Saturday, April 25, 2020

The Prodigal Son's Return even without the Music and Dancing

Years and years ago, I read the novel IRONWEED (1983), by author William Kennedy, winner of The Pulitzer Prize (1984) and the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. You never hear of the book today, so it must not have stood the test of time. I think Kennedy’s novel came to mind because of all the discussion about possible consequences for our future of the “Coronavirus lock down”, which has thrown so many people out of work worldwide. Even here in Switzerland, I am noticing businesses that have closed, empty storefronts. The setting of the novel IRONWEED may have been Albany, New York in 1938, but the vocabulary, “bum” or “hobo”, as it was used back then to describe people, whom today we might class as “homeless” or without a roof over their heads, was still current twenty years later in my youth. The novel’s merit would seem to be in explaining the complicated reasons for human tragedy, which were not simple to sort out back during the Great Depression and for decades thereafter. What is involved today in making an economy function or prosper is certainly even harder to grasp.

As per IRONWEED, from the late 1950’s and early ‘60’s, when my family lived in Moorhead, Minnesota, I retain vivid memories of riding in the car with Dad or on the public bus with Mom over to Fargo, North Dakota. Right after the bridge across the Red River, you passed a long line of old taverns and liquor stores, with men plopped along the curb or on the sidewalk leaning against the buildings, no matter the hour of the day. I had no problem picturing the novel’s protagonists and their sad lot. That street from the bridge into Fargo downtown was called “skid row”. The Wikipedia definition of the term is not bad, even if Fargo was far from urban back in the 1950’s (just over 40,000 people): “A skid row or skid road is an impoverished area, typically urban, in English-speaking North America whose inhabitants are people "on the skids". This specifically refers to the poor, the homeless or others considered either disreputable or forgotten by society... Urban areas considered skid rows are marked by high vagrancy, and they often feature cheap taverns, dilapidated buildings, and drug dens as well as other features of urban blight. Used figuratively, it may indicate the state of a poor person's life.”

          You have guessed my question or puzzlement, no doubt. How many people will lose their homes and livelihood because of the “lock down” or because of how our leaders have chosen to mismanage or confront this pandemic of our day? By the 1950’s the soup kitchens of the Great Depression, the WPA projects which gave jobless work building highways across the Midwest and sculpted Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills of South Dakota were no more. Because of the War (deaths) and war industries, life had improved a lot. Skid rows, however, endured, as I say, even in towns like Fargo. They were a factor in smaller towns perhaps because Mid-America was less cruel than the big cities. These people were still down and out, because nobody had much left over to dedicate to those men sprawled out on the sidewalks of skid row. The word “liquidity” (spare cash assets) was not in my parents’ vocabulary. Odd jobs for a meal were not exactly the rule of the day.

          Permit me with these ramblings just to make a simple point! Poverty, even misery, is not the end of the world. Perhaps subsistence farming (the childhood experience of both of my parents) was not so bad.  Would it be so devastating of we were forced to return to the countryside, to living hand to mouth, getting by with a bit of egg or milk money, as they did? Granted, the memory of having money for this that and the other thing, supersized meals and endless entertainment does not convince. Even back then, such frugality was not idyllic. My point would be, that we need to discover or rediscover the sense of human flourishing. Grandma would have preached about living within our means (cash and carry – no plastic!).

          Please, God, spare your people from undue hardship and want! Teach us, O Lord, the path to righteousness!



Friday, April 17, 2020

Symphonia - Altar and Throne

One of my all time favorite images is this painting of St. John Chrysostom reading the riot act to the empress, she trying to make the best of a situation where the Patriarch of Constantinople was calling her and, let us say, civil government to account. For me, regardless of the element of poetic license which might be noted in the picture, it serves as a valuable corrective to the prevailing "wisdom" concerning how Church in the East and in the West, since Constantine up until our day, differ from each other. It renders inadequate many a definition of so-called symphonia, as a description of the Eastern model for relations between Church and State. It invites us to look again at the Papacy and the monarchical model for the office of Bishop in the West, from the time Rome, encircled by barbarian hordes, was left in the lurch by an impotent or disinterested Byzantium.

The point would seem to be, that neither East nor West has succeeded in doing other than putting up a good front, making the best of an oppressive situation, which more often than not has left us squirming under the thumb of a temporal power. This power, imperial, royal, oligarchic, tyrannic, or somehow democratic, whether confessionally Catholic, of some other religious allegiance, militantly atheistic or a-confessional agnostic or somehow generic in its lack of commitment to Christ as He lives and reigns in His Church, has always sought the upper hand and believed itself to be capable or somehow even having been authorized to interfere in the internal affairs of Christ's Mystical Body.

