Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The Victory over Satan’s Pride

With the social media full of the scandal around Theodore McCarrick and with calls for justice and punishment against all who somehow enabled his crimes and sins as well as for those egregious sins and crimes of others guilty of the same or of complicity therein, the story from Pope Saint Gregory the Great’s life of St. Benedict came to mind: of the wicked priest who, jealous of the sanctity and fame of Benedict, sought first to kill him and then to corrupt his young monks and destroy his work:

“When the aforesaid Florentius saw that he could not kill the body of his master, he attempted what he could against the souls of his disciples, in so much that he sent seven naked girls into the garden of the Cloister where Benedict lived, that so playing for a long time hand in hand, they might entice their souls to naughtiness, which when the holy man espied out of his cell, to prevent the fall of his younger disciples, and considering that all this was done only for the persecuting of himself, he gave place to envy, and after he had disposed of the Oratories and other buildings, leaving in them a competent number of Brethren with Superiors, he took with him a few monks and removed to another place. Thus the man of God with humility avoided his hatred, whom Almighty God struck with a terrible judgment: for when the aforesaid Priest, standing in his summer house, heard to his great joy, that Benedict was gone, the room wherein he was fell down and crushed and killed the enemy of Benedict, all the rest of the house remaining immovable. This Maurus, the disciple of the man of God, thought fit to signify forthwith to the venerable Father Benedict, who was yet scarce gone ten miles saying: “Return for the Priest that did persecute you is slain.” Which the man of God hearing took very heavily, both because his enemy was dead and because his disciple rejoiced thereat. Whereupon he enjoined him a penance for presuming in a joyful manner to bring such news to him.”

The great Pope Gregory says that Benedict “gave place to envy”, he sounded an ordered retreat before the wicked priest’s repeated attacks, after the manner of the Gospel admonition to shake the dust from the apostle’s feet and move on with his message if he is not welcome in a place. What does meekness require of us in the face of great evil? Certainly both St. Boniface and St. Francis Xavier tore down pagan abominations, as for that matter so did Benedict himself to enable the construction of Monte Cassino. It would seem, however, that casting demons out of men or winning them over to virtue travels the path of invitation and not aggression toward the sinner. The parable about letting the weeds and wheat grow together until the harvest comes readily to mind.

Ruminations? Well, yes! I think the hierarchy has to act in accordance with the principle laid down by St. Paul of turning over the public sinner to Satan such that he might be saved on the Last Day or turn again through repentance as soon as possible. The dynamics of what is going on among some of the hierarchy and in some chanceries and seminaries as well reminds one of the wicked Florentius, Benedict’s nemesis. Fearful of doing injustice by pulling out the wheat with the weeds, however, I am sorely inclined to do as Benedict, who “gave place to envy”, who withdrew. How long before a monastic movement or renewal can take root and reform, sanctify society, causing Mother Church to shine forth like a city on a hill? Hard to say, but the important thing is to move, to start. I’m praying for a new generation of apostles to tear down abominations and monks to repopulate the wilderness to do battle with Satan’s pride.


Saturday, July 28, 2018

Keeping Saturdays with Mary

With next Saturday, the First Saturday of August, in mind as I took my walk early this morning, Mary’s words to Sister Lucia were running through my mind:

“See, my daughter, my Heart encircled by thorns with which ungrateful men pierce it at every moment by their blasphemies and ingratitude. Do you, at least, strive to console me. Tell them that I promise to assist at the hour of death with the graces necessary for salvation all those who, in order to make reparation to me, on the First Saturday of five successive months, go to confession, receive Holy Communion, say five decades of the Rosary, and keep me company for a quarter of an hour, meditating on the fifteen mysteries of the Rosary.”

Heading up a side street in downtown Sioux Falls on the return from my walk, my eyes fell upon a storefront ministry I had never noticed before; on the front door it read: DIRECT LINE Prayer Central. As allergic as most Protestant groups are to any notion of intercession, of anyone standing between God and the individual, I found the very thought sort of comical that anyone would want to offer their prayers or prayer intentions really through the intercession of somebody claiming to have a direct line to Jesus while discounting the Mother of God, the Angels and Saints in Glory. Maybe I am just stuck on the old cliché about Father having a direct line to the Almighty, the sort of thing with which stewardesses greet a priest when he gets onto a plane.

If I could go back to Our Lady’s words, then: “…and keep me company for a quarter of an hour, meditating on the fifteen mysteries of the Rosary.” Keep me company… Those three words have to be one of the most insightful descriptions of prayer that I have ever come across. I know that “keep me company” does not let itself be pinned down as either praise or petition, nor does it fit the neat categories of meditation or contemplation. It is for that maybe that I like the notion so very much. Would that we could always think of ourselves at prayer and wherever as keeping Jesus or Mary company.

