24 October 2021

What a weird question!

30th Sunday OT

Fr. Philip Neri Powell OP


Jesus asks the blind man, “What do you want me to do for you?” Weird question. Does Jesus not know that this man is blind? Does he not know that blind man wants to see? Maybe he doesn't. Maybe Jesus isn't who and what he says he is and really doesn't know what this beggar wants of him. Maybe Jesus is ignorant. Maybe he's surprised when Bartimaeus calls him “son of David.” Or, maybe just maybe, Jesus, the Son of David and the Son of God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity incarnate, has a good reason for asking, “What do you want me to do for you?” Maybe he knows that the blind man needs to ask for his sight. Not need to in the psychological sense – like it's an emotional need – but need to in the spiritual sense; that is, the blind man can't be healed until he asks for and receives the healing Jesus has to give him. Can he receive what he hasn't asked for? Can he be healed of his blindness and his spiritual darkness w/o knowing he's blind and living in spiritual darkness? No, he can't. Therefore, Jesus has to ask him what he needs. Jesus asks me and you the same question: “What do you want me to do for you?” How do you answer?

You'll notice – in your daily living – much like Bartimaeus, there are a number of people around you who try to silence you. Don't bother the Lord. He's busy. Don't speak up. Don't ask for that. You're fine just the way you are. Nothing's wrong with you or how you're living. Better to be quiet and endure what Fate has given you. Jesus, rolling his eyes at the naysayers, says, “Come here. What do you need from me?” What we all need is the freedom to be who and what the Father created us to be – heirs to the Kingdom, sons and daughters of the Most High. That's the Big Need. To get to the Big Need, there are lots of Little Needs. We need to have our eyes and ears opened. We need to be freed from the delusions of the world and the noise of our anxieties. We need to be loosed from the chains of ideology, vice, inordinate passion, and hardness of heart. We need to see our disobedience clearly and our wandering minds sharply. What we need – more than anything else – is to understand and receive the Truth: that we are bound to the Christ, body and soul, to become Christ for the world. Spiritual darkness is ignorance of who and what we are. . .in Christ. Spiritual darkness is a chosen state; it's choosing to be deaf and blind to the Truth.

And so, the Lord asks us, each one of us: “What do you need me to do for you?” How do you answer? You cannot be freed from the chains you refuse to acknowledge. You cannot be set loose from the trap you refuse to see. Who or what is preventing you from being Christ in the world? There are attachments. Things. A house, a car, a job, a career, insurance. There are people. A spouse. Kids. Grandkids. Friends. Neighbors. There are worldly obligations. Community ties. Political commitments. Contracts and leases. None of these – in themselves – is blinding. None of them prevents you from being Christ in the world. Properly ordered, each can be a means of being Christ in the world. But before any one of these can be brought to bear on the task of bearing witness to Christ, you must be clear in heart and mind who comes first. Who defines who and what is important to you? Who and what decides who and what you love most? Tie yourself to this world first and most and you will pass into nothing with the world. Tie yourself to Christ – as you say you have – and you will pass into eternity. Love everyone and everything through Christ now and you will love with him forever.

So, what do you need Jesus to do for you? This is where we can hear St. Pope John Paul II say to us over and over again, “Do not be afraid!” Ask and receive. Ask for what you need and be prepared for the Lord to pour His graces on you. If you are properly disposed – opened, surrendered, grateful – you will receive whatever it is He's given you. Take these gifts and put them to work. Bartimaeus asks to see. Jesus says to him, “Go your way; your faith has saved you.” And what does Bartimaeus do? He follows Christ. . .along the Way of holiness and salvation. With new sight, out of the darkness of sin and death, Bartimaeus follows Christ. Will he ever be hungry again? Yes. Can he still catch a cold and suffer a toothache? Of course. Does he still need to earn a living? Absolutely. Bartimaeus still lives in the world. But he is no longer of the world. He is no longer defined by his blindness, his pain, his all-too-human limitations. He belongs to Christ. And as a possession of the Most High, he is free. He is free to be wholly, perfectly, fully exactly who he was created to be – a son, an heir, a member of the Holy Family. Ask and receive. Do not be afraid. Take courage. The Lord is calling you. He's calling you to be healed, to be Christ in the world.

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21 October 2021

Burn it all down!

29th Week OT (Th)

Fr. Philip Neri Powell OP

St. Dominic Priory, NOLA

How does Christ bring division to the world, to a nation, a family, a friendship? He sets them on fire. Or rather, he sets a part of each on fire. Christ reveals that the Father offers His mercy to sinners. Those who accept His mercy become His heirs. By becoming heirs to the Kingdom, we set ourselves against the powers and principalities of the world. To live life along the Way of Christ, walking and talking as he did, is necessarily a bold challenge to the world. It's a defiant poke in the eye of sin and death and a slap to the face of those who choose disobedience. To the foolish will – a will twisted by folly – submitting to the rule of Love is outrageous, especially given that Love entails sacrifice. The world thrives on Self – Me, Myself, & I. This narcissistic folly fuels pride and envy and greed and Christ stands firmly for the liberation of the human person from this diseased isolation. Thus, the divisions his arrival, mission, and ministry cause. When we take up his mission and ministry, we become the sources of division. Do not mistake the world's folly for the peace of Christ. “I have come to set the earth on fire.”

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17 October 2021

You cannot be a god w/o God

29th Sunday OT

Fr. Philip Neri Powell OP


The Sons of Thunder – James and John – want to be Big Shots in the Kingdom. Sitting one to the left and one to the right of the throne, they want to be seen and heard and thought to be glorious by the lesser souls of our Father's family – that's you and me. And we shouldn't be surprised by their ambition. As Jesus notes, lording power and authority over the unwashed masses was just one of the perks of being in charge. The “great ones” among the Gentiles relished nothing more than a chance to show the peasants who their Betters were. Jesus, knowing the nature of his Father's kingdom, quickly and easily kills the brothers' dream of power and prestige. He asks, “Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” Jesus is asking if they are prepared to sacrifice everything to be part of the Kingdom, including their lives. Out of pride or ignorance or both, the brothers answer, “We can.” Nonetheless, Jesus says, it's not for him to choose who will be near the throne. That's the Father's job. In His kingdom “whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.” Not what a couple of ecclesial ladder-climbers want to hear.

The ambition of the Sons of Thunder is an instance of the deadliest sin: Pride. Aquinas tells us that pride is the beginning of all sin. So, it is to our good that we think through what Pride is. In the Garden, the serpent tempted Eve with being other than she was made to be: “You can be god without God,” he whispered. Why is the chance to be a god w/o God a temptation for Adam and Eve? God creates us to return to Him in a perfect union. We are made to dwell with God for eternity as perfectly human. To achieve this perfect union, we live lives of holiness in obedience to the Father's will. In doing so, we are free to be who He made us to be. The serpent offers Adam and Eve a shortcut, a less wearying way to become gods: disobey God and come to know all that He knows; you don't need Him to become Him. Thus is the sin of Pride born: “I can become a god on my own; I don't need God's help.” At the beginning of every sin – big and small – is the serpent whispering, “Disobey and you will be free. Disobey and you will know all that you need to know. Disobey and become a god. You can will to be whatever you want to be.”

If it's not obvious why this temptation is so dangerous, I'll unpack it for you. As creatures – created beings – we are all finite, limited. We have bodies that hold us in space and time. We are always somewhere at sometime. We are never eternal, outside space and time. Our ability to reason is impressive but still limited by our language's ability to express reason. Our faith can be weak or strong but even a strong faith is received by and used by a limited human person. What we know or think we know is necessarily restricted by our creaturely properties: our limited abilities to perceive reality; reason with what we perceive; and make prudent use of what we discover or invent. All this means that when the serpent tempts us to godhood w/o the help of God, he's tempting woefully limited creatures to turn themselves into gods. How does a non-god transform itself into a god? The desire for godhood is legit. God Himself created us with the desire to be in union with Him. His plan of salvation makes it possible for us to “share in His divine life,” to be partakers of the divine nature. But what is lesser-than cannot become greater-than w/o the help of what is always, already Greatest. To think that you can become more than a creature w/o the Creator's help is called the sin of Pride.

Now, I doubt many of you are sitting at home willing yourselves to become gods w/o God. It seems a rather exotic hobby! But, I'll ask you this: are you trying to save yourself? I mean, are you working hard to make sure that you are doing all the right things to make God love you? Are you trying to make yourself lovable so that God will accept you? Oddly, this is Pride at work. You cannot make yourself lovable. Neither can I. Fortunately, we are made lovable by Love Himself. And He loves us in virtue of His nature, which is Love. We don't have to do or be anything other than who and what we are to be loved by Love. Know this truth and living it destroys Pride. Once Pride is gone, we must replace it with Humility. Humility redirects our prideful efforts away from the question – what can I do to make God love me? – to a question only you can answer for yourself: do I love God? If the answer is Yes, then who and what you are changes. You are no longer a creature in darkness, a slave to sin and death but free to be who and what God made you to be: a friend in His divine nature, a son/daughter in His Kingdom.     

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03 October 2021

What God has created. . .

27th Sunday OT

Fr. Philip Neri Powell OP


Last Sunday, we heard Jesus expound on the reality of sin and cringed a little at his solution for sinners: self-amputation and drowning. This Sunday, Jesus tackles another difficult topic: marriage and divorce. What Jesus has to say on marriage and divorce directly contradicts and is offensive to current secular orthodoxies on the subject. But this is nothing new. The Gospel is fundamentally opposed to the world. Pushing against the Zeitgeist – the Spirit of the Age – is just part and parcel of the Church's mission in saving souls. So, we could ask: how does what Jesus have to say about marriage and divorce push against the Spirit of the Age? At its sacramental core, marriage is about an indissoluble, life-long commitment between one man and one woman; the having and raising of children; and Christ's love for his bride, the Church. The Zeitgeist prefers temporary and utilitarian relationships; short-sighted and selfish sterility; and that the Church come to believe that she has been abandoned by the Bridegroom. Jesus says of the married couple: “[they] are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, no [man] must separate.”

