Happy Faults, Good Thieves, and Divine Mercy

April 27, 2011

This weekend’s beatification of Pope John Paul II means that the spotlight will shine even brighter on Divine Mercy Sunday this year.  While a few liturgical purists criticized the late pontiff for injecting such “Polish piety” into the liturgical calendar so close to Easter, it seems to me that divine mercy is at the heart of the Easter message.

If this intuition isn’t obvious, perhaps it’s because we’re in the habit of selling mercy short.  And if we fail to grasp how beautiful, how shocking, how dazzling mercy is, perhaps this is because we’re inclined to confuse it with a legal acquittal or a God who shrugs his shoulders and says “Whatever” to our sins.  Mercy, it seems to me, is much, much more than that.

We often say we’re sorry, usually without much thought, and in reply we usually hear, “That’s OK,” “Don’t worry about it,” “No problem.”  Rarely, if we knock over someone’s coffee cup or show up late for a meeting do we hear in reply, “I forgive you.”

Perhaps it’s best that such weighty words are not expended on social trivialities, but we shouldn’t so disassociate forgiveness from apologies that we begin to think that when confronted with our sins God just mutters “No problem” and gets on with running divine errands.

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Some Jesuit-themed books

January 11, 2011

Over the Christmas break I had time to do a little Jesuit-themed reading.

The more scholarly of the two books I read is Trent Pomplun’s Jesuit on the Roof of the World (2010).  It chronicles the life and travels of Ippolito Desideri, an eighteenth century Jesuit missionary to Tibet.  Born in Pistoia, Tuscany, Desideri entered the Society of Jesus in 1700 and realized his dreams of becoming a missionary in a region almost completely unknown to Europeans.  His detailed accounts of Tibetan religion, culture, and politics have led some to consider him the father of “Tibetan studies.”

Desideri’s career involved harrowing sea voyages, bouts of snow-blindness in the Himalayas, and fleeing from invading Mongol armies.  Of his fourteen years outside of Italy, he spent six in Tibet and the rest of the time in transit—or trying to avoid superiors who might send him back home.

Desideri was a man of immense courage, intellect, and faith, but his mission was not ultimately successful.  He finished his career as a missionary embroiled in ecclesiastical litigation with the Capuchins over which religious order had rights to the Tibetan mission.  At times hotheaded and vain, Desideri launched an ill-considered lawsuit against the Capuchins, which ended his own missionary career and forced his return to Rome.  His account of Tibetan life was published only after his death at the age of forty-nine.

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Gifts of Gold

January 3, 2011

I’ve been thinking about presents.  After all, it’s Epiphany week, and in my house Epiphany always meant a visit from the Befana.

The Befana, for those who don’t know, is a legendary old woman who brings gifts to Italian (and Italian-American) children on the feast of the Epiphany, a sort of Signora Santa Claus.  According to legend, the Befana was a particularly fussy housekeeper who lived along the route taken by the three kings on their journey to worship the baby Jesus.  When the Magi stopped at the Befana’s house, they offered to let her tag along and visit the newborn Messiah, but she claimed to have too much housework to do and declined.  Only after the Magi had left town did the Befana regret her decision and hurry to catch up… but by then it was too late, and the wise men were out of sight.  Since that first Epiphany she has been leaving presents for the children of every home she visits in the hope that one of them will turn out to be the Christ child.

I’ve also been thinking about presents because of an exhibit I recently visited at Chicago’s Field Museum.  The exhibit was about gold.  Of all the commodities Melchior, Balthasar, and Caspar came bringing, the only one which seems to have held up in market value is gold.  I’m afraid I wouldn’t know what to do if I found a box of myrrh under the tree, but gold would be nice, especially in today’s economy.

Gold, I learned at the Field Museum, has many unique properties.  It does not tarnish or rust.  It is found in small quantities throughout the world, on every habitable continent.  And, of course, it shines brilliantly.  There are other qualities too—gold is a great conductor of electricity and can be pounded into sheets mere microns thick—but these first three made me think about how appropriate it is that gold should show up time and again in religious rites.

