Sunday, February 28, 2010

Holy Fear

Is it possible that preparing for mass by reading the selected scripture passages ahead of time can be a distraction? Too often, when I do so, my mind focuses on a particular phrase, such that throughout the Liturgy of the Word, I'm thinking about that one phrase - how the other readings are affected by it, how other non-selected parts of the scripture are affected by it, whether the celebrant will say anything about it in his homily, how it affects our broader spiritual life.

Almost invariably, the phrase upon which I've focused goes completely unnoticed by everyone else. It goes unmentioned in the homily, which I was only half-listening to because my attention was elsewhere. Truly full, conscious, and active participation in the mass, it seems, requires a self-discipline that I have yet to achieve.

The idea that commanded my attention this Sunday was holy fear. In the first reading from the Book of Genesis, we hear of God's promise to Abram (this was before his name was changed to Abraham). In obedience to God, Abram offers a sacrifice of a heifer, goat, ram, turtledove, and pigeon. All day long, the carcasses sit there, and Abram has to chase away the gathering vultures. As the day draws to a close, nothing has happened.

What happens next is what grabbed me: "As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram; and lo, a dread and great darkness fell upon him" (Genesis 15:12).

God was about to act, and after chasing vultures all day, maybe Abram was questioning whether he had heard God's instruction correctly. We don't know why, but we know that Abram fell into a state of darkness and fear.

How can this be related to the other selected readings?

In Luke's gospel account of the Transfiguration, "a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were afraid as they entered the cloud" (Luke 9:34). In Matthew, the fear comes when they hear the voice: "When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces, and they were filled with awe" (Matthew 17:6). According to Mark, they were afraid ever before the cloud or the voice from heaven: "And Peter said to Jesus, 'Master, it is well that we are here; let us make three booths, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.' For he did not know what to say, for they were exceedingly afraid" (Mark 9:5-6).

Fear, it seems, is the natural response to an encounter with the divine.

Jesus, however, "came and touched them, saying, 'Rise and have no fear.'" (Matthew 17:7) The responsorial psalm (which, regrettably, we didn't hear in our parish) tells us, "Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; yea, wait for the Lord!" (Psalm 27:14)

Fear of the Lord is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and scripture (Proverbs 1:7) says that it is the beginning of wisdom. It is impossible not to be filled with awe when exposed to the full divinity of the creator of the universe. However, courage is also a gift of the Holy Spirit.

Like Abram, we must wait for the Lord, even when his promises seem delayed in coming. Even when his presence fills us with awe and fear, we still must be courageous in our obedience to his will.

It is easier said than done, as my personal failings demonstrate. God gives us sufficient grace, however, to make such courage and obedience possible for those who accept and cooperate with that grace.

Friday, February 26, 2010

The General Law of Wives

“All other things being equal, the ideological space between a male writer and his wife will shrink over time, with the husband moving the greater distance.”

Conservative pundit Jonah Goldberg presented his General Law of Wives in a recent Goldberg File, then went on to demonstrate the law in action based on the evolution of Paul Krugman’s writing over the years and a recent profile of Krugman in the New Yorker. Goldberg also cites a former boss of his who had worked in the Johnson administration. Although the law specifically applies to writers, it also appears to hold true for politicians and policy wonks. The James Carville and Mary Matalin union might be the exception that breaks the rule.

I don’t know how, if at all, the General Law of Wives applies to non-writers. If you’ve suffered through my little ramblings, you already know that I’m no writer. The mind of an engineer, my wife will surely tell you, is not like the minds of most other (i.e., normal) people. I like to think that, after 17 years of marriage, I’ve dragged my wife over to my way of thinking. Amy, bless her soul, allows me to persist in that belief.

The Bible supports Jonah’s law. Solomon, for all of his wisdom, was led astray by his wives: “As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods …” (1 Kings 11:4). It has always amazed me that the gift of wisdom did not protect Solomon from folly. Knowing what is right, good, and true, and doing it are two entirely different things.

Solomon was not alone among the kings of Israel and Judah that were led astray by their wives. Ahab was led by his wife Jezebel to worship Baal (1 Kings 16:31). Jehoram, as King of Judah, turned from the ways of his father, Jehoshaphat, and did evil “for he married a daughter of Ahab” (2 Kings 8:18). Jehoshaphat’s great failure as King of Judah was his alliance with Ahab, the King of Israel, sealed with the marriage of Jeshoshaphat’s son to Ahab’s daughter. The corruption and apostasy of the wife spread to the husband.

