02 February 2008

Die to live...

The Presentation of the Lord: Mal 3.1-4; Heb 2.14-18; Luke 2.22-32
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory

Simeon—a righteous man, very devout—is the only prophet of the Old Covenant to live to see the fulfillment of the Lord’s promise to send His people a savior. We can easily imagine that finding his savior in the temple radically changes Simeon’s ministry. From prophet who tells of the coming of the Lord to prophet who proclaims that the Messiah has come, Simeon becomes the first preacher of the Good News of Jesus Christ. Having received a promise from God that he would not die before he saw the Christ, Simeon goes to the temple “in the Spirit” and there he meets the Lord on his Presentation Day. Taking the Christ Child into his arms, Simeon announces for all the world to hear that this Child is “a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel.” Now, he prays, let me die “according to your word.” I have seen he whom I have lived so long to see; now, Lord, “let your servant go in peace.” Wisely, Simeon, weary and worn from years of waiting, wants a way out. Why? Sure, he’s exhausted as a prophet. He has been waiting for a long time. Or, perhaps he is calling upon the Lord to let him die in peace b/c he knows what the prophet Malachi has seen: “Yes, he is coming…But who will endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he is like the refiner’s fire…”

What is it about spiritual refinement and purification that might make us want to rush into an earlier, promised death? As we fall head-long into an unreasonably early Lent, the problem of refinement and purification takes a front seat in our Lenten-Mobile. The sifting, separating, parsing out, the cleaning, the fasting and prayer, the “desert-time” alone with Christ our Rock, all those mental, physical, spiritual moments Away From the Ordinary, all of these “set asides” and sacrifices, all of them are mere mummery unless you are willing to die. And, yes, I mean “Die” not just “die to self” or “die to sin” but literally, Die; drop dead where you stand. This is not a matter of showing God how serious you are about your faith. He knows how serious you are or aren’t. This willingness to die—to say nothing of your eagerness to die—is about recognizing the inevitability of your end, about taking hold of your unavoidable death, and hurling yourself eyes and arms wide open into the Light that blinds with Love, that refines and purifies with holy fire.

Am I suggesting we become quietists? No. Maybe some sort of weird Catholic-Quaker combo? No. This all sounds like trendy Zen Catholicism with a dash of postmodern nihilism thrown in! No, again, no. I am suggesting that we do nothing less than what our Lord did for us. Live and breath and move about our lives conscious of the fact that as followers of the Way, “to die” means to be refined, to be purified in this life while we still live. There is nothing to fear in death if death itself is defeated, defeated in the splendor of hope we share in virtue of Christ’s suffering. The letter to the Hebrews is our assurance: “Jesus likewise shared [in the blood and flesh of God’s children], that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death…the Devil, and free those who through fear of death had been subject to slavery all their life.”

As we giddy-up to Lent—recovering from the shock of its rude arrival so soon after Christmas!—as we ride headlong into our forty-day desert, remember that we, all of us, have seen the Lord’s salvation, His light of revelation for the Gentiles, and there is nothing left for us to do but die. . .and then live—exceedingly, joyfully, abundantly live!—as if death never mattered at all.

01 February 2008

Ignorance is the beginning of knowing

3rd Week OT (F): 2 Sam 11.1-17 and Mark 4.26-34
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Serra Club Mass and Church of the Incarnation

The Kingdom begins as a scattering of seed on the land. The seed sprouts and grows. Mark writes, “Of its own accord the land yields fruit…” And the one who tossed the seed does not know how the “the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear” grew. It just did. . .of its own accord; “…he knows not how.” He does know how to harvest the ripe grain. He wields the sickle expertly. The Kingdom begins with a scattering of seed and ripens for the harvest. Jesus uses this parable to instruct the crowd on the power of the well-broadcast Word to turn unseeded land into a bumper crop! He then goes on to offer another parable—the parable of the mustard seed—to demonstrate the power of the Word sown, even the smallest whisper of the Word thrown out there and planted in rich soil. Sprouts. Big plants. Large branches. Lots of dwelling birds. Lots of shade. Fair enough. But then we have this strange ending to the reading. Mark steps out of the story and tells us how Jesus is telling the story, “With many such parables he spoke the word to them as they were able to understand it…” Why are parables the preferred means of revealing divine truth?

