07 September 2013

Blessed are the cheese makers!

NB. Here's one from 2010 on this Sunday's readings.  

23rd Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Blackfriars Hall, Oxford Univ.

Jesus is preaching on the Mount of Olives. The crowd is huge. The wind is high. It's difficult to hear him clearly. He says, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” A man in the crowd shouts out, “What did he say?” Another man in the crowd responds, “I think it was 'Blessed are the cheese makers.'” A well-appointed woman asks, “Aha, what's so special about the cheese makers?” Her husband  explains, “Well, obviously it's not meant to be taken literally; it refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.” Thus do we have—from Monty Python no less—one of the first instances of Jesus' teachings being read through a hermeneutics of inclusion! Of course, this is meant to be funny; it is also meant to point out our very human tendency to take something we've heard and give it the most benign, the least personally demanding interpretation possible. Today's gospel offers us this opportunity as well. Jesus says, “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” To add insult to this familial injury, Jesus adds, “. . .anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple.” So, in order to follow Christ, we're to become homeless, destitute haters of our family. Unless we are willing to “mishear” this difficult teaching, and give it some milquetoast interpretation, we have to deal with it head-on. What are we to make of Jesus' rather unambiguous demand for our radical dispossession?

The first point to be made here is that hating one's family and surrendering all one's possessions are not conditions for discipleship; that is, there are no prerequisites for enrolling in the university of the Lord. There are, however, consequences. And these consequences, Jesus warns, can be and most likely will be dire. To walk willingly into the tomb with him and to rise with him on the last day entails following him on the way of sorrow, carrying one's cross, and dying on that cross when the time comes. Though there will be glories and graces along the Way, a life lived as a disciple is a life lived in self-denial, sacrificial service, and persistent witness. As one who has lost it all, Jesus knows that if we have nothing left to lose, there is everything to gain. In more contemporary terms, we might say, “No Pain, No Gain; No Guts, No Glory.” What Jesus is doing here is making it perfectly clear to those who would follow him that his Way is not about growing in self-esteem, or “being One with the universe,” or just being a nice person, or even living a quietly pious life. There is a cost to discipleship, a potentially heavy even deadly cost, a cost beyond convenience, reputations, and friendships. The cost—ultimately—is your life. Be ready to pay that bill.

To prepare us, Jesus asks, “Which of you wishing to construct a tower does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if there is enough for its completion?” There are really two questions here. First, “Have you thought about the costs of discipleship?” and second, “Are you prepared to complete the course given the costs?” The disciples already know that the Lord came not to bring peace but a sword. His life and ministry among them will cleave families apart, setting father against son and mother against daughter. The Way is not a tranquil meditative practice leading to a blissful serenity, but a radical commitment to a tumultuous love that puts Christ first, puts Christ squarely in front of any other attachment, any other promise. To hate one's family and surrender all possessions is to set the sacrificial love of Christ on the cross as one's only frame of reference, as one's singular focus and goal. Everything else—mom, dad, kids, house, job, reputation, wealth, health, politics, religious practice—everything else is to be seen, understood, and lived out relative only to Christ and our vows to follow him. Have you thought about these costs? Are you prepared to pay this bill?

If not, have you thought about what it might mean to fail, what it might mean to pit yourself against the King of kings? Jesus asks his disciples, “. . .what king marching into battle would not first sit down and decide whether with ten thousand troops he can successfully oppose another king advancing upon him with twenty thousand troops?” A king outnumbered 2:1 on the battlefield would be foolish not to consider suing for peace! Jesus' point here is as straightforward as it is frightening: don't play the fool by siding with the Enemy and fighting against your Creator. You will lose and lose catastrophically. Isn't it more prudent, more practicable to ally yourself with the strongest and flourish whatever the costs? Besides, God's terms for our surrender are infinitely gracious and though we must submit our pride to defeat, we gain eternal life. And that bill has already been paid in full.

