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For Mom

In Christianity on September 26, 2017 at 2:07 am

“If you went into someone’s house to visit a friend, wouldn’t you say ‘Hi’ to his Mom?”

With these words, a priest who has been a wonderful friend and guide in my Christian life, introduced the topic of the Blessed Virgin Mary to his RCIA class.

Divisive Topic
Probably no topic prompts more debate between Catholic Christians and those who left the Church in the 16th century than the Virgin Mary. Fr. Dwight Longenecker, an evangelical who is now a Catholic priest, even wrote a book on this topic based on a debate with a Christian friend.

My growth in faith and ability to honor our Lord’s mother has come through seven realizations.

  1. Mary was the spouse of the Holy Spirit
    These words sound nonsensical, even sacreligious, until we realize that is exactly what the Bible declares in Luke 1:35. Trying to grasp this is difficult— especially if we have spent a lifetime thinking of Mary as simply a young Jewish girl given the honor of bearing the Savior. Choose, if you like, a different word than “spouse.” But look at the big picture. How else would you describe “being overshadowed,” leading to the birth of our Lord?
  2. Mary robed our Savior with her flesh
    The Blessed Virgin Mary robed our Savior with her flesh. He was both God and man. His manhood, and the blood He shed on the cross for those who come to Him, was the result of His incarnation. His incarnation was made possible, in the will of God, through the flesh of the Virgin Mary.
  3. Mary received God into herself
    Mary’s “yes” to God (Luke 1:31-38) is the precursor of the “yes” all of us must say, if we are to be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ. “Be it done to me according to your word.” Through baptism, we are overshadowed by the Holy Spirit and made children of God. But we must continually receive God into ourselves (Romans 10:9-11 and elsewhere) and daily recommit ourselves to living for Him. We must receive God into ourselves. Mary is the best example of an answer to the evangelical question, “Do you know when you invited Christ into your heart?”
  4. Mary always pointed to her Son
    Most Christians know the biblical account of the wedding at Cana. When our Lord’s mother realized the newly-wed couple’s joyful occasion might be spoiled by the host having run out of wine, with faith she said to her Son, “They have no wine.” Then turning to the servants, “Do whatever He tells you.” If only each of us followed her admonition daily, how much better our Christian lives would be!
  5. Mary suffered in a way few, if any, of us will suffer
    Surely anyone would shrink from the thought of seeing a beloved child tortured and executed. How much more difficult must it have been for the Blessed Virgin Mary? She saw her Son perform the miracle at Cana, heal the sick, and proclaim Himself “the way, the truth, and the life.” Yet Colossians 1:24 talks about “filling up what is lacking” in the afflictions of Christ. No believer would say Christ’s sacrifice was deficient. But apparently our sufferings matter. In that case, who, if any among us, has suffered like the Virgin Mary?
  6. Mary is an example of purity
    In our sex-saturated 21st century, what could be more important than a shining example of purity? Pornography is instantly available 24/7. Women are viewed as sexual objects, not persons.¹ Human trafficking for sex is widespread. Hollywood makes increasingly sensual films and TV shows, while its executives and actors too often mimic the plots. Political figures have been humiliated, impeached, and even imprisoned, for sexual misconduct. Abortion has taken the lives of millions of unwanted, unborn children. Even the Church has endured the disgrace of its own sexual abuse scandal. Do we not need purity? Get close to Mom. Pray for purity. “Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.”
  7. Mary is a picture of obedience
    Obedience is at the heart of the most pleasing offerings to God we can make. In Fr. Wilfrid Stinissen’s book, Into Your Hands, Father, he reminds us that our obedience—total abandonment to God—is to be patterned after Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.² God’s plan for our Savior’s birth begins with Mary’s obedience. He sends the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary with an astounding, incomprehensible message (Luke 1:26-34). “How can this be?” was her first reaction. But her obedience to God’s will follows immediately: “May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Describing Christ’s obedience, the New Testament book of Hebrews says, “Behold, I have come to do your will, O God” (Hebrews 10:7, Psalm 40:8). Joseph’s obedience, despite his initial concerns, was essential as Mary’s husband and the guardian of the infant Savior: “When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him” (Matthew 1:24).

