01 August 2021

What are you hungry for?

18th Sunday OT

Fr. Philip Neri Powell OP


The crowd following Jesus across the sea is hungry. Sure, he's just fed all 5,000 of them with a few fish and five barley loaves, but they want more. Not more fish and bread but more signs of his power. They want more proof that he's really who he says he is. When he tells me that they do the works of God by believing in the one God sent, they demand a sign, “What can you do?” It's like they're strolling around a county fair going from stage to stage asking the performers, “So, what's your act?” Instead of turning them all into possums, Jesus teaches them a saving truth, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.” Whether or not they understand this truth is debatable. But they do get the reference – Moses, manna in the desert, bread from heaven. So, while they are demanding a miraculous sign – like manna from heaven –, Jesus gives them a glimpse into their salvation – he is their manna. Do they see it? Are they listening? The more basic question is: what are they hungry for? Miracles or eternal life? Bread or the Bread of Life?

We can ask ourselves the same questions. What are we hungry for? There's natural hunger and supernatural hunger. We shouldn't confuse the two, though we often do. Paul tells the Ephesians, “...you should put away the old self of your former way of life, corrupted through deceitful desires...” These deceitful desires have convinced many that fulfilling them will lead to happiness. A new car. A bigger house. A prettier wife. A better-looking husband. A promotion. Getting into the right college. All of these are desires. And all of them are deceitful if we believe that fulfilling them will make us happy. The crowd pestering Jesus with questions believe they will be satisfied with a few signs of Jesus' power. They weren't satisfied with the miracle of the fishes and loaves. Why would they be satisfied with another miracle? They won't be. And that's Jesus' point. What we can eat and drink here and now is always temporary, always fleeting. That crawfish boil we devoured yesterday is gone. That nice bottle of wine we drank Friday night is gone. We're hungry and thirsty again. Nothing created, nothing temporary can permanently satisfy. Only the Bread of Life can give us eternal life. The only manna from heaven we need is Christ.

So, what do you hunger for? I'm not asking for our dinner order. I'm asking: what is it that you need to be most deeply satisfied with your life? Family? Friends? Productive work? Good health? Family and friends die. Jobs end. People get sick. All temporary. Maybe a fulfilling hobby? A fashionable wardrobe? Your guy or gal in the White House? Hobbies come and go. Fashions change. Elections have consequences. All temporary. All perfectly fine in themselves but all temporary. What we hunger for most is union with God. We were created by God and re-created in Christ to be guests at the eternal wedding feast. We were created by God and re-created in Christ to be heirs to the Kingdom. We were created by God and re-created in Christ to become Christs for the world. To achieve these ends, becoming Christs and enjoying the feast as heirs, we need food and drink now that will never pass away. We need our hungers and our thirsts properly satisfied by the Body and Blood of Christ. Not magic-tricks, or signs and wonders, or conspiracy theories, or Utopian philosophies. We need Christ. His Body and Blood in the Eucharist. Received while properly disposed. And duly grateful. He promises: “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.”

Our challenge, as bodies and souls living in the world, is to keep our hungers and thirsts focused on the eternal. This doesn't mean that we don't eat or drink when we need to. It means that we never confuse our natural hungers with our supernatural hunger. We never allow those deceitful desires to convince us that possessing This and That will make us happy. We never allows ourselves to be deceived into believing that sin is not sin, or that the revealed Truth is just an opinion, or that we are less than creatures created in the image and likeness of God. We are temporary residents, merely pilgrims on the way through this world. Our true home is in heaven. But while we are in the world, it's our duty to be as much like Christ as we can be. We can't replace him or his work. But we can do a pretty good job of imitation. That's why we are here this evening. To make of ourselves an oblation, an offering, to God the Father. To eat and drink the Body and Blood of Christ, and to become him whom we consume. And we do all this to satisfy our deepest longing – union with God for the salvation of the world.

Follow HancAquam or Subscribe ----->

25 July 2021

It ALL belongs to God

17th Sunday OT

Fr. Philip Neri Powell OP


Audio File

We start this morning/evening with generosity. What Aquinas calls liberality. This is the virtue of freely giving what you have to those who do not have for their good use. St. Thomas teaches: “when a man quits hold of a thing he frees it...from his keeping and ownership, and shows his mind to be free of attachment...”(ST II-II.117.2). So, to be generous is to be open-handed with what you have, unattached to the things you own. The virtue behind generosity is charity, love. And the excellence of both generosity and charity is, of course, God, who is Generosity and Charity Himself. We see this clearly when Christ takes a meager offering of five loaves and two fish and feeds 5,000. . .with leftovers! No, this is not the miracle of otherwise stingy people being inspired to share the food they had hidden away. This is the prefigurement of the Eucharist – where the small offerings of bread and wine are given to the priest and transubstantiated into the Body and Blood of Christ and then distributed to the people of God to strengthen them – body and soul – in a unity of faith and purpose. At root, we learn that nothing we have and nothing we are is truly, finally ours. It all belongs to God first and always.

In the celebration of the Mass, we remember the feeding of the 5,000 during the Offertory. The gifts of bread and wine are brought forward; given to the priest, who then prays, “Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness we have received the bread/the wine we offer you...” We receive from God through His goodness that which we in turn give back to Him as an offering. And not only do we offer bread and wine, the priest offers us all as sacrifice when he quietly prays: With humble spirit and contrite heart may WE be accepted by you, O Lord, and may OUR sacrifice in your sight this day be pleasing to you, Lord God.” Then he asks the congregation to pray: “Pray, brothers and sisters, that MY sacrifice and YOURS may be acceptable to God...” You then respond as members of the royal priesthood: “May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands for the praise and glory of his name, for our good and the good of all his holy Church.” In this exchange of prayers and offerings we are all of us both the sacrificing priests and the sacrificial victims. In our generosity, we offer back to God what He has given us – bread, wine, and all of ourselves, everything we have and everything we are. Acceptable sacrifices for the praise and glory of His name.

Jesus took the offered loaves and fishes, blessed and multiplied them, and fed 5,000. He did this to bear witness to the power of the Father's generosity and to prepare us to become generous offerings ourselves. If, at the consecration, the offered bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ, then so do we. We offered ourselves. We prayed that we ourselves would be an acceptable sacrifice. And the priest prays again, “May he [Christ] make of US an eternal offering to YOU...” We give back to God all that we have received from God. The life of holiness, a life striving toward perfection, is a life of self-sacrifice, of generosity in the Father's charity. Christ himself is our exemplar. Being both fully human and fully divine, he willingly died on the Cross as a gift, freely given, so that we might be reconciled to the Father and become ourselves Christs in the world. This transformation cannot happen without our attentive cooperation. It won't happen to us. It must happen with us. Participating in the sacrifice of the Mass is one way we sign onto the adventure of becoming Christs for the world.

The other way we sign onto this adventure is how we live our daily lives. Generosity is a virtue; that is, it's a good habit – practiced day in and day out. Not just with family and friends. But with those who need what God has given you. Think of your time, your talents, and your treasures as gifts God has given you so that you can be generous with them. IOW, your gifts from God aren't rewards for good behavior – like a cookie for cleaning your room; nor are they blessings from heaven to show everyone else what good person you are. The gifts God gives you are held in your trust so that you may grow in holiness by being generous to others. The more gifts you have, the more opportunities you have to be generous, the more chances you have to grow in holiness. But to take advantage of those opportunities you have to practice the virtue of generosity. Everything you give away in love is a sign that you know and love the truth of who and what you are – a creature totally dependent on God for everything you have and everything you are. Nothing you own should ever own you. Nothing you are should ever be other than who God made you to be. It all belong to Him, first and always. Give it all back to Him and in the giving, grow to perfection. 

