15 September 2006

Mary's revealing sorrow

Our Lady of Sorrows: Hebrews 5.7-9 and Luke 2.33-35
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Serra Club and Church of the Incarnation, Irving, TX

Just think: all his life the prophet Simeon heard the whispered revelation of the Word in his heart, the approaching thunder of our salvation; what must have been a constant rumble, a persistent, portending drumbeat: “The Christ is coming! The Christ is coming!” And now, right there, the child stands fully made, fully revealed, a sign against the world, a man to save the world. His coming, his suffering, death, and resurrection offers a choice, a choice that reveals the human heart, that unveils the place of covenant in our souls: choose life with him or choose death against him.

Standing there, looking at Jesus, does Simeon feel the shaking of history? Does he feel the prophetic wave break against all creation, loosing the bonds of death, slicing cleanly the knots of miserable fortune—the tied-tight grip of what everyone thought of as their predestined end? What did it feel like to witness the cracking of the world’s foundation, the beginning of death’s end? What is it like to have your bones rattled by the choice of heaven and hell blooming before you?

Prophet, behold your sign. Mother, behold your son. Children of God, behold the sword.

Blessing Jesus’ mother and father, Simeon must hear again the prophecy he has heard all his life, the prophecy of Isaiah: “…he shall be a snare, an obstacle and a stumbling stone to both the houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to those who dwell in Jerusalem; and many among them shall stumble and fall, broken, snared, and captured.” Is this how we think of Jesus? Do we think of him as a scandal, a stumbling block, a trap on the path, a snare? Do think of him as one who will net us like prey or break us against the rocks? Surely, Jesus is a comforter, a consoler, a reconciler, and a man of peace. Surely, Jesus comes to forgive, to loose from bonds, to free from snares, and to gently guide.

Yes, surely, this is true. But he comforts with truth not fairy tales. He consoles with what is not with wishes. He reconciles with stark choices not compromise. And we are freed. Freed from the bonds of sin. Freed by our trust and our allegiance. Freed from the snares of lies. Freed by the knowledge of the truth. And your heart is revealed in the decision you make: will you be free to live and love forever or will you continue to pretend that your slavery is license? Will you learn obedience so that you may be made perfect in His love? Or will you continue the devil’s puppet show of sin, playing the stooge on a string?

We don’t like stark choices. The black and the white. We love the gray. We love the infinite progress of options. And we wear ourselves out doggedly chasing after alternatives. We want the Pick and Choose Buffet, the marketplace of boundless selection—the perfect fit, the flattering color. And so we resist the idea that Jesus is a sign of contradiction, a signal of negation: he is for us a trap, a snare, a pit; he is a moment in history, a time marked by decision. He trips us up b/c his life, his suffering, death, and resurrection reveals our heart, our most primitive desire: what do you want? Life or death? To fall again or rise with him? Eternal gray or brilliant glory?

Joseph and Mary were amazed at what Simeon said about their son. How much more amazed was Mary when Simeon prophesied that she would be pierced by a sword so that hearts may be revealed? Our mother’s sorrow over her son’s death moves us to the choice of our heart’s most profound desire: we choose life, and that abundantly!

11 September 2006

Naughty to Holy

Saints Behaving Badly, Thomas J. Craughwell, Doubleday, 2006

I was very skeptical at first. The title of the book, Saints Behaving Badly, sounded like one of those screeds written by an anti-Catholic Catholic who tries to convince us that we can ignore the current Pope because somewhere in the distant past some Pope had a girlfriend or pilfered from the papal treasury or drank a little too much. I thought: “Great. Another book ‘exposing’ the saints of the Church as sinners in order to promote some ridiculous dissident agenda.” I could not have been more wrong. Thomas Craughwell writes of his intentions: "The point of reading these stories is not to experience some tabloid thrill, but to understand how grace works in the world. Every day, all day long, God pours out his [sic] grace upon us, urging us, coaxing us, to turn away from everything that is base and cheap and unsatisfying, and turn toward the only thing that is eternal, perfect, true--that is himself[sic]" (xii). Is Craughwell a Dominican? Maybe I can persuade him to give the life of a preacher a try! Though the title is misleading, the book is anything but a juicy expose of saintly misdeeds. What Craughwell gives us is a well-written and lively picture of exactly what the Church is all about: the proclamation of the Good News that even the worst sinner can become a saint. Moving from St. Matthew to Venerable Matt Talbot, Craughwell chronicles the morally chaotic lives of the malcontents who became some of our best examples of Christian holiness. My favorites: St. Christopher, Servant of the Devil; St. Augustine, Heretic and Playboy; St. Columba, Warmonger; St. Vladimir, Fratricide, Rapist, and Practitioner of Human Sacrifice; St. Francis of Assisi, Wastrel; and St. Peter Claver, Dithering Novice. What’s fascinating to me about all these saints is that moment of grace that turns them around, that instant in time when the Lord touches their cold hearts with the fire of his Spirit and sets these guys ablaze with his love. Some of the stories may not be appropriate for younger readers (blood and guts, sexually suggestive content), but older adolescents will benefit tremendously from reading that their worst sins probably don’t rate the title “Satantist” or “Hedonist” or “Mass Murderer” and that even these sinners found God’s grace and His salvation. Over at Disputations, Tom suggests that the book would make a good reading group for a parish. I agree. Perhaps confessors could recommend the book to penitents whose pride prevents them from accepting God's forgiveness because their sins are truly horrible. Tell them to read the book and ask themselves: "Am I THAT bad?" Or maybe the parish youth group could use the book as inspiration for a revival of the medieval tradition of staging conversion dramas! However you choose to use the book, it's worth a read.

