23 December 2011

Faith as Joy

Well, too many months have passed, but I'd like to send Christmas greetings to erstwhile readers of this blog and pass along some beautiful words spoken by our Holy Father to the Curia this week. They have been rolling around in the pope's heart for many years, as they sound strikingly familiar to some passages from the retreat he preached in 1988 to the Communion and Liberation priests (collected in the wonderful little book The Yes of Jesus Christ). He sums up the year, a highlight of which was the gathering of youth in Madrid:
Finally, I would like to speak of one last feature, not to be overlooked, of the spirituality of World Youth Days, namely joy. Where does it come from? How is it to be explained? Certainly, there are many factors at work here. But in my view, the crucial one is this certainty, based on faith: I am wanted; I have a task; I am accepted, I am loved. Joseph Pieper, in his book on love, has shown that man can only accept himself if he is accepted by another. He needs the other’s presence, saying to him, with more than words: it is good that you exist. Only from the You can the I come into itself. Only if it is accepted, can it accept itself. Those who are unloved cannot even love themselves. This sense of being accepted comes in the first instance from other human beings. But all human acceptance is fragile. Ultimately we need a sense of being accepted unconditionally. Only if God accepts me, and I become convinced of this, do I know definitively: it is good that I exist. It is good to be a human being. If ever man’s sense of being accepted and loved by God is lost, then there is no longer any answer to the question whether to be a human being is good at all. Doubt concerning human existence becomes more and more insurmountable. Where doubt over God becomes prevalent, then doubt over humanity follows inevitably. We see today how widely this doubt is spreading. We see it in the joylessness, in the inner sadness, that can be read on so many human faces today. Only faith gives me the conviction: it is good that I exist. It is good to be a human being, even in hard times. Faith makes one happy from deep within.
Christmas blessings to you all.

31 October 2011

Between the Embers and the Stars, Occupation

I tripped over this lovely quotation in a favorite book of mine, while searching for something else (serendipitous discoveries always satisfy).

It is not surprising that the rebelling children of affluence can be so easily persuaded that private property is the root of all evil and led to project as their vision of the Kingdom a condition they think “natural”—one in which the world would belong only to God or to an anonymous “all,” while each human, unburdened by possessions, would contribute his all to a common store while drawing from it what he thinks he needs. They will not be dissuaded by the recognition that animals in fact have their cherished belongings and defend them fiercely, nor by the nightmare of alienation which that vision has wrought among humans. A different truth presses in on them—the depersonalization of humans and nature alike by the quest for possession.

The conflict they are experiencing is once more the intrinsic conflict between love and instrumentality, though on a deeper level—the conflict of being and having to which neither the solution of poverty nor that of affluence can be consistently applied. We are incarnate beings: for us, having and being are inseparable. To be at all means to have a body and a place in the world which are my own.
Erazim Kohak, The Embers and the Stars

24 September 2011

Pope Benedict on his Home Turf

Some beautiful words from his closing Mass homily, in the Berlin Olympic Stadium.
“Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me ... for apart from me [i.e. separated from me, or outside me] you can do nothing” (Jn 15:4f.). Every one of us is faced with this choice. The Lord reminds us how much is at stake as he continues his parable: “If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned” (Jn 15:6). In this regard, Saint Augustine says: “The branch is suitable only for one of two things, either the vine or the fire: if it is not in the vine, its place will be in the fire; and that it may escape the latter, may it have its place in the vine."

The decision that is required of us here makes us keenly aware of the existential significance of our life choices. At the same time, the image of the vine is a sign of hope and confidence. Christ himself came into this world through his incarnation, to be our root. Whatever hardship or drought befall us, he is the source that offers us the water of life, that feeds and strengthens us. He takes upon himself all our sins, anxieties and sufferings and he purifies and transforms us, in a way that is ultimately mysterious, into good wine. In such times of hardship we can sometimes feel as if we ourselves were in the wine-press, like grapes being utterly crushed. But we know that if we are joined to Christ we become mature wine. God can transform into love even the burdensome and oppressive aspects of our lives.

It is important that we “abide” in Christ, in the vine. The evangelist uses the word “abide” a dozen times in this brief passage. This “abiding in Christ” characterizes the whole of the parable. In our era of restlessness and lack of commitment, when so many people lose their way and their grounding, when loving fidelity in marriage and friendship has become so fragile and short-lived, when in our need we cry out like the disciples on the road to Emmaus: “Lord, stay with us, for it is almost evening and darkness is all around us!” (cf. Lk 24:29), then the risen Lord gives us a place of refuge, a place of light, hope and confidence, a place of rest and security.

When drought and death loom over the branches, then future, life and joy are to be found in Christ. To abide in Christ means, as we saw earlier, to abide in the Church as well. The whole communion of the faithful has been firmly incorporated into the vine, into Christ. In Christ we belong together. Within this communion he supports us, and at the same time all the members support one another. They stand firm together against the storm and they offer one another protection. Those who believe are not alone. We do not believe alone, but we believe with the whole Church. The Church, as the herald of God’s word and dispenser of the sacraments, joins us to Christ, the true vine.

08 September 2011

A Poem for the Kids

"At last, at last! Our prayers were heard!"
said Joachim to Ann.
"The Lord has blessed us with a child

a child from His own hand."

They beamed and sang and waited long
within their little home
to welcome a new child at last
who'd be their very own.

Then one night Ann was sleeping fast
but had a troubled night;
for in her dream, an angel spoke
a promise full of light.

She woke and told her husband
that God had made a plan.
"Could we say 'no' to Heaven's King?"
said Joachim to Ann.

The little child that Ann would bear
another Child would bring
who by His love would save the world
and conquer death's dark sting.

"There beats a heart beneath your heart
that's destined for a sword;
beneath your heart a most pure heart
has magnified the Lord."

"... We never dreamed of such a gift,
so we can only trust.
What wonders! Why
the mother of
our Lord has come to us."

Ave Maria Purísima

27 August 2011

Aki Iro

Taking a break from regularly scheduled homily preparation to bring you some aki iro lyrics:

(Listen here.)
When the neck tie that hangs you
makes you feel just like some super hero,

When you build man-cave to isolate you from the world outside,
When four shiny wheels get you wherever you're heading,
While four speakers blare the soundtrack for the ride -
And the plans you transmit keep you in humble submission to
The forces at work behind your TV screen,
And you subscribe to the guide for the modern man's pleasure,
You've read them once and again, pretend you know what they mean, when they say:
"If you really want to be the champion
You’ve got to let us keep you tied up in mindless entertainment.
Be the good boy and know what to ask for,
Hide yourself away in a fortress of purchasable things -
And you'll never meet harm of hand gun or hand grenade,
Never be a victim of murder or foul play, no.
We'll kill you slowly and we'll kill you softly;
Knock you off with procedure and protocol."

