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A Plethora of Percys: On Fidelity to Christ and Ecclesial Coherence

26 Aug

I like the idea of being a descendant of the Northumberland Percys because they were recusants and a couple of them lost their heads as martyrs.
~ Walker Percy

“If it does not please you to serve the LORD,” Joshua tells the Israelites in today’s first reading, “decide today whom you will serve…. As for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.” Note that Joshua’s affirmation of loyalty to the God of Israel is not a declaration of personal preference, but a summation of his clan’s corporate identity. He’s announcing that he and his family (and, ultimately, his people) consider fidelity to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to be essential to who they are, and that nothing – not even the prospect of annihilation at the hands of the Canaanites – can make them budge.

A similar stubborn fealty is on display at the end of today’s Gospel. Jesus had just finished his bread of life discourse with a startling twofold proposal: First, that he himself was the new manna, and that, second, everyone should partake of his lifegiving flesh. “Do you also want to leave?” the Lord asks his disciples after most of the rest of the crowd, alarmed by Jesus’ words, had split. “Master, to whom shall we go?” St. Peter flatly states on behalf of the Twelve. “We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God” (Jn 6.67-69).

As we now know well, Peter and the apostolic band will come to pay dearly for that conviction. They were hunted down, tortured, and martyred in a variety of grisly ways, but their belief in Jesus stood firm because they’d known him, they’d been with him for years, they saw what happened on Calvary, and yet they’d encountered him – alive! “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands,” St. John relates on behalf of his confreres, “we proclaim also to you” (I Jn 1.1, 3). That unshakeable faith, combined with extraordinary outpourings of grace, gave the Apostles courage – as a group, as a band, as an ecclesial brotherhood – to remain ambassadors of the Gospel and steadfast witnesses to Christ until their last breaths were taken from them.

It’s the same kind of tenacious communal commitment to the Lord that we glimpse in the heroic legacy of the Percys during the English Reformation. The elder Sir Thomas Percy participated the Pilgrimage of Grace uprising against Henry VIII following the King’s repudiation of Papal authority, his suppression of the monasteries, and other royal anti-Catholic actions. After Percy’s conviction for treason, he was drawn and quartered at Tyburn in 1537, and is “considered a martyr by many” according to the Catholic Encyclopedia.

Because of Percy’s crimes, his young sons, Thomas and Henry, were estranged from their noble privileges, but they were rehabilitated in 1549. The Catholic Queen Mary restored the Earldom of Northumberland to the younger Thomas in 1557, citing his “noble descent, constancy, and virtue, and value in arms.” Six years later, despite misgivings regarding Thomas’s likely Catholic sympathies, the Protestant Elizabeth I bestowed on him the Order of the Garter.

In time, however, Queen Elizabeth’s persecution of those loyal to the Pope and the old Faith grew too much for Thomas, and he took a leadership role in the 1569 Rising of the North, an effort to seat Mary, Queen of Scots, on the English throne. The effort failed, and Thomas, like his father, was captured, tried, and convicted of treason. Although offered a commutation of his death sentence in exchange for a renunciation of his religion, Thomas refused and was beheaded in 1572. Pope Leo XIII declared Thomas Percy a martyr and beatified him in 1895, and his feast is ordinarily observed today (August 26).

Before his death, Bl. Thomas’s final words summed up his organic, integrated vision of family and faith: “I am a Percy in life and in death” – that is, just as his bloodline couldn’t make him anything other than a Percy, his convictions couldn’t make him anything other than Catholic, and if that meant the chopping block, then so be it.

Percy’s ultimate witness to the Faith, like so many of the lay English martyrs, is especially instructive today. With the sole exception of St. John Fisher, all the English bishops had previously given in to Henry VIII’s schismatic demands, as did many of the clergy. Faithful lay Catholics like Thomas Percy and his kin were spiritually on the lam with little or no support from the hierarchy or institutional Church. Intrepid Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries managed to administer them the sacraments from time to time, but even that was hit and miss – more often, miss. And so, you have to wonder: What kept folks like Percy going? Why’d they stay Catholic? Why didn’t they just give in, take the path of least resistance, and conform?

Frank Sheed provides a ready answer. “Institutional Israel, the Chosen People, as the Prophets show it, was even worse than the harshest critics think the Catholic Church: yet it never occurred to the holiest of the Jews to leave it,” Sheed writes in Christ in Eclipse (1978). “They knew that however evilly the administration behaved, Israel was still the people of God. So with the Church: an administration is necessary if the Church is to function, but Christ is the whole point of the functioning.” Sheed continues, and it’s noteworthy that he refers back to the English Reformation for an object lesson:

We are not baptized into the hierarchy, do not receive the cardinals sacramentally, will not spend eternity in the beatific vision of the pope. St. John Fisher could say in a public sermon, “If the pope will not reform the Curia, God will”: a couple years later he laid his head on Henry VIII’s block for papal supremacy, followed to the same block by Thomas More, who had spent his youth under the Borgia pope, Alexander VI, lived his early manhood under the Medici pope, Leo X, and died for papal supremacy under Clement VII, as time-serving a pope as Rome had had.

St. Thomas More, in other words, was in the same boat as Bl. Thomas Percy: both had been lay heads of household who were compelled to defend the Faith with their lives in the face of a full-out episcopal abandonment. No doubt many thought the two men foolish, irresponsible, and utterly selfish. Many would’ve argued that, given the apparent perfidy of the bishops, More and Percy could’ve felt justified in cutting corners of conscience in order to survive.

