07 November 2008

Four Top Ten Lists

Top Ten Most Irritating English Phrases compiled by Oxford University, including one I've used just recently: "with all due respect"!

My Top Ten List Catholic Weasel Phrases:

1). one-issue Catholic voter (of the course this only applies to pro-life advocates)
2). complex moral problem (as cover for dissenting from Church teaching)
3). in good conscience (voodoo incantation that magically turns Evil into Good)
4). social justice issue (left-liberal social engineering meddling)
5). creative fidelity (imaginative dissent that on issues settled in the 4th century)
6). democratic ecclesiology (Protestantism by any other name)
7). missioned/missioning (Nun-word, means "to commission")
8). in the proper context (the context here always seems to trump the truth)
9). pro-choice Catholic (have no idea what this is supposed to mean)
10). preferential option for the poor (see #4)

My Top Ten Liturgical Acts That Should Be Punished by Public Beating:

1). holding hands during the Our Father (not a real liturgical gesture)
2). improvised Eucharistic prayers ("Say the black, do the red, Father!")
3). omitting the Gloria on Sundays and other solemnities (pure laziness)
4). pronoun shuffle to avoid using male pronouns (forced participation in a political experiment)
5). editing the Creed to make it politically correct, theologically dodgy (ditto)
6). using the homily to ask for money (throw hymnals at pastors who do this)
7). saying "Good morning, everyone!" after the "Lord be with you" (doesn't trust the liturgy)
8). making imperatives into statements: "The Lord IS with you" (pretentious theology)
9). universalizing prayers, e.g. as in "Blessed are WE who are called to THIS supper"
10). funky priestly gestures, e.g. waving the host around at the consecration (stop that!)

My Top Ten Bad Excuses for Missing Sunday Mass

1). "I went to a wedding on Saturday."
2). "I couldn't find a convenient time to go."
3). "The family Mass is annoying."
4). "My pastor is a heretic."
5). "The vestments are ugly, the music is bad, and the deacon can't preach."
6). "Sr. Moonbat always gets up and tells us about her eco-retreat center."
7). "Father is always begging for money."
8). "I went for a walk in the park. . .that's the same as Mass!"
9). "Father said it was OK to miss Mass once in a while as a treat to myself."
10). "I had out of town guests who aren't Catholic."

05 November 2008

Dominican economics, or why I beg for books

Right on schedule, I have received my quarterly admonishment from an anonymous commenter on my persistent and annoying habit of pointing at my WISH LIST and hinting that books are a great gift for Dominican friars year 'round!

For the most part the usual objections for my "book begging" are made: annoying, unseemly, selfish, etc. Though this time around there's a twist I need to address. This time there's an accusation that my Amazon.com mendicancy violates my vow of poverty. . .ah, a wrinkle. The objection is not elaborated so I'm unsure how begging is a violation of poverty unless I am begging simply to be acquisitive, which I'm not. . .a Dominican student/professor without books is like a farmer without his tractor: no tools, no harvest.

I realize that most people in the world have no idea how religious live. So, I want to give you a down and dirty picture of the economic side of my life. Please keep in mind: I have chosen this life of my own free will and struggle to live it faithfully with God's mercy and the help of my brothers. The following description CANNOT be read as a complaint or whine about my life in the Order. IOW, this description is meant simply to show you how the brothers live. Nothing more.

The theory

First, we need to understand how Dominicans understand poverty. There is a long history here that I can't get into outside a semester long lecture. Here's the essential point: Dominican poverty is not the same as traditional Franciscan destitution. Meaning, historically, Franciscans have seen poverty as an end in itself, an achieveable goal to be pursued as a spiritual good. in imitation of Christ and the apostles. For Dominicans, poverty is merely a means to an end: to be freed up as much as possible to contemplate God's wisdom and share the fruits of that contemplation through preaching. In other words, Dominicans do not pursue poverty as a good thing simply to be poor. We are poor in order to be free to preach. We achieve a practical poverty by owning nothing personally and everything in common. Simplicity is not the goal either. Simplicity is also a means. Austerity is not a goal. Frugality is not a goal. Both are means. Dominicans are geared to be preachers. Our study, prayer, community life, our vows, our begging are all directed toward one thing: preaching.

The mechanics:

A friar is assigned to a house or a priory by the provincial. There is usually a ministry of some sort assigned as well: pastor, campus minister, professor, etc.

If he is working for a Catholic entity, his salary is usually given directly to the priory; i.e., the check is made out to the priory not the friar. This was the case with me in Texas b/c I worked for a Catholic university. My base salary at U.D. as a full-time campus minister was $17,000/yr. I received additional allowances (health insurance, etc.) from the university that raised that amount to not quite $30,000/yr. I also received stipends for Masses and confessions--all went to the priory common account (the basis for Dominican poverty).

Monetary gifts to individual friars are given to the community depending on the amount given (anything more than $25, usually). The quick "Irish handshake" of a $10 bill after Mass is usually spent that day for lunch. Stipends for retreats, conferences, etc. are turned in.