After you send your kids out on their own,
you'll spend quality time with wife and a marriage counselor,

After you see your marriage sucked dry,
you'll spend quality time with wife & divorce lawyer,

After you lose your job after twenty loyal years
‘cause you cracked beneath the weight of the tension,

After you lose your hair from stress,
you'll buy hair plugs, transplants, and extensions,

After you find your friend of the hour
on the internet lonely guy services chat room,

After you order your infomercialized industrial microwave
advertised on television,

After you microwave your meal
and pop that bottle of extra strength valium,

After you get all tired out, you'll go snort a line,
After you snort a line, you'll perform aerobic yoga
with your spandexed friends on cable,

After you pull a muscle,
you'll order faith healing over the airwaves from the latest televangelist,

After you wash your black socks,
check your stock portfolio
you'll ride in an S.U.V. you can't afford,

And you’ll praise the lord ‘cause you’ll know that you’ve got
Nothing meaningful eating up your time these days.

22 August 2011

Better than Nothing

You know, I haven't updated this blog in... well, too long. And I had some great ideas for a really insightful, serious response to something I read in the New York Times (you do know that I read the New York Times, don't you?).

But it's a lot cooler to post a video featuring free runners, bikers, and skaters...

... That will also blow your mind.

29 July 2011

The Desk Chair Review of Books

A Voyage to ArcturusA Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay

Some essays by CS Lewis on science fiction mentioned this book as a "classic" of the genre, so I picked up a copy at a recent binge at Eighth Day Books down in Wichita, and it happened to be the first one I felt ready to crack. It was to be a prelude to a re-reading of Lewis' Space Trilogy, so I was ready for some similarities. Here's what I found: whatever imaginative vision Lindsay was given managed to be at the expense of his ability to tell a good story, develop characters, and write dialogue. A third of the way through, I had basically formulated my final opinion of the book, and what crossed my lips was probably the very idea that got Lewis to write his Space Trilogy in the first place: "Even *I* could do better than this." That Lewis was far more justified in saying it is beside the point.

In Lindsay's favor, I did stick with it to the end--though, on the other hand, I don't know that I would have if I was not curious about how it might have exerted some inspirational influence on Lewis' own work that would follow it a few decades later. Lindsay seems to lack the kind of totality that lends credibility to a story and promotes the suspension of disbelief; the whole thing seems like a poorly concealed vehicle for philosophical speculation. Quite honestly, I've had similar reactions to another of Lewis' favorites, George MacDonald, whose books Lillith and Phantastes managed to lose me after a few chapters. I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and ascribe my lack of appreciation to an impoverished imagination, but there it is.

One of the most frustrating elements of the book is the author's complete lack of ear for names. Obviously, his intention was to create the impression of a wild and interstellar reality, but his formulaic attepmts at doing so just sound ridiculous, as if simply juxtaposing some discordant Anglo-Saxon or Welsh words is enough to startle the reader into extraterrestrial fantasy. Nightspore? Spadevil? Wombflash? You've got--GOT--to be kidding me! Combined with the fact that the main character (Maskull. Seriously.) only has a sequence of encounters with wandering individuals far from any kind of society makes the whole story feel far, far too contrived.

That being said, there are some good moments of imaginative creativity that felt something like insight, and even a couple of scenes in which the bizarre landscape can take your breath away (I'm thinking of the underground world experienced alongside Corpang). Having chewed through Lewis' Space Trilogy once again, I suppose I'm grateful to Lindsay for having written this book and influenced what came later, but I've no reluctance to throw away the rind in favor of the fruit!

View all my reviews

27 July 2011

The Truth about the "West Bank"

Recently, the Israeli Foreign Ministry released a short video explaining why what you hear about the West Bank / Palestine in the news is often a misrepresentation of the facts. Having spent some time in the Holy Land and observing some of the abuses directed against Palestinians (and especially Palestinian Christians) by the Israeli government, I'm no uncritical defender of the Israeli perspective. However, the video does set the history straight and reclaims some words that have been commandeered by the likes of the Huffington Post and other such mouthpieces for the Palestinian Authority.

h/t First Thoughts

20 July 2011

Motherhood Is a Calling (And Where Your Children Rank)

An outstanding piece on Motherhood and its Challenges that I plan on giving to every couple I counsel. Head over to DesiringGod.org and check it out:

Motherhood Is a Calling (And Where Your Children Rank)

08 June 2011

Of Pastors and Pedophiles

For all our political correctness and sensitivity training, Americans absolutely love to pronounce sentence on the failings of others.

I think it's a by-product of our political process: we are the descendants of political savants who put their lives behind the conviction that normal people exercising their God-given judgment could collectively govern themselves. Under our system, the people elect representatives and hold them accountable to their responsibilities to serve the common good. This requires that the electorate be reasonably informed about various matters of public interest and make judgments based on what they know so as to form an opinion and be persuasive.

Notice how much we enjoy exporting this process into other realms. Take sports, for instance. There are few discussions that can get as heated as those over the particular choices of certain players, coaches, or teams. Nourished by the machine-gunned commentary of sportscasters and ESPN commentators, countless sports bar arguments flow unabated by anything resembling self-restraint, nuance, or acknowledgment of multiple points of view. Getting through one of these conversations is often less a matter of real knowledge than the authoritativeness of the tone in which pronouncements are made. And if you happen to be the coach that makes a bad move, God save you from the curses on the lips of your unnamed and anonymous accusers.

Those conversations can be fun—I've enjoyed them myself in the past. But when something more serious than a first round draft pick or choice for starting pitcher makes its way into the public eye, the mob is all too quick to assemble and equip itself with the weaponry of indignation. In particular, the response to the issues surrounding the Catholic Church's handling of clerical sexual abuse cases seem to provide the context for a perfect storm of apodictic pronouncements that rise like a tsunami and spout from every headline, news ticker, and combox.

And well it should—the presence of broken, abusive, and compulsively pathological men in the Catholic priesthood should awaken a strong desire in everyone to ensure that children are preserved from the predations of such persons.


I've been standing at some distance from the media conversation—you could say I've been distracted with other more pressing responsibilities over the last few weeks. But the news certainly made it to my ears, and it hurt. It's one thing to bear up under the suspicious glances and crude pedophile jokes, enduring it as part of the reality of priesthood today. It's another thing to see a priest credibly accused of crimes that should make even the most wanton turn away in disgust—and then step into the same public role. I put on the same clothing and perform the same rituals and basically stand in the same shoes as do the accused. It does make you look at things from a different angle (there but for the grace of God, etc.).

