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A Radical Preference for Heavenly Treasure

14 Oct

Today’s Gospel sounds extreme. That’s because it is extreme. It’s a gut punch to our modern, more moderate sensibilities – which is why we should pay special attention.

A man kneels before Jesus and asks (with apparent sincerity) what he has to do to be saved. “You are lacking in one thing,” Jesus tells him. “Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven” (Mk 10.21). It’s a classic application of the maxim, “Be careful what you wish for; you just might get it.” In this case, the man got the one answer – perhaps the only answer – that he couldn’t accept. “His face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.”

Then Jesus turns to his disciples with a zinger: “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God” – impossible if we take seriously the Lord’s camel/needle’s eye imagery. It’s a pastoral body slam! “Then who can be saved?” the disciples object, for they know that everybody tends to jealously guard his hard-won worldly fief. Peter even blurts out in self defense, “We have given up everything and followed you,” and we can picture the other disciples nodding their heads in agreement.

Yet total divestment of that which keeps us from Jesus can take many forms. You’ll recall that a few Sundays back, Jesus had to rebuke these same disciples for “discussing among themselves on the way who was the greatest” (Mk 9.34). Can’t you just see Jesus shaking his head; can’t you hear him sigh? “If anyone wishes to be first,” he patiently told them, “he shall be the last of all.”

Again, total divestment is the point – of money, of power, of prestige, of all the world holds dear. Jesus makes discipleship sound extreme. It is extreme.

Just how extreme can be glimpsed in the life of St. Dominic Loricatus, OSB Cam., whose feast is normally observed today (Oct. 14). Born in 995, he received holy orders as a child after his family bribed a bishop – the sin of simony. Later, as a young man, Dominic repented of this sin, refused to exercise his priestly office, and fled to the Camaldolese monastery of Fonte Avellana in central Italy to do lifelong penance.

Ironically, Dominic’s repentant retreat to obscurity led to his fame. At the time, Fonte Avellana was home to St. Peter Damian, who advocated self-mortification as a spiritual discipline. Dominic followed this counsel and embraced the practice. For example, he took up a chain-mail vest, or lorica – the source of his nickname – and wore it next to his skin until his death in 1060.

Dominic also engaged in self-flagellation, which is how he merited a mention in Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:

By a fantastic arithmetic, a year of penance was taxed at three thousand lashes; and such was the skill and patience of a famous hermit, St. Dominic of the iron Cuirass, that in six days he could discharge an entire century, by a whipping of three hundred thousand stripes.

So…extreme? Perhaps – especially since Dominic couldn’t have been held responsible for his illicit youthful ordination. But this pious monk, with his sights firmly fixed on heaven, resolved to keep his distance from serious sin, despite his remote culpability – and who can argue with his choice? He might’ve foregone the inestimable gift of his priesthood and employed the harshest methods, but he won a crown in heaven.

How about us? Can we go to extremes for sanctity? “All things are possible for God,” Jesus tells us today. Let’s take him at his word.
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A version of this meditation appeared on Catholic Exchange. A shorter version originally appeared in the Sunday bulletin of St. Joseph Catholic Church, Mishawaka, Indiana. 

Preaching With His Life: Blessed Pierre Bonhomme

9 Sep

“Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the mute will sing” (Is 35.5-6).

“Preach the Gospel at all times,” St. Francis is supposed to have said. “When necessary, use words.” There’s no hard evidence that the Troubadour of Assisi actually uttered this pithy phrase, but it’s the kind of thing you’d expect him to say, for Francis was all about putting faith into action.

But tradition also has it that Francis was ordained a deacon, which meant that he was trained to preach, and preach he did. He preached to the public, he preached to his followers, he even preached to the birds when nobody else would listen. Clearly St. Francis saw the value of preaching with words. He just matched those words with deeds.

Francis’s model for this, of course, was our Lord himself. Jesus spoke about healing and reconciliation, and he brought them about. It’s what we see in this Sunday’s readings. Isaiah had anticipated that the Messiah would do things like give sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, and speech to the mute – and Jesus proclaimed his fulfillment of Isaiah’s predictions (cf. Lk 4.21).

In today’s Gospel, Jesus backs up those claims with results. A deaf man with impaired speech is brought to the Lord for healing, Jesus responds decisively, and “immediately the man’s ears were opened, his speech impediment was removed, and he spoke plainly” (Mk 7.35). The Jewish crowd, well versed in messianic prophecy, caught the Isaiah associations immediately. “He has done all things well,” they started saying to each other. “He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”

There’s a deeper meaning here beyond the fulfillment of prophecy however. By restoring hearing and speech to the man, Jesus also presumably restored to him his place in the social order and his ability to be gainfully employed – that is, Jesus also healed the man’s dignity as a human person. Even deeper still, however, there’s this: The healing that the man in today’s Gospel received would allow him to hear the Good News and then respond by proclaiming it himself, and in that he is a model for us today. We, too, want to hear all that Jesus would have us hear in the Word, and we, too, want to be full-throated witnesses to that effect.

Such was also the ardent desire of Bl. Pierre Bonhomme, a French priest, evangelist, and founder whose feast is ordinarily observed today (September 9). Born and raised in Gramat in the Diocese of Cahors, Fr. Bonhomme returned to his hometown after his ordination in 1827. He was a devoted pastor and tireless preacher, but he also extended himself to those at the fringes of society, particularly the sick, the elderly, and the poor. He established charitable and educational institutions, and recruited others to assist him in these works. In time, he succeeded in founding a religious community of women dedicated to such efforts, the Congregation of the Sisters of Our Lady of Calvary.

So, here’s Bl. Pierre, following in the footsteps of his Lord and Master, striving to match word with deed, and suddenly he lost his voice – right in the middle of preaching a retreat. He prayed for relief through the intercession of Our Lady of Rocamdour, to whom he had a special devotion, and he received a miraculous cure – just like the man in today’s Gospel.

Yet later, in 1848, he lost his voice again, and this time no amount of prayer brought it back. He was “obliged to give up preaching,” reads the Vatican’s biography, but the “priest did not despair; he trusted in God’s providence and believed that this would afford him the opportunity to dedicate himself to the flourishing congregation he had founded.” That is, like the Franciscan aphorism, Fr. Bonhomme kept right on preaching, even though he’d been deprived of words. In fact, his experience gave him a special awareness of the needs of the disabled, which resulted in his fostering new institutions to serve the deaf-mute population.

Fr. Bonhomme died in 1861, and Pope St. John Paul II beatified him in 2003. The Congregation he founded still thrives today, with sisters serving communities around the world, and they look to Bl. Pierre as their patron. Additionally, and maybe ironically, he is also deemed a patron of preachers, despite the fact that he lost his voice – not once, but twice.

And here’s another irony: In between those two periods of involuntary silence, Bohomme sampled self-imposed speechlessness on retreat with the Trappists and then resolved to seek quiet seclusion as a way of life with the Carmelites. “However, the Bishop of Cahors did not accept this proposal,” according to his Vatican profile, “and encouraged him to continue his missionary activities.”

Cloistered communities dedicated to prayer, like the Trappists and Carmelites, are a great gift to the Church and certainly have their place – indeed, a privileged place. But most of us, like Bl. Pierre, are called to remain active in the world, preaching the Gospel daily, one way or another, loud and clear.
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A version of this reflection appeared in the bulletin of St. Joseph Church, Mishawaka, Indiana.

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.

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