December 25, 2011
Isa 52:7-10; Hb 1:1-6; Jn 1:1-18
There’s a story told about St. Anthony of Desert, the “Father of Monasticism,” that seems appropriate for Christmas Day. As the story goes, St. Anthony’s reputation for holiness grew to the point that he began to receive letters from famous people asking for spiritual counsel. Even Emperor Constantine and the royal family wrote to him. St. Anthony, however,
made nothing very much of the letters, nor did he rejoice at the messages. But he was the same as he had been before the Emperors wrote to him. But when they brought him the letters he called the monks and said, ‘Do not be astonished if an emperor writes to us, for he is a man; but rather wonder that God wrote the Law for men and has spoken to us through His own Son’ (Life of Anthony, s. 81).
St. Anthony’s nonchalance toward the imperial letters is a bit shocking–all the more shocking, of course, when we think about our own spontaneous reactions toward celebrity. If a major-league player so much as autographs a baseball for us, we encase it in glass and make it a conversation piece; if we receive a letter from the president, we frame it and display it above the mantle (at least if it’s a president we voted for); if we wind up in the waiting room with a Hollywood actress, we post a picture of FB and we relate every word she spoke—often to our friends’ annoyance.
St. Anthony, as we now know, didn’t go in for this sort of thing. But what interests me most is that St. Anthony doesn’t attribute his remarkable indifference to any contempt for Emperors or celebrities as such. No. As he explains it, he remains unimpressed because he has discovered something far more awe-inspiring: the fact “that God has spoken to us through His own Son.”
This, my brothers and sisters in Christ, is the staggering fact of Christmas. Read the rest of this entry »
December 21, 2011
It is almost 2012, and the world will soon be ending. At least, according to the Mayans and a fundamentalist preacher in California, it will. Even though the Church’s readings in November, the end of the liturgical year, and Advent, the beginning, point toward the Second Coming, I have, I admit, not been overly concerned.
But then I had an unusual conversation a few weeks ago with a priest who was passing through town, one of those delightful Jesuits one meets who could be described as “a little crazy, in a good way.” On the surface, this good priest appears a tad unkempt, but you can tell from the way he prays the Mass—and he is praying, not performing—that the man has real spiritual depth.
While visiting our community, this man talked about his time, many years ago, working on the Rosebud Reservation, where I am now stationed. He talked about working with prisoners and people in one of the reservation’s most depressed communities and then said, almost out of nowhere, “It was here that I realized that prisoners and the really destitute have an intuitive understanding of the apocalypse—the good news of the apocalypse.” And then his voice rose slightly and he gave his little-crazy-in-a-good-way laugh and added, “Because it is good news.”
I realized I had never thought of the apocalypse as good news before, but I should have. The Bible itself ends with an urgent prayer for the Lord’s swift return: Come, Lord Jesus! (Rev 22:20). We pray for the end of this world every day in the words of the Our Father, Thy Kingdom come.
Read the rest of this entry »
December 20, 2011
The Last Summit (La Última Cima—2010). This low-budget documentary tribute to a late Spanish priest, Pablo Dominguez, might be the most powerful movie about the priesthood that I’ve seen to date. It invites, moreover, searching questions about our contemporary images of priesthood.
It seems that movie reviews always call for an attitude of ironic detachment, or at least a tone of scientific indifference, toward their subjects. Allow me, however, to be frankly enthusiastic about
The tragic event that forms the constant background to The Last Summit turns out to be a hiking accident, an accident that cost Pablo Dominguez his life in 2009–at only 42 years of age. Read the rest of this entry »
December 17, 2011
Second Preface of Advent (the long prayer that leads up to the “Holy, Holy, Holy”), which the Church uses between December 17 and Christmas, mentions only two saints by name: the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist. Presenting them as living icons of the Advent season, the prayer recalls how “the Virgin Mother longed for him with love beyond all telling, John the Baptist sang of his coming and proclaimed his presence when he came.” In the Gospels of the last two Sundays, we already contemplated St. John the Baptist’s call to “prepare the way of the Lord,” and listened to him “sing” of the Lord’s coming with his self-denial. But in the Gospel of this fourth and final week of Advent, our gaze turns toward Mary. Outwardly, the transition from the stern “voice crying out in the wilderness” to the gentle virgin from Nazareth could hardly be more abrupt. But despite all the obvious differences in appearance and activity, Mary resembles John the Baptist in the one thing necessary: in intense longing for the advent of the Lord into her life and into the world. . She “longed for him,” as our Preface reminds us, “with a love beyond all telling.”
