Disorder as Liberation

JMJ

ONE YEAR IN HIGH SCHOOL our Marching Band raised money by working at Six Flags in Atlanta. I’m unclear how it worked, but basically, we performed various minimum-wage jobs around the park for one of three half-day shifts and all the money went to the band. In exchange for working 4 hours, the “volunteers” got to spend the whole day in the park. It was a fun day (although I will never eat park food ever again) and I got to ride the Mind Bender 15 times.

The Mind Bender opened that summer and was billed as the world’s first triple loop roller coaster and I had no reason to want to do any of the normal stuff which I’d done before. This was not only new to me but new to everyone! Until the pre-monastery purge, I still had the commemorative coin they gave out that year. Anyway, that day I rode the thing until I got bored, literally. After 12 times through (in fairly rapid succession, since I had an employee pass and needn’t stand in the whole line), I couldn’t have cared less: all my adrenaline burned out, the endorphins went away, and all I had was a jolting and jerking sensation caused by the motion. I was numb. Still, I rode it three more times, then I stopped.

I was talking to my brother in Christ yesterday over wings and biscuits; there was some beer as well. We were talking about how moral theology has basically two categories: the way God intended something to be (aka properly ordered) and every other way we try things, (aka disordered). It’s important to realize that moral theology doesn’t use “disordered” as we might when describing a mental disease. It’s more along the lines of putting a penny in a fuse (if you are old enough to get the reference), or what happens when you use a flat head screwdriver that is also too small on a Phillips-head screw.

Since the human spirit is made to follow God’s will – and yet we do not – we are disordered. All of Creation groans under the situation caused by our fall: man was intended to be the crown of creation, the Primus below God. Disorder is a sign of the fall. To find one’s life is disordered is to admit that one is human – no less than any other. Given what we know about the human propensity to sin, as my friend said, even ketchup packets are a sign of the Fall. That we have fallen from grace disorders all things.

The Jesus Psalter, a 16th Century English Catholic devotion closes with two prayers referring to the disorder of our dance: Jesus, grant me grace to set my mind on thee; and, Jesus, grant me grace to order my life to thee. Both of these, our minds and our lives, are to be ordered – focused, line up behind, pointing at Jesus. When we say something is disordered we mean it’s pointing the wrong way. That “wrong way” may only be a fraction of a degree off course, but in the distance of Eternity, that fraction grows until we miss the mark. Please note: disorder, itself, is not missing the mark. We miss the mark when we deny the disorder, when we treat SNAFU as “right”.

Imagine that you have a square peg – and you have to fit it in the proverbial round hole. Imagine you spend your whole life shoving and pounding, chipping off corners, trying to stretch the hole, all in vain. In the end, you give up: you settle down, the hole unpegged, the peg without a home. What if someone came by and said, “I have a square hole over here…” It would finally feel as though you’d found a home. You’ve finally connected. Only connect, as E.M. Forster sys in Maurice, it’s the solution to the isolation that cuts us off.

In talking about human sexual expression, “disordered” as category applies to everything outside of the procreative act within sacramental marriage. Anything else is using tools given by God in ways not intended. The Church’s tradition, beginning in scripture and unfolding in the lives of the saints, is pretty clear about this. There are degrees of departure from plumb, but all such – even by half a degree – proceed from a fall and miss the mark entirely.

My friend asked me how I – a Catholic man who experiences sexual attraction to other men – felt about that label “disordered”. I did not think twice before I said, “Liberating!”

All of our modern world is about catering to our whims, our desires. Everything we do is “because we want too/feel the need to/crave…” It’s bloody exhausting! To “follow my bliss” when what I want to bliss out on changes from moment to moment is like trying to navigate with a compass through a maze made out of magnets. We are told that we must consume, that we must get our just desserts, that we deserve more than we have, that when we die we should leave a proper viking horde of stuff and experience behind to prove that we were here at all: when the sex and the shopping stops, we’re dead.

Worse, we become so involved in this that we don’t even notice when we continue the pattern in strange parts of our lives. Amazon – mistress of all the vices – feels better than therapy. Online dating is only a 70s Singles Bar or Bathhouse that needs no brick and mortar expenses. Church shopping and parish hopping is just the Tinder or Growlr app, but with God. We choose our name, religion, job, residence, friends, medications, and whatever all based on only our drives and tastes; only in hindsight do we realize that “drive” and “taste” are more matters of “peer pressure” and “marketing”. “My” taste is not personal to me. I can walk out of the house in purple sneakers and yellow socks firm in the knowledge that there’s probably another 100k or so people dressed exactly the same way within 500 miles.

Disorder is a way out! To realize that this is not at all how it has to be, or even how it’s supposed to be; to realize that this chaos is not what is intended, that this chaos is self-replicating, that only a re-ordering from outside will fix it is to be graciously liberated from the ever-spinning wheel of illusion.

Living a life fulfilling every desire, every whim, running away from every pain and every sorrow, is like trying to dig one’s way out of a pit: each fulfillment gives rise to more craving – even if only for a repeat performance. Mmmm that felt good. Do it again! Like my ride on the Mind Bender, we do it over and over until all the chemicals in our brain burn out. Then we just keep going on some autopilot function. Our cravings have turned into an addiction, our lives into empty recreations of patterns we claim to enjoy. But we are not free: we are enslaved to our reasons, our cravings.

No! You don’t have to fulfill that whim, that craving, that lust! Let it go: if you hold on it will only take you further and further off course. Simply: Let. It. Go.

