Anagogical Kylie

JMJ

Traditional Catholic teaching says there are four senses of scripture which must all agree. This is a useful meditation tool for the Word of God. The Catechism cites this Latin Couplet to parse it out:

Lettera gesta docet,
quid credas allegoria,
moralis quid agas,
quo tendas anagogia.

The Letter speaks of deeds;
Allegory to faith;
the Moral how to act;
Anagogy our destiny.

We can read all texts, searching for truth, on each of these levels. The reader may be familiar with using this process in literature. Secular texts (even those by Catholic writers) will usually aim at one or other of these levels, but only by God’s grace would anything hit all four. Lewis’ Narnia does deeds, allegory, and morality really well. Tolkien is no fan of allegory, but he does deeds, morality, and anagogy all through Middle Earth. It is fashionable also to do this to movies as well as literature. We can also do this with secular music. Although a pop-song is not scripture and do cannot contain all four levels of meaning certainly some songs might hit some levels.

Love songs (if they are true) must have a deeper meaning. God is love, and so any true love song is a religious song in one sense or another. As love songs grow continually more and more into sex songs this may become less and less true. However, even then – since sex is a gift from God – if they are true songs then God will be in them, to one degree or another. Addressing God in terms of love is often the field of the mystic. True love songs – while devoid of actions we want to replicate as Catholics and often containing only a negative morality – may have allegorical and anagogical meaning.

Kylie Minogue’s All the Lovers seems to me one such song. It is true. Although the official video is filled with things that would make a devout Catholic shudder (if not need to go to confession) the lyrics and the music are not that way at all. Although the song is written for one voice (Kylie, of course) if the song is parsed into dialogue it’s very different. I propose that like the Song of Songs, this text is a dialogue between Jesus and the Soul and it speaks of our ultimate end:

Jesus:
Dance, it’s all I wanna do, so won’t you dance?
I’m standing here with you, why won’t you move?
I’ll get inside your groove ’cause I’m on fire, fire, fire, fire
The Soul:
It hurts when you get too close, but, baby, it hurts
If love is really good, you just want more
Even if it throws you to the fire, fire, fire, fire

The Soul:
All the lovers that have gone before
They don’t compare
To you
Jesus:
Don’t be frightened
The Soul
Just give me a little bit more
They don’t compare
All the lovers

Jesus:
Feel, can’t you see there’s so much here to feel?
Deep inside in your heart you know I’m real
Can’t you see that this is really higher, higher, higher, higher?
Breathe, I know you find it hard, but, baby, breathe
You’ll be next to me, it’s all you need
And I’ll take you there, I’ll take you higher, higher, higher, higher

The Soul:
All the lovers that have gone before
They don’t compare
To you
Jesus:
Don’t be frightened
The Soul:
Just give me a little bit more
They don’t compare
All the lovers

Jesus:
Dance, it’s all I wanna do, so won’t you dance?
I’m standing here with you, why won’t you move?
The Soul:
Even if it throws you to the fire, fire, fire, fire, fire, fire

The Soul:
All the lovers that have gone before
They don’t compare
To you
Jesus:
Don’t be frightened
The Soul:
Just give me a little bit more
They don’t compare
All the lovers

You’re doing it wrong

Bl. Stanley Rother saying Mass in a traditional chasuble with a Guatemalan scarf.

The Readings for the 1st Tuesday,
Tempus per Annum (A2)

Factum est autem, cum illa multiplicaret preces coram Domino, ut Heli observaret os ejus. Porro Anna loquebatur in corde suo, tantumque labia illius movebantur, et vox penitus non audiebatur. Aestimavit ergo eam Heli temulentam, dixitque ei : Usquequo ebria eris? digere paulisper vinum, quo mades.
As she remained long at prayer before the LORD, Eli watched her mouth, for Hannah was praying silently; though her lips were moving, her voice could not be heard. Eli, thinking her drunk, said to her, “How long will you make a drunken show of yourself? Sober up from your wine!”

JMJ

Among the Orthodox, I’m sure it will not surprise you to learn, there are Liturgy Wars. I found this to my great horror after a while in Orthodoxy. There is a phase for converts (it took me about 2 years to outgrow) where “my parish does it right” and everyone certainly does it the same way. My time was compounded by visiting very similar places when I traveled. This led to “My parish is right and anything else is clearly wrong.” But that was followed by about 8 years of “there must be someone who does it right…” because I began to develop a list of things that are clearly wrong: pews, first and foremost. Skipping parts of the liturgy – everyone does this – was increasingly horrifying to me. A part of the morning service of Matins which at my on parish took 15-20 mins to do might take 3-5 mins at some places, or even less! Then I discovered that my own parish skipped a bunch and that part of the service should take about 45 mins on a short day – say a normal Sunday – and maybe 1h15 or even more on a Holy Day! We were all doing it wrong. Listening to us Orthodox criticize each other you might think we were all Eli yelling at Hannah for being drunk.

