01 August 2009

Where's your dancer?

[NB. This is my last daily homily preached to the sisters here in Fort Worth. I am headed back to the priory in Irving later today. . .]

St Alphonus Liguori: Lv 25.1; 8-17; Matt 14.1-12
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Sisters of St Mary of Namur

Herod hands us a warning —the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Surely, Herod has no idea that this grisly gift to a dancer would serve as a caution twenty centuries down the road. Fearing the anger of the people, he sets aside his own anger at John and enjoys his birthday party. He enjoys it a little too much; so much, in fact, that he foolishly vows to grant the party's exceptional dancer whatever she might wish. At the prompting of her mother—Herod's illegitimate wife—the young woman asks for John's head. For us, twenty-first century Christians, the girl's naivete produces a first-century warning: those in power will not tolerate prophets who speak the truth, especially if the truth spoken risks stinging an unruly conscience and rousing an unjustly ruled people. We are duly warned. But if Christians cannot or will not speak the truth to those who rule, who will? Can we afford to tolerate rulers who will not hear the truth spoken? Are we ready to surrender our heads to the court dancer?

John discovered the hard way that princes and kings do not like God's grubby spokesmen spouting off about truth, justice, and the holy way. Out of fear, Herod allows John to live despite John's harangues against his royal adultery. Watching the daily tracking polls, Herod no doubt sees John's popularity as a prophet of God, a man worthy of the job given to him. Focus groups indicate to the king that beheading John for speaking out would be a very dangerous move poll numbers; so, he refrains. Instead of the calling the axeman, Herod funds a political action committee and begins oppositional research. The negative ads were poised to air the day the dancing girl moved seductively onto the scene. She's the game-changer. In what will become one of history's most notorious political gaffes, Herod promises her the world. She wants and gets John's head. For the next several months nothing else is discussed in media. How will Plattergate play out at the polls? Has Herod hurt himself with the religious demographic? Was the whole affair a set-up by Herod's zealous opponents to embarrass him?

Among the witnesses that day were John's disciples. They collect his body and bury it. Then they tell Jesus that his herald is dead. Hearing this, Jesus goes alone to a deserted place. Does Jesus think that John was foolish to admonish Herod? Would Jesus have advised John to resist speaking the truth to his king? Maybe the better way here is the path of quiet persuasion through earnest dialogue and common ground engagement. After all, the truth is so harsh, so dramatically uncompromising, and impractical. Surely, our Lord would have coached John to be more tolerant, less judgmental, more willing to see both sides of the issue for the sake of staying at the political table. And then there's the whole beheading episode. There's a message for us from our rulers: tell me the truth, and I get your head. What compromise won't get me, the axe will cut away. Negotiate away the truth or die.

Are we ready to surrender our heads to the court dancer? A grim question! One we can hope and pray we never have to answer. Of course, the question will never be put to any of us in exactly those terms. We'll be asked a much more subtle question: are you willing to stop being so stubborn about all those moral and religious issues if we allow you to participate in the democratic process? If not, chop! You're out. Your head won't be on a platter, but your voice will be muffled under the weight of lawsuits and judicial injunctions. If we fall, we fall to the tax-man not the axe-man.

So, what do we do? Negotiate? Engage on “common ground”? Get what we can and thank our secular betters for the scrapes? We are as wise as serpents and gentle as doves, so we could. But too often gentle doves forget that they must sometimes be wise serpents. Fortunately, we are political animals only for a while. The life we have been chosen for and have received is the life of truth lived on the way to an eternal life. There is nothing to fear in speaking the truth, nothing and no one to tremble before when absolute moral virtue needs our voices to be heard. We have been warned. True. But we have also been promised. Warned by a king. Promised by The King. Promised to his Father. The beauty of this promise is that we have already been beheaded, died, buried, and made ready to rise again. Why would we fear the wrath of a king when we truly belong to The King? Besides, who told you that being a prophet was an easy road to fame and riches? Welcome to the Platter! Where's your dancer?

No Class

A picture is worth a thousand words. . .or a couple of dropped points in the polls.

H/T: American Thinker

The Return of. . .Coffee Cup Browsing!

2009-10 is the Year for Priests (pssst. . .I hear priests really like books. . .) :-)

For all your Catholic philosophy needs. . .which are many, I'm sure. . .

Gerald Collins, "Jesus Our Priest" (Caution: Jebbie site, so keep your Summa close by!)

Jesus Beads. . .(not that he is envious of the rosary, of course)

Ever wonder how the Church figures out which Sunday will be Easter Sunday. . .?

Ten Great Existential movies. . .yes, their existence preceded their essenses

The basic idea of HancAquam. . .

Wise Sayings
recycled for the cynic

Bar Stool Economics: the American tax system

Great political cartoons

An extremely biased definition of a political liberal

Hmmmmm. . .I know I'm supposed to scowl at this. . .

