Monday, August 3, 2015

In Praise of Royal Weddings

A love song.
My heart overflows with a pleasing theme;
I address my verses to the king;
my tongue is like the pen of a ready scribe.

You are the most handsome of the sons of men;
grace is poured upon your lips;
therefore God has blessed you forever
Gird your sword on your thigh, O mighty one,
in your splendor and majesty!
In your majesty ride out victoriously
for the cause of truth and meekness and righteousness;
let your right hand teach you awesome deeds!..

From ivory palaces stringed instruments make you glad;
daughters of kings are among your ladies of honor;
at your right hand stands the queen in gold of Ophir.

Hear, O daughter, and consider, and incline your ear:
forget your people and your father's house,
and the king will desire your beauty.

Since he is your lord, bow to him.
The people of Tyre will seek your favor with gifts,
the richest of the people.

All glorious is the princess in her chamber, with robes interwoven with gold.
In many- colored robes she is led to the king,
with her virgin companions following behind her.
With joy and gladness they are led along
as they enter the palace of the king.
Psalm 45

Reflection – This is a most unusual psalm—unique, really, in the Psalter. It is titled in its superscription ‘a love song’, and that is indeed what it is. A hymn composed for a royal wedding—perhaps one of Solomon’s many. It is unique in that there is barely a reference to God in it—only in passing, asking for his blessing upon the king. It is all about the splendour of the groom and the beauty of the bride and the joy of their union, all in some of the most ornate and highly coloured language of the entire Bible.

The Song of Songs is the only thing like this in the rest of the canon. Now, as it happens, the Church in its wisdom gives Psalm 45 a place of prominence in the liturgy that is very telling as to its meaning and import. In the Liturgy of the Hours there is a four-week cycle of psalms, over the course of which those of us entrusted with this prayer pray nearly the entire psalter. The last office of this cycle is Daytime Prayer of Saturday, Week 4. And the last psalm of that office is Psalm 45.

The Church chooses to end its cycle of psalms with this love song, this hymn in praise of the royal wedding—beautiful brides, handsome grooms, palaces and wedding chambers and all.

And of course this means something. It means that, in the end, our religion is a love story. In the end, our religion is about a wedding (see how the Bible itself ends, with Revelation 22)—the wedding of heaven and earth, God and humanity, Christ and the Church, God and the individual human soul. It is all about weddings—the coming together of two different ‘things’ to make one new thing, a glorious thing, a beautiful thing, a thing that brings life and joy in its wake.

This is why the Church cannot change its fundamental teachings about marriage and its structure, both in the number and gender of those who are admitted to it, the indissolubility of it, and its necessary openness to fruitfulness. All of these things directly flow from the taking up of marriage in our revealed tradition to being a revelation of God and of humanity and our essential relationship.

But I don’t want to dwell in this post on those painful and agonizing questions pressing on us. Rather, Psalm 45 bids us to rejoice that God is indeed the bridegroom of all humanity, and that all of us, whatever anguish we endure, whatever pains and sorrows are part of our path in life, however little we feel any of this to be true, are ultimately summoned to the royal palace, because the King desires our beauty and wants to make us one with Himself.

It is all a love song, in the end. And in the difficult, confused, and painful times that we seem to be called to live through in the Church and in the world, we need to take hold of that and enter deeply into it. Psalm 45 should be a prayer we have regular recourse to. All is about love, all is about union, all is about God coming to us and we going to God. All is about the beauty of the bride—humanity, you, me—and the beauty of the groom—Our Lord Jesus Christ, God Himself.

With joy and gladness let us forget our people and be led along into the palaces of the King.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

A Dried Up Hamburger

I usually write a ‘This Week in Madonna House’ wrap-up on Saturday. At this point in the summer, it gets hard to do this, as the weeks start to look pretty much like one another, and I could virtually get away with copying and pasting last week’s post. Work and hospitality, hospitality and work, rinse and repeat… such is life in high summer at MH.

Meanwhile, something cropped up on my Facebook page lately that I was unable to respond to in the narrow confines of an FB comment thread. Namely, this:

Now it first must be said that this quote is wholly fabricated – Pope Francis has never said these words. And that if someone is trying to make a larger point about being a good person without God, it’s probably not a good idea to start off by TELLING A LIE. Just a thought.

But what about the actual quote? Is there some validity to these words, anyhow? Leaving aside the parts of the quote that are so vague that they are impossible to respond to (the traditional notion of God… part, for example – what does that mean?), let’s focus in on the question of ‘can you be a good person and not believe in God.’ What is the Catholic answer to that.

The Catholic answer to that is that, no, it is not really possible to be a good person and not have a relationship to God. I would go further and say that it is impossible to be a good person, really, and not go to church (the ‘money’ thing is a total red herring here, since the Church does not absolutely command people to financially support it).

OK, shocking! Intolerant! Hateful! Right? I thought you were a nice guy, Fr. Denis! All that jazz. Well, I hope I’m a nice guy (more or less, on a good day), but it’s a question here of thinking clearly through things. What does it mean to be ‘good’? That is the question. When we say something is good, we mean that the thing is everything that thing should be. Goodness is possessing all the desirable qualities a thing should possess. A good hamburger is juicy, flavorful, just the right size, and so forth. A good dog is happy, loyal, affectionate, and obedient.