Follow HancAquam or Subscribe ----->

21 July 2021

The Eucharist and Poetry

Eucharist & Poetry: dwelling in possibility

Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP, PhL, PhD

Notre Dame Seminary, NOLA

Do I need to define the term “eucharist” to a group of Catholics? We've all been there, to eucharist. We know the words, the gestures, the scents and sights, all the in's and out's. Whether we've been doing eucharist for 80 years or 8 months, we know all about gathering, singing, listening, responding, taking and eating and drinking, and then going out to do likewise in the world. We might even know some of the history of the eucharist, some of the theology and philosophy that gives it its shape and flavor. And we certainly know about the conflicts, the divisiveness, and the compromises we've endured around how the eucharist is useful, used, and changed over the past few decades. It would be easy for me to spend my time this evening reminding you what you probably already know about the eucharist, or reinforcing ancient teachings around our sacrificial meal, or even challenging some of your favorite pious beliefs. But none of that would involve poetry. And I'm charged with involving poetry. So, what can I do with the eucharist and one of humanity's oldest arts? Here's what I came up with: poetry grants us permission to speak about our experiences of the sublime, the ineffable (the unsayable), the beautiful in a way that no other art form can. It also lends us the tools, the energy, the purposeful resolve to think and write and speak about that which we might only rarely dare to approach.

Our Latin tradition of theology and philosophy – for all of its welcomed clarity and concision – sets aside – for now – questions about how we might craft our responses to that which we can never fully understand. Granted, we have abundant space in our tradition for asking questions and shrugging our shoulders at the mysterious answers. Aquinas himself shrugged at his mountains of intellectual work after just one sublime, personal revelation. After glimpsing the perfection he labored to reveal fully in his imperfect work, he needed a word, an image to convey his failure. He needed a metaphor: straw. And this one word fulfills the duty set for it. “Straw” tells us that his ST, his SCG, his philosophical works on truth, evil, the soul, all his biblical commentaries, his sermons, and hymns – all of it. . .fails to express the compressed Truth perfectly delivered in one fleeting vision. All that he has written is written. True, good, even beautiful! But it is not nor can it be perfect. What he left unsaid about the Trinity, about the Christ, the sacraments, the scriptures, about being, the virtues – what he left unsaid is where we can turn to the hesitant poking and prodding of poetry and attempt to find a slice more of perfection, just a jot and tittle more of what we need to grow in holiness.

Thinking about who in our western poetic tradition does an excellent job of pointing us toward the unsayable, the sublime, I thought of dozens of poets. And I settled on three. Emily Dickinson, Rainer-Maria Rilke, and Wallace Stevens. Now, what to do with them? Well, what do they have in common? Two Americans and an Austrian. One from the 19th c. and two who lived across the 19th and 20th centuries. All three lived in a Romantic age of poetry and all three found the age's themes and style limiting. All three use their verse to wrestle with what it is to exist in a reality silent about its designs and intentions. All three see the world as already interpreted and wholly uninterpretable. There are many other commonalities. But the one I want to pull at is this: all three struggle mightily with our experience of the sublime and the inadequacies of our languages and symbols to speak about the experience. The questions they ask, the images they create all gesture toward an accommodation with both the sublime and the unsayable. That accommodation – to be present and to be silent – is the discipline we need while doing eucharist. Not the presence of “just being there” or the silence of “not talking.” But the presence and the silence of being disposable in our will and still in our intellect. We'll look at one poem from each poet and see how he/she teaches us to be while we give thanks and praise to God the Father.

But before we dive into the poems, we need to define some terms. Two in particular: sublime and ineffable. Not exactly words we come across in our daily lives but ones used quite frequently in writing and talking about the Eucharist. Defining “the sublime” goes all the way back to the 2nd c. of the Christian era. We have the classical definition from Longinus: “...the Sublime consists in a consummate excellence and distinction of language...For the effect of genius is not to persuade the audience but rather to transport them out of themselves” (1.3,4). Not to persuade but to transport beyond the self. Latin helps here. Sublīmis is literally “beneath the line” or “up to the line.” We can assume for now that the line is limit of the Self, the horizon over which the Self is lost to Self – one's experience, one's language, one's memories. Encountering the sublime is encountering that which both threatens and elevates the totality of who I am. Properly understood, the Eucharist is a sublime liturgical act that moves me from Me to Us – me, you, and God. We are elevated into the Divine by the Divine, and this elevation threatens our merely creaturely being.

If sublime language elevates, and The Sublime is that which elevates and threatens, then we can define The Ineffable as that which leaves us speechless, inarticulate. We can go further and say that there are experiences of the sublime that we cannot put into words. Why? Precisely because the experience stretches us to our limits. That we are faced with the ineffable in the sublime may tempt us to quietism, to simply going still and mute before the unsayable. This could be an involuntary, temporary reaction to encountering the sublime. But as rational animals – human persons, body and soul – we are built to comprehend, created to investigate and understand. And we do this through art, music, science, philosophy, theology, and poetry. Each discipline provides its unique tools and vocabularies for investigating and describing what the disciple finds in the created world. For the Catholic artist, musician, poet, scientist the created world reveals the Divine – granted, imperfectly, incompletely, in hesitant and imprecise gestures, words, notes, and paints. But nonetheless prayerfully, sacramentally, and ultimately, sacrificially. The ineffable tempts the intellect and will to keep approaching; to exhaust the hesitancy, the imprecision of our tools and materials. Our tool tonight is the imprecision of language, the music of words grasping at their limits.

Our first disciple in the art of exhausting the imprecision of language is R.M. Rilke. Considered the last German Romantic poet and the first modernist poet from his homeland, he completed his best known work, Dunio Elegies, in 1922 and published it a year later, one year after Eliot's ground-breaking poem, “The Wasteland.” We'll consider the opening fourteen lines of “The First Elegy.” Here we find a soul crying a lament for his insignificant existence, mourning the disdain with which the higher things of creation (“angelic hierarchies”) regard him. We can ask him: why are you crying out? What's happened? Why do you merit attention from heaven? He doesn't answer. All he says is that if one of these angels were to embrace him, he would “perish/in the embrace of his stronger existence.” Does he desire to vanish? Is he threatened or elevated by this superlative being? Apparently, both: “For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror...” Elevated to beauty; threatened by terror. But why should beauty terrify? If beauty is Sublime, why should we find terror in its contemplation? His answer is straightforward: “[we] are awed because it [the angel] serenely disdains to annihilate us.” We are that sort of being that is annihilated in the contemplation of beauty. Not only annihilated but annihilated with serene disdain. And it's not entirely clear if we are to be terrified by our imminent non-being or by the fact that we can be snuffed out with such peaceful contempt. It's almost as if the angel who would take us to its heart is unaware of our fragility, too perfect to note that it's our dire imperfection – our whole being – it destroys. Since “[e]ach single angel is terrifying,” our poet retreats from his subjunctive, elegiac vision, forcing himself instead to “swallow and hold back/the surging call of my dark sobbing.” Here we see Rilke struggling with two existential realities: our apparent helplessness in face of eternity and our inability to express this helplessness in any way more coherent than “dark sobbing.” IOW, we have our stance before the Sublime (helplessness) and the consequences of our stance, the Unsayable. The ineffability of this encounter with the terrifying angel is made clear: “Oh, to whom can we turn for help?/
Not angels, not humans...” Angels cannot help us articulate our helplessness b/c their beauty terrifies. Humans cannot help one another b/c every human is terrified by angelic beauty. The non-human animals of creation may sense our anxiety, but they do not interpret the world; they do not create language-worlds to live in. That we humans must interpret what we experience alienates us from the things of the world, leaving us bound to concept, words, symbols, and gestures – all artifice and inadequate, in the end. Is this why Rilke contemplates crying out to the angelic hierarchies? And then, hesitates? He's trapped between the annihilating superabundant being of the Sublime and the maddeningly imperfect Unsayable.