The third phase of this was the realization that doing what your Bishop told you to do was the right way to do it. Some Bishops allowed more latitude than others, but as long as one was within the limits established by Episcopal oversight, no pun intended, one was ok. Things got hella wonky when I drifted into the Orthodox Western Rite communities where seemingly anything goes and every pastor is his own liturgical Episcopos. The Latin phrase sui generis, meaning “alone of its class” and usually applied to special exceptions to general rules, was invented for the Orthodox Western Rite. No one really does what the Bishops say – although everyone starts with the same collection of books.

All this by way of lead-up to my becoming Catholic. The alleged post-conciliar chaos was one thing that had kept me from becoming Roman Catholic when I fled the Episcopal Church in 2002. But here it was in Orthodoxy too. There are even some Orthodox Churches with altar girls and – roughy speaking – open communion. There are “liturgical archeologists” who make stuff up because “the ancient church” did it. Orthodoxy had all the same mess as the Roman Church, so why fight it? I became Catholic. I also mellowed a lot.

I love a good Latin Mass: I go to one almost every week. I find praying my way through 2 hours of intense liturgy to be quite wonderful. There are those partisans of the Latin Mass who say that the other form of the Mass, the Novus Ordo, is not valid at all. There are even some who say the 1962 Missal is wrong and that we have to go backward in time to the next missal (or the one before that…) Sadly, there are some vice versa feelings too. And there are some in either camp who freak out when they see the Novus Ordo done with elements of traditional liturgy at all. As much as I love the Latin Mass, it’s this last – Novus Ordo with all the trad stops pulled out – that is my favorite. I was Episcopalian for long enough that this most Episcopalian of Catholic liturgies feels like “home” to me.

Go to a Christmastide Mass at St Patricks in SF and see all the blue LED lights and gobs of fake flowers. Try the Chinese New Year Mass with the Dragon. There’s the dancing Gospel at St Paul of the Shipwreck, and the two guitars and a flute at St Dominic’s at 5:30 PM. See the Divine Liturgy in (mostly) Russian style at Our Lady of Fatima and the Latin Mass at Star of the Sea. This is only the beginning: the glory of the Catholic Church. While there are some who would insist that they are right and all the others wrong but each liturgy is filled with Catholic hearts raised heavenward.

Yet we are all Eli convinced the others are Drunk Hannahs who are doing it wrong. The joke was on Eli because it was his own sons who were doing it wrong and it was Hannah’s son who was to replace them. Those in power were about to be thrown down, as is God’s way.

What shall we do with our liturgical diversity as blessed by our bishops?

Give thanks to the Lord our God for it is right and just.

From Before Time

JMJ

When next you approach Our Lord in the Holy Eucharist, drawing near to the chalice in faith and love, kneeling at the rail, or coming to the front of line; when you receive from the Priest, Deacon, or Eucharistic Minister the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of the God-Man, Jesus, born of Mary and descended from David by adultery, gentiles, and loss…

The next time you come to receive Holy Communion, remember: He’s been waiting right there for you from all eternity.

For in that morsel of what was bread, now all the eternity, all the infinity, all the glory and immensity, all the love that sustains the universe is present, right there. Any part of infinity is infinity. You are coming to Him, yes. But before you stood up, before you walked forward, before you entered the Church, before you were conceived, before your parents met, before your furthest ancestors rose unthinking from muck to see the sky, he was waiting for you and this moment. This dawn. This taste. This infinity on the tongue.

Before all else that was or ever shall be, this moment was in God’s heart and he loved you. You. YOU.

Think of all the things you fear, all the things that you’ve done. Think of all the things you had to let go of to be here today. Think of all the angry thoughts you had sitting in the pew a few moments ago, think of all the pain you’ve caused (be honest). Think of the things you’ve never told anyone except maybe to say a whisper inside confession or a therapist. All of them. Think of betrayed friends, of lies that let you escape, think of pride that kept you aloof, of love that you didn’t share, think of used people and loved things, think of your idols. Think of it ALL.

He called you here anyway. He loved you before all that – even knowing that you would do all that.

He is standing before you know with arms outstretched in love, and a heart as big as all of heaven lit with the glow of a love that has done nothing since all of eternity except wait for you here.

And it will be bliss and communion if you will but let it be so for he wills it for you. This love is yours if you will but have it.

Have this love.

Be this love.

Be.

Keryg道?

JMJ

You’re still here! Either you want to find a way to embody the Tao, the collected and shared teachings that are the birthright of all humans who claim them, or you’re reading along to see how this trainwreck ends. That’s ok. You’re here and I’m going to keep talking.

The Tao seems attractive: it’s been called all sorts of things by different philosophers and traditions. The Wiki offers, “The Perennial philosophy (Latin: philosophia perennis), also referred to as perennialism and perennial wisdom, is a perspective in spirituality that views all of the world’s religious traditions as sharing a single, metaphysical truth or origin from which all esoteric and exoteric knowledge and doctrine has grown.” And, I’m sure that some readers may have assumed I was going there. I’ve avoided that phrase on purpose.