Hasn’t that been the story ever since the serpent talked Eve into eating the forbidden fruit?

Truth be told, neither Amy nor I had far to move, ideologically, and our spiritual progress has been in the same direction. We were pretty like-minded when we were married. I hope that a casual observer can see, though, why I worry about my future sons and daughters-in-law. It is important to me that my own children find spouses that don’t disregard religious truth and liturgy. If the General Law of Wives holds true, then I should especially worry for my son(s).

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Almsgiving, Prayer, and Fasting

There's been a change of season, and we suddenly find ourselves in Lent. I'm surprised to say that I'm going to miss Ordinary Time, and with all the snow that February has brought to Ohio, I hope that the season of Winter ends soon, too.

Lent is a time of almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. In the gospel for the Ash Wednesday mass, Jesus addresses all three. Although all three are good, motives are important, he tells us. Almsgiving is a matter of charity and justice to our fellow man. Don't, therefore, make it about yourself. Don't announce your generosity so that other will think well of you. I can't help but wonder whether we're doing the right thing when, for example, our Knights of Columbus council has a public relations officer, whose job it is to announce our good works to the world. Our intention is to let people know that we are active in the community, but does that intention contradict gospel principles? Similar advice is often given regarding the Church: if only people knew all of the good that she does, they would attack her less. I suspect that attempts to improve the public image of the Church by trumpeting her good works would only create knew avenues of attack. That does not mean that we should actively conceal our good works. The point is not that our works be hidden, but that they not be done just to be seen.

Our Lord's advice on prayer and fasting is similar. He assumes that we will pray and fast (you do fast, don't you? I need to work on it!). Again, the point is that we should not do it in order to be seen doing it. It's not a condemnation of public prayer. If you go out to eat at a restaurant, don't refrain from blessing the food because other might see you. Rather, bless the food because you are thankful to God for his providence in supplying the food, and not because other diners might see you pray and think well of you.

The season of Lent is about conversion. My own conversion seems to be an ongoing process. Though I might wish that it were done and over with, God has instead decreed that it will occur daily. Every day requires a turning from sin. Every sin requires a reconciliation with God, for sin damages that relationship. Paul reminds the Corinthians that we should seek this reconciliation so that God grace will not be received in vain. I mourn for all of the grace that has been poured out upon me, seemingly to be wasted.

Our reconciliation and conversion is more than just external. Yes, God wants obedience, but what he desires is that our hearts be turned to him. Obedience will then be a fruit of love.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Unequal Rosaries

Not all rosaries are created equal, and I think that I might need to get myself a new one. The one that I've been favoring lately just isn't getting the job done. It looks nice, but it fails in functionality. It gets tangled in my pocket, and the loops are always falling apart. I pulled it out to use it the other night, and ended up with a crucifix and one bead in one hand and a mass of tangled beads in the other. I had to untangle the mass while praying the creed before I could even start to reattach the crucifix. It seems that it is more suited to decoration (I did say that it looks nice), than to prayer.

I have another rosary that works much better for prayer. It has a knotted fiber cord with rounded wood beads. It never tangles in my pocket. The only thing that gives me pause in using it is the fact that the centerpiece features a piece of dirt from an alleged Marian apparition site, with the name of the place prominently embossed. The local ordinary discourages pilgrimages, and there is enough questionable fruit associated with the place that I would prefer to steer clear. The rosary was a gift, and the giver told me that the Blessed Virgin herself blessed the rosary. That's kind of hard to verify, and it only increases my skepticism.

I have another gift rosary from another alleged apparition site. This one is supposed to contain a piece of paper from a book that was blessed by the Virgin Mary. These two rosaries are nice, but I can't help but feel like using them for prayer carries with it an implicit endorsement of the alleged apparitions. I wish that I still had the rosary that I received when I was initiated into the Knights of Columbus, but that one was lost somewhere years ago.

So, I'll be keeping my eyes open for a suitable rosary - one that won't get tangled up in my pocket and won't fall apart. One that doesn't promote an apparition that hasn't been approved by the Church. One that's made for prayer. I might just revert to the trusty finger rosary that I use when I run.

As for the one that I've been using: it will go back to a display state, ready if I should need it, but not in primary circulation.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Hitler Rails Against Pope Benedict

Ohay, I finally watched this one and just had to share it.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

A Valid Marriage

It's no secret that the social institution of marriage is in a sorry state these days. Even sacramental marriage is suffering as evidenced by the large numbers of declarations of nullity granted by diocesan marriage tribunals in this country. I was once told by a tribunal administrator that American culture is dysfunctional with respect to marriage.