Disorder, as self-realization, is discovering the square hole for the square peg. It’s realizing that one is human: not special, but average; not unique but a son of Adam, a daughter of Eve. There is nothing unique or special about your desires: they are shared by millions of others in history. There are only differences of response. Desires, as such, are only a sign of being part of our fallen humanity. They are not needs to fulfill, but rather comments on or signs of our human weakness. Disorder – experienced as an action or only as desire – is a sign that we need God. Knowing that it is disorder, something that needs to be reordered, to be fixed, turns it into an on-going opportunity for grace to be poured in. And the Church is both the fountain from which grace is poured and the vessel that contains us as we are filled with that gift.

In riding the Mind Bender, I not only got bored, I also kinda ended my fear-love relationship with Roller Coasters. I don’t really like the adrenalin rush that one gets. It’s not at all heathy to trigger one’s own fear mechanism. I feel the same way about horror movies too. Like, I have only so many “Endo-Dolphins” as a friend’s daughter once called them. I don’t want to waste them by crying wolf too many times. Using the endorphins this way – a hit of adrenalin, a rush of fear – is disordered in a minor way, just as a hit of poppers, a rush of sweaty fun – is disordered in a major way. But we live in a society that says “fulfill it!” at every turn. That’s not what we are here for. In fact, we’re here for the opposite. And when you grow tired of jamming the square peg into all the wrong holes, you can finally settle down and let the proper ordering of things take over. The Church is the school that not only teaches that solution, but resolves the conflict, and heals the resultant pains.

Recognizing Disorder and yielding to grace are, in fact, the first three of the 12 steps:

  1. We admitted we were powerless over Fill In the Blank —that our lives had become unmanageable. 
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. 
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him. 

St Paul says, in Galatians, “Christo confixus sum cruci. Vivo autem, jam non ego: vivit vero in me Christus.” With Christ I am nailed to the cross. And I live, now not I; but Christ liveth in me. Our cravings produce a false sense of need and that need/craving produces a false self. This is not me. I am not my cravings. I am not personified by my temptations. We crucify our fallen self, as Jesus gave himself up for us so that we can finally live – yet not us, but Christ living in us. Grace (which is God’s energy, God’s presence in our lives) orders our life to Christ. We can only get there when we see everything is not good as it is. We are liberated by seeing the disordered lives we lead, the disordered world in which we live for exactly what it all is: Disordered.

Paper

JMJ

For our class in Fundamental Theology we were to do a short paper on one of seven theses regarding theology and evangelism. Our primary text was Cardinal Ratzinger’s Introduction to Christianity. I relied heavily on our secondary text, Theology Today: Perspectives, Principles, and Criteria. I went a little long and as always I need an editor for my typos, but I got a decent grade so here’s my paper.

Thesis #6 Reading the signs of the times and in dialogue with the world, Catholic Theology upholds the unity of all truth, maintains the relationship between faith and reason, and rejects both fideism and rationalism.

A THEOLOGIAN IS ONE who prays.”  This is a loose paraphrase of Evagrius Ponticus’ line from ¶61 of his 153 Chapters on Prayer, “If you are a theologian, you pray truly; and if you pray truly, you are a theologian.” (Retrieved on 17 Dec 2020) I often heard this when I was in the Orthodox Church. Using ideas such as this Orthodox – especially converts – often build a rejection of the “scientific thought” of “The Latins”. This rejection seems to deny both God’s gift of human reason and intellect, on the one hand, and the very idea that prayer can affect the intellect at all. It seems to set humans up for failure: we are given very powerful tools in our intellect and reason yet they are considered suspect. We should not use these tools to relate to God. Sed Contra, St Thomas Aquinas and the Catholic tradition of Theology as a science arising from God’s self-revelation as providing first principles which fully engage our human reason to explore, more deeply, our relationship with God. In parallel with this, a thinking man – by secular lights – has no reason for prayer, no need for this relationship. 

Thesis 6 on the signs of the times, the unity of all truth, and the relationship of faith and reason resonated with me not only because of my convert experience in the Orthodox Church, where “faith” was seemingly idealized into a sort of prophylaxis against thinking too much but also because of my professional experience in the tech industry where everything is reducible to data points. If there is no data there is nothing to talk about. This fixation on the data and hyper-spiritualism of the faith seem to be the signs of the times – a fideism from “the religious” and a rationalism from the “secular”. 

Since much of modern tech is a web-based experience, there is no interaction between the people who make and run the technology and the people who use it. All development is based on research data. We spend our days at work looking for the “levers” to pull that will “drive clicks” towards a certain goal. I cannot make a suggestion at work for improvement unless there is an obvious metric to which I can point. Numbers are everything. Charts must move “up and to the right”. Data (without any judgment implied) must be provided for everything or it’s – literally – not real. Anecdotes about actual real-person interactions are only anecdotes. They need numbers to back them up. This is an extreme form of rationalism: the claim that only in our reason can we grasp reality. We cannot know anything here by relationship, by communion with other persons.  On the other extreme this is the idea of fideism, that as far as truth goes, we must rely on faith alone. We cannot know by communion with God, but must only trust or believe. Further, the intellect or reason cannot be brought to bear here or, if it is used at all, it is only to comment on the truths revealed and accepted by faith. Both of these extremes place an insufferable divide between God and man: the God who cannot reach us without data, the man who cannot think of God but only blindly trust. In this division we act from these two polls: sexual morality (physical communion of persons) is discussed in isolated ways of “what I want” or “what I feel” or in terms of what is legal or not instead of what is moral. Issues of medicine and the common good are discussed as individual choices and personal autonomy. Truth is parsed out into isolated pockets of “my truth” and “your truth”. 