What can Rilke's lament teach us about the Eucharist? If we take these dense fourteen lines as an introduction to an existential crisis, a cry of grief at realizing what it is to be, to be human, then we can ask: what does the Eucharist teach us about being imperfectly and perfectly human in the presence of the Divine? Rilke gives us one way of answering the question – though he never explicitly addresses the question in terms of the Eucharist. Our ancient teaching on the Real Presence of Christ places us directly in front of the Divine during the Eucharist. We employ an arsenal of words, symbols, gestures, smells, sounds, and colors to create an interpreted liturgical world. That world – we know – is inadequate to the given task of cleanly, wholly representing who we are in the Divine presence. It is also inadequate to the challenge of communicating the Divine to its creatures. Rilke recoils, halting his frustrated cry, b/c to be embraced by the angel is terrifying, annihilating. Is this our response to being in the presence of the Divine? If not, should it be? If so, if we recoil, then how are we welcoming the Divine into our interpreted world? These few lines from Rilke's first elegy reveal the necessity of remaining disposable and still while in Christ's sacramental presence. If beauty is the beginning of terror, as Rilke says, then we can retort: fear of the Divine is the beginning of wisdom. Rather than shrink away, swallow our cry, and look to the things of the world for consolation, we respond as creatures being perfected in our humanity. We can do what Rilke never considers: give God thanks and praise. Not for threatening to annihilate us in the beauty of His superabundant Being but for coming to us perfectly human and for opening the possibility for us to become Divine w/o losing our humanity. The Eucharist is our way of welcoming and receiving this promise with praise and thanksgiving. In the purest sense of fear, we abide in awe before the sacramental Christ, take him in – Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity – and then, take him out. . .into the world to be all for all.

We've noted that Rilke seemed – at least in the beginning – to be trapped between the perfected being of the angel (the Sublime) and his inability to bring the Sublime into his interpreted world (the Unsayable). Our next artist, the Cloistered Poet of Amherst, is quiet at home, writing through the imprecisions of language. In fact, she happily declares: I dwell in Possibility –/A fairer House than Prose –/More numerous of Windows –/Superior – for Doors –. Possibility. Potential. Contingency. Maybe probability? Poetry as possibility may strike our modernist ears as old hat. We're used to the hesitancy, the deferral, the subjectivity, the prominence of the otherwise interior confessional in poetry. But Dickinson was no modernist poet. Set against her contemporary, Walt Whitman – the wild man prophet of American Exceptionalism – Dickinson's voice is the voice of a cloistered contemplative. Spare, indirect, demur, merely hinting-at but often brightened with bursts of searing clarity. The poem we're using tonight is just four lines: The words the happy say/Are paltry melody/But those the silent feel/Are beautiful—. So, there's a distinction to be made between the happy who sing and the silent who feel. What is she implying? We can feel w/o singing? Singing betrays feeling? Maybe the crux of the question has more to do with the melody, which is paltry. It's thin, meager. Maybe worthless? Words, tune, pitch. . .the hymn is adequate but not fulsome? What's missing in the melody to make paltry? Obviously, there's more. In the presence of the Sublime, what counts as an adequate response, what manages to be sufficient in conveying how we feel? And does this response matter. . .to the Sublime? Here we get to the root of the reality: does the Sublime have a response to us? That is, is there a required, a necessary response to our being so close to the Perfect from the Perfect? Sure, we – being imperfect – feel compelled to shout out, to reach out, to stretch out toward the perfect – but does the Perfect need our shouting, our stretching? No. The Sublime is perfect; therefore, it needs nothing. Yes. The Sublime is only sublime in our viewing of its sublimity. Otherwise, it is what it is. “Sublimity” is a function of our interpreted world. It's what we “add” to the reality. But notice: Dickinson writes that it is those words the silent feel. . .they are beautiful. The unspoken words are beautiful. Not the muted speakers. Likewise, the words the happy speak compose the “paltry melody.” Our Cloistered Poet is pointing us toward the ineffable, the Unsayable. With her usual intense care, Dickinson is teasing out the difference between the poverty of spoken words and the beauty of unspoken words simply felt. For a poet, an artist with words, this is a strange position to take. It would seem more natural for her to claim the spoken word as the more powerful. After all, silence makes no use of metaphors, rhymes, rhythms, or enjambments. So, what's going on here? One way of reading Dickinson's poem is to see it as a frame for the ineffable; that is, she is “locating” the ineffable by identifying where it isn't – the spoken word. The only way she can do this – as a poet – is with words. These four lines then gesture toward what cannot be said – the beauty of words simply felt. Now, why are the words spoken by the happy so impoverished? Is it because they exhaust themselves, their significance in trying to say what cannot be said? Yes, I think so. Dickinson wants us to notice that she's praising the ineffable with words, thus making her poem a delightful contradiction! And I can't resist quoting here one of my favorite Dickinson poems: Tell all the truth but tell it slant — /Success in Circuit lies/Too bright for our infirm Delight/The Truth's superb surprise/As Lightning to the Children eased/With explanation kind/The Truth must dazzle gradually/Or every man be blind —. As a statement of her overall poetic project, Dickinson could not do better.

So, how does our little poem about speaking and silence help us to understand the Eucharist? There's a lot of speaking in the Mass. Prayers, readings, the homily, singing. There may even be short moments of silence. Taking Dickinson's proposition that the ineffable can only be framed but never spoken, we can ask: how does the liturgical celebration of the Eucharist – all of the sights, sounds, smells, motions – how does it frame our experience of the Divine? Are we merely happily saying the words? Or are we – in silence – letting the words be beautiful in us? Rilke challenges us to contemplate the possibility of being annihilated by the Sublime. He provokes in us a question about our relationship with that which is beyond us in every way. Dickinson doesn't seem to be much interested in the Sublime. Her interpreted world is the world of possibility, the world of exhausting the imprecision of words. Her challenge to us is not an existential-crisis-invoking gut punch but rather – like her strong, delicate poetic lines – a nudge to notice ourselves failing to participate in the salvific action of the Eucharist. “Active participation” isn't about getting up and moving around and having a job at the Mass, like reading or taking up the collection or serving as a CM. The Latin term translated as “active participation” is better translated as “actual participation;” that is, that sort of participation that moves your potential to be holy to actual holiness. That kind of participation can be done in silence. Our prayers, the homily, the readings, the singing – all words. All spoken words. But merely repeating them does not frame the ineffable. They are the least wrong way to understand what we are doing at the Eucharist. What will better help us approach the fullness of Christ's beauty in the Eucharist is attending to the silences that frames the ineffable. Most importantly, the interior silences we construct by muting our paltry melodies.

