28 February 2009

New suppl(e)mental posts

Two new posts at suppl(e)mental. . .

"Big Bang, Lemaitre, and scientific dogma"


"Biblical basis for western science"

Check 'em out!

26 February 2009

The Devil preaches on Lent

Back in Lent 2006, I preached one of my more experimental/literary homilies, "With the Devil in the Desert."

Some loved it, some hated it, and some thought I had gone over the edge into the diabolical by preaching a homily in the voice of the Devil.

Since the homily got exactly one comment on the blog, I'm curious about what folks might think about it now. . .I thoroughly enjoyed writing and preaching this homily. It's one of my favorites!

Give it a read/listen and let me know. . .

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24 February 2009

Godzdogz: English OP's "do" Lent

Not a penance but a pleasure!


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Seminar report on science, theology, philosophy

I had decided not to post my science, philosophy, and theology seminar report b/c it needed some re-working.

Then I thought, "You're just being fastidious. Post it."

So, I did: Polkinghorne's Complementarity.

Sr. Ginger Peters, OP. . .RIP

I ask your prayers for the repose of the soul of one my favorite Dominican sisters, Sr. Marygrace "Ginger" Peters, OP.

Ginger died on Feb 21, 2009 after a long battle with lung cancer and pneumonia.

Her last duty to her Houston Dominican sisters was to serve as their Prioress. I remember her best as my Church History professor from Aquinas Institute. Ginger never failed to smile, never failed to encourage nor cajole when necessary.

She had one the best senses of humor among my O.P. sisters. When I introduced her to friends as "Queen of the Houston Dominicans," I always got a exasperated sigh and an easily dodged slap at my impertinent head.

She will be dearly missed.

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A Lenten Prayer

Merciful and loving God, you give us* this Lenten desert for our purification, for our chance to become your faithful friends.

Because we are wearied by our sins and exhausted by the weight of our guilt, the devil seeks to tempt us further away from you.

Let us hear his false promises with your ears and see his counterfeit prizes through your eyes. With your Word in our mouths, we reject his poisonous gifts and run to you for our salvation.

With our every thought and deed, you give us the grace to turn temptation into witness, to make an enemy of the devil, and grow in your love.

Lord, grant us hearts bound in obedience to your Word and freed in your love. And even though we may suffer for a little while, we know our purpose is fulfilled when we offer you thanks and praise for the gift of your Son.

Purged of sin and guilt by your desert, we walk to his death on the cross; we watch for his resurrection from the tomb; and we await his coming again in glory!

In his holy name we pray. Amen.

(written by Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP)


*Change the plural pronouns to singular for a more personal prayer.

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Thanking the Devil

A few provisions for your Lenten trek. . .

Jesus went into the desert to pray and fast for forty days and forty nights. The devil shows up and tempts our Lord with a variety of goodies.

How is Jesus tempted?

First, he is tempted to reject God with a show of pride. Prove you are who you say you are by performing a miracle.

Second, he is tempted to reject God by testing His promise of love and care. Place yourself in danger so that God will be forced to prove His promise to rescue you when you are in trouble.

Third, he is tempted to reject God by taking on worldly power and prestige. Forsake the worship of the Lord and be rewarded with temporal prominence and political power.

Each time Jesus rejects the temptation and rebukes the devil. How? Each time Jesus successfully resists the devil, he does so by placing God first, by putting his Father upfront and on top of their intimate relationship, making his Father and His Word the lense through which he sees these tempting offers.

Notice also what Jesus doesn’t do when tempted. He never appeals to himself or puts his “needs” ahead of God. Never does he invoke his own power as the Son, or try to fight the devil with theological argument. He doesn’t negotiate or dialogue. He doesn’t listen carefully, ponder his options, and then decide based on a cost-benefit analysis. He doesn’t compromise or make any temporary deals. He doesn’t parse the language of the temptations, contextualize their content, or critique their literary forms. He doesn’t re-envision their meaning or try to make them relevant. He rejects them. Outright.