So the distance between me and the media bulletins has presented some different perspective on the question. I present these thoughts as a short rejoinder to those who are still reeling, and perhaps still seething, over the revelations about Father Shawn Ratigan these past few weeks.

Have you noticed how the outrage has been directed exclusively at Bishop Finn and his staff? Not one mention has been made of the (allegedly) reprehensible conduct of Father Ratigan himself—beyond the piling up of data with which to build a case against the diocese. The various advocacy groups are so swift to divert the narrative into their own predictable channels that we forget where the real scandal is to be found: the fall of a Catholic priest into a dark and horrible way of being that poisoned the lives of children as well as his own life—so deeply, in fact, that he sought to take his own life in despair over his actions. The actions of the bishop are, in comparison to this fundamental delict, secondary and derivative.

I make this point not to throw the priest under the bus and divert attention from the admitted imprudence of the diocesan response, but to humanize the target of our accusations and denouncements. It is very easy to allow anger to run unbridled when it is directed at an impersonal and imposing institution. When it's a monolithic corporate body as visible as the Catholic Church, I can easily feel justified in "letting them have it" because—well, they can take it. It could just as easily be Halliburton, or Monsanto, or the Government; as long as it's big, no stick is too ugly to beat it with.

But it's not as easy to give both barrels to the person standing right in front of me. It happens all the time, of course. We justify our cruelty by rationalizing it into candor, “telling it like it is.” All the same, it takes some determination to push aside that natural sense of compassion for our fellow human beings when we're face to face with them. And there are times when we push it aside to our peril.

I don't know Father Ratigan, but he went to my seminary and was ordained just a year or two before I started there. He walked on the same grounds, ate in the same refectory, sat in the same classrooms, and prayed in the same chapel as I did for the last five years. Many of the same men and women who were responsible for my priestly formation were responsible for his. He and I probably have many common memories of a good, holy, and enriching place.

That is a disconcerting thought for me as the wave of my own bewilderment and anger begins to crest. My defenses go up. In some way, I am associated with this man. I find myself torn between the entirely justified reaction of parents whose children were in harm's way, and this sense of compassion that presents itself when the more strident voices die down. My thoughts stray to times when I was younger and was caught out after some misdeed—some lie, some vandalism, some petty act of childish violence. That feeling of remorse, of wanting to take it all back, of realizing the consequences of my actions and finding them fearful is still tangible in me so many years later. And then I imagine that same feeling stoked white-hot by a thousand hostile pairs of burning eyes; the chorus of lips flecked with spittle and quivering with loathing; the forefingers jabbing into my sternum, fists clenched and barely restrained from swinging; the hissing and hoarseness of their voices; the platoon of polished lawyers ready to exploit my misdeeds against the community that gave me faith and nourished and supported me and loved me all my life, and then ordained me to serve in its name; no hope of ever returning to a normal existence, forever branded as a pervert and a deviant, eternally an object of fear and revulsion; and all of them standing there despising, despising, despising my wretched, hypocritical self, and me despising myself along with them for having done what I did—

—I'm not too sure I wouldn't have wanted to end it all, either. That is a dark, dark place to be, and I'm certain that the little imaginative taste of it that I had was a taste of hell.

Putting oneself in the shoes of an accused child molester is not a recommended exercise by any means, and what I've just written is probably hard for many to swallow. By putting it out there, I don't mean to imply that it is the only thing to consider, or even the most important thing. Undoubtedly, there are many more stories of anxiety, fear, and despair in the lives of the victims of sexual abuse and those who have to deal with the fallout and assist with the long and arduous process of healing. But it does have to be considered, and it's the one thing that I've not heard anything about these last few weeks.

What I want to say is this: Father Ratigan is a brother for whom Christ died. That fact has nothing to do with relaxing the standards of justice for him or those responsible for overseeing his ministry as a priest. However, when I look at the way in which this case was handled, and I see that there are some things that don't add up, I can only make wild guesses at why things panned out the way they did. My American upbringing kicks in, and I start formulating opinions and making them known... and then I am reminded that you and I will never get at the whole truth, treading as we do on the horizon of this story. That is enough to give me reason to believe that Bishop Finn wasn't just acting as a shepherd responsible for governing a diocese, managing and protecting the assets accrued by the sacrificial generosity of the faithful, and protecting the most vulnerable from abuse by a wayward priest. He was also acting as the pastor and father of that priest, doing what he could for the good of his name and his soul.

After all, that's what Bishop Finn—himself a priest—was ordained to do.

01 June 2011

Whatever is mine, is His

I couldn't possibly begin to express the weight of gratitude that presses down upon me this morning: the last guest homeward bound, the leftovers tucked away, my family exhausted but glowing, a "remember when" soundtrack on repeat in my head, the faces of friends new and old fresh in my mind's eye, a mound of generous gifts and envelopes that would fill the tomb of a pharaoh to overflowing...

... and the faintest trace of chrism on my palms. It is an unbearable weight, but it is a weight of glory.

The anointing of the Spirit, the Blood of the Son, and the loving gaze of the Father be upon you who were present and you who sent your prayers and wishes from afar.

+Ave María Purísima+

For those who inquired, the text of my homily is below.

Delivered at Holy Spirit Catholic Church
29 May 2011
Sixth Sunday of Easter
First Mass of Thanksgiving

Today’s readings are shot through with the Holy Spirit. Which is unusual; we’re not used to thinking about the Spirit or talking about the Spirit, even though He is so deeply involved in every moment of our existence. Even though it would be very imprecise to say that of the three persons of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit is the “closest” to us—whenever one is invoked, the other two rise up—still, it is in virtue of the sending of the Spirit that we can say God dwells within our hearts. We are, of course, the Temples of the Holy Spirit. Jesus refers to this promised Spirit in the Gospel today as the “advocate.”

“The Advocate.” It’s an English version of a Latin translation of a Greek word, “parakleitos”. It’s the word from which the word “Paraclete” is derived. That word He uses, “parakleitos,” it means something like “someone who is called up to stand along side you.” It was borrowed from the legal world: a courtroom word for “defense lawyer.” The “paraclete” stood beside you as your case came before the Judge and the case was read out against you. It also has the sense of a fellow mourner, someone who accompanies the grieving, and so “paraclete” is also where we get the word “comforter”. But “advocate” is what I’d like to hone in on this morning.

Recently the news cycle offered a really unexpected case of what it means to be an “advocate” in the Scriptural sense. The army and marines have been training certain dog breeds to serve as living bomb detectors in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they have proved to be incredibly successful. These dogs are unbelievable assets to soldiers under the constant threat of improvised explosive devices meant to kill and maim them on their patrols, and as you can imagine, the bond that develops between these dogs and their handlers is unbreakable. These animals accompany soldiers into incredibly dangerous situations and often save lives through their obedience and loyalty. They also are often killed in combat alongside their handlers.

