Monday, October 24, 2011

The Ends of the Earth

Jesus told his disciples, “You will bear witness for me in Jerusalem, and all over Judea and Samaria, and away to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

The ends of the earth. The preaching of the Gospel began in Jerusalem and within a generation, churches had been formed throughout the Roman Empire: throughout the Holy Land, across the northern coast of Africa, throughout what is now Turkey, over into Greece, certainly in Rome. Before long the Gospel had spread as far west as Spain and the British Isles. By the end of the first millennium it had covered all of Europe including Scandinavia.

In the sixteenth century as Europeans began to explore and make homes in the New World, the Gospel came to the eastern parts of North America. In the eighteenth century Franciscans under Father Junipero Serra established missions in Mexico and eventually moved northward into what is now the State of California. They built missions approximately one day’s journey apart, from San Diego up beyond San Francisco.

In the meantime, the Gospel had also moved eastward from Jerusalem. Armenia became the first officially Christian nation. Ancient traditions tell how the Gospel came into India. It moved into Russia and crossed the vast spread of that country. In the eighteenth century the Gospel came into Alaska and began to move down the western coast of North America.

About 1833, 1,800 years after the Day of Pentecost, not far from what is now Fort Bragg, California, Russian Orthodox missionaries coming south from Alaska met Franciscan missionaries coming north. The Gospel had circled the globe, and “the ends of the earth” turned out to be California.

“All the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God” (Psalm 98:4b).

Monday, October 10, 2011


For many years, on the first Sunday of each month I have presided at Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. This service of pure worship contains a space of silent adoration of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. As the years have passed, I have come more and more to find immense solace and peace as I gaze upon the consecrated Host.

Jesus gave the Church the command to celebrate what later came to be called the Mass and to receive Holy Communion. The faithful quickly discerned that Jesus is truly and objectively present in the consecrated Bread and Wine. Eventually there developed devotions to Jesus in the Sacrament apart from the Mass. One of the most moving and beautiful is the service of Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. The consecrated Host is placed before the faithful in a monstrance, a decorated stand with a glass display case for the Host.

Jesus taught, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28-29).

Considering this passage, I am reminded of the story of Saint Jean Vianney, the Cure d’Ars, who noted that there was a little French farmer who visited his chapel every day at about noon. After a while the Cure became curious as to what the farmer was doing in the chapel. One day he decided to ask him. The farmer responded that he came in to visit Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. His style of prayer was simple. He said, “I just look at him, and he looks back at me.”

It sounds so simple, but in Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament I have come to see the profound reality of what the French farmer tried to explain: “All of us, gazing with unveiled face on the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, as from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18).

When one gazes upon the host, on the one hand, one can see only a wafer of unleavened bread. On the other, by faith one may gaze upon that which is most beautiful. In adoration, there is no sense of time passing. As I kneel before the monstrance I am altered, and can even feel my face change its expression in response to what I see, discern, and feel.

Recently as I was drawn to the Beloved and allowed myself simply to look with adoration, I noted the various changes in my countenance that washed over and through me. Without plan or will, they simply moved through me, passing easily from one to the other, in the order below. I felt:


There was the rapture of feeling my entire self lifted up, almost swelled with delight, for I knew that what I saw was close to the vision of God himself, the creator and source of all that is beautiful. “Look upon him and be radiant” (Psalm 34:5).


Joy moved to awe at what I was discerning. “Please show me your glory,” begged Moses of God (Exodus 33:18), who responded, “My face you cannot see, for no human being can see me and survive” (Exodus 33:20b). Yet he allowed Moses to see a part of his glory (Exodus 33:21-23). Primitive and anthropomorphic as this narrative is, it contains an essence of profound truth that I find even more moving than the theophany at the Burning Bush (Exodus 3:1-6).


“Moses covered his face, for he was afraid to look at God” (Exodus 3:6). Awe led me quickly to a sense of my unworthiness to see such beauty and glory; I was overwhelmed by the immensity of what was before my face, as if a passage to infinity had been opened in the ordinariness of the day.


"When Simon saw the miracle of the great draft of fish, he fell on his knees before Jesus and said, Leave me, Lord; I am a sinful man” (Luke 5:8). Unworthiness led quickly to penitence, the realization that I am a sinner.

Receiving Love

An assurance of being loved followed upon my penitence and overrode a sense of unworthiness. Anglican priest George Herbert wrote a poem called “Love bade me welcome”. Its first line is, Love bade me welcome yet my soul drew back, guilty of dust and sin. The theme of the poem is that though one is indeed unworthy to be a guest at the banquet of Love, yet Love Himself bids you to be seated. When love is offered so firmly and unhesitatingly after one sees and acknowledges one’s unworthiness, then the love is life-changing.


Having received that welcoming love, which at first was uncomfortable, without any sense of hurry I felt the contentment of the present moment, resting comfortably in the presence of the Beloved. “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:11a).


Eventually, the enjoyment of being in the presence of the Presence moved me gradually from simple contentment to a desire and longing for more. I knew that “once perfection comes, all imperfect things will be done away with” (1 Corinthians 13:10), and that the Blessed Sacrament, glorious as it is, is still a “veil”, a mediated thing by which Jesus comes to those who love him. “O God, you are my God; eagerly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you, as in a barren and dry land where there is no water. Therefore I have gazed upon you in your holy place, that I might behold your power and your glory” (Psalm 63:1-2).


I moved from longing to a vision of its eventual fulfillment: “The city did not need the sun or the moon for light, since it was lit by the radiant glory of God, and the Lamb was a lighted torch for it” (Revelation 21:23). The Blessed Sacrament itself satisfies even as it whets one’s appetite for the banquet of the Kingdom of God.