Jesus resists the devil by boldly and obediently speaking the truth. With each temptation, Jesus begins his rejection and rebuke in the same way, “It is written. . .” He pulls on the prophetic tradition of his heritage, God’s Word in scripture, and turns the devil’s deceit into a fulfilled revelation, a unveiling of the truth made manifest in the desert.

Lent is our chance to do what Jesus does. While in this desert for forty days, we take the devil’s false promises to us and turn them into the fulfilled promises of God’s love and care for us. God will love us against our will, but He will not prevent us from taking the devil’s deal if we will to do so. He will give us everything we need to say No to the devil, but He will not say No for us. We must act; we must say to the devil’s face, “It is written…” God and His promises come first.

The devil knows what we sometimes forget: the power of temptation lies not in accepting his lies as true in but rejecting God’s truth as false. In other words, we do ourselves far more spiritual damage when we make God an enemy than when we make the devil a friend. Why? With God as your enemy, all His gifts become intolerable burdens. You will not hope. You will not love. You will not trust. Enmity with God is a much darker, a far more dangerous place to be than mere friendliness with error and deceit.

Each time Jesus resists the devil’s temptation and rebukes him, he invokes his love of the Lord with the words of our prophetic tradition, “It is written…” He invokes the Covenant between the Father and His people; he opens the doors of his heart’s tabernacle and lets the Word blind the devil. He turns the devil’s false promises into the fulfillment of the Father’s promise to love us and care for us.

When tempted to reject God in pride, humble yourself in gratitude for what you have been given.

When tempted to reject God by testing His promise of love and care, remember that He will never lie; He will never fail.

When tempted to reject God by taking on worldly power and prestige, offer worship to this world’s only Lord and King.

And when you have successfully rejected all these temptations, do something to really make the devil crazy: thank him for his temptations because without them you might have made it through this Lenten desert without the urgent chance to become better friends with God.

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22 February 2009

Benedict, Monkeys, RCIA...

Questions. . .

1). What's going on in the Vatican? Why all the tumult around the Pope?

There's always been tumult around the Pope. Even a quick glance at Church history will tell you that there's never been a pope who hasn't had to deal with an entrenched curia, disobedient cardinals, scheming advisers, and throngs of dissident insiders lusting for his downfall. Nothing has changed. This is a good time to remind Catholics that the Holy Father cannot fail in the only ministry of his that matters: teaching and preaching the gospel of Christ. He might not be the best administrator, or the best diplomat, or the best crowd-pleaser. So what? None of these are his principal task. Pope Benedict has made some controversial decisions lately and "professionally aggrieved grievance professionals" (Mark Shea's wonderful phrase) are using these decisions to hit at the Holy Father in an attempt to discredit his whole program of reviving a strong Catholic identity. Don't be fooled: the Pope is under attack b/c he is doing his job as the Vicar of Christ. Like Cardinal Ratzinger said one time: "If I don't read something in the press at least once a week attacking me, I don't feel like I'm doing my job." This too shall pass.

When reading any news story about the Holy Father or "the Vatican" in the secular press, always remember that the reporters know almost nothing about the Church or her faith. They are trained to see and report in purely political terms, usually leftist terms. Recent hysterical news stories about the SSPX and the LC's are evidence of this. They see the Holy Father as a democratically elected official--a prime minister or president--and then proceed to evaluate his "performace" based on criteria used to judge secular politicians. Also keep in mind when you see the phrase "a senior Vatican official says" that this phrase is utterly meaningless. There is no way of knowing who this person is or if there even is such a person. How easy is it to insert anti-papal wishful thinking into the mouth of a ficitious "official" and then report this official's criticism as fact? As I said to a fellow friar recently, "These reporters need to name names, or shut up." Fat chance.