One story in particular caught my attention. Last December, PFC Colton Rusk was on a patrol in the Helmand province in Afghanistan with several other Marines and his bomb dog, Eli, a black lab. Private Rusk had enlisted in the Marines right out of high school and had spent several months learning to work with Eli before deployment. War dogs undergo incredibly intense training along with their handlers, many of them learning to parachute out of planes into open water along with paratroopers or dive into tunnels to track down hidden enemy combatants. The training is long and intense in order to build trust and allow handlers and dogs to work together as a single unit before putting them in the field where lives are on the line.

In his letters home, Private Rusk described to his family how he had been eating his meals outside the mess tent with Eli while on deployment. He began this after another Marine had started a fight over the dog always following Rusk around and getting underfoot. They were absolutely inseparable.

So when Private Rusk was hit by Taliban sniper fire that day in December, Eli was the first to be at his side. When his fellow Marines rushed to his aid, they found Eli literally straddling Private Rusk with his body and ferociously driving off anyone that came near. In fact it was quite difficult for them to call off the dog in order to bring this soldier’s body home.

In a letter Private Rusk had written to his family not long before his death, he said of Eli: “whatever is mine is his”. Rusk had gotten to a point with this animal that was so generous that he identified this animal with his own self. And that generosity wasn’t draining or limiting him, but it nourished him, invigorated him, to the point that he regarded that dog as an extension of his own being, his own existence.

The Marines allowed Eli to be retired early in order to be adopted by Rusk’s family, and there was deep consolation for them to be able to love something their son and brother had loved so much. And in their love for this animal, they began to experience his presence with them in a mysterious way that only the heart knows. Private Rusk was 20 years old when he died.

There are a couple ways this seems to help us understand what is meant by an “advocate.” First, in terms of God’s relationship to us: the Advocate, the “paraclete,” does not make me invulnerable. Jesus’ promise is that the Spirit will be with us, not necessarily that it will prevent us from suffering or dying. But that promise extends even if we should die: he is there, with me, covering me with his own flesh and blood.

Second, that shift from a kind of itemized relationship that holds back here and there to one that recklessly abandons itself to giving and surrender to another is precisely the kind of thing the Paraclete Spirit brings about in our relationship with God.

The Goal of our life is to live with God forever. God, who loves us, gave us life. Our own response of love allows God's life to flow into us without limit.

To love God is to keep the commandments, yes. But a calculating, itemized keeping of the commandments is a kind of slavery. Recasting it into terms in which I can say “whatever is mine is His” lets God be a Father again: to provide from his means for my needs; to surprise me with his goodness, with little favors. In that kind of relationship, keeping the commandments isn’t a sacrifice, but just what I do because of who God is to me: a benevolent, caring, generous Father.

To be able to say “whatever is mine is His” and mean it is probably the closest colloquial definition of Christian perfection I know of. St. Ignatius Loyola crafted an intense program of preparation called the Spiritual Exercises that were built around forming people to live this very reality. Many of you are probably familiar with his famous prayer, the “suscipe,” which is a kind of culminating summary of his whole spiritual outlook:
Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
my memory, my understanding
and my entire will,
All I have and call my own.
You have given all to me.
To you, Lord, I return it.
Everything is yours; do with it what you will.
Give me only your love and your grace.
That is enough for me.
If I could presume to supplement Ignatius’ prayer: he mentions the external goods, our material possessions, and our interior ones like our minds and our freedom, but he doesn’t mention a third kind of possession that is both: our relationships. They are with other people, who are exterior to us, but they reach into the profound depths of our own lives and incessantly touch upon our own happiness. Those, too, are part of our offering: my relationship with my parents, my brothers and sisters, my roommates, my spouses, my co-workers, my children, my teachers, my pastor, my neighbors. When these relationships are surrendered to God, they too become animated with his sanctifying presence and caught up into the worship of the whole world. I speak on particular conviction on this point because I saw it happening last night in my own backyard. Believe it: it’s real.

So as we all enjoy this moment of blessed Sabbath rest in the Lord, let’s make our offering count.... as we go about our tasks, we can be known as those who mean it when they say, “whatever is mine, is His.” 

Related Links:

30 April 2011

Firebomb your Frenemies

GQ has an interview with Bavarian filmmaker Werner Herzog, director of such classics as Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Grizzly Man.
There is nothing glorious about making a film. It is an endless sequence of banalities. 
 A must read for film enthusiasts.

13 April 2011

Bearing Fruit

This tremendously insightful summary of the relationship of the religious life to married couples comes from The Christian State of Life by Hans Urs von Balthasar:
Thus both states [the "lay state" and the "religious" state] live by the same love: the love of Christ, which is the paradigm of every love. And both states are fruitful by virtue of this love because both bear in themselves the principle of fecundity—namely, love itself which is poured into our hearts together with faith and hope. For God was not content just to surprise husband and wife by a reward bestowed on them from without; it was also his will that the fruit of grace should issue in them from the love he had bestowed on them as their own: as their fruit and, at the same time, as his fruit for and in them. The more closely human love resembles God’s love, the more it forgets and surrenders itself in order to assume the inner form of poverty, chastity and obedience, the more divine will be its fruit: a fruit that surpasses all human fecundity or expectation. This fruit is bestowed in its unity on the state of election, which renounces by vow not only its own physical and spiritual fruit, but also, and more significantly, the privilege of seeing the fruit God may choose to send it. It abandons to God at the same time both its whole self and the outcome of its total self-surrender. For the Lord on the Cross did not see the fruit of his gift of self, but rather placed it in the Father’s hands so that, after he had risen from the dead on the third day, the Father might return it to him superabundantly. Christian marriage likewise shares in this fruit, both by the sacramental vow that leaves a priori to God the decision as to what physical and spiritual fruit he may choose to bestow and by being satisfied with whatever decision he may make. If Christian spouses are able genuinely to make this act of perfect self-giving, their limited community is opened to the universality of the Catholic Church, and their love, which seems to be focused on so narrow a circle, is enabled actively to participate in the realization of the kingdom of God upon earth.

