Tag Archives: Hubert van Zeller

Of Pericopes, Susanna, and the Long Form of Our Lives

23 Oct

“We can’t hope to know others as we should like to, but we should make it our business to know them as well as we can.”
~ Dom Hubert van Zeller

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Love the Ones You’re With First

8 Sep

“It is not enough to say to my God I love you,
but my God, I love you here.”
~ Mother Teresa

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Convert Companions: Of Merton & Waugh, Me and You

19 Aug

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“Friendship is only possible with people similar to ourselves
and those to whom we are bound by good will.”
~ Christoph Cardinal Schönborn

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Of the Advent Swell and the Pregnant Pause

23 Dec

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Do you not know that your body is a temple
of the Holy Spirit within you?
~ St. Paul

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Erring on the Side of Eucharistic Excess

15 Nov

A priest gives Holy Communion to faithful during Mass celebrated by Pope Francis at Revolution Plaza in Havana, Cuba, Sunday Sept. 20, 2015. Pope Francis opens his first full day in Cuba on Sunday with what normally would be the culminating highlight of a papal visit: Mass before hundreds of thousands of people in Havana's Revolution Plaza. (AP Photo/Desmond Boylan)

The soul cannot expect to be anything but lukewarm
without the grace of frequent Holy Communion.
~ Dom Hubert Van Zeller, OSB

Cecilia had served the 7:00 a.m. Mass on Saturday, and I was driving her home. She’d be heading back to church at 2 p.m. that same day to serve a wedding Mass, so I attempted a clever remark. “Too bad you’re not serving the Vigil at 4:30 this afternoon – three Masses in one day would be a family record!”

“I couldn’t do it anyway,” she responded, shooting me down. “You can only receive Holy Communion twice in the same day.” It’s indeed true that the Church limits our intake of edible grace – of the Eucharistic Jesus, of the comestible God himself – to twice a day (Cn 917). And if we received him the first time outside of Mass – say, at a Communion service in a nursing home or hospital – then the second time has to take place within the context of a Mass. This is to ensure that we don’t just sit around all day and fatten ourselves on sacramental grace – to take in the divine nutrients well beyond our spiritual caloric needs. After all, Jesus himself established a standard ration of “daily bread” in the Our Father.

“Pretty impressive,” I granted my daughter. “Not many eighth-graders would know Canon Law when it comes to frequency of Communion.” I could’ve clarified that acolytes aren’t required to receive the Eucharist in order to serve at altar, but I let it go in favor of affirming her liturgical acumen. In any case, her instincts were correct: the Church has made it clear that the norm is to receive the Eucharist whenever we attend the liturgy. “It is in keeping with the very meaning of the Eucharist,” reads the Catechism, “that the faithful, if they have the required dispositions, receive communion when they participate in the Mass” (emphasis in the original).

That naturally led into a discussion of the Easter duty – the requirement that Catholics who’ve made their first Holy Communion must receive the Eucharist at least once a year, ideally during the Easter season (Cn 920). It was hard for her to grasp that such a precept was necessary. I observed that it used to be pretty widespread to rarely receive Holy Communion on account of extreme scrupulosity. Of course, one could argue that the opposite is the case these days, but I appreciated Cecilia’s response. “Even if you have doubts – even if you’re not quite sure if you should receive,” she said, “it’s better to go aheadmore communion and let Jesus figure it out.”

Allow me to interject here that I’m confident that my daughter has a good understanding of proper interior preparation with regards to the sacraments – that one must not be conscious of any unconfessed mortal sin before approaching the altar, in other words. As already indicated, she has a well-rounded grasp of Church teaching, and I know she’s familiar with St. Paul’s injunction to the Corinthians: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.” (CCC 1385).

On the other hand, I like Cecilia’s gut sense that we’re not to starve ourselves either – whether from an old-fashioned Eucharistic anorexia borne of scrupulosity or, more likely today, an overreliance on substitutionary and inferior sources of pseudo-spiritual sustenance. Better to receive Holy Communion even when you’re in a crummy place with God than not to receive it at all.

Besides, the Eucharist itself forgives our minor offenses, and it helps us to avoid offending God any more in the future. “If, as often as his blood is poured out, it is poured for the forgiveness of sins,” writes St. Ambrose, “I should always receive it, so that it may always forgive my sins.” In other words, if we wait until we’re really worthy to receive the Eucharist, we’ll never receive it – I think that’s what Cecilia was getting at. It’s like waiting until we’re ready to get married – or waiting until everything is in place to have a baby. We’ll never get to that place – we all know that, right? We’d be waiting forever.