Two elements of what Jesus teaches here need highlighting: the connection btw marriage and Creation and man's hardheartedness that made divorce necessary. God created the human person in two sexes: male and female. We have male humans and female humans. Being male, being female is fundamental to what it is to being a human. Hair color, weight, height, skin color, etc. are all accidental to being human. So, dying your hair, losing or gaining weight, even radical surgery do not and cannot make you any less human. Or any less male or female. The Zeitgeist demands that our sex be a matter of personal choice. Your creation has nothing to do with whether you “identify” as male or female. Your DNA, your anatomy, your appearance – none have anything to do with your sex. All that matters is your will. Your will is supreme. What do you choose to be? Chose and that is what you are! Why would the Zeitgeist push such an obvious lie? The lie causes cultural confusion, social anxiety, legal chaos, and defies the Creator. All of these combine to grant the Zeitgeist more power. And power is all the Zeitgeist is interested in. Power to confuse, control, and eventually dominate. . .all done in the name of human liberation.

The second element of Jesus' teaching hits closer to home for most of us. Hardheartedness. Moses allowed that a man could rid himself of an indecent wife by simply handing her a bill of divorce. It comes as no surprise, that the wife was not afforded the same privilege. Why did Moses allow divorce? Because he knew that men (in this case, males) weren't always capable of compassion, joy, or love. The Law was given b/c humans need clear limits, well-defined rules for growing in holiness. Moses' Law made this one exception – divorce – as a concession to the weaknesses of men. Jesus ends this exception for us b/c in him we are always capable of compassion and joy and love! The Zeitgeist has succeeded in making divorce a universal, no-fault concession in this age. Why? Not out of any sort of mercy to our weakness as Moses did, but because divorce tends to reinforce man's unwillingness to be compassionate, joyful, and loving. Divorce is man's futile attempt to undo what God has done. And the Zeitgeist is always ready, willing, and able to cheer on the destruction of the Father's Creation. Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, says, No.

Why is marriage the focus of the Zeitgeist's persistent attacks? Simply put: sacramental marriage is the public sign of Christ's love for his Bride, the Church. Every sacramental marriage signifies to the world that Christ loves his Church. Does this mean that every marriage is a happy bond? Hardly! Does this mean that marriages should never have problems? No. Does this mean that every marriage is guaranteed children? No. What sacramental marriage guarantees is that Christ will be in the middle of the bond, strengthening what grows weak and providing all the gifts necessary to keep the bond strong. The bond of sacramental marriage is indissoluble b/c Christ cannot stop loving his Bride, the Church. What the Zeitgeist loathes more than anything else is the idea, the reality that there are some things not subject to the whims of the will alone. There are some things that cannot be changed simply b/c we want to change them. One of these is the truth that Christ gives us everything we need to endure, to thrive; and to achieve the holiness he died to make possible. “If we love one another, God remains in us and his love is brought to perfection in us.”

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26 September 2021

It's Gruesome Consequences of Sin Sunday!

26th Sunday OT

Fr. Philip Neri Powell OP


We have Divine Mercy Sunday and Good Shepherd Sunday. Maybe we should call today Gruesome Consequences for Sin Sunday! We have weeping, wailing, impending miseries, rot, corrosion, flesh-devouring fire, fattened hearts, a day of slaughter, millstone necklaces, amputated limbs, plucked out eyes, immortal worms, and unquenchable flames. God's not playing around! Sin is serious business. It's a deadly business. And Jesus is here to tell us the truth. Not the comfortable, middle-class American story about “being true to yourself” and “following your heart.” Nor the one about “just be kind” and “everyone goes to heaven.” Nor that old heresy about “a loving God would never create something like Hell.” Jesus reveals the really real. And he does so in a way intended to make us squirm. He reminds us that both sin and obedience have consequences. That both God's grace and our refusal to receive that grace have consequences. It is better that we go to heaven limbless and blind than find ourselves in the unquenchable fires of Gehenna. Is Jesus being a bit dramatic here? Perhaps. But I'd rather not spend eternity finding out.

I'm told by some of the ancient friars with whom I've lived that once upon a time, not so long ago, the Church spent a great deal of time and energy preaching against sin. So much time and energy, in fact, that when the winds shifted after VC2, the subject was dropped almost entirely. We were told that no one should be brought to Christ out of fear. That preaching on sin and hell was really just about institutional control and abuse of power. That a truly loving God would never allow anyone to go to Hell! So, there's not much point in preaching on the reality of sin or its consequences. And so it came about – over time – that sin, hell, punishment, and the immortal worms disappeared almost entirely from our pulpits. We replaced virtues with “values.” We were taught that conscience does not discover the truth but rather invents the truth. We were assured that simply believing in a lie sincerely was sufficient to make that lie “my truth.” That feelings matter more than facts, and personal experience trumps reason and revelation every time. If sin no longer matters, then neither does grace. And if grace no long matters, then what are we doing here?

By accepting these falsehoods, we've lost our freedom, our freedom to choose to be Sons of the Father, heirs to His Kingdom. Jesus could not be clearer on the subject: “Whoever causes one of these little ones to sin...if your hand causes you to sin...if your foot causes you to sin...if your eye causes you to sin...” Millstone around the neck and a trip to the bottom of the sea. Two amputations. And gouging out an eye. Tell me Jesus isn't serious about the reality and consequences of sin! Whether he's being literal here or not about the amputations isn't the issue. The issue is that disobedience-in-freedom brings about real-world, even eternal, effects. And we choose these effects. They don't disappear b/c we play word games. They don't simply not show up b/c we sincerely believe that this sin isn't really a sin. Our freedom in Christ is supernaturally ordered in such a way that we are freest when we consistently chose virtue and avoid sin. If we believe that our freedom allows us invent our own realities as we go. . .well, we will inevitably create for ourselves hell on earth. The Real – both the natural and the supernatural – is a stubborn fellow-traveler. It doesn't bend to will, reason, or emotion. And do ourselves no spiritual favors by pretending otherwise.

All this sounds rather old-fashioned. Maybe even a bit grim. But how do we read the Gospel and believe otherwise? Hell exists b/c we are free. We are free to reject God's love. He will honor our choice and allow us to live apart from Him for eternity. By denying the reality of sin, of hell, and teaching that conscience creates the Real, we deny ourselves the freedom necessary to choose Heaven. The Good News in all of this is that we do not have to sin. We do not have to be disobedient. We do have to think or feel or act in ways that take us away from Christ. And there's more Good News! Christ freely gives us everything we need to stay with him. That's right. We do not have to rely on our own power to walk along his Way. We receive all that he gives. We surrender. Give thanks and praise. And then we follow him. Step-by-step. Word-by-word. Thought-by-thought, we follow him. Freely, eagerly, gratefully, humbly walk along with him, praying, “Your word, O Lord, is truth; consecrate us in the truth.” 

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19 September 2021

Ask AND receive

25th Sunday OT

Fr. Philip Neri Powell OP


A couple of years ago – after the McCarrick scandal broke – the formators at NDS spent a good deal of time talking to our seminarians about clericalism. We covered both species of clericalism – the pre-VC2 kind (the one where the priest is Lord God King of his parish and never to be questioned) and the post-VC2 kind (where the priest is still Lord God King but tries to pretend that he's just one of the guys). These clericalisms manifest in similar ways: abuse of authority in messing with the liturgy; overemphasizing either the priest's role or the laity's role; trying to clericalize the laity or laicize the clergy; and using the pulpit to push personal agendas. We also covered keeping secrets; the threat of blackmail; careerism, cronyism; the failure to fraternally correct miscreant priests; and the temptations of being put on a pedestal. What do all these sins against priestly life and service have in common? Jesus asks the disciples: What were y'all arguing about?” But they remained silent. “They had been discussing among themselves on the way who was the greatest.” Along the Way of Christ there is no time for wondering who's the greatest among us.

NB. The disciples remain silent when Jesus asks them what they were arguing about. They know their discussion is wrong. They know that Jesus is going to rebuke their careerist ambitions. To their credit, they are at least embarrassed and refuse to answer. Unfortunately, silence is part of the problem in both kinds of clericalism. The fear of being cast out for tattling is real. Whistle-blowers become the targets of scorn; they become subjects of questions and rumors. And their brother-priests grow to distrust them. Oftentimes, they end up ministering to the nursing home at St. Bubba's Parish in Alligator Neck, LA. Or they find themselves in a residential treatment facility getting poked and prodded by shrinks and therapists, looking for a diagnosis. So, too often silence wins and the Church suffers. Jesus tells us that ambition, especially ecclesial ambition – which infects the laity as well! – is best countered with child-like wonder and trust, receiving the Father's gifts with open hands, open hearts, and open minds, always willing and able to take in whatever the Lord sends our way. How do we fail at this child-like disposition? James tells us: You ask but do not receive. . .” We ask for His gifts, but we do not receive them.