I prefer the Tao (道) because, as I mentioned, C.S. Lewis uses that term. Of course he is also stealing it from another tradition but, personally, I find Taoism a very attractive way to walk. By coincidence, “Tao” also means “way” so it all fits together somehow. It also avoids all the metaphysical and occult shenanigans of philosophia perennis by already being attached to a specific meaning. If you think I’m offering a form of that, you will assume I mean “the perennial tradition,” alone, is enough. I do not mean that at all.

Perennialism is close… but not close enough. So, to convey the idea of “Perennialism plus the rest of whatever it is” I’m going to stick with Lewis’ Tao.

Robert Heinlein has his characters say in Stranger in a Strange Land, “Humility is endless. I am only an egg.” It is said that that book was written to invent a religion: it succeeded. The  Church of All Worlds is still around. He stopped short, missing the mark by assuming humans would follow literally anyone: including a fictional messiah from Mars. Since his messiah is fictional it’s actually Heinlein. Heinlein grasped Perennialism, but he missed the Tao. He’s right though, as far as he goes: humility is endless. Oddly, he missed the mark exactly here, at humility. If you want to follow the Tao, you have to humble yourself and follow someone else. Why? Because this path has been walked before therefore you will be behind someone. It’s best to be aware of that. There’s no way to lead on this path: you can follow. Following is not a bad thing – and humility is what is needed to learn. We do not have the chance, chronologically, to lead unless you want to assume (as many do) that literally everyone who has come before was wrong. That’s not Tao: that’s chronological arrogance; the assumption that the new, the now, the modern, the current is right because we “know more”. Tao says no to that. It’s the democracy of the past: there are literally millions and millions of folks, living and dead, who disagree with you. That should make you humble, not arrogant.

So who do you follow? Yes, different living and dead folks will have different answers here. Still, Bob Dylan says, “You gotta serve somebody.” Who does the Grail serve? What does that mean to you? I can’t answer this for you and I can’t show you the way beyond this point. All I can do is tell you how I got here.

Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism, has often appealed to me. Before he wrote one of the foundational texts of Chinese teaching, he was court official. One day he was done. He abandoned court life and fame and was riding off into the wilderness to be alone. A gatekeeper realized the wisdom of this and asked the old man to write down what he had learned. That’s where the Tao te Ching came from. When I got to college and read the book “officially” for a class, the professor rattled off a list of passages that he was sure we had all underlined. Gosh, was I embarrassed because he was right. My “profound sense of wisdom” in these texts was that of any other 19-year-old fanboy. Still, there was something here. I held on to this text until about 5 years ago, really. It sat on a shelf with a lot of texts I considered “scripture”.

The same class also walked us through the basics of Hinduism and Buddhism. I have a profound respect for all three traditions. They are the aboriginal wisdom of half of the humans of the world and long before the West learned that Jupiter, Ammon, and Zeus were all the same (along with Alexander), this unified culture was growing and fecund. Yet I found no appeal in the Buddha and the Hindus, Sikhs, and Jains are all ethic groups long before they are religions (as the West understands things). You cannot convert to Jainism: you have to be born into it. Taoism pulled me along though. The idea that water flows down because of its nature, that it’s intended to do so, and in doing so it destroys rocks and carves canyons: this appealed to me. What’s my nature?

Long before this though, of course, I was raised in a Christian house among other such houses. I heard an evangelist preach hellfire on the radio when I was six and it scared me. Sometime in 1970 I prayed what is called “The Sinner’s Prayer” and “accepted Jesus into my heart”. This was the first of many such events when I was moved by my emotions to do something religious. Thing is, these things never stuck. If you were to check in with me a week, maybe two later – in 197o or 1992 – you’d have found that the emotional event made no change in my life. It felt good, though, to be terribly scared, and then “saved” or to cry brutally over my lost soul. My full-immersion water baptism in the Southern Baptist Church was very moving, very brief, very meaningless. I had to redo it when I became Methodist later because it wasn’t in the name of the Holy Trinity.

And that sentence should clue you into something important: all of this was rootless. My family moved around a lot when I was a kid. At 55, I’ve have not yet managed to stay at one mailing address for four successive Christmases. We would move to a new house and the three of us kids would go to the closest church. Whatever church was closest was good enough: Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian. I think Mom took us to a Catholic Church once. In the post-council Chaos of 1969/70/71, all I can remember is when I talked to the minister after the children’s service, Mom was horrified that I had done so. I remember being dismissed from the adult service and then there was a room where guitars and people wearing masks sang songs about the Gospel. Anyway… this rootlessness rubbed off on me. It’s dictated my spiritual path.

What religions have I not tried? my friend Steve asked. That list is very short. I’ve walked through several forms of Christianity, looked at Judaism, thought about Sufism, dipped deeply into the New Age, Pagan reconstructionism, Feminist Wicca, ritual magic, Gnosticism, Theosophy, Zoroastrianism, Mithraism, it goes on. I’m not sure if I should be embarrassed or traumatized.