Finally, I felt hope, the hope that what one sees and longs for now shall have a consummation. The promises of God never fail, and the hope of life eternal with Jesus is a sure and certain hope. “Hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5).

And that led me back to Joy. Jesus told his disciples at the Last Supper in anticipation of the breaking of their band, “I shall see you again, and your hearts will be full of joy, and that joy no one shall take from you” (John 16:22).

All of this can be wrapped up in a quotation from Karl Rahner from his brief essay, “About Sitting Down”. He wrote, “Of course, there are many exercises that lead to quiet and silent resting in oneself, such as the experience ... of deep and pure love between two people... Ultimately, however, there is only one type of stillness that enables a person to be at peace with himself or herself: prayer... Only in the loving being-at-oneness with the infinite mystery we call God can one arrive in such a way that one does not have to go any farther, where one can find rest."

“All of us, gazing with unveiled face on the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, as from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18). Or “I just look at him, and he looks back at me.”

Sunday, August 14, 2011

“My Life’s Light, My Beloved Ladye”

Nearly five years ago I wrote this blogpost about my personal devotion to the Virgin Mary. Of more than one hundred blogposts in almost five years, it is one of those I am most pleased with; it still stirs my emotions. One person who read it at the time said it was the most beautiful account of a man’s love for a woman that she had ever read. That gratified me deeply.

Today I post another item about Mary. The one in the link above is very personal and devotional. This one is didactic. Of all the Feasts of the Blessed Virgin Mary, August 15 is the most important. On it the Catholic faithful commemorate her death and assumption into heaven.

In the middle ages in England, a devotional acclamation arose: “Christ’s meek Mother, Saint Marye, My Life’s light, my beloved Ladye.” It is now the motto of the Guild of the Living Rosary, of which I am the American chaplain. I love the motto. It reminds me that Anglican devotion to Mary was once strong and widely accepted. The ravages of the Reformation removed many wonderful things from the palette of Christian devotion, but thankfully devotion to Our Lady has been returning for decades, gradually but surely.

The rise of devotion to Mary is not limited to Anglicans. J. Neville Ward, a Methodist clergyman, wrote a remarkable book on the value of the Rosary called Five For Sorrow, Ten For Joy. It was first published in 1971. In its preface, Ward wrote, “It does seem clear that the first-century people who put together the four gospels found that they could not do justice to the mixture of the divine and human in Jesus without saying some very remarkable things about his mother. Their minds were continually drawn to her. Because they felt that to Jesus was given the name that is above every name, these early Christians sensed an extraordinary mystery about her. They knew as well as we do that the influence of a mother over a child is absolutely incalculable for good or ill. If Jesus was who they thought he was, then who was she?”

Mary was the virgin mother of the Messiah. Legends of her early life tell us that she was an only child, miraculously born to aging parents, that she was presented in the Temple at the age of seven, and was raised there. Of her birth and early life, Holy Scripture and history are silent, but it is consistent with Scriptural accounts of others and therefore logical to assume that, with a view to her future destiny as the Mother of the Messiah and Lord, she was specially sanctified from the womb of her mother as were Jeremiah and John the Baptist, and that she lived a life of spotless innocence. How else could she have been fitted for her high and mysterious office as the Mother of the incarnate God?

In the Biblical narrative, she lived in Nazareth, a small town in Galilee in the north of the Holy Land. At the time of the Annunciation, when she was called to be the mother of the Messiah, she was probably about fourteen or fifteen and betrothed to Joseph, who tradition tells us was an older man, a widower, perhaps with children from a previous marriage. The assertion that Mary remained a virgin after Jesus’ birth was a very early one in the Church and became widely accepted.

Mary has been called “the greatest boast of the human race”. Quite likely, next to Jesus, she is the most beloved human being of all time. In the eighth century, St. John of Damascus weighed into the iconoclastic controversy in which the Byzantine Emperor had declared that the use of images, icons, and other externals was not permitted in Christian worship because it was idolatry. John said that the use of such things is permitted, since there is a difference between “worship”—which is given to God alone, and “veneration”—which may be given to images and to the Saints. For Mary he declared that “hyper-veneration” is permitted, as the chiefmost of the Saints. John’s declaration became the official teaching of the Church.

Mary is the only person in Scripture who is not exhorted to believe that Jesus is God. Others are told that he is the Messiah, such as the shepherds in the fields of Bethlehem and Simeon in the Temple, but only Mary is told from the beginning who Jesus is: the Son of God. There are only two categories in the New Testament of those who never doubt that Jesus is the Son of God. One is Mary alone; the other is the demons, who cry out, “We know who you are—the Holy One of God!”

She accepted the call of virginal motherhood, using the same words God the Father used to create the universe: “Let it be”—in Latin, “fiat”. Like most godly vocations, this one was not an easy one, and the Gospel of Luke says that “she was greatly troubled at the saying” when the angel greeted her. Like Moses and Jonah, she knew the voice of the Lord at the time of her vocation; unlike them, she accepted and maintained the vocation without hesitation.

It must have been because she not only knew God, but also loved him. Not that the others did not love God, but Mary was the one who loved him best. She was able in her own existence to love God and to love neighbor, to fulfill the summary of the Law her Son would later pronounce. Hence, after the Annunciation, she visited Elizabeth in joy, and risked the loss of Joseph’s trust because she had faith in the God whom she trusted to bring it all out right—which He did.

In the visit to her kinswoman Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, she proclaimed the Magnificat. The canticle shows her contemplative nature, but also that this nature is rooted in daily life and reality—as all contemplative nature must be if it is truly to be contemplative. The Magnificat shows that Mary was aware of God’s sovereignty, intentions in exalting her, and regard for the poor.