Finally, a website made for Coffee Cup Browsing!

30 July 2009

Hell is good for you!

17th Week OT (Th): Ex 40.16-21, 34-8; Matt 13.47-53
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Sisters of St Mary of Namur

Setting aside for the moment a few ugly episodes and outrageous characters from the Order's history, it is safe to say that Dominicans have a well-deserved reputation for preferring to teach folks into heaven rather than scaring them away from Hell. We would rather persuade than cajole, influence rather than frighten. Generally speaking, it is better to touch a rational soul with the Light of Christ than it is to scare the snot out of a sinner with ghastly visions of Hell. But sometimes the rational soul of a sinner might need to be shown a scene or two of eternal life without God—just a brief glimpse into exactly what never-ending torment looks like. Doesn't a soul twisted in folly, unable to choose the Good and come to God, doesn't a soul so injured deserve the mercy of wisdom's most immediate remedy? Jesus, the Master Philosopher, knows that even a mind deeply dedicated to right reason but steeped in sin may need a hot-shock, a whack upside the head in order to see through foolish to wisdom. The “fiery furnace” he refers to so often in Matthew's gospel is just that jolt of reality we sometimes need. It's not pretty, but it sure is helpful.

As helpful as images of Hell may be, we tend to shy away from preaching about eternal damnation these days. Too 1950's. Too fundamentalist. Very “pre-Vatican Two”—whatever that means. But if we are going to preach the gospel, there is simply no way to avoid the subject given the lectionary readings! These last two weeks alone Jesus has separated the goats from the sheep; pulled the weeds from among the flowers; culled the good fish from the bad; and his angels have set the midden-heap of pruned branches ablaze. The wicked and the righteous are well and truly labeled, properly queued up, and ready to receive their eternal itineraries. So, let's not mince words; let's study the truth as Jesus presents it to us: make a choice—goat or sheep, flower or weed, good fish or bad, fertile soil or barren dirt. All you need to do is make the right choice. The consequences of making the wrong choice are—shall we say—extremely unpleasant! In the best sense, the choices before us really are just this stark and the consequences of our choices just this easy to discern. Few of us, however, experience the choices in such stark terms.

So why is Jesus presenting the choices in such glaring black and white terms? Why the threat of eternal punishment in the fiery furnace for making the wrong choice? Jesus is a Master Philosopher and a Master Psychologist. Think about how Jesus preaches and teaches. He uses parables, scriptural allusions, conversation, examples, even miracles. Sometimes he interrogates and cajoles. Rarely does he argue like a Greek philosopher or a Pharisee. The people in the crowds respond to him b/c he sparks to life their intuitions about what is true and good and beautiful about being well-loved creatures. He knows that his very presence jump-starts that nagging desire for God that we are born with and strive to satisfy in this life. And he knows that without God's help we will consistently fail to reach high enough when reaching for our happiness. Settling for imitation happiness, faux-joy—this might impress the neighbors, but it takes the real-deal to enter the kingdom. And if Jesus has to scare the snot out of us to get us to pay attention to our eternal choices, then get the hankie ready—here comes the scare!

If you were frightened into the faith, you might not be particularly proud of the fact. It would be more embarrassing, however, to remain faithful out of fear, to remain a believer because the fiery furnace looms large in the imagination. The threat of the furnace is meant to scald a foolish soul into seeing the light of reason, to awake a sleepy desire for God. Clearly, Hell is a very real option for anyone who chooses to live without God for eternity. But Hell is not the be-all and end-all of the gospel. Once the furnace-option has been rejected and we have joined the flowers, the sheep, the good fish, and the fertile soil, Hell might linger as a whiff of smoke to remind us of our wise choice, but the daily life of a Christian is not dominated by the fear of an already and always defeated enemy. We chose to receive the extravagant graces poured out from the cross and the empty tomb. Though the heat of the furnace may have turned us from its punishing flames, setting us on the right course, we stay the course for Christ b/c nothing else, no one else can bring us home. For us, no one else is home.

29 July 2009

From mourning to belief

St Martha: Ex 34.29-35; John 11.19-27
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Sisters of St Mary of Namur

In the presence of the people, Moses veils his face, shielding them from God's radiance even while sharing with them the Lord's commands; in the presence of the Lord himself, Martha unveils her face, revealing her grief to Jesus even while confessing her belief in him. Moses must hide God's brilliance so that the people will hear what the Lord has to say. Martha must show Jesus her mourning so that he will ask of her, “Do you believe?” Both Moses and Martha see the Lord face-to-face. Both hear him and converse with him. Moses speaks with God for the sake of His people. Martha speaks with Jesus for the sake of her deceased brother, Lazarus. Moses is the anointed prophet of God and leader of His people. Martha is sister to Mary; friend to Jesus; and no one has anointed her to be a prophet or herald, yet she believes that Jesus is the promised one to come; she proclaims his arrival among us; and names him, she names him Christ, the Messiah. What Moses must hide so that others might see, Martha announces so that all may hear.