Even so, it’s also true that the Eucharist, like any sacrament, isn’t automatic – it doesn’t work moral and spiritual wonders without our cooperation and effort. “Frequent Communion is not magic,” writes Fr. Van Zeller. “The Holy Eucharist does not, as if by a charm, bend an ill-disposed character so that, in spite of itself, the soul finds itself rising to the heights.”cms-2papalmass

Jesus is really present whether we apprehend him or not, and his grace is present in his sacraments whether we assimilate it or not. But we still have to apprehend him, and we still have to assimilate him. That is to say: we have to do our part! God could save us against our will, I suppose, but he isn’t going to do it. We’re free agents with will and intelligence. We know in our intellect that we’ve been granted the free gift of grace that can save us, and we can willfully choose to cooperate with that grace – not resist it, that is, like a child refusing the medicine that will foster healing and restore life.

“Only action is the proof of sincerity,” Fr. Anthony Paone observes, and going to Communion even when we have doubts or scruples is action that is oriented to sincere spiritual growth. Along with that, however, we must also act to align our whole selves, interiorly and exteriorly, with our desires for spiritual growth.

We can’t expect Holy Communion – or even Jesus, which amounts to the same thing – to do all the work. We’re not automatons, we’re not mindless marionettes, waiting helplessly on the Lord to save us despite ourselves. Not at all.

In fact, we’re very active sinners, in need of grace, in need of Jesus, and he expects us to approach him in Holy Communion with all manner of mixed motives and complicated aspirations – do we really want to be saints? Well, yes…and no. We show up at Mass, though, and we go forward with everybody else for Holy Communion, because…what? What do we want?

We want the Savior who spread himself around like a dissipated feast, a rolling banquet through time and space. We want to become whom we eat.
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The Marital Indispensable Minimum

23 Sep

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“But if the case is as you say,” it may, with the disciple in the Gospel, be objected, “then it were better not to marry at all.”

To which I answer: Yes, if you can’t face those terms, much better.
~ Dom Hubert Van Zeller

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Of Practice, Perseverance, and Carnegie Hall

14 Jun

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The Church has called for a “New Evangelization” to meet the situation in which many who would describe themselves as Catholics have moved away from the practice of their faith.
~ Dr. Petroc Willey

“Could you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?”

It’s a venerable vaudeville favorite that’s been around at least since the 1950s. In Bennett Cerf’s version, the speaker is a lost pedestrian who has stopped none other than master violinist Jascha Heifetz to ask directions. Cerf recorded this response:

“Yes,” said Heifetz. “Practice!”

The irony, of course, is that, even with practice, few will achieve the skill and artistry that would lead to performing on Carnegie’s stage. A further irony is that the pedestrian was undoubtedly not a performer anyway, and was more likely interested in a ticket and a seat. Yet, the joke relies on a couple assumptions about artistic achievement that are important to musician and pedestrian alike: First, Carnegie Hall-worthy performance is desirable even when it isn’t achieved, and, second, that level of artistic accomplishment takes a lot of work.

Jane Austen’s Lady Catherine de Bourgh referenced similar assumptions when commenting on Elizabeth Bennet’s piano technique in Pride and Prejudice. “I often tell young ladies that no excellence in music is to be acquired withopride-and-prejudice-and-pianos1ut constant practice,” her ladyship declares at one point. “I have told Miss Bennet several times, that she will never play really well unless she practises more.” To this, Miss Elizabeth readily agrees:

“My fingers,” said Elizabeth, “do not move over this instrument in the masterly manner which I see so many women’s do. They have not the same force or rapidity, and do not produce the same expression. But then I have always supposed it to be my own fault—because I will not take the trouble of practising.”

It’s in this sense that we often apply the word “practice” to faith, and there really is a parallel between taking up an instrument and taking on Jesus. At the very least, there is a similar differentiation between theory and practice: On the one hand, there’s the lofty idea of playing the violin along with the ethereal ideas of Christianity; on the other hand, there’s the effort involved in moving toward violin proficiency as well as conformity to Christ  – a distinction even the Catechism (quoting Vatican II) acknowledges:

So, in maintaining, practicing and professing the faith that has been handed on, there should be a remarkable harmony between the bishops and the faithful.

Note the word “should” there. Harmony and adherence are the goals; perseverance, in terms of maintaining and practicing, are the means. This perseverance is also central to the Act of Contrition we say during Confession:

I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life.

We don’t promise, but rather resolve to carry on and avoid sin in the future. And let’s face it: Perseverance is required, for Christianity is a tough business, as any plain reading of the Gospels can attest. “Blessed are The-Lords-Supperthe meek, the mourning, the persecuted, and the insulted,” goes the Sermon on the Mount. “Offer no resistance to one who is evil, love your enemies, pray for your persecutors.”