The Magnificat satisfies those most deeply devoted to Mary, with the words “all generations shall call me blessed” and “he who is mighty has done great things for me.” The Magnificat also appeals to those who are passionately devoted to peace and justice concerns, with its ringing words about scattering the proud, putting down the mighty from their thrones, sending the rich away empty, and exalting the lowly while filling the hungry with good things.

Clearly, even as a young teenager, the contemplative Mary was not removed from the things of the earth. She could handle traveling while heavily pregnant, giving birth in a stable or cave, and being on the run with a small child while under threat of death from a powerful man with hundreds of soldiers at his command. Yet these things are the matrix for the most obvious and most important picture of all: mother with child. It is a tender, heart-rending, and heart-filling picture. She is poor but not destitute, and always rich with the presence of God.

She appears first as a young teenager called:

to a new country more alien than that to which Abraham was called;

to know the meaning of the divine presence more intimately than Moses at the burning bush;

to be devoted to the will of God more intensely than Elijah;

to a vision of holiness greater than that given by revelation to Isaiah;

to carry sorrows with more resolution than Jeremiah; and

to an obedience more resolute than Daniel’s.

In the stable, feeding the divine infant from her own body, she is presented as undeniably Virgin and Queen. Virginity here is not a statement about lack of sexual experience, but a statement about purity, about being completely “God-oriented” and having room for nothing else, so that all of her relationships, including that with Joseph, were made rich and whole solely because of her single-heartedness toward God.

It is a concept with which our generation has become unfamiliar, and because unfamiliar, uncomfortable. A number of translations of old hymns have replace the word “virgin” with “maiden”, and in the categories of saints in the Episcopal calendar, the ancient class of “virgin” has been dropped. It is a major loss and our culture and contemporary Church are the worse for it.

This is not to imply that virginity is inherently a higher or better vocation than marriage or that sex is inherently impure. Virginity is a special kind of offering. It is a kind of fasting. True fasting is not merely the absence of food, but the presence of joy through the offering of a gift.

Virginity is a means of loving God, and a calling for a few. It was the calling of Mary, and an integral part of her glory. In the early Church, virgins were considered in a category close to martyrs: those who offered themselves single-heartedly and wholeheartedly to God. Virginity is never about absence, but rather a unique richness. The things of God are never negative, never about lack; on the contrary, they are always about richness and inundating love.

The first clear prediction of suffering for Mary came when she and Joseph presented Jesus in the Temple at the age of forty days, according to the Law of Israel. Simeon was there, “righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel” (Luke 2:25). Simeon gave the pre-eminence to Mary rather than to Joseph by addressing her, saying, “This child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:34-35).

Pre-eminent as she was, there was a price to be paid for her vocation. We are nowhere told what her response to Simeon was, but we can guess that she lived not only with joy but perhaps with a measure of apprehension, or at least the knowledge that there would be heartbreak and great pain in store. In fallen world, it is always so wherever there is love.

When Mary and Joseph lost track of Jesus when he was twelve years old and found him in the Temple, and Jesus spoke to them about having to be in his Father’s house, the Bible says, “They did not understand the saying which he spoke to them”…and “his mother kept all these things in her heart” (2:50, 51b). Understanding is a matter of the mind; Mary kept those things in her heart, a deeper place than the mind, the repository of love and intimacy, the home of faith and worship. Here also she had treasured the words of the shepherds who visited on the night that Jesus was born. (Luke 2:19)

There are only a few other places where Mary is mentioned in the Gospel narratives. She is mentioned at the wedding in Cana of Galilee; when she and Jesus’ brothers are trying to get a word with him; by a woman who cried out to Jesus, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts which you have sucked.”

And finally the poignant words at the crucifixion, “Woman, behold your son.” Her presence at the cross is indicative that perhaps she had been among the company much of the time—certainly at the least in its last days.

And when Jesus died, she was a widow without a son, like the widow of Nain upon whom Jesus had had compassion and for whom he had raised her son from the bier. Like that widow, Mary’s son also returned from death. Unlike that widow, she did not get to keep him—at least not in the earthly fashion. Much has been said and written about Mary as virgin and mother; far too little about Mary as widow and bereaved.

The last Biblical reference in her chronology is the day of Pentecost, where she was numbered among those in the Upper Room when the Spirit descended upon the faithful. (Acts 1:14)

We do not know how long she lived after that, for she is not mentioned again in the New Testament. No matter how long she lived in the first generation Church, as J. Neville Ward wrote above she would have had a place of deepening affection and awe in the hearts and minds of believers. It is evident that the first Christians found it increasingly difficult to exclude her from their praise of Christ because the more they saw of the glory of Jesus, the more they saw his Mother aglow with it.

Every right belief about Mary points to Jesus, continuing the lesson in the miracle of Cana in which she said to the servants, “Whatever he says to you, do it” (John 2:5). Mary is the model of humanity redeemed by Christ.

She is the only mortal who knew the entire earthly life of Jesus. “Her virgin eyes saw God incarnate born,” says one hymn (Written by Moir A. J. Waters [1906-1980]); and the Stabat Mater speaks of how she saw him suffer and die: “At the cross her station keeping, stood the mournful mother weeping.” She knew him throughout the “hidden years” of his childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. She knew him as carpenter.

Sometimes it seems that Mary is reverenced by being mentioned little in the New Testament. It does not seem to be a silence of unimportance, but rather of reverence. She is never even called by name in John’s Gospel, the Gospel that was written by the one with whom she spent the last years of her life. In John’s Gospel she is only referred to as “the mother of Jesus”. It is almost a literary bowing of the head, and, in the mind and heart of the Church, tying her to Jesus forever.