Before moving to our last poet, I want to take a moment to talk about the Eucharist from within the tradition, making sure – despite my earlier assurances – that we have a good idea of what of we're talking about. I said earlier that we all know what the Mass is. We've all been to Mass, celebrated the Eucharist probably hundreds of times. And the doing of eucharist is immensely more important to our salvation than merely understanding it intellectually. This truth does not mean, however, that we cannot or should not try to grasp at a rational level what the Eucharist is. To help us here, we turn to Pope Benedict XVI and his 2007 exhortation on the Eucharist, Sacramentum caritatis, the Sacrament of Charity. I strongly recommend reading this document b/c it is probably one of the best explanations of the Eucharist available. He writes, “In the sacrament of the altar, the Lord meets us, men and women created in God's image and likeness, and becomes our companion along the way. In this sacrament, the Lord truly becomes food for us, to satisfy our hunger for truth and freedom. Since only the truth can make us free, Christ becomes for us the food of truth. . .Each of us has an innate and irrepressible desire for ultimate and definitive truth...Jesus Christ is the Truth in person, drawing the world to himself. . .” (SC2). Lots to unpack here. In the Eucharist: 1) God comes to meet us; 2) He becomes our companion along the Way; 3) knowing that we hunger for truth and freedom, He becomes our food; 4) knowing that only the truth can set us free, Christ becomes for us the food of truth; 5) our irrepressible desire for truth is met in the person of Jesus Christ, who draws the world to himself. BXVI is re-orienting our perspective on the Eucharist away from the dominant modern view that the Eucharist is principally (if not only) about the community of believers, gathering together to reinforce their identity as followers of Christ. This communal reinforcement of our identity is certainly a result of celebrating the Eucharist, but it is not purpose, the telos of celebrating the Eucharist. What is the telos of the Eucharist? BXVI continues, “The substantial conversion of bread and wine into his body and blood introduces within creation the principle of a radical change, a sort of 'nuclear fission' . . .which penetrates to the heart of all being, a change meant to set off a process which transforms reality, a process leading ultimately to the transfiguration of the entire world, to the point where God will be all in all” (SC2). The telos of the Eucharist is the transfiguration of the entire world so that God will be all in all. The task of transfiguring the entire world falls to you and me. BXVI uses the image of nuclear fission. Nuclear fusion is the process of drawing atoms inward toward a central mass. Nuclear fission is where atoms are scattered, pushed out and away from the central mass. In this image from physics, we can see that we come together in the Eucharist (fusion) and then we scatter into the world (fission). But – like the particles in a nuclear reaction – we do not scatter unchanged. In the Eucharist, we offer Christ – BBSD; we offer ourselves individually and as a Body to the Father, surrendering everything we have and are to be transfigured into imperfect Christs. Our task is to go out – as living, breathing tabernacles – and bring Christ to the entire world.

I'm arguing in this talk that our poets can help us investigate how we participate in our own transfiguration during the Eucharist. Rilke and Dickinson give us insights into how we encounter the Sublime and struggle to articulate what we experience – the Ineffable. They are especially useful to us b/c they come to us from outside our Catholic tradition. Their questions and pokes and prods assume nothing we take for granted. Our last poet, Wallace Stevens, spent his entire career as a poet rejecting the very idea of God's existence. In fact, he proposes poetry as a replacement for religion altogether. There is good evidence that he made a deathbed conversion and was received into the Church before he died. But his life-long rejection of Christianity and his search for Something Else to ground his humanity fueled his poetic project.

Stevens' poetry is notoriously difficult. It is also spectacularly beautiful. That combination of difficulty and beauty makes choosing a poem for this talk frustrating. I've settled on “Sunday Morning.” I'll start with a quote from his Adagia, a book of aphorisms, “After one has abandoned a belief in God, poetry is that essence which takes its place as life's redemption.” Or, as he put it in one of his most famous poems, “Poetry//Exceeding music must take the place/Of empty heaven and its hymns,/Ourselves in poetry must take their place”(TMWBG). Neither Rilke nor Dickinson advocated for the abandonment of religion. Rilke was, at best, wary of it; and Dickinson shared his wariness, if not his post-Romantic despair at losing it. Stevens, on the other hand, being a good disciple of Emerson, easily shifted from the simple Lutheranism of his family into a humanist exaltation of things, the things of the world. Not worldliness. By all accounts, his personal life resembled that of a monk. But a fascination with how poetry, the poetic imagination, shapes and polishes the furniture of the universe. He believed this shaping and polishing was the limit of worship. Joan Richardson, a Stevens biographer, succinctly summarizes our poet's work: “Reading his poems, we learn the same habit of close attention, intense concentration, demanded by prayer; his body of work a breviary, a primer in practicing a 'constant sacrament of praise' for mere being”(HTLWTD 18-19).

While Rilke wrestled with the deadliness of the Sublime and Dickinson carefully picked her words to frame the ineffable, Stevens chose to construct the necessary fictions of life that a non-existent God never created. His poems are those necessary fictions. His first fiction tonight is “Sunday Morning” first published in Poetry Magazine in 1915 and later included in his first volume, Harmonium, published the same year as Rilke's Duino Elegies, 1923. Stevens was 35yo when “Sunday Morning” appeared in print. He was well away from his family's Lutheranism and very much in the thrall of Emerson, William James, and George Santayana, the self-professed “Catholic atheist.” “Sunday Morning” announces his departure from religion in general and Christianity in particular. The poem opens with a woman enjoying her Sunday morning – oranges, coffee, a cockatoo, all working together, dissipating “[t]he holy hush of ancient sacrifice.” She dreams, walking “[o]ver the seas, to silent Palestine,/Dominion of the blood and sepulcher.” Stevens sets the scene, contrasting a bright, pleasant modernity with the dark, bloody history of sacrifice. And then he asks the question modernity demands: “Why should she give her bounty to the dead?/What is divinity if it can come/Only in silent shadows and in dreams?” Why should someone possessed of worldly beauty surrender it to tradition – the dead? What is the power of divinity if it cannot be seen and heard in the things of the world? Shadows and dreams aren't a reliable means of revealing reality! The poet tells us the secret that will relieve her worry: “Divinity must live within herself...” Despite this revelation, she insists, “But in contentment I still feel/The need of some imperishable bliss.” And the poet answers, “Death is the mother of beauty...” Without an end, a conclusion nothing is beautiful. Look to your death, then attend to the things of the world, know that you and they will pass – there is your bliss, knowing you are impermanent.

This early declaration of nihilism (1915) prompts us to consider “[t]he holy hush of ancient sacrifice” as we live and move and have our being in a world bereft of religious enchantment. Stevens' secular religion seems almost sterile, lacking in the jagged edges that makes belief so vital to the human soul. Where's the praise? The thanksgiving? The offertory of self and other? Even his confessed despair comes off like a distant object observed behind glass: “At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make/Ambiguous undulations as they sink,/Downward to darkness, on extended wings.” Beautiful. But hopeless. So, we can ask ourselves during the Eucharist: does my actual participation in this sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving fill me with hope? Do I experience the telos of this liturgy – the perfecting of my humanity into the Christ? We don't have to stay at home on a Sunday morning with coffee and the TV to refuse to be transfigured. We can do that from a pew while reciting the Creed and queuing up for Communion. The service Stevens' poem performs for us is this: he starkly contrasts the existing options for those who lay claim to the faith. As beautiful as this poem is, and it is, its beauty works to seduce us away from the demands of sacrifice; its eros tempts us to just stay in bed – whether we actually leave our beds or not. The transfiguring power of the Eucharist only works for us if we dispose ourselves to be worked upon. This means having the courage to encounter the Sublime in God and one another; it means having the patience to trust our limitations and wrestle with the ineffable; it means surrendering ourselves to the telos of our common work – the liturgy – and sharing the fruits of that work with the world; and finally, it means practicing suffering-well for the redemption of creation.