Why? Why do we ask for graces but fail to receive them? Part of the problem here is that God gives us gifts we didn't ask for. I asked for a promotion and God gave me more responsibility. I asked for an “A” on an exam and God gave me more time to study. I asked God for a more loving spouse and He gave me lots of chances to be loving. Another problem is that we sometimes don't recognize His graces when they come to us. That rare moment of quiet given to us to recollect ourselves. That gesture of goodwill from a quarrelsome co-worker. That chance to practice patience during the afternoon rush hour. Both of these problems – getting what we didn't ask for and failing to recognize a gift when it comes – both of these derive from the same source: ambition in prayer; that is, wanting, needing, desiring out of a sense of entitlement rooted in narcissism. The disciples have ambitions for power in Christ's Kingdom. Priests have ambitions for positions and influence in the Church. Laity have ambitions for recognition and reward in the world. All this ambition clashes with the child-like wonder and trust Jesus tells us is essential to flourishing along the Way: “. . .whoever receives me, receives not me but the One who sent me.”

So, how do we receive in a way that propels us along the Way? First, we must let go of any notion of what God's grace will look like. Any person or event could be a moment of grace. Since God can bring good from evil, even ostensibly “evil” people and events can be instruments of grace. Second, we must learn to ask for what we truly need not merely what we want. We ask not b/c our Father is ignorant of our needs but b/c in asking we receive. We acknowledge our dependence on His providence and cultivate the good habit of gratitude. Third, we must accept and live-out the truth that we ourselves can be instruments of God's grace to others – if we choose to be. Do I act, speak, think, feel in a way that signals to others that God uses me as a vehicle for his providence? Clericalist priests and clericalized laity signal entitlement and narcissism not the presence of divine gift. Lastly, how do I pray? Do I rattle off a litany of wants? Do I pester God with pet peeves and petty desires? Or do I ask Him to open me up and help me to receive all He has to give me? Am I willing to sincerely pray: “Father, help me to be the least so that I may do your great work in the world”?  

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12 September 2021

Are you Satan?

24th Sunday OT

Fr. Philip Neri Powell OP


Peter – the Rock upon whom the Church stands – receives a stinging rebuke from the Lord! Jesus calls him Satan. What did poor Peter do to deserve such dishonorable treatment from his beloved teacher? First, like many students, he fails to listen to his teacher. Second, when he does pay attention, he fails to understand what he hears. And third, his misunderstanding leads him to a selfish outburst and a rebuke. Not two seconds before Peter's outburst, Jesus lays out what must happen to him (Jesus) in Jerusalem. He's to be rejected, killed, and raised from the dead on the third day. Apparently, Peter only pays attention to the rejected and killed part of this revelation. Still thinking as men do and not as God does, Peter rebukes the Lord. This is when Jesus says to him, “Get behind me, Satan!” Peter must've been crushed. The other disciples must've been shocked. Had they understood the necessity of Christ's suffering and death, they might've rejoiced at the coming of their salvation. Instead, they mourn and miss the truth entirely. So, Jesus explains: Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” Now, they have something to mourn. Now, they have something to fear.

What is it to “deny myself”? Am I being asked to deny that I exist? That would be a contradiction, so, no. Am I being asking to occasionally deny myself some good thing like a snack or a nap? No, that seems petty in context. Christ is telling us that we must be like him. So, how does he deny himself? He denies himself by placing his human needs aside and taking on our sin. He denies himself by making of himself a sacrificial offering on the cross. He denies himself by setting aside his own will and doing the will of his Father. He does none of these things for his own good; none of these for his own pleasure or purpose; none of these so that he might be praised or applauded. He does them precisely because they all flow from setting himself outside himself as a victim for the cross. I deny myself when I renounce my need to be the center of my world. When I surrender my will to the Father. When I sacrifice all I have and everything I am to do what Christ has done – die for another. If I will to be Christ in the world, then I must strive for perfect holiness through surrender and sacrifice. I can do neither so long as I remain me, me needing, wanting, sinning, failing to love.

What is it “to take up my cross”? We must avoid thinking of the cross as an inconvenience or an annoyance. Oh, poor woman, those children must be a cross for her! My supervisor is my cross! This traffic on I-10 is our cross to bear! No. Jesus is not asking us to take up the petty, mundane irritations of living in this world. He's asking us to find the instrument of our sacrifice, the tool with which we will die for another. Think of the men and women who ran into the Twin Towers 20yrs ago to bring others out. Think of the military personnel in Kabul who grabbed civilians and tossed them on planes as the Taliban approached. Think of our own here in NOLA who help rescue those stranded by the hurricane. Your cross is the way you choose to offer yourself in sacrifice for another. That cross might be motherhood-fatherhood; it might be priesthood-religious life; it might be teaching, doctoring, lawyering – the question is: do you do what you do for the greater glory of God, in His name, in sacrifice for another? Are you willing to die doing it – for another. Not for your glory. Not for applause. Not for a headline in the Advocate. Deny yourself. Take up your cross.

What is it to “follow Christ”? As we continue to watch our world swirl into chaos, following Christ will become the true test of faith. Our Comfy Christ is dead. Cultural Catholicism is dead. Thanks be to God. As the public cost of Christian discipleship increases, we'll see many drop away. Some quietly, some grandly. Those who never denied themselves or took up their cross will count the costs of following Christ to his end and decide that the price is too high. It happened during the Roman persecutions, the Crusades, the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution. Millions have drifted off since the beginning of the Sexual Revolution. Following Christ means following after Christ. Step in his steps. Speak with his voice. Think with his mind. Question and answer with his words. It means being his Way, his Truth, and his Life in the world. Does this all sound impossible? Good! Because it is. . .w/o his grace. With his grace, it is more than possible; it is done. Christ is with us always. All we have to do is stay with him in his Church. He will never abandon us. The question, as always, is: will you abandon him? Or will you deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow him?


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05 September 2021

Will you remain deaf and mute???

23rd Sunday OT

Fr. Philip Neri Powell OP

St. Bubba, Byhalia, MS

When all this COVID mess started I told the seminarians that we would probably be OK if didn't go around licking doorknobs. And here we are this morning witnessing Jesus spitting on some poor soul and touching his tongue! No mask, no gloves, no alcohol wipes. Just spit and touch. Oh, and he commands the man's ears and tongue, “Be opened!” We have here all of the elements of a sacrament: a minister, a sinner, gestures, a physical sign (spit), and a prayer. Through this combination of elements, the man is healed. He hears and speaks. The first thing he hears is Jesus ordering him to keep quiet about the healing. The first words he speaks are words of praise and thanksgiving, spreading his Good News across the district. So much for Jesus' orders! This man's healing is a physical miracle. Mark tells us about it to lend authority to the Lord's overall mission – he really is who he says he is. But what does this healing story tell us about us as followers of Christ? Ask yourself: when am I deaf to the Word of God, to His will for me? When is my witness to Christ impeded by my unwillingness to speak? Christ has healed us of these spiritual aliments. What's stopping you from following in the healed man's footsteps and spreading your Good News wherever you go?

Taking these ailments one at a time. Deafness to the Word of God and His will. We all have a lot vying for our limited attention. Besides the voices of family, friends, and jobs, we have breadth and depth of the internet – news, entertainment, games. We have politicians, actors, singers, sports figures. We are deafened by the sheer volume of digital racket pouring toward us. Sometimes this racket is shoved onto us. And at other times we invite it in. We cultivate it. We entertain it. Why? Escape from boredom. Escape from reality, responsibility, reason. The thrill, the excitement, the rush. Maybe your digital life is more interesting than your real life. Maybe your digital community is more accepting, more loving. Or it appears to be. Maybe you have control among the bytes and digits and very little among flesh and blood. Whatever the reason, this cyber-racket is deafening us to the Word of God spoken through His witnesses. It turns us inward and supplies the stuff of our lives. Illusion, fantasy, simulation, and emptiness. God speaks softly so that we will be attentive. And Christ has healed us so that we might hear.

What about our speech impediments? The man Jesus heals had an impediment b/c he'd never heard his mother tongue spoken. Can we say the same? Do we not know how to bear witness b/c we've never heard a witness to Christ? Do you know the vocabulary and grammar of giving testimony to Christ's mercy in your life? If you know what to say, do you hesitant to speak? Why? Fear of embarrassment? Ridicule? Retaliation? Maybe you don't think you are smart enough or educated enough in theology. Who said anything about theology? You're charged with bearing witness to Christ's mercy in your life. You have a PhD in the field of how the Spirit has led you to Divine Love. Tell that story. Talk openly and honestly about how God moves in your life. Talk about the times you've been moved to sacrificial love, sacrificial forgiveness. Talk about how your prayer life keeps you grounded in Christ. Talk about how your sacramental life keeps the windows and doors of grace wide open. Talk about how your good works manifest God's glory in this hateful, angry, and divided world. Christ has healed your tongue. Speak his truth and let everyone know that he is the Way and the Life.

I know you can feel it too. The world pressing in. It's subtle. It's soft, even gentle at times. But it's there. The times and places and occasions when we are “allowed” to be who and what we are in Christ. Regulations and policies and restrictions pile up over time and hem us in. Ultimately, the idea is to deafen us and silence us. Leave us with nothing to listen to and no one to speak to. This is the Devil's work. What he doesn't understand is that he's doing us a HUGE favor! By pressing, by pushing and shoving, he's forcing us to make a choice, leaving us little to no option but to either speak up or stay quiet. Most will willingly go deaf and mute. Some with resist for a while. And a very few will defy him and listen and speak despite his best efforts. Christ has freed your ears and your tongues. To all of us, God says, “Say to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong, fear not! Here is your God, he comes with vindication.” No promises of a quick and easy rescue. No promises of revenge or retribution. Just a simple, straightforward promise that we will be vindicated. We have already been vindicated. In Christ, we are healed. In Christ, we are freed. Live that freedom!     

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28 August 2021

Not processes or procedures. . .Sacrifice!