I believe that it is no coincidence that the Gospel written by one whom Jesus named a “son of thunder” for his violent and vengeful nature is perhaps the most mystical and profound thing ever written. The “son of thunder” was transformed by having “the mother of Jesus” in his home for the rest of her life. It is not hard for me to consider that the Gospel of John in many ways was inspired by Mary.

What of Christian devotion to Mary? In some ways, it is so obvious that it is foolish to bring it up. Maybe understanding it can come through a brief reflection on the words used in the Bible of her alone: “full of grace.” Grace is the means by which God does everything to redeem and hallow people and places. Mary was full of grace. In order to be full of grace, one must be empty of everything else, so that one can be utterly receptive—that is, to be truly female. This is a mystical truth, written deep not only in human nature, but in the very framework of the cosmos.

God, from the beginning of time, is the Giver of Life. All life-initiating, life-producing, and life-nurturing activities are derivative of God’s acts of Creation and Redemption. Because the world is indwelt by the Spirit, all things are sacramental, not only all of nature but in particular human physiology. Just as snow, for example, reminds us of purity, beauty, silence, and renewal, and as a storm reminds us of might and power and transcendence, so do human bodies reflect spiritual truths about human nature.

The body of a man is designed to give, to initiate life; the body of a woman is designed to receive, to nurture life. These are spiritual realities, far richer than merely physical or even symbolic. George MacDonald (in his novel Malcolm) says, “The love between man and woman, arising from a difference deep in the heart of God, and essential to the very being of each... is one of [God’s] most powerful forces for blasting the wall of separation, and first step towards the universal harmony of twain making one. By no words can I express my scorn of the evil fancy that the distinction between [male and female] is solely or even primarily physical.”

Thus, the relationship between male and female, by logical extension of sacramental theology (not to mention physiology) is an icon of the romance between God and the cosmos, in which God woos and wins his wayward bride. The Bible consistently reveals God in masculine terms, not to say that God is male (which is absurd) or to disparage females (equally absurd), but to reveal the nature of the relationship between God and the cosmos: that everything that is created and redeemed is his beloved Bride. At the foundation of all things, and the interaction of things, there is divine love. God created by love, sustains and redeems all things in love, and consummates all things for love.

If God is revealed in masculine terms, and if all that exists is truly about love, then the cosmos, everything that exists, is feminine to God. Salvation is a romance, a love story, and a matter of passion. One may consider that it is the only love story that there is, for all other love stories are only variations on this theme.

If this is so, then Christianity is the most earthy, sensuous, “rooted in real life” religion that there is, and therefore the only fully true religion—for it recognizes that in the Incarnation human flesh has been hallowed and all matter transformed, and maleness and femaleness themselves are the localized expressions of cosmic verities. Christian orthodoxy proclaims that only a male can be an icon of God as he has revealed himself in Christ, and only a female can be the icon of the universe. The archetypal contemplative is female, and Mary, the receiver of God, is the one in whose human flesh and life the cosmic myth of divine love became fact. What is written large across the cosmos became localized in such and such a real time, such and such a real place, such and such a real person.

As an archetype this reality perhaps even implies virginity. It may even imply perpetual virginity—one who is filled with nothing but God, and has never been filled with anything else; one who is full of grace. It implies purity (the radiance of God) and innocence (untainted by evil), but not naiveté.

Mary is such a one who is full of grace, which is to be full of God, which is to be full of joy... and (until heaven) full also of sorrow. For joy and sorrow are inseparable until the great consummation, the great End that is the great Beginning. Mary is often depicted as a woman of sorrows or of solitude. This image probably implies a reference to the sword that pierced her soul (heart) as prophesied by Simeon in the Temple.

This is the glory of Mary. It has been more than six centuries since the age of chivalry, when virginity was understood and valued as the enormous power that it is, when there were festivals in honor of Our Lady, and when England was called “Mary’s Dowry”. Now we live in a culture of speed, greed, and death, and the heartfelt exclamation “By Our Lady,” has devolved to the English epithet “bloody”.

But for the Catholic faithful, the truth does not and cannot change, though all the world be deaf and blind. Our Lady is still, next to Jesus, the greatest human being who has ever lived, who shows us the way of Jesus. Her hidden glory of unique intimacy with God shows that we bear the cross to walk the way of life. We share in the sufferings of Christ only because they lead to “the joys of his resurrection”. Mary, then, is the first among the redeemed, and the greatest boast of the human race.

Her glorious Assumption is a sign of the full hallowing of matter, the fullness of redemption, the firstfruits of Jesus’ promises, “Behold, I make all things new” (Revelation 21:5); and “I shall come again and receive you to myself, so that where I am, you may be also” (John 14:3). Mary’s Assumption shows us our destiny, what the Prayer Book describes as “perfect consummation and bliss, both in body and soul, in [God’s] eternal and everlasting glory” (Book of Common Prayer, page, 488).

As the first Christians knew, and as Catholic Christians everywhere have known through the ages, and today know still, any genuine devotion to Jesus and commitment to him must inevitably draw Mary into one’s heart as well. As the medieval Anglicans knew it, “Christ’s meek Mother, Saint Marye, My Life’s light, my beloved Ladye.”