But they could not, for their Catholic identity was not subject to deliberation, dilution, or dissembling. Here, again, I think Sheed captures the nub of what might’ve been in the minds and hearts of lay martyrs like Percy and More, and he is worth quoting at length:

Christ is the point. I myself admire the present pope, Paul VI; but even if I criticized him as harshly as some do, even if his successor proved to be as bad as some of those who have gone before, even if I sometimes find the Church as I have to live in it a pain in the neck, I should still say that nothing a pope could do or say would make me wish to leave the Church, though I might well wish the he would. Israel, through its best periods as through its worst, preserved the truth of God’s Oneness in a world swarming with gods and the sense of God’s majesty in a world sick with its own pride. So with the Church. Under the worst administration – say as bad as John XII’s a thousand years ago – we could still learn Christ’s truth, receive his life in the sacraments, and be in union with him to the limit of our willingness. In awareness of Christ, I can know the Church as his Mystical Body. And we must not make our judgment by the neck’s sensitivity to pain!

A distant relation of the Tudor Percys distills Sheed’s insights into a single line: “When it is asked just so, straight out, just so: ‘Why are you a Catholic?’” writes Catholic writer Walker Percy, “I usually reply, ‘What else is there?’” It’s as if, in the midst of tumult, disillusionment, and shame, that latter-day Percy is reminding us of the extemporaneous insight of the Fisherman and first pope: “To whom [else] shall we go?” And we pray, like Bl. Thomas Percy and St. Thomas More, that we all might meet with fortitude the consequences of adopting that insight as our own.
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A version of this reflection appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Fuel for the Fire: St. Sebald and Eucharistic Transformation

19 Aug

“To nourish ourselves with him and abide in him through Holy Communion transforms our life into a gift to God and to our brothers.”
~ Pope Francis

Today’s Gospel couldn’t be plainer: Eat Jesus and become Jesus. “For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink,” says the Lord. “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him” (Jn 6.55-56).

It’s what happens every Sunday – for some folks, every day – if we’re properly disposed and we present ourselves for Holy Communion. The priest holds up the consecrated host and states simply, “The Body of Christ.” If we bow and say “Amen,” then we’re affirming that spectacular claim, and if we go further and actually dare to receive him – to consume him, to appropriate all that Christ is to ourselves, and, in so doing, to be totally appropriated to him – then we tacitly agree to do our best to act as his emissaries in the world. We accept the charge to become extensions of his divine person here and now, and we look forward to the Cross in the form of all kinds of crosses – from minor hassles to martyrdom – as we go about living and loving as Christ did.

But that Eucharistic transformation isn’t a static one. It’s not magic, and it’s certainly not an assembly line. If we receive Jesus in Holy Communion, and then do nothing to flesh out in our words and actions whom we’ve received, then the efficacy of the sacrament is muted to the point of silence. “To receive in truth the Body and Blood of Christ given up for us,” the Catechism insists, “we must recognize Christ in the poorest, his brethren” (CCC 1397, emphasis added). And, if there were any question as to what that implies, the Catechism goes on to quote St. John Chrysostom: “You dishonor this table when you do not judge worthy of sharing your food someone judged worthy to take part in this meal.”

In other words, our worthy reception of Christ in the Eucharist requires that we then strive to become more Christlike, and to become more Christlike is to strive for ever greater charity toward the poor – and everybody. In the course of the Mass, the bread and wine on the altar really does become the Body and Blood of Christ, no question. But if that sacramental reality is to change us into Christ, then we have to intentionally and repeatedly subject our entire selves to it – what we do, what we desire, what we will.

An apt metaphor for this metamorphic sacramental relationship is the connection between fuel and flame. “As fire transforms into itself everything it touches,” reads the Catechism, “so the Holy Spirit transforms into the divine life whatever is subjected to his power” (CCC 1127). When we receive Holy Communion, it’s as if we allow ourselves to be changed into combustible Christs, but only if we’re serious about being set aflame in a world in need of his light and warmth. St. Angela of Foligno, writing in the late Middle Ages, made a similar point: “If we but paused for a moment to consider attentively what takes place in this Sacrament, I am sure that the thought of Christ’s love for us would transform the coldness of our hearts into a fire of love and gratitude.”

Yet, we often hold back – at least I do. And it’s often due to the severity of that coldness St. Angela mentioned – the icy selfishness in my heart, the frozen motivation to become a saint. I receive Jesus in the Eucharist, yet I’m not all that convinced that I’m truly flammable material, and so the divine love that ought to be bursting forth smolders instead.

For help with this, it’s worth turning to St. Sebald of Nuremberg, an 8th-century hermit whose feast day is ordinarily celebrated today (August 19). Although the hagiographic record is mixed, it seems that Sebald was a Danish prince who experienced a conversion, abandoned a royal romance, and embraced a life of penance and prayer. He went on pilgrimage to Rome, sought and received the Pope’s approbation for his new way of life, and then associated himself with the saintly brothers Willibald and Winibald, along with their sister, Walburga, in their efforts to evangelize the German people.

Eventually he took up a solitary life in the Bavarian wilderness (around present-day Nuremberg) where he developed a reputation for sanctity and wonderworking. After his death around the year 770, a local cult of devotion grew up, and the people built a shrine in honor of their hometown holy man. This was the beginnings of the great parish church of St. Sebald in Nuremberg, and the city in time adopted the humble hermit as its patron saint.

St. Sebald is also known as the patron saint of those suffering from cold weather, and the reason for this is curious – and relevant to today’s Eucharistic Gospel theme. According to legend, it appears that one cold, snowy night, Sebald took shelter with an impoverished peasant who couldn’t locate any firewood nor afford to buy any. The poor man’s hut was not much warmer than it was outside, and his family, along with his saintly guest, felt it keenly. “So Sebald turned to the housewife and asked her to bring in a bundle of the long icicles hanging from the eaves,” writes Rev. Alban Butler. “This she did, Sebald threw them on the fire, and they blazed up merrily.”

A couple things to consider in this little vignette. First, the icicles didn’t miraculously turn into wood before the saint tossed them into the hearth. Instead, it seems that the icicles morphed into fuel at the very moment they were burned up. This is similar to the story of the ten lepers who approached Jesus for healing. Certainly he could have snapped his fingers and cured them on the spot, but what he actually did was send them, still leprous, to the priest, “and as they went they were cleansed” (Lk 17.14). That is, the healing and the deed facilitated by the healing were simultaneous.

