Saturday, November 23, 2013

Greed is the Opposite of Thanksgiving

You may say it's not greed to be frugal, much less to buy a gift for someone else.  Often, shoppers on Black Thursday/Friday are simply seeking the best deals on their gift purchases.  In general, I suppose there's a point to be made there, but given the particular context, I'm gonna have to call shenanigans.

Is our Thanksgiving expression of gratitude really sincere if the very next day (or even the same day), we go out and demand more stuff?  What are we telling the ones we love if we encourage them to be thankful, but still feel the need to shower them with the latest and greatest?

Thanksgiving is the only example of American culture per se that we can call praiseworthy, yet we have sullied it by juxtaposing it on the calendar with one of the worst examples of American culture, unrestrained greed.

In making plans for this coming week, please consider the following. Notice any similarities?

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Time to Calm Down

It's pieces like this that annoy me into defending the pope.  It's not because I think the pope needs my help; it's because this stuff frustrates me to an extreme degree (and that is my own fault).

In the course of reading this particular phonebook of a post, I went through a bizarre emotional process which started with me keeping track of every single flaw in the presentation, peaked at an intense desire to author a reply with the full force of my mind grapes, only to come crashing down into a what's-the-point kind of apathy.

I need to stop letting people do this to me.
Maybe I should give it a rest.  I'm considering limiting all the Pope Francis related literature I read to only what he himself has said or written.  It will probably do wonders for my soul and my inner calm.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Same Old Same Old

In seminary, I put a name to a tendency I had noticed in the Church. It was everywhere, infesting our approaches to preaching, to youth ministry, to sacramental preparation, to catechesis, and even to the Church's varied forays into the media, old or new. I called it the "Same Old Same Old."

It was everywhere, but it annoyed me the most when it reared its ugly head in a homily. There are reasons for that. In seminary, you attend Mass everyday, which means you are confronted with a homily everyday. Who's preaching? It's the seminary faculty, a group of men who see what they are doing as immensely important--and they're not incorrect. They're forming men to the priesthood, and that task is a sacred one. They rightly take it very seriously and pour heroic effort into each homily they prepare. I heard many an eloquent and pious oration which really did spur me on to deeper conversion.

Yet, when your mind is daily assaulted by such homilies, each one prepared as though it is the most important thing the listener will ever hear, weariness is an expectable byproduct. Such weariness was compounded by the fact that, no matter how passionately delivered or well prepared, the vast majority of homilies were nothing but the Same Old Same Old.

What is the Same Old Same Old? Stagnation is too strong a word. The Same Old Same Old is taking exactly what one receives and passing it along without tainting it with one's own unworthy influence. It arises from a very healthy and orthodox notion: that our faith is apostolic. We believe what the Apostles believed and handed down to us via what we have come to call Tradition. Thus, what is old is good. What we believe, we have believed from the beginning.

The Same Old Same Old is a perversion of that very beautiful apostolic mark of the Church. It is the attempt (intentional or not) to preach only the exact things the Church has always taught without an ounce of creativity or vulnerability. This way, faithfulness to Church teaching is guaranteed, as well as the pure, unadulterated Gospel. Zero impurities are allowed through the Same Old Same Old filter. It is, in a word, "safe" to preach the Same Old Same Old. It is also easy.

But I'll tell you what it's not: helpful.

The Same Old Same Old insists that the way we've always done things, said things, taught things, sung about things: that is the only valid way. We're going to stick to it. Thus, we can be certain that we shall never deviate from the true faith. At what price this straight and narrow path? boring homilies, empty pews, a cold, uninviting church...but at least that church has rigidly correct doctrine! With two thousand years of tried and true methods and formulas, we are able to preserve without stain the faith of the Apostles, even if no one is around to actually profess it.

