power to forgive sin.

Thomas the Twin wasn’t with them when Jesus appeared and did not believe the apostolic witness when it was given. Thomas was not a doubter; he was a denier. Thomas did not say to his fellow disciples, “I’m having difficulties working through the implications of the Lord’s death and Resurrection.” He didn’t say: “The possibility that Jesus has been dead for three days and has risen from the tomb is troubling, and I’m struggling with it.” Thomas said: “I will not believe until I see it for myself.” That’s not doubt; that’s denial. He is placing his willful need for understanding above his trust in Christ and requiring that God be worthy of his trust.

The Lord lets Thomas feel his wounds and then lets him know in no uncertain terms that his denial is a failure of trust: “Have you come to believe b/c you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.” Jesus is not calling for “blind faith.” He is calling on Thomas, the disciples, and us to believe the witness of the Church, to trust the evidence of those who have lived their lives in faith before us. Jesus is not asking us to deny our intellect, to deny our good sense, or to leave our expensive educations at the door of the Church. Nothing about the Catholic faith requires us to assent to foolishness in order to be good Catholics. Nothing about the faith requires us to adopt willful ignorance.

Doubt as such is no obstacle to the faith so long as you are ready to doubt Doubt, that is, so long as you do not invest a great deal of trust in your doubts. St Thomas teaches us that even believing resembles doubt sometimes in that both have “no finished vision of the truth.” Have your doubts. Struggle with the Church’s witness. Ask questions and seek faithful answers. But understand that doubt is not a license to dissent; having doubts does not constitute a God-given right to deny. We are victors over the world in faith, in trust, not in suspicious denial and rebellion.

Who indeed is the victor over the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? The victory that conquers the world is our faith. And so, peace be with you! Receive the Holy Spirit. Be unstuck, become unglued; be opened, enlivened, renewed; be born again in faith and victory; conquer this world by the power of your trust, your bone-deep, blood-rushing witness to the truth of our Catholic faith: the living faith of the faithful dead, unbroken and unchanged, for us and with us the same teachings of Jesus, the same preaching of the apostles, the power of the sacraments, the magisterial authority of the Church, the very Presence of Christ among us!

He is risen from the dead. And that victory conquers the world. Therefore, peace be with you. Receive the Holy Spirit, believe, and be at peace.