The Catholic Church has attempted to counter this trend by requiring those wishing to be married to participate in six-month marriage preparation programs and weekend retreats for engaged couples. In most cases, I think, these are viewed by engaged couples as hoops that they have to jump through in order to have their wedding presided over by a priest in their parish church. Some, no doubt, decide that they don't want to jump through the hoops and end up getting married out of the Church. For baptized Catholics, who are bound by Canon Law, the resulting union in invalid due to lack of form.

What are we to do about the marriage crisis in our Church?

The Archdiocese of Phoenix has decided that the current marriage requirements aren't rigorous enough. Rather than six months of preparation, Phoenix requires nine. In addition, all engaged couples will be required to complete a full course of instruction in Natural Family Planning. I applaud the intention and goals of these measures, but I can't help but think that the unintended consequence will be an increase in marriages that lack proper form because the couples decided the hoops are too onerous.

At the other end of the spectrum is a recent column by Fr. Peter Daly. His pastoral approach seems to be based on a pastoral imperative to deny the sacraments to no one. I might be reading too much into what he has written, but I believe that he is suggesting that if a couple wishes to be married in the church, but does not want to comply with all of the pre-requisites for a church marriage, the marriage ceremony should be performed anyway. God will work out the validity and the sacramentality. The problem here, however, is that the couple that refuses to submit to the disciplines of the Church at the time of the marriage probably does not possess the capacity to give consent to enter into marriage, as understood by the Church, at the time that the vows are exchanged. In other words, their union is no more a valid marriage than is that of the couple married outside of the Church, except that they have an ecclesiastical stamp of approval that reinforces an attitude that the Church has no role to play in how they conduct their personal lives.

There has to be a proper balance somewhere. Catechesis on marriage is incredibly important, but it has to be done well before a couple becomes engaged. Ideally, young adults should know what the Church teaches about marriage before they even start dating. Once they make the decision to wed, it's not unreasonable to ask them to undergo additional specific catechesis. There should, however, always be some room for pastoral prudence. Some couples approach marriage with a better spiritual formation, and others have legitimate reasons for not being able to fulfill all of the usual conditions. That's why Canon Law allows provisions for bishops to relax the requirements of certain canons.

It's a mistake, however, to allow the laws of the Church regarding marriage to be held hostage by engage couples. Pretending the laws don't exist solely to keep titular Catholics from leaving the Church does nothing to strengthen the Body of Christ. The Church teaches with authority. To pretend otherwise is to undermine that very authority.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

I Gotta Have Faith

There is a brand of evangelical Christianity that preaches a gospel of worldly success. It is sometimes referred to as the “health and wealth” gospel, promoting a “name it and claim it” theology. It seemed to reach a fever pitch a few years ago when the Prayer of Jabez suddenly rose to prominence from obscurity in Chapter 4 of 1 Chronicles.

The danger in emphasizing such a message is that is implies that poor health or poverty is the result of a lack of faith, and that true believers will be rewarded by God in this life. Jesus, however, never promised riches; he promised the cross and persecution. Paul did not boast of his stock portfolio, he boasted of his trials. Even when we consider the great modern witnesses of Christ – Mother Teresa of Calcutta or Pope John Paul the Great – we see examples not of reward in this life, but of loving union with the sufferings endured by Our Lord.

And yet, the name it and claim it crowd just might be on to something.

In the gospels, it seems as though those with the greatest faith are healed by Jesus with the least effort. Most of the miracles performed by Jesus include a physical sign that foreshadows the sacraments – the rubbing of mud onto the eyes of a blind man, for example. The Centurion’s servant, however, was cured without Jesus even needing to go to the house, based on the faith of the Centurion. The woman with the hemorrhage was healed because she believed that she would be, if only she touched the hem of Jesus’ robe.

In contrast, when Jesus returned to his home territory, the people did not believe, and there were no miracles.

In addition, Jesus tells parables that suggest that, if we ask persistently, God will answer are prayers – “Ask and you will receive. Knock and the door will be opened.”

That leaves us where we started. What about the poor and the afflicted? Are they poor and afflicted because they lack faith? My thought on the matter is breaking down along two parallel questions. First, is it appropriate to pray for relief? Second, if a prayer is unanswered, does it indicated a lack of faith in the pray-er?