Now, does any of this mean that the Holy Father needs to ignore criticism or fail to learn from mistakes? Absolutely not. Benedict is a brilliant man. He will listen, and he will adapt where he can. But as faithful Catholics, we need to separate out what matters to the faith from what matters to the anti-Catholic press and our perpetually whining internal dissidents. Recent controversies change nothing that is true, good, and beautiful about the faith as taught by the Church's magisterium. So, watch out for dissenting opportunists who will use the blood in the water as an excuse to push their private agendas. Administrative mistakes do not equate to doctrinal mistakes. There is no connection between the two.

2). What is "Monkey Mind"?

I've used this phrase often in describing my own persistent mental state. Basically, it is borrowed from Zen Buddhism and is used to describe a mind that swings rather wildly from thing to thing to thing. Think of a monkey swinging from tree branches, chattering, squealing, and just having a bit of fun. When Zen monks sit for hours on end in zazen (formal "sitting meditation") they are left with no other distraction but the flashing images of their minds. A large part of any mental discipline is mastering these images to the point where they no longer occupy the mind as distractions. I've noted before that I am plagued by both dyslexia and ADD. Fortunately, I found out about both of these well into my doctoral studies, so they never became excuses for me not to succeed in school. Still, I find it extraordinarily difficult to concentrate for even short periods of time. I've adapted my "learning style" to these realities by perfecting the art of procrastination! Papers, presentations, lecures, etc. all get done at the last possible moment b/c I need the pressure of a deadline to serve as a taskmaster. This system has always served me well. Yes, it causes me some anxiety and leaves me exhausted, but any paper I start too early in the semester becomes an unmanagable monster before it is finished. Of course, this method is useless for learning languages. . .foreign language acquisition requires a steady exposure to vocabulary, grammar, and reading. Frankly, I'd rather be beaten bloody than told to memorize verb forms! Seriously, if my dean told me that he would waive the French requirement for my license if I took three lashes from a leather whip. . .I'd think about it. . .I'd seriously consider it.

3). What to do if my parish's RCIA program is not very Catholic?

I've posted before about my own RCIA experience in 1995-6. Not good. The process as it is laid out in the relevant documents promises to be something of an adventure in learning to become a good Catholic. In the hands of a faithful pastor and a dedicated RCIA team, the process is wonderful. Unfortunately, too often the process leads converts into a world of pseudo-Catholicism, or worse, anti-Catholicism. The central difficult, I think, is that the pedagogy of the process places too much emphasis on "sharing the faith" and almost none of learning the faith. How can a group of people who know little or nothing about the Catholic faith share that faith with others who know as little as they do? This is not to say that they have nothing to share! Of course, they do. But RCIA is meant to be an introduction to the CATHOLIC faith not a year-long process of sharing feelings, impressions, and opinions about bullet-point theology and ecclesial politics. Many converts are left with the impression that the Catholic faith is simply a matter of joining a parish, signing up for duty as communion ministers, and occasionally going to Mass on Sunday. When the emphasis is placed on the subjective experience of the individual, the whole of the faith is lost in personal reflection and opinion. The strongest/weakest link in any RCIA program is the dedication of the teachers to the magisterium of the Church. Often these teachers are reluctant to present the more controversial elements of the faith for fear of being confronted by disagreement or disparagement. Tough. Teach the faith or find another ministry in the parish. I know a young RCIA convert who was shocked to discover when he came to U.D. that the Church teaches that Christians who struggle with same-sex attractions are called to celibate chastity. As one such Christian, he was told that the Church honors one's conscience on this issue and says nothing at all about the sinfulness of sexual behavior for homosexuals! In other words, he joined the Church believing that he could, as a homosexual, find a partner and live, in good conscience, a sexually active lifestyle. To his credit, he accepted the Church's teaching once he knew the truth. However, he signed up believing a lie told by his RCIA team. Why did they tell him this? Maybe they believed they were telling him the truth. Maybe they didn't want to risk controversy. Maybe they don't accept the Church's teaching on this issue. and use the RCIA program to teach error in the hope of undermining the teaching. Who knows? Whatever the reason, this young man was lied to and those who did the lying shouldn't be teaching the faith!

