23 June 2007

Fret, Fuss, & Vex: the gods of Worry

11th Week OT/B.V.M. (Sat): 2 Cor 12.1-10 and Matthew 6.24-34
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory, Irving, TX


If you had to stand up right now and tell us your greatest spiritual deficiency, what would you say? Lack of humility, charity, patience? Difficulties with sexual temptation, pride, anger? No discipline in prayer, study, service? All common enough struggles for the serious Christian. I wonder how many of you would say, “I serve two Masters: God and Worry.” How many of us would ‘fess up to disobeying Christ by working at being our own best deity? Here’s an outrageous claim that is no less true for being outrageous: Worrying is idolatrous! What god rules in the tabernacle of your heart when you fret about what you have no power to change or control or defeat? No one, Jesus says, can serve two Masters…You cannot serve God and, well, you cannot serve God if you will serve anything, anyone else but Him.

As always, Jesus shows us the Narrow Way. He teaches his disciples: “Look at the birds in the sky [. . .] Are not you more important than they? [. . .] Why are you anxious [. . .]? Learn from the way the wildflowers grow. They do not work or spin [. . .] seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness [. . .]” and what you need will be given to you. Lest we think that Jesus is urging us to adopt some sort of quietistic Zen laziness with regard to our daily upkeep, let’s remember that he took his disciples from among the working men of his day and he sent them out to work for the gospel. Jesus is not telling us to sit quietly in the corner and wait for God magically to pour goodies in our laps. Fine. What is he saying? Essentially, he wants the disciples (and us, of course!) to consider this question: whom do you serve? Do you serve the God of creation and provider of all our needs, or do you serve the howling little voices of impatience and worry that nag you day and night? You see, Jesus’ point is that if we serve God, truly put ourselves in His service for His greater glory, and we make His righteousness the well from which we draw our faith, our love, our daily existence, then not only is it the case that He will provide for our needs but He will transform us as well. What we “need” changes. How we experience the world changes. Who we are as His creatures with Him and one another…it all changes.

Look at Paul. Paul tells us his conversion story this morning. Dramatic. Great stuff for hagiographies. But even greater stuff for our growth. God snatches Paul up into an ecstasy and there he hears “ineffable things, which no one may utter.” Paul’s apostolic ministry to the Gentiles was a furious preaching of the Unsayable (and sometimes the Undoable!). And this from an ex-Pharisee who had the rules, the formulas, the rituals; he had everything he needed to encounter the Divine, wrapped up, stored, and tightly controlled. Now, he boasts of weaknesses, insults, constraints, and hardships. And when he cries out to the Lord for relief, he boasts about the Lord’s blunt answer to him: “My grace is sufficient for you…” Paul serves God. And the gifts our Lord gave him were enough.

Ask yourself: Will it be God or Worry? Christ or anxiety? Will I trust God’s promises or will I all burst a vein trying to turn the universe on my will? You could do something radical. You could learn from the way the wildflowers grow. Grow where nothing else will. Flourish where you are planted. Show your brightest colors. Spread your goodness and beauty wildly. Take what you need to grow. And do not worry. What to eat, what to drink, what to study, what job to take, bills, kids, mortgage...“all these things the pagans seek.” Seek first then to serve Him. Make His righteousness the source of your daily decisions. Tear down the idols of the gods Fret, Fuss, and Vex and reposition Christ in the tabernacle of your heart. After all, Jesus asks, “Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span?”

No, no you can’t.

Photo Credit: Jeffrey Lewis

22 June 2007

Renewing the Renewal of the New Liturgy (UPDATED)

Fr. Al Kimel offers a few suggestions for renewing the renewal of the new liturgy. . .

(1) Abandon the versus populum, immediately! Let priest and people face God together. The single most destructive feature of the “renewed liturgy” is its anthropocentric orientation. The people of God are sanctified by worshiping God, not by celebrating each other. (This is not a huge worry for me. I understand the theological reasoning behind putting the priest behind the altar facing the people. Like most liturgical novelities of the N.O. this one can be reverently managed by a priest who does not see himself as the focus of the Mass. I'm not opposed to returning to celebrating Mass facing liturgical east, but I think the grand hopes that some hang on this change are a bit overblown.)