When I discovered sex this story gets interesting for what I experienced as my rootlessness suddenly became a quest for connection and a continual string of emotional events, sexual contacts, that left me unchanged – and yet changed me greatly. The further into this world I went the more selfish I became – mostly, I was convinced, for my own protection. Truth be told, after a while selfish just was fun. Sex is not supposed to be selfish: there’s a whole book on this, but let’s take it as part of the process here. Eventually, I learned that sex that is not about self-gift is not a good thing. The self-gift has to be total, entire, and unreserved. Our bodies are built for this self-sacrifice: even the circuits of our brain are set up to trigger and auto-program from the intense hormonal release.

Our souls and bodies aside though, we are fallen. We need only look around for deep understanding that simply wanting to do something is not a reason for doing it. The newspapers and social mediae are littered with horrifying stories that begin, essentially, with “Because I wanted to do this…” Anyone who has paid attention to the world for the last few centuries (if not millennia) knows that “because I wanted to” is one sure sign that something is wrong.

So although “I wanted to” was driving quite the party in my life, it was not making me happy. I don’t mean I wasn’t having fun: I was. I mean I was not happy. I was not able to wake up every day and say I’m happy being me, I’m honored fully by the choices I’ve made, and I’m going to keep going. Most days I woke up and wondered, “What should I change to get happy?” And I’d make a change: move 3,000 miles, switch lovers or jobs, spend hundreds of dollars on a credit card, try a new religion. Sometimes all at once as moving across the country is very liberating and expensive. I’ve done that 7 times since 1984. Change was not fixing things. And somehow, all the changes still left me with me: like one of those essays about how everyone is “unique” but we’re all the same. Every time I changed, I was just more like me. And being like me was getting to be more and more something I didn’t like.

At the same time this was happening (from 1983-2016) another thing was happening. As my focus was getting more and more narrow, as my selfishness was becoming more of my raison d’etre. The Tao was claiming more and more of my heart. Even though I ran away in 2016 to a monastery I was there for selfish reasons: I was there out of fear and self-preservation.

Coming out of the monastery was the first real crack in my habit. How’s that for a pun? This post has gone on long enough. Next one coming later.

Manifest Destiny

The Readings for the Epiphany (A2)

Gentes esse cohaeredes, et concorporales, et comparticipes promissionis ejus in Christo Jesu per Evangelium
Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

JMJ

Rome knew what it was like to be the Chosen One. They ruled almost the entire world. Sure: they didn’t know about the Americas or even China, but if they had known they would have tried to conquer them as well. Stop being Marxist about your history: every empire has tunnel vision. In their Tunnel, by the grace of Jupiter and the might of Caesar, they ruled the world. God, however, had other plans. They had only cleared the field. They had only laid out the roads, networked the mass transit, taught two common languages to everyone. Rome had done their part. The plan was not about them.

King Herod knew what it was to be the chosen one. He had been chosen King of the Jews by the Senate of Rome. Granted, he had finagled it. But still he was chosen. When the folks back home decided to complain about it he killed them all. Herod was known for killing them all. So when these three wise men showed up and asked for the king of the Jews, yet not Herod, Herod was upset.

King of the ‘oo? No, Majesty: King of the Jews. What? I’M THE KING OF THE JEWS! Caesar said so! A baby? In a Small Town? SAD! I can wipe him out with a drone! He’s the number one enemy in the world!

In the end, as we all know, Herod lost. To a baby. Sad. For Herod. Herod was part of the plan: but the plan was not Herod.

Paul says Israel was chosen, but she misunderstood the why and the mechanics of being that chosen nation: Israel had a place in the plan but Israel’s place was not for Israel’s sake. It was for the sake of the plan. John the Baptist says God could raise up sons of Abraham from the stones if it was needed. Israel is part of the plan: but not the plan itself.

We totally understand why Herod would be so annoyed that three heads of government and three heads of state walked across his boarders and totally ignored him. I’m not comparing Donald Trump to King Herod at all. I mean, you know, the judges… but we – as a people – totally understand why Herod would be annoyed at being ignored. We The People will not be ignored. Even those of us who take a principled stand against various politically objectionable things… we hate it when we’re ignored. I don’t mean we dislike it in the way someone might dislike liver. I mean we dislike being ignored because NO ONE HAS A RIGHT TO IGNORE ME!

America knows what it means to be the Chosen One. We love to play up being God’s chosen, God’s savior who runs to the rescue of the weak and the lost. Is your country being attacked by pirates? We’re on it! Is the island being invaded by communists? We’re on our way! Are the Guerrillas or Juntinistas bothering you? We’ll be right there! We can fix anything: just ask. Sometimes you don’t even have to ask: we have agents, drones, and client countries that can rush in… hold on we can do this covertly if you want. You know, because what would the neighbor say if you needed help from US? Shhhh.

We need to learn that we have a part in the plan, but the plan is not for our sake: rather we are here for the sake of plan.

God’s Epiphany, God’s response to this is a crying baby in a food trough.