I think this is how Eucharistic grace operates in our lives. We can’t sit back and wait for sanctification to happen after we receive Holy Communion. To the degree that we’re able, we’re called on to draw on that sanctifying grace by extending, stretching ourselves in our efforts to be Christ for others. It happens incrementally and over time, which is why the Church urges us to receive the Eucharist frequently. But every time we do, we should be mindful that God will want to set us aflame, and there’s no sense in resisting that.

One other thought: Since we’re talking about miracles here, it’s important to note that the icicles weren’t even really required. There’s biblical precedent for flame without fuel – like the fiery pillar that led the Israelites through the wilderness, for instance, and Moses’s encounter with God in a bush that was “was burning, yet it was not consumed” (Ex 3.2). But God doesn’t normally work that way with us. He expects us to throw caution to the wind, abandon our own priorities and stubbornness, and submit ourselves to his blazing love. Even when we’re convinced that we’re not capable of being the kind of people he wants us to be – even when we’re still wrestling with doubt and temptation, even when we’re still icy in our lack of faith – he wants us to rely on the power of the Eucharist we receive and have courage.

Go, you are sent,” we’re told at the end of every Mass after we’ve consumed our Lord. It’s the crucial moment we’re expected to follow through on what we’ve received and be consumed ourselves.
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A version of this meditation appeared on Catholic Exchange.

What God Can Do with Our Measly Loaves and Fishes

29 Jul

“Saint Olav turned her eyes toward
Christ on the cross – see, Kristin: God’s love.”
~ Sigrid Undset

This weekend’s Gospel is John’s version of the feeding of the 5,000. It’s a miracle of Jesus reported in all four Gospels, so it carries considerable Biblical weight, and in John’s account, it takes place in close textual proximity to the Lord’s Bread of Life discourse – the one in which he explicitly tells us to eat his flesh and drink his blood.

The Eucharistic message of the multiplication of loaves is unmistakable: There’s plenty of Jesus to go around. We need but appropriately avail ourselves of his infinite gift of self in Holy Communion to become ever more closely united to him and his mystical Body, the Church (CCC 1396).

But there’s lots more here. Consider the unnamed boy’s contribution of five barley loaves and two fish. Lots of fuss has been generated by widespread revisionist speculation that the boy’s selfless act simply inspired others in the crowd to fork over their own lunches, thereby producing the “miracle” of multiplication. Is it likely, though, that all four Evangelists would’ve chosen to include this astounding event in their Gospels if it’d only been an exercise in crowd-sourcing and generosity?

Instead, it seems clear that John and friends, and the entire early Church, were convinced of the event’s supernatural character, especially given its genesis in that lad’s humble, anonymous, no doubt faltering donation.

And what he donated was paltry enough: five cakes of barley, the grain of the poor, and two fish which were probably beginning to spoil after a long day in the sun. Nonetheless, Jesus accepted those offerings, blessed them and gave thanks, and then fed everybody – with lots of fresh leftovers thrown in for good measure.

Yes, a miraculous transformation from inadequacy to abundance, from paltry to plentitude, but it was a transformation that seemingly depended on somebody coming forward with what he had, no matter how meager. Plus, it’s an image of total surrender, total self-abandonment to divine providence, for the boy didn’t hold back – that is, he wasn’t embarrassed by his imperfect gift, and he didn’t just hand over a single fish and a loaf or two, keeping the rest for himself. He seemed to instinctively know, as all young children seem to know, that if we’re going to sacrifice, there can be no partial measures. And it didn’t matter that his sacrifice appeared insufficient; what mattered was his generous attempt to respond with all that he had.

It’s the template of every Christian’s life story, for it’s only when we approach the throne of grace fully conscious of our fundamental spiritual and moral impoverishment that Jesus can feed us with and transform us into himself. Sometimes we do that with the eager anticipation of a hungry crowd; sometimes we second-guess the Savior and hold back on him, shielding our sin and selfishness, sequestering our weaknesses that we’re not quite ready to reform. No matter. What counts is that we keep coming back – that we keep bringing him our puny loaves shot through with impurities and our slightly rotted fish, and that we keep trusting him to somehow suffuse them with grace and goodness enough to accomplish miracles.

Such was the transformation that appears to have taken place in the life of King St. Olaf of Norway, whose feast is ordinarily observed on this day (29 July). Born to a pagan chieftain around the year 995, Olaf’s adolescent years were marked by his training in the most excessive brand of Viking cruelty and lawlessness. In the course of subsequent political machinations and military maneuvers in England and elsewhere, Olaf received baptism around the age 18, and it took: The young warrior set out to align his dynastic aspirations in Norway with his newly adopted Christian faith.

This he did by first raising an effective campaign to throw off Danish and Swedish suzerainty in his homeland. Then, after declaring himself Norway’s King at age 21, he employed harsh tactics to root out residual pagan practices and establish a nationwide Catholic hegemony. Although largely successful in this effort, his ruthless methods, along with his occasional alliances with pagan leaders against Christian foes, led to a widespread rebellion against his leadership. King Canute the Great of Denmark and England eventually took over leadership of Norway in 1028, and Olaf fled into Russian exile. Intent on reclaiming his throne, Olaf returned to Norway in 1030 with an army comprising his own loyal countrymen and Swedish supporters, but he was struck down at the battle of Stiklestad on July 29.

Now here’s where the loaves and fishes bit comes in, for, as Hans Bekker-Nielsen notes, “soon after his death even his enemies came to recognize that they had killed a saint.” To buttress that sentiment, Grimketel, an English missionary and Olaf partisan, built a chapel on the spot where the King fell. Folks flocked to the site to ask for the martyr’s intercession and apparently their prayers were answered in spades. In time, Olaf’s remains were enshrined, and, as the glimmer of Danish overlordship began to wane, it was only natural that the Norwegian people would turn to the saintly Olaf – his body supposedly incorrupt – as their national patron, seeking his spiritual agency as they sought to restore native rule. This was in fact accomplished when Olaf’s bastard son, Magnus “the Good” was enthroned in 1035.