This brings us to the varied, but evidently global challenge of authority's response to COVID-19, the pandemic, plague in the 21st Century. Somebody recommended to me this article which appeared in German in the NZZ by an Italian author. Giorgio Agamben poses three legitimate and pointed questions concerning how the governmental response has put the existing world order in question, riding roughshod over every dimension of piety in the social sphere: our respect for the dead, our care for the dying, the whole gamut of issues relative to human solidarity. Without much ado Agamben dismisses the medical field as incapable of assuming any tutelage for the human person in any context. He challenges the Catholic Church for its failure to challenge this disassembly of culture. He asks what jurists are all about if they fail to take up the defense of basic human rights. He more or less defies the reader to produce evidence that things will ever be the same now that certain temporal authorities have arrogated to themselves such sweeping discretionary power over the social order.

Myths about Church-State relations aside, we look at St. John Chrysostom's symphonia and the number of eastern hierarchs over the centuries who died in banishment and conclude there has never been a Byzantine age without heavy contrasts, which have cost the Church dearly. Despite the occasional skirmish won, we also realize that monumental wall murals like that of Pope St. Leo the Great confronting the Mongol hordes on horseback in full papal regalia contain no small amount of poetic license as well. Fair enough, Agamben seems to invite in his article the Church from the Pope on down to stand up for the social order and for culture and to suffer even unto martyrdom (no small amount of poetic license in these couple paragraphs of his as well!). 

In these days of the Octave of Easter and our Novena for Divine Mercy Sunday, we are continually confronted with the smallness of the Church at its beginnings. We must marvel at the tiny circle of witnesses to the Resurrection of Christ both favorable or thoroughly compromised (like the guards at the tomb), For a goodly number of them, there was no small ambiguity to the experience of that Easter Sunday earthquake, as that bright Angel opened the tomb casting fear all around. The Angel brought consolation and mission to the women who had come seeking the Body of Jesus with the words, He is not here, He is risen and goes before you. 

Our social order has been overturned by the godless hordes of our day and time. It could be that there is no going back, just as there was no return to Egypt for Israel, passed over through the blood of the paschal lamb and through the waters of the sea. Would you agree with me, that we can leave Giorgio Agamben to weep the passing of the old order and be about the business of seeking the Risen One?


Tuesday, April 14, 2020

A Priest‘s Second Conversion

Spiritual Insights into an Essential Encounter with God. 
IGNATIUS PRESS    SAN FRANCISCO. 2017. Kindle Edition. 

After reading Fr Haggerty‘s book Contemplative Provocations  and  being very much impressed by Father’s insights into the nature of contemplation and its key role in our life of faith, I picked out this book of his and cannot say I am disappointed even though much less enthused than by CP, perhaps because of what he writes concerning the role of the Eucharist in the life of a Christian and per force in the life of a priest. For the community of the Church, the key importance of the priest as a recollected and reverent celebrant of the Eucharist in stirring up faith in the true Presence of Jesus Lord and Savior in the Sacrament of the Altar goes without saying. The priest’s holy hour daily before Christ in the Tabernacle can certainly be held a sine qua non for unleashing that powerful presence within the community entrusted to the priest’s pastoral care. Nonetheless, I would say that Father Haggerty's position on the importance of the priest's private prayer life falls short of describing the prerequisites of reverence in public prayer. The author remains silent on the issue of the scandal of the rupture in our tradition of divine worship, which must be firmly anchored in solid traditional catechesis and personal prayer following approved traditional models (viz. the Holy Rosary). He makes no mention of the ineluctable role which a liturgical restoration must play in an overall renewal of Catholic life for today and tomorrow. 

I will take nothing away from this book, which reminds us all of what we are talking about in terms of the universal call to holiness and the way of perfection proper to the consecrated or vowed life, and most especially of what constitutes sanctity in the life and mission of those set apart by the Sacrament of Holy Orders. I recommend the book for many reasons.