What will it take for you to complete the course? Jesus tells us what we must be prepared to surrender, surrender everyone we love and everything we own. Nothing and no one we love can be loved apart from or before Love Himself. We might ask the question this way: who or what are you unwilling to sacrifice for Christ's sake? Name it. Name him or her and you will know who and what stands between you and your discipleship. Is this too harsh? Too difficult? We could do our best Monty Python imitation and pretend that Jesus says that we must renounce all our obsessions or all our professions. Or that we must come to him rating or baiting our family members. We could say something like, “Oh, he doesn't mean that literally. . .what he really means is that we shouldn't be greedy; we shouldn't let our parents control us.” What he says is that we must choose him over all those we love now, over all the things we love now. This is the price of tuition on the Way. Why? Because one likely consequence of following him is the loss of all we love. 

Therefore, it is better to surrender to God now than to fall in defeat to the Enemy later on.

Follow HancAquam or Subscribe ----->

05 September 2013

Courage to fish in the deep

22nd Week OT 
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP 
Notre Dame Seminary, NOLA 

Fr. Rector, I'd like to propose a new motto for NDS: “Put out into the deep. Lower your nets. Do not be afraid.” If our ministry to the Church here is forming fishermen for Christ, then what better encouragement can we give to our students than Christ's own words to his most imperfect apostle, Simon Peter? Of course, there's no reason to think that faculty and staff won't be encouraged by this new motto as well. We rely on hearts and minds well-built and maintained by the Holy Spirit's fire as much as our students do! Maybe even more so since we bear the heavier burden of leadership as well as discipleship. After all, it's no accident that it's Simon Peter who complains about the disciples' exhaustion and frustration and at the same time obeys the Lord's command to resume fishing. And note too that it is Simon Peter who confesses his sinfulness when the nets are returned to the boat brimming with fish. Christ says to these fishermen and to us, “Despite your anxieties, your fears, your feelings of being unworthy, put out into the deep and lower your nets. Do not be afraid.” 

Well, it's easy, isn't it, for Jesus to say things like, 'Do not be afraid'”? He knows who and what he is; where he's going; why he's here among us. There can't be much fear hindering you if all the usual unknowns are known. For us, however, the unknowns can worry at the edges of our confidence, fraying our attention, picking at what strength we have to carry on. Why am I here? What possessed me to leave home and train to be a fishermen? To train others to be fishermen? Am I smart enough, holy enough, competent enough to take in the wisdom of the Church and serve selflessly for the rest of my life? Is the sacrifice worth the reward? Just asking the questions is exhausting, let alone searching for the answers. But don't these questions beg the question, the question of faith? What makes any of us here think that we serve the Church out of our native intelligence, holiness, competence, or courage? What we do here is a graced undertaking, a gifted mission of preparation for being Christs in the world sent to complete among the nations the glorious work of the Father. Sure, it's easy for Jesus not to be afraid. But his admonition to us is more than just a rousing pat on the head: it's a promise, a promise of his abiding presence, a promise that our native failings cannot and will not leave God's salvific plan in failure. 

The disciples are exhausted and frustrated. And their exhaustion and frustration could prevent their obedience. Too tired, too worried, too disappointed, they could shrug, let out a huge sigh, and stomp off angry. Instead, they obey; that is, they listen to Christ. They hear and understand his command, trusting in him and believing fully that he will not leave them empty. Nota bene: their obedience is more than mere compliance out of respect for their teacher, or fear of punishment. Peter follows Christ and the disciples follow Peter. That takes courage. And what else is courage but fear transformed by faith? Perhaps more than any other acquired virtue, our ministry here NDS is fed by courage. We're given faith, hope, and charity. But courage arrives when we freely cooperate with these virtues despite our fear, despite our doubts and hesitations. When we listen—truly hear, believe, and act upon the presence of Christ among us—then the deep isn't so deep, nor are our nets too heavy for one more throw. Let me be blunt: if we choose to rely on our native abilities and refuse the graces God freely offers us, the deep will always be too deep and those nets will always too heavy. Therefore, “Put out into the deep. Lower your nets. And do not be afraid.”

Follow HancAquam or Subscribe ----->

04 September 2013

Thanks/On Method (Updated)

NB. A few days ago a deacon posted his response to my question below. I accidentally deleted the comment.  Please, comment again, Rev. Deacon!