Again, this is not something Americans (maybe Westerners in general) like to hear. We’re quite convinced – like Rome – that we’re too big to fail. Culture needs us. Already, the Church in the West is dying and corrupt from our attention to power and, well, the Judges, you know. But the Church in the Global South and other places we like to bomb is growing stronger, more powerful and more evangelical. I am thankful for African Priests who come here to teach us the Gospel!

Each one of us is a part of the plan, but the plan is not about us. As Paul realized talking to the Ephesians, God had just revealed something that wasn’t clear to the ancients. God hadn’t set aside Israel to be set aside, special: rather God wanted to bring everyone up to Israel’s level of relationship with God. What is revealed or manifested here in this baby, this manger is not just a cool thing, but the Manifest Destiny of the entire human race: not just the Israelites, not just Americans, not just Westerners, not just Whites, but rather everyone.

When God was done with Rome, he cast it off like an old overcoat but keeping what is good in the Roman Church. When God is done with America, he will do the same and we need to be ready. When God is done with you, you will be in union with him – like it or not. Liking it will be heaven, not liking it will be hell.

Where will you be? Come kneel at the manger and find out.

There is No Place God-Free

Dore’s Illustration for Dante’s Paradisio

JMJ

Advent means meditation on the Four Last Things: Death, Judgement, Heaven, and Hell; and the longer I thought about it, I realized that my usual image was too static. The catechism says that it is separation from God (¶1033) but the church also says that God is Omnipresent .

The Psalmist asks,

Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy face? If I ascend into heaven, thou art there: if I descend into hell, thou art present. If I take my wings early in the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea: Even there also shall thy hand lead me: and thy right hand shall hold me.

Quo ibo a spiritu tuo? et quo a facie tua fugiam?
Si ascendero in caelum, tu illic es; si descendero in infernum, ades.
Si sumpsero pennas meas diluculo, et habitavero in extremis maris,
etenim illuc manus tua deducet me, et tenebit me dextera tua.

Ps 138:7-10

Where to go? No where. There is nowhere where God is not.

So how to understand the Catechism saying hell is separation from God? Even on earth, we can’t be separated: we can only ignore.

What I began to imaging was God, the Consuming Fire, as a massive solar wind. When you die, we think of it as “going to a place” but what really happens is that this place is simply stripped away: all the things that we feel block us from God fall away. And there we are: angels, the beloved, demons, God. All revealed as who they are. (CS Lewis gets this in Chapter 31 of The Screwtape Letters, but I think his image is static as well.) What now, oh creature of earth, Son of Adam, Daughter of Eve?

I want to hope, I want to pray that I may hope, when I’m exposed that way that I want to rush forward into the maelstrom of God’s burning, all-consuming Love. I hope, or rather I think I might, one day, be able to intend to hope, that I will drop everything and turn to Him, and let all that is not His burn away: that I will not hold back anything that will, in that hottest of all fires, suddenly begin to burn me as well. Certainly I could turn my back, shield whatever it is from His flame, but then I would discover He is omnipresent, omnidirectional, there is no back.

These flames are not fire as we might understand it, of course. This is Love: pure, unadulterated, unfiltered, omnidirectional, all-consuming, Love. We say we want it: but in the end, do we? We hide ourselves from ourselves. We do not want to acknowledge our darkest secrets even in the silent cloister of the confessional. We dare not admit the things that hide us from God, or the things we want to hide. We say we want love but we are not worthy of it.

Faith here is different from presumption. The latter says, “I’m a mess, but God loves me so I will bring my mess right into Church, right into heaven. I can make my mess a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving and God will welcome it. God will bless my mess anyway.” Faith says, “I’m a mess: I will offer my mess in praise and thanksgiving, and God will take it away and transubstantiate it. It will become my salvation because it is no longer mine. I’m not worthy of anything but I will offer it and let God decide in his mercy.”

Presumption will lead to hell. Faith will lead to heaven. And they are both the same, only the direction of motion is different.

Buttermilk Snow (with Mincemeat)

A tasty holiday treat or try other flavors on the same base…

  • 1 packet unflavored gelatin
  • 1/2 Cup boiling water
  • 1 1/2 Cups full fat, cultured buttermilk*
  • 1/3 Cup heavy whipping cream
  • 1 packet of stevia
  • Mincemeat filling/topping

Dissolve gelatin in boiling water and let it cool slightly. Whisk in a bit of the buttermilk to temper it and then add the rest. Put this in the refrigerator to set up slightly (about 2 hours or so). This will be ready when it’s no longer runny, but still very sticky. At that point add the stevia to the heavy cream and whip it up until stiff peaks form. Use a wire whisk or other device to aerate the cream very well. Whisk in the sticky gelatin at this point and then whip fully until nearly double in volume. Place in a serving bowl in the fridge and let is set fully, several hours or overnight. Serve with the mincemeat topping.

Optional: after you have whisked it up, place mincemeat topping in individual serving bowls and then top with the Snow. Let it set up like this.

Another flavor: instead of mincemeat, mix in crushed or chopped pineapple, chopped pecans, and shredded coconut.

