Sunday, October 30, 2016

Help Norcia

There are many reports in the news of another earthquake in Italy, this one centered practically on Norcia, the small city where Sts. Benedict and Scholastica were born and where a community of mostly American monks had re-founded the monastery there. The good news is that the monks are all safe, but the basilica has been destroyed. Furthermore, there is fear of injuries and perhaps even deaths in Norcia. Pray. To help financially, donate here.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

insight, not escape

If I pick up the right book and am in the right frame of mind, I find fiction a pleasant diversion, and then sometimes I actually learn from it. I started looking at a novel in the library here basically as a distraction, but it has been strangely consoling in a time that I am finding pretty bleak as I look at the world. It was published in 1981, and it is very concerned with the possibility of nuclear war. I remember those days. Wasn't there a TV movie that caused a great sensation, called something like The Morning After? This novel is written from a point of view of faith, and yet (at least so far) it does not see the possibility of the Cold War coming to an end in any way but disaster. The particular concerns expressed in this book are now history. It is the historical blindness displayed in this novel that has been a strange consolation to me in the crisis (or crises) we find ourselves in today. There is always eschatological hope, of course, but there might just be some unforeseen twist of history that will give our culture and country another 30 or more years to muddle through. This seems to be the real lesson of Church History. And so I choose not to fear, not because I expect the second coming -- although I do -- but because I expect some way of muddling through. And the best way to muddle through is to do the right thing always and not to fear. That, and to pray a lot!

Saturday, October 15, 2016

for freedom Christ set us free

This line came up twice in the first reading this past week: at the end of the reading on Monday and at the beginning on Tuesday. St. Paul is demanding the Galatian Christians not to rely on observance of the Law for salvation which he describes as slavery. Instead, we are to serve God in freedom.

I can understand the attraction of the Law. As the dean of a college seminary, I get to enforce the rules, and sometimes I just want to say, "because that's the rule." But that won't do. I am thankful to the deacon who was preaching on Tuesday for showing how to follow the college Rule of Life not slavishly because it's the rule but rather in freedom in order to foster the goods community living and obedience. It is a fine distinction but a real one -- and an interior one.

There is also an attraction to the Law when things are breaking down, as they are in the world and culture around us, because chaos is ugly and scary. Law and order is brought to bear in response to chaos, often with a heavy hand. That very heaviness is its undoing. Even in the Church, I think that nostalgia for more definitive rules has to do with the uncertainty and lack of clarity that has been introduced, for example, about marriage as a reaction to perceived rigidity in applying the rules. It's a unproductive cycle.

We need, as St. Paul recommends, to focus on freedom, not the Law: "for freedom Christ set us free." This cycle of freedom should be our aspiration. Freedom lies in the will, and the will needs to be attracted by truth and goodness and beauty. That's why saying, "it's the rule" won't do. There is nothing attractive about that. But it is also why chaos won't do. The instruction to "go make a mess" is not attractive either.

When you look at Jesus Christ from the point of view of truth or goodness or beauty, He can not be beaten! That is why His invitation to "come and see" is so important. When one really looks at His face of mercy, all one sees is truth and goodness and beauty; and these attract. As St. Teresa of Avila whose feast we celebrate today tells us, Jesus has no face today but ours. His attractive qualities are to be found in your face as the fruits of living in His Spirit, the Holy Spirit. As St. Paul says a few verses later: "In contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law."

To be a good dean, I need to apply the rules of community life but more importantly I need to be a Christian in spirit and in truth. I have just finished reading a book about a great figure in the history of my high school, Arthur Lee Burns -- Major Burns or just "Maj." He taught French at McCallie but was mainly known for being the dean of discipline for generations. He was a stickler for the rules, having boys, for example, walk laps on the morning of graduation to work off demerits. But he was good. Very good. He was a living icon of the fruits of the Spirit. And so everyone had respect for him and the rules he enforced. I am happy that I had the opportunity to know Major Burns slightly. He died in my first term at McCallie but was still around campus practically every day. My father experienced Major Burns in his heyday and revered him for the goodness and beauty of order that he put into my father's life that had been absent before.

Just before his death when his Methodist minister visited him for the last time and asked Maj if he wanted to pray, Maj suggested first that they recite the Creed. Yes, the Creed. The beauty of truth had set him free to follow Jesus; and, by the way, that includes the rules: "if you love me, keep my commandments."