Catholicism offers a God who is Logos – meaning – engaged fully in the order of the cosmos, and with the mind of man. Man can apply his mind to the understanding (as far as he is able) of that meaning.  Yet that God is also a person, existing in communion within the Trinity, and desiring communion with man, not only as “man” meaning all humans but on a personal, one-to-one, and intimate level. “If Christian belief in God is first of all an option in favor of the primacy of the logos, faith in the pre-existing, world supporting reality of the creative meaning, it is at the same time, as belief in the personal nature of that meaning, the belief that the original thought, whose being-thought is represented by the world, is not an anonymous, neutral consciousness us but rather freedom, creative love, a person.” (Razinger, p 158 ) But our human understanding tends to read from the top down: God is so great and yet he wants intimacy. But the personal reality of the infinite reverses this. “The highest is not the most universal, but, precisely, the particular, and the Christian faith is thus above all also the option for man as the irreducible, infinity-oriented being.” (ibid.) Tech’s Data and Eastern Orthodoxy’s spiritual focus highlight important aspects of our faith: truth can be understood – and communicated to others – through rational thought, but the truth is revealed to us in the self-disclosure of God to us. It requires prayer – a relationship with God (Catechism ¶2565)to engage fully. This is the unity of truth spoken of in our thesis: All truth has a common source in the God who says, “I am the Truth”. This relationship is, first of all, personal. 

Catholic theology offers the meaning of all things as revealed in God and unfolding in his communion with the human intellect, the personal as intimately a part of the infinite. This is prayer, as Evagrius taught: a communion, a deeply loving engagement of God with the human soul. For the Theologian in conversations drawing people to God, “my truth” cannot be other than The Truth – or else it is a lie. It arises from the prayer of the theologian, his relationship to God, and this must be explained to others as a relationship of the Divine Logos with their human logos. And it reveals a discussion of the logoi of the created order. God is disclosing Himself to us and, at the same moment, disclosing the cosmos and ourselves – the actual truth about who we are – to each of us, as particular individuals. God is showing me who I am in communion with himself. Issues of sex and medicine, as mentioned earlier, become issues of the individual’s communion with God as revealed Truth and with other persons as icons of that truth.

The world is, as Ratzinger wrote,  “in the last analysis, not mathematics but love” (p. 160). Our intellect cannot engage as a “data scientist” but must end in a relationship.  But that relationship is one of knowing and being known. It can be communicated with others in order to invite them in.

Legalism and Evangelism

JMJ

ONE OF THE more pernicious lies of American thought is that “legal” equals “moral”. Under the influence of this error folks look at what is legal (allowed if not encouraged) and say “it’s not against the law, why does the Church say I cannot do this?” In like manner many in the Church are distressed when their understanding of Christian morality is not enforced by the laws of society. They feel oppressed or persecuted.

There are some Christians who believed in a sort of theocracy. They believe that if you pass the right sort of laws everyone – Christian or not – will be forced to live in a Christian Society. They believe that with the right sort of laws Christian values will be enforced. Their hearts are in the right place: they want a certain climate, a culture founded on Christian values, and a return to tradition. They want just wages, an end to the death penalty, free medical care for all, housing, food, and peace. They believe that by enforcing these Christian values on everyone that we can finally build a just society, more to the point they believe that in passing these laws they will be building a just society on a Christian model. To this end, they believe in electing leaders whose politics, albeit secular, mirror these values in the hopes that they will pass these laws to build (unwittingly) a Christian society.

There are, of course, other Christians who also believe in a sort of theocracy. They believe if you passed the right sort of laws everyone – Christian or not – will be forced to live in a Christian Society. They believe that with the right sort of laws Christian values will be enforced. Their hearts are in the right place: they want a certain climate, a culture founded on Christian values, and a return to tradition. They want an end to abortion, a return to traditional family structures, and sexual morality. They believe by enforcing these Christian values on everyone that we can finally build a just Society, more to the point they believe that in passing these laws they will be building a just Society on a Christian model. To this end, they believe in electing leaders whose politics, albeit secular, mirror these values in the hopes that they will pass these laws to build (unwittingly) a Christian society.

In the end these Christians seem to imagine that by passing laws or having these laws passed they can make the world to be Christian. To that end they align themselves with politicians who may not be Christians at all, in the hopes that the alignment of political ends will result in a glorious goal. They seem to believe that with an appropriate veneer of Christianity applied, society will be fine.

At the beginning, though, society was unjust and immoral. Christians, somehow, found the courage not only to live just and moral lives but also to die for doing so. After 300 years or so their courage grew the Church from a few hundred to several million. They found the ability to change society entirely. The Church plays the long game for ultimately the purpose is not to change society but to change men’s souls. She seeks to wed earth to heaven – which cannot but change earth. But to do so she must wed men to God in their hearts, one by one. Heaven must first live within your soul before you can bring it to birth in your life and the lives of those around you.

“The one who starts with heaven is sensitive to those who live in the hell of this earth; whereas the one who begins with earth is blind to the situation of exploitation upon which the earth is built… For an authentic, deep sense of God is not only not opposed to a sensitivity to the poor and their social world, but is ultimately lived only in those persons and that world. ” (Fr Gustavo Gutiérrez, OP, quoted in Divine Economy: Theology and the Market by D. Stephen Long.)

This is why Jesus said go into the all the world and make Disciples of all people, and never once mentioned political endings. Laws do not make people good, laws do not save people, laws which cannot be enforced are of no value save to make some people feel good about themselves. We failed in evangelism and resorted to politics instead.

Theocracy is not the answer. People cannot be legislated into the kingdom of God. Rather, people must be wooed, enticed, evangelized. People must be shown a beauty so intense that to stay outside of it hurts. This requires relationships. Legislation does not require relationships it only requires power. But the kingdom of God is love: love and acted, most practiced, love embodied, love communicated in relationships between persons.