* Note: Please use full-fat, cultured buttermilk. Since we’re talking dessert here it should be as unctuous as possible! Also, as the buttermilk is not really exposed to heat, this dessert has live cultures.

Familial Consequence

The Readings for the Solemnity of the Holy Family

Et veniens habitavit in civitate quae vocatur Nazareth
And coming he dwelt in a city called Nazareth.

JMJ

NYC 1990. Working in retail at Christmas I was given a window to do. A 2nd Ave storefront, one block from the UN, was a huge challenge. I turned it over to the folks in the offices upstairs: in the center was a large (4.5 feet) painting of the Blessed Virgin with the Christ Child in her womb. I was at least a decade away from knowing this was the “Virgin of the Sign”. And hanging all around them were images of my coworkers and their families from upstairs. Even then, I knew that “family” was a fungible term in the secular mindset, so I made it clear that any definition of family was allowed. Nevertheless, I received an anonymous memo (remember those?) typed up on the back of my poster inviting photo submissions, telling me that I had once again underscored to this person they were excluded from Holiday because they had no family. My “family” at that time was me and 2 roomies in Brooklyn. If anyone could afford to live alone in the city, they clearly had made that choice themselves.

Family is the smallest unit of Church. Think of how Genesis 2 has a man “leaving his father and his mother” to cleave to his wife. There are no “singles” in this picture. Despite what our culture says today, it’s you and your parents until you’re married either to God or a spouse. If you don’t believe me look at how childish all our single adults are (including myself). The commitment of family, of childrearing, is what makes us adults. We have not “transferred ownership” yet. I say that at 55. We all find ourselves assembling families, even so.

These are the choices we make and choices always have consequences. Some choices are made in a family are not our own, however. My family fits all the stereotypes of dysfunction found in 70s households. Multiple divorces, half-siblings of different fathers – all of whom were absent, a single mother on food stamps, etc. These are the bits I can talk about. There are other bits that don’t need to be in a public blog post (although I take them to confession & spiritual direction). My family is one of the reasons I am broken in the ways that I am: I am one of the consequences of my family’s choices. I also made choices in response to my family: these are my own fault. My choices have consequences for my family too. Every time my parents speak to a church arguing against the traditional biblical teaching on human sexuality, that is a result of my actions in my family.

I’m so thankful for my friends who are getting married around me. They are building solid social cores for their future children. However, there is more for, as someone once said, “it takes a village.” Even a family is not able to stand alone. A “nuclear family” is all primed to explode unless it is solidly embedded within the wider social bedrock of the Church, of a network of friends, and an even-wider mesh of family. So it seems to me that we all (even the “singles”) have an obligation to build this network, to make things safe for these growing families. These networks also require commitment: you cannot build a family in the rootless cosmopolia we inhabit these days. Something must be done to counteract our growing, state0-centered, atomizing, individualist culture of destruction. This something must start with prayer.

The Act of Consecration to the Holy Family arose from a sense in my heart that, for me, the Holy Family had become my own family for all these reasons. The Holy Family had become a refuge for me, a place where I can indulge in that modern fiction: “the family of choice”. It can be contrasted with our given family; or as Armistead Maupin calls it, our “Logical Family” as opposed to our “Biological Family”. I have found over the last 35 years or so, that even the “logical families” I’ve assembled have been just as dysfunction as my biological one. I’ve run away from them as well. They become more disposable as I get rid of each one. In the Church, in Nazareth, I find my true home: coming to myself, I return to the home of my father where even the servants have enough.

Here then, is my true Family, the Holy Family of Nazareth, the root and base unit of the Church. In this family, I find my roots and grow.

A Mission, OP

JMJ

Always on Christmas, there is a sense of disconnection for me. Back when I thought I was going to be an Episcopal Priest there was the same sense of disconnect. My Family was hundreds (and later thousands) of miles away. My friends all did their family things. Later I discovered the “orphans’ Christmas” which was a collection of people getting together because they had no other place to go. It always seemed to be at least as dysfunctional a gathering as the families we were all avoiding. I stopped going after a while. We are meant to be with blood-Family, I think, on Holy Days. Family is the smallest unit of the church and it’s not replaceable. So while I can call home on Christmas (and I do) I miss the gathering of 65 people (or more) that were all my relatives in one small town – that was a Holy Day. All I have now is a day off from work with religious obligations.

So I was struck after Midnight Mass by a tweet from a friar calling attention to the Christmas Message of the Master of the Dominican Order. The Master hits on this curious point in the First Christmas story:

At times, we tend to “sanitize” the disturbing details of the Christmas story. The nativity scene in our churches and convents appears to be a tender and warm picture of a loving and peaceful family. But as we pause and ponder, we realize that it must have been extremely painful for Joseph to be homeless in his hometown,  for he could not find a single relative who could give them a room for the night, thus they had to look for a room in an inn. Probably, Joseph’s kinsmen shunned him for having a young wife who got pregnant even before they were married. It must have been terribly difficult for Mary to deliver a child in a smelly stable and then have a manger for his bed. It must have been terrifying to know that a king who feels so insecure threatens their newborn son and has ordered the killing of many innocent male children. The Gospel on Christmas day speaks about the world rejecting the One they needed the most: He came to his own yet his own people did not receive him (John 1:11)There is a “dark side” to Christmas. No matter how big or little they are, the sadness and emptiness we feel even during Christmas day is part of that dark side that we have to acknowledge in order to let Jesus, our LIGHT, shine through that darkness. 