Thanks to the Kind Soul who sent me The Art of Preaching by the great Cistercian, Alan of Lille.

And thanks to Gregory P. for Preaching and Homiletical Theory and The Web of Preaching.

Two more to add to my Book Benefactor Prayer List!

Most of the preaching books I've been reading deal with various methods of homily composition, exploring questions about biblical hermeneutics/interpretation and the person of the preacher as a prophetic voice.

I'm not yet entirely convinced that it is necessary for a preacher to adopt a particular method. When I try to think through my own method of composition, I get stuck trying to "fit" what I actually do when I write into one of the available categories. 

With time, I'll likely figure out that what I do is exactly what Method X says ought to be done. Right now though, it just seems like I do whatever the Spirit moves me to do; or, frankly: what gets preached is the content of me and the Spirit fussing and fighting over what needs to be said!

Question/Request for Preachers: do you consciously use a method when composing a homily?  If so, please describe your method. . .

Follow HancAquam or Subscribe ----->

03 September 2013

Authority alone will not re-found the tradition. . .

I want to draw your attention to a post from Mark Shea titled, "I Hate Being Right All the Time."

Mark notes the tendency of cultural revolutionaries to dismiss the possibility that their revolutionary ideals will be either 1) taken to their logical conclusion, or 2) overthrown using the revolutionaries' logic.

Here's an excerpt:

The basic point of the series is that we are living on borrowed capital from the Catholic tradition and burning through it like Paris Hilton spending Daddy's money while creating nothing of value to replace it.  As each phase of history passes by, we keep saying that nobody will ever take the next logical step from the premisses we have just set up as a platform for jettisoning some aspect of the Christian tradition.  Then we are perpetually surprised when somebody does and the new revolutionary attacks the old one by citing the precedent established by the previous revolutionary. 

We can see this logic playing out in the Church.

As the Vatican Two Baby Boomers* slowly cycle out of institutional power, those who follow them will likely adopt the Boomer "logic of revolution" and seek to restore Catholic tradition by a kind of will to power; that is, rather than nurture an organic regrowth of doctrine, liturgy, etc. over time, we will be treated to a piecemeal overthrowing of the aesthetic choices made by our immediate ancestors through the exercise of raw authority. That's how They did it, so that's how We will do it!

We see this sort of thing happening already. And I think it's a bad way to proceed. Yes, we need to restore a sense of reverence in the liturgy; and yes, we need to re-teach the faith after wandering aimlessly in the catechetical desert for 40+ years. . .BUT how we go about restoring the tradition is as important as what we choose to restore. 

Restoring Catholic tradition as an exercise of authority alone will not ground that tradition in the culture of the Church anymore than the liturgical/catechetical revolution of the 70's/80's forever established the dictatorship of sentimentality as our working model for evangelization.

In fact, simply ordering changes in local liturgical practices or banishing bad textbooks from Catholic schools (etc) will likely reproduce the JPII/BXVI generation's reaction against the Boomers. . .in the other direction.

What we need is catechesis, catechesis, catechesis! And not the touchy-feely junk that's passed for teaching these last few decades.  I mean, hard-core, text-based, critical-instruction on the documents of the faith AND inspired preaching on living the faith within the truths of the tradition. Memorizing theological propositions from the Catechism won't do.

All of this means that we need a workable apologetics; that is, a means of teaching, defending, and living the faith that doesn't adopt modernist assumptions about truth, beauty, and goodness; or simply concede to the Enlightenment its definition of reason. 

So, I'm all ears. . .

*I know, I know. . .not ALL Boomers are the same.  I'm using the term as a form of shorthand.

Follow HancAquam or Subscribe ----->

01 September 2013

Praiseworthy self-abasement

22nd Sunday OT (C) 
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP 
Our Lady of the Rosary, NOLA 

We know already that those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and that those who humble themselves will be exalted. We know already that we are charged with ministering to the poor, the hungry, the imprisoned, and the sick. And we know that our greatest reward for service is not public attention or gratitude but a place among the righteous when Christ comes again. What we might not know, or perhaps we've just forgotten, is that our humility—such as it is—is first a gift from God, a freely given seed that we must nurture. This is why Jesus is so intent upon revealing to us the necessity of what Aquinas calls “praiseworthy self-abasement.” Not humiliation as we commonly understand the term. Not groveling self-disrespect, or pathetic self-shaming. Note that Aquinas qualifies “self-abasement” with “praiseworthy.” That is, we place ourselves—willingly, eagerly—at the service of others b/c there is nothing more honorable, nothing more deserving of praise for us to do than to set aside our pride, our sense of place and importance, and provide for another what they truly need. Our ability and willingness to serve is a gift b/c service brings us closer to the one who serves us with his body and blood. 