(2) Restore the chanted liturgy. Prayers are to be sung according to the ancient forms. (I love a chanted liturgy...if the priest and choir know how to chant. Chanting for chanting's sake seems to put the emphasis on performance rather than celebration--properly understood. I cannot and do not sing or chant alone. This is 90% nerves, I know, but nerves or not, my chanting would not be conducive to a reverent Mass. Again, chant will make the Mass more solemn but we have to be careful not to hang too many overblown hopes for a renewal of the faith on a few liturgical changes.)

(3) Ban the musical compositions of Marty Haugen and David Haas and anything similar. Gregorian chant must be restored as the primary music of the Latin rite. Given the magnitude of the problem, it is probably best to simply ban all music composed after 1960. Perhaps one day the good music that has been composed during the past forty years can be retrieved, but that day is not now. Catholic priests and musicians today do not know what sacred music is. (This is exactly right! I had no training in music while in seminary. We had the daily office and Mass in the priory but the emphasis in hymn selection had more to do with choosing politically correct lyrics than anything else. Even now I have a tendency to throw my trust at the musicians and never interfere! The English Church has some beautiful hymns with theologically sound lyrics that also manage not to offend or alienate. I wonder if they would spare a several million copies of their hymnal?)

(4) Restore the use of incense. (I use incense all the time. I didn't know it had been banned! Watch out for the "allergic" folks, though. They will swarm you immediately after Mass complaining about the smoke.)

(5) Eradicate ritual informality. (Not sure exactly what this means but if it means eradicating the "Chatty Priest," then I am all for it. There is nothing more distracting during Mass than a priest commenting on his words and actions, or giving unnecessary instructions to the congregation. I'm also in favor of getting rid of inappropriate improvisation with the rites. And I'll add here: get rid of the announcements after the closing prayer; NEVER use homily time to beg for money or volunteers; NEVER follow the homily with an appeal for money or volunteers; move the exchange of peace to the offertory--where it belongs!; and use the intercessions from the sacramentary rather than those booklets.)

(6) Drastically reduce electronic amplification. (YES! But then we would have to build actual churches with real acoustics rather than these Danver's restaurants with popcorn stucco walls and ceilings. Those who are hearing impaired can be easily helped with targeted infrared hearing aids.)

(7) Encourage eucharistic adoration both within and outside the Mass. Let the people prostrate themselves before Christ Jesus in the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Altar. A bow of the head is not sufficient! (If this means allowing folks to prostrate as they take communion...no. Logistically, this would be a nightmare. And we would get into the same problem I've seen many times at the adoration of the cross on Good Friday: one act of extraordinary piety sets the standard for everyone who follows and everyone who follows has to reset the standard even higher. Kissing the cross is no longer enough. The last person there has to prostrate, genuflect, flagellate himself, kiss all four points of the cross in the form of a cross, and then ask to be nailed up! OK. I'm exaggerating but I've seen the Escalating Piety Syndrome before.)

After much thought, I have finally become persuaded that all Catholic priests should be authorized to celebrate the Tridentine Mass, despite the inevitable confusion this will create. While I personally believe that liturgy should be normatively celebrated in the language of the people, I also believe that the practical abolition of the Tridentine Mass was wrong and destructive. We must retrace our steps and attempt to undo the blunders of the post-Vatican II Church. In one way or another, we must forge new connections to the liturgical tradition and the Mass of St Pius V. (Couldn't agree more. Simply eliminating improvisation where it doesn't belong and training priests to be icons rather than game-show hosts would help a lot.)

NB. The entire article can be found on Fr. Kimel's impeccably argued and always insightful blog, Pontifications (no longer updated)

20 June 2007

Messiah or Flip-flopper?