Why wouldn’t somebody pray to be relieved from poverty or illness? We’ve come to see suffering in all its forms as bad, something to be avoided. Yet, we are told in the letter to the Hebrews that Christ himself learned obedience through what he suffered. We certainly are not greater than our master, so if suffering was good for him, why would it not be good for us? Our suffering can be redemptive, when it is joined to those of our Savior. And so the saints not only do not avoid suffering, they embrace it, because it strengthens their identification with Christ. Their example seems to indicate that true faith will not seek material prosperity.

And yet, such prayers can be offered selflessly. Building a hospital or an orphanage requires funding. It would be silly to think that a saint would not pray to God to provide the funds for such an endeavor. A young mother dying of cancer, should pray for healing not for her sake, but for that of her children. A business owner should pray for the success of his company, not so that his wealth will increase, but so that he will increase the greater good of the community by boosting the local economy.

So material blessings from God can and should be prayed for, but only for unselfish reasons. As St. John of the Cross taught, even prayer, if offered for selfish intentions, can be a source of sin.

What then, are we to conclude from prayers that seem to go unanswered? The short answer is: nothing. I know a man who has hemophilia. At one point, he was told by somebody whom I’m sure had good intentions that if he prayed with sufficient faith to be healed, then he would be. He prayed. As far as I know, he still has hemophilia. Does that mean that his faith is somehow defective? By no means! This man’s faith exceeds my own (perhaps my faith is more defective than his). Although he has hemophilia, he continues to live, to contribute to the greater good of the community, and to share the gospel. No less a person than St. Paul complained of a thorn in the flesh, which he prayed to God to remove. The thorn remained. Are we really to conclude that St. Paul lacked faith?

We know that God answers prayers. We cannot know, however, why he answers some and not others. He has his reasons; that should be enough for us.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Presidential Smarts

While travelling last week, I found myself stuck in a Tennessee ice storm (how often does that happen?). With a little time on my hands, I chanced to peruse a recent copy of Newsweek magazine. What I learned is that the failure of President Barack Obama's policy agenda is his own fault. You see, he's just too smart. He's leading with his head rather than his heart, and those of us who don't want to go where he would lead our country are just too dim to appreciate his brilliance.

This is the smartest president in modern history, maybe even the smartest ever. We would all be better off if we just let him do all our thinking for us.

Haven't we been here before? Haven't we, fairly recently, had apresident who was hailed as being magnificently intelligent? Just consider the classic Dan Aykroyd skit from Saturday Night Live, in which he lampooned the celebrated smarts of President Jimmy Carter, the last smartest president ever, then ask yourself, just how did that administration work out for us? By the time he left office, we faced unemployment, inflation, and high interest rates. Fifty Americans had been held hostage in Iran, and our military was humiliated by a botched rescue attempt.

Maybe the ability to quote Reihold Neibuhr should not be the criteria upon which we judge the intelligence of the man (or woman!) we place in the oval office.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Called to Make Noise

Most of those who comment on the story of the Gerasene demoniac in Mark 5:1-20 focus their reflection on the reaction of the villagers. They see the afflicted man, clothed and sane, and they are afraid. Then they hear about their lost pigs, and they plead with Jesus to leave. They would rather have the poor soul still possessed by demons if it would give them back their herd of swine. Their priorities are grossly misplaced.

There are two points, however, from the last few verses that I rarely see anybody raise.

First, the man is not told to remain silent about what has been done for him. Throughout the Gospel of Mark, we repeatedly see Jesus heal people only to turn around and tell them to keep it a secret. The reason for the messianic secrecy is not clear, but it might have to do with Jesus recognizing that too much publicity could create crowds that would have a negative impact on his ministry. Jesus doesn’t do this with the Gerasene, through. To him, he says, “Go home to your family and tell them how much the Lord has done for you.” Not only does he not command him to secrecy, he tells him to talk about it!

The second point is a vocational one. The Gerasene, having been rid of his demons, wanted to follow Jesus as one of his disciples. Jesus had a different mission for him, though. This, I think, highlights the idea that vocational discernment, while personal and subjective to the individual, is not purely private. Some might think that they are called or want to be called to a religious vocation. God, however, might have different plans. Vocational discernment, then, should never be a case of a young man saying, “I want to be a priest,” or an older man saying, “I want to be a deacon.” Rather, it should be a case of the man saying, “I think that I’m being called.” At that point, the Church must help the soul who thinks that God is calling him to discover just what vocation God is calling him to embrace. It’s possible that, like the Gerasene, the call is to be a light to friends and family rather than to ordained service.