22nd Sunday OT

Fr. Philip Neri Powell OP


I grew up as a Baptist hearing about the idol-worshiping Cat-licks and how they didn't really know Jesus because salvation for them was just about lighting candles and rattling rosary beads. Cat-licks put their faith in vain rituals and not eating meat on Fridays and whispering their sins to some guy in box. They think the Pope is God, and they aren't allowed to read the Bible! Of course, we all know this is nonsense. But it would be easy for someone who isn't Catholic to get confused. Watching us (as a stranger) must be a surreal experience. We do have statues, candles, rituals, rosaries, and. . .some guy in a box. If your faith is purely intellectual – that is, not incarnated in world – then all of our sacramental prayer and use of the things of the world in worship must look terribly pagan. Unfortunately, it's not uncommon to run into Catholics who do themselves and the Church no favors by living up to the stereotypes our Baptist brothers and sisters hold. So, Jesus reminds us that it is not religious procedures or processes that save us. It's a humble and contrite heart sacrificed to God that gets us into heaven.

I've run into Catholics who insist that This or That prayer guarantees the user the exact results prayed for whether God wills it or not. As if God is somehow forced to grant us a wish b/c the ritual was performed correctly. That's witchcraft not Catholicism. God is not a genie bound to our will by incantations. The Pharisees, attempting to observe God's law carefully as Moses said, built up over time an elaborate ritualistic code that purported to insure the believer he or she was always in compliance with the Law. As these thing do, the code inevitable became the Law and merely following the code was sufficient in fulfilling the Law. Procedures, processes, vain rituals substituted for the sacrifice of a humble and contrite heart. So Jesus accuses the Pharisees: You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.” The Pharisees had kept the script but lost the plot. Jesus wants us to remember the plot and live it. Reciting our lines and acting the part isn't enough. Showing up for Mass, saying your lines, paying your dues, and not eating meat on Friday doesn't cut it. We've not been hired to play the role of Catholics on a cosmic stage. We've been saved to live our lives in the world as men and women being perfected into Christs.

We like our rules, we Catholics. We like our bright lines and hard sayings. We even yearn for the occasional tough talk from Father or Bishop. But we also enjoy the idea that living out our faith is mostly about coloring within the wide lines of procedure. Staying just close enough to the world that we aren't too terribly inconvenienced by the rules but far enough away that the stench of hell can't overpower the bayou. We can live our whole lives walking that edge and never once think that what we've signed onto is about sacrifice and surrender, praise and thanksgiving. So, allow me to say this plainly: if you think being a good Catholic is about doing the absolute bare minimum required by Church law, then you might be a baptized Pharisee! The bare minimum is there as the final net before you experience the stench of hell up close and personal. It's meant as a final warning, a last call, and does little more than prevent you from going Full Pagan. You're here this afternoon and that's great. There's a hurricane on the way. But you're here. Now, have you sacrificed your heart – humble and contrite – to the Father? Have you given everything you have and are to Him for Him to shape you into another Christ for the salvation of the world? Celebrating Mass is an excellent step in the right direction.

Jesus teaches us that the traditions of man won't save us. The rules of religious etiquette won't save us. Saying 10,000 rapid-fire rosaries won't save us. Neither will donating a wad of cash to the parish or taking Father to the Saints game. What will save us, what has saved us is Christ's sacrifice on the Cross. The Son became Man so that Man might become the Son. That's our job as followers of Christ – to become Christ in this world for this world. To do that we have to do more than live as baptized Pharisees. Jesus says that it's what's in the heart of a person that defiles. He lists off several common sins – adultery, theft, murder, deceit. What all of these sins have in common is the failure to love as Christ loves us. IOW, a failure to be Christ when that is exactly what we've all agreed to be. No doubt our resolve to become Christs will be tested as we ride out another hurricane. This isn't the first or the last time we'll be tested. To pass the test we look to Christ. And we do what he did: we sacrifice for the love he showed us on the Cross. We become everything he died to make possible for us to become.  

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22 August 2021

Will you also leave?

21st Sunday OT

Fr. Philip Neri Powell OP


In a moment of high drama, Joshua confronts the tribes of Israel and demands that they make a fundamental choice: will you serve the Lord God; the gods of your fathers; or the gods of the land we now occupy? To help them make this choice, Joshua recites the salvation history of Israel, from Abraham and Nahor to Isaac and Jacob; from Moses and Aaron in Egypt to the crossing of the Jordan and the tribes' arrival in Jericho. Each step of the way, along centuries of conflict and victory, the Lord remains faithful to Israel while Israel backslides again and again into adultery with foreign gods. Now, Joshua, the Lord's prophet, demands that a choice must be made: whom do you serve? Joshua asked this question some 2,600 years ago. But it is as fresh now as it was when it left his lips. Do we return the Lord's faithfulness with a faithfulness of our own, or do we wallow in idolatrous adultery with foreign gods? Jesus, seeing some of his disciples slink away in response to his difficult teaching, asks the question this way: Do you also want to leave?” The decision to serve the Lord, the choice to remain faithful is a minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour choice. Do I stay, or do I go?

Many of the disciples listening to Jesus teach at Capernaum are stunned by what they are hearing! Did he just say that we must eat his flesh and drink his blood to achieve eternal life?! He did. Jesus asks, “Does this teaching shock you?” It does. He assures them that his words are “Spirit and life.” Regardless, some of his disciples did not believe and left him to return to their former way of life. Many are invited; few are chosen. And even fewer choose to be chosen. But the choice must be made. Whom do you serve? Jesus turns to the Twelve and to us and asks, “Do you also want to leave?” Eating his flesh and drinking his blood for eternal life is not the shock now that it was then. We are more likely put off by a different set of teachings. So accustomed are we to living in the world that we have – to some degree – become part of the world. Even if Christ remains at or near the top of our pantheon, we are tempted to bow to other gods. To set aside bothersome teachings, seemingly minor virtues, and allow the spirit of this world to sneak in and goad us into adultery. Social and economic pressure. Legal and political coercion. Cultural arm-twisting and familial force. It all adds up to the same thing: we wander away from Christ, hoping to just comfortably get along.

Unfortunately, like Christ himself, the Spirit of this world is jealous; that is, like Christ, the Zeitgeist tolerates no competition. Jesus says to the disciples, “. . .no one can come to me unless it is granted him by my Father.” The Zeitgeist replies, “And anyone who goes to the Christ cannot live comfortably in my world.” To follow Christ means setting aside unrighteous anger and the need for revenge; surrendering control and anxiety; being perpetually grateful in praise; loving, forgiving, and hoping in ridiculously extravagant ways. It means living according the revealed Truth of scripture: the Father created man, male and female. He created them for marriage and procreation. He created them with an end to be fulfilled in time and at the end of time. That all human life is sacred from conception to natural death. That pain – physical and emotional – is to be suffered well, suffered redemptively in light of Christ's sacrifice on the Cross. That there exists moral absolutes that do not bend “with the times” nor do they bow to the demands of “social justice” and political expediency. That Christ established a holy Church founded on the rock of Peter to be his sacrament of love in the world. That through Christ alone does anyone achieve eternal life.

These teachings are difficult. Who can accept them? Do they shock you? Do you also want to leave? Many have. More will. But regardless of how many walk away, the Truth does not and cannot change. Our Lord is eternally faithful. So, the question returns to us: whom do you serve: Christ Jesus or the gods of this world? It should be clear to anyone paying even the slightest bit of attention that it is becoming increasingly difficult for a faithful follower of Christ to live comfortably in this world. Good! We weren't made for this world. We were made for eternal life. The choices we make here and now echo into the hereafter and shape our lives in eternity. That's the reason for the crucifixion, the resurrection, and the ascension. Christ did not suffer and die willingly on the Cross so that we might go-along-to-get-along with the gods of this world. He died and rose again so that we might bear witness to him as the Way, the Truth, and the Life – the exclusive means of achieving salvation through radical, sacrificial love. Whom do you serve? Choose now. Choose every single time you are tempted to give way and bow to the Lie. Choose a life in Christ. Choose eternal life. 

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15 August 2021

Getting there before you get there

Assumption of the BVM

Fr. Philip Neri Powell OP


Imagine your boss has asked you to go to Starlight, PA from NOLA. It's a business trip. You decide to drive. That's a 20hr trip. Now imagine that you've accepted this assignment and made the decision to drive w/o being absolutely sure that Starlight, PA even exists. Your boss shows you postcards from Starlight; a Map Quest plan for the quickest route; and even some satellite imagery of the town from Google. All good evidence that Starlight is a real town, but you're still skeptical. Your boss bears witness to visiting the town 30yrs ago. Farming community. Friendly people. Beautiful scenery. But that was three decades ago, you say! Finally, fed up with your skepticism, your boss yells, “Go or don't go! What more proof do you need that Starlight is real?!” You ponder this question for a moment and respond, “It would nice if I could go there before I go there. . .just to be sure.” Your boss turns purple with rage; and you start packing for the trip, taking it on faith that Starlight awaits you at the end of your 20hr drive. The Assumption of the BVM is God's way of taking us to our final destination before we arrive at our final destination.

How much easier would your Christian life be if you knew that the resurrection of the body were real? I mean, how much easier would it be to suffer well; to pray and sacrifice; to do good works and bear witness; to follow the Commandments and grow in holiness if you knew that God's promise of resurrection had already been fulfilled? AND that we know that another human person has been assumed into heaven? It's not just a theory. It's a reality. The BVM was taken up – body and soul – into heaven. Her assumption is our sign that the Christian lives we lead take us to our promised end. Paul lays it out for the Corinthians: “For just as in Adam all die, so too in Christ shall all be brought to life, but each one in proper order: Christ the firstfruits; then, at his coming, those who belong to Christ.” Christ was the first to be resurrected. His resurrection couldn't be the reassuring sign we need b/c he was a divine person – fully human, fully divine. We need to know that a human person can and will be taken up, body and soul. A human person who belonged to Christ, one who did not share in Adam's sin but died as we all do. That human person was the BVM.