What's wrong with this picture? Well, a lot if things, obviously, but there's one thing that is the root of it all. The safe and easy Same Old Same Old is our human way of ensuring that "the gates of hell will not prevail against" the Church Christ founded on Peter. The problem is that it is not our job to ensure that. That's not how it's supposed to work.

What is it that makes the Church indefectible and infallible? Is it our efforts? Absolutely not! The only thing that keeps the Church one, holy, catholic, and apostolic is the Power of the Spirit, first sent upon the Church at its very birth at Pentecost. To embrace the Same Old Same Old as a method of preserving orthodoxy is a failure to trust in God's providential guidance of the Church. We are not the guarantors of infallibility; He is.

Now clearly, throughout the history of the Church and today, real effort on our part is required to learn, profess, and teach the Truth. I would not contest that. God doesn't magically keep our thoughts and words orthodox. However, if we only regurgitate the truth as expressed by previous generations, we are doing the Truth and its (potential) hearers a real disservice, not to mention selling ourselves short. We're obscuring the Truth by insisting that we ourselves have no part in the Truth. Are we not rational animals, stamped with the Divine Image, created with an innate desire for the Truth? Our hearts are made to beat in time with the Truth, our mouths to proclaim It, our minds to explore It, and our entire selves to be immersed in It.

Why then in our communication of the Truth to others do we hide ourselves by sticking only to the Same Old Same Old, merely trusting that the Spirit would guide the Apostles, but not us? The Apostles themselves didn't stick to the Same Old Same Old; it didn't exist yet. They were evangelizing the world by speaking off the cuff. (Sound familiar?)

I do not mean to imply that we should introduce new or heterodox elements to teaching. That's another problem. I'm saying we should introduce ourselves into the teaching. That's what I mean by the creativity and vulnerability that are stifled by the Same Old Same Old.

Now, all of this may sound good, and interesting, and relevant...but also terribly impractical and amorphous. How do we add creativity and vulnerability to our preaching (and teaching and youth ministry and sacramental preparation and forays into the media, old and new)? What does that even mean?

Up until now, I have not had an answer to that question. Up until now words to describe this problem have escaped me. Up until now I have only had this vague idea of what I do and do not want my ministry to be like. The Same Old Same Old was detectable only by discernment through gut feelings. That's why I've never written about it before (though some of my buddies from seminary may remember me talking about it). Up until now... Ah, but what has changed now?

We have Francis now. We have a living breathing antithesis to the Same Old Same Old, and he happens to also be the Vicar of Christ. I don't have a codified description of what to do or not to do to avoid the Same Old Same Old, but I do have a pope who is both creative and vulnerable. He is faithful to what the Church teaches, but he is unencumbered by a need to display that teaching in its entirety every time he opens his mouth. He teaches as Christ teaches, by giving us a model to follow. I look forward to hearing more from him, and I look forward to a Catholic Church that is more creative and more vulnerable. (and no less faithful to Tradition!)

Thursday, January 3, 2013

What is Communion?

As promised, I've decided to spill some digital ink explaining why all that stuff that happens at Mass after Communion is worth sticking around for. It's a common thing for people to receive Communion and then bolt, but I want to insist that the concluding rites of the Mass are very important and shouldn't be treated like movie credits.

I'll go through all the post-Communion elements of the Mass one by one, but before I do, a note on what Communion is.

If you're Catholic, you're undoubtedly aware that the Blessed Sacrament we receive in Holy Communion is the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. That probably has something to do with why you stay long enough to receive it. It is clearly the high point of the Mass, and everyone knows this. Thus, even though some may arrive late, they will not dare to leave prematurely (that is, before having received Communion), because even if their faith is not strong, they at least know to some degree that there is something of great value in it.

People stick around at Mass, why? To get what is coming to them. Whether it is ashes on Ash Wednesday, palms on Palm Sunday, throat blessings on the feast of St. Blaise, Catholics show up to get stuff. And that's no less different on Sunday. Very many people show up to Mass on Sunday to receive Communion, and once they have, they're gone. They got what they came for.