We need pictures of obedience, Mary’s included, after which we can pattern our own lives. Fr. Jean C.J. d’Elbée writes of holiness, but it could as easily be said of obedience: “Holiness [obedience] is a disposition of the soul, of the heart, and, above all, of the will toward God.”³ May we seek, and nurture, that disposition of the will that leads to loving obedience to God.

As God prompts our Christian growth and compassion for the souls of others, each of us must be ready to tell his or her own spiritual story. We must wrestle with our own convictions about matters of faith.

What does your spiritual story say? What does it say about our Lord’s mother?

You’ve just read the chapter about Mom in my story. What’s yours?

 

¹ See Love and Responsibility by Bishop Karol Wojtyła (later Pope, and now Saint John Paul II). His subsequent teachings on human love were later compiled in Theology of the Body. As consequential as his papacy was in other ways, these two books may be his most important works for the 21st century. He points out that the opposite of love is not hate, but rather to treat a man or woman as an object, not a person. Similarly, his teaching suggests pornography’s worst evil is not that it shows too much, but that it shows too little—nothing of the interior person; simply an object being used for one’s pleasure.  For a shorter account of Saint John Paul II’s teachings on sexual intimacy, see Saint John Paul the Great, Chapter 8, titled “Human Love.”

² Fr. Wilfrid Stinissen, Into Your Hands, Father (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2001).

³ Fr. Jean C.J. d’Elbée, I Believe in Love: A Personal Retreat Based on the Teaching of St. Thérèse of Lisieux (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 2001).

Forced Faith

In Christianity on June 28, 2017 at 9:03 pm

The phrase “forced faith” includes two completely contradictory terms (see No Forced Faith and the related posts, December 2009). Understanding that these words are contradictory—an oxymoron—is important. We live at a time when trust in the institutions around us is at an all-time low, ranging from lack of confidence in government, organized religion, and even the traditional family structure. We fear being compelled to live in a certain way.

Love Does Not Compel
That makes Robert Cardinal Sarah‘s statement about the nature of God all the more important:

God is love, and love will not compel, force, or oppress in order to be loved in return.¹

Why is Cardinal Sarah’s short statement so important?  It is because some fear Christianity out of concern that it is coercive. To those with such fears, Christianity seems to consist mostly of do’s and don’ts; it seeks to compel behavior based on those do’s and don’ts; it oppresses or even seeks to suppress those with opposing points of view.

God is Does Not Compel
God is love! He needed nothing. He was and is complete. Yet He freely created us to share in His divine love. To demonstrate His love, after mankind’s rebellion (which is also to say the individual rebellions mounted by each one of us), He even made the ultimate self-gift in Jesus Christ while we were still enemies.

Even you and I know that we cannot compel someone to love us, despite the hopes we sometimes have for a relationship with this person or that person. Do we imagine God is somehow different?  Has less understanding than we do? Thinks love can be commanded? No, He waits eagerly and watches for us, like the prodigal father.² But he does not compel, force, or oppress.

Emptiness Isn’t the End
Many people feel the emptiness of contemporary life. Robert Cardinal Sarah writes, “People . . . find themselves alone in the world, without anything that surpasses and supports them.” Quoting Blaise Pascal, Cardinal Sarah continues:

When I regard the whole silent universe and man without light, left to himself … lost in this corner of the universe without knowing who has put him there, what he has come to do, what will become of him at death … I become terrified, like a man carried in his sleep to a dreadful desert island, [who awakes] without knowing where he is and without means of escape.³

This is not a new thought. Emptiness abounds even in popular songs that go back decades, from the isolation of the Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby (“all the lonely people”) to the nihilism of Peggy Lee’s Is That All There Is  (“let’s break out the booze and have a ball”).

So think for a moment: is it possible that this emptiness more oppressive, even more dangerous, than our fear of losing what we believe is “freedom”? In The Mission of the Redeemer (written in 1990),St. John Paul II wrote:

The Church addresses people with full respect for their freedom. Her mission does not restrict freedom but rather promotes it. The Church proposes; she imposes nothing

It is true there will be a reckoning at the end of our lives (Hebrews 9:27-28). But we are given free will, the overarching power of to choose—just as the prodigal father gave his son opportunity to choose how he wanted to live.