How does knowing the BVM was assumed into heaven make our Christian lives easier? Well, maybe “easier” is the right word. Maybe “hopeful” is better. How does knowing the BVM was assumed into heaven make our Christian lives hopeful? Christian hope isn't about luck or chance, crossing our fingers and wishing on a star. Christian hope is about knowing and trusting in God's promises. Hope sustains. Hope strengthens. Hope tempers. And, as BXVI, teaches us, Spe salvi. Hope saves. Abiding in hope, we confidently move through every second, minute, hour, and day, day-by-day, week-by-week, year-by-year, we move toward our supernatural end, our promised conclusion. Without the Assumption of the BVM, we would take God's promises on faith, trusting Him that all we endure as Christians will bring us home. But with the Assumption of the BVM, we can add the reassuring knowledge of hope to our faith, reinforcing our trust with convinced expectation. There is no need for speculation about our end. It's not a matter for opinion or guesswork. It's a matter of abiding in Christ, living in hope. It's just a matter of time: “For just as in Adam all die, so too in Christ shall all be brought to life, but each one in proper order. . .”

Our challenge then is keep our hearts and minds sharply, intensely focused on our promised end, enduring whatever hardship comes our way; rejoicing when we gratefully receive a blessing; bearing witness to Christ's mercy; loving and forgiving as we are loved and forgiven; steeping ourselves in prayer and good works; and knowing – knowing – that our Blessed Mother stands before the throne of the Father interceding for us. This challenge – being fully, joyfully Christian in a hostile world – will one day end for you and for me. However, living in hope now, our life in Christ will never end.

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10 August 2021

We must die

St. Lawrence

Fr. Philip Neri Powell OP

St. Dominic Priory, NOLA

A grain of wheat must die to produce much fruit. I doubt Jesus means that we must die like Lawrence, roasting over a pit of burning coals. But he does mean that someone we are now must die so that everything we can be in Christ may live. The hard part of salvation for us is the choosing of it. And even then we're given everything we need to make the right choice. All that holds us back from holiness once the choice is made is leftover from who were were before we chose. This is the dying to self part. The hard part. Letting go of our imaginary needs; our luxurious wants – all of our inordinate passions and destructive memories. Failing here, we end up wearing the rotting corpse of the Old Man we once were while, lurching around like a religious zombie in a habit! Jesus says to be his servant we must follow him. Not just in spirit – like we might follow a football team or a mini-series – but walk in his footsteps wherever we find ourselves. He died sacrificially on a cross. We have to find our cross and die there as well. Again, not necessarily the same way Lawrence did, but to produce good fruit, we must die. 

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01 August 2021

What are you hungry for?

18th Sunday OT

Fr. Philip Neri Powell OP


The crowd following Jesus across the sea is hungry. Sure, he's just fed all 5,000 of them with a few fish and five barley loaves, but they want more. Not more fish and bread but more signs of his power. They want more proof that he's really who he says he is. When he tells me that they do the works of God by believing in the one God sent, they demand a sign, “What can you do?” It's like they're strolling around a county fair going from stage to stage asking the performers, “So, what's your act?” Instead of turning them all into possums, Jesus teaches them a saving truth, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.” Whether or not they understand this truth is debatable. But they do get the reference – Moses, manna in the desert, bread from heaven. So, while they are demanding a miraculous sign – like manna from heaven –, Jesus gives them a glimpse into their salvation – he is their manna. Do they see it? Are they listening? The more basic question is: what are they hungry for? Miracles or eternal life? Bread or the Bread of Life?

We can ask ourselves the same questions. What are we hungry for? There's natural hunger and supernatural hunger. We shouldn't confuse the two, though we often do. Paul tells the Ephesians, “...you should put away the old self of your former way of life, corrupted through deceitful desires...” These deceitful desires have convinced many that fulfilling them will lead to happiness. A new car. A bigger house. A prettier wife. A better-looking husband. A promotion. Getting into the right college. All of these are desires. And all of them are deceitful if we believe that fulfilling them will make us happy. The crowd pestering Jesus with questions believe they will be satisfied with a few signs of Jesus' power. They weren't satisfied with the miracle of the fishes and loaves. Why would they be satisfied with another miracle? They won't be. And that's Jesus' point. What we can eat and drink here and now is always temporary, always fleeting. That crawfish boil we devoured yesterday is gone. That nice bottle of wine we drank Friday night is gone. We're hungry and thirsty again. Nothing created, nothing temporary can permanently satisfy. Only the Bread of Life can give us eternal life. The only manna from heaven we need is Christ.

So, what do you hunger for? I'm not asking for our dinner order. I'm asking: what is it that you need to be most deeply satisfied with your life? Family? Friends? Productive work? Good health? Family and friends die. Jobs end. People get sick. All temporary. Maybe a fulfilling hobby? A fashionable wardrobe? Your guy or gal in the White House? Hobbies come and go. Fashions change. Elections have consequences. All temporary. All perfectly fine in themselves but all temporary. What we hunger for most is union with God. We were created by God and re-created in Christ to be guests at the eternal wedding feast. We were created by God and re-created in Christ to be heirs to the Kingdom. We were created by God and re-created in Christ to become Christs for the world. To achieve these ends, becoming Christs and enjoying the feast as heirs, we need food and drink now that will never pass away. We need our hungers and our thirsts properly satisfied by the Body and Blood of Christ. Not magic-tricks, or signs and wonders, or conspiracy theories, or Utopian philosophies. We need Christ. His Body and Blood in the Eucharist. Received while properly disposed. And duly grateful. He promises: “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.”

Our challenge, as bodies and souls living in the world, is to keep our hungers and thirsts focused on the eternal. This doesn't mean that we don't eat or drink when we need to. It means that we never confuse our natural hungers with our supernatural hunger. We never allow those deceitful desires to convince us that possessing This and That will make us happy. We never allows ourselves to be deceived into believing that sin is not sin, or that the revealed Truth is just an opinion, or that we are less than creatures created in the image and likeness of God. We are temporary residents, merely pilgrims on the way through this world. Our true home is in heaven. But while we are in the world, it's our duty to be as much like Christ as we can be. We can't replace him or his work. But we can do a pretty good job of imitation. That's why we are here this evening. To make of ourselves an oblation, an offering, to God the Father. To eat and drink the Body and Blood of Christ, and to become him whom we consume. And we do all this to satisfy our deepest longing – union with God for the salvation of the world.

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25 July 2021

It ALL belongs to God

17th Sunday OT

Fr. Philip Neri Powell OP


Audio File

We start this morning/evening with generosity. What Aquinas calls liberality. This is the virtue of freely giving what you have to those who do not have for their good use. St. Thomas teaches: “when a man quits hold of a thing he frees it...from his keeping and ownership, and shows his mind to be free of attachment...”(ST II-II.117.2). So, to be generous is to be open-handed with what you have, unattached to the things you own. The virtue behind generosity is charity, love. And the excellence of both generosity and charity is, of course, God, who is Generosity and Charity Himself. We see this clearly when Christ takes a meager offering of five loaves and two fish and feeds 5,000. . .with leftovers! No, this is not the miracle of otherwise stingy people being inspired to share the food they had hidden away. This is the prefigurement of the Eucharist – where the small offerings of bread and wine are given to the priest and transubstantiated into the Body and Blood of Christ and then distributed to the people of God to strengthen them – body and soul – in a unity of faith and purpose. At root, we learn that nothing we have and nothing we are is truly, finally ours. It all belongs to God first and always.

In the celebration of the Mass, we remember the feeding of the 5,000 during the Offertory. The gifts of bread and wine are brought forward; given to the priest, who then prays, “Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness we have received the bread/the wine we offer you...” We receive from God through His goodness that which we in turn give back to Him as an offering. And not only do we offer bread and wine, the priest offers us all as sacrifice when he quietly prays: With humble spirit and contrite heart may WE be accepted by you, O Lord, and may OUR sacrifice in your sight this day be pleasing to you, Lord God.” Then he asks the congregation to pray: “Pray, brothers and sisters, that MY sacrifice and YOURS may be acceptable to God...” You then respond as members of the royal priesthood: “May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands for the praise and glory of his name, for our good and the good of all his holy Church.” In this exchange of prayers and offerings we are all of us both the sacrificing priests and the sacrificial victims. In our generosity, we offer back to God what He has given us – bread, wine, and all of ourselves, everything we have and everything we are. Acceptable sacrifices for the praise and glory of His name.

Jesus took the offered loaves and fishes, blessed and multiplied them, and fed 5,000. He did this to bear witness to the power of the Father's generosity and to prepare us to become generous offerings ourselves. If, at the consecration, the offered bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ, then so do we. We offered ourselves. We prayed that we ourselves would be an acceptable sacrifice. And the priest prays again, “May he [Christ] make of US an eternal offering to YOU...” We give back to God all that we have received from God. The life of holiness, a life striving toward perfection, is a life of self-sacrifice, of generosity in the Father's charity. Christ himself is our exemplar. Being both fully human and fully divine, he willingly died on the Cross as a gift, freely given, so that we might be reconciled to the Father and become ourselves Christs in the world. This transformation cannot happen without our attentive cooperation. It won't happen to us. It must happen with us. Participating in the sacrifice of the Mass is one way we sign onto the adventure of becoming Christs for the world.