I think that's because we misunderstand what Communion is. We fall prey to the arrogance of assuming that we have a merely personal relationship with God. While it truly is a wonder that God is present to us in the Eucharist and that such an unprecedented intimacy between Creator and created is achieved, that's not the end of the story. Communion isn't a bunch of individuals finding their own one-on-one intimacy with God. The church is not at that moment full of a set of exclusive connections between God and this or that human being. Individuality is meaningless in the reception of the Blessed Sacrament. Holy Communion is the Christian community as a whole entering into union with Christ, the Body united with the Head.

Imagine if the different parts of the body were united individually to the head: a finger sprouting from the forehead of a severed head, or the head balancing as it is attached directly to a leg above the knee. These monsters, in addition to being gruesome, are also meaningless. None of them constitutes a human being. None of them is a whole. They are fractions, incomplete, and disgustingly so.

That's how wrong it is for us to persist in the error of believing merely that my reception of Communion is only about me and my situation. We are one Body of which he is the Head.

So while there is something natural about kneeling silently in private thanksgiving after receiving Communion, it also fails to grasp the weight of the moment, if it is in truth private. Silence is good, and individual effort and focus is necessary for a sincere sacrifice of praise, but anything that ignores the individual's place among the community of believers furthermore ignores the true meaning of Communion.

And if that's the case, then getting up and leaving altogether immediately following Communion is far more nonsensical. It is completely opposed to what is happening as the Church receives Holy Communion. That's reason nĂºmero uno that you shouldn't rush out of Mass before it's over. The posts to follow will address more specifically the elements of the Mass that you miss if you do.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Quotes from St. Gregory Nazianzen

Happy Feast of Sts. Basil the Great and Gregory Nazianzen!

A while ago, I started reading through all the works of St. Gregory Nazianzen, and as I went, I kept track of all the quotes that I really appreciated.  I stopped reading after a while (need to pick it back up), but I accumulated a whole bunch of quotes.  Sometimes I picked a quote because it was just a cool turn of phrase I appreciated.  Sometimes I picked a quote because it was particularly deep.  Most of these are short one-liners.  Anything longer I just highlighted or recorded elsewhere.

Gregory Nazianzen (or G-Nasty as I call him for short) is one of my favorite saints, and definitely my favorite Father of the Church.  There are so many quotes here, I haven't even read them all a second time.  Enjoy:

Oration I
"Let us forgive all offenses for the Resurrection's sake." - Oration I.1
"Let us give back to the Image what is made after the Image.  Let us recognize our Dignity." - Oration I.4
"One can give nothing like oneself." - Oration I.5

Oration II
"I have been defeated, and own my defeat." - Oration II.1
"to provide the soul with wings" - Oration II.22
"the emptied Godhead" - Oration II.23
"the novel union between God and man" - Oration II.23
"tree is set over against tree" - Oration II.25
"the lifting up to atone for the fall" - Oration II.25
"give up the clay to the spirit" - Oration II.28
"self-respect: the source of persuasiveness (lit. 'the medicine of persuasion')" - Oration II.32
"aiding them readily to conceive a hope of better things" Oration II.32
"The pure alone can grasp Him Who is pure." - Oration II.39 (useful in talking about Purgatory)
"Some need to be fed with the milk of the most simple and elementary doctrines, vis., those who are in habit babes…" - Oration II.45
Speaking of Paul:  "…he handles mysteries" - Oration II.54
"the miry clay in which we have been fixed" - Oration II.91
"before my eyes had been accustomed to gaze safely upon created things, with wonder only for the Creator, and without injury to the creature" Oration II.95
After a long list of names of Christ:  "these names so pregnant with reality" - Oration VII.98
"the magnitude of success, the utter ruin of failure" - Oration VII.99
"It is better to be honorably overcome than to win a dangerous and lawless victory." - Oration VII.103
"the yoke of ministry…I know not whether to call it light or heavy" - Oration VII.109