Theocracy can be legislated. We will damn people to do so. And we will damn ourselves. Legislation is easy, all it requires is a simple majority within a small group. Evangelism is hard it requires unanimity within the smallest group possible: you and me. It requires love, it requires patience, it requires humility, and self-emptying. It requires that one be Jesus to another, and that one see Christ in the other. It requires that both follow in a dance led by the Holy Spirit. And it requires education – properly understood from the Latin educare, meaning to draw out: to draw out of oneself a human person in full communion with God and with others. Only from this human person, formed in God’s image and living in communion, can arise actions which are performative Grace, salvation happening in their soul. Laws will not matter then.

Laws should not matter now. For forcing you to act according to my religious will will not save your soul. We know that’s from Saint Paul” the law does not save you. Yet if I win your heart for Christ you will eventually, through cooperation with his grace, build the new man in the shell of the old. It will not matter what is legal or permitted: you will do the just thing, you will be merciful, you will walk humbly with your God.

We must do the hard work of winning souls for Christ. We must start with heaven. When the society is filled with Christian love, the laws will be just, Christian values will be practiced, and the kingdom of God will be lived out.

Joey, Joe, or Joseph?

JMJ

THERE IS A TRADITION that St Joseph was older that the Blessed Virgin when they were betrothed. One saint suggests that Jesus’ Foster Father was 91 when he married the Blessed Virgin! Other, more realistic teachers, suggest mid-fifties. The reason for this tradition is generally understood to be the idea that an older Joseph would have been more likely to not be tempted by his beautiful young wife. An older man is seen as better protecting the teaching of Mary’s perpetual virginity. This is a bit of hogwash as anyone who has ever seen a “Trophy Wife” knows. Lechery is not undone by age and, in fact, it is often a product of it. Then there is the logic of the issue. “Old men don’t walk to Egypt!” As Mother Angelica once said. So, at several points in the Church’s history, the idea that Joseph was young arose.

Fulton Sheen has a wonderful meditation on St Joseph’s age in his book, The World’s First Love:

To make Joseph appear pure only because his flesh had aged is like glorifying a mountain stream that has dried. The Church will not a ordain a man to the priesthood who has not his vital powers. She wants men who have something to tame, rather than those who are tame because they have no energy to be wild. It should be no different with God… Joseph was probably a young man, strong, virile, atheletic, handsome, chaste, and disciplined; the kind of man one sees sometimes shepherding sheep, or piloting a plane, or working at a carpenter’s bench. Instead of being a man incapable of love, he must have been on fire with love….Instead, then, of being dried fruit to be served on the table of the king, he was rather a blossom filled with promise and power. He was not in the evening of life, but in its morning, bubbling over with energy, strength, and controlled passion.

That passage was quoted in a book I’m currently reading as I do a devotion call Consecration to St Joseph. And it had me wrestling for a few reasons. Why does Joseph need to be Mary’s age? Why does he need to be 90? Then – in the same book – the author discusses at length how an elderly man cannot raise a child, and how God would have wanted a proper father for the Infant Jesus. This makes sense to me: when I was 39 someone suggested to me that I should adopt a child and I knew that that would be selfish as I would not be able to be a proper parent. By the time the baby was old enough to walk and play I would be too old to play, and by the time the baby was old enough to graduate I would be too old to walk. So the idea that God would have wanted Jesus to have a father open appropriate age make sense. But what is an appropriate age? It used to be common to see Joseph portrayed with grey hair. Right now it’s common to see him portrayed as about Mary’s age.

Some writers have suggested that the Blessed Virgin was around 15 when she was betrothed to Joseph. The idea of a fifteen-year-old Joey being able to navigate the emotional and political turmoil of the nativity seems unlikely to me. I cannot imagine a fifteen-year-old Joey and a fifteen-year-old Mary in a Manger in Bethlehem knowing what to do when labor started I can imagine them going into full-scale panic. I can’t imagine these two 15 year olds being much comfort for each other – even though that’s a good time to get married in this culture. AND a 15 year old Joey would not be on his own yet, the head of the family would still be Joseph’s father. The patriarch of this clan would have led them all to Bethlehem.

This idea that God would have wanted the father of appropriate age is counteracted but other benefits offered by an elderly Joseph: wisdom, experience, strength. At a time when marriages were often contracted in the teenage years an older man would know how to move through the world on his own, he would be running his business and would not be afraid of tax collectors, would not be very stressed out by discovering that there was no room at the inn, and would not be afraid of having to walk to Egypt. This man, Joe, would be much better able to think on his feet with all these strange people and happenings that were about to come into his life. He would not be impulsive: he would plan. Discovering that Mary was pregnant Joe might actually think about it for a while, where the teenaged Joey might just get angry. Joey would not yet have his own house to bring Mary into, but Joe would.

Generally it’s not good to just throw out traditions of the church because we don’t like them or because they don’t feel good: this goes with (T)radition and also with (t)radition. So while I do see the argument for Joseph not being 91 – or even 51 – as completely valid, it seems silly to just toss it out of something the church made up. In fact it seems downright modernist to do so.

There may be an answer in another tradition that hangs on the Nativity. St James, called Jesus’ brother, is often understood to be the Child of St Joseph by an earlier marriage. Traditional icons show James leading the donkey:

The Real Holy Family: Joseph, Jesus, Mary, and James

Theoretically, if Joe had been married originally had 15, if his oldest son was now 10, and he was 25 – not 91! – he would know what to do. He would have been in at least one most likely more births already, he would be a strong young man like Fulton Sheen imagines, old enough to care for the Blessed Virgin, to calm her down and to take care of her. He would be old enough to walk to Egypt and not so old that that would be impossible.

This idea of a 20-something Joe with a teenaged Mary makes sense. He would still be young enough to still need to train his impulses, and old enough to have done some work on that already. His virtue would still be a struggle for him but his experience and piety would be firmly rooted. This seems to resolve both sides of the age issue while keeping the tradition intact.