The other way we sign onto this adventure is how we live our daily lives. Generosity is a virtue; that is, it's a good habit – practiced day in and day out. Not just with family and friends. But with those who need what God has given you. Think of your time, your talents, and your treasures as gifts God has given you so that you can be generous with them. IOW, your gifts from God aren't rewards for good behavior – like a cookie for cleaning your room; nor are they blessings from heaven to show everyone else what good person you are. The gifts God gives you are held in your trust so that you may grow in holiness by being generous to others. The more gifts you have, the more opportunities you have to be generous, the more chances you have to grow in holiness. But to take advantage of those opportunities you have to practice the virtue of generosity. Everything you give away in love is a sign that you know and love the truth of who and what you are – a creature totally dependent on God for everything you have and everything you are. Nothing you own should ever own you. Nothing you are should ever be other than who God made you to be. It all belong to Him, first and always. Give it all back to Him and in the giving, grow to perfection. 

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21 July 2021

The Eucharist and Poetry

Eucharist & Poetry: dwelling in possibility

Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP, PhL, PhD

Notre Dame Seminary, NOLA

Do I need to define the term “eucharist” to a group of Catholics? We've all been there, to eucharist. We know the words, the gestures, the scents and sights, all the in's and out's. Whether we've been doing eucharist for 80 years or 8 months, we know all about gathering, singing, listening, responding, taking and eating and drinking, and then going out to do likewise in the world. We might even know some of the history of the eucharist, some of the theology and philosophy that gives it its shape and flavor. And we certainly know about the conflicts, the divisiveness, and the compromises we've endured around how the eucharist is useful, used, and changed over the past few decades. It would be easy for me to spend my time this evening reminding you what you probably already know about the eucharist, or reinforcing ancient teachings around our sacrificial meal, or even challenging some of your favorite pious beliefs. But none of that would involve poetry. And I'm charged with involving poetry. So, what can I do with the eucharist and one of humanity's oldest arts? Here's what I came up with: poetry grants us permission to speak about our experiences of the sublime, the ineffable (the unsayable), the beautiful in a way that no other art form can. It also lends us the tools, the energy, the purposeful resolve to think and write and speak about that which we might only rarely dare to approach.

Our Latin tradition of theology and philosophy – for all of its welcomed clarity and concision – sets aside – for now – questions about how we might craft our responses to that which we can never fully understand. Granted, we have abundant space in our tradition for asking questions and shrugging our shoulders at the mysterious answers. Aquinas himself shrugged at his mountains of intellectual work after just one sublime, personal revelation. After glimpsing the perfection he labored to reveal fully in his imperfect work, he needed a word, an image to convey his failure. He needed a metaphor: straw. And this one word fulfills the duty set for it. “Straw” tells us that his ST, his SCG, his philosophical works on truth, evil, the soul, all his biblical commentaries, his sermons, and hymns – all of it. . .fails to express the compressed Truth perfectly delivered in one fleeting vision. All that he has written is written. True, good, even beautiful! But it is not nor can it be perfect. What he left unsaid about the Trinity, about the Christ, the sacraments, the scriptures, about being, the virtues – what he left unsaid is where we can turn to the hesitant poking and prodding of poetry and attempt to find a slice more of perfection, just a jot and tittle more of what we need to grow in holiness.

Thinking about who in our western poetic tradition does an excellent job of pointing us toward the unsayable, the sublime, I thought of dozens of poets. And I settled on three. Emily Dickinson, Rainer-Maria Rilke, and Wallace Stevens. Now, what to do with them? Well, what do they have in common? Two Americans and an Austrian. One from the 19th c. and two who lived across the 19th and 20th centuries. All three lived in a Romantic age of poetry and all three found the age's themes and style limiting. All three use their verse to wrestle with what it is to exist in a reality silent about its designs and intentions. All three see the world as already interpreted and wholly uninterpretable. There are many other commonalities. But the one I want to pull at is this: all three struggle mightily with our experience of the sublime and the inadequacies of our languages and symbols to speak about the experience. The questions they ask, the images they create all gesture toward an accommodation with both the sublime and the unsayable. That accommodation – to be present and to be silent – is the discipline we need while doing eucharist. Not the presence of “just being there” or the silence of “not talking.” But the presence and the silence of being disposable in our will and still in our intellect. We'll look at one poem from each poet and see how he/she teaches us to be while we give thanks and praise to God the Father.

But before we dive into the poems, we need to define some terms. Two in particular: sublime and ineffable. Not exactly words we come across in our daily lives but ones used quite frequently in writing and talking about the Eucharist. Defining “the sublime” goes all the way back to the 2nd c. of the Christian era. We have the classical definition from Longinus: “...the Sublime consists in a consummate excellence and distinction of language...For the effect of genius is not to persuade the audience but rather to transport them out of themselves” (1.3,4). Not to persuade but to transport beyond the self. Latin helps here. SublÄ«mis is literally “beneath the line” or “up to the line.” We can assume for now that the line is limit of the Self, the horizon over which the Self is lost to Self – one's experience, one's language, one's memories. Encountering the sublime is encountering that which both threatens and elevates the totality of who I am. Properly understood, the Eucharist is a sublime liturgical act that moves me from Me to Us – me, you, and God. We are elevated into the Divine by the Divine, and this elevation threatens our merely creaturely being.

If sublime language elevates, and The Sublime is that which elevates and threatens, then we can define The Ineffable as that which leaves us speechless, inarticulate. We can go further and say that there are experiences of the sublime that we cannot put into words. Why? Precisely because the experience stretches us to our limits. That we are faced with the ineffable in the sublime may tempt us to quietism, to simply going still and mute before the unsayable. This could be an involuntary, temporary reaction to encountering the sublime. But as rational animals – human persons, body and soul – we are built to comprehend, created to investigate and understand. And we do this through art, music, science, philosophy, theology, and poetry. Each discipline provides its unique tools and vocabularies for investigating and describing what the disciple finds in the created world. For the Catholic artist, musician, poet, scientist the created world reveals the Divine – granted, imperfectly, incompletely, in hesitant and imprecise gestures, words, notes, and paints. But nonetheless prayerfully, sacramentally, and ultimately, sacrificially. The ineffable tempts the intellect and will to keep approaching; to exhaust the hesitancy, the imprecision of our tools and materials. Our tool tonight is the imprecision of language, the music of words grasping at their limits.

Our first disciple in the art of exhausting the imprecision of language is R.M. Rilke. Considered the last German Romantic poet and the first modernist poet from his homeland, he completed his best known work, Dunio Elegies, in 1922 and published it a year later, one year after Eliot's ground-breaking poem, “The Wasteland.” We'll consider the opening fourteen lines of “The First Elegy.” Here we find a soul crying a lament for his insignificant existence, mourning the disdain with which the higher things of creation (“angelic hierarchies”) regard him. We can ask him: why are you crying out? What's happened? Why do you merit attention from heaven? He doesn't answer. All he says is that if one of these angels were to embrace him, he would “perish/in the embrace of his stronger existence.” Does he desire to vanish? Is he threatened or elevated by this superlative being? Apparently, both: “For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror...” Elevated to beauty; threatened by terror. But why should beauty terrify? If beauty is Sublime, why should we find terror in its contemplation? His answer is straightforward: “[we] are awed because it [the angel] serenely disdains to annihilate us.” We are that sort of being that is annihilated in the contemplation of beauty. Not only annihilated but annihilated with serene disdain. And it's not entirely clear if we are to be terrified by our imminent non-being or by the fact that we can be snuffed out with such peaceful contempt. It's almost as if the angel who would take us to its heart is unaware of our fragility, too perfect to note that it's our dire imperfection – our whole being – it destroys. Since “[e]ach single angel is terrifying,” our poet retreats from his subjunctive, elegiac vision, forcing himself instead to “swallow and hold back/the surging call of my dark sobbing.” Here we see Rilke struggling with two existential realities: our apparent helplessness in face of eternity and our inability to express this helplessness in any way more coherent than “dark sobbing.” IOW, we have our stance before the Sublime (helplessness) and the consequences of our stance, the Unsayable. The ineffability of this encounter with the terrifying angel is made clear: “Oh, to whom can we turn for help?/
Not angels, not humans...” Angels cannot help us articulate our helplessness b/c their beauty terrifies. Humans cannot help one another b/c every human is terrified by angelic beauty. The non-human animals of creation may sense our anxiety, but they do not interpret the world; they do not create language-worlds to live in. That we humans must interpret what we experience alienates us from the things of the world, leaving us bound to concept, words, symbols, and gestures – all artifice and inadequate, in the end. Is this why Rilke contemplates crying out to the angelic hierarchies? And then, hesitates? He's trapped between the annihilating superabundant being of the Sublime and the maddeningly imperfect Unsayable.

What can Rilke's lament teach us about the Eucharist? If we take these dense fourteen lines as an introduction to an existential crisis, a cry of grief at realizing what it is to be, to be human, then we can ask: what does the Eucharist teach us about being imperfectly and perfectly human in the presence of the Divine? Rilke gives us one way of answering the question – though he never explicitly addresses the question in terms of the Eucharist. Our ancient teaching on the Real Presence of Christ places us directly in front of the Divine during the Eucharist. We employ an arsenal of words, symbols, gestures, smells, sounds, and colors to create an interpreted liturgical world. That world – we know – is inadequate to the given task of cleanly, wholly representing who we are in the Divine presence. It is also inadequate to the challenge of communicating the Divine to its creatures. Rilke recoils, halting his frustrated cry, b/c to be embraced by the angel is terrifying, annihilating. Is this our response to being in the presence of the Divine? If not, should it be? If so, if we recoil, then how are we welcoming the Divine into our interpreted world? These few lines from Rilke's first elegy reveal the necessity of remaining disposable and still while in Christ's sacramental presence. If beauty is the beginning of terror, as Rilke says, then we can retort: fear of the Divine is the beginning of wisdom. Rather than shrink away, swallow our cry, and look to the things of the world for consolation, we respond as creatures being perfected in our humanity. We can do what Rilke never considers: give God thanks and praise. Not for threatening to annihilate us in the beauty of His superabundant Being but for coming to us perfectly human and for opening the possibility for us to become Divine w/o losing our humanity. The Eucharist is our way of welcoming and receiving this promise with praise and thanksgiving. In the purest sense of fear, we abide in awe before the sacramental Christ, take him in – Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity – and then, take him out. . .into the world to be all for all.