Monday, August 08, 2011

Joseph, Son of David

When Bishop Robert Rusack consecrated Blessed Sacrament’s church building almost thirty years ago (September 27, 1981), in his remarks he pointed out that of all the churches in the diocese, he believed that though many had statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Blessed Sacrament was the only one that had a statue of Saint Joseph as well. It is unfortunate that Joseph is so neglected in our churches, and I am delighted that our forebears saw to it that he was remembered in our parish.
Our shrines to Mary and Joseph are in opposite corners at the back of the nave. Both receive visitors who pray and light votive candles. I wonder how often, if ever, anyone connects the two in devotions. Just a few days ago, someone did, and was moved to write to me about it. What she wrote transformed and immeasurably enriched my understanding of St. Joseph. I will quote her few lines below.

In all of Scripture, there is not one word recorded of anything that Joseph said. We know him by his dreams and his actions as the protector of the Virgin and Child. He was a descendant of King David, a carpenter, open to direct communication from God in dreams and obediently responsive to what he discerned, and willing to take risks out of obedience to God. And it is clear that he loved Mary.

Long tradition tells us that he was an older man, perhaps a widower with children, and that by marrying Mary he became her protector in her vocation as Mother of the Messiah. He was still alive when Jesus was twelve and the Holy Family traveled to Jerusalem. When Jesus began his public ministry nearly twenty years later, Joseph is no longer in the narrative. He had died in the meantime and Mary was a widow in her forties.

Another long tradition is that Mary was always a virgin. There is much Scriptural support for this belief, though not definitive, and the title “ever-virgin” is ancient and nearly universal from the early years of the Church. In the service of Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, Joseph is referred to as Mary’s “most chaste spouse”. Most believers reduce this belief to the understanding that Joseph and Mary did not have sex.

I am chagrined to admit that I hadn’t thought much farther than that myself until a few days ago. But if we stop there, considering only what did not occur between them, the haunting implications of what their loving relationship actually was are missed, and we are left with a poverty-stricken image of negativity or absence. The reflection I received from a member of Blessed Sacrament on the subject caught me up short. If we take it as given that Mary and Joseph were not sexually intimate, we must not and cannot rightly conclude that they therefore had no intimacy. In chastity, and even in celibacy, there still can be and should be deep intimacy, for are we not called truly to love? And can there be genuine love without intimacy of some kind?

Looking across the lawn between the hall and the side door of the church, I caught sight of a young woman going into the church to pray. I never saw her leave and assume that she was there for a long time. Later I learned that she had visited the shrines of both Mary and Joseph, and in her devotions connected the two in a way I had never even thought of before. She was moved to write to me about her experience, and said, “I think that St. Joseph held the Blessed Virgin a lot: I don’t know how else she could have survived... and I think that was probably terrifying for him, and probably conflicting---a very fine edge, but not an impossible balance since he did it.” She added later, “In retrospect, it seems so obvious I want to laugh: what do we think St. Joseph was doing? Standing around holding the reins of the donkey while a lonely girl carried the God-Man?”

These few words had enormous impact on me and opened up a profound depth in the meaning of true love as manifested in the Holy Family. Our wayward culture seems to know only gratuitous sex or painful isolation; it knows almost nothing of genuine love of any kind, with all of its limitless manifestations.

The young woman came somehow to know that, if Joseph’s love for Mary led him to hold her a lot, it would have been costly to him. I have no idea how she could have received that insight, but I think it must have been so. We know of the sword that was prophesied for the heart of the Mother of the Messiah; was there not also a price for Joseph to pay for his fidelity to his vocation, his lifelong devotion to the most lovable woman of all time? I thought of the woman who touched the hem of Jesus’ garment, and Jesus felt power going out of him. There is a kind of love in which power is given from the lover to the beloved: sacrificial love in any of its manifold expressions.

Joseph was not only a son of David; he was also a son of Boaz, whom I described in a recent blogpost as “a real man”—one who knows how to love a woman. Joseph was obedient to God, protective of the ones he loved, and willing to pay a price not only for their safety but to ensure that they were blessed. He was self-effacing and humble, yet strong and reliable. His strength passed into the Virgin Mother, shaping and filling her through the years of their marriage for the costly future days of her Son’s ministry that he would not live to see. “Blessed indeed be Saint Joseph, her most chaste spouse.”

I plan to post something about Mary next week on her feast day, August 15, but a post about Joseph begged to be written today.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Beyond DispicuBel

A few weeks ago I found a child’s scrawl on the back of a prayer request card in the church. It read, “I know you God So I am so DispicuBel” I must confess that I was shocked and deeply saddened by this.

I have been a spiritual director and adviser over many years to probably dozens of people, and have been powerfully impacted by the fact that far and away the most common spiritual “ailment” is when people know Jesus and believe that he is the Son of God and Savior—but do not feel or truly believe that they are unconditionally loved and fully forgiven. Indeed, this is my own besetting sin. To see this sentiment laid out in the words of a child was distressing. Did the child hear the words from an adult, remember them, and then write them down without knowing their meaning? Maybe the child just liked the word because of the movie “Despicable Me”. Of course, I don’t know. But the implication that knowing God leads to believing oneself to be despicable is distressing.

After I reflected on the scrawl, the words of a song from 1970 came into my mind. The song was “Woodstock”, written by Joni Mitchell to capture the feeling of the legendary rock concert of August 1969. The song begins with these words:

I came upon a child of God.
He was walking along the road.
When I asked him, “Where are you going?”
This he told me.

I’m going down to Yasgur’s farm.
Think I’ll join a rock and roll band.
I’ll camp out on the land.
I’ll try and set my soul free.

We are stardust.
We are golden,
And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.