The other thing that’s curious about Joey vrs Joe is it Joseph is gone from the story by the time Jesus is a man. It is generally assumed in the Church’s tradition that Joseph died before Jesus began his Teaching Ministry. Is Joseph was 25 when Jesus was born he would have been in his 50s before the Teaching Ministry begin. It’s possible that he would have died by then: a poor man and a laborer, his life would have been hard. I can imagine such a man dying in his 50s and yet being a strong, shining example of a father and a man all though Jesus’ life to adulthood. Yes, the young Joey might also have died young, but I think imagining Joe becoming an elder and dying at an old age (for the time) makes much more sense.

There is no doctrinal requirement one way or the other on the age of St Joseph – this is all (t)radition. But I think there is a way where this tradition can fit with some logic, where Joe can be a man without needing a walker to get to Egypt, and where he can be a young, virile man, without needing to be a kid. Joey and Joseph can give way to Joe.

A Child’s Christmas in Wurtsboro

JMJ

IT BEGINS when, prompted by the Wurtsboro Village Council and borrowing a truck from his employer, Orange and Rockland electric company, my grandfather puts up the village lights. Driving slowly through town in a cherry picker, Grandpa puts up the aged white candles, the green wreaths, the red-lighted garlands. Snow has fallen. Trees have been placed on stands in living rooms and decorated. Houses have been lighted. I take a trip into the evergreen forest in Wilsey Valley to bring back a huge bag of greenery. Lights and boughs spiral around my parents’ house and drape off the stairs.

In mad anticipation my mother cooks, my grandmother cooks, my great grandmother cooks. Aunt Linda cooks. Aunt Marie cooks. Aunt Karen cooks. Families visit from hither and yon, and friends make more attempts to be friendlier than normal.

Timmy, the paper boy, spends longer in his daily stops. During his last monthly trip to punch our card and get things taken care of, he actually comes inside for a sip of hot cocoa and maybe yes, thank you, some cookies. In a few days he’ll find a box of them along with a five dollar bill and maybe some gloves in the paper box as he drops off our copy of the Times-Herald Record. At the post office Mom spends far too much time chatting with Mr Olcott, the postmaster, and a trip to Jerry Gaubard’s tiny Grocery Store can begin to take hours. The Greenwalds have decorated their drug store. The bandstand in the village park is filled with pine and lights. The Canal Towne Emporium positively reeks – well out into the street – with scented candles, potpourri and cinnamon. The Old Valley, filled even in the feria times with Black Forest coo-coo clocks, covered steins and hand-carved picture frames is now decked out in Germanic Yuletide finery: nutcrackers and candle-lighted pyramids. Uncle Jimmy has tiny wreaths on the tables in the dinner.

The Emma C Chase Elementary School has their Christmas pageant: a chorus and a few holiday songs, maybe a poetry reading, then one hora danced to tzena-tzena as we explain the Festival of Lights. The Monticello Central Middle School has its Christmas Concert: a two part choir and a band. The Monticello Central High School has its Christmas Concert: a four part choir, a stage band and an orchestra plus a show-stopping all-out choral and orchestral finale. And now School has closed for Christmas Break. After weeks of build-up the day arrives.

Late in the day on Christmas Eve the menfolk vanish off to the firehouse. The women vanish off to the Methodist Church. The kids, hyper-excited, over-extended, exhausted, try to get a nap in: maybe if I sleep now, Santa will come now. But there is to be no such luck for no one is allowed to nap for too long on Christmas Eve.

At 6:30 PM everyone is off – in layers of coats and scarves and hats and gloves – to the firehouse for the village carol sing. The fire trucks have been moved outside, and we all stand around inside the Garage, the largest enclosed space in the village. We are a village of 900 souls gathered around an upright piano that is tuned once a year for this very event. Even in such a small town this is the only time when some of us will see each other. Old friends, not having seen each other since last Christmas Eve, greet each other with warm hugs. Children return from college and stand happily with their parents. Older children return with their own spouses, their own children. Forming huge continents floating in the sea of fellow villagers, they stand with their parents and grandparents, as now my own father stands with his wife and kids, next to his father and mother, his grandparents and six generations total – my sister having her own grandchildren now. My grandmother and my Aunt Marie, wife of the Fire Chief, serve doughnuts and coffee. My great grandmother smiles as her husband, the former chief, is greeted with honour by all.

The Dutch Reformed Pastor, the Rev. Wing, invokes. Sally or Michael plays the piano and the familiar carols roll out of books that have not been reprinted since the 1970s – and are collected every year for re-use. They were donated by the local bank and they open, too easily, to a centerfold containing A Visit from St Nicholas. The community singing is interrupted twice by soloists: Aunt Betty sings O Holy Night. Nelson Hall sings, White Christmas. There is an irony in a scion of the only black family in town singing White Christmas. But no one seemed to notice – or at least talk about it.

The Methodist pastor, the Rev. Pinto, blesses. Then, spurred on by Uncle John, the Fire Chief, we begin to sing Jingle Bells. We sing loud and lustily – the younger children blasting it out. There is a sound from outside: the tocsin of bells and the claxon of horns and finally the scream of the sirens sliding up the doppler scale as a fire truck comes down the street from beyond the red light at the corner. We sing louder now as the garage doors roll up in joyous welcome and the kids stream out – herded to safety by parents and uniformed firemen. Santa Claus has come to us on our own candy apple red and white truck. When the kids draw near Santa usually greets them all by name – for he is their own uncle, or their neighbor or even my Dad or Grandpa or Uncle Tommy, seated on the side of the truck handing out small boxes of hard candies and cookies.