We've noted that Rilke seemed – at least in the beginning – to be trapped between the perfected being of the angel (the Sublime) and his inability to bring the Sublime into his interpreted world (the Unsayable). Our next artist, the Cloistered Poet of Amherst, is quiet at home, writing through the imprecisions of language. In fact, she happily declares: I dwell in Possibility –/A fairer House than Prose –/More numerous of Windows –/Superior – for Doors –. Possibility. Potential. Contingency. Maybe probability? Poetry as possibility may strike our modernist ears as old hat. We're used to the hesitancy, the deferral, the subjectivity, the prominence of the otherwise interior confessional in poetry. But Dickinson was no modernist poet. Set against her contemporary, Walt Whitman – the wild man prophet of American Exceptionalism – Dickinson's voice is the voice of a cloistered contemplative. Spare, indirect, demur, merely hinting-at but often brightened with bursts of searing clarity. The poem we're using tonight is just four lines: The words the happy say/Are paltry melody/But those the silent feel/Are beautiful—. So, there's a distinction to be made between the happy who sing and the silent who feel. What is she implying? We can feel w/o singing? Singing betrays feeling? Maybe the crux of the question has more to do with the melody, which is paltry. It's thin, meager. Maybe worthless? Words, tune, pitch. . .the hymn is adequate but not fulsome? What's missing in the melody to make paltry? Obviously, there's more. In the presence of the Sublime, what counts as an adequate response, what manages to be sufficient in conveying how we feel? And does this response matter. . .to the Sublime? Here we get to the root of the reality: does the Sublime have a response to us? That is, is there a required, a necessary response to our being so close to the Perfect from the Perfect? Sure, we – being imperfect – feel compelled to shout out, to reach out, to stretch out toward the perfect – but does the Perfect need our shouting, our stretching? No. The Sublime is perfect; therefore, it needs nothing. Yes. The Sublime is only sublime in our viewing of its sublimity. Otherwise, it is what it is. “Sublimity” is a function of our interpreted world. It's what we “add” to the reality. But notice: Dickinson writes that it is those words the silent feel. . .they are beautiful. The unspoken words are beautiful. Not the muted speakers. Likewise, the words the happy speak compose the “paltry melody.” Our Cloistered Poet is pointing us toward the ineffable, the Unsayable. With her usual intense care, Dickinson is teasing out the difference between the poverty of spoken words and the beauty of unspoken words simply felt. For a poet, an artist with words, this is a strange position to take. It would seem more natural for her to claim the spoken word as the more powerful. After all, silence makes no use of metaphors, rhymes, rhythms, or enjambments. So, what's going on here? One way of reading Dickinson's poem is to see it as a frame for the ineffable; that is, she is “locating” the ineffable by identifying where it isn't – the spoken word. The only way she can do this – as a poet – is with words. These four lines then gesture toward what cannot be said – the beauty of words simply felt. Now, why are the words spoken by the happy so impoverished? Is it because they exhaust themselves, their significance in trying to say what cannot be said? Yes, I think so. Dickinson wants us to notice that she's praising the ineffable with words, thus making her poem a delightful contradiction! And I can't resist quoting here one of my favorite Dickinson poems: Tell all the truth but tell it slant — /Success in Circuit lies/Too bright for our infirm Delight/The Truth's superb surprise/As Lightning to the Children eased/With explanation kind/The Truth must dazzle gradually/Or every man be blind —. As a statement of her overall poetic project, Dickinson could not do better.

So, how does our little poem about speaking and silence help us to understand the Eucharist? There's a lot of speaking in the Mass. Prayers, readings, the homily, singing. There may even be short moments of silence. Taking Dickinson's proposition that the ineffable can only be framed but never spoken, we can ask: how does the liturgical celebration of the Eucharist – all of the sights, sounds, smells, motions – how does it frame our experience of the Divine? Are we merely happily saying the words? Or are we – in silence – letting the words be beautiful in us? Rilke challenges us to contemplate the possibility of being annihilated by the Sublime. He provokes in us a question about our relationship with that which is beyond us in every way. Dickinson doesn't seem to be much interested in the Sublime. Her interpreted world is the world of possibility, the world of exhausting the imprecision of words. Her challenge to us is not an existential-crisis-invoking gut punch but rather – like her strong, delicate poetic lines – a nudge to notice ourselves failing to participate in the salvific action of the Eucharist. “Active participation” isn't about getting up and moving around and having a job at the Mass, like reading or taking up the collection or serving as a CM. The Latin term translated as “active participation” is better translated as “actual participation;” that is, that sort of participation that moves your potential to be holy to actual holiness. That kind of participation can be done in silence. Our prayers, the homily, the readings, the singing – all words. All spoken words. But merely repeating them does not frame the ineffable. They are the least wrong way to understand what we are doing at the Eucharist. What will better help us approach the fullness of Christ's beauty in the Eucharist is attending to the silences that frames the ineffable. Most importantly, the interior silences we construct by muting our paltry melodies.

Before moving to our last poet, I want to take a moment to talk about the Eucharist from within the tradition, making sure – despite my earlier assurances – that we have a good idea of what of we're talking about. I said earlier that we all know what the Mass is. We've all been to Mass, celebrated the Eucharist probably hundreds of times. And the doing of eucharist is immensely more important to our salvation than merely understanding it intellectually. This truth does not mean, however, that we cannot or should not try to grasp at a rational level what the Eucharist is. To help us here, we turn to Pope Benedict XVI and his 2007 exhortation on the Eucharist, Sacramentum caritatis, the Sacrament of Charity. I strongly recommend reading this document b/c it is probably one of the best explanations of the Eucharist available. He writes, “In the sacrament of the altar, the Lord meets us, men and women created in God's image and likeness, and becomes our companion along the way. In this sacrament, the Lord truly becomes food for us, to satisfy our hunger for truth and freedom. Since only the truth can make us free, Christ becomes for us the food of truth. . .Each of us has an innate and irrepressible desire for ultimate and definitive truth...Jesus Christ is the Truth in person, drawing the world to himself. . .” (SC2). Lots to unpack here. In the Eucharist: 1) God comes to meet us; 2) He becomes our companion along the Way; 3) knowing that we hunger for truth and freedom, He becomes our food; 4) knowing that only the truth can set us free, Christ becomes for us the food of truth; 5) our irrepressible desire for truth is met in the person of Jesus Christ, who draws the world to himself. BXVI is re-orienting our perspective on the Eucharist away from the dominant modern view that the Eucharist is principally (if not only) about the community of believers, gathering together to reinforce their identity as followers of Christ. This communal reinforcement of our identity is certainly a result of celebrating the Eucharist, but it is not purpose, the telos of celebrating the Eucharist. What is the telos of the Eucharist? BXVI continues, “The substantial conversion of bread and wine into his body and blood introduces within creation the principle of a radical change, a sort of 'nuclear fission' . . .which penetrates to the heart of all being, a change meant to set off a process which transforms reality, a process leading ultimately to the transfiguration of the entire world, to the point where God will be all in all” (SC2). The telos of the Eucharist is the transfiguration of the entire world so that God will be all in all. The task of transfiguring the entire world falls to you and me. BXVI uses the image of nuclear fission. Nuclear fusion is the process of drawing atoms inward toward a central mass. Nuclear fission is where atoms are scattered, pushed out and away from the central mass. In this image from physics, we can see that we come together in the Eucharist (fusion) and then we scatter into the world (fission). But – like the particles in a nuclear reaction – we do not scatter unchanged. In the Eucharist, we offer Christ – BBSD; we offer ourselves individually and as a Body to the Father, surrendering everything we have and are to be transfigured into imperfect Christs. Our task is to go out – as living, breathing tabernacles – and bring Christ to the entire world.

I'm arguing in this talk that our poets can help us investigate how we participate in our own transfiguration during the Eucharist. Rilke and Dickinson give us insights into how we encounter the Sublime and struggle to articulate what we experience – the Ineffable. They are especially useful to us b/c they come to us from outside our Catholic tradition. Their questions and pokes and prods assume nothing we take for granted. Our last poet, Wallace Stevens, spent his entire career as a poet rejecting the very idea of God's existence. In fact, he proposes poetry as a replacement for religion altogether. There is good evidence that he made a deathbed conversion and was received into the Church before he died. But his life-long rejection of Christianity and his search for Something Else to ground his humanity fueled his poetic project.

Stevens' poetry is notoriously difficult. It is also spectacularly beautiful. That combination of difficulty and beauty makes choosing a poem for this talk frustrating. I've settled on “Sunday Morning.” I'll start with a quote from his Adagia, a book of aphorisms, “After one has abandoned a belief in God, poetry is that essence which takes its place as life's redemption.” Or, as he put it in one of his most famous poems, “Poetry//Exceeding music must take the place/Of empty heaven and its hymns,/Ourselves in poetry must take their place”(TMWBG). Neither Rilke nor Dickinson advocated for the abandonment of religion. Rilke was, at best, wary of it; and Dickinson shared his wariness, if not his post-Romantic despair at losing it. Stevens, on the other hand, being a good disciple of Emerson, easily shifted from the simple Lutheranism of his family into a humanist exaltation of things, the things of the world. Not worldliness. By all accounts, his personal life resembled that of a monk. But a fascination with how poetry, the poetic imagination, shapes and polishes the furniture of the universe. He believed this shaping and polishing was the limit of worship. Joan Richardson, a Stevens biographer, succinctly summarizes our poet's work: “Reading his poems, we learn the same habit of close attention, intense concentration, demanded by prayer; his body of work a breviary, a primer in practicing a 'constant sacrament of praise' for mere being”(HTLWTD 18-19).