Ideally, you want to go through the RCIA program of the parish you will eventually join. If the program seems to you to be teaching something other than the Catholic faith, you might approach the pastor for clarification. You need to be open to the idea that your take on the faith might be wrong and that you have simply misunderstood what your RCIA teachers have told you. In other words, don't assume that you are being taught error simple b/c you disagree with what you have heard. Use the Catechism. Do a little research and find out. Ask faithful Catholics you know, or leave a comment here. I'm not shy about answering tough questions. If it seems as though something might be awry, bring it up in discussion and ask for clarification. Many articles of the faith are not easily understood and often lead to innocent mistakes. Also, orthodox teachings can be expressed in a number of legit ways. Don't assume that what you are being taught is mistaken simple b/c you aren't hearing it presented in a traditional way. In the face of learning and digesting 2,000 years of Catholic doctrine and dogma, a little humility goes a long way. I would resist the temptation to bail on a program and look for another one. Take what your program has to offer but understand that learning the faith is your responsibility. You are not absolved for ignorance when there are so many resources for you to consult.

If all else fails, use my Three-Year Plan for Faith Formation.

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On purpose, with a purpose

7th Sunday OT: Is 43:18-25; 2 Cor 1:18-22; Mark 2:1-12
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Convento SS. Domenico e Sisto, Roma

[NB. This homily is an example of "Praedicator primum sibi praedicet" if there ever was one!*]

The Lord says to Isaiah, “…see, I am doing something new! Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” This astonishing exclamation by the Lord raises three questions: 1) what is this new thing that the Lord is doing?; 2) what does He mean by “now” when He says that this new thing is springing forth now?; and 3) do we perceive this new thing as it springs forth? As always, scripture is best read as both a history of the faithful response our ancestors to God’s grace and as a script for our own response to the identical grace. Given this, what are we to make of this revelation of immediate newness? On the eve of our Lenten trek, we think first of sin and repentance, the old and the new. Fair enough. Reading the story of the healing of the paralytic in light of Isaiah, let’s think as well on disease and healing, also, the old and the new. But let’s put all four of these themes (sin, repentance, disease, and healing) into a larger theme: as divinely-given purpose as creatures. Who and what are we as creatures—made things—of an all-loving Creator given a purpose beyond our creation? It is not enough to say that we are forgiven our sins upon repentance. It is not enough to say that we are healed of our diseases when we believe. The Lord is doing something new. And He is doing it now.

No doubt this sounds familiar: “You burdened me with your sins, and wearied me with your crimes.” How often do we hear God’s prophets tell us that our Lord is wearied by our disobedience, that He is fed up with our sin? And almost every time we hear the Lord’s lament, we hear something like, “It is I, I, who wipe out, for my own sake, your offenses; your sins I remember no more.” We sin. The Lord tires of it. He forgives us. And remembers our sin no more. Thanks be to God! Surely we are deeply grateful, but we must wonder why we are forgiven. Why do we find ourselves able to stand in the presence of the Lord washed clean of our willful disobedience? The Lord tells Isaiah: “The people I formed for myself, that they might announce my praise.” We cannot praise God while wallowing in our sin. Nor can we forgive our own disobedience, so God Himself, for His own sake, must forgive us our trespasses so that we might accomplish our purpose as His creatures: to praise Him, to bless Him, and to preach His Good News!

Think for a moment about what it means to be redeemed as a fallen creature. We can see this is a rescue from Hell. We can see this as establishing again our original relationship with God. We can also see our redemption as a kind of perfected health. What does the healing of the paralytic in Mark’s gospel tell us? Notice a few things about the story. Since the man is paralyzed, he cannot come to Jesus alone. He needs help. Four men lower him through the roof to Jesus. No mean feat of dedication or labor! Note that Jesus heals the man not only because of his faith, but also because of “their faith,” the faith of those men who worked so hard to get him to Jesus. Note as well that Jesus, in response to the kvetching of the scribes about blasphemy, draws a direct link between sin and disease, forgiveness and healing. He asks, “What’s the difference between me saying ‘Your sins are forgiven’ and ‘Get up and walk?’” Answer: none. In fact, Jesus says both to the paralyzed man: “Child, your sins are forgiven” and “…rise, pick up your mat, and go home.” Given back his mobility, the man rises and walks away. Miracle over.