If I say any more, I will no doubt spoil the notion or break the spell. Memories of childhood come back and of just sitting next to Mom or Grandma, memories of sitting on the couch behind Dad sitting on the floor and as requested just combing his hair: keeping someone company. Thinking about Jesus or Mary and of this being a mutual sort of think is indeed mind boggling, but only to the extent that we are estranged from the notion of prayer as it is with a God Who is nearer to us than we are to ourselves.

Somehow “keep me company” sounds infinitely better and much more telling than talking of a “prayer of presence”.


Monday, July 23, 2018

Fed by God

Mark 6:30-34
They were like sheep without a shepherd

“The apostles rejoined Jesus and told him all they had done and taught. Then he said to them, ‘You must come away to some lonely place all by yourselves and rest for a while’; for there were so many coming and going that the apostles had no time even to eat. So they went off in a boat to a lonely place where they could be by themselves. But people saw them going, and many could guess where; and from every town they all hurried to the place on foot and reached it before them. So as he stepped ashore he saw a large crowd; and he took pity on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd, and he set himself to teach them at some length.”

Prophecy: And they will all be taught by God. When and how is that supposed to happen? And Jesus withdrew with His disciples to a “lonely place where they could be by themselves.” With regard to the teaching of Jesus, this passage reminds me of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. All went away satisfied. And they all were fed by Christ.

I find that vacation time can sometimes provide the leisure for an unexpected, but reasonably good spiritual conversation with a priest friend, which can touch on themes which may come close to being of ultimate importance. From years of experience, though, I know better than to seek out or pine for such great talk during vacation or otherwise in life. That is not how it works, at least not as far as my reading of the lives of the saints has taken me. The instances recorded of such great exchanges are rather few and far between. Such excellent spiritual conversations usually take place after the manner of that recorded between a Monica and an Augustine, a mother and her son. They preparing for a sea voyage, but she in effect, as we read in the “Confessions of St. Augustine”, is preparing to take her leave of the earthly scene, her mission as a Christian mother having been achieved. I think also of the last annual visit of Scholastica to her brother Benedict and of their all night conversation imposed by a terrible storm upon Benedict in answer to his sister’s prayers. They shared the whole night through about the things of God, here too a prelude to St. Scholastica’s departure from this life for the heavenly kingdom on high.

At any rate, the knowledge of the singular character of such spiritual exchanges reserved to saints does not keep me from extrapolating from a good conversation with a priest friend, indeed a conversation not without merit even though it may have skirted the central issues somewhat, no doubt for the lack of sanctity on the part of the interlocutors who are far from the category of a Benedict or an Augustine. Inspired, if you will, by some of what we touched upon in earnest, I wish to go further and to share some thoughts about issues at the heart of a certain malaise among Catholic faithful, which would be soothed away, which longs to be quenched or fed by Jesus for the sake of the life of the world.

“So as he stepped ashore he saw a large crowd; and he took pity on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd, and he set himself to teach them at some length.”

In our exchange, my friend bemoaned the sad plight of the work of evangelization in the Church today and blamed it on a lack of priestly zeal. On this he blamed the present plight of parishes and parish closings, of dwindling Sunday Mass attendance even here in the Heartland. The man is no slacker and I can attest for a fact to his dedication to tireless effort in the Lord’s vineyard. He himself is a rather inspired evangelizer, though I cannot attest to his efforts having been crowned by long term staying power in the parishes where he has served. I see him pictured in the above Gospel passage as working before Christ’s intervention to call the apostles away to rest and allow the Lord Jesus Himself to do the feeding and teaching. By this I mean, well, that unless the Lord build the house or guard the city, in vain does the builder or watchman go about his task. There is a listlessness which seems to hold the flock hostage and for any number of reasons. One’s personal efforts to build a better mousetrap are not going to be decisive for gathering in strays more than one at a time. The challenge is one of what to do in the face of a general trend away from Catholic practice. What do you do when there are not 99 but maybe only 35 or less peacefully pasturing on verdant fields? My thesis would be that the Lord’s work is not getting done; that our activism is standing in the way of Christ’s leading and feeding.

Granted, we have some serious sin issues and laxity among the clergy which are not being well enough addressed. A goodly part of the social media these days are propounding with no little vehemence, that the sheep are without shepherds, or if you will, that the wolves in sheep’s clothing are popping up all over the place. What to do?