While Rilke wrestled with the deadliness of the Sublime and Dickinson carefully picked her words to frame the ineffable, Stevens chose to construct the necessary fictions of life that a non-existent God never created. His poems are those necessary fictions. His first fiction tonight is “Sunday Morning” first published in Poetry Magazine in 1915 and later included in his first volume, Harmonium, published the same year as Rilke's Duino Elegies, 1923. Stevens was 35yo when “Sunday Morning” appeared in print. He was well away from his family's Lutheranism and very much in the thrall of Emerson, William James, and George Santayana, the self-professed “Catholic atheist.” “Sunday Morning” announces his departure from religion in general and Christianity in particular. The poem opens with a woman enjoying her Sunday morning – oranges, coffee, a cockatoo, all working together, dissipating “[t]he holy hush of ancient sacrifice.” She dreams, walking “[o]ver the seas, to silent Palestine,/Dominion of the blood and sepulcher.” Stevens sets the scene, contrasting a bright, pleasant modernity with the dark, bloody history of sacrifice. And then he asks the question modernity demands: “Why should she give her bounty to the dead?/What is divinity if it can come/Only in silent shadows and in dreams?” Why should someone possessed of worldly beauty surrender it to tradition – the dead? What is the power of divinity if it cannot be seen and heard in the things of the world? Shadows and dreams aren't a reliable means of revealing reality! The poet tells us the secret that will relieve her worry: “Divinity must live within herself...” Despite this revelation, she insists, “But in contentment I still feel/The need of some imperishable bliss.” And the poet answers, “Death is the mother of beauty...” Without an end, a conclusion nothing is beautiful. Look to your death, then attend to the things of the world, know that you and they will pass – there is your bliss, knowing you are impermanent.

This early declaration of nihilism (1915) prompts us to consider “[t]he holy hush of ancient sacrifice” as we live and move and have our being in a world bereft of religious enchantment. Stevens' secular religion seems almost sterile, lacking in the jagged edges that makes belief so vital to the human soul. Where's the praise? The thanksgiving? The offertory of self and other? Even his confessed despair comes off like a distant object observed behind glass: “At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make/Ambiguous undulations as they sink,/Downward to darkness, on extended wings.” Beautiful. But hopeless. So, we can ask ourselves during the Eucharist: does my actual participation in this sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving fill me with hope? Do I experience the telos of this liturgy – the perfecting of my humanity into the Christ? We don't have to stay at home on a Sunday morning with coffee and the TV to refuse to be transfigured. We can do that from a pew while reciting the Creed and queuing up for Communion. The service Stevens' poem performs for us is this: he starkly contrasts the existing options for those who lay claim to the faith. As beautiful as this poem is, and it is, its beauty works to seduce us away from the demands of sacrifice; its eros tempts us to just stay in bed – whether we actually leave our beds or not. The transfiguring power of the Eucharist only works for us if we dispose ourselves to be worked upon. This means having the courage to encounter the Sublime in God and one another; it means having the patience to trust our limitations and wrestle with the ineffable; it means surrendering ourselves to the telos of our common work – the liturgy – and sharing the fruits of that work with the world; and finally, it means practicing suffering-well for the redemption of creation.

Can we do any of those things without God? Or, minimally, without some sense of the Sublime, some impulse to recognize that there is Something larger, more fundamental that sits beyond the limits of our immediate humanity to know and love? In 1915, Stevens announced his allegiance to what many critics called a hedonistic nihilism. “Sunday Morning” was described as the work of an aesthete. In 1936, he published Ideas of Order, which includes the poem, “The American Sublime” – our second necessary fiction for this evening. Sharp, spare, unadorned, our poem gets right to the question at hand: “How does one stand/To behold the sublime...?” It's striking that Stevens wants us to meditate on how one stands to behold the sublime. We might expect a question about the nature of the sublime, or whether or not the sublime is knowable, or how beholding the sublime will change us. What we get is a question meant to turn our contemplation back on the beholder. The move here is not a denial of the reality of the sublime but rather than emphasis on the role of the imagination in beholding the sublime. Of course, this begs the question somewhat. Am I asking myself how I am to stand to behold the really real sublime? Or am I simply invoking my imagination to create the sublime? Stevens absolutely delights in this sort of ambiguity. But he insists that we not exclude an interrogation of the imagination's role in beholding the sublime – whether it's an exterior or interior phenomenon: “When General Jackson/Posed for his statue/He knew how one feels.” We have two historical events: Jackson posing for the sculptor and how Jackson felt while posing. Neither of these is available to us to question. What we have is the statue. Does the statue capture that which is beyond us, the sublime? If so, we have access to the sublime. If not, we have to imagine the sublime at work in the statue. Then he announces something like a secular Pentecost: “And the sublime comes down/To the spirit itself,/The spirit and space,/The empty spirit/In vacant space.” The progression of emptying out here is telling. What exactly is the sublime descending upon? The Holy Spirit descended on the apostles and disciples at Pentecost. But Stevens' sublime is descending first on spirit, then spirit and space, then empty spirit, and finally, vacant space. Is the Sublime sublime if there is no imagination to behold it? He answers with a deceptively pedestrian set of questions: “What wine does one drink?/What bread does one eat?” These questions leave the ambiguity of the sublime's existence open to the how the reader understands the significance of the bread and wine. If bread is just bread and wine just wine, then the sublime descends on a vacant reader. If the bread and wine signify something more, something transubstantiated, then the sublime descends on an imagination used to imagining sacramentally.

Our poets have given us the chance to look at the Eucharist in ways we may have never thought of. Rilke's subjunctive and elegiac cry for meaning in the face of his terrifying angel asks us to consider how we encounter the Divine. In fact, it asks: do we encounter the Divine in the Eucharist? Surely, God comes to us in our liturgy, but we do go to Him? And we if go to Him, do we bring everything we have and everything we are? What Rilke calls annihilation, we call being perfected in Christ – not going into nothingness but being transfigured into living, breathing tabernacles to carry Christ to the world. Dickinson, so meticulous and coy, asks us to acknowledge the ineffable, to give a hesitant nod to the Unsayable and dig in to offer it a fleeting frame. Words said are happy. But in the face of the Real, they sing a “paltry melody.” The truly beautiful words are silently felt. Left unsaid, these words remain tied to the imagination in their lack of physical expression. She asks us to consider silence as a means of encountering the ineffable, as a way to pick-out the unsayable, experience it to the limits of our capacity, and then let it go. In the Eucharist, we have the Church's collective response to God coming to us. Our response is words, smells, colors, gestures. But these sacramental elements remain merely ritualistic if they are not framed by the silence of a properly disposed soul and stilled intellect. For the whole person to be present at Mass, the possibility of the unsayable must be too. Maybe Ms Dickinson meant to write, “ I dwell in possibility/a finer house than prayer”? Stevens offers us the chance to take on the larger dare – set religious tradition aside in favor of shaping and polishing the things of the world with language. For him, poetry must displace prayer as our primary means of finding and keeping some semblance of enduring meaning. The tombs and chapels and old rugged crosses of the ancient world cannot reveal the divine – not b/c they are too small to contain greatness but b/c there is no divinity for them to contain. He asks us to abandon the eros of sacrifice for the “[c]omplacencies of the peignoir,” a beautiful but ultimately infertile nihilism.

At the beginning of this talk, I suggested that the task of poetry is to exhaust the imprecision of language. This task – wringing out every drop of a word's inadequacy – cannot be accomplished. Whether the poet is showing us his rage against existence, or sharing the fruits of her contemplation, or daring us to ground our faith in the creative imagination – language will always ultimately fail to capture the Real. This failure extends even into our liturgies. And thanks be to God! If getting the formula right were enough to achieve salvation, then it would be enough for us to memorize the formula, repeat it when necessary, and then simply get on with our day. IOW, following Christ and becoming Christs would be a matter of magical incantation, not a liturgical labor. That we must actually participate in our own salvation puts the burden on us to choose – freely choose – to be members of the Body. Just showing up and being still is necessary but insufficient for growing in holiness. The Eucharist calls us to make of ourselves an oblation to God. Not b/c He needs a sacrifice but b/c we need to be sacrificed, to be made holy in surrender. The only language that even begins to capture the sublimity of God and articulate His ineffability is the language of praise and thanksgiving. The Eucharist and our attentive participation in it is just the beginning of our dwelling in possibility. What we possess of possibility that none of our poets did is the Catholic imagination; that is, the faculty to interpret our lived-world through the complimentary lens of sacramentality and incarnationality – God reveals Himself continuously through created things and those created things live and move and have their being in Him. We are participatory beings, beings who are held in being by Being Himself. The Eucharist is our received means of perfecting our participation in His divinity, thus everything about each one of us who celebrate the Eucharist is suffused with the gift of experiencing and interpreting creation as a fellow-being participating in the divine. Where we see grace, we see God working. We see God b/c He is His work. Our poets gave us liminal insights into the Sublime, the ineffable and prompted us to ask questions we may have never considered. They may have pricked our conscience to attentive contemplation, telling us all the truth but telling it slant. That slant – that squinting hesitancy – can never overcome faith, but it can move us out of complacency and routine and along the ragged edges of growing in holiness.

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