Fr Gerard Francisco Timoner III, OP

I’ve never actually thought about it before. Our culture turns the Holy Family into Politically Correct stand-ins for political refugees, migrant workers, or homeless people. Then Christians fight over this reading. The Biblical text tells another story that will be far more familiar to any Christmas Orphans out there. In this story, the Dysfunctional Family of David tried to ruin the first Christmas. …[I]t must have been extremely painful for Joseph to be homeless in his hometown, for he could not find a single relative who could give them a room for the night, thus they had to look for a room in an inn. Probably, Joseph’s kinsmen shunned him for having a young wife who got pregnant even before they were married…

After St Joseph’s experience, the Church spent the first 300 years of her life rescuing not only lost souls, but also those who were rejected by their families: babies, elders, and the infirm who were abandoned on the hillsides. Families could literally throw people away. These are not just the “poor and the homeless” as we think of them today in our cities: these were the rejected, the broken, the used up. Slaves that could no longer to the tasks allotted them, daughters who dishonored their families by getting children outside of wedlock, elders who were too sick and drained the family wealth, unwanted babies (especially girls), or the blind, the deformed, the mentally ill. The Christians went out to the edges of the city and brought these folks in, healed them, raised the babies, comforted the dying. In this way, the Church evangelized literally by action: the religion of your Pater Familias abandoned you to die on the hillside. The religion of your rescuers told them to love and told you to forgive. The early Church didn’t ask these folks to change as the price of admission to love (as Roman Paganism did) but rather these folks changed their lives as a result of the love they experienced from God through the Church.

Pope Francis calls us “to the peripheries”. Speaking before he was elected Pope, then-Cardinal Bergolio said:

The Church is called to come out of herself and to go to the peripheries, not only geographically, but also the existential peripheries: the mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance and indifference to religion, of intellectual currents, and of all misery.

Today on the peripheries we might better think of our homeless encampments as more of the same: adding drug addiction and even prostitution to the list of ways that men and women might end up on this list of Unwanted Family. When I read a newspaper story earlier this year about the Homeless of San Francisco, I was surprised by how many of them had family – but couldn’t go to them.

So, not just peripheries of geography (are there any peripheries there any more?) but the Church also has a mission to the peripheries of sociology.

Many of the homeless men and women in my neighborhood are rejected by their families for issues around sexual morality. This is especially true of the youth. I wish it were not the case, but “Get out of my house…” seems a horribly common thing for religious parents to say to their children. How are we supposed to act, as Christians, in this case? I know there are some who want to use this sort of story as an argument for changing the Church’s teachings. Sed Contra, I see it as a chance to enforce the Church’s teachings on charity, love of family, and mercy. We should make it a mission of the Church to welcome in those who are shunned and even shamed by their families.

One Christmas, after Midnight Mass at the Episcopal Cathedral of St John the Divine in NYC, I went down to what I used to call “My Parish” in Greenwich Village. If you go into any gay bar you will find men who are angry at the Church. But on Christmas you’ll find something else entirely. In NYC the bars close at 4AM, but by 2AM on Christmas morning you’ll find the real orphans: the men who have no “orphan Christmas party” to go to, who have no other place to be, who are lost. When I walked into Ty’s the only people in there were the Bartender (he had a home to go to, but he was at work…) and a drag queen who was in “boy drag” as the saying goes, sitting all alone. The bartender greeted me warmly, gave me a drink (4 actually) without charging me and left me to chat with the other patron as he went about cleaning up. We were watching Bing Crosby’s White Christmas.

It was all chitchat. We sang along to the movie. I shared about Mass and the guy remembered St John the Divine and commented on the beauty there. And he grew wistful talking about fond memories. There’s no religious conversion here, but when I moved away from NYC, I got a going-way card from the man who thanked me for that night of friendship in a bar when it was very dark in his life. Sometimes, that’s all that’s needed.

Let me point in another direction: as many of our parishes become rest homes for aging members of the over 6os set, who wish to be unchallenged in their cultural hegemony, we should realize the peripheries also contain Techies and other Millenials who are very successful in the world but, for exactly that reason, are disconnected from their families and any social structures. Many of them lack the social sense even needed to recognize the need for religion in their life. But they need God as much as anyone. I mentioned this once to an Parish Council as was greeted by stony silence. These folks need Jesus, too.

Fr Timoner points out that “Christmas is not just a celebration but a mission.” We each have missions, of course, but the Church’s special mission has been outreach – we go beyond. Beyond the boundaries of the Jewish People, she embraced the gentiles. In Roman culture, she embraced the outcasts. She reached out to the Barbarians – the enemies of the Roman State. She embraced other cultures and peoples at every turn.