A parable resembles a metaphor that has been stretched with lively details to form a short, logical piece of instructive fiction. Generally, a parable's parallel significance is left unspoken, unwritten; it is merely implied. For the hearer with ears to hear and eyes to see, the implicit meaning is obvious and clear. The parable then becomes a vehicle not only for teaching the crowds but also for finding out who is called to the Way, who has the graced faculties to identify the seed of the Word and scatter it again.

Probably the most important element of the parable form in preaching is that what is left “unsaid”—the implicit meaning. What is unsaid and unsayable is vastly larger and more complex than what is heard initially; it is certainly wilder and more dangerous than anything explicitly revealed in the fiction, and, according to Mark, Jesus did not speak to the crowds unless he spoke to them in parables. Meaning, I think, that Jesus wanted to impart both an explicit and an implicit meaning. The first to grasp now. The second to grow on. If this is the case, then we can deduce that divine revelation is best imparted to us by the parable form b/c parables make it possible for us to hear what we can hear now and benefit from what we hear now AND parables plant a seed—an implicit seed—in our mental fields, a seed to sprout later and flourish as our own fertile soil grows more and more ready to be planted.

Mark writes: “Without parables [Jesus] did not speak to [the crowds], but to his own disciples he explained everything in private.” As his hand-picked students, the disciples are prepared to see and hear the raw truth, the purest Word. And where the great curious crowds required wordy, highly detailed parables in order to understand even a little, our Lord no doubt refused to lecture his students in this way. Why? They could see and hear the gospel b/c they had accepted his invitation to follow him. That act of obedience (of listening) cleared their ears and opened their eyes. And while the crowd milled around like vipers waiting for signs, the disciples struggled with their Master’s teaching precisely because they understood that they did not understand. In other words, they had perfect knowledge of their ignorance; and were, therefore, finally ready to be taught.

When you hear a parable and while you are struggling with its parallel meanings (implicit and explicit), ask yourself: am I ignorant enough to receive this Word? If not, pray for humility and listen!

NB. Don't forget to check out student ESSAYS. . .leave them comments and questions, please!

29 January 2008

Check out the New Essays. . .

The First Splash with Dummy

Excellent crop of First Essays on suppl(e)mental!

Please leave comments for the students. . .they are prepared for questions/critiques. . .

28 January 2008

Poem-Videos: Billy Collins (edited)

I needed to edit these down to one to conserve space and speed up the d/l process for some readers!

Only fools call themselves Wise...


St Thomas Aquinas: Wis 7.7-10, 15-16 and Matt 23.8-12
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory

The Book of Wisdom wisely teaches us: “…both we and our words are in [God’s]* hands…” It is wise that the Book of Wisdom teach us this b/c as a book this book would not want—if a book could want—to be left in the hands of a fool to be read by foolish eyes and taught by foolish tongues. The wisdom imparted here also reminds the potential fool that he or she does not read, teach, write, or research alone. Prior to any desire for knowledge, any longing to know, is the primal hunger for God, our preferred state of perfected union. Our intellectual and academic pursuits are marked from the beginning with the presence of God, Wisdom: “…I chose to have [wisdom] rather than the light, because the splendor of her never yields to sleep.” So even before the light is shone in the darkness, wisdom abides and seduces us to the humility proper before our Father in heaven.

What is wisdom? Aquinas writes, “According to [Aristotle] (Metaph. i: 2), it belongs to wisdom to consider the highest cause. By means of that cause we are able to form a most certain judgment about other causes, and according thereto all things should be set in order…[and in the second article] Accordingly it belongs to the wisdom that is an intellectual virtue to pronounce right judgment about Divine things after reason has made its inquiry…”(ST II-II.45.1-2). Slightly more simply put, wisdom is that habit of mind that seeks to discover and study the final causes of all things and put these things in their proper order given their final cause. Wisdom is not some goofy, spooky secret that floats around waiting for the right moment to possess someone. Nor is wisdom to be found among the sticky tomes of Retail Gnosticism that haunt Borders and Barnes & Noble. These “wisdoms”—usually some form of esoteric paganism muscled-up with pseudo-scientific jargon—these wisdoms tend to provide the weak ego with a boost of faux confidence and leads the newly self-minted guru to exalt him or herself. But here’s what we know from the wisest teacher of them all: “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”