Now, I wouldn't be a bona-fide Old English Teacher if I didn't bring up at this point that famous passage from John Milton's Paradise Lost: Satan's Non-serviam speech. God has banished his brightest angel to Hell for rebelling against Heaven. Satan, the Arch-fiend, surveying his fiery kingdom and his fallen kin, boasts to his minion, Beelzebub: “Here at least/We shall be free; th' Almighty hath not built/Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:/Here we may reign secure, and in my choice/To reign is worth ambition, though in Hell:/Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heav'n” (Book 1). Non serviam. I will not serve. And b/c Satan once and always chose not to serve, he is eternally chained by his bitter pride, “rolling in the fiery gulf,” Milton writes, “Confounded though immortal.” Other than a chance to quote Milton in a homily, why reference this passage about Satan's defiance? As a creature of God, Lucifer, receives from God not only his very being but also every gift that he needs to thrive as a servant of the Almighty. Yet, out of jealously and pride, he rebels, placing himself above the duties and obligations of a creature and settles himself into an immortal existence of bitter and ultimately useless rage against his Father. That is pride's pay-out: bitter, useless rage. 

I doubt very seriously that anyone here this evening has rebelled against God with the intensity or permanence of Lucifer. However, like this fallen angel, any one of us could decide that fidelity, obedience, sacrifice, humility, any one of the cardinal virtues is simply too much to bear up under and take to the hills in rebellion. Any one of us could reach a breaking point and declare, “Non serviam.” I will not serve. If you can't imagine the circumstances under which you might do such a thing, allow me to imagine it for you. I decide that I'm smarter than 2,000 years of Church teaching and start rejecting articles of faith. I decide that serving the poor is simply a way of keeping the poor poor. Visiting the sick isn't my job. My academic credentials or prestigious job or centuries-old family name exempts me from serving anyone. My need for security in excessive abundance doesn't allow for charity. My neighbors are the wrong color or the wrong political party or the wrong religion. And so on. None of these—by itself—is a Satanic rebellion. But one prideful act quickly needs another to secure its legitimacy. And like one blackbird in a magnolia tree, that one heralds the flock to come. 

When Jesus urges his disciples and the Pharisees to cede their pride in favor of service, he's not telling them to fake being modest. He's telling them to consider the eternal consequences of their self-importance. By taking for themselves the places of honor at the banquet table, they are usurping the host's right to choose who will sit at his right-hand. Just so, when we place ourselves above the least of God's children; when we think and act as masters rather than servants, we are attempting to wrestle from God's hands a choice that belongs to Him alone. And what's worse: we do so using our imperfect human judgment, our imperfect human knowledge. In fact, if we're going to be honest in our rebellion against God, we must conclude that God's judgment and knowledge must be flawed. How else could He think that lepers and poor people and cripples and other undesirables deserve my service? Do you see how the beautiful archangel, Lucifer, became the Arch-fiend, Satan? Just one small step was needed: why should I serve a master when I can be the Master and serve no one? I shouldn't have to serve; therefore, I will not serve. After all, it's better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven. Or: it's better to preserve my pride now than risk losing any of my options later on. 

I noted earlier that our desire to serve is a gift. It's a seed planted in our hearts and minds by God that will grow and bear great fruit. . .if we diligently tend to it. Jesus tells us outright how to tend to this seed: feed it with humility and contrition. Always see yourself as a lovable creature of God. Not just loveable, no, but loved. A creature loved into being, loved into being re-born, and loved into a seat at the heavenly banquet. Always see those around you as loved creatures. With all of their annoying habits, strange smells, odd personalities, extreme political views, and weird religious beliefs. Loving them as loved creatures doesn't mean that we have to approve of or celebrate their choices. Loving them simply means that we see them first and last as brothers and sisters of one Father, our Father. And that we are willing to live with them in sight of eternity, with an eye on the Biggest Possible Picture in Christ. Loving them—all of them, all of us—means trying to do perfectly what the Father created us to do: love Him by loving those whom He created to be loved. 