After a brief trip home to remove some layers and to add finer clothing, all depart again to their houses of worship. Aunt Marie and Mrs Semonite have decorated the Methodist Church. They have polished and dusted until, even in the pre-candle darkness, the wood shines and the brass cross seems to reflect the lights beyond. Pastor Pinto is in rare form this Christmas eve, as his three rural congregations come together in this one building to sing and pray. There is the Nativity Play, kids wearing too many towels and the latest baby born playing the starring role. And then candles are handed out and lit. The quiet, expectant darkness seems to take a musical quality. We sing now in awed reverence, Silent Night. And we walk into the cold to discover that it has begun to snow.

In the busy evening, somehow, Mom and Grandma have conspired to get some after-church coffee and snacks ready. The family rests a bit for a chat, gathered in Grandma’s den around the woodstove. Kids get sleepy. Adults get conspiratorial. WALL radio, 1340AM begins to broadcast reports every quarter of an hour about where Santa’s Sleigh has been spotted. WPIX begins its annual telecast of The Yule Log, the first ever virtual fireplace.

Children pass out. Parents hide them in cars, asleep next to presents that were also hidden with the neighbours or in some relative’s garage. For the child it is only a short ride through the dream-filled snowy night until Christmas Morning. For the parents it may be a longer passage, a bit of a delay next to the tree assembling a bike or a stereo. For the older children it may be a bit of a pain, programming a new betamax for Mom or stumbling around in the dark wishing to be, again, a child who believed in Santa.

And then this Christmas day dawns – the snow has stopped during the night, but there, on the porch, and on the greenery wrapped around the pillars, there is just enough snow to look beautiful. The lights, ablaze even in the quiet sunlight of Christmas Morning, seem to shine out. The family gathers in the living room for presents. And then moves into the kitchen for a snack.

Turkey is stuffed, potatoes are peeled, yams are candied. In other houses of sundry relatives, slaw is made, salads are tossed, pies are baked. Sausage and cheese balls are laid out, on platters with beef stick and hot mustard. Olives are toothpicked and cheese is sliced near crackers. Candied fruit is dipped and the chocolates are powdered. Nuts are laid out in wooden baskets with pliers and picks. Wines and beers, sodas and sweet tea, mulled cider and hot cocoa cover the table. Guests arrived and the prepared foods are merged and arranged into a Christmas Feast. Grace is said, eggnog is whipped and chilled, turkey sliced, bellies stuffed, children served on card tables and 65 plates – the good china and then some – are all laid to rest in the dishwasher as 6 generations and sundry partake of the holiday table.

After dinner, children play Show and Tell with their holiday loot as Grandpa and I retire to the den and the roaring fire. We lock the doors behind us for a heart-to-heart over too much eggnog in the growing heat. Children pound on the door and we laugh. Mom comes and forces us to liberate ourselves for socialising. Aunt Sally and Uncle Ray depart, Grandma and Grandpa too, and so with relative after relative until only Mom is left in the too-hot kitchen, and Dad patrolling the darkened house for cups and plates. Or else lighting a fire in the barrel outside, a massive offering of wrapping paper and ribbons and shredded tissue and boxes.

Phone calls are made. My cousins Faith and Roger, our friends Steven, Marc and Jody, Michael and Michelle arrive and converge in the dining room again for some late night desserts – coffee and plum pudding or mincemeat pie – and a long night of gaming and reliving high school, of smoking and staving off the winter chill with fond memories made and shared.

Merry Christmas, we whisper in the darkness, saying our goodbyes softly so as not to wake my parents. Merry Christmas and much love.


In our small town of Wurtsboro, NY, the rituals of Christmas rarely changed when I was growing up, only the participants. Only in such a place could a writer compile a perfect Christmas Memory. In parts of this story I’m 11, in other parts 25 or 53… but the pattern was always the same. A lot of these folks have passed now; the old Firehouse, too. But the dance is always there in my mind, and I’m standing in the Firehouse waiting for Santa on the truck. I always hated the hard candy in the boxes though.

Gotta Start Somewhere

OVirgo virginum, quomodo fiet istud?
Quia nec primam similem visa es nec habere sequentem.
Filiae Jerusalem, quid me admiramini?
Divinum est mysterium hoc quod cernitis.
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

SPOILER ALERT: the answer to the question, “Mary, did you know?” Is yes, in no uncertain terms. God told her, through the Angel, everything she needed to know. Further, you would not know to ask (or sing) the question at all if she did not know in the first place. You’ve got to start somewhere and God started here. Every human being is born into the world carrying Original Sin. Properly understood this is a weakness or an illness. You may have seen a sunflower turning towards the Sun as the latter moved across the sky. This is caused by some Curious change in the cell structure of the stem which enables the plant to always receive the full force of available sunlight. Imagine, if you will, or sunflower that was missing the gene that allowed it to always turn towards the left. That would be original sin in a sunflower. For all that we would expect it to move, it cannot. For all that we might imagine it to stand in a field with its brothers and sisters desiring to move like them, it cannot. The analogy breaks down here for in reality there is none of us that can turn towards the light: all of us are missing the gene, if you will, that allows us to do so. All the flowers – human souls – in all of history since our first parents failed has been like this: parents cannot pass on more genes than they have.

This failure leaves us unable to turn to God at our weakest moments without his help and inclined to say “no” when the help is offered. It’s a weakness that we all share and – like any social pressure – we feel a “natural, human urge” to not break ranks, to blend in, to be like everyone else: no one wants to be the one sunflower in the field pointing in another direction from everyone else – even if that direction happens to be right.

Jesus was sent to save us from this spiritually congenital failure – and more. In his life, death, resurrection, and ascension he reconnects humanity to the one source, the one life, the one love we all must have in order to live and love properly at all. In the gift of baptism he lets us be open to his grace. In the Eucharist he lets us embody the temple of his flesh in our lives. But it all had to start somewhere.

This is the Divine Mystery of the Holy Virgin.