“Alright, Jesus” we shrug and sigh, internally calculating our weaknesses and potential for success. “We’ll give all of that a decent shot.”

Then comes the punchline at the Sermon’s end: “Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

That’s when we scrunch up our internal faces and mutter, “C’mon, are you serious?” The thing is, he’s totally serious, and we can’t really be Christians unless we take him at his word: He wants to make us like himself! It’s seems ludicrous, particularly when we consider our own situations – when we really look at ourselves – we know it’s hopeless. How can we be made perfect? We’re so weak, so rotten, our motives so selfish and banal, even when, on those seemingly infrequent occasions, we attempt to do good or deepen our prayer.

Ah, but it’s not what we see that counts, nor even what we accomplish. “Success and failure [are] to be judged in God’s terms,” writes Hubert van Zeller, “not ours.” A Baptist church kiosk around the corner from my house captures the same idea: “HerDSCN0350e’s to the crazy ones,” it reads, “the misfits, the rebels…God loves you!” You see, it really doesn’t matter where we start, or how little progress we’ve made – in prayer, in virtue, in holiness – up to this point. It really doesn’t matter if we’re losers, bumblers, small-minded, or besmirched. What does matter is our desire for God himself, and that we don’t give up – that we start each day saying, “OK, Father, I’m ready to give it another shot,” and then we launch! In comments on prayer that can be applied to the whole Christian enterprise, van Zeller puts it this way:

God knows the limitations which He has imposed upon man, and makes allowances. There is only one test: Are we wanting God? Do we want Him so much that we are prepared to go on looking for Him…in spite of apparently never getting any nearer to Him?

Alright, back to that musical instrument metaphor. Can you hearken back to the days when you yourself took piano lessons? Probably there were some practice rules that your teacher drilled into you, and now you take those same rules for granted with your own kids starting lessons. The beauty of it is that those piano lesson principles are applicable to the practice of the faith, and pretty handy at that. Here’s a few to get you started – see if you don’t agree:

  1. Practice daily. Think of physical exercise here: You can’t get into shape in a week just before hitting the beach. Similarly, you can’t cram all your practice into one afternoon before your next lesson – or next major life event. It has to be a steady, daily routine of scales and review and repetition – or, in the case of faith, prayer and devotions and sacraments – over and over and over again. Like the drip, drip, drip in a cave that creates huge and lasting formations, regular practice of the faith makes permanent change that positively impact every aspect of our lives.
  2. Learn from your mistakes. The old saying doesn’t hold true here: Practice does not make perfect, but it does make for progress. Perfection remains the goal, but our practice, regardless of how intense it is, will never be sufficient. God’s grace is the main ingredient in any case, and we can’t get discouraged when our fallen human natures muck up our progress on a regular basis. Take it in stride – God does. Accepting our frailty and shortcomings involves a long view akin to the Creator’s.
  3. You can always begin again. That’s as true for our childhood instruments as it is for riding bikes. A month or so ago, I got the bikes down from the top of the garage. My nine-year-old, Kathy, had just learned to ride without training wheels late last summer, and she was a bit anxious that she might’ve forgotten how to balance over the winter. But as soon as her bike was down from the garage hook, she was out riding again, no problem. She hadn’t forgotten after all! This is good news for the New Evangelization. When we find those Catholics who haven’t practiced their faith for a long time, we can tell them honestly, “No worries! It’s just riding a bike or playing the flute. If you practiced when you were younger, you’ll be able to pick up pretty much where you left off!”
  4. Don’t overdo it. That is, avoid scrupulosity. In this regard, a different familiar saying actually does apply: Practice what you preach, and what we preach as Catholics is that God brings us all along in different ways and at different rates. He meets us on our margins, and he doesn’t expect us to turn into saints overnight.

On that last point, Jascha Heifetz, the master violinist from the Carnegie Hall joke, offers some excellent advice:

There is a happy medium. I suppose that when I play in public it looks easy, but before I ever came on the concert stage I worked very hard. And when a certain point of effort is reached in practice, as in everything else, there must be relaxation.

Our goal is holiness and conformity to Christ, so great effort is to be expected. “And inevitably God is the reward of such a striving,” writes van Zeller. “‘You wouldn’t be looking for Me,’ as He reassured Pascal, ‘if you hadn’t already found Me.’”

If that’s true, then effort can be balanced with effervescence. Kick back from time to time along the way. Allow yourself room to pause and laugh and breathe. If you’re practicing the faith as best you can, then you can be confident that God is pleased and will continue bringing you along in his own good time.


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A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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