Nevertheless, the Christian remains in all this a "layman." He is not transferred even by this special christological sacrament into the state of a qualitatively higher vocation. His life-form is not one that was newly instituted by Christ, but rather one that was already valid under the Old Testament and was supernaturally raised by Christ to the dignity of a sacrament. He is still bound to a form of physical self-giving that attains only in exceptional cases to a perfect resolution of all guilt-caused concupiscence. He cannot transfer to his children, who in their turn were born into the corruption of their race, the sacramental grace that has blessed his own marriage. Nor does his state confer on him the right to complete, in poverty, chastity, and obedience, the perfect holocaust, not only of the spirit, but also of the body, to which those in the state of election are called. This does not mean that he is a less worthy Christian than they are, for, even when God's gifts vary, his election bestows on each individual only what is best. Both states—the lay state, which achieves its fulfillment in the married state, and the state of election—condition one another and are intimately related to one another; not, however, as two equal and complementary halves are related, but as the special state, which emanates from the general one and returns to it by way of sacrifice and mission, is related to the general state that is a genuinely Christian state only because of the special state. This relationship reflects the basic law of the economy of salvation: that the Old Testament is both continued in and surpassed by—both incorporated into and superseded by—the New Testament; that the New Testament complements the Old Testament, yet is itself so new that only could have seen that it was already present in the Old Testament.

12 April 2011

I Believe in the Resurrection of the Body

Delivered at the John Paul II Newman Center
University of Illinois, Chicago

11 April 2011

On no point does the Christian faith encounter more opposition than on the resurrection of the body.
 Most of us would find the above statement a bit out of proportion with our experience. Typically, when people find out we're Catholic, there's a list of grievances about as long as my arm, and belief in the resurrection of the body isn't one of them. I can't say I've ever had "bodily resurrection" come up in a conversation in an airport with a stranger about Catholicism. Even though we pray in the Creed "we look for the resurrection of the dead" together every Sunday, growing up I hardly ever thought about it, because really no one ever talked about it. What do we "look forward to" when we believe in the resurrection of the dead?

Let's go back to the beginning.

Interestingly enough, the above quotation came from a quite ancient source: these words were spoken not by the pope during his last Wednesday audience, or a well-known apologist, but by Saint Augustine, a bishop in North Africa 1600 years ago.

When they were spoken, Christianity had finally been legalized as a religion, and then made the official religion of the empire; and this 350 years after Christ. It is no exaggeration to say that our faith grew up in the shadow of the two religious giants of antiquity: paganism and Judaism. 

In some sense it struggled to define itself over and against them; it is necessarily so, because Christianity is neither a more rigorous version of pagan practices nor a relaxation of Jewish monotheism. Even though Christianity shared some common characteristics with them, at the same time it transcended them both, and presented to the world something totally new.

And that “new thing” was really pretty simple: a man who claimed to be the Son of God was rejected by his people, executed by the Romans, only to rise from the dead. This vindicated everything He said and did. God had entered the world as one of us; Jesus really was God’s Son, and He had the power to forgive sins and to restore the world to friendship with God. His power extended even to power over death.

So obviously this concept of “resurrection” was at the core of the clash between Christianity and the world. The fact is, though, there was no shortage of opinions in the ancient world about what happened after death. Thus, the earliest preachers had to be very specific about what they meant by “resurrection,” because that word already had meanings in other contexts. 

Paganism was pretty vague about the afterlife; the Greeks spoke of Hades, the Romans of Elysium, and so on, but this was often something more like a diminished life, a living death that was less alive than earthly existence. 

Judaism had a wide range of opinions about the afterlife; the question of the resurrection was actually a hotly disputed point in the 1st century, and factions arose over the question. Popular Judaism had some grasp of the idea; in today’s Gospel, Martha’s act of faith in the resurrection on the “last day” alludes to this. But the belief was always something national, something specific to the Jews over against the pagans—a fulfillment of the promise we hear about in today’s 1st reading from Ezekiel. Resurrection entailed a return to the promised land, a restoration of Jewish political supremacy, and it almost always had a tone of a return to earthly existence mightily prolonged.

If you caught it, however, Jesus wants to push Martha further with that strange sentence: I am the resurrection and the life. Jesus recognizes that Martha still regards him as a wonder-worker, someone who “has God’s ear.” But Jesus is more than a wonder-worker or a prophet: He is God’s kingdom in person, and this is a kingdom that conquers death and sin. Martha points out that Lazarus has been dead for four days, and will probably already have begun to decay—John includes this to make it clear that Lazarus is really, really dead. No: there is no chance that this is human ingenuity at work here. This is God’s power.

Now, what Jesus performed at the tomb was not, strictly speaking, a resurrection, but what you might call a "resuscitation." Lazarus returned to normal, earthly existence, and eventually died. When Paul speaks in the second reading of the Spirit who “will give life to your mortal bodies,” he is alluding to something much more powerful than resuscitation—he is making a connection between what the apostles and hundreds of others witnessed in Jesus’ resurrected body, and our own afterlife and bodily resurrection.

The question of what our glorified bodies will be like has been around since day one. Paul has to answer this question in his first letter to the Corinthians:
"How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?" You foolish man! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body which is to be, but a bare kernel… What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable.
The connection between our present bodies and our resurrected bodies is something like the connection between an acorn and an oak—the oak is something much greater than the acorn, but in a way the full-grown oak is already contained within the acorn, and is simply a full development of it.

Of course this answer is less than satisfying. I don’t want to bore you with all the medieval speculation about what the resurrected body will be like, but there are a few basic ideas that we can guess at from what is narrated about Jesus’ appearances after the resurrection.

  • First, our bodies will be incorruptible—no longer subject to suffering, pain, disease, or death.
  • Our bodies will not be limited any more by space and time—think of Jesus’ appearance to the twelve in the upper room, when the doors had been locked. 
  • They will nevertheless be real bodies—think of Thomas placing his hand in Jesus’ side, and Jesus eating fish and bread on the shore of the sea of Galilee.
  • Finally, our bodies will be completely subservient to the soul—a restoration of the original created order in which our not only our appetites and desires will obey reason, but even our organs and muscles and nerves.
Again, this is mostly speculation, and we're not bound to believe it as the teaching of the Church, but it does help to put some flesh on the idea of what “resurrection” means and helps to separate it from what it’s not. We have to remember that biblical language about our final state is symbolic—even John himself admitted that though we are children of God now, we do not know what we shall be.

One thing is certain however—our lives will be taken up into God’s own Trinitarian communion of love and that love will make us more alive, not less. It’s a good reminder to us that every single person we meet, every person on the street, every person who has been or will be born, the person sitting next to you here now, has the potential to become so magnificent, so exalted a creature, that if one of them was to appear to us now, our first instinct would be to fall down and worship it. There is nothing insignificant about our lives together. There is no insignificant person or conversation. All of it will be carried with us into eternity.

So on this 5th Sunday of Lent, looking forward to Easter, it’s good to be reminded of what we are about here—nothing short of resurrection and eternity. Everything about our discipleship—our prayer, our moral choices, why we receive the sacraments, our service to others, and our life together in this community is directed to this. And in closing, I want to put some perspective on that. 