If you fear compulsion but feel the increasing isolation of 21st-century life, St. John Paul II said, “Be not afraid. Open the doors to Christ!” And Christ Himself said, “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest . . . my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).

Come. No compulsion. No oppression. Only freedom and rest. That is Christianity Richly.

 

¹ The Power of Silence, by Robert Cardinal Sarah, paragraph 90 (location 918 of 4186), Kindle Edition.

² Luke 15:20, but be sure to read the entire passage about the prodigal father, from verse 11 through 24.

³ The Power of Silence, paragraph 241 (location 2058 of 4186), Kindle Edition.

Liturgical Beauty

In Christianity on February 28, 2017 at 7:33 pm

To marvel at Your beauty
And glory in Your ways,
And to make a joyful duty
Our sacrifice of praise.
O God Beyond All Praising¹

One of the most important books published during 2016 is Liturgy in the Twenty-First Century: Contemporary Issues and Perspectives, edited by Dom Alcuin Reid. A strong statement? Yes, but as Timothy Cardinal Dolan has said, worship is “the most profound act we can do.”

The Importance of Liturgy
What makes worship the most profound act we can do? Bishop Dominique Rey, organizer of Sacra Liturgia 2013, an international conference on liturgy, states Christ “acts uniquely in the world today in the Church’s liturgy.” Sacrosanctum Concilium, one of the most important documents of Vatican II, declares:

The liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows.

That font is our Lord Jesus Christ present to His people during Mass. We must remember what is being celebrated by the liturgy. It is not a gathering of friends or like-minded religionists. It is, in the words of Cardinal Dolan, “our connection to the saving life, death, and resurrection of our Lord.”² 

The Importance of Beauty
Transcendent worship is evangelical
. Why? In a word, because it is beautiful. Raymond Leo Cardinal Burke’s chapter in Liturgy in the Twenty-First Century takes beauty as the theme:

The search for beauty has nothing to do with a mere aesthetic sensibility or with an escape from reason. From the divine perspective, beauty, together with truth and goodness, are manifestations of being and, ultimately, the source of all being, God, Being Himself . . . the way of beauty, is a most important and irreplaceable means of announcing God to a culture [emphasis mine].³

Margaret Hughes cites French writer, Paul Claudel: “One can resist force, skill, or self-interest. One can even resist Truth, but one cannot resist Beauty [again, emphasis mine].” Why? Because:

Beauty . . . is essential to . . . manifesting to human beings what is authentically good. Beauty conveys that it is good to exist, and so opens us to the appropriate, fitting joy in being, and being in the world. Joy is the only proper response to the gift of Creation and Redemption. 

God shows His love for each of us in ways uniquely suited to us. Truth, goodness, and beauty are not only attributes of God and, therefore, of the Christian life (or they should be). Truth, goodness, and beauty are also powerful incentives drawing men and women into relationship with Christ — “to marvel at Your beauty and glory in Your ways,” as Michael Perry’s text at the beginning of this post states it.

An Open Door
In that sense, the liturgy is not only for the Church. The liturgy is for the entire world! Celebrated with reverence and transcendence, it parallels the invitation given to St. John in Revelation 4:1: “I had a vision to an open door to Heaven.” That’s what the liturgy is; that’s what it must be for the world.

According to Pew Research, the number of religious “nones”  is increasing significantly. Yet a deep spiritual hunger remains. Celtic spirituality talks about thin places, where “the distance between heaven and earth collapses.” The liturgy is precisely that: a thin place, a door to heaven standing open; a place of great visual richness, glorious song, and sights, sounds, even scents, all of which proclaim:

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God, the Almighty, Who was and Who is and Who is to come . . . Worthy are You our Lord and our God, to receive glory and honor and power.  —Revelation, chapter 4.

Liturgy matters. Liturgical beauty matters. Thanks be to God for the the increasing number of faithful pastors and parishes who value the richness and eternal impact of liturgical beauty. That is Christianity Richly!

 

¹ Text composed by Michael Perry, to the tune of Gustav Holst’s Thaxted.