Paul vs. Jesus, Law vs. Love

23rd Week OT: 1 Cor 5.1-8 and Luke 6.6-11
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory, Irving, TX

To perfect our participation in the life of the Blessed Trinity we first come to love God as He loves us. Our ability to love God is itself a gift from God Who Is Love. The degree to which we listen to and comply with our vocation to love God by loving one another is what we call “maturity.” A more mature spirituality will be one that has better perfected the gift of love.

Now, forgive my pedantic start. But there is a point here, I promise! We have two apparently conflicting scriptural readings this morning. Paul hears that there is a notorious sinner among the Corinthians, a man living with his father’s wife. He demands that the church expel this man from the community and “deliver [him] to Satan for the destruction of his flesh…” Over in Luke, we have Jesus battling the Pharisees again over the proper understanding of the relationship between the letter of the Law and the spirit of the Law. The Pharisees practically dare Jesus to heal a man’s withered hand on the Sabbath. Of course, he does! And he asks, “…is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath rather than to do evil, to save a life rather than to destroy it?” Paul says that we must boot the sinners out and Jesus says that the letter of the Law is always understood in light of the greater good.

Our temptation here is to run to one pole or the other. If you will follow Paul on this issue, you will uphold the right and responsibility of the church to discipline its members using biblical and traditional measures of moral action. If you will follow Jesus on this issue, you will privilege the greater good in the spirit of the Law over a legalism required by the letter of the Law. The perversion of Paul’s position becomes self-righteousness, Pharisaical legalism in the name of purity. The perversion of Jesus’ position becomes indifferentism, a toleration of sin in the church in the name of spiritual liberty. Both legalism and indifferentism are immature spiritualities, that is, neither will help you cooperate with God’s grace in perfecting His love in you.

Recently, our bishops published an updated version of their Program for Priestly Formation. In the chapter titled, “Human Formation,” they write: “The foundation and center of all human formation is Jesus Christ […] In his fully developed humanity, he was truly free and with complete freedom gave himself totally for the salvation of the world”(74). Here is the key to our spirituality: Christ-like freedom. We will wither in sin if we fail to hold one another to basic moral standards. And we will smother the fire of the spirit in us if we lock our conscience in a legalistic coffin.

To be free, truly free as Christ is free, and therefore ready, willing, and able to cooperate with God’s gift of love to us, we cannot see our freedom as a license to do whatever we want. Our freedom came in a moment in history. We were liberated from the inevitability of death due to sin and given a renewed purpose, a new goal, a new life in Christ, to become Christ, and live with God forever. We mature spiritually when we submit our will to the law of freedom, the rule of the living Lord in our lives, and then give our lives for the good of others—sacrifice in love.

Paul insists that the sinner be expelled so that his soul may be saved. Jesus appeals to the greater good of a higher Law. Paul does not re-establish Pharisaical rule over the Corinthians. And Jesus does not sever us from the moral responsibilities of the Good. We cannot call on Paul to justify self-righteousness and we cannot call on Jesus to justify libertine abuse of moral freedom.

A truly adult spirituality then is a child-like submission to our final end, our ultimate human purpose: to be perfected as our Father is perfect—to become sacrificial Love.

10 September 2006

"Can't get no..." (revised)

23rd Sunday OT: Isa 35.4-7; Jas 2.1-5; Mark 7.31-37
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
U.D. Freshmen Retreat, St Paul’s Hospital, Church of the Incarnation

In the late 1960’s a prominent philosopher and cultural critic wrote the following, anxious cry for the human condition: “I can’t get no satisfaction/I can’t get no satisfaction./’cause I try and I try and I try and I try./I can’t get no.” He goes on to argue that the information doled out by the media is, at best, without merit. He writes, “When I’m driving in my car/And that man comes on the radio/And he’s tellin’ me more and more/About useless information/Supposed to fire my imagination./I can’t get no, oh no no no.” The media fails us in the end. His argument ends in what can only be called pathetic mewling and a denial of the possibility of final happiness: “I can’t get no satisfaction/I can’t get no satisfaction./’cause I try and I try and I try and I try./I can’t get no.” We can’t get no satisfaction…and so, we are afraid.