But, wait, let’s back up: Olaf? A saint? The formerly murderous and marauding Viking whose baptism only seemed to barely mitigate his savage ways? “He was a warrior, often brutal and a man of loose life,” reads the entry for St. Olaf in John Coulson’s Dictionary“but his reputation for sanctity was immediate on his death, and his cult cannot be entirely explained on political grounds.” Surely it can be granted that the job of king – let alone a medieval king bent on conquering and Christianizing a pagan people – does not lend itself easily to the ordinary strains of sanctifying influence. Yet, somehow, in the midst of imposing his royal will, Olaf drifted ever closer to conformity with his savior. “He was undoubtedly a great man,” Coulson continues, “and it seems that in some ways he must have been a good one.”

This is good news for all of us, because if Olaf could become a saint, anyone can become a saint. We have the idea, the ridiculous, impossible idea, that we first have to embody holiness in order to pursue holiness. Hogwash. Even St. Paul acknowledges as much in today’s second reading from Ephesians. The Apostle lays out the saintly ideal of living “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another through love, striving to preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace” – characteristics in short supply where Olaf was concerned.

Yet Paul proffers that ideal as a goal– that is, a target to earnestly shoot for because it’s consistent with “the call you have received.” Becoming a saint is a titanic struggle precisely because we do have so far to go. It’s not for the faint of heart, nor the feint of heart  – that is, those who are averse to trying again and again, who will pull their punches and shrink from the fight. “There is no holiness without renunciation and spiritual battle,” the Catechism reminds us (CCC 2015), and what is required is what King Olaf evidently managed to pull off: Coming back repeatedly and inexorably, no matter how many failures and catastrophes, to Jesus, laying before him the meanest of loaves and fishes, and expecting conversion.
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A version of this reflection appeared on Catholic Exchange.

God’s Digit

6 May

“This is the finger of God” (Ex 8.19). 

Last week, my teenage daughter and I went to see Avengers: Infinity War, and, lo and behold, there was Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), reprising the obscene gesture he featured in the first Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). Then, just last night, my kids and I watched the old X-Men (2000) origins flick, and we saw Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) raise a metallic middle blade in defiance of Cyclops, his rival. Cyclops just laughed it off and turned away.

Increasingly, we’re all just laughing off the middle finger wherever it turns up (and it’s turning up plenty), which means that “giving the finger” doesn’t quite pack the same punch it once did. This was clearly evident when I brought my middle-schoolers to see Black Panther a month or so ago. On the way home, we were talking about our favorite characters, our favorite scenes. “My favorite was Shuri,” said Katharine from the back seat, referring to Wakanda’s young princess. “Especially when she was walking away from the king and she raised her finger up – funny.”

“Yeah,” I said, “but do you know what that means?”

“Well, I know it means something bad,” she replied. “Very bad.”

True enough, and it’s been bad a long time. The ancient Romans knew it well, and they even had a name for it: digitus impudicus. It’s always been considered an extremely rude gesture (look it up), and pretty much everybody knows that today – even if they don’t know exactly why it’s so rude (like my young ones, thank heavens). But, like so much else these days, what used to be universally shunned is now commonplace – and tame. “Because it’s so prevalent,” said sportsmanship educator John McCarthy of the middle finger, “the shock value has gone from it.” No longer can one count on a single digit to communicate absolute defiance. Rebels and radicals have to rely on other tokens of insubordination. Flipping people off is so ho-hum nowadays.

On the other hand (pun alert), we have God’s finger, which Scripture highlights as something particularly pointed (pun again) and powerful – and without any trace of lewd associations. This contrast between today’s ubiquitous indecent gesticulation and the comparable Biblical deific sign came to mind at daily Mass shortly after I saw Black Panther. “Jesus was driving out a demon that was mute,” Luke tells us, “and when the demon had gone out, the mute man spoke and the crowds were amazed.” However, some in those crowds were unwilling to attribute the miracle to benevolent forces, and they accused the Lord of partnering with Beelzebub, “the prince of demons,” in order to exorcise and heal.

Jesus countered that it could be just as easily be posited that anyone who drove out demons was in league with Beelzebub. What’s more, it didn’t make sense that the Prince of Demons would be driving out his own minions. “But if it is by the finger of God that I drive out demons,” Jesus finally challenged his detractors, “then the Kingdom of God has come upon you” (Lk 11.20).

The implication here is that Jesus has more power in his little finger than anything Satan could send his way – or ours for that matter. This is literally true, since Jesus, the incarnate Word, shares in his human fingers the very same potency in operation on Mt. Sinai during the Exodus, when Moses received “the two tables of the testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God” (Ex 31.18).

The Gospel reading from Luke concludes with Jesus’ admonition that “whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” This is the opposite of the modern single-finger sign, which is meant to scatter and drive away. The finger of the God-man, in contrast, bespeaks wholeness and restoration. And there’s no shame in that at all. In fact, it’s a sure sign of hope.
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Just What the Doctor Ordered: The Physic of Tears

3 Feb

“Crying makes us feel better, even when a problem persists.”
~ Judith Orloff, M.D.

“Jesus wept” (Jn 11.35). It’s the shortest verse in the Bible, as every junior high kid who’s ever been near a Sunday school or youth group can tell you.

Of course, it’s only the “shortest verse” in English translation, but let us not dither about such piddling details. The point is its brevity and reputation make it the Mother of All Memory Verses, and that has implications. As Christians, we’re literally “little Christs,” right? We’re obliged to imitate him as much as possible – to even become him in the Body of Christ, in carrying our crosses and serving others, and especially in receiving the Eucharist. So, if Jesus wept (as everyone knows), so we ought to weep. He even hammers this idea home in the Sermon on the Plain. “Blessed are you that weep now,” he tells the crowd, “for you shall laugh” (Lk 6.21).