11th Week OT (W): 2 Cor 9.6-11 and Matt 6.1-6, 16-18
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory, Irving, TX

If Jesus were running for President and I were his opponent for office, my negative ad campaign machine would be buzzing right now! We’ve caught the Son of Man in a contradiction, a HUGE flip-flop that the American people will see and understand as a sign that this hippie-weirdo is too weak to occupy the White House come next January. Since we’ve just discovered the flip-flop, we don’t have a polished attack ready just yet, but it go something like this: [grainy 35mm segment of Jesus walking among the poor of Dallas, handing out baskets of fish and loaves of bread, the frame is skewed to the left, Jesus’ voice is slightly tweaked to sound squeakier] Jesus says to the crowd of supporters: “Your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.” The crowd goes wild, cheering! Jesus humbly bows and continues to hand out food. Across the screen in big red letters the words “FLIP” and then “FLOP” appear on the screen, and the scene fades to Jesus [bright light, good color, clear voices, handheld “feel”] teaching his campaign staff a little strategy: “Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father[…]when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret.” At that second Jesus sees the camera, jumps up from the rock, and rushes over to cover the lenses! Cut to final shot: [huge red letters]: MESSIAH? or JUST ANOTHER FLIP-FLOPPER??? Cut and print! I’ve already picked out the wall in the White House where my new plasma TV is going to hang…

So, being a good Christian, do you obey Jesus and get out there and do good works for all to see, or do you obey Jesus and do your good works in secret so no one sees you doing them? Yes. I mean “both.” Of course. You do both. You didn’t think the answer was as simple as “pick one,” did you? How can you do both and still be obedient? Easy. Jesus is not so much worried here about WHAT we do. He’s much more worried about the state of our “inner room” while we do good works; he’s more worried about WHY we do good works. In the first lecture, he tells us to do good works in order to glorify God—a positive admonition. In the second lecture, he tells us not to do good works if we are doing them to glorify ourselves—a warning. Obviously, intent is the key. But does intent—good or bad—effect the health of the good done? $1,000 given with good intent or bad will buy the same amount baby formula for the homeless shelter.

Paul also helps us out here with this teaching: “…whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows abundantly will also reap abundantly […] God is able to make every grace abundant for you [so that] you may have an abundance for every good work.” First, “sparingly” and “abundantly” here refer to the generosity of the heart that gives and not dollar amounts or hours worked. It is possible to give $1m sparingly and $.50 abundantly. Works done with an abundance of charitable intent will sow and reap abundant grace for both the receiver and the giver. Paul says that God will “increase the harvest of your righteousness”! And Jesus tells us no fewer than three times that if we pray and give and work to glorify God rather than ourselves, our Father in heaven will repay us.

Well, my negative ad people are upset that Jesus found a clever way around our attack. Promising divine abundance to those who do good works to glorify his Father…wow…we didn’t see that coming! Nevermind though. We just heard a rumor that Jesus offended a group of pagans and then tried to impose some sort of religious litmus test on his followers, something about a rigid formula for praying. Good stuff! Americans really hate narrow-minded religious bigots. Who does this Jesus think he is telling people how to pray!? The Son of God…!?

18 June 2007

Showing some cheek, or PKPK

11th Week OT: 2 Cor 6.1-10 and Matthew 5.38-42
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory

[NB. This is a revised version of this morning's homily preached at the 7.15 Conventual Mass.]

Neither Paul nor Jesus would pass the “Does he look and sound Presidential?” test. I take it a as a given that neither of them owned a blue suit, got $300 haircuts, or capped their teeth. More telling for their short futures in American politics is their wimpy policies of international appeasement. Reminds me of one of my college friends, Tim. During the 1984 Presidential election, we were watching the debates between Reagan and Mondale on the dorm TV. Anytime the camera rested on Mondale, Tim would shout at the screen: “Come on, dog! Roll over!” If Tim had been among the disciples the morning Jesus taught them to offer no resistance to evil but to turn the other cheek…well, I’m afraid Tim might have shown our Lord some cheek and walked off, looking for a more realistic education among the worldly. I won’t take a poll, but when it comes to today’s gospel reading, I’m willing to bet that there are more Tim’s here this morning than most of us would like to admit. . . .