Lucifer became Satan in a flash of envy and pride. He thought he deserved better; he thought he was entitled to more and better than the Father had given him. Rather than submit to his angelic nature and obediently serve, he chose to rebel. He chose to exclude himself from the company of God and His saints. Satan believes that he is free in his rebellion. He believes that b/c he disobeys God he acts freely. He believes a lie. We are never more free than when we act according to God's will for us; when we serve the least with our most and do so for no other reason than that we desire to give God glory. That's freedom. That's honor. When we come to know and accept the truth that we are creatures loved by a loving God, that's humility. And when we see and accept all others as creatures loved by a loving God and serve them as such, that's love. Not just any love. Love that brings us to the banquet table. Love that brings us honor and a seat at the right-hand of the Father. 
Follow HancAquam or Subscribe ---->

Preaching & Nihilism

Good news!

Got word on Thursday that the advanced preaching seminar I'd proposed was approved by the academic dean.

We'll be exploring the historical, literary, philosophical, and theological origins of nihilism and how this pernicious infection has shaped our postmodern culture. 

Then we'll discuss ways to address these nihilistic tendencies in our preaching.

Should be fun. . . 

My extra mendicant thanks to all those who contributed to this project from the Wish List.
Follow HancAquam or Subscribe ----->

Peter quivers in the random lechery of distraction

NB.  Wrote this one in Rome 2008. . .never preached it.  The lectionary readings are from Year A, so I won't be preaching this homily tonight.  Look for a new one later on today.
22nd Sunday OT: Jer 20.7-9; Rom 12.1-2; Matt 16.21-27
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Convento SS. Domenico e Sisto, Roma

None of us will blame Peter for his outburst. Jesus has just finished telling his friends how he must suffer and die at the hands of his enemies in Jerusalem. And how, after he has been dead and buried for three days, he will rise again. Peter, the Rock of the messianic faith and keeper of the kingdom keys, pulls Jesus aside and rebukes him. Peter rebukes Jesus! Peter denies the truth of Christ’s impending passion, “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.” For our own love of Christ, none of us will blame Peter for his unfaithful outburst; however, Jesus not only faults Peter for his passionate denial, but returns his rebuke with a curse: “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me.” Jesus names Peter “Satan.” Adversary. Accuser. He also names Peter “Obstacle.” Scandal. An obstructing stone on the path. Not for the last time does Peter fall for a demonic temptation. If you were asked to pick out the temptation that traps Peter, what name would you give it?

In a prose poem his translator* has titled “[The temptation of the saint],” Rainer Maria Rilke meditates on an unnamed painting of an unnamed saint tormented by lust. Rilke, describing the saint in agony, on the verge of surrendering his battle against temptation, writes, “His prayer is already losing its leaves and stands up out of his mouth like a withered shrub. His heart has fallen over and poured out into the muck. His whip strikes him as weakly as a tail flicking away flies.” Why has this saint fallen? Rilke does not say. His meditation on the painting concludes with a meditation on the contemporary usefulness of paintings such as this. He notes the two extremes of our longing for the divine: “I could imagine that long ago such things happened to saints, those overhasty zealots, who wanted to begin with God, right away, whatever the cost. We no longer make such demands on ourselves. We suspect that he is too difficult for us, that we must postpone him, so that we can slowly do the long work that separates us from him.” Longing for God and zealous, we start with God, unready; or, longing for God but anxious, we defer and break ourselves with work and worry.