Note the cause and effect here. It would’ve been especially important to the original audience. As Luke reports, that crowd on the plain included many who’d come “to be healed of their diseases” and unclean spirits. They had plenty to cry about, and Jesus not only gave them leave to do so, but also indicated that the tears themselves were part of the healing process.

And to the surprise of no one who’s ever enjoyed a good cry, science bears out Jesus’ prescription. “Emotional tears have special health benefits,” writes Judith Orloff in Psychology Today, because they “contain stress hormones which get excreted from the body through crying.” Orloff further notes that crying also seems to stimulate “the production of endorphins, our body’s natural pain killer and ‘feel-good’ hormones.” Recall that the famous “Jesus wept” verse occurs in the context of Jesus finding out about the death of Lazarus, his good friend. It was stressful; it was painful; it was just the kind of situation that calls for a shot of endorphins. Our incarnate savior benefited from his tears just like we do.

Yet we tend to get fidgety in the presence of weeping – both others’ and our own. My kids and my students make fun of me because I’m so easily moved to tears. If I read a stirring Gospel passage before class? Snuffles. Recite the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V for my son on his namesake’s feast day? Sobs. Heck, I even cried during Ice Age IV, if you can believe that Ice Age IV! If you’ve seen it, you probably know the dad-daughter scene that got me going. My kids certainly picked up on it in the theater when we went to see it together. They all looked away from the screen and stared at me in anticipation of the flood.

They weren’t disappointed.

Let ‘em stare, I say. We should all cry more, not less. There’s lots to cry about in the world these days, not to mention all the terrible and terrifying challenges we might personally face. But only trained thespians can conjure up tears on cue, and Ice Age IV will only do the trick for softies like me.

So here’s a surefire lacrimal remedy for you: Nine-year old Amira Willighagen’s performance of “O Mio Babbino Caro” on Holland’s Got Talent. Not long ago I was sitting at our home computer with 11-year-old Katharine by my side. We were searching for a particular musical video she wanted to show me, and Willighagen’s showed up in the sidebar – 34 million views! I shrugged, clicked on it, and said, “Let’s check this out.”

The set-up draws you in immediately. Young Amira walks confidently to the center of the stage and takes questions from the three judges. They’re impressed by her youthful fearlessness, which is only confirmed when she tells them that she’s there to sing an operatic number.

“O Mio Babbino Caro” is an aria from an opera by Puccini, but I wouldn’t have known that at the time – and it didn’t matter at all. Nor did it matter that the sub-titles, which had been providing English translations of the Dutch preliminaries, disappeared when Amira started singing in Italian. In fact, I think that my ignorance of what the girl was singing about only added to my emotional response.

And that response was a strong one. Almost from the very first note, my eyes welled up. The absolute purity of her voice and her gentle gesticulations in accord with the flow of Italian lyrics were mesmerizing. Astounding. It’s disarming to witness such a coupling of sheer innocence and profound artistic depth. “You can’t believe this,” one of the judges comments. “It’s not normal.” Look at his colleagues and the audience behind him, mouths agape, eyes wide.

Within seconds, I was a mess of heaving tears. Just like at Ice Age IV, my daughter leaned in and looked at my face. “Why are you crying?” she asked.

I couldn’t explain. I still can’t. Maybe it has something to do with the thought that this young girl is already feeling something that most of don’t feel until much later into our rattling lives. “An old soul,” that same judge remarks of Amira’s amazing performance. I prefer the language of grace – like, “She’s touched by grace.” And grace means suffering; grace means the cross. Why should this 9-year-old be so primed to endure so much?

But maybe it’s just my own pain. Whatever it is, I have the same reaction every time I watch Amira surrender herself to that aria. It’s a gift. It’s a balm. Try it. You just might find the release you’re seeking.
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A version of this reflection appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Reformation Reconsidered: Becoming a Bible Christian

10 Dec

“Maybe in fifty years, or a hundred, Catholics will be reading the Bible the way they should have been reading it all along.”
~ Flannery O’Connor

Read more…

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Stuck on the Way: The Simon-Veronica Loop

16 Jul

“For a moment, a vision more wonderful than that of Tabor is granted to the woman whose compassion drove her to discover Christ in a suffering man.”
~ Caryll Houselander

Where do you sit in church? Do you automatically gravitate to a region time and again, maybe even a particular pew?

Everybody does it, it seems – at least that’s what I hear from priests. Pastors know where their parishioners normally sit and what Sunday Mass they normally attend, and they take note if they’re missing – or if their perched in an unexpected location.

Then there’s us: Inveterate congregational nomads. Side aisle, center aisle, Mary’s side, Joseph’s side – who knows where the Beckers will end up?

These days, however, on those rare occasions when we have a quorum attending Mass together (hard to do when you have older teens who can drive themselves), we usually end up on St. Joseph’s side of the church near the cry room. I’m not sure why – we haven’t had a wailing baby for much too long – but I’m happy to defer to familial consensus.

But when I’m on my own? For daily Mass? I prefer Mary’s side between Simon and Veronica – between, that is, the fifth and sixth Stations of the Cross. It’s a physical space where I feel spiritually at home, an intervening territory that pretty much epitomizes the state of my soul most the time.

Simon, you’ll recall, was the country bumpkin that the Roman soldiers grabbed from the crowd to shoulder Jesus’ hefty burden. The Gospel accounts indicate that he didn’t volunteer, and the burden was reassigned to Simon only after the Lord, weakened by beatings, had stumbled under its weight.

Even so, Simon’s act, whether willing or not, is a striking metaphor for what it means to become a Christian, to be a Christian: We take up the Cross by taking up our own crosses, whatever they may be. Jesus told us as much himself – it’s right there in Gospels for all to read – so it shouldn’t come as any surprise that lived Christianity is associated with suffering and dying: Dying to self, dying to our pride and niggling selfishness, dying in ways we resent and resist. Dying, dying, dying, over and over again, way before we have to face biological death.