² Introductory Greeting and Messages, Liturgy in the Twenty-First Century, pp. xi-xvii.

³ Raymond Leo Cardinal Burke, “Beauty in the Sacred Liturgy,” in Liturgy in the Twenty-First Century: Contemporary Issues and Perspectives, Alcuin Reid, ed. (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), pp. 2, 11.

4  Dr. Margaret I. Hughes, “The Ease of Beauty: Liturgy, Evangelization, and Catechesis,” Liturgy in the Twenty-First Century, pp. 91, 100.

 

Reality

In Christianity on February 23, 2017 at 7:27 pm

Understood rightly, Catholic Christianity is not a matter of “religion” but of reality.

If we believe what Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition tell us about God’s creating love, caring intervention, and constant presence, then our comprehension of the world around us will be changed.

Strangers Among Flatlanders
Archbishop Charles Chaput has written a wonderful book titled, Strangers in a Strange Land. The title¹ comes from the Old Testament book of Exodus 2:22 (King James translation) of the Bible, a verse which explains why Moses named his son “Gershom,” which can be translated as stranger, sojourner, or even foreigner.

Certainly many of us feel like strangers and sojourners in our societies. We question our society’s direction and our government’s priorities.

Archbishop Chaput likens our postmodern world to that portrayed in the novel, Flatland. He points out: “Popular wisdom holds that Flatland was a satire of the conventionalism the Victorian era. But we might find better parallel closer to our our land.”

How so?

For Flatlanders, all of reality consists in width and length . . . One night the narrator, an urbane and orthodox Square (an attorney), is visited by a Sphere. The Sphere lifts him out of this Flatland universe. It shows him the glory of three dimensions and proves that Flatland is only part of a much larger reality [emphasis mine].²

The Order of Things
Fr. James V. Schall’s book, The Order of Things, may be the best guide to getting out of flatland and grounded in reality. As Fr. Schall explains, “The highest activity of the human being, that in which his natural happiness consists, is the contemplation of the truth, that is, of knowing the order of things [emphasis mine], what life and the world and their sources are about.”³

We live in an age of scientism. But science can only tell us about that which is observable; measurable on science’s own terms. But how much can science tell us about justice, meaning, character, virtue, or love? What can it tell us about the possibility of a higher power’s having ordered things as they exist? The limits of empirical validation are exceeded very quickly. Summarizing Fr. Schall:

Christian revelation, whether we like it or not . . . exists as an intelligible explication of things that are [emphasis his]. It is intended to alert us to more than we might think possible to know by our own powers. It is also a response to things we do know.

Revelation doesn’t simply complement reality. Revelation completes reality.

Reality is two-tiered: seen and unseen; visible and invisible, as the Nicene Creed expresses it. Men and women who permit their reasoning to be constrained by the visible make themselves strangers to reality. More than 500 years ago in Hamlet, Shakespeare wrote of a similar failure to grasp all of reality, using words remarkably similar to the title of Archbishop Chaput’s book:

Horatio:
O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!

Hamlet:
And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

The refusal to consider all of reality, especially the Creator of reality, does not escape the “God problem,” as Fr. Schall calls it. “We merely locate our explanation someplace else, even if we call it atheism.”4

Yet the Christian is also a stranger in any land that closes its eyes to reality, by asserting that faith is a private matter with nothing to say about visible, public, day-to-day parts of reality. Archbishop Chaput’s book offers much that is helpful as we seek to live thoughtfully and responsibly as Christians and citizens. In the words of Fr. Schall:

To rule ourselves . . . means to use our mind and will to know and guide what is already in us or related to us, so that we direct these powers to a proper purpose, to the end of our being.5

Strangers in a Strange Land does much to identify that proper purpose and to explain our role in pursuing it during an era when thinking or acting in only two dimensions will not do.

 

 

¹ If seeking Archbishop Chaput’s book, click the title below, which is linked. The Archbishop’s book is a very different work from Stranger in a Strange Land, the science fiction novel by Robert Heinlein.

²  Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World, by Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, page 80 of 273 (Kindle edition).

³  The Order of Things, by Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press), page 108. See also The Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 37–38.

4 The Order of Things, p. 49.

5 The Order of Things, p. 95.