Oration III
"my Citadel Solitude" - Oration III.1
"So easily is anything despised which is easily conquered." - Oration III.2
"Believe that listening is always less dangerous than talking." - Oration III.7
"worship a little in words, but more by your actions, and rather by keeping the Law than by admiring the Lawgiver." - Oration III.7
"May the Word in you never be smothered with cares of this life" - Oration III.8

Oration VII
"while their bodies are bent beneath the burden of their years, their souls renew their youth in God." - Oration VII.2
"Our hope is greater than our desert." - Oration VII.23
"If only we could be what we hope to be" - Oration VII.24
"He asks so little and gives so much" - Oration VII.24

Oration XII
"Amalek was warred down by the Cross" - Oration XII.2
"So, help me, each of you who can, and stretch out a hand to me who am pressed down and torn asunder by regret and enthusiasm." - Oration XII.4
"be helped by helping others" - Oration XII.4
"publish the Divine light" - Oration XII.4
"His image [be] cleansed in many souls." - Oration XII.4

Oration XVI
"Fluent speech is not more profitable than wise." - Oration XVI.1
"For 'a good understanding,' he saith, 'have all they that do thereafter,' not they who proclaim it." - Oration XVI.3, quoting Ps 111:10
("To fear the Lord is the first stage of wisdom.  All who do so prove themselves wise.")
[Hell is above and before all other torments] "the being outcast from God, and the shame of conscience which has no limit." - Oration XVI.9
"Let us be assured that to do no wrong is really superhuman, and belongs to God alone. - Oration XVI.15
"Let us not wait to be convicted by others, let us be our own examiners." Oration XVI.17

Oration XVIII
"Our home is better than our pilgrimage." - Oration XVIII.3
"that which is unattainable comes, through envy, to be thought not even credible." - Oration XVIII.9
[The small things] "are in my eyes most honorable, since they were the discoveries of her faith and the undertakings of her spiritual fervor." - Oration XVIII.9
"the gift of faith" Oration XVIII.13
"allowing no interval between assault and forgiveness" Oration XVIII.24
"Indeed, I am almost inclined to believe that the civil government is more orderly than ours, to which divine grace is attributed" Oration XVIII.35
"studiously ridicule our affairs" Oration XVIII.35
"he felt that it would be a terrible thing, after really gaining the victory, to be vanquished by the tongue." Oration XVIII.36
"superior to his robe of flesh" Oration XVIII.37

Oration XXI
"In praising Athanasius, I shall be praising virtue." Oration XXI.1
"For God is to intelligible things what the sun is to the things of sense." Oration XXI.1 [This and the following are real evidence of G. Naz.'s Platonic background.]
[A Paraphrase:  Be not ignorant of matters you are determined to despise. Oration XXI.6]
"using life as the guide of contemplation, contemplation as the seal of life" Oration XXI.6
"[Athanasius:]  him who made himself all things to all men that he might gain almost, if not quite, all." Oration XXI.10
"The great sufferings of God for us" Oration XXI.24

First Theological Oration (Oration XXVII)
"I am to speak against persons who pride themselves on their eloquence." Oration XXVII.I
Paul: "the disciple and teacher of the Fishermen" Oration XXVII.I
"Our Great Mystery is in danger of being made a thing of little moment." Oration XXVII.II
"It is necessary to be truly at leisure to know God." Oration XXVII.III
"We ought to think of God even more often than we draw our breath." Oration XXVII.V
"by this recollection we are to be moulded to purity." Oration XVII.V
"That which is good ceases to be good if it be not done in a good way." Oration XXVII.V
"I will still call you Brethren, though you do not behave like brothers." Oration XXVII.V
"Why have we tied our hands and armed our tongues?" Oration XXVII.VII
"Must your tongue rule at any cost, and can you not restrain the birthing of your speech?" Oration XXVII.IX