So that’s our starting place as believers – “Simon helps carry the cross,” the Fifth Station. A short stroll and a genuflection brings us to the Sixth, “Veronica wipes the face of Jesus,” and we’re confronted with an advanced stage of discipleship. Contrary to Simon, a drafted Christ-imitator, Veronica represents a willing, even eager apprentice. She lunges through the crowd, defying the Roman guards and their scourges, and applies a towel to the bloody face of love.

It’s a desperate spectacle of compassion and affection, a moment of intimate connection between savior and saved, that leads to an unexpected result: A transfer of divine visage from Christ to cloth. The Lord’s face grew bloody again soon enough, but Veronica’s courageous compassion earned her a permanent and precious memento.

Unlike Simon the Cyrene, however, Veronica has no biblical pedigree. “As we read the Gospel account,” writes Frank Sheed, “we miss one familiar figure – for Veronica was not to arrive for a good many centuries yet!” It’s true that her deed of compassion was well established in the Stations by about the 14th century, and that the traditions associated with a wondrous transfer of Jesus’ battered likeness to a towel go back much further. In fact, the towel itself, its sacred portrait faded into obscurity, is still preserved in the Vatican as a holy relic.

But did Veronica even exist? Her name could be seen as a clever amalgam of the Latin vera for “true” and the Greek icon for “image,” which itself seems to have been originally applied to the relic itself. It could well be that the “veronica” cloth paved the way for the Veronica character of the Sixth Station; that she was a pious invention which dovetailed nicely with an instructive narrative exhortation. “The name Veronica is to be found in none of the early martyrologies,” writes P.K. Meagher, “nor does it appear in the present Roman Marytrology in connection with this legendary woman.” St. Charles Borromeo himself yanked liturgical honors associated with her story from the Milanese Ambrosian Rite.

Still, legend or no, Veronica is right up there on the wall of my church – as she is in your church, in virtually all Catholic churches and chapels. “Consider the compassion of the holy woman, Veronica,” writes St. Alphonsus Liguori in his classic Way of the Cross. “Seeing Jesus in such distress…she presented Him with her veil.” Maybe there was no first-century Veronica; maybe the Sixth Station didn’t go down exactly like we recite it every Friday during Lent. Her legacy lingers intact nonetheless, and for me it endures as a singular spiritual goal.

For as much as I identify with the unwilling (or at least balking) Simon, my desire is to be a rash Veronica who assimilates the very likeness of Christ – no fear, no hesitation. It’s as if I’m drawn to that void stretching from the fifth to the sixth Station. It’s like a taut string on a steel guitar, and I get to be the empty bottle sliding fret to fret – from a religiosity of obligation to occasional high notes of energetic self-surrender, and back down again, over and over and over. No picking; no grand chords; no Christopher Parkening lightly skipping through Bach’s “Jesus, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” Just a sloppy slide, a wavering rhythm, a warbling tune.

And if that image suggests a corny country-western song or a downer Memphis blues, so be it. Either (or both) could appropriately accompany my perpetual interior languor – “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mk 9.24)

Which, of course, is why I keep showing up for daily Mass. I’m confident that its Music will continue to draw me forward – regardless of where I sit.
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A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Of Coddling Demons and Auricular Confession

25 Jun

No being could attain a “perfect badness” opposite to the perfect goodness of God.
~ C.S. Lewis

The Gospels are filled with weird scenes – which you’d expect from eyewitness accounts of an incarnate God. There’s no precedent for Jesus, no template or benchmark. He’s extraordinary in so many ways, so it’s no surprise that his actions and words would be extraordinary as well – at least on first hearing.

You know this from witnessing your own children thrill at the coming of Christmas when they were very young. The story of the Bethlehem invasion was fresh and exciting – and fantastic! The same goes for Passiontide as our young ones grew morose upon hearing of Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion, which transmuted into delight upon their discovery of Easter and the resurrection.

Then there’s us. We don’t think of the Gospel accounts as unusual anymore because we’ve heard them countless times, and we’re accustomed to their quirky narrative shifts – even if we don’t really understand them. Like Judas, for instance. We hear about Jesus choosing him as an apostle, despite his knowing (as God) that Judas would betray him down the line. The Lord even sends out the future traitor with the other apostles to minister to the crowds – what? Yet we just glaze over when we hear it proclaimed at Mass or referenced in a sermon. Yawn.

Once in a while, however, every once in a while, the Scriptures come alive again, even for us, even for me. Maybe it’s a particular lector’s voice and intonation; maybe it’s an enlightening commentary or sermon; always it’s grace.

Such a grace came my way recently as I reviewed the Gospel accounts of Jesus and the Gerasene demoniac. There’s a version of the story in Matthew, but fuller accounts appear in Mark and Luke. The action takes place in Galilee in the latter days of the Lord’s public ministry there. He and the disciples had just arrived in the region of Gerasa (or Gadara, or Gergesa – there’s some confusion about this) after a rough passage across the Sea of Galilee. A deadly tempest had terrified the disciples, but a sleepy Jesus had taken it in stride and quelled it almost as an afterthought. The disciples were duly impressed: “They were filled with awe, and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?’” (Mk 4.41).

As if to answer that question, Jesus followed up his demonstration of power over natural forces with a startling demonstration of his supernatural dominion.

As soon as he and his crew hit the Gerasene shore, a wild man accosted them from a graveyard. I picture him as a combination of J.K. Rowling’s Hagrid and Marley’s ghost from A Christmas Carol – all hair and height, bruises and blood, with shackles and chains rattling about. The possessed Galilean tomb-dweller, hardly still a man, rushed the Lord and demanded an accounting. “What have you to do with me, Jesus,” he shouted, adding a confession, “Son of the Most High God?” Finally, a plea. “I beseech you, do not torment me” (Lk 8.28). When Jesus asked for his name, the wild man claimed, “My name is Legion; for we are many.”