The Church has always read the story of the raising of Lazarus as a real historical event, but it has also understood it in a spiritual way, as a symbolic retelling of the lifting of a person out of sin. Biblically, sin and death are tied together—the one is the result of the other. The death of Lazarus is the death of the soul in sin—serious sin, what has tied us up, and extinguished the fire of life in us, stopped our breath, and stuffed us in the ground, alone, isolated, silent, and stinking.

But into that silence and death comes the Word of life: come out. Those words continue to call sinners from death to life through the ministry of the Church, and through our encouragement of one another. Let’s be attentive to the source of that word of life, calling us out of the tombs we’ve chosen to rot in. Think on a situation where you've been challenged or corrected. How did you respond to those words? Did you receive them as a call from the Lord to new life, or as an insult or an attempt to humiliate you? Even if the intentions of the one through whom those words come are not pure, that need not stop us from receiving them as if it were Christ breaking through our deafness to raise us to life with Him forever.

31 March 2011

The Desk Chair Review of Books

Mississippi Writings: Tom Sawyer/Life on the Mississippi/Huckleberry Finn/Pudd'nhead WilsonMississippi Writings: Tom Sawyer/Life on the Mississippi/Huckleberry Finn/Pudd'nhead Wilson 
by Mark Twain

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This review only covers the "Life on the Mississipi" portion of this edition.

A great book of memoirs of Twain's years as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi, before levees and dredging and electric lights to guide boat pilots on their frequent voyages up and down the river. After becoming a famous author, Twain returned to the Mississippi (incognito at first) to learn how much things had changed in the 20-odd years he'd spent since his tour of duty on the river. The pilots of his day had to memorize 1,200 miles of twisting, turning, ever-changing river so as never to put their vessel in danger of sinking or running aground, and they had to be able to do so in all weather, at all flood levels, and all times of day or night. Such expertise perished with the proliferation of railroads, having been rendered unnecessary, and so Twain's remembrances are bittersweet as he recounts the most memorable of the many thousands of hours spent behind the ship's wheel mastering the art of piloting. Along with his many stories of life on the river and the outrageous personalities encountered along the way, he recounts his memories of the many river towns and how changes in commerce and even in the riverbed itself influences the communities that were nourished by the steamboat.

An excellent bedtime read that managed to hold my interest throughout--even the appendix of a few Native American myths that he'd overheard among his fellow passengers. If you enjoyed Two Years Before the Mast: A Sailor's Life at Sea, this one's less polished, but of the same genre and style.

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24 March 2011

Uncle Remus is Not Expendable.

In browsing for a nice gift for the baptism of a good friend's first child, I came across this monstrosity and found it necessary to share with you, that we all might stare open-mouthed together:

The folktales collected by Joel Chandler Harris from former slaves at the turn-of-the-century constitute a valuable contribution to African-American folklore. However, their usefulness has been weakened by problems with the heavy dialect with which they were written and with the narrator, Uncle Remus. Margaret Wise Brown's Brer Rabbit: Stories from Uncle Remus (Harper, 1941; o.p.) and Ennis Rees' Brer Rabbit and His Tricks (1967; o.p.) and More of Brer Rabbit's Tricks (1968; o.p., both Scott), all of which eliminated Uncle Remus, are excellent versions, but all, unfortunately, are out-of-print. This book steps in to fill the void left by those books. It is a retelling of six stories found in Chase's The Complete Tales of Uncle Remus (Houghton, 1955). These retellings are as spirited as the originals but without their drawbacks. They are written in standard English, which eliminates the pain of trying to figure out what all these "Bimebys" mean. Also, Uncle Remus is nowhere in sight to detract from the lively carryings on of Brer Rabbit and friends...

This picture book retelling should serve as a good introduction for younger children to this important piece of American folk culture. Certainly it's the best of all the editions now in print, and one that should be treasured.

If ever an Index of Forbidden Books was necessary, that time is now, and these gutted versions of Uncle Remus' Tales Not Told By Uncle Remus belong at the top.

26 February 2011

The Desk Chair Review of Books

On the Song of Songs I (The Works of Bernard of Clairvaux, Vol 1)On the Song of Songs I by Bernard of Clairvaux

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Though this is only the first of a four-volume work, Bernard is intriguing enough as a preacher to merit a few words. His sermons on the Song of Songs take some getting used to, being filled with allegorical theology intermixed with some intermittently strange imagery.  What ultimately drew me in was the "ad hoc" quality of what Bernard preached to his monks, giving the reader a sense that he's eavesdropping on a conversation many centuries old.  Of course, we only get Bernard's side of the dialogue, but the praise and reproach he offered his brother monks is none the poorer for that.

More on Bernard when I finish the series...

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04 February 2011

The Desk Chair Review of Books

I was somewhat skeptical that this book would be worthwhile, having been through the confessions a number of times and having Augustine's life story pretty much together in my own head. I thought an Augustine biography would be redundant, having already read the one written by the saint himself. For some reason, the stupidity of this attitude did not make itself aware immediately; fortunately, it only took the first few pages of Brown's book to disabuse me of my philistinism.

Brown's research is meticulous; he sculpts broad, arcing narratives within each section of Augustine's life, peppering the plot with abundant references to the man's letters and sermons, situating them within the rich context of provincial, African Christianity. The persistent and simultaneous tug of contemplative inclinations against pastoral, practical controversies within the flock is standard stuff of ancient ecclesiastical biographies, but Brown was able to get out of the way with enough tact to let the details of Augustine's personal story stand up in clear but ornate relief against the backdrop of 5th century Hippo, Carthage, and Rome. The two great controversies of Augustine's life--over Donatism and Pelagianism--stand like pillars on either side of his episcopal ministry, and I realized that prior to this biography I hadn't understood what was at stake in either of them, having approached them through an exclusively theological lens. Brown bestows a measure of flesh and blood on the controversialists, for which I am quite grateful. Learning of Augustine's own development, from an intense, almost rigorist neophyte to a venerable man of affairs deeply acquainted with the mysterious nature of human sin, softened the portrait of this brilliant and devoted Christian without diminishing any of his greatness. The melancholy of the crumbling late Roman empire overrun by invasion after invasion struck me with consistent force, and gave me a sense of the tragic feeling of futility that must have gnawed at those with responsibility to preserve and hand on civilization.