Second Theological Oration (Oration XXVIII)
"It is one thing to be persuaded of the existence of a thing, an quite another to know what it is." OrationX XVIII.V
"But a man who states what God is not without going on to say what He is, acts much in the same way as one would who when asked how many twice five make, should answer, 'Not two, nor three, nor four, nor five, nor twenty, nor any multiple of ten;' but would not answer 'ten,' nor settle the mind of his questioner upon the firm ground of the answer." Oration XXVIII.IX
"Why have I gone into all this, perhaps too minutely for most people to listen to?" Oration XXVIII.XI
"For it is utterly sophistical and foreign to the character…of any good man, who has any right ideas about himself, to seek his own supremacy by throwing a hindrance in the way of another." Oration XXVIII.XI
"People cling tightly to that which they acquire with labor; but that which they acquire easily they quickly throw away, because it can be easily recovered." Oration XXVIII.XII
"This is perhaps what is meant by 'He made darkness His secret place,' (Ps 18:11) namely our dullness, through which few can see even a little." Oration XXVIII.XII
"Our dullness, through which few can see even a little." Oration XXVIII.XII
"For every rational nature longs for God and for the First Cause, but is unable to grasp Him, for the reasons I have mentioned.  Faint therefore with the desire, and as it were restive and impatient of the disability, it tries a second course, either to look at visible things, and out of some of them to make a god."  Oration XXVIII.XIII
Idolatry: "a poor contrivance, for in what respect and to what extent can that which is seen be higher and more godlike than that which sees, that this should worship that?"  Oration XXVIII.XIII
"our desire for God" … "our sense of the impossibility of being without a leader and guide" Oration XXVIII.XVI
Isaac, offered by Abraham: "a strange victim, the type of the Great Sacrifice" Oration XXVIII.XVIII
"He [Abraham] saw not God as God, but gave Him food as a man." Oration XXVIII.XVIII
"no halting place in the ascent" Oration XXVIII.XXI
"this little world called Man" Oration XXVIII.XXII
Of songbirds: "What is the reason of their melody, and from whom came it?" Oration XXVIII.XXIII
Of spider webs and beehives: "What Euclid ever imitated these, while pursuing philosophical enquiries with lines that have no real existence, and wearying himself with demonstrations?" Oration XXVIII.XXV
"really endeavoring to measure the sea with a wineglass" Oration XXVIII.XXVII
"He who cannot lie is not forgetful of His own covenant" Oration XXVIII.XXVIII

Oration XXXI
"for it seems to be absolutely necessary for them to have some object on which to give expression to their impiety, or life would appear to them no longer worth living." Oration XXXI.II

Letter CI, To Cledonius the Priest Against Apollinarius
"We do not sever the Man from the Godhead." Letter CI
"That which He has not assumed He has not healed." Letter CI
"Let them not, then, begrudge us our complete salvation" Letter CI
"the stars which illumine the night are hidden by the Sun, so much that you could not even know of their existence by daylight." Letter CI

Letter CII, Against Apollinarius; the Second Letter to Cledonius
"It is through want of mind that they mutilate his mind." Letter CII

Letter CXXV, To Olympius
"injuring the Church by my untimely philosophy" Letter CXXV

Letter CXXX, To Procopium
"To tell the truth, I am convinced that every assembly of bishops is to be avoided, for I have never experienced a happy ending to any council; not even the abolition of abuses …, but only ambition or wrangling about what was taking place." Letter CXXX, quoted in Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology, 368.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

End Credits and Church

It's pretty common now. You go to the movies. You watch a film. You love it, hate it, tolerate it, or whatever. You've sat in one place for an hour and a half...

...or three, if you're being subjected to the "genius" of Peter Jackson - a friend once told me, "brevity is a virtue." I sure wish that the New Zealander could learn that lesson. I'd be more likely to see his films.