If you have ever mourned, you know how wholly consuming the pain can be. The gravity of loss drags against every offer of comfort, or and possibility of relief. Nothing, no one can lift the ruinous pressure that squeezes your guts and chokes your heart. There is nothing to see behind you anymore and nothing of promise for tomorrow. There is only more defeat in the futile hours that circle around. . .again and again. Martha and Mary mourn the death of Lazarus, their brother. They do not grieve alone—neighbors, friends, family visit with them. Martha goes out to meet Jesus on his way. Finding him, she says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. . .” She “says” this? Or does she scream it? Is she accusing Jesus of neglect? Is she merely disappointed in him, or just annoyed? Do you hear grief in her voice? “Lord, if you had been here. . .” If only, you had been here. . .

What we could easily take to be Martha's accusation against Jesus, quickly turns into something else entirely: “...my brother would not have died [had you been here, Lord]. But even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” From accusatory outburst to faith-filled profession, Martha moves from being a grieving sister to speaking as a holy prophet of God. Jesus assures her that Lazarus will rise. And Martha, in tone that could put steel in the weakest stomach, answers, “I know he will rise. . .” The strength of her conviction almost overshadows Jesus' moment of glory: “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live. . .” We can safely assume that Jesus never sputtered when he spoke, but it is not too much to imagine that he may have been both a little surprised and greatly pleased by Martha's faith. Nonetheless, he must ask. . .

Do you believe this? Do you believe that if you believe in Christ Jesus, you will never die, and if you die, you will live again? Martha says in answer to this question, “I have come to believe. . .” In other words, not always fully convinced of your name or mission, over time I have found belief, arrived at faith, been convicted in the spirit that you are the Christ. Martha is our prophet of progressing belief, of unfolding faith. She is our patron saint of those who Come to Believe despite their anger, their grief; despite all the evidence and argument against believing; over the objections of family, friends, colleagues; and, overriding disappointment and accusation, come to know that all will be made well—even death—all will be made well. But first we must believe. We must watch what cannot clearly be seen, reach for what cannot be grasped. Only by watching and reaching do we ever see or grasp.

Martha wants to know, “Do you believe?”

28 July 2009

Parables do not save

17th Week OT (Tues): Ex 33.7-11, 34.5-9, 28; Matt 13.36-43
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Sisters of St Mary of Namur

Jesus fell for it! His disciples ask for the meaning of the sower's parable and Jesus caves. Just yesterday, I was praising our Lord for having the proper teacherly attitude toward the use of parables. Up until today, he has resisted the temptation to dissect his stories, to take them apart for close inspection and risk killing them for the sake of ever-elusive clarity. But today his students want to know what the sower's parable “means.” They ask Jesus, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field.” Jesus explains his story by matching each image or action in the parable with a parallel image or action from scripture: “He who sows good seed is the Son of Man, the field is the world, the good seed the children of the Kingdom,” and so on. For the disciples and probably most of those reading this passage centuries later, Jesus has the last word on the meaning of this parable. And why not? It's his story, so he gets to interpret it. Even if we accept as definitive the meaning he gives to this parable, we can still ask why he gave it an explanation in the first place. Well, the Psalmist sings this morning, “The Lord is kind and merciful,” so maybe Jesus is taking pity on the metaphor-challenged. But doesn't Jesus say in earlier readings that only those who are graced with insight can understand the parables? If the disciples need to be taught the correct interpretation, does that mean that they don't have graced insight? Or is Jesus doing something here other than what it at first appears he is doing? The Lord can be very sneaky when he wants to be. . .

The disciples ask Jesus to explain the parable to them. Does Jesus do this; does he explain the parable? More or less. What he does is give them the interpretative keys to the story; he lays out for them how to give the parable meaning by giving it one meaning—the sower is the Son of Man; the field is the world, etc. So, one way of explaining the parables is to replace story elements (images, characters) with complementary elements from scripture and then work out how these elements tell a new story. The explanation that Jesus gives is not The Explanation for All Ages; it is what we could call a hermeneutical pattern, or an interpretative model. For example, the sower of seed could be the Church; the field could be missionary territories; the seeds could be fired-up catechists and their families, etc. Are their limits to this sort of interpretative model? Oh yes. I used to warn my students away from hermeneutical relativism by telling them, “There may be no one right interpretation of this poem, but there are millions of wrong ones!”