On receiving a gift, we say “thank you” to the giver, thus humbling ourselves before the giver as a sign of our dependence on him or her for that gift. We say grace over our food, giving thanks for our benefactors and our cook. Perhaps you woke up this morning and gave God thanks for one more day to serve Him. We are all here now offering the ultimate thanksgiving of the Mass. But do you thank God for your Reason, your ability to deliberate on moral problems, your sense of right and wrong given the limits of right reason, your ability to experience creation and deduce godly truths? Do you thank God daily for His wisdom? If not, I wonder who it is you call “Master”? I wonder what it is that moves you to think about anything at all. . .

To help his disciples maintain the humility necessary to grow in wisdom, Jesus tells them: “Do not be called ‘Rabbi.’ You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers.” He also says not to call anyone “father” or “Master” b/c they have one Father and Master. The essential point here is that there is a single source of Wisdom for us, just one origin for the understanding of all things made. This warning isn’t about titles or honorifics but about foolishly identifying someone created as the source of Creation. It is not difficult to see how quickly such folly grows into madness. And that madness into the exaltation of one who was created from dust. What is there in the human mind that precedes the wisdom of the mind’s Creator? Nothing. Thomas called it “straw.” Straw has its proper uses, for sure, and it is a good thing, but it is straw not enduring truth. Enduring truth starts for us when we come to understand that “…both we and our words are in [God’s]* hand…”

*I’m not avoiding the male pronoun here in deference to the so-called rules of “inclusive language.” Context requires that the pronoun be specified.

27 January 2008

Fill the Cross with Repentance

3rd Sunday of OT: Isa 8.23-9.3; 1 Cor 1.10-13, 17; Matt 4.12-17
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation

If you walk into your local franchised bookstore and head over toward the “religion” section, especially the sub-section labeled “Christianity,” you will begin to experience what the early fathers called a “spiritual wasteland.” Rows and rows and rows of brightly colored books line the shelves, each shiny with promise and polished with market research, perfectly molded to a demographic, knitted together out of wood pulp, plastic, thread, and the fulsome yet oh-so-mysterious absence of anything remotely intelligent or interesting or even Christian to say. As you approach the piles of hair-sprayed volumes, that swift rushing breeze in your ears is not the fire of the Holy Spirit leading you to wisdom and truth, but the sound of your genuine life in Christ being sucked out of you—chapter by chapter—by the vicious and vacuous soul-hungry platitudes that pollute the “religion” books of the NYT’s bestseller list. Mary Magdalene’s Olive Oil Diet! Seven Stepping Stones to Gospel Wealth! I’m a Good Catholic and Everything the Church Teaches is Wrong! Chicken Soup for the Illegal-Immigrant Oppressed by American Global Consumerism and Persecuted by The Racist Man for Wanting a Piece of the Big Apple Pie Soul. . . . .eighth edition. Sorry. I was wrong earlier. That rushing sound you hear isn’t your spiritual life being sucked out of you. That sound is the sound of the Cross being emptied of its meaning. And it would seem that the only remedy to this desecration is repentance.

We know that the cookie-cutter-seven-steps-to-happiness-without-any-effort-or-money-down trash dominates the shelves and flipping through these tree-wasters, no one would blame you for wondering why Jesus bothered to suffer and die on the cross for us. Apparently, all we need for earthly bliss and heavenly union is a positive attitude, an imagination for seeing dreams come true, a willingness to cut loose “negative” friends and family members, a good job, a stuffed savings account, lots and lots of liquid capital, and the megalomaniacal delusion that God cares one tiny iota about your net worth or your car or your wardrobe. Somewhere, probably, among all the glossy covers of plasticized, dry-gelled Rev. Ken dolls is Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, wherein we read Paul writing of himself: “…Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel,…so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its meaning.” How is he going to accomplish this oh-so-small feat? Paul writes, “…not with the wisdom of human eloquence…” But what’s wrong with the wisdom of human eloquence that prevents it from being used to stop those who would empty the cross of its meaning? Human wisdom, human eloquence had nothing to do with giving the Cross its meaning in the first place. Why assume that either or even both together can prevent its desolation?