Usually, in any given house/priory each friar has an approved budget which governs his spending for the fiscal year. Included in this budget are common items like clothing, books, gas for the car, repairs, etc.

Friars are also given a monthly stipend as "pocket money." This amount varies from house to house, but it runs from $75-$120/month. This is money we use for Starbuck's, movies, lunch at Wendy's, etc.

Almost all friars have credit cards for large purchases such as airfare, on-line purchases, etc. The credit card bill is paid by the friar's house/priory and is accounted for on his budget. While in Irving, I frequently used my card to make purchases for my campus ministry activities, so it was not uncommon for my monthly bills to be upwards of $1,800. These costs were reimbursed, of course. My monthly bill now is well-under $250--no car (thank God!), no ministry. . .

As a student I am not permitted to work, so I am not directly contributing to my priory. This will change next year if I am taken on as a professor. All of my expenses are paid by my province.

Needless to say, we rely heavily on mendicancy (begging) for our livelihood!

Living conditions:

Living conditions for friars vary a great deal. We have a brand new priory in Houston, TX that is quite nice. Others live in regular houses in regular neighborhoods. Some live in large, European priories built hundreds of years ago. Others live alone or with one or two other friars, depending on ministry needs and personal circumstances. The priory in Irving is something of an exception to the rule in that it is a large community living in a newer building with relatively "nice things." Generally speaking, the older the building, the more austere the conditions.

Though this varies somewhat, friars get their personal items like shampoo, toothpaste, OTC meds, etc. from a common closet or room called a procurator's shop (or "proc shop")--usually procurred by the priory procurator in bulk at Sam's or some where equivalent. If friars want to purchase different brands or additional items, they pay with their monthly stipends. Haircuts are also paid out of the friar's stipend, thus the common do-it-yourself "high-tight" style of most friars who turn themselves over to the clippers of the house barber!

In Europe and in U.S. formation houses individual friars do not have cars assigned to each friar. Most friars in regular U.S. priories have a commonly owned car assigned to them. When a friar moves to a new assignment, "his car" usually stays behind.

My personal living conditions:

The priory here used to be the seminary for the Italian Dominican provinces, meaning the living conditions are akin to a university dormitory. It was built in the middle of the 16th century and served as a monastery for Dominican nuns for years.

Each friar has his own room (or "cell"). My cell is approx. 10'x16'. Each room has a cold water sink. No A/C. Radiator heat. Each is furnished modestly with the basics. No closets or dressers.

Bathrooms and showers are "down the hall." We have 12 bathrooms/showers for about 85 friars. Four washers, three dryers. There is a laundry service that most of the guys take advantage of. . .I don't.

We eat our meals in common. Lunch and dinner are prepared by a two person kitchen staff. Meals are very modest. This is not common in the U.S. except for our formation communities (the novice houses and seminary houses, which tend to have 15+ friars). For the most part, American OP's take turns cooking for the community. Housekeeping chores are also divided and assigned. We have one employee here who sweeps, mops common areas and keeps the bathrooms clean.

I have very few "street clothes," preferring to wear my habit as much as possible. In the U.S. among an older generation, the habit has become a liturgical garments worn only for common prayer and Mass. Generally, in this generation the habit is seen as a symbol of ecclesial power and avoided in order to foster a sense of "we're with the regular folks not above them." Undoubtedly, that phase in our history was necessary to undo some of the abuses of authority that plagued the American church. A younger generation has rejected that reasoning, pointing to the lose of identity in the community and has chosen to revive the symbol of the habit as a sign of consecration and dedication. "Habit Wars" in religious communities are coming to a close as it is becoming more and more evident that orders who eschew the habit are dying on the vine from lack of vocations. No doubt, at some future moment, the habit will again come to represent authority and power and its use will need to be reassessed. For now, I wear mine and don't spend money on clothes.

Now, books. Most priories in the U.S. have small libraries devoted to basic texts in theology, philosophy, scripture, etc. Irving has one of the best libraries in my province simply b/c the friars there were professors at the University of Dallas for more than 50 years. The library here is also an excellent basic library for historical study in the areas we generally work in.

If the priory is associated with a university, the library is usually very good. The formation houses in Washington, St Louis, and Oakland have excellent. libraries. The student brothers in St Louis have access to one of the best divinity libraries in the country at St Louis University Pius XII Library.

The library here at the Angelicum has an excellent collection of primary and secondary books on Aquinas, medieval theology/philosophy, and ancient philosophy. Most are in Italian or Latin. Books on more contemporary topics like philosophy of science, modern epistemology, metaphysics, contemporary theology are not available. So, I have to buy them or ask you to.

My book budget for this academic year is $900 or 700 Euro. Academic books are more expensive than non-academic books like paperback novels, non-fiction works. The least expensive academic book I've purchased in Rome costs me 28 Euro. Do the math. Not pretty, is it?

I do not buy books willy-nilly nor do I waste my budget on books that are available in the library. So far, I have begged and borrowed needed books. I haven't resorted to stealing. . .yet?