The very idea that we must restrain our resistance to evil is strange. Wouldn’t we expect Jesus to be telling the disciples to get out there and battle evil! To get out there throwing out demons, casting devils into hell, slinging righteous anger left and right?! Isn’t there a spiritual war being waged right now? Why are we being taught to “offer no resistance to one who is evil”? I think we might find part of an answer in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. He writes, “Brothers and sisters: as your fellow workers, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain […] We cause no one to stumble in anything, in order that no fault may be found with our ministry…” In other words, having fruitfully received God’s grace, Paul and his co-workers demonstrate the fruitful reception of God’s grace by doing nothing out of vengeance, nothing out of hatred that would soil the pristine message of the Good News. In the midst of “hardships, constraints, and beatings,” they endure with the “weapons of righteousness,” that is, they persist in “purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, in the Holy Spirit, in unfeigned love, in truthful speech, in the power of God[…]”

Paul gets it. The very point of being an apostle, a preacher of the Word is to go out and proclaim the Good News. What do you do when the inevitable opposition flairs and you are confronted by those who would silence you? You could 1) shut up and retreat; 2) preach louder and advance fighting; 3) compromise the message and avoid conflict by sucking up to the Enemy; or 4) keep on preaching and advancing, using every instance of ridicule, violent opposition; every attempt at suppression or persecution, turning any and all challenges into occasions to serve the needy, to teach the ignorant, to show how mercy is done, how compassion is done; to press on in purity, knowledge, patience and kindness.

Why would it ever occur to us to become the Enemy in order to witness faithfully to the Enemy? We are lost when we exchange the supernatural, unfeigned love of Christ for a grubby infatuation with the toxic-plastics of our secular culture’s spiritual landfill—a dump polluted with Gameboy warfare and Instant Message diplomacy; with the torn bodies of our infant future, sacrificed to calculated utility, the Greater Good, and our need for cosmetic immortality; polluted with all the human debris leftover after we’ve solved our inconvenient worries with a judicious (and legal!) application of merciful-death; polluted with the ugly offal of ornamental celebrity and silicone-beauty and the horror of an adolescent wasteland of desperate girls who cut themselves and starve themselves b/c the Hollywood Barbies shun the fat and poor; a cultural and spiritual landfill polluted with the machines and chemicals and processes of abandonment, rage, betrayal, and sorrow. . .How can we be authentic witnesses against the Nothingness that would consume us if we ourselves worship the Idols of Nothingness and consume everyone, everything we claim to love?

Therefore, you have heard it said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. Offer, instead, purity, knowledge, patience, and kindness.

Photo credit: http://muppet.wikia.com/wiki/Marjory

17 June 2007

Being a Great Love, or How You Feel Doesn't Matter

11th Sunday OT: 2 Sam 12.710, 13; Galatians 2.16, 19-21; Luke 7.36-8.3
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Paul Hospital, Dallas, TX


Let’s say you are going to confession. You pour your heart out to the priest, truly rending your soul of every sin and making an Act of Contrition that brings tears to your eyes. The priest gives you a merciful penance and then pronounces absolution, “…I absolve you from all your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Right that second! How do you feel? What do you feel right that second? Relief? A burden lifted? Do you feel happy or clean or do you feel a little mischievous, like you’ve gotten away with something diabolical? Do you feel sad or pleased, or do you feel nothing at all? Except perhaps the weight of the sins you have just confessed? Maybe you are thinking and feeling that the absolution didn’t “take.” Didn’t work for me. Maybe if I do my penance, then I will feel like it worked. Maybe if I do my penance twice or three times, it will work. Or maybe you’re on the other side of this problem; maybe you feel nothing after the absolution, so you conclude that confession and absolution are pointless. What’s the point if I don’t feel guilty for my sins in the first place, and I don’t feel relieved after I confess and receive absolution? I feel OK with God right now and that’s enough for me.