There are several recordings of the song on youtube, but here’s the best-known version:

Now here’s something funny. Woodstock is known as the largest gathering of people that had ever occurred in the United States up to that time. In the words of the song, they were “half a million strong”. Woodstock is remembered not only for the music but for the rampant “sex, drugs, and rock and roll”, i.e. immoral and illegal behaviors. Yet there is an appearance of joy in what people experienced there, expressed in the song that uses the words “child of God”, “getting one’s soul free”, and “getting back to the garden”, i.e. looking for Eden. And in recognizing that humans of all kinds are “stardust” and “golden”. Even in the context of public nudity and clouds of marijuana smoke there was a kind of lyric innocence underneath, with happy people looking for and finding some sort of freedom in contrast to, as the song says, feeling “like a cog in something turning.”

Now don’t get me wrong. I am not advocating that people become hippies in order to find God or freedom, or learn that they are loved. “Free love” and drug abuse are long-proven roads to ruination.

What I’m thinking about is the contrast between the genuine search for “the garden” and recognition that one is “a child of God” and “golden” among—what shall I say? neo-pagans?—and the sense of being despicable and loathsome that so many believers have today. Believers more than anyone ought to know that the birthright of the born again is “love, joy, peace,...” Jesus said, “Love one another as I have loved you”; “Your joy no one will take from you”; “My peace I leave with you. Not as the world gives do I give to you.”

The feeling of being despicable is valuable and, as far as it goes, true. But too many believers stop there. We need the overpowering message not only of Scripture but of the Saints: St. Thérèse of Lisieux, for example, also called St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus (January 2, 1873 – September 30, 1897).

During his pontificate at the beginning of the twentieth century, Pope Pius X declared St. Thérèse “the greatest saint of modern times. She was only twenty-four when she died, but during her short life spoke more powerfully and simply and penetratingly of the love of God than most people in the history of the Church.

My favorite saying of St. Thérèse is, “I’m not saying that you believe too much in your own wretchedness. I’m telling you that you don’t believe enough in merciful love.”

Despicable, okay. But don’t stop there. Believers should have at least as much conviction of their being the children of God, and golden, and knowing love, joy, and peace as the neo-pagans of Woodstock.

“I’m telling you that you don't believe enough in merciful love.” If only I, and everyone I know and love and preach to, could really and truly know and believe and feel these things.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Real Manhood

A good number of years ago I ran across this statement: a real man is one who knows how to love a woman. Unfortunately, I’ve forgotten the source now, but I liked the definition very, very much. It struck me as rather “chivalrous”; it appealed to me and inspired me to strive to “live above” the tawdry standards and low expectations of our culture. I think it has always been difficult to be a real man, but it is particularly so today when there are so few genuinely inspiring role models, and when the standards that popular culture holds up for imitation are either twisted or scornful of real manhood.

Chivalry is often considered a quaint notion today and probably has not been taken seriously for generations—at least, as such, in general. Yet I think that a chivalrous man shows manhood at its best. Chivalry is about honor and virtue, and in spite of popular opinion is probably always, deep down at least, truly the ideal of manhood. I have known a number of truly chivalrous men, and thankfully some of them are among the past and present young men at Blessed Sacrament. They are rebels.

This is why I really like Boaz in the Book of Ruth. I read Ruth a couple of weeks ago, and the gentle and strong manhood of Boaz impressed me deeply. I had, of course, read the book many times before, but Boaz came across to me this time in a deeper way than before. He showed the fulfillment of the powerful and ringing definition of manhood in the New Testament: Ephesians 5:25-30.

The eponymous Ruth was a young widow, a foreign woman living in Israel. She had married the son of Naomi, an Israelite who had gone with her husband and two sons to the neighboring land of Moab during a famine. After her husband and sons died in Moab, the newly widowed Ruth returned to Israel with her widowed mother-in-law, pronouncing the well-known and much-admired vow, “Wherever you go, I shall go; wherever you live, I shall live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God” (Ruth 1:16).

Ruth was a most amazing and admirable woman. Indeed, the book is about her and bears her name.

But let’s not overlook Boaz. Once back in Israel, Naomi and Ruth were poor, but it was Israelite law that close kinsmen, according to a formula, were to provide for the widows of their family by marrying them, thereby preserving the family line of the deceased husband. It was also Israelite law that the poor were to be allowed to glean in the fields during harvest time, picking up grain that was left over after the reapers had covered the field.

Naomi urged Ruth to glean in the fields of Boaz, their near kinsmen. Ruth did so, and was humble and deferential. Boaz noticed of her, and clearly took a liking to her. He saw to it that his menservants did not bother her and that the reapers would leave her plenty of grain to find. He thereby provided for her and Naomi, and did so honorably. He did not just give Ruth a few bushels of grain in place of her gleaning; that would have been patronizing. He preserved her dignity by allowing her to continue to glean, thereby showing her respect by permitting her to “earn” her grain by her labor. As she worked in the fields he also gave her access to drink and provided her meals. (See Ruth 2:8-16.)

Boaz was obviously a godfearing man. His first words recorded in Scripture are, “The Lord be with you” (Ruth 2:4), with which he greeted his servants. From this may well come the greeting that has been so much a part of the liturgy for many centuries. Today we use Boaz’s words many times in worship.

Naomi urged Ruth, of course, to continue to glean in Boaz’s field, as Boaz himself had also urged. Naomi eventually encouraged Ruth to claim the privilege of Boaz’s protection under Israelite law, even though she was a foreigner. She then went to sleep at Boaz’s feet, throwing the end of his blanket over her (Ruth 3:7). When Boaz discovered her in the middle of the night, he treated her with honor and courtesy, preserving her safety and praising her for her virtue (Ruth 3:11-12). He addressed her more than once, including on this occasion, as “daughter”, a sign both of intimacy and honor.