Let’s say that the Cross is our symbol of suffering and death. Yes, it represents sacrifice and salvation as well; but for now, let’s say that the Cross emptied of its meaning is little more than a randomly drawn figure used by billions as a Sunday decoration or a bobble for the neck or ear. The Cross is a brand. A recognized product complete with packaging, logo, trademarks, marketing, and a faithful customer base. Emptied of its meaning through neglect—faithless catechesis, sorry preaching, and disobedient liturgy—the Cross is a small thing in the lives of some Christians, a mere survivor of centuries of human aversion to sacrifice, suffering, pain, and the reality of sin. Paul is charged with the arduous task of preaching the gospel of repentance so that the Cross is never emptied of its meaning entirely…there must always be some flicker of hope, some glimmer of expectation that the Cross remains a gateway, a thoroughfare, a passage.

But if the cross of Christ is not to be emptied of its meaning and the wisdom of human eloquence cannot be used to prevent such a disaster, to whom or what do we turn for help? Matthew says that Jesus “left Nazareth and went to live in Capernaum by the sea…From that time on, Jesus began to preach and say, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!’” To whom or what do we turn for help? We turn to Christ; we convert to Christ; we switch ourselves around toward Christ and walk a very, very different road behind Jesus to our salvation. There may be seven steps, or four hundred and eight steps, or a lifetime of running, or maybe no movement at all, nothing but the tautly pulled bow-string silence of waiting. Regardless, when we walk with Christ, follow along with him, our first stop is the Cross b/c without the Cross. . .well, in other words, with an emptied Cross, we are get-saved-quick-coupon-junkies with no more possibility of eternal life than a freshly cut stump in the rain. Both Jesus and Paul are clear: repentance is the key.

Jesus moves to a new part of his country. He does so to preach the good news of his Father’s two-part message, “Repent, for the kingdom is at hand.” What do we do when we repent? Let’s repeat an experiment we’ve done before. “Stand up!” “Sit down!” “Clap” Now, “repent!” You see? “Repent” is an imperative, an order, a command. It is done. Not just thought about or written about or contemplated. But done. Similar to “Love God, love your neighbors and love yourselves,” this command is best carried out daily, but the clock ticks faster and the calendar seems to flip more quickly. Time may be running out to figure out what repentance requires of us. At the most basic level, repentance requires us to embrace without hesitation the life of Christ—the life of mercy, care, forgiveness, service, and everlasting joy. It means for us to turn our backs on sin; to convert our lives to love God’s Word; to turn and face a future in graced obedience, a future without division, without factions in the Body. “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you?” Here, in front of a loving Father, the Cross—for all its violence and death, suffering and pain, for all of its scandalous politics and sketchy Roman history, here, in front of a loving Father, the Cross is a visible call to holiness, a welcome mat to heaven; it is The Way to say “I am Christ’s!”

The Cross’ lust for the broken body and abandoned soul is insatiable. The false crosses of mass-marketed DIY “win friends and influence people” philosophies will not lead us to the terrible Beauty of heaven’s throne. We do not navigate around the Cross. We cannot fly over it. There is no speech, no prayer, no devotional practice that will seduce its hunger. There is no theology or philosophy or occult science that opens its saving doors.* We must climb on—with Christ the Chief Thief—and let ourselves be stolen for the Kingdom! You do not belong to Paul. Or the Traditional Latin Mass. You do not belong to Peter. Or the “Spirit of Vatican Two” liberals. You do not belong to Apollos. Or John Paul II or Benedict XVI or Mother Angelica or Hans Kung. You do not belong to a piece of the Body; nor do you belong to just one breezy wisp of the Spirit.

We turn to God through Christ—a repentance that takes hold and brings us inevitably to the hunger of Cross. Therefore, with Peter and Andrew and James and John and all the saints, follow Christ, making of yourselves a magnificent feast!

*This needs clarification lest someone come to think that I am a Catholic feidist. My point here is that our initial contact with redemption is made possible through the Cross of Christ. We do not come to the point of being redeemed by reasoning our way through to a philosophical conclusion. Nor are we brought to heaven by assenting to theological propositions. Once we have est'ed a firm relationship with Christ, all of the --ologies mentioned are invaluable in helping us to understand our faith more deeply.