We’re definitely in strange territory here. I see a walking stadium full of demons testifying to Jesus’ divine identity. Also, I see a tortured, lonely soul, a castoff loser and social threat, rebuffing the ministrations of the one he knows could totally heal him. Stranger still, Jesus is choosing to chat with him – or them (pronouns with Legion are tricky). But what’s there to chat about? Let’s free the poor guy from his spiritual affliction and restore him to his family already – ba-boom.

Yet, the strangeness only widens as the Gospel writers next draw our attention to a herd of pigs – pigs! a herd! – on a nearby hill. You’d think Jesus and his Jewish companions would’ve avoided this area altogether rather than risk even the slightest association with pork. Nope, and the pigs actually end up playing a central role in the tale. “Send us to the swine,” the Legion of demons begged Jesus, “let us enter them” (Mk 5.12). I envision a Messianic shoulder shrug and toss of the head, followed by the Aramaic equivalent of “Why not?” before Jesus gives in to the odd petition. “Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine,” continues St. Luke, “and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned” (8.33).

The Gospel narratives move on to the swift reaction of the swineherds and local townspeople (they “were seized with great fear” and asked Jesus to “depart from them”), as well as the equally swift recovery and commissioning of Legion (whom Jesus sent home to proclaim “how much the Lord has done for you”). But I’m stuck back on that hillside. “The demons puzzle us,” writes Frank Sheed. “The pigs puzzle us.” Right, as does Jesus himself, for it seems to me that he took pity on those demons when he acceded to their request. Was the porcine possession a show of compassion for the hellish habitués? A bizarre amnesty, no matter how fleeting, granted by the Good Shepherd himself? I’m with Sheed who comments, “We long to read deeper into the mind of our Redeemer.”

Frankly, I’m also interested in reading deeper into the minds of those devils. They must’ve known that they were still destined to return to Hell eventually, for even if their pig-hosts hadn’t immediately rushed to a watery demise, they would’ve been butchered soon enough. Since Legion’s demons had no doubt about who and what Jesus was (and is), what could’ve motivated their plea for temporary clemency? Surely not love – but…hope? Is it possible that these damned creatures were displaying a last vestige of hope, however unlikely?

We’ll never know. What we do know, however, is that the graphic transfer of Legion’s burden to the doomed pigs was a stark display of release and liberation. Perhaps, as Jerome Kodell suggests, it was meant to broadcast Legion’s fresh start, providing his community “visible proof that the demons have left the man.” Granted it required significant destruction of property (which prompted the objections of those swineherds), yet maybe such was justified in order to reassure Legion’s people of his radical transformation – and even Legion himself.

Weird as it is, I think the pig-demon transfer in this Gospel story is a valuable illustration of why we have auricular confession. As the Catechism affirms, the sacrament of reconciliation requires the penitent to be contrite, practice humility, and “confess with the lips” (CCC 1450). Certainly there are exceptions – speech impairments, for example, and extreme debilitation – but ordinarily, in “accord with the law and practice of the Church, the faithful must orally confess their sins” (Congregation for Divine Worship). It follows that the confessor must ordinarily hear those sins and voice an absolution.

“But why do you have to confess your sins out loud?” my Protestant students often ask me. “Why can’t you just confess them directly to God – in private? Or just write them down?”

Next time I get that question, I’ll have a ready answer. “Because we’re Legion,” I’ll say. “Because our sins are like demons, and we need concrete, sensory reassurance that they’ve been excised from our souls.”

When I confess my sins, as humiliating as it is, I’m always glad to be getting them out of my head and into the open air. To hear myself pronounce my self-accusations, knowing that the alter Christus is craning an ear, means that my sins are gone, they’ve been sent over the confessional cliff, and they’re drowning in grace – what a relief!

Then it’s my turn to listen, and the priest’s verbal funneling of the Lord’s forgiveness is an electrifying largesse (CCC 1465). It’s a new beginning, every time. And every time, I’m sent out unburdened after my penitential encounter, but with an implicit (sometimes explicit) commission, similar to Legion’s: “Go in peace,” the priest may intone, “and proclaim to the world the wonderful works of God who has brought you salvation.”

They’re words I never tire of hearing, and the strange mercy they bespeak never grows old.
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A version of this reflection appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Of Theologizing, Conversion, and the Magisterium

15 Feb

socratesattheschoolofathens_raphael

“Philosophy and theology are democratic to the point of being vulgar, to the point, I was going to say, or being rowdy.”
~ G.K. Chesterton

Read more…

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A Tree, a Tax Collector, and a View of God

27 Nov

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“How high does the sycamore grow?
If you cut it down then you’ll never know.”
~
Stephen Schwartz, “Colors of the Wind

Back before Rotten Tomatoes was a wireless ubiquity, my family depended on paperback movie guides, and our go-to was the one edited by Mick Martin and Marsha Porter. Like similar resources, Martin and Porter used an easily decipherable rating system, but since their tastes so often matched our own, they became our cinematic oracles when we made our own selections at Blockbuster or the library.

However, there’s another reason we liked their guide so much – one that has lasted into the internet age: the turkey reviews. Instead of assigning a single star (out of a possible five) to the worst of the worst, Martin and Porter substituted a tiny turkey graphic. It was easy to spot as you flipped through the pages, and the associated reviews often made for highly entertaining reading.

That was especially the case when a turkey review was brief – in fact, the shorter the better. “They don’t make them any worse than this,” reads the Martin and Porter review of The Eye of the Snake (1990), and, for The Dorm That Dripped Blood (1981), they wrote that the “only good thing about this film is the title.” Sometimes you’d luck out and come across a turkey review amounting to a single word – “Incoherent” captured up their thoughts on Streetwalkin’ (1985).