Can we do any of those things without God? Or, minimally, without some sense of the Sublime, some impulse to recognize that there is Something larger, more fundamental that sits beyond the limits of our immediate humanity to know and love? In 1915, Stevens announced his allegiance to what many critics called a hedonistic nihilism. “Sunday Morning” was described as the work of an aesthete. In 1936, he published Ideas of Order, which includes the poem, “The American Sublime” – our second necessary fiction for this evening. Sharp, spare, unadorned, our poem gets right to the question at hand: “How does one stand/To behold the sublime...?” It's striking that Stevens wants us to meditate on how one stands to behold the sublime. We might expect a question about the nature of the sublime, or whether or not the sublime is knowable, or how beholding the sublime will change us. What we get is a question meant to turn our contemplation back on the beholder. The move here is not a denial of the reality of the sublime but rather than emphasis on the role of the imagination in beholding the sublime. Of course, this begs the question somewhat. Am I asking myself how I am to stand to behold the really real sublime? Or am I simply invoking my imagination to create the sublime? Stevens absolutely delights in this sort of ambiguity. But he insists that we not exclude an interrogation of the imagination's role in beholding the sublime – whether it's an exterior or interior phenomenon: “When General Jackson/Posed for his statue/He knew how one feels.” We have two historical events: Jackson posing for the sculptor and how Jackson felt while posing. Neither of these is available to us to question. What we have is the statue. Does the statue capture that which is beyond us, the sublime? If so, we have access to the sublime. If not, we have to imagine the sublime at work in the statue. Then he announces something like a secular Pentecost: “And the sublime comes down/To the spirit itself,/The spirit and space,/The empty spirit/In vacant space.” The progression of emptying out here is telling. What exactly is the sublime descending upon? The Holy Spirit descended on the apostles and disciples at Pentecost. But Stevens' sublime is descending first on spirit, then spirit and space, then empty spirit, and finally, vacant space. Is the Sublime sublime if there is no imagination to behold it? He answers with a deceptively pedestrian set of questions: “What wine does one drink?/What bread does one eat?” These questions leave the ambiguity of the sublime's existence open to the how the reader understands the significance of the bread and wine. If bread is just bread and wine just wine, then the sublime descends on a vacant reader. If the bread and wine signify something more, something transubstantiated, then the sublime descends on an imagination used to imagining sacramentally.

Our poets have given us the chance to look at the Eucharist in ways we may have never thought of. Rilke's subjunctive and elegiac cry for meaning in the face of his terrifying angel asks us to consider how we encounter the Divine. In fact, it asks: do we encounter the Divine in the Eucharist? Surely, God comes to us in our liturgy, but we do go to Him? And we if go to Him, do we bring everything we have and everything we are? What Rilke calls annihilation, we call being perfected in Christ – not going into nothingness but being transfigured into living, breathing tabernacles to carry Christ to the world. Dickinson, so meticulous and coy, asks us to acknowledge the ineffable, to give a hesitant nod to the Unsayable and dig in to offer it a fleeting frame. Words said are happy. But in the face of the Real, they sing a “paltry melody.” The truly beautiful words are silently felt. Left unsaid, these words remain tied to the imagination in their lack of physical expression. She asks us to consider silence as a means of encountering the ineffable, as a way to pick-out the unsayable, experience it to the limits of our capacity, and then let it go. In the Eucharist, we have the Church's collective response to God coming to us. Our response is words, smells, colors, gestures. But these sacramental elements remain merely ritualistic if they are not framed by the silence of a properly disposed soul and stilled intellect. For the whole person to be present at Mass, the possibility of the unsayable must be too. Maybe Ms Dickinson meant to write, “ I dwell in possibility/a finer house than prayer”? Stevens offers us the chance to take on the larger dare – set religious tradition aside in favor of shaping and polishing the things of the world with language. For him, poetry must displace prayer as our primary means of finding and keeping some semblance of enduring meaning. The tombs and chapels and old rugged crosses of the ancient world cannot reveal the divine – not b/c they are too small to contain greatness but b/c there is no divinity for them to contain. He asks us to abandon the eros of sacrifice for the “[c]omplacencies of the peignoir,” a beautiful but ultimately infertile nihilism.

At the beginning of this talk, I suggested that the task of poetry is to exhaust the imprecision of language. This task – wringing out every drop of a word's inadequacy – cannot be accomplished. Whether the poet is showing us his rage against existence, or sharing the fruits of her contemplation, or daring us to ground our faith in the creative imagination – language will always ultimately fail to capture the Real. This failure extends even into our liturgies. And thanks be to God! If getting the formula right were enough to achieve salvation, then it would be enough for us to memorize the formula, repeat it when necessary, and then simply get on with our day. IOW, following Christ and becoming Christs would be a matter of magical incantation, not a liturgical labor. That we must actually participate in our own salvation puts the burden on us to choose – freely choose – to be members of the Body. Just showing up and being still is necessary but insufficient for growing in holiness. The Eucharist calls us to make of ourselves an oblation to God. Not b/c He needs a sacrifice but b/c we need to be sacrificed, to be made holy in surrender. The only language that even begins to capture the sublimity of God and articulate His ineffability is the language of praise and thanksgiving. The Eucharist and our attentive participation in it is just the beginning of our dwelling in possibility. What we possess of possibility that none of our poets did is the Catholic imagination; that is, the faculty to interpret our lived-world through the complimentary lens of sacramentality and incarnationality – God reveals Himself continuously through created things and those created things live and move and have their being in Him. We are participatory beings, beings who are held in being by Being Himself. The Eucharist is our received means of perfecting our participation in His divinity, thus everything about each one of us who celebrate the Eucharist is suffused with the gift of experiencing and interpreting creation as a fellow-being participating in the divine. Where we see grace, we see God working. We see God b/c He is His work. Our poets gave us liminal insights into the Sublime, the ineffable and prompted us to ask questions we may have never considered. They may have pricked our conscience to attentive contemplation, telling us all the truth but telling it slant. That slant – that squinting hesitancy – can never overcome faith, but it can move us out of complacency and routine and along the ragged edges of growing in holiness.

Follow HancAquam or Subscribe ----->

04 July 2021

Help Wanted: a humble prophet

NB. Originally preached in 2009 while I was subbing for a friar on vacation. . .

14th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Sisters of St Mary of Namur, Forth Worth, TX

Prophets are a cheap and abundant source of nonsense these days. Every sort of weirdo has a theory, a revelation, a scheme, or a vision from Beyond. No wonder, really. Can we say that the fabric of our faith is as tightly knitted as it needs to be to keep us cozy in this winter of spiritual chaos? When the foundations of all that we believe start to throw us about, most any voice in the racket sounds like a voice of authority. Persistent sexual scandals, financial malfeasance, abuse of power, dissent and rebellion—and all of these just within the Church!—all of these potholes on the Way jolt our certainties and sometimes they even bump us into despair. In these moments of upheaval there always seems to be a guru, a savior, or a prophet just outside our purview who's all too willing to speak up and promise to lead us back to whatever it is we think we need to be safe—health, wealth, sanity, wholeness, or holiness. Usually, if we succumb to fear or anger or the need for a show of defiance, and we buy the snake-oil, usually we end up defeated and more beat-up than when we begin. Beware self-anointed prophets bearing pricey prophecy! Being “hard of face and obstinate of heart” is easy. Humility, right reason, and holy obedience is difficult—not impossible!—just very, very difficult.

The prophets that speak to us this morning are well-known and reliable: Ezekiel, Paul, and Christ himself. No doubt they look the part of a prophet, like men who have spent too much time in the deserts of foreign lands. They certainly sound like the prophets we are used to hearing. The self-anointed prophets of postmodern Western culture could be wearing lab coats, three-piece suits, habits or clerics, or even casual sportswear; they could be sporting advanced degrees in physics, medicine, genetics, or theology; they could sound like gurus, even reasonable scientists, hawking new cosmologies, novel technologies, fresh political solutions, or global spiritualities. They can all name our worst fears, our deepest angers, our most pressing anxieties. They can speak a word to calm our stormed tossed spirits. What they cannot and will not name is the Love in our souls. What they do not speak is the Word. They do not and will not say, “Thus says the Lord God...” And these differences make a great deal of difference.