Not quite. Notice one last thing. . .Mark reports: “He rose, picked up his mat at once, and went away in the sight of everyone.” Not only did Jesus restore his health, he restores his purpose: to be a creature in praise of his Creator! In the sight of everyone, this healed creature amazes the on-lookers; he witnesses to the power of God’s forgiveness by doing what he was made to do. Mark reports: “They were all astounded and glorified God…” Through his faith in God’s mercy, the man is healed. In his healing, he is given new purpose. With his new purpose, he restores the purpose of those witnessing his healing: “They. . .glorified God, saying, ‘We have never seen anything like this.’" What God does for us, He does for His glory. What we do in response, we do in praise and thanksgiving. That is our purpose.

Think about your dis-eases. Not so much your physical afflictions but your uneasinesses, your anxieties and doubts. Aren’t these usually the doors through which you walk to sin? Uneasy about the future, you plan against God’s promise to care for you. Anxious about your current situation, you try to fix things according to your passions, your own dimmed lights. Or maybe doubting some truth of the faith, you decide against right reason and the teachings of the Church and go out into the world’s intellectual desert to find an answer more pleasing to your broken mind. Though we are certainly free to follow these leads, we are never freed in following them. In fact, we are always enslaved more tightly, made sicker, paralyzed more thoroughly when we turn from our divinely-given purpose and follow an attractively decorated but nonetheless deadly end.

We have one purpose: to praise our God with body and soul, heart and mind through time and space. And when we are no longer bound by any measures of movement or created expanse, we praise Him face-to-face, complete in our end, fulfilled in our purpose. Perhaps the best way for to think about sin/forgiveness, disease/health is to think in terms of whether or not we are living out our created purpose, whether or not we are living toward our divinely-gifted end. This is not to say that every scrape and bump, or cough and headache is a sign of disobedience. These are reminders of creation’s falleness and our participation in a world groaning after its own purpose. Our illnesses are opportunities to see a purpose beyond simply enduring pain for pain’s sake, beyond the experience of disease as a natural dysfunction of the body. Like the paralyzed man in Mark’s gospel, we are children faithful to a Father, and we are healed/forgiven when we trust that our dis-eases are not who or what we are as loved creatures. If we are not our diseases, then we are our sins either. What tumor or fracture or infection or mental disorder or willful disobedience praises God? They don’t. Their purpose is wholly-other-than, something else entirely.

We can smell the Lenten desert from here. It’s hot and dry as always. All the better for cleaning those nasty wounds. All the better for stripping away the dead flesh and draining those abscesses of sinful infection. Rather than obsessing on what’s wrong with our spiritual lives—our living day-to-day with Christ and his people,—focus instead on praising God. Fast from purposeless posing in Narcissus’ mirror. Fast from rending your religious garb and heaping ashes on your fallen head. Fast from beating your breast and making a show of piety. Instead, feast on forgiveness and showing mercy. Feast on praising God in His infinite goodness and love. Feast on giving Him thanks for His gifts of life, redemption, and eternal residence near His throne. He’s done, is doing, and will always do something new for us. Spend these forty days of Lent in the excessive luxury of gratitude, sparing no moment to self-indulgence, giving nothing to disease or anxiety.

Our wounds are healed. And even if we still bleed, even if we still hurt, our purpose is renewed. Bleed, hurt, cry…do it all “on purpose,” do it all for one purpose, the purpose you were made to complete: praise God; bless God, and preach His Good News.

*"The preacher preaches to himself first."

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New podcast!

Lazy me. . .I finally got around to posting the podcast of last Tuesday's homily, "Resisting the world's leaven."

Check it out by clicking on the "Roman Homilies" link in the right side-bar.

Let me know what you think. . .good, bad, and/or ugly! I haven't listened it yet.

Fr. Philip, OP