I’d like to make just one observation about our Gospel today that might help us to appreciate the quality of Mary’s longing. The observation concerns her famous response, “May it be done to me (γένοιτό μοι) according to your Word.” Read the rest of this entry »
December 16, 2011
Ever wonder how one could possibly fulfill Paul’s directive to the Thessalonians to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17)? I have, and I’ve also been asked by students how one manages such a feat. (Does sleeping count?)
Apparently St. Augustine wondered the same thing because he gives a nice interpretation of the phrase in today’s Office of Readings, which I thought worth sharing. His answer struck me as rather “Ignatian,” in the sense that Ignatian discernment trains us to be attentive to our desires and where they’re leading us. And our desire for the coming of Christ is one of the great undercurrents of this quietly joyful season of Advent.
So here he is, the ever-profound, ever-insightful St. Augustine:
[T]he desire of your heart is itself your prayer. And if the desire is constant, so is your prayer. The Apostle Paul had a purpose in saying: Pray without ceasing. Are we then ceaselessly to bend our knees, to lie prostrate, or to lift up our hands? Is this what is meant in saying: Pray without ceasing? Even if we admit that we pray in this fashion, I do not believe that we can do so all the time.
Yet there is another, interior kind of prayer without ceasing, namely, the desire of the heart. Whatever else you may be doing, if you but fix your desire on God’s Sabbath rest, your prayer will be ceaseless. Therefore, if you wish to pray without ceasing, do not cease to desire…
December 6, 2011
Not really from our time period, but it was the best I could do...
On the 8th of January 1965, on page four hundred and ninety five of The Commonweal, on the right hand side of the page, we find an advertisement. It depicts the profile of a man in a tie placing a cigarette to his lips. The matching tagline reads: “Can a priest be a modern man?” The copy below clarifies that Priests can be men of “this age, cognizant of the needs of modern men.” Free from formalism, the priest is a pioneer, a missionary to his own people, utilizing his individual talents and modern technology to preach the word of God. A clearer image of the changing demographics and temperament of the American Catholic Church (as painted by Commonweal during this time) is difficult to find.
With these issues we step not only into the middle ‘60s, but into a world and Church beginning to look like those with which I am familiar. In September of ’64 we see not only the third session of the Council opening, but also the incipient Free Speech Movement in Berkeley. November brings the victory of Lyndon Johnson over Barry Goldwater, and the initiation of English into the liturgy. 1965 sees the assassination of Malcolm X and the signing of the Civil Rights Act, the Watts riots in Los Angeles, and anti-war protests springing up across the country. Commonweal keeps pace with such modern events. In its pages we begin to see Church conflicts framed along a progressive/conservative divide and phrases such as the “post-Christian West” and the “re-conversion of Europe.” Commonweal even describes its mission as one that meshes perfectly with the signs of the times, writing in an self-advertisement: “Now, in the new climate engendered by Popes John and Paul, this widely quoted, lay-edited journal of opinion has more to contribute that in the years before.” And contribute it does, the questions are: what does it contribute? Why? And to what end? Read the rest of this entry »
December 6, 2011
Though many lament the growing “secularization” of American culture, it remains true that, at least relative to other nations of the affluent West, American Christianity enjoys a rather prominent public role. It’s not only the fact that Americans go to Church more, though this is not insignificant. It’s also that the “place” of religion in the broader civic order seems more prominent. It still seems “more American” to go to Church on Sunday, to pray the Lord’s prayer at high school ball games, and to salt political speeches with biblical rhetoric. It seems very un-European, by contrast, to do any of these things. And while it is easy for American Christians to be self-congratulatory about this difference, the success of one of St. Francis Xavier’s more indelicate evangelization strategies suggests that America’s comparative religious vitality may be more circumstantial than we care to admit.
The particular evangelization strategy that I have in mind is the violation of shrines. As I pointed out in another post (and my return to the theme might indicate an obsession), St. Francis had little-known penchant for toppling Hindu statuary. This tactic raises, of course, all sorts of theological and ethical questions. Bracketing these for a moment, however, we can still ask a question that few nowadays ask. Were these acts effective? Did they effectively distance Hindus from their religious commitments? And if so, what do tell us about contemporary secularization dynamics? Read the rest of this entry »