Ezekiel is consumed in the voice of God. Paul is struck blind and pierced by a thorn in his flesh. Jesus is spurned in his own hometown, ridiculed as no one other than “the son of Mary, and the brother of James and Joseph and Judas and Simon.” Ezekiel is sent to the rebellious Israelites to reteach the Good News of an ancient love. Paul is sent to the Gentiles with the Good News of the Father's mercy. Jesus is sent to the whole of creation as the Good News himself, the very Incarnate Word of divine love and mercy. All three prophets are sent to accomplish one mission: to speak the Word to God's people, and in so doing, bringing them all back into a covenant; reminding, renewing, and revealing the foundational promises of the Creator.

Look closely at what the prophets in scripture actually do and do not do. They do not create. They point to the Creator. They do not invent or innovate. They point to the Inventor, the Innovator Himself. They do not preach revolution and rebellion for the sake of novelty. They call us to revolutionize our hard faces and cold hearts. They rouse us to rebel against the slavery of alien philosophies and foreign gods. They do not urge God's people to abandon His promises of liberation in favor of worldly guarantees, the empty pledges that prop us up with domination, wealth, prestige, violence, and oppression. God's anointed prophets give voice to and work for the least against the most, for the worst against the best, for the lowest against the highest. When the most, the best, and the highest are where they are b/c they have stepped on and broken the least, the worst, and the lowest, God's anointed prophet will speak His Word of justice and demand a righteous revolution. Not something as mundane and temporary as a government program or a social action agency. Not something as ultimately useless as a financial entitlement or a paper-weight patch on the justice system. God's anointed prophet will first demand that the hard face and cold heart of injustice be melted in the overwhelming Love that gave His creation life! Then this prophet will say, “Thus says the Lord God: you will not treat my beloved children as things, as slaves; you will not use my children as disposable means to your selfish ends; you will not love simply for worldly gain, pretend faith for public praise, nor spread hope to hide your oppression. You love b/c I loved you first!”

As men and women baptized into the life, death, and resurrection of Christ Jesus, we have vowed to be faithful to God, just to our neighbors, hopeful in crisis, loving to all, joyful even as we weep, and as eager to show mercy as we are to seek mercy. The key to our lives as prophets is not scientific novelty, theological innovation, philosophical nuance, or even spiritual practice. Our prophetic key is humility—the certain and daily-lived knowledge that we are creatures of a loving God, wholly dependent, utterly reliant on the Love that gave us and gives us life. There is no other source of identity for us. No other means of doing what we have vowed our lives to do. Ezekiel is consumed in the voice of God. Paul is plagued by a thorn in his flesh. Jesus himself is rejected by his hometown folks. Their humility fuels a righteous fire for God's justice not a self-righteous grudge against the status-quo. Self-anointed prophets in lab coats, suits, or vestments might tempt us with a genetic or economic or religious utopia, but we know that any prophet who will not and cannot say, “Thus says the Lord God...,” we know that they are false prophets.

Our Father's gifts are sufficient for us, for our power as His prophets is made perfect in humility. 

Follow HancAquam or Subscribe ----->

01 July 2021

Painting: "Take Your Son Isaac"

Take Your Son Isaac

(20x24, wood panel, acrylic, ink)

Follow HancAquam or Subscribe ----->

27 June 2021

12th and 13th Sundays OT Homilies: Audio Files

Follow HancAquam or Subscribe ----->

Faith heals

13th Sunday OT

Fr. Philip Neri Powell OP


How does faith heal? That is, how does having faith set the stage for being healed? Last Sunday, Jesus rebuked his panicked disciples during a storm, asking them, “Why are you terrified? Do you not yet have faith?” The disciples were freaking out about the possibility of drowning in the storm b/c they did not yet have faith. “Having faith” here is not like having a watch or having a cell phone or having a cold. Faith is not an object that we possess, or a quantity of something that we can gain or lose. Nor is it a condition that we endure. What the disciples lacked – at that point in their training – was a trusting, intimate relationship with their Lord and Savior. Because they did not yet live in the sure hope of the resurrection; because they did not yet see themselves as reflections of the Christ in the world – they feared death. They feared injury and sickness. They feared being cast out. They feared not being seen as prominent men. They feared losing the prestige of being a disciple. They doubt; they worry; they need control. Faith, having a trusting, intimate relationship with Christ, sets the stage for healing.

How does faith heal? Look at the two miracles we have this morning. Jairus' daughter is dying. Jairus runs to find Jesus and begs him to heal her. Jesus, the disciples, and a whole crowd of people head off to Jairus' house. On the way, a woman who's been bleeding for 12yrs touches Jesus' cloak. She is immediately healed. Notice what Jesus says to her, “Daughter, your faith has saved you.” He doesn't say, “Touching my clothes has saved you.” Jesus isn't wearing a Magical Healing Cloak. It's her belief, her trust, her surrender to Christ's power that heals her. She puts away worry and fear and pride and just reaches out in submission to the gift of Christ's presence. . .and touches. In the meantime, Jairus' daughter dies. Jesus says to the father, “Do not be afraid; just have faith.” When Jesus gets to the house, he asks a question much like the one he asked during the storm, “Why this commotion and weeping?” He orders the girl to rise. And she does. How? Because she had faith? No, obviously not. She was dead. Her father's faith saved her. Her father's belief, trust, and surrender to the presence of Christ saved her. These are miracles of healing and resurrection. Not everyday events. Nonetheless, faith prepares the stage for our healing, our salvation.

We understand faith to be a believing, trusting, intimate relationship with the Father through Christ Jesus. Faith is not an object or a condition or quantity of something to be counted. Faith is the good habit of trusting that God has made good on His promises. Faith is a disposition, an inclination. Faith is the first and last place we go to find our peace and see ourselves settled into the loving routine of becoming Christs for the world. When disease, accident, natural disaster, financial misfortune, death, sin – when any of these almost inevitable events occur, how we respond judges our faith. If you respond with panic, anxiety, worry, fear, violence – well, maybe your relationship with the Father through Christ Jesus isn't as strong as you thought. Maybe your friendship with Christ lacks intimacy, lacks surrender. Maybe you're holding something back – just in case Christ doesn't meet your expectations. How well would a marriage work if you didn't trust your spouse? How well does parenting work if you love your children conditionally? How about that friendship where your friend betrays your confidence on a regular basis? How's that working for you? Think carefully: what am I holding back from Christ? How am I failing to trust him?

We cannot heal ourselves. Sure, we can bandage up cuts and scrapes, but I'm talking about the sort of healing that brings us to eternal life. Salvation. The healing of our relationship with God the Father. Only Christ that heal that wound. Jesus says to the woman, “Your faith has saved you.” Your trusting, believing, intimate surrender to me has gained you salvation. And with salvation gained, with our hearts and minds focused on eternal life, what's a storm, a disease; what's a natural disaster or even a death? Tragic? Yes, absolutely! Do we grieve? Of course we do! But we carry on growing in holiness, surrendering ourselves to being perfected in Christ, and being his ministers in the world. The Enemy wants us to panic, to be worried, to shrink away in fear. He wants us scattered, crying and wailing, hoarding our graces just in case, ya never know. Why? Because he needs us to think we're in control. He needs us to behave as if we're in control. That way, his power grows; his influence increases. We belong to Christ. Not to the world. Faith is how we show the world that we belong to Christ. Show the world that you are healed. Show the world that you have surrendered to Christ.

Follow HancAquam or Subscribe ----->

22 June 2021

What does the sword bring?