In the case of the sower's parable, Jesus enlightens his disciples with an explanation that cracks open a cosmic story, an end-time tale of how All This ends in a harvest of souls for heaven and a midden-heap of sinners for the fiery furnaces of hell. Though we might tinker with the details and shift around the storyline, what we cannot avoid in the sower's parable is the rather straightforward teaching that our choices as loved-creatures have eternal consequences. We are animals gifted with reason; set above the angels because we are free to love or not. To love as we ought is to measure our share in the divine life; to fail to love as we ought is to measure our grave for an eternal abode. With a face set in stone and a heart to match, the anti-lover will burn—maybe it will be the furnace fires of hell, or maybe it will be the scalding freeze of a deathless void. Whatever else hell may be, it is to be eternally abandoned. And the most appalling part is that it is freely chosen abandonment.

Jesus explains the parable to the disciples, but he doesn't refine his explanation into a full-blown interpretation. He gives them and us a way to understand what our glorious or inglorious end looks like. There is a choice to make. As always-loved creatures, we receive Christ's wisdom to the limits of our capacity. Augustine liked to (unknowingly) misquote Isaiah, “Unless you will have believed, you will not understand” (Isa 7.9). First comes our assent to the Good News of God's mercy, then comes our understanding of what that mercy means for us eternally. If, as Aquinas teaches us, we receive according to our natures, then make sure your nature is properly graced in belief to receive the truth of a parable—even if the details escape your less-than-poetical imagination. Remember: parables do the teaching; Jesus does the saving.

27 July 2009

No future in parables

17th Week OT (Mon): Ex 32.15-34; Matt 13.31-35
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Sisters of St Mary of Namur

Poets use verse to hide secret messages. Everyone knows that they could just say what they mean in plain prose, but the whole point of poetry is to figure out the code—the symbols, the allusions, etc.—and then decipher the hidden message to win the prize! Once you crack the code a poet uses, all of his or her poems can be decrypted in the same way. Every time I teach poetry, I have to un-teach this method of reading poetry. At some point in the class—especially with E. Dickinson or W. Stevens—someone will snap and cry out in frustration: “Just tell us what it means!!!” Though I am moved to pity, I am also resolved to resist allowing my students to turn good poetry into a de-coder ring game. Jesus seems to share my teacherly attitude when it comes to his parables. Those listening to Jesus must be about ready to do a little shouting all their own: “Mustard seeds! Leaven! Flour! What are you talking about?!” The irony here, of course, is that Jesus is speaking in parables not to hide the truth, but to uncover it: “I will open my mouth in parables, I will announce what has lain hidden from the foundation of the world.” Like enjoying good poetry, understanding a parable is more an experience of wisdom than it is an act of intellect. It's not so much about what you know as how you live.

Poetry, prophecy, parables—all very risky ways of telling the truth. You would do a lot better with a straightforward propositional claim, or even a mathematical equation. No ambiguity, no room for getting it wrong. The future, if we are to know it, must be known clearly; otherwise, we will make all sorts of mistakes now. Of course, some say that the future is mute. Emily Dickinson declares: “The Future never spoke,/Nor will he, like the Dumb,/Reveal by sign or syllable/Of his profound To-come.” What is to come for us is not revealed by sign or syllable. Why? The future never spoke, nor will he. Notice that the parables Jesus proposes are not about the future either. They do not gesture toward tomorrow, rather they describe what the wise can already see: the kingdom of God grows, spreads, breathes life into, is infectious, multiplies. What has lain hidden at the foundation of the world is that the world's foundation is God's kingdom.

Jesus “proposed” his parables to the crowds. The wise see. Those who do not see nonetheless get a glimpse, a flash of what lay underneath. Like the seeds and leaven, the parables themselves work their way into the soil of the imagination, into the flour of the spirit and begin expand, multiply, and breath until they either propose wisdom or produce frustration. Maybe we should say that frustration is the beginning of wisdom. It could be the rough edges of a tale that rub us into seeking out more and more. . .or maybe just the half-told truths of fable that spark a quest. . .or even the odd little story about a woman and her bread dough. . .none of these are about a fictional future but a deepened present.

How does it change your day to believe for even a minute or two that the foundations of the world rest on the kingdom of God?

26 July 2009

Not a good Sunday morning

Bad News. . .

Didn't sleep a wink last night. . .severely nauseated, vomiting. . .got up at 6am to work on today's homily for the sisters, more vomiting. . .went over to the convent and asked one of the nurses to take my BP: 174/120. She gave a nitro tablet. BP dropped a little and then went to 154/120. My pulse was 135. We phoned the on-call doctor for my doc's office. I phoned a friend of mine who is a doctor. . .waiting to hear what I should do. . .

Please, pray!

UPDATE: Doc just called. . .she said go to the ER, so to the ER I go.

Update 2.0: Back from the ER. Nothing permanently damaged. Dizziness and vomiting caused by an ear infection. . .BP was brought down with some Clonodine. Good stuff.

Thank for the prayers!!!!