God came to her and asked her if she would participate in this divine action. He knew the truth of the saying, “My body, my choice.” He would never force her hand in this action. But He also knew that all humans, congenitally, were unfree to make that choice. All humans were slaves to the failure that we are all born with. Mary could say “Yes” but it wouldn’t be a free, open, and full yes. The song “Mary did you know” would be perfect there. And so the Mystery of the Immaculate Conception: from the moment of her conception God gave Mary the grace of Baptism, preserving her free of original sin from the very moment her life began. When Gabriel came to Mary to invite her to participate in salvation, her gift of self was free and total. Her yes was a true yes, a submission to the will of God in a way that we – even after baptism – often have trouble with.

And that yes changed the world.

The story of Jesus starts further back that Mary, of course. We’ve just walked through all the “O” Antiphons and so you know: Jesus comes from Jesse’s family. But even before Jesus is Adonai, the one who spoke to Moses. Jesus is God’s wisdom, forming us out of the dust.

Jesus is the Logos ordering the Chaos, the meaning of all, in all, and through all.

But for everything that Jesus is, Mary is the vessel, the container, the gate. Jesus is the Dawn, Mary the morning star. Jesus is the King, Mary the gates lifting high their heads. Jesus is the water of life, Mary is the well from whence he is drawn. Jesus is the bread of life, Mary is the field in which the grain was grown. Jesus is the new wine, Mary is the chalice. Jesus is the Life, the Zoe, Mary is the womb in which Zoe is birthed for the world.

Her choice for life, for God, for yes had to be freely offered – neither cajoled, nor tricked out of her. And so, it was. Yes, it took God’s grace even so: but it was the grace that makes us truly free from even our own mental misgivings. God gave Mary the freedom to the yes we all need.

And that freedom sets us all free.

Great O Antiphons, Advent 2020
O Sapientia (11/15)
O Adonai (11/20)
O Radix Jesse (11/25)
O Clavis David (11/30)
O Oriens (12/5)
O Rex Gentium (12/10)
O Emmanuel (12/15)
O Virgo Virginum (12/20)

This wiki article explains the Great O Antiphons and also why I have eight in my practice rather than seven.

We have reached the end of another series of Advent postins on the Great O Antiphons. Thank you for reading along! I pray you and your family will have a blessed feast – and may 2021 be a tad less interesting for us all.

This Changes Everything

OEmmanuel, Rex et legifer noster,
exspectatio Gentium, et Salvator earum:
veni ad salvandum nos, Domine, Deus noster.
O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver,
the hope of the nations and their Saviour:
Come and save us, O Lord our God.

JMJ

GOD WITH US: what can that mean? How can the infinite be with us? How can there even be a God – as most folks understand that word – and him be “with us”? Nietzsche rightly point out that having a God With Us means that he can die. He goes on to suggest there for God is dead and that Christians killed him by insisting he enter history. What is this God With Us stuff?

I mentioned in the last post that your very being is a sign that God loves you: you would not exist without that love. I also mentioned the heart or soul, the core of your being. This is actually where God lives in you: the wholy Holy Trinity, living in you, sustaining your being. You cannot be without this. God is with you, like it or not. But that’s not what “Emmanuel” means here. Or is it? In the East, at Compline before the Nativity, the Choir sings “God is with us! Understand all ye nations and submit yourselves. God is with us!” That sounds rather martial until you realize that “understand and submit” is the primary action of faith. The act of belief to which we are called is not merely a doctrinal affirmation. The creed is not a checklist of things: it is descriptive of reality. We commit to a lifetime of growth in “understanding” and ever more deeply “submitting” to this reality in which we find ourselves where “God is with us.” God with us has ever a new meaning:

If God’s first sign of love is our being, what can we say about the world around us, which clearly shares in beingness? Yes, God is present there – albeit in a different order. Only humanity shares fully in the image and likeness, but angels and rocks, seraphim and dolphins, Brother Sun and Sister Moon, everything that lives and moves and has its being in God. All that is is grace. God is with us. It was this way in the Garden and we lost it – or more rightly gave it up.

So then something new had to happen. And it did and God is with us has a new meaning: a Baby. One of us. The God who slobbers. The God who forgets eternity and nurses on his mother’s breast. The God who loves us so much that he poured out all of infinity and became a cell, then two, then four, then eight. How can he love us so much? This is God with us. And acne, and changing voices, and hormones. Neighborhood bullies who won’t let him forget that his mother was pregnant too early. Soldiers that won’t let him forget he’s only a Jew. Traveling Romans who won’t let him forget he’s a hick and the son of a tradesman and that he smells like fish.

God. Wiping his butt with his hand. God with us.

We killed him. And so a new thing had to happen. And it did and God is with us has a new meaning: our daily bread. If this seems like a RETVRN (as the cool kids say) to the way it was in the garden, it is. The very stuff of Creation, the work of human hands, is God. God everywhere and here, walking with us in the shard of the evening or sitting down with us to a nice Sunday brunch.

Now think it through: God, the infinite, eternal, and radiant IS, can enter time, space, and darkness. Yet he is still infinite, eternal, and light himself. He is truth, life, the way, and yet he dies and we consume him. The smallest part of infinity is still infinity though: God is with us and what we are what we eat.

Take, eat. Understand and submit yourself for God is with us! Merry Christmas!

Great O Antiphons, Advent 2020
O Sapientia (11/15)
O Adonai (11/20)
O Radix Jesse (11/25)
O Clavis David (11/30)
O Oriens (12/5)
O Rex Gentium (12/10)
O Emmanuel (12/15)
O Virgo Virginum (12/20)

This wiki article explains the Great O Antiphons and also why I have eight in my practice rather than seven.