Anyway, so you've sat there for a while, lazily taking in the sublime sights and sounds of the silver screen, and there at the very end, the screen goes dark and the score shifts gears:

Cue the end credits.

It used to be at this point that we all got up and left the theater. The music and the scrolling text provided a more or less quiet background to the exit conversation we were bound to be having, white noise underlying the mutual exchange of our immediate responses to the film. "That was terrible." "How 'bout the part when..." "That was awesome." "What a great soundtrack."

My point being: no one stayed. We all left. There was nothing to stay for. The show was over.

That's the way things used to be, and, I guess, for certain kinds of films, they still are. No one sits through the credits of a drama expecting some surprise at the end.

But for a great number of the films we go see nowadays, we are left bolted to our seat. For some movies, we know for sure something is coming at the end (basically any Marvel movie ever made). But for many others, we just don't know, so we wait (or those of us that care wait). We sit there impatiently waiting through the credits because it has become expected that there be what is called (among other things) a "stinger."

There's a whole Wikipedia page dedicated to it:

We've been trained to sit there in the theater, watching a bunch of names we don't know and jobs we don't understand (key grip? best boy? wrangler?), in the hopes there be a little lagniappe waiting for us at the end.

...and sometimes there's not.

We have come to be able to sit through 3-8 minutes of information we have no need of, in hopes of something that might not be there. I mean no disrespect to all the hard work put in by all those nearly nameless folks that crawl by. (It just occurred to me that if I were in fact one of those people to have their names in the credits, I would care a great deal about it.) And there's inevitably that one actor or actress whose name we can't remember during the picture, so the credits can help us out there. But for the most part, we're just sitting there not knowing why, not sure if we even need to be there, and painfully postponing our (much needed) visit to the restroom on the way out of the multiplex.

We've already seen the movie. If there was something essential, we've already witnessed it. This extra bit is only going to hint at the sequel or give us one last joke. (And I'm NOT saying we shouldn't wait! Of course we should - I don't want to miss anything. It's expensive to go to the movies, and I plan on getting my money's worth.)

We wait 3-8 minutes, for a very small pay off, that oftentimes is not even guaranteed. We are actually a very patient species, when given the right motivation. We're willing to sit there waiting if only for just one more tiny dose of entertainment.

Now, brace yourselves for a (perhaps) contrived analogy:

Why do people leave Mass right after Communion?

It's because the Prayer after Communion, the final blessing, the dismissal, the recessional hymn or postlude, and (without a doubt) the announcements are about as meaningful to us as the end credits of a movie. Unless they directly affect us, or we're required to be there because we're in the choir or in the procession or whatever, we don't see the need to stay. We've already received Communion - what else is there?

There is a significant portion of the Mass that many people don't consider to be worth their time. That's a big problem, however commonplace it may be. (There are always exceptions, I know. I'm not writing this to point fingers, people. I don't even notice who leaves - I just notice that there are fewer people in the Church after communion than before. It's hard not to.)

So what's the solution? include some kind of prize at the end of Mass to entice people into staying? some kind of reward for sitting through the credits? some kind of teaser that hints at why we should come back for the sequel (next Sunday's Mass)?


No. No. No. Absolutely not. People don't need to be kept in church with fly paper, at least I don't think so anyway.

Instead, maybe we need to do a better job of explaining why those things after communion are less like the end credits and more like the denouement of the Mass: still part of the movie, still something you don't want to miss, yet it has begun winding down, transitioning us back into the task of bringing heaven into our daily lives, not simply experiencing it for one hour (or less... or more) on Sunday. And so, as a way of forcing myself to blog more, and hopefully to combat even in a small way the steady yet premature flow of the congregation out the church doors, I'm going to write for the next few weeks about why each of those things (the Prayer after Communion, the final blessing, the dismissal, the recessional hymn or postlude, and yes even the announcements) is worth our time, both of itself and in relation to the rest of the Mass and our daily lives.