And a good human being is a human being who is everything a human being should be. And we are made by God, for God. We are made and our entire human vocation consists in having a relationship to the One who made us, who loves us, and who wants to fill us with Himself eternally in a free gift of love, the response to which gift of love is the obedience of faith—believing in Him and so doing what He asks of us.

And we believe that He has revealed what He wants of us in Jesus Christ. And that Jesus Christ has saved us and as an essential part of that work of salvation has established us as a ‘people’, a community that comes together to receive the grace of God in the sacraments and to embody the love of God by working to form a community of love among ourselves.

So we cannot be ‘a good person’ without possessing those necessary qualities—relationship with God, obedience to His plan, membership in the community of believers. Not because everyone who lacks those qualities is a depraved fiend lacking in any good quality (that is an utter non-sequitur) but simply because to lack those qualities is to be a hamburger full of flavour but dried up and crumbly. It is to lack what we need to be what we are supposed to be, the kind of ‘thing’ that we are.

Now where this FB meme does have a point (and I suspect it’s the point the author was going for) is that simply professing faith in God and simply showing up in church weekly does not suffice to make one a good person. It is necessary, but not sufficient. Part of the reason I knew immediately that Pope Francis never said these words is because they are a banal observation—everyone knows that lots of ‘religious’ people are total jerks. We who go to church regularly are actually the most aware of this, since we are rubbing shoulders with said jerks constantly! Furthermore, on any given day, we may be those very jerks.

And of course there are many atheists or unchurched theists who are kind, generous, truthful, and a host of other virtues, and thank God for that. But that too, while necessary, is not sufficient for 'goodness', because we are made by God, for God, and without God and our obedience to His plan for humanity (the Church) we are not being what we are made to be, and so we are not really good. And that is the Catholic answer to that particular cultural meme.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

This Is What Christianity Looks Like

I found that video referenced in the previous post. Here it is - more than worth a watch, if anything should go viral, this should.

The People of the Word

 I am writing a commentary on the Mass each Thursday on this blog. After six posts on the Entrance Rite, which takes all of five-ten minutes in a normal parish Mass, we have now reached the Liturgy of the Word.

This of course is one of the two principle parts of the Mass, the other obviously being the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Before diving into the specifics of it, then, it is necessary to discuss the general meaning of this liturgy, and of the Word in our lives. It is not only in the Mass that the proclamation of the Word precedes the celebration of the sacrament—this is how every rite of the Church proceeds.

This highlights a central fact of the Christian religion. We are not exactly ‘People of the Book’, as is sometimes said. In our Catholic understanding of things, there is more to it than that. We are, however, intensely and profoundly, People of the Word. People of the Revealed Truth.

This means that we do not get to make up reality. Reality—truth—is received, first. The basic structure of all our liturgy—hear the Word, celebrate the reality—is the structure of all Christian life. 
We hear the Word so as to live the Mystery. The structure, meaning, purpose, origin, goal of reality is first shown to us in the revealed Word of God who is Jesus Christ, and then we live this reality out in the life of love and mercy, service and prayer.

This is so utterly of the essence. And yet it is precisely here that many of us go wrong on a regular basis. We know (most of the readers of this blog, anyhow) that this is exactly where secular modernity is flagrantly wrong. Just for example, making up new definitions of man, woman, marriage every day. 

Or, as we have all seen these past week, deciding that the unborn human being is nothing but a clump of cells, but then turning around to sell at a tidy profit human livers, hearts, brains from those ‘cells’ for medical research. Then efforts to discuss that grisly fact put us back into ‘it’s just a clump of cells’ territory again. That sort of thing—reality is what I say it is, and can change and change again at a moment’s notice for my convenience. Post-modernity in a nutshell.

But we who profess Christianity need to be very careful about our own minds and hearts in this, too. There is a video making the rounds in MH right now—I can’t seem to track it down on YouTube right now, but will post it on the blog when I do. It is interviews with the families of the recent 20 Coptic men killed in Libya for being Christians. All of the wives, parents, siblings of these young men are unanimous in this video in expressing forgiveness, compassion, and a prayer for conversion of heart for the Islamist murderers of their beloved husbands, sons, brothers. And a resolute willingness to suffer the same fate, if Jesus Christ asked it of them, too.

It is a powerful video, especially since all of these people seem to be fairly poor, ordinary folks. But that’s what people look like when they have received the Word of God into their lives at a deep level. Here in North America we are far too prone to profess Christianity but then live out of the prevailing ideologies or political allegiances or the fads of the day.

We are far too prone to say, in much less extreme circumstances than those Copts,  “Well, I’m a Catholic, but… you can’t expect me to love my enemies, can you?" Well, Jesus does expect us to do that very thing. His Word is crystal clear on the point, in fact. “I’m a Catholic, but we have to go along with the world—you don’t expect me to be ridiculed, mocked, maybe even fined or jailed for expressing unpopular truth, do you?” Again, Jesus’ Word is very clear on that point, and a true People of the Word would not even ask that question.