This is the Church needed today. This is the Church we have, to be honest, even though there are some who try to deny this along the lines fear of the Other in all forms: race, nationalism, populism, and sexual morality. We have forgotten again that the way to bring folks in is not to demand they change as the price of admission, but rather to let them change as a result of being loved. “…[T]he mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance and indifference to religion, of intellectual currents, and of all misery” lives on the edges of our lives: usually just outside of our doors or in the discard pile of our social media.

Can the Church reach out in these directions: on the one hand to the lost, the marginalized, and on the other hand to the folks who seem to reject us as quaint and old fashioned? Again, the interesting point is that from a societal, political point of view, each of these groups is “successful” in some very worldly ways. But how can they find the Gospel unless they hear it first, and how will they hear it unless it is preached?

O Virgin

O Virgin of virgins, how shall this be? For neither before thee was any like thee, nor shall there be after. Daughters of Jerusalem, why marvel ye at me? The thing which ye behold is a divine mystery.

JMJ

Sarum Use (the ancient liturgical of the Cathedral of Salisbury) has one extra Great O Antiphon, assigned to the Blessed Virgin. For this reason, while Catholics begin with O Sapientia on the 17th, Anglicans have, quite often, began on the 16th, so that O Virgo could be sung on the 23rd. This practice has fallen out of favour recently. The official C of E office book, Daily Prayer, follows the Roman Catholic Liturgy of the Hours. I have always liked the O Virgo and prefer to use it at least for this annual series of posts.

There are other O Antiphons as well. The Catholic Encylopedia notes:

but other medieval Breviaries added (1) “O virgo virginum quomodo fiet” etc., still retained in the Roman Breviary as the proper antiphon to the Magnificat in the second Vespers of the feast Expectatio Partus B. M. V. (18 December), the prayer of this feast being followed by the antiphon “O Adonai” as a commemoration of the ferial office of 18 December; (2) “O Gabriel, nuntius cœlorum”, subsequently replaced, almost universally, by the thirteenth-century antiphon, “O Thoma Didyme”, for the feast of the Apostle St. Thomas (21 December). Some medieval churches had twelve greater antiphons, adding to the above (1) “O Rex Pacifice”, (2) “O Mundi Domina”, (3) “O Hierusalem”, addressed respectively to Our Lord, Our Lady, and Jerusalem. Guéranger gives the Latin text of all of these (except the “O Mundi Domina”), with vernacular prose translation (“Liturgical Year”, Advent, Dublin, 1870, 508-531), besides much devotional and some historical comment. The Parisian Rite added two antiphons (“O sancte sanctorum” and “O pastor Israel”) to the seven of the Roman Rite and began the recitation of the nine on the 15th of December.

Catholics are often accused of worshipping Mary as a Goddess. I get the reasoning, even though I disagree. There is nothing said about Mary (other than naming her Mother of God) that cannot be said in a way about all Christians. Her role is special, though, in that she bore the graces of the faith by God’s grace alone, rather than through sacramental participation in Christ.

If mankind is seen as fallen (and what needs to be forgotten to not see that?) then Mary’s sinless status must be seen as a restoration of her – along – to that state humanity enjoyed before the Fall. We cannot imagine what all that entails! Unbroken communion with God and a full and total detachment from the things of this world, from all venial and mortal sins; from undue attachment to anything that would destroy her Communion. She lives in this intimacy constantly and, although it doesn’t make her a Goddess, it does elevate her far beyond the status of daily mundanity. Her prayers are efficacious because of her relationship with her son, and because of this constant communion.

For God’s incarnation among us, the Earth offers a cave, the animals their stall, the angels their song, but humanity offers the Blessed and All-Pure Virgin. The titles awarded to Mary by the Church (East and West) are without number. She is the finest offering of our humanity to God. And yet her humility is endless for she knows that even so she is only worthy by God’s grace, only able by his strength, to do what must be done.

We are not to marvel at her. Everything Mary does points to God. Her Immaculate Conception is the grace of Baptism. Her overshadowing by the Holy Spirit (and again at Pentecost) is the Confirmation which we all enjoy. Her burial and assumption is the same death we will all undergo, her coronation is the promise of our eternal glory. Her intercession is the grace of prayer in which we all participate. Even her virginal conception is echoed in our participation in the Holy Mass and the reception of the Sacred Mysteries which bring infinity into us, making us – like her – to be “more spacious than the heavens.” This is “a divine mystery”. She begs us not to marvel at her but at God’s grace in her life and in ours.

This is the position of the Christian before God: to accept even a final “well down” as underserved save by God’s grace for without him we can do nothing; but with him all things are possible. Nothing we do should point to us but rather to God’s grace active in our lives.

The manger, the cross, the grave, and the tomb, these are the signposts that bring us all through our lives to God. Mary walks with us – prays with us – along this same way, but she has already walked it. God, her son, knows this way intimately.