Augustine's literary executor, Possidius, said upon his death that "I think those who gained most from him were those who had been able actually to see and hear him as he spoke in Church, and, most of all, those who had some contact with the quality of his life among men." Having read this biography does little to ameliorate our lack of experience of him, but does inspire a deep desire to be faithful to the graces of one's own life, no matter where they lead, in confidence that the contribution one single person can make in all this madness is worthwhile, no matter how small.
Saint Augustine by 17th century Spanish artist José de Ribera

01 February 2011

Mainstream Media Looks the Other Way

Elizabeth Scalia reports over at First Things' On the Square that the mainstream media has utterly failed to address the Gosnell case (and others like it), comparing their cover-up to the very same complicity for which they have mercilessly condemned the bishops over the sex-abuse scandal:

So, allow me to ask the impolitic question I have hinted at elsewhere: in choosing to look away, in choosing to under-report, in choosing to spin, minimize, excuse, and move-along when it comes to Kermit Gosnell—and to this whole subject of under-regulated abortion clinics, the debasement of women and the slaughter of living children—how are the press and those they protect by their silence any better than the Catholic bishops who, in decades past, looked away, under-reported, spun, minimized, excused, moved-along, and protected the repulsive predator-priests who have stolen innocence and roiled the community of faith?

The whole thing is worth reading--brief and to the point.

27 January 2011

Preach for Life

Delivered at the John Paul II Newman Center at the University of Illinois
Sunday, January 23rd 2011

As many of you are aware, a number of us are tonight, having made the trip out to Washington to participate in the annual March for Life. It’s been several years since I myself made the march, and I have to admit, every anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, I’ve noticed a recurring heaviness of heart. This has led to a growing cynicism in myself over the efficacy of such demonstrations, and of the pro-life movement in general.

In my weaker moments, there’s an impulse to disgust over the futility of our work on behalf of the unborn, alongside all the political maneuvering from politicians, the electioneering, and most especially the slick and glossy rhetoric that’s used to distract us from one of the greatest human rights atrocities our country has ever known.

It’s true that there have been and continue to be advances, but we have very little reason to be complacent:

The steady decline in abortions since 1981 has leveled off in the last 5 years at just under 20 abortions per 1,000 women of reproductive age. That sounds like a pretty small number; but as you know, statistics don’t always capture the whole truth. For instance, the numbers are startling in more urban areas. Recently it was discovered that in NYC, 41% of all pregnancies except the ones that end in miscarriage end in abortion.  That statistic for the country as a whole stands around 22%.  That's right: 1 in 5 pregnancies in this country ends in abortion.  Take a guess at the most dangerous place to be in the United States right now. Not in an airplane, not in a speeding vehicle driven by an intoxicated college student, not on the South side of Chicago at 3 a.m.  No, the most dangerous place in our country is a mother's womb.

In more recent news, an abortionist in Philadelphia was arraigned and held without bail by a grand jury that charged him with eight counts of murder of babies born alive to unconscious mothers, as well as several women who died in his facility through gross medical incompetence. Even more shocking is the fact that the atrocities committed by this man against mostly poor, minority women and children were overlooked by the Pennsylvania Health Department for decades, who refused to inspect his facilities despite numerous well-substantiated complaints and the death of a patient under his care. The grand jury’s report found that the reason for such a horrendous situation was the Health Department’s refusal to inspect all Pennsylvania abortion clinics for, I quote, “political reasons” (p. 9).

It’s very easy to be disheartened by these stories of human depravity, this ability to commit unspeakable, heartless acts of cruelty for money and take a kind of sick delight in it all. It’s also very easy to be overwhelmed by the fact that in spite of a vibrant and popular pro-life movement, there are great numbers of people who think it a constitutional right to be able to kill children, to the order of 1.2 million abortions each year in the US.

And so there is great reason to grieve today. What rises out of today’s Gospel is a deep familiarity with Matthew’s reference to the people “dwelling in a land overshadowed by death.”

All this discouragement got me thinking about what it must have been like in the years leading up to the work of Dr Martin Luther King in the civil rights movement. A few months ago, I was doing research for a paper on the history of nonviolent resistance and the lessons it might offer to the contemporary pro-life struggle, and I was just captivated by the history of the Montgomery bus boycott and the sit-ins in Birmingham. In the years leading up to those inspired and noble attacks on the evils of segregation and discrimination, King had been deeply frustrated by what he saw was the inertia of the civil rights movement. So many leaders (black as well as white) had attempted to challenge discrimination, vocally and publicly, but nothing ever had enough momentum to make real progress. No one had been able to figure out what needed to change, and why the whites had so successfully been able to convince the black community that desegregation and equality was an impossibility—or at least something that would take many, many years to accomplish.

It took him a long time to comprehend that the reason behind the continued stagnancy of civil rights lay in the black community itself. He concluded that most blacks accepted the conditions of their lives as given, and had no expectation that anything would ever change. He traced the roots of this mindset to basically a “slave mentality,” the spiritual legacy of physical bondage.

He saw that it was just this interior bondage that had to be rooted out before it could be reflected in societal change.

And so Dr King saw that the parameters of the whole struggle had to be recast—the enemy was not just the “white mystique of invincibility,” but the inner “psychology of servitude.” It came down to dignity: King recognized true freedom was impossible without “a process of liberation attained by 1) the recognition of individual dignity and 2) the imposition of the claim that dignity asserts on the actions and policies of others.”

And so I have to wonder if my own cynicism about the March for Life isn’t slipping into the same kind of interior bondage—not to the culture of slavery but the culture of Death. (Maybe in the end they’re not so different.) Isn’t the lesson from the life of Dr King that a victory over the culture of death begins with a victory over my own interior darkness and death, which is fundamentally a spiritual reality, and a recognition that the dignity of others has a claim on me, whether or not society as a whole recognizes that dignity?

This is why pro-lifers are right to condemn the use of violence in the name of the defense of unborn life. Apart from the obvious self-contradiction it involves, using force in this struggle is not compatible with a recognition of the dignity of those we oppose. I think this is why the pro-life cause is so profoundly misunderstood by our culture. Pro-lifers are often represented in the argumentative context of the media and pop culture, as self-righteous, but our struggle has nothing to do with absolving ourselves by condemning others.  That truth is brought out by Jesus’ call to repent on account of the nearness of the Kingdom of God.

We can never equate the line separating good from evil with the line between pro-life and pro-choice.  No: that line runs right through the human heart, yours and mine included.

That does NOT mean the utterly silly cliche repeated so often in our society today: "judge not, lest ye be judged."  There are few things more clear-cut than the taking of innocent life in the name of convenience.  What it does mean is that we are to present ourselves to the Lord, who calls out to us today in our darkness: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” We are free to call others to repentance because we ourselves have tasted the bitterness of acknowledging our own sin. But we know that there is sweetness in it, too—sweetness, and light, and peace. There is healing for the repentant; Jesus still makes his way through this “Galilee of the Gentiles, proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, curing every disease and illness among the people”. He does it through His Church, and the sacraments of penance and healing. She can’t stop calling the world to repentance without negating the whole reason for her existence.