And so the Lord says to those whose hearts are frightened: “Be strong, fear not! Here is our God!” Our God comes with vindication, with absolution and acquittal. He comes with divine recompense, with reward and reimbursement. The blind see. The deaf hear. The desert sand pours out water. And so He says to us, “Be strong, fear not! Here is your God!” What we need most, what we need best and soonest, what we need deeply and widely—the love of our Creator—His love is here, now, God is with us. Here is our strength, our courage, and our God.

Our philosopher and cultural critic, Professor Jagger, perfectly captures the condition of the soul frightened by the apparent absence of God. While we can say, “Be strong, fear not! Here is our God!” Those with frightful hearts can only moan and cry, “I am weak and afraid! Where is God?” And what frightens their hearts? What grabs their very being and squeezes it with terror? Death? Loneliness? Sickness? Trial? Temptation? Failure? If it is fear of death, fear of loneliness, fear of sickness and trial and temptation that terrorizes your heart---be still! And know that God is here.

He could not hear, could not speak. Jesus took him away from the crowd and ministered to his lock up ears and his locked up tongue. “Be opened!” And the man heard and spoke and the crowd was exceedingly astonished. Jesus ordered them to keep quiet about the miracle, but the more he insisted on their silence, the more they witnessed to his power. “He has done all things well.” They could not be silent. Nor can we. Our silence now is vanity, a useless calm that herds us to destruction.

We live by the promises of a God who loves us. We live by the promises of a God who became flesh for us, suffered for us, died for us, and rose again so that we might have eternal life. Our satisfaction—despite the destruction, the despair, and the seduction of a nearly mad world—, our satisfaction, what fills us up with joy, is the strength of the Lord, His awesome power, His constant presence. What bodily temptation or spiritual perversion can stand against the creating and recreating power of Love Himself? What hole in your soul cannot be filled with His plan for you? What lack, what poverty can’t He remedy? What gift, what talent can’t He complete in you? And use for His greater glory?

Professor Jagger sings about a bleak and sterile landscape, an arid cultural desert, littered with the wrecks of the idolatries of self, power, and riches. We are confronted by sadistic and alien religiosities; theologies of absolute domination and public terror; televised political pomp and ceremony masquerading as peace and social justice; the destruction of human dignity by market oppression packaged as economic freedom; the collapse of basic familial structures in the name of choice and liberty; the suicidal destruction of our historical memory, our collective ability to recall who we have always been. We are forced to attend to the daily freakshow of activist clowns slyly distracting our consciences with colorful tricks while they do violence to our tradition by renaming their silly social novelties as “civil rights.” And what of the Church? Have we forgotten our promises? Our vows to be apostles? Our promises to be faithful witnesses? Have we been dithering on the playground of scandal and dissent for so long that we have forgotten just who we are and why we are here?

But even in this ruined desert of consumerist nightmares and ecclesial amnesia, we are not fatherless. To those with ears opened to hear, our loosed tongues must say to them, “Be strong, fear not! Here is our God!” The persistent witness of scripture and tradition is that despite our best efforts to remove the Lord from our lives, our best efforts to ignore Him, to neuter Him into a Platonic demiurge, to reduce Him to a cosmic process, or to loan Him out to alien religions as “Visiting Diety-in-Residence,” He remains with us. He stays right here. If the flux and flair of our culture frightens you, gives your heart pause in trusting the promises of the Father to be with us…do not be afraid! Emmanuel! God is with us! Biblical witness, traditional witness, magisterial witness, personal witness…every witness kindled by the Spirit’s fire speaks the same Word with the same Breath and repeats over and over and over: God is with us! God is with us!

What will your witness be this year? What will your words and deeds tell us about your spirit? What will you tell us about who you are as a student and missionary of the Lord? Will you open ears around you to hear the Word and loose tongues to offer praise to God? Will you serve in righteousness the poor whom God has chosen as heirs of His kingdom? Will your mercy inspire mercy? Your love inspire love? Will you be Christ?

Your life this year can be a life of worry, anxiety, stress, sickness, and unbearable pressure. Your life this year can be a life of joy, trust, peace, good health, and leisure. Your life this year can be lived in a tiny box where the only voice you hear is your own. Your life this year can be lived on the opened field where the all the voices you hear speak the Word of Life, the Word of Truth. You can be deaf and mute. You can be closed and silent. Or you can be opened by Christ to repair the ruins, to challenge the clowns, to stand up against the slow and steady crumbling of our faithful past; you can open your mouth and speak the words of wisdom, proclaiming to the crowds that God is with us and He is ready to touch ears, touch tongues, ready to open everything, all His works, to receive the Word of Christ.

Can’t get no satisfaction? Well, make the t-shirt if you must. Yes, buy the CD. Order the poster and hang it on the wall…but do not forget the promise of our Mighty Father: “Be strong, fear not! Here is your God!”