One of the surprises contained therein is perhaps the most insightful treatment I have found to date of what constitutes the present crisis of the priesthood. Fr. Haggerty quotes Dorothy Day:

"Dorothy Day was asked in 1949 by a group of Maryknoll seminarians on a visit to her Catholic Worker house for the poor in the Lower East Side in New York what she considered the gravest problem facing the Church in America. Her answer was the bourgeois materialism of the clergy, which she said would collapse the love and respect of American Catholics for their priests. And surely that was a time of much less clerical privilege in material comforts. But truths do not change, including practical truths. The reluctance of priests to adopt a poorer life-style is still a reason why priests do not inspire greater respect, even from Catholics strong in faith and disposed to accept the humanity of their priests." (FATHER DONALD HAGGERTY Conversion Spiritual Insights into an Essential Encounter with God IGNATIUS PRESS . SAN FRANCISCO. 2017. Kindle edition)

Perhaps if we were able to hold the accusation of "bourgeois materialism" under the nose of the clergy instead of harping about clericalism, we might have more success touching priestly hearts and lives, thus calling them to conversion. In 1949, priests still did not receive a salary in the United States, but lived a bit like the ox not muzzled while treading out the grain. Dorothy, no doubt, knew that a goodly part of the clergy lived poor and generous, despite the excesses of the chosen few. The famously generous "Christmas collection" of old, which even in my first years of priesthood (1976) still belonged to the pastor and worked as an incentive for some priests to aspire to big, demanding and generally wealthy parishes, bought more than one big Mercedes back in those days and saw to it that dining room sets were changed at regular intervals and Persian carpets were not lacking. I remember an Italian story of a grand old man, who entertained his young associates by correctly guessing the brand and vintage year of unmarked glasses of champagne. Yes, bourgeois materialism!

Father Haggerty tags that second conversion in the life of a priest as the one which makes all the difference. He has much to say about its varied aspects, above all about the pastoral poverty and profound love of the poor which it should call forth. If only he could have framed his discourse in the context of a renewal based on a restoration of the Church life and liturgy which went lost after the Council. This is not "Bells of Saint Mary's" or "Going My Way" nostalgia, but a clear understanding of reverential fear in the Presence of the Almighty.

COVID-19 and the lock down have no doubt served many good Catholic families well in challenging them to live family prayer. In my second Lenten Season, Holy Week and Easter of praying the old breviary, I feel particularly blessed with its "ruminating" approach to the Scriptures and the mysteries celebrated. I don't lose much time over "spilled milk" but cannot help but wonder how older priests back in the 1970's suffered the deprivation of such a treasure.

As I say, Fr. Haggerty does not disappoint, but as important as the Holy Hour is to drawing close to the Lord, there are some other prayer anchors which could enrich the life of a priest and help him lead his people to that essential encounter with God.


Thursday, April 2, 2020

The Quest for Closeness to Our Lord

Contemplative Provocations.
Haggerty, Fr Donald. 
 Ignatius Press. 2013. Kindle Edition.

"Even in the consolation that silent prayer may grant, there is always a deeper layer of spiritual need untouched by peace, unsoothed by the tranquil breeze. This recess of poverty in the soul longs for a companion still not seen. It craves for more than the passing satisfaction. Our gratitude ought to increase if we leave prayer aware of this unsatisfied desire for the one who continues to conceal himself. Perhaps it is the finer grace of prayer." (pp. 25-26)

Without extensive elaboration, I would like to recommend this book length but still brief reflection on contemplative prayer. It could very well be that the time was just right for me to appreciate the insights therein contained, which do not surpass those of so many who have written on the topic, but Fr. Haggerty spoke to me as none other in this one. I am grateful for the appreciation which has come to me through his reflections. I would recommend the book to others of both extremes: both those too sure of their path to contemplation and those stymied by the whole business and perhaps even despairing of attaining a spirit of recollection and prayer drawing close to the Lord Who loves us. In short, the book is not to be discounted. It is more than worth the read. Let the quote above stand for countless others I could have shared. 

One of the haunting discoveries of this time of quarantine with COVID-19 has been for many good Catholics a sense of embarrassment over their estrangement from prayer and hence from God. If for you, in your particular lock-down situation, internet and Netflix have given way to the Holy Rosary or Scripture reading, you might have already discovered the noisy or distracted void which until recently was the common lot of none too few. Claiming space for yourself with the Lord by way of popular devotion, lectio divina and study (as of the catechism) is for all of us Catholics a must. It could be that you were already a Holy Hour steady and find yourself now being restricted by a more or less rigorous pandemic "flatten the curve of infection" regime of social distancing. It could just be that starting from a sincere cultivation of the practice of spiritual communion we can move our hearts to a genuine awareness of what Fr. Haggerty calls the finer grace of prayer, namely living with a soul wounded by love of the unseen Beloved,  always and everywhere  aware of this unsatisfied desire for the one who continues to conceal himself.