Boaz then moved to ensure that Ruth would become his wife in the fullest, most proper fashion, treating her claim honorably and ensuring that he would make her his own formally and legitimately even though there was one other relative with the right of redemption ahead of Boaz.

And then, as the short book makes clear, they became the great-grandparents of King David, who governed Israel and established its golden era, and through whose line the Messiah is traced. David, then, was one-eighth Moabite—partly of foreign blood.

It is often claimed today that women were little more than property in the age of the Old Testament and for centuries afterward. The story of Ruth shows that the real situation was much more complex than that. There are those in every age—most undeniably including our own—who consider women, and men and children too, as throwaway property. Perhaps our own age is even more guilty of this than most ages of humanity. But there have been and will always be men who are godly and chivalrous, going against the trend of their culture. These rebels know how to love a woman. They know how to love God.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

How One Man Changed History

June 1, today, is the feast of St. Justin, commonly called Justin Martyr. It’s a day that always impresses me, for reasons that will become clear at the end of this blogpost.

Justin was born in Samaria in the first decade of the second century. His parents were pagans. As a young man he eagerly sought to learn the meaning of life, and received instruction from a number of philosophers without being satisfied by any of them. Sometime in his twenties he was walking along the beach in Ephesus on the western shore of what is now Turkey, and met an old man who told him about Christianity. The conclusion of their long discussion was that Justin came to believe that no one could arrive at the idea of God solely through his own efforts, but that one needed to be instructed by the Jewish Prophets who, inspired by the Holy Spirit, had known God and could make him known. Justin decided to become a Christian, probably at Ephesus, at the latest by A.D. 130.

Before his conversion, Justin already knew something of Christianity, since it was by now a common religion in the Roman Empire, even if not yet licit. After his conversion, Justin wrote that he had been influenced by the fearless conduct of Christians facing execution. He wrote, “When I was a disciple of Plato, hearing the accusations made against the Christians and seeing them intrepid in the face of death and of all that men fear, I said to myself that it was impossible that they should be living in evil and in the love of pleasure.” Justin explained that he was moved by Christianity’s “moral beauty” and by its “truth”.

Once he had become a Christian, Justin began to write and to teach. Within about ten years, he arrived in Rome where he started his own school. Three of his essays still exist. Following up on what he had learned from the old man, he wrote that true knowledge of God can only come by revelation, though it is built upon one’s own seeking. His writings are the first time in Christian theology that we find so concise an explanation of the difference that separates Christian revelation from human speculation. Just as the accusation on Jesus’ cross was written in the language of the Empire (Latin), the common people (Greek), and the People of God (Hebrew), so do the three extant essays of Justin address the Romans (explaining that Christianity does not imply disloyalty to the Empire), popular philosophy (defending Christianity against the Greek charge that it is irrational), and the Jews (asserting that Christianity does not distort the Hebrew Scriptures but rather fulfills them).

Roughly twenty years after his arrival in Rome, after disputing with the cynic philosopher Crescens, he was denounced by the latter to the authorities. Justin was tried, together with six companions (Chariton, Charito, Evelpostos, Pæon, Hierax, and Liberianos); all were condemned for their refusal to renounce Christ, and were beheaded in the mid 160s. In a prescient statement written in A.D. 155, Justin had said, “It is incumbent on every lover of truth, at whatever personal cost, even if his own life is at stake, to choose to do and to speak only what is right.”

The court record of the trial and condemnation is extant. The examination ends as follows: “The Prefect Rusticus says: Approach and sacrifice, all of you, to the gods. Justin says: No one in his right mind gives up piety for impiety. The Prefect Rusticus says: If you do not obey, you will be tortured without mercy. Justin replies: That is our desire, to be tortured for Our Lord, Jesus Christ, and so to be saved, for that will give us salvation and firm confidence at the more terrible universal tribunal of Our Lord and Saviour. And all the martyrs said: Do as you wish; for we are Christians, and we do not sacrifice to idols. The Prefect Rusticus read the sentence: Those who do not wish to sacrifice to the gods and to obey the emperor will be scourged and beheaded according to the laws. The holy martyrs glorifying God betook themselves to the customary place, where they were beheaded and consummated their martyrdom confessing their Saviour.”

The church of St. John the Baptist in Sacrofano, a few miles north of Rome, claims to have Justin’s relics.

The title of this blogpost is How One Man Changed History. Of course that can refer to Justin himself, whose influence was great in his own day and extends to our own time more than 1,850 years later. But the man I am thinking of in this title is the stranger on the shore of Ephesus, whose name was not recorded by Justin, and in this world, then, will never be known. This old man was probably a member of the church in Ephesus, which had been a major Christian center from the days of St. Paul more than a century earlier. He was evidently a man able and willing to talk about his faith with a stranger in an effective and persuasive fashion.

Also obvious is the fact that it was God who did the “converting” of Justin. The young Justin was eager to know the meaning of life and was ripe for coming to know God. We may ask, what would have happened if the young man and the old man had not met, nor conversed, or if the old man, having met with Justin, shrank back from talking to him about Jesus. Of course, we cannot answer those questions; we can only know what actually happened. The old man did talk to the young man, and he was the instrument by whom God brought Justin to Christ, and through Justin, many others.