Besides purging and reforming, we need to have recourse to the Lord. Something has malfunctioned or short circuited over the course of the last decades. Apart from sin in the life of the shepherds and of a grievous sort, it would seem that priests have gotten in the way of the Good Shepherd or at least have not had recourse to Him as their convincing witness before the flock.

Proximity to and genuine cooperation with the Good Shepherd, facilitating a work which is primarily His, would seem to be our call. We cannot do the feeding; that us up to Christ.


Friday, July 20, 2018

Seek the Lord!

Saint Athanasius closes his treatise on the Incarnation with these words of encouragement:

“But for the searching and right understanding of the Scriptures there is need of a good life and a pure soul, and for Christian virtue to guide the mind to grasp, so far as human nature can, the truth concerning God the Word. One cannot possibly understand the teaching of the saints unless one has a pure mind and is trying to imitate their life. Anyone who wants to look at sunlight naturally wipes his eye clear first, in order to make, at any rate, some approximation to the purity of that on which he looks; and a person wishing to see a city or country goes to the place in order to do so. Similarly, anyone who wishes to understand the mind of the sacred writers must first cleanse his own life, and approach the saints by copying their deeds. Thus united to them in the fellowship of life, he will both understand the things revealed to them by God and, thenceforth escaping the peril that threatens sinners in the judgment, will receive that which is laid up for the saints in the kingdom of heaven. Of that reward it is written: "Eye hath not seen nor ear heard, neither hath entered into the heart of man the things that God has prepared"  for them that live a godly life and love the God and Father in Christ Jesus our Lord, through Whom and with Whom be to the Father Himself, with the Son Himself, in the Holy Spirit, honor and might and glory to ages of ages. Amen.”

I wonder sometimes just how far out of touch we are in refusing to link genuine understanding to discipleship and thereby meant an all out quest for sanctity of life, such that we can get into the heads and hearts of the saints, the sacred authors. What sense could talk of a paradigm shift possibly have when my goal is or must be to put on the mind of Christ?

The thought of those sad “Enlightenment” monks comes to me, who for the sake of learning, research, science (take your pick) would renounce the monastic rule and the watchfulness which characterized their commitment to choir and for what, but for such a pittance. Psalm 130, the sixth Penitential Psalm 130 (De Profundis):

“5 I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; 6 my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning. 7 O Israel, hope in the LORD! For with the LORD there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem. 8 It is he who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities.”

“Ye watchers and ye holy ones” the old Easter hymn. Pray tell me, what does a paradigm shift have to do with a change of heart?


Thursday, July 19, 2018

The Bread of Penitence

I was struck by the commentary of Saint Robert Bellarmine on these verses of the 4th Penitential Psalm (Ps. 102):

“8 All day long my enemies taunt me; those who deride me use my name for a curse. 9 For I eat ashes like bread, and mingle tears with my drink, 10 because of your indignation and anger; for you have lifted me up and thrown me aside. 11 My days are like an evening shadow; I wither away like grass.”

Bellarmine observes, among other things in his rich commentary:

“8 They who seriously turn to penance are always objects of hatred to those sinners who choose to remain in their sins. “He is grievous unto us even to behold; for his life is not like other men’s, and his ways are very different,” Wisdom 2; and, though that was said of the just man, it applies to the penitent sinner, seeking to be reconciled also. He, therefore, says, “All the day long my enemies reproached me.” All those who previously, by reason of our union in wickedness, had been my friends, when they saw me become another man, turned out most bitter enemies, and upbraided and reproached me with my conversion, as if I were doing a foolish act; “and they who praised me” as a brave and boon companion, for the wicked are praised for their bad acts, afterwards “did swear against me,” conspired to injure me.”

The world, so to speak, has no praise but rather derision for the penitent. Obvious, no? Amidst all the noise in the corridors, even of God’s House, it would hardly seem so. The penitent to the extent that he, she or, in the case of many a married couple, they who choose to nourish themselves on a bread baked in the ashes and from a cup mingled with tears are treated with contempt, not only by pagans and apostates, but by the lukewarm of the household of the faith.

Numbers of these critical and supposedly sophisticated “establishment Catholics” are spitting venom against Humanae vitae and all who dare to say that Pope Paul VI spoke prophetically fifty years ago, and that the procreative end of marriage is primary and cannot be excluded from marriage without dire peril for the institution of matrimony, for the lives of those involved and for the sake of the life of the Church on behalf of the world and its salvation.

Unitive? I suppose, but not without openness to life and fostering children as its primary mission. Here’s to bread mixed with ashes! Pardon, O Lord! Pardon!