Ss. John Fisher & Thomas More

Fr. Philip Neri Powell OP

St. Dominic Priory, NOLA

Does following Christ bring us peace or conflict? Unity or division? The answer is: Yes. We see a faction in the Church urging us to unity and peace. Don't cause waves. Just be polite and get along. Emphasize mercy. And another faction demanding confrontation and division. Enforce church discipline. Punish the spineless clergy. Emphasize the reality of sin. Which side is Christ on? Again, the answer is: Yes. Jesus warns the disciples, I have come to bring not peace but the sword.” He also prays that we may be one as he is one with the Father. Following Christ entails separating ourselves from the world. Not abandoning the world but refusing to allow it to form who we are. Following Christ also entails uniting ourselves to one another in the pursuit of holiness in the Spirit. If being polite and getting along were sufficient, we wouldn't have martyrs. If emphasizing sin and enforcing discipline were sufficient, we wouldn't be free. Christ's sword is meant to cut us away from loves that do not begin with him. Loving him first divides us from the world. Loving him first unites us to one another.   

Follow HancAquam or Subscribe ----->

20 June 2021

Show me your faith

12th Sunday OT

Fr. Philip Neri Powell OP


I always tell the seminarians in my philosophy classes – Never start an argument w/o first defining your terms. We can't have a fruitful conversation if we're talking past one another, using the same words to mean different things. Sometimes a word has an ordinary meaning and a technical meaning. One for daily use and another for more specialized occasions. Catholic theology is loaded with words like this – matter, substance, symbol, accident. We know that many of the terms we use to talk about ourselves as Christians can have both ancient and modern meanings. Words like love, hope, and freedom. If we use “freedom” (e.g.) in its modern sense to describe what we are about as Christians, we end up far from what Christ calls us to be. So, when people say to me, “Father, I'm losing my faith” or “My faith isn't strong enough,” I have to ask: what do you mean by faith? How are you using that word? (And, yes, this is the sort of thing you get when you come to a Dominican for spiritual advice! So, be warned!) Jesus, noting his disciples' panic, quiets the storm and asks, Why are you terrified? Do you not yet have faith?”

Every time I read this passage I want one of the disciples to ask Jesus, “Lord, what is it to 'have faith'?” Is faith the sort of thing that one has? I have a car. I have a beard. I have creaky knees. Those are the sorts of things that one has. Faith seems like it might be more like something that I do rather than have – an act rather than an object or condition, a verb rather than a noun. But we wouldn't say, “I faith your testimony” or “We faith that you will pay us back.” We would use “believe” or “trust” here. Those are verbs that put faith into action. Listen again to what Jesus says in rebuke: “Why are you terrified? Do you not yet have faith?” From this, we can see that terror and faith are opposed to one another. That faith is a remedy for fear. That both fear and faith are chosen – why would Jesus ask why unless he expected the disciples to know the answer? And that faith is that sort of thing that can be had and the disciples do not yet have it. Go back to the question I want one of the disciples to ask Jesus: “Lord, what is it to 'have faith'?” Whatever “having faith” means, it means – at least – that if you “have faith” you will not be terrified when the inevitable storms batter your life. It means you possess this something – faith – that prevents or heals the terrors of living in the world while you remain in Christ.

We're getting closer, I promise. If I were to ask you, “Do you have a watch?” you could show me. “Do you have a cell phone?” Same thing. What do you show me when I ask, “Do you have faith?” Scripture tells us that those who have faith can safely drink poison and handle snakes; heal the sick and prophesy. So, if I ask you to show me your faith, you could whip out a rattlesnake and give me a show. Of course, if you do, you'll also need to find a ladder to rescue me from the ceiling! The safer and less frightening option would be to show me your good works – the time, talent, and treasure you've devoted to building up the Body of Christ. You could show me how having faith quells your worrying about tomorrow. You could show me how having faith makes surrendering to the Father's will a joy. You could show me how having faith compels you to spend every minute or every day giving God thanks for His blessings. You could show me how having faith drives you to forgive, to love, and to show mercy. The best way to show me or anyone else that you have faith is to act, think, and speak as much like Christ as you possibly can; to be Christ in the world, imperfect but on your way to perfection. That's “having faith.”

NB. During the violent storm, Jesus is sound asleep. The boat is filling up with water, probably sinking. The disciples freak out, convinced they are all going to die. They scream at Jesus, “Don't you care that we're going to drown!?” Jesus rebukes the wind and sea, calming them both, and then he rebukes the disciples, “Why are you terrified? Do you not yet have faith?” They are terrified b/c they do not have faith. They are not yet in a trusting, believing relationship with Christ. They are not yet on their way to becoming Christs. They know a lot about Jesus. They know the content of his teachings. They can repeat the commandments he's given them. They can tell stories about his miracles and run-in's with the Jewish authorities. They can recognize him on the street. And they know to call on him when they're in trouble. But they do not yet trust themselves as his imperfect reflections in the world. They do not yet see themselves as his hands and feet in the world, abiding in his Spirit and carrying-out his mission and ministry. So, if you are ever asked, “Do you have faith?” be prepared to show that you are Christ – imperfect for now but fully on your way to perfection.

Follow HancAquam or Subscribe ----->

06 June 2021

Pentecost, Holy Trinity, Corpus Christi Audio File

Follow HancAquam or Subscribe ----->

Are you disposed to being transubstantiated?

Corpus Christi

Fr. Philip Neri Powell OP


If you follow Catholic news, you are probably aware that some of our bishops are currently having a very public debate about how to handle Catholic politicians who openly support and promote morally evil acts like abortion and euthanasia. The basic question is whether or not these politicians should be given communion when there's no evidence that they've repented of their rebellion against Church teaching. All of the various issues involved – sacramental, canonical, theological, political – are neatly wrapped up in what's being called “Eucharistic coherence.” Now, since God has mercifully spared me the punishment of being a bishop – and I thank Him for that – I will not weigh on the basic question. But I can't imagine a better time to review the Church's teaching on the Eucharist than the Solemnity of Corpus Christi. In fact, many of the bishops embroiled in the debate on Eucharistic coherence have called for a major push in the U.S. to catechize the faithful on this very subject. So, I will fulfill my duties as Pastor of the 6pm Mass by doing just that! “[Jesus] took bread, said the blessing, broke it, gave it to [his disciples], and said, 'Take it; this is my body.'”

We begin with a four-word sentence: this is my body. Not “this is a symbol of my body,” nor “this is a sign of my body” nor “this is a token of a memory of my body.” This IS my body. Just a moment later, taking a cup of wine, he says, “This is my blood of the covenant. . .” Again, not a symbol of his blood nor a sign nor a token of a memory. This IS my blood. That little two-letter word, IS, has been the focus of centuries of controversy, centuries of theological and philosophical debate. What does it mean to say that the bread and wine at the Eucharist becomes (is) the body and blood of Christ. At the 4th Lateran Council (1215), the bishops adopted the term “transubstantiation” to describe what happens to the bread and wine at Mass. The substance of the bread and wine are changed into the Body and Blood of Christ. At the Council of Trent in 1551, the bishops will affirm this teaching: “Under the consecrated species of bread and wine Christ himself, living and glorious, is present in a true, real, and substantial manner: his Body and his Blood, with his soul and his divinity”(CCC 1413). True, real, substantial. We call the presence of Christ in the consecrated bread and wine the Real Presence.

Christ is truly, really, substantially present on the altar under the appearances of bread and wine. What follows from this? After presenting his Body and Blood to the disciples at Passover, Jesus tells them to eat and drink. Eat my body and drink my blood. So firmly did the early Church believe in the Real Presence that her Roman persecutors often accused Christians of being cannibals! Obviously, we are not cannibals. But we do eat and drink Christ's Body and Blood. Why? First, because Christ commands we do it to remember him. Second, because doing so allows us to participate in the eternal sacrifice of the Cross. Third, because we are One Body, the Church, united by the Holy Spirit and a body needs food and drink. Fourth, because doing so strengthens our familial bond as brothers and sisters in the holy family. And, finally, we eat and drink Christ's Body and Blood because we know that we become what we eat. As sons and daughters of the Most High, brothers and sisters to Christ and one another, our goal, our telos is to become Christ for the salvation of the world while we live and perfect union with the Father in heaven after death. Christ must be made truly, really, substantially present under the appearances of Philip, Cathy, Burt, John, Mary, Eddie, Lesley, Patrice, Dorothy, Shelly. . .Christ must be made present in you.