And so I ask two things of you today: First, I ask your prayers that God send us another Dr King—someone to lead us to that day when the dignity of human life will be reverenced by our laws from conception to natural death. Second, these words of Jesus are addressed to each of us today. Take a look at where that line between good and evil that runs through your heart is sitting, and expose the hidden part that needs healing.

For my part, I’m pretty sure God wants to work on my cynical inclinations. We each have some need, some weakness, some unsurrendered or forgotten bundle of death that we keep stepping around like that pile of dirty laundry between the couch and the desk. As we approach the altar to receive the Lord in the Eucharist today, there is good reason to open ourselves to the light and freshness that banishes all darkness and disease, that our weakness and death might become grace for ourselves and light for the world.

08 January 2011


It was gratifying to read this in John Allen's recent interview with Francis Cardinal George:

One of the things I most miss as a bishop is hearing confessions. The conversations that take place in the sacrament of reconciliation are the most important conversations on the face of the planet. There you meet a soul in the presence of God ... I would very much like to make that ministry a large part of my life. 
At the threshold of my own life of priestly ministry, I can honestly say that my early fascination with hearing confessions has not been diminished in the least: it is what I look forward to the most.  Quite encouraging to hear a 74-year old priest say the same.

02 January 2011

On Worship as Epiphany

Homily outline for the Feast of the Epiphany
Delivered at Most Pure Heart of Mary Parish
Topeka, KS

For the last week, the Church has been lingering in Bethlehem, absorbed in the sight of the Child. Infinite greatness is here “dwindled to infancy”. We seek the eyes and heart of Joseph to witness this unfathomable mystery of divine love and condescension: to come into the world as a poor, vulnerable little baby.

But there is one facet in particular of this scene that the Church is drawing our attention to here. We are still in the Christmas season—today being the eighth day of Christmas—because there is so much more to take in than can be done in just one day. That is what we mean by “mystery”—something that so far exceeds our comprehension that we can keep coming back to it again and again and still get more.

So what is it that’s being held out to us today? It might be helpful to start with a review of what we might already know. Epiphany is a Greek word meaning “manifestation” or “striking appearance”. It’s associated in the liturgical year with today’s feast, along with the Nativity and the Baptism of the Lord—but this is the only one that we refer to exclusively as “Epiphany”. So we’re to understand that something important is being revealed to us today, something so crucial that the church names it the Epiphany.

We’re all familiar with the scene: the wise men come to present gifts and to adore the Christ child. Their decision to read the signs of the times and follow them wherever they led brought them to the most unimaginable place—the newborn king was not born in a palace but a cave used to shelter animals. The fact that the Magi were not of the Chosen people but from a faraway, Gentile country has traditionally been interpreted to mean that in this event, what is manifested is God’s intention to finally extend the offer of salvation fully to the Gentiles. God is the God of all, not just of Israel. That process of grafting onto God’s precious olive true the wild olive branches of the nations is what made possible our even being here in the first place. This gives us great reason to give thanks for the manifestation, the “epiphany” that took place so long ago.

But there’s something else important about the visit of the Magi. It’s easy for us to miss this more fundamental “manifestation” because it’s based not so much on who did come to pay adoration to the baby Jesus, but who didn't.

Here’s what I mean.

Scripture teaches us that the Child, God’s Holy Word, and therefore the very Person of God, can only be approached in an attitude of adoration.

There is no other way for it to happen. That is what it means to call out to God with a “pure heart”—a prayer that is untainted by self-interest or self pity. The pure heart prays for no other reason than that God is worthy of honor and thanks: "He’s worth it."

This is exactly what we mean when we call what we do at Mass or in the privacy of our prayer “worship”. That word, “worship”, comes from an old Germanic word that is something like what we would pronounce as “worth-ship”—the state of being worthy to receive honor.

What the magi have in common with every other person in the scene is this attitude of adoration and worship. The wise men seek nothing more than to offer gifts and present themselves as servants of the newborn King. Everyone else is excluded—the religious authorities, novelty-seekers interested only in a spectacle, and especially Herod who sees in Jesus only a threat to his own power. None of them have a pure heart, a worshipping heart. Their hearts are hardened.

Now, this idea of praising and worshipping God is something we Catholics can see as something abstract or just to be read out of a book, but we engage in this practice all the time, naturally, spontaneously, in our everyday circumstances. We love to praise what we enjoy or admire: whether they’re athletic feats, or a great performance by a classic band, or a great leader, or just someone who inspires or motivates us by their everyday excellence. We love to praise good things and good people because they’re worth it—they’re praiseworthy. And we feel the need to communicate to others the “worth-ship” of what we enjoy and admire.

But it’s also interesting to notice that in the act of praising things, we also enjoy them—not as a past memory, but a present experience. Praising and adoring makes present what we love, and in a way, manifests it.

That, I think, is the deeper truth of our feast of the “Epiphany” today: God is made present, God is manifested, in our adoration of Him.

If that is the case, then that puts what we are doing here, in this church today and every Sunday, in a whole new light, doesn’t it? Are the words we pray along with in the Mass just empty phrases that we’re repeating thoughtlessly, or words of praise that well up out of our hearts, which "throb and overflow" with love for the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Is 60:4, from today's first reading)?

If you find yourself in the second category, thank God, and keep it up. You already know better than I could ever tell you how the Spirit of God is active and bearing fruit in your life. Let Him continue to captivate and fascinate you, and draw you deeper into communion with Him--keeping in mind that we can’t hold to the ideal all the time, and that our life in the Spirit is constantly rising and falling.  Don’t ever get discouraged.

But if we find ourselves are in the first category, asking ourselves what it is that we're supposed to be "getting out of this," let’s take some time today, on the first of the year, to set aside 15-20 minutes (or however long it takes) to do some soul-searching. What is it that’s holding me back from approaching the crib along with the Magi? Is this experience of emptiness when I worship at Mass God’s doing, or mine? How have I excluded myself from the stable by imitating the novelty-seekers? or the religious professionals who ruled out Jesus as the Messiah before ever setting eyes on him? or even Herod?  They all refused to adore the Word made flesh on HIS terms.  Have I deceived myself by acting as the Lord of the Truth rather than approaching the one Lord of Truth in an attitude of reverence?

Above all, let’s make our prayer together today count as if God’s manifestation to one another and to the world depended on it—which, in fact, it does. Let’s shed some of that self-consciousness that holds us back from putting some feeling into our words or by letting even our posture and our movements convey the reverence, joy, and love we want to offer to God.

Let’s respond to the Church’s call to Come and Adore Him.