Monday, July 16, 2018

Priestly Life and Identity

The Mass of Brother Michel
Michael Kent, 
Angelico Press 2017

Waiting for me at the beginning of vacation this year was this new edition of an old novel with a foreword by Peter Kwasniewski. The book was devoured in short order once I got over jet lag. I recommend it highly and for a number of reasons.

It treats the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and the mystery of the Real Presence in great fashion, but with proper reserve; there is nothing gushy about the devotional aspect of the tale. The author rightly rejects Protestant heresies with regard to the Seven Sacraments and especially as regards the Christian life. The novel is an ode to the priesthood and its ontological character.

The two protagonists of the book, Michel and Louise, together with Michel’s mother and Louise’s father, give witness to heroic virtue, true sanctity in the lives of lay people, despite their crises and falls from grace. The Sacrament of Penance, or better its salutary effects, gets the same matter of fact and positive treatment, working miracles of grace in the lives of people desperate to break free from the shackles of mortal sin.

It may just be me, but I would fault the book as a historical novel, in that it has somewhat the tenor of a fairy tale or hagiographic legend. If that is your impression as you start through it, hold on in hopes of struggling through to the book’s central message.

Written in unsuspecting times, before the Council was called, it can offer a dose of realism concerning what could be hoped for from a liturgical restoration alone, without a cultural recovery centered on the Catholic family as the little Church and the necessary agent of  evangelization. It is thus that one should understand the fervent wish and prayer that sublime liturgy in continuity with the tradition would soon again be there. In his debate with the Huguenot preacher, Michel makes clear that renouncing the Eucharist is to renounce the only real sustenance for the way.


Saturday, July 14, 2018

Intercessory Prayer as Call to Holines

The last paragraph from the Office’s Second Reading today, “From a discourse of St Augustine on the Psalms - The true Solomon is our Lord Jesus Christ”, reminded me of a conversation I had the other day with a good Catholic lady about intercessory prayer. The spark for my reflection came from the very last two sentences:  

“He alone knows, who sees your thoughts. It is he who builds, he who gives advice, he who instils fear, he who opens the understanding, he who directs your perceptions and leads you to faith; and yet we too work, as labourers in the harvest.”

I don’t believe that we are cognizant enough of the role belonging to Jesus in our lives, He, as the “true Solomon”, the Temple builder. This unconsciousness of ours takes the wind out of most everybody’s sails when it comes to saying or hearing expressions like: “Be assured of my prayers” or “I will pray for you”. We don’t pray as we ought simply because we can’t seem to recognize the true Temple builder for who he is. We are not open to him… who builds, he who gives advice, he who instils fear, he who opens the understanding, he who directs your perceptions and leads you to faith.”

It is indeed a matter of our personal sanctity rightly understood. Saint Peter and Saint Paul were wonder workers because Christ lived in them. Jesus was their be all and end all, and thus they were indeed holy. Holiness is not something inert like radiation, but it is relational in a most dynamic sort of way. The great helper saints, to whom people have recourse for their powerful and secure intercession, like Saint Anthony of Padua or Saint Rita of Cascia, are not who they are for us because of some sort of spiritual muscles, but because of their intimate relationship with the Temple builder… who builds… This comes home to me time and again while reading Saint Faustina’s diaries. Just one excerpt:

“June 24. After Holy Communion, I heard these words: Know, My daughter, that in one moment I can give you everything that is needed for the fulfillment of this task. After these words, an extraordinary light remained in my soul, and all God’s demands seemed to me to be so simple that even a little child could carry them out.”

Call it “living in expectation” or “being attentive to the Bridegroom”, I can understand why so many church portals bore the representation in stone or mosaic or fresco of Jesus’ parable of the wise and foolish virgins. What made or broke them and what makes or breaks us is attentiveness to the true Solomon, the Temple builder.

The lady asked me, “Does God hear our prayers if we are in mortal sin?” My response, “God always hears, but such prayers are without merit because we have separated ourselves off from God. We need to get to confession as quickly as possible.” Our sinfulness puts us out of range of the great work which the true Solomon would do in your life or in mine for the sake of the life of the world. We were always taught that intercessory prayer or prayer of petition was somehow less than prayer of praise or adoration. Perhaps it would be better to say that our petition is as good as our contemplation and Mary is our model: “Son, they have no wine.” “Do whatever he tells you.”

Attentiveness is the essential component of the Christian life and of our life of prayer. Cooperating with the grace provided will assure us a place as laborers in the harvest and that unto glory.