Let me ask you this—regardless of how (precisely) you are confused about confession—why does the sinful woman wash Jesus’ feet with her tears, drying them with her hair and anointing them with oil? Why does this sinful woman risk being violently ejected from Simon’s house? Why does she expend her precious oil on this gesture? For a favor? To be paid? For attention? To feel better about herself? No. No. No. She humbles herself in these acts of service to Jesus in order to show him Great Love. Have you ever been to confession for no other reason than to show your Lord Great Love?

I’ll confess: I never have! For some reason I have always thought of confession as a sacrament about Me. My confession. My contrition and penance. My absolution. Now, I feel better—even if for no other reason than I’ve completed an expected task. How very sad. How sad that anyone would approach the sacrament of reconciliation as a duty to perform, as a task to just get done. Over with and out. But given the drives and lusts of our secular culture, are we really surprised that this sort of distortion is so common? So deeply soaked and thoroughly wetted are we in our middle-class pragmaticism and materialism that we come to understand the mysteries of the Lord’s sacraments in purely functional terms, in simply practical or utilitarian terms. Have you ever heard someone say, “I don’t go to Mass anymore b/c I don’t get anything out of it?” Insert pretty much any religious practice in place of “Mass” in that sentence and you get what I think of as the typical American Catholic response to the faith. The pragmatic notion that we must “get something out of” a commitment or a promise or a vow is absurd in light of this morning’s gospel. The Great Love that Christ shows us from the Cross and the Empty Tomb is freely given, no strings attached. Can we love as freely? Even if there is nothing to be gained personally, can we love so purely, so excessively, so overwhelmingly so?

We can if we will. Paul writes to the Galatians, “I have been crucifed with Christ; yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me…” You see the genuis of the Catholic faith is that nothing required of us is truly required of us alone. We admit from the beginning that we can do nothing without first receiving the grace, the gifts, necessary to complete the task. Even our desire to cooperate with God’s various gifts to us is itself a gift. Our completed tasks in grace are no more responsible for saving us than any number of goats slaughtered and burned on an altar. We are not made just by our works. In other words, we cannot work our way into holiness apart from the God of grace that motivates us to do good works. Paul writes, “We who know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ even we have believed in Christ Jesus…b/c by works of the law no one will be justified.” We are made just when we are crucifed with Christ (in baptism) and when he abides in us (in confession and Eucharist) we remain just. We can proclaim with Paul then, “I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself for me.”

Can we, then, be members of the Body of Christ, the Church, who participate in the ministries of the Church not for pragmatic gain, nor the need to “feel something,” nor in the hope of fitting-in, but b/c we long to show Christ a Great Love, the love that he first showed us on the cross and shows us even now on this altar? Can we do what the sinful woman did: freely, openly, purely, and without caring about gossip or any negative consequences, can we express our Great Love for Christ and one another with the gifts of tears—humility, forgiveness, mercy; and the gifts of service—teaching, preaching, healing, feeding? Can you show others—for no other reason or purpose than your Great Love for Jesus—can you show others the Christ That Lives In You? And can you show them that Christ did not die for nothing but that he died and rose again for everything, everyone, everywhere? And can you show them that b/c he died and rose again for everything, everyone, everywhere, that they too, saying YES to his gifts of trust, hope, and love, that they too can shine out a Christ-light for all to see, that they too can wash filthy feet with repentant tears and anoint them freshly clean with precious oil?

If you can do all this, and you can, why could it possibly matter how you feel about it? Angry, depressed, joyful, exhausted, pitiful, happy—does it matter? Truly, does it matter? No, it doesn’t. Be careful: do not let fleeting emotions (no matter how passionate!) bargain with the triumphs of Love. Feel what you feel and Love anyway. Be angry and love anyway. Be depressed, exhausted, spiteful, and love anyway. Be elated, ecstatic, on cloud nine, and nearly uncontrollably happy, and love anyway. Be bored, isolated, cranky, and mean, and love anyway. Christ did not die for nothing. He died for you. And you are not nothing. You are everything to him. We are everything to him. Yes, our sins betray us! But his Great Love forgives us. Our debt is always canceled, always forgiven.

Knowing this, can you serve others, with Christ living in you, serve others as Christ served you?