And we have the sacraments to help us achieve this. Every sacrament of the Church offers us Christ. Every sacrament offers us God's transforming gift of love. To properly receive His gift of transforming love, you and I must be disposed, inclined, ready to receive. If we are not properly disposed (unprepared) we cannot receive. We can take. But we cannot receive. Taking is not receiving. Taking a sacrament occurs when we go through the motions, unprepared. The gift is offered, but rather than being gratefully received, it is snatched like something one is entitled to, like a debt one is owed. The gift is not only ineffective as a gift, it can actually be harmful to the snatcher! When the Church teaches us that we should not present ourselves for Communion if we are in mortal sin, she is not trying to punish us for being bad little boys and girls. She is warning us that we risk spiritual damage, maybe even spiritual death, if we attempt to receive unprepared. She is a mother warning her children not to play with fire. To the sinner, God's infinite Love feels like a searing inferno. To the one properly prepared, His Love is a transfiguring breeze. Being properly disposed to receive Divine Love in the sacraments is the primary means we have of becoming Christ for the salvation of the world.

During this Mass this evening, I urge you to open your hearts and minds to the reality of Christ's Real Presence. Yes, it's a mystery. Yes, it's complicated. And yes, it's easily misunderstood. BUT. . .it is nonetheless real. Christ is here in his priest. He's here in you, the baptized. His presence is symbolized by this altar. During the Easter season, he's symbolized by the great Easter candle. Christ is with us always. But he is present to us most immediately and especially in his Body and Blood of this sacrifice. We are offered the chance to touch eternity in this sacrament. To reach up to God as He reaches down to us. To meet Him outside our history and experience a glimpse of the banquet He has waiting for us. He gives us everything we need to become Christ for the salvation of the world. He gives us the strength to persevere. The courage to bear witness. He gives us His Spirit of Love to forgive and to endure. And He gives us an abiding desire to grow in holiness, to grow – perfectly human – out of this world and into His kingdom. 

Follow HancAquam or Subscribe ----->

30 May 2021

Doubt but Worship

Most Holy Trinity

Fr. Philip Neri Powell OP


One of the strangest sentences in the Bible occurs in the readings this evening: When [the disciples] all saw [Jesus], they worshiped, but they doubted.” They doubted him, but they worshiped him despite their doubt. I think this sentence strange b/c we moderns usually need to have something like “without a reasonable doubt” before we grant the status of fact to a mere claim. Jesus has made all sorts of bold claims in the disciples' hearing. Now, (at the end of Matthew's Gospel) he's been crucified, dead, buried, resurrected, and is appearing to them, making more claims that sound a little dodgy. Yet. They worship. What does this sequence of events – we doubt yet we worship – teach us? It teaches us that we can have our doubts, we can be not quite sure and still offer to God through Christ our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. To the finite mind only finite knowledge is possible. A plastic gallon jug can only contain a gallon of liquid. It cannot contain two gallons, nor can it contain a bonfire. Nor can we say that that jug contains all the liquid in the world simply b/c it's full. The disciples doubt. But they worship. So, we can say: worship is a means of coming to know.

What we can't come to know through our human reason must be revealed to us. We have to be shown that which we cannot figure out on our own. Jesus reveals in his last commission to the disciples the central mystery of the faith: the Holy Trinity. Father, Son, Holy Spirit. He doesn't explain the mystery. He doesn't give them a handy diagram or a flowchart or a glossary of philosophically useful terms like person, nature, substance, procession. What he does give them is a mission: go out; make disciples of all nations; baptize them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Teach them to observe all I have commanded you. Make disciples through baptism and then teach them. NB. being a baptized disciple comes before the learning. Why? Because whatever the disciple learns must be grounded firmly in faith. For this to happen he must first through baptism receive the gift of faith – the God-given habit of trusting in God's loving-kindness and that He has kept His promises. With faith, the disciple can bring worthy worship to God, offering Him praise and thanksgiving and, as a result, experience the mystery of the Divine Life to the limits of his capacity. With the revelation of the Holy Trinity, Jesus plants a seed and provides a way for that seed to be sown.

At our baptism, we were planted with the seed of the Holy Trinity. Baptism makes us disciples. Learning about Christ, the Church, the Scriptures makes us educated disciples. And faithfully living out Christ's commandments perfects our discipleship, making our sacrifices to God holy and acceptable. None of this would be possible unless we participated in the Divine Life of the Holy Trinity, unless we shared in the one divine nature of the three persons of the Trinity. Since we are finite creatures, our participation in the Trinity is necessarily finite. But we can perfect our finite participation through worship. Grounding ourselves in baptism and discipleship, we approach the altar of God fully aware that we are not worthy of His love, yet He has made us worthy to be loved. And so we are. And b/c we are, we are gifted with the possibilities of coming to know and love Him to the limits of our capacity. If and when we exhaust our capacity to know and love Him, He readily enlarges us, increases our capacity, giving us more and better opportunities to perfect our participation in the Divine Life, to live and love more wholly with the Blessed Trinity.

Our worship is the immediate means of perfecting our participation in the Divine Life of the Trinity. Worship brings the whole person to the task. Body and soul. Intellect and will. Worship gives us ways of encountering the Divine Life that nothing else can. We are together. One Body, one Faith, one Baptism. With one voice we offer thanks and praise to God. With one sacrifice we offer ourselves as an oblation to the Father. With one love we offer ourselves to the Son to become his hands and feet in the world. With one blessing we offer ourselves to the Holy Spirit to be His word and presence to those who cannot yet see or receive His gifts. When you come to the altar bring it all! Bring everything you have collected. Bring your anger, your impatience, your hatred, your need for revenge, your failures. Bring your tribalism, your prejudices, your cramped biases. Bring your legalism, your entitlement, your selfishness. But also, bring your joys, your triumphs, your loves, and your blessings. Bring thanks and praise. You live and move and have your being in the Divine Life of the Blessed Trinity. Bring all you are and all you have and give it to God. Be perfect as He is perfect.

Follow HancAquam or Subscribe ----->

27 May 2021

You are NOT your disease. . .

8th Week OT (Th)

Fr. Philip Neri Powell OP

St. Dominic Priory, NOLA

Why do the disciples tell Bartimaeus to “take courage” (Θάρσει) when they call him to come to Jesus? Why would he need courage to approach Christ when he – Bartimaeus – was crying out to Jesus in the first place? It's not like he's shy about begging to be healed. Some have translated this phrase as “cheer up” or “take comfort.” But these miss the nuances of the imperative – strengthen your heart; be bold; rid yourself of fear. What does Bartimaeus have to fear in being healed of his blindness? Why would he need courage to have his sight restored? When I worked in drug/alcohol rehab with adults and teens, we often ran into a problem with recovery: the addict's entire life was defined by drugs and alcohol. What would his/her life be w/o these props? Who would they be? The same can be said for Bartimaeus. Without his blindness his entire life would radically change. What would happen to the effectiveness of his begging? How would he live? Being healed is a gift. No doubt. But it's also a direct and serious challenge to how we understand ourselves, esp. if we see ourselves fundamentally defined by our sin, our disease, our disability. Bartimaeus' healing is both physical and spiritual. By accepting Jesus' miracle, he's now in relationship with the Christ, a life-long relationship that will challenge him even more: to bear witness, to tell his story of lifelong blindness and how he came to the promise of eternal life.

Follow HancAquam or Subscribe ----->