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Prayer AND then work

We were singing this hymn at Evening Prayer earlier in the week:
  1. The day Thou gavest, Lord, is ended,
    The darkness falls at Thy behest;
    To Thee our morning hymns ascended,
    Thy praise shall sanctify our rest.
  2. We thank Thee that Thy church, unsleeping,
    While earth rolls onward into light,
    Through all the world her watch is keeping,
    And rests not now by day or night.
  3. As o’er each continent and island
    The dawn leads on another day,
    The voice of prayer is never silent,
    Nor dies the strain of praise away.
  4. The sun that bids us rest is waking
    Our brethren ’neath the western sky,
    And hour by hour fresh lips are making
    Thy wondrous doings heard on high.
  5. So be it, Lord; Thy throne shall never,
    Like earth’s proud empires, pass away:
    Thy kingdom stands, and grows forever,
    Till all Thy creatures own Thy sway.
This is a good hymn for the Liturgy of the Hours, emphasizing as it does the unceasing quality of the Church's prayer. It also has a lovely tune. In the spirituality class that I am teaching we have been emphasizing the priority of the interior life over exterior works. We must be praying. The regularity of prayer is one thing about seminary life that is an unmixed blessing for me, coming in from many years in the apostolate.

It was the final verse, however, that caused me to tear up. I was thinking of the political and cultural situation we find ourselves in. Our proud American empire is passing away. Maybe because I am looking, I see it everywhere I turn. When I see Hilary Clinton or Donald Trump, I am convinced that neither of them is praying or has any sort of interior life. Their guidance and plans for practical action do not come from above. I don't think that America will ever be great again. We might get richer or more powerful, although I doubt it. The super-elite might but not our country. Our leaders have turned too sharply away from the reality embedded in this hymn: the reality of God's sovereignty.

I teared up not because I want the American empire to continue forever but because I realized suddenly that it has already passed. We have nothing to offer anymore except decadence. I am having to grow up as an American and learn a truer patriotism: the kind of thing that Flannery O'Connor meant about the South when she wrote to Walker Percy and said, "I'm glad we lost the War and you won the National Book Award." It was a terrible thing for the South to lose the War, but it would have more terrible if the South had won. Does O'Connor even imply that losing the War in some way caused Walker Percy to be able to win the award?

Lots of these jumbled thoughts have been coming to me lately. I have also been reflecting on Walker Percy's insight about the South having been more Stoic than Christian. Similar insights, I think, could be made about the "good old days" in the Church and in the world that people like me pine for. I had been, for example, preparing to celebrate Mass on Saturday morning in the Extraordinary Form, trying to relearn the rubrics! I have learned a lot about the liturgy from learning the older form of the Mass, but I do think that the Fathers of Vatican II were right about the need for reform in the liturgy, just as I think Cardinal Sarah is right about the need for a reform of the reform now.

As much as I desire the immutability of Heaven (and I do), I have to admit that in this world things must change.  And yet change unleashes forces that elude our control. This is why we must pray and then we must act as a fruit of our prayer. This sounds a little Dominican, doesn't it? We have to take responsibility for what God has given to us by praying for grace and guidance and then by not being afraid to act on the truth revealed to us. I think that we need a lot of work of both sides: praying and acting.

We have to get serious about prayer. No more excuses! We are not too busy to pray. Our work is not our prayer. And we are not praying all the time. Prayer means giving God the love, the time, and the attention for Him to talk to us in His first language of silence. Nothing else will do. Prayer has to be habitual, and it requires sacrifice and struggle. There is lots of good advice on how to do it. Just do it.

When we begin to pray in this way, we learn that we see things differently, more the way that God sees them. The smallest things matter. Actually everything matters. Start with the smallest  and nearest acts of love and service and work out from there. It is a prideful delusion to think that we can change the world if we cannot change our own hearts. Serve God, and then serve where he has placed you. Do so zealously. I was given a bit of a correction by one of the priest who has been here a long time. He said that the vice rector and I need to "tag team" in the college as fathers of the place, one having the early shift and the other the late. I had the chance to put it into practice immediately last night. (After my experience with UCat, I think I should take the late shift!) If love is not in this sort of detail, then it really isn't love but rather pride. My sister is so good at this! She digs right into the very heart of wherever she is and seeks to serve the needs there in the details. It is in the details that we see what is really needed: how we are to serve. This is the secret to all kinds of things: to happy families, to fulfilling work, to vibrant parishes, to effective politics. But it is hard, and it is not glamorous.

In this light, the passing of empires is not so significant. It is the passing of each day in God's service of prayer and work that matters.




Monday, October 3, 2016

Restart

After a weekend away, I feel like I am getting the chance to hit the restart button not on my computer but in my life. As readers of this blog, you could probably tell that I was feeling distressed the last couple of weeks. I was coming to terms with just how different this assignment is from any I have had before, and I was missing some of the beautiful things I had left back at St. Mary's and UCat. I was letting my emotions, for example, loneliness, get the best of me. Some "driving therapy" and being in different settings helped me to get my perspective back. I realized that things were not as bad as they felt and that I really could manage much better. I began to look forward to coming back, and when I arrived here yesterday afternoon, I felt at home. God is so good. There has been a lot of Providence along the way, even before I left. It is now time to return the favor and get to work!

1st UCat priest

Fr. Josh Altonji and some UCat friends in Birmingham!

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