Then there’s my all-time favorite turkey, Mr. Sycamore (1975). “A mailman decides to turn into a tree,” Martin and Porter explained. “Peculiar and pointless.” So succinct and evocative, it’s all you need to know. Indeed, it almost makes you want to track down Mr. Sycamore to watch, doesn’t it?

Well, maybe not (and I never have), but it does make you wonder what the filmmakers had in mind – what were they thinking? If you look up the Tomatoes synopsis, it tells of a protagonist postman who chooses arboreal transformation over a dismal future with his domineering wife. Weird, I know, but somebody must’ve thought it was a good idea, and that somebody decided that a sycamore tree was a decent symbol for psychic withdrawal and insulation.

Biblically speaking, that filmmaking somebody couldn’t have been more wrong – that is, if St. Luke has anything to say about it.

Luke’s story of Zacchaeus made an appearance in the liturgy earlier this month, and it got me thinking about Mr. Sycamore. As you’ll recall, Zacchaeus was somewhat diminutive, and so he had to resort to humiliating measures in order to catch a glimpse of Jesus strolling through Jericho. Leaping up and down behind the crowd apparently wasn’t enough, and if he attempted to push through to the front, he probably met with elbows in the face from those who reviled his traitorous tax-collecting occupation.

Nevertheless, Zacchaeus refused to give up, and he scaled a nearby sycamore tree in the nick of time. His eyes and the Savior’s met, and an extraordinary encounter ensued. “Zacchaeus, come down quickly,” Jesus insisted, “for today I must stay at your house.” Joy and conversion followed, and the tax collector’s life was changed forever. “Today salvation has come to this house,” the Lord declared. What’s more, as if to rebuke the crowd who “grumbled” at his choice of pals, Jesus explained that “the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.”

So, why a sycamore? Was Luke making a symbolic point? Not necessarily. It’s likely one of those lovely details in the Gospels that indicate that a recorded event was an actual occurrence – not just a figurative fiction or a clever analogy invented by the evangelist. That is, it wasn’t just “a tree” that the tax collector climbed, but a specific tree – a particular sycamore in fact, or rather a “sycamore fig” to distinguish it from the non-fruit bearing tree that our postman friend probably turned into. Not surprisingly, the actual tree of Zacchaeus became famous, and there’s an old sycamore in Jericho that locals associate with the Gospel story.

All that falls under what the Catechism calls the literal sense of Scripture, but we’re further invited to consider the story’s spiritual sense. “Thanks to the unity of God’s plan, not only the text of Scripture but also the realities and events about which it speaks can be signs” (CCC 117).

In this regard, I’ve always appreciated the Ignatian approach to Biblical meditation (especially the Gospels) in which we put ourselves into the scene we’re reading about – and not just the character we might naturally gravitate to, but perhaps all of them in turn. In the case of Luke’s narrative, it’s desirable to take up the mantle of Zacchaeus, to picture ourselves surrendering to Christ and radically reforming our lives, but we should also consider ourselves in the guise of the rabble, who block the publican’s line of sight and who dis Jesus when he elects to dine with the despised.

Then there’s that sycamore, almost a character unto itself. I picture it in the backdrop of the narrative, off to the side and part of the scenery – nothing special, just another tree. Up in front, the incarnate deity is passing by, and everyone’s attention is riveted on him. Meanwhile, stage left, there’s the little tax collector, jumping for the tree’s lower branches, and then ascending high above the mob. Far from being a metaphorical hideout as in Mr. Sycamore, the tree of Zacchaeus was a launch pad, lifting the outcast to new heights of levity and love.

That tree is us, I think – it’s the Church – and the sycamore’s humble part in the Zacchaeus story parallels the hidden role we often play in helping others to see Jesus. We’re always on stage when people know we’re Catholic, even when we’re not consciously being “religious.” Since our relationship with Jesus has ups and downs like any relationship, folks may not always see Christ clearly in our behaviors and speech – but that’s OK. We needn’t be spiritual superstars all the time to witness to the Lord. Sometimes (often?) the very human you-cant-take-it-with-you-groupordinariness and frailty of our faith life is just enough for others to clamber up for a vision of God.

Which brings me to one final sycamore reference – in Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s 1936 stage play You Can’t Take It With You. Our kids’ high school put it on in October, and seeing it reminded me of how much I love Frank Capra’s ebullient film version (which garnered five stars from Martin and Porter). It’s a delightful comedy featuring the oddball Vanderhof/Sycamore family and a reassuring portrayal of how grace can operate in even the most turbulent, goofy circumstances.

There’s nothing chichi about the Sycamore household (like the tree they’re named for), and they’ve got internal troubles galore. Nonetheless, they’re a beacon in their community, a ladder of optimistic vision. Theirs is a domestic church that spills over with joie de vivre, and their example of mutual love and loyalty are a healing balm for those around them. It’s as if the Sycamore’s shortcomings are themselves transformed into a source of hope – a persistent hope, as reflected in the concluding dinner prayer uttered by Grandpa Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore):

Well, sir, here we are again. We’ve had quite a time of it lately, but it seems that the worst of it is over. Course, the fireworks all blew up, but we can’t very well blame that on you. Anyway, everything’s turned out fine, as it usually does…. We’ve all got our health; as far as anything else is concerned, we still leave that up to you. Thank you.

Deference. Trust. Gratitude. Peace. These must be among the lofty “ways” and “paths” Isaiah was talking about in yesterday’s Advent kickoff reading (albeit the prophet admittedly draws on a geological image rather than a tree):

The mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established as the highest mountain and raised above the hills…. Many peoples shall come and say: “Come, let us climb the LORD’s mountain…that he may instruct us in his ways, and we may walk in his paths.”

As we begin walking the Advent path of discovery, let’s remember that we ourselves are the Lord’s house – that we are that mountain raised above the hills, regardless of our inadequacies. Like Grandpa Vanderhof, we needn’t worry, for it’s the Lord who does the establishing and saving. All we need to do is make way for those who’ll scramble over us for a better view.
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