And care for the poor—too many of us subscribe either to the shibboleths of the left where the answer to poverty is one more bloated government program run by anonymous bureaucrats and funded by anonymous tax dollars, or the shibboleths of the right where it’s the poor’s own damn fault for being poor, and I worked hard for my money so I’m keeping it, so there. Personal charity, personal involvement, personal generosity to the point where it hurts, where it entails some sacrifice, a lower standard of living, say? Whoever heard of that? Again, a People of the Word would know Who has not only heard of that, but commanded it of us.

Well, we need to be ‘worded’ and ‘re-worded’ continually, then. This is the true role of praying with Scripture in our lives, a role I have highlighted in my book Idol Thoughts, that we need to continually plant the Word into our minds and hearts like seed in soil, like yeast in bread, live salve into a wound. Work it in, allow the Word to heal us, grow in us, reshape us into the image of Christ.

It is only a people who are daily worded and re-worded by the Word who can then proceed to live the Eucharistic mystery of transforming sacrificial love. But that is where the Word takes us, and next week we will start to look at just how it does that in the action of the liturgy and in the action of our own lives.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Better Than A Week At The Cottage

Little — be always little! Be simple, poor, childlike.
Preach the Gospel with your life — without compromise! Listen to the Spirit. He will lead you.
Go into the marketplace and stay with Me. Pray, fast. Pray always, fast.
Be hidden. Be a light to your neighbour’s feet. Go without fear into the depth of men’s hearts. I shall be with you.
The Little Mandate of Madonna House

Pray always. I will be your rest. – And with this final line we come to the end of this little series of commentaries on the Little Mandate, the words God gave our foundress Catherine Doherty to be the guiding spirit of Madonna House.

I will freely confess that when it comes to this last line of the Mandate, I don’t really get what is being said here—we are all works in progress, and in my case the progress has not yet progressed to this beautiful place yet of experiencing either constant prayer or Christ being my rest. I am quite certain of the truth, beauty, and goodness of these words, but I haven’t yet reached the direct experience of them, not yet. Some day.

‘Rest’ is a big word for most people, I imagine. We are all a little tired. Nobody quite gets enough sleep. Nobody feels entirely well, entirely fresh and bouncy. Well, maybe some people do, and youth especially is known for its inexhaustible energy. But as one gets older… well, we get tired. Not sick, not miserable, not incapable of functioning—just a wee bit tired.

And so we look for a place of rest. I have my annual vacation coming up in a few weeks, and I’m not ashamed to say that I am deeply looking forward to it. I think the Lord in this line of the mandate is disclosing something to us about what it means to be at rest that takes us so far beyond this normal human level, though. For us, ‘rest’ is synonymous with ‘respite’. For God, ‘rest’ is synonymous with ‘consummation’. In other words, a being comes to a state of rest when it reaches its proper place, its home, its state of fulfillment.

Well, our proper place and home and fulfillment is not a week at the cottage sipping cocktails by the beach. Our home is the heart of God, and the heart of God is the wellspring of love in the world. ‘Pray always’, at a deep level, means the same thing as ‘love always’, since prayer is communion with God and God is Love.

Our rest, then, is found in our relationship with Him. He doesn’t say here, Pray always, and I will give you rest. He says that He will be our rest. And this takes us very deep indeed. As I finish this series on the Little Mandate, it is right and proper that the last sentence of the Mandate takes us where we really need to be taken.

Namely, to Jesus. Our life is about Jesus. It is for Him, from Him, and towards Him. He is the source of the ‘Arise – go!’, the command to movement that begins the journey of the Gospel life, and He is the destination to which we are heading, and He is the way itself of love and service in the world.

The Little Mandate of Madonna House is a 118-word revelation of the radical Christ-centred nature of Gospel life and love in this world. And it does come down to this ‘pray always’ business. If we are going to take up the cross of the poor, we have to pray always. If we are going to be little, simple, poor, childlike, we have to pray always. If we are going to preach the Gospel with our life, do little things exceedingly well for love, love without counting the cost, go into the marketplace, into the depths of men’s hearts, be a hidden light to the feet of our neighbour… we have to pray always.

We have to pray always because all of this is what Jesus does and who Jesus is for us, and our living of it is utterly impossible save by His constant intervention and help in our life. We can do nothing without Him; with Him, all things are possible.

‘Pray always’ does not mean hours spent in silent contemplation. It does mean a constant dialogue with God throughout our busy days. It does mean cultivating a habit of prayer, whereby in the midst of everything that fills our life we continually go to that place of rest—not a place of inactivity and torpor, but a place of fulfillment, consummation, intense activity of love and communion.

It is all about Jesus, all about calling on His name, seeking His face, striving to live according to the words of light and truth and pattern of love and sacrifice that He has laid out for us, and that His grace and His Spirit make possible in our lives. It is Jesus, Jesus, and Jesus again who is our rest, who is our life, who is our mandate from God. And that is what Madonna House continually proclaims and tries to live in our humble communal way of life.