Which is Peter’s principal fault? Eager and too quick? Or fearful and delaying? When Jesus rebukes Peter for his unfaithfulness, he says, “You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” Peter must have stared at his Master with complete incomprehension because Jesus turns to the other disciples and explains, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” Is this what Peter fears when Jesus reveals his fate in Jerusalem? Is Peter quailing at the inevitable pain and desolation of not only losing his beloved Master to their enemies, but knowing first hand what it the scourge and the nails feel like? Peter surrenders the Lord’s passion before it has begun. Unlike the saint in Rilke’s painting who surrenders after a great battle, Peter surrenders at the first sign of trouble. Peter’s rebuke is heated but it comes out of a “heart fallen over…”, a heart fatally wounded by created love rather than a heart eternally healed by the Creator’s love. Peter does not think as God does.

What would you name Peter’s temptation? Pride could work. Fear. Yes, fear plays its part. How about ignorance? He is tempted to rebuke Jesus without knowing the Father’s mind? Yes. Could we say that Peter has been inordinately distracted? Remember: Jesus does not say that Peter has been an obstacle for Peter. Nor does Jesus say that Peter has accused Peter. Jesus clearly rebukes Peter for obstructing his path to the passion that the Father has ordained. Peter has accused Jesus of lying. God has ordered the Passion. How then can Peter exclaim: “God forbid, Lord!”? To Jesus, Peter is Satan, accuser, adversary; to Jesus Peter is a scandal, an impediment. Peter is distracted by his created love, his natural affection and loyalty to the man, Jesus; forgetting entirely, even for just that moment, that this man he loves so furiously is also the Son who must suffer and die. Jesus will not be distracted, and so he turns to instruct his friends—with Peter’s anguished denial still ringing in his ears—that to follow him means not only loving him as Master but becoming him as Christs.

We might say that Peter is both eager and too quick AND he is anxious and delaying. In his love for Jesus he is eager to see him triumphant over his enemies. But this is not the triumph that the Son has come to bring. Now, knowing that his Master is fated to suffer and die, Peter, in a fit of anxious terror, elects postponement of the inevitable for his Master and for himself, and he succumbs to the distraction of his all too human love. This is why the Lord must be so fiercely clear with the other disciples in prophesying for them what lies ahead of them as his friends. Make no mistake, brothers and sisters, as Paul will later write to the Romans, we are called in baptism “to offer our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, [our] spiritual worship.” We must love as God does—sacrificially, wholly giving over—and not as man does—possessively, longing for completion.

In the first paragraph of his prose poem, Rilke surveys the painting of the saint writhing in temptation, noting that works like this one, these “strange pictures,” make the ordinary things of our counted days “stretch out and stroke one another, lewd and curious, quivering in the random lechery of distraction.” Having confessed his own anxieties about the difficulties of surrendering to divine love, preferring instead to postpone with arduous spiritual labor the inevitable union, Rilke acknowledges that delay in work is no relief: “Now,…I know that this work leads to combats just as dangerous as the combats of the saints…” Isn’t this what Jesus prophesies for all of us who will reach down, heft up a cross, and walk behind him to suffering and ignominious death? Our devotion is never simply about zeal or comfort, heated assent or cool contemplation; our devotion, the devotion that grounds us to offer our bodies as spiritual sacrifice—as Christ himself did—that devotion is always the denial of self, resistance to and defeat of the temptation to see oneself and one’s imagined needs as the index of Life’s Book. Peter attempts to distract Jesus with his immature love. He throws before Jesus an undeveloped chunk of affection, a glob of emotion. The point of Peter’s rebuke is to draw attention to his own despair at losing Christ to pain and death. Peter makes Peter the point of reference; he shouts his unwillingness to take up his cross and follow Christ to his.

What “random lecher[ies] of distraction” cause you to withhold your sacrifice? What distractions betray your conformity to this present age? How daily, hourly do you fail to be transformed by God’s love and thus fail to be renewed? Do you pull at Jesus’ cloak, hoping to keep him from pain and death? Or do you push him ahead of you, carrying your own cross as he carries his? How do you postpone following after the Lord? Perhaps, like Peter, you hope to deny the inevitability of having to follow him by denying that he must first lead.

Get behind him, Satan! You cannot obstruct what is.

*from The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge in The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke; ed and trans. by Stephen Mitchell, Vintage International, 1989, 105.

Follow HancAquam or Subscribe ----->