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Beauty, Basilicas, and Barcelona

November 9, 2010

Beauty is one of mankind’s greatest needs.

—Benedict XVI

7 October 2010

 

On Sunday Pope Benedict consecrated the Basilica of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain, a truly awesome rite.  Construction of the basilica, Antoni Gaudí’s masterpiece, began in 1882 and is not expected to be complete for another decade and a half.  In that respect, the Sagrada Familia is like many of the other great churches of Europe which took centuries to complete.

Today, the Church celebrates the dedication of another great basilica, St. John Lateran, Rome’s cathedral.  To some, this might seem a rather strange feast on the liturgical calendar, commemorating as it does a building rather than an event in the life of Jesus or a saint.  Some might even disapprove of lavishing such attention on a structure, a sentiment that finds expression in a line from my least favorite liturgical song, “Gather Us In.”  “Gather us in,” the ditty goes, but “[n]ot in the dark of buildings confining.”

The idea of church buildings as “confining,” however, does not do justice to artistic marvels such as the Sagrada Familia or St. John Lateran, wonders as much spiritual as they are architectural.  These buildings are, in fact, a true and profound expression of faith.

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Jesuit daily reflections

September 21, 2010

There are a growing number of good resources for Ignatian spirituality on the web, and I discovered a new one today, daily reflections sponsored by the Magis Institute.  Today’s reflection was written by my good friend Joe Simmons, SJ, who was a part of the Jesuit Mission Band mentioned earlier on these pages.

I admit, I love the painting too.

I have heard Jesuits preach about Caravaggio’s famous painting, “The Calling of St. Matthew,” for the past four years now.  Are all Jesuits this unoriginal, or is there something especially compelling about this painting that speaks to the heart of the sons of St. Ignatius?
Michelangelo Caravaggio depicts a gaunt Jesus pointing at Matthew, who is seated around a table of well-dressed tax collectors in a shady customs post.  An oblique ray of light cuts through the darkness just above Jesus’ pointed finger.  The light bathes Matthew’s face, which betrays a look of tempered surprise – “surely, not I Lord,” he seems to say.  Matthew knows he is not a wholly worthy disciple of Jesus – look at the company he keeps and the life he lives, after all!  And yet there is Christ, pointing at him and summoning, “follow me.”

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Change!

June 11, 2010

Ah, yes, change.  Something that we both crave and fear.  The theme of Barack Obama’s victorious presidential campaign and now the mantra of his Tea Party opponents.  A more or less neutral value in itself, since change can be for good or ill.

Sometimes change is predictable (and perhaps, therefore, not really much of a change at all) and sometimes unexpected, shocking, unsettling.  I experienced one such unexpected change last month when I found the most recent issue of First Things in my mailbox.

There was a picture on the cover.

What had happened, I wondered.  Was this some sort of belated April Fool’s Day issue?  Or a sign of the impending apocalypse?  I scanned the horizon and saw no horsemen, so, gingerly, I opened the cover. Read the rest of this entry »


Melville, Hemingway, and new Mass translations

May 31, 2010

Last month the Holy See gave final approval to a revised English translation of the Roman Missal, a long process not without its share of comedy, tragedy, and controversy.  I, for one, am enthusiastic about the change, even while recognizing that change often takes a bit of effort to get used to.

The new translations have come in for a bit of criticism on the web and elsewhere, including a rather odd online petition drive.  The criticism mostly stems from the fact that the new translations, which hew more closely to the Latin original than the translations now in use, employ a vocabulary and syntax that is likely to sound a bit foreign to most contemporary English-speakers.

The desire for the words used at Mass to be comprehensible to most people is straightforward and laudable, but simple comprehension is not the only quality we should expect in our worship language.  In fact, sometimes it’s desirable for language to sound unusual and, yes, even foreign.  To help me make this point, let me call on two old friends from my days as an undergraduate English major:  Herman Melville and Ernest Hemingway. Read the rest of this entry »