I usually buy used books on-line, but this means paying shipping, which can be anywhere from $4 to $12 depending on the currency used. Also, if the total amount of the books exceeds around $70, I have to pay customs. So far, I've paid about $30 in customs.

Now, I repeat: I am NOT complaining or whining about this situation! I am simply trying to lay out a picture for you of how things work economically for Dominicans. Frequently, I get emails or combox comments about how easy my life is from people who nothing about how I actually live. Yes, some components of my life are easy compared to others. Certainly easier than the homeless, the truly destitute, and probably easier than the lay students here who have to commute from outside b/c living in Rome is outrageously expensive. But this relative ease in some areas of my living conditions comes with a trade-off in austerity, an austerity that I have freely chosen and accept gratefully as part of my vocation.

Now, why should anyone reading this blog on a regular basis help me by buying books? The Dominican spiritual tradition is summed up in the neat phrase "to share the fruits of our contemplation." For Dominicans, contemplation is not about sitting cross-legged on the floor thinking about the universe. Contemplation for us is an active ministry, that is, it is the intellectual activity of pondering the "multi-form wisdoms of God" and then sharing any insights we have with others.

An essential part of our contemplation is an engagement with the world of ideas through the work of others--scholars, mystics, scientists, etc. Dominicans believe that God's grace builds on the given nature of the individual, forming, changing, growing that person into the perfect version of who that person is made to be. So, each of us is graced in exactly the way that his or her nature demands for perfection. This means that I am directed by my gifted nature and God's grace to contemplate the wisdom of God found in philosophy, theology, literature, and science; more specifically, to think about and write about how these multiple wisdoms work together as a coherent whole. In light of scripture and the magisterial ministry of the Church ,I preach a gospel message that is both "traditional" and "contemporary," or, at least I try to!

That preaching ends up here (yes, along with a lot of other cranky stuff too) for your benefit (I hope). So, when readers buy books for me they do several things at once:

1). They give me pieces of God's multiple wisdoms for contemplation.
2). They help me to improve my own nature by helping me better understand God's revelation.
3). That improved understanding is conveyed in my thinking and my preaching.
4). Insofar as these homilies help them grow in holiness, they contribute to their own growth.
5). They relieve me and my budget of the burden of buying one book so I can get another.
6). My book benefactors are at the top of my daily prayer list!

Therefore (finally!), if you read these homilies; if these homilies help you grow in holiness or just make you think; if I what I think and say here does anything at all to make your relationship to God better, then buy me a book! :-)

04 November 2008

Only So Much Room

St Charles Borromeo: Phil 2.5-11; Luke 14.15-24
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Convento SS Domenico e Sisto, Roma

[NB. I tried to record this homily this morning at Mass, but my recorder was dead. Died from neglect, I guess…]

In a small elevator there is room for only two or three. Only so much water may fill a bucket. How many books can fit in a backpack? How many students does it take to make a class? Going about our day we are constantly observing and assessing the quantities we must work with: how many Euro do I have for lunch? How much time for reading the texts for one course or another? In my case, how many mini-packets of Nutella will fit in my habit pocket? The constant work of assessment and the judgments we make on our assessments is mostly unconscious. We do it almost automatically. Without much deliberation or worry. Fill up. Count out. Measure. Act accordingly. So, what does it mean then for us to “empty ourselves”? To “pour ourselves out”? If we must empty ourselves, then we must consider what it is that we are full of. And if we manage to pour ourselves out, what will fill us up, occupying the vacuum left behind? Here’s a hint: “Blessed is the one who will dine in the Kingdom of God.”

Paul admonishes the Philippians to “have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus…” The same attitude as Christ Jesus. Just before this admonition Paul writes: “If there is any encouragement in Christ […] complete my joy by being of the same mind, [the same heart,] thinking one thing. Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but (also) everyone for those of others.” This is the attitude of Christ who “though he was in the form of God […] emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; […] he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.” Christ emptied himself to become man. We must empty ourselves to become Christ.

But what is it that we must pour out? What fills us up, leaving no room for God? We could say Ego. Pride. We could say Vanity. What do those invited to the table of the Lord say when they hear his invitation? Nothing so abstract or grand as “I am too proud.” Or, “I am filled with selfish need.” They say what we are all likely to say, “I’m busy.” Work to do. People to see. Family waiting for me at home. So, work is bad? We can ignore appointments? Family is unimportant? No. But when our reasons for declining the Lord’s invitation to eat at his table become excuses for ignoring his invitation to pour ourselves out, we fail to take on the attitude of Christ. And filled with excuses, there is no room in us for God.

Only so many can fill a classroom. Only so much water can fit in a bucket. That backpack will only hold so many books. We can be filled with excuses for declining the Lord’s invitation; or, we can empty ourselves as he did for us, becoming more now than we were ever made to be. If the poor, the blind, the lame, and the crippled—all those usually left outside the banquet hall—if they can be invited to the table, pouring themselves out and being filled with divine food and drink, so can we. Like them, we too can become Christ…but only if we say yes when invited and make enough room for the guest of honor.