Year by year I have pondered the account of Justin’s conversion and given thanks to God for the old man, whoever he was—a brother in Christ, at least, and an effective “street evangelist”. There are times I have been in the place of the old man, and shared Jesus with people whom I had met casually. (See this blogpost, Girl on a Bus.) But it is always God who is the evangelist (See this blogpost, No Wrong Numbers With God.) God’s first plan for bringing people to Christ is to have believers serve as his instruments. People are usually converted by people—much less frequently by visions or personal study. I salute the stranger on the shore and hope to be as effective as he was.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Mars, Symbol of Mystery and Longing

Unquestionably, in spite of the vast amounts of new knowledge about the fourth planet that have come our way in the past generation, Mars is still a symbol of “otherness” and “mystery”. From the time of Jules Verne and perhaps before, space travel has been one of the great dreams of humankind, and Mars, as our closest planetary neighbor in space, has received the most attention. Surely it will be the next extraterrestrial place that will receive a human footprint—perhaps even in my lifetime. Countless movies, documentaries, magazine articles both popular and scientific, television specials and series, short stories, and books have investigated this dream.

For me, the dream is only one variation on the desire, set deep in the human heart, for a place of beauty and adventure, whether we call it “over the rainbow”, Shangri-la or El Dorado, Wonderland, going “boldly where no one has ever gone before”, or use another of the many well-known literary descriptions of a beautiful, far-off place that draws our attention with painful yearning.

Mars has fascinated humanity from the time of the ancients who named it for the mythological god of war (because of its distinct red color, suggestive of blood). Orson Wells’ radio drama of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds that aired on October 30, 1938 caused widespread panic when it was thought that Martians had landed on Earth and were wreaking immense havoc. Several movies made in the last few years have featured landings and adventures on Mars.

Much to my excitement and joy, a few days ago I came into possession of a fragment of a Martian meteorite—a piece of Mars. Wikipedia says, “A Martian meteorite is a rock that formed on the planet Mars, was ejected from Mars by the impact of an asteroid or comet, and landed on the Earth. Of over 50,000 meteorites that have been found on Earth, as of March 15, 2011 ninety-seven are Martian; they include fragments of approximately 58 individual Mars rocks that have fallen to Earth.”

Compared to my little stone, then, diamonds are as common as gravel.

Further technical reports conclude that, “Roughly three-quarters of all Martian meteorites can be classified as Shergottites. They are named after the Shergotty meteorite, which fell at Sherghati, India in 1865. ... Shergottites are among the rarest of meteorites. A Shergottite consists mostly of olivine, the pyroxene mineral pigeonite, and plagioclase feldspar, making it a basalt. Such a rock can only form in a differentiated body, that is, a fairly sizable planet. From studies of its age (much younger than other meteorites) and its gas inclusions (which precisely match the composition of the Martian atmosphere), we know that the planet in question is Mars. The Shergottites appear to have crystallized as recently as 180 million years ago, which is a surprisingly young age considering how ancient the majority of the surface of Mars appears to be, and the small size of Mars itself.”

The fragment now in my possession is from a stone that originally weighed 1.29 pounds that was collected in the Dar al Gani region of Libya in the winter of 1996-1997.

Here is the fragment in my possession:

Probably from the time the first man looked up with wonder, the red planet has been a place of mystery and symbol of mystical encounter, both satisfying and whetting the primeval longing in humanity for something beautiful beyond the horizon. When I looked up into the night sky in late August 2003 during the closest approach of Mars to Earth in tens of thousands of years, I found myself suddenly moved by the glowing, ruddy point of light in the sky. I felt that heart-longing myself, knowing it to be the longing for heaven and the Face of God as revealed in Jesus. The experienced surprised me, and greatly gratified me. Owning a piece of Mars is immensely satisfying, but I know that its possession only points more inexorably to the one Desire that is the deepest longing of my heart.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Turtles, Tsavorites, and Trust

First, I have been surprised that since my last blogpost on November 1, the number of hits the blog gets each day more than tripled. That trend has continued for more than three months. I have no idea why, but I was hesitant to post another entry for fear that the visitors who wanted to read about Bob Janoe would give up. But it’s been long enough now, I think, so here’s another post.

Story one: Not long ago my older son told me about a friend of his who owns a turtle. The turtle loves the taste of strawberries and watermelon. Any portion of either fruit laid in his way wouldn’t last long. Then one day the turtle got hold of some red pepper, which apparently astonished him no end. One can only imagine his little turtle eyes popping open with shock. After that he refused to eat anything that was bright red. Even when his owner tried to tempt him with juicy pieces of watermelon or strawberry, placed directly in his path, he would turn aside. Obviously he didn’t trust his sense of smell as much as he trusted his sight. (I was surprised that the turtle could discern the color red, but apparently it is so.)

Story two: About twenty-five years ago I acquired a ring with an attractive tsavorite stone. The ring was a gift, and I had a choice of an emerald, a tourmaline, or a tsavorite. The tsavorite was just the right shade of my favorite color, so that’s the stone I selected.

Recently I became curious about tsavorites and looked ’em up online (and a story about a REALLY BIG ONE here) and learned that the stone was discovered as recently as 1967, and only became publicly known in 1974. In doing my research, I read an account of how a native found an enormous tsavorite of particularly brilliant color, and tried to sell it to a gemologist in the area for fifty dollars. Because the gem was so large (about the size of a couple of fists put together), the gemologist assumed it was only glass and, not wanting to be taken in, sent the native away—only to find out later that the stone was genuine and worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The lesson from both these stories? Many times we don’t trust the free grace of God when it is offered to us. We are afraid to take a risk or trust such an enormous offer of love. We are used to paying for things and are leery if someone offers a free gift of some fantastic item.

As Aslan said in The Magician’s Nephew, “Oh, Adam’s sons, how cleverly you defend yourselves against all that might do you good!” I have seen it many times in my ministry, how people are suspicious of grace, mercy, love, joy, and peace. It’s very sad—but how wonderful when the grace of God is gladly received and changes lives.