Power of the King

O REX Gentium, et desideratus earum,
lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum:
veni, et salva hominem,
quem de limo formasti.
O King of the nations, and their desire,
the cornerstone making both one:
Come and save the human race,
which you fashioned from clay.

JMJ

MODERN DEMOCRACIES from Athens and England, to latecomers like France and America, are pretty much brainwashed into thinking we have finally gotten it right, politically speaking. We have finally figured out the best, purest, and most just form of government. Those who came before us may have had a few good ideas, which we’re happy to claim for ourselves, but overall democracy is the best way to go. We are quite happy to have crawled out of the slimy pit of our darkest past to the new light of this political system. Never mind, of course that democracy is hardly new: it was discovered in ancient Athens (at least). Further, since it involves a tyranny of the majority over the minority it is almost never actually just – meaning “giving to each what is his due”. The majority has the power to inflict pain if they feel like it whether it is just or not. They have the power to inflict pleasure if they feel like it whether it is just or not and history is filled with examples of majorities doing exactly that, but we are trained to ignore those and, instead, to point at the gross errors of dictators, juntas, and monarchs. So strong is our brainwashing that even these dictators insist on democratic elections and we must resort to saying, “No no! That’s not democracy you’re doing it wrong.” Now, however, the King is coming.

We really have no idea of Kingship any more. Even in countries where there are monarchs, they have sort of become cartoons of their ancestors. Some are comic, like Mel Brooks and feel more like fake kings, but with real crowns. Some are far more serious. Her Britanic Majesty is, really, quite Majestic and Britanic. But she is reduced to a mere shadow of the power that even her father had, and one daren’t compare her to the previous monarch of the same name. Anti-Catholic though she was, she was, at least, a real Monarch and entirely not democratic.

In fact, so strong is our brainwashing about democracy that speaking of a governing authority like this could get one labeled “Fascist” – a word with nearly no content at this point, although we all agree it’s bad. It seems to really only mean “anti-democracy.” Now, however, there is a King coming and many look like the Old Woman talking to Dennis in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. “I didn’t vote for you!” We’re appalled when the answer is, “You don’t vote for kings.”

At the core of this political debate is a question of self-rule. I should have the right to do what I want, when I want, and as I want. And right now I want to have a new elected leader. We think of power as arising from the self and, when collected with other selves, forming power blocks. That block can then (by a collective action) bestow power on an individual or group of individuals. Later that power can be removed. This conception of the self as source of action and power is the root of our political conceptions now and also, our theological ones. For we think that we can freely elect to give ourselves over to a religious path, to freely choose to follow – or not. And we imagine that free choice to be constitutive, constructive: that nothing was before that and, should elect to end it, it will be over. We enter into all personal and business relationships with this mindset and we hold God to the same standards: I’m here because I like you, but don’t cross me. But a King is coming. You don’t vote for kings. They rule by divine right.

In the King James Bible, the word “heart” is used 826 times. It is important to note that it seems interchangeable with “soul”. It’s also important to note that’s not the original language. The Hebrew for this inner part of us is heart: Lev (לֵב) and for soul: Nefesh (נֶפֶשׁ). Together they are used a total of 1,347 times in the Hebrew text of the scriptures. This part of the human (whatever it is) is very important! For Christian Anthropology this is the part of us that lives in communion with God. For some of us we never get to this. The communion is always there (one would cease to exist at all, otherwise) but we never engage in this communion, we never draw from it or strengthen it. It is (and cannot but be) the very source of our very existence, but we can freely elect to shove it away, lock it away, cram it away and drown out its voice. In place of the Heart, we build a “self” and we get very prideful of it. We build into it cosmetic decorations, we make choices, we create an entire “life” and then – in our mistaken Anthropology – if we should happen to get religion, we may deign to offer this self to God and say, “Here look what I’ve built for you. Now, don’t touch it or play with it as you may break it. I’ve still got more work to do.” We never realize that this self – which we have constructed – is a false self. This face we present to God, inviting him to make use of (but not break!) is a false offering, a blemished sacrifice. The offering he wants is the one he formed out of clay, not the fake one we’ve built out of ego. A divine King is coming. And he will rule without our votes.

The source of us, in our heart or soul, is not the fake self we’ve built. But rather it is the very act of communion which we cannot break. God is the ground of all being, the source of existence itself. In that you exist you are in communion with this loving God – like it or not, choose it or not. The choice we all must make, though, is what to do now? I’ve described the first option already. I spent 45 years or so living out that pattern – and most of it quite consciously. I was fully aware that I was making choices, performing actions, engaging (or not) with other people both in and out of religions. I was fully aware that I was “constructing my life”, “being my best self”, and “following my bliss.” Occasionally I would turn, raise it up like Mufasa in The Lion King and say, “Look what I’ve birthed, God! Bless it.” Then I’d go about my business. I can tell you it was a lot of fun: but it was not joy, it was not happiness, and, in the end, it nearly killed me. I don’t mean I would have died any sooner (we all die). I mean there was no “me” left. I nearly killed the core.

But a king is coming who made me out of clay – long before I got around to ruining things into the ground.

For a Christian the heart is the source and summit of all that happens: it is the place of communion with God. Even if you never go there – never enter your own heart – the very being-ness of you is connected to God irrevocably. God loves you or you wouldn’t even be. And God will never unmake you – even when that beingness and love become for you the sheer torture of hell. You will still be and be loved.

From this heart flows all actions: you cannot “create a new self” you can only create a false self if it does not arise from this communion with the King who already reigns in your heart. There’s no being arising from your actions, there’s no other person possible other than the one he’s making for you. And though we can break that person and add scars for an eternity by our addiction to sin and self direction, we can never destroy our heart.

And the person we become constantly bears this heart up to the King. Who is coming. But is already here.

He has formed you and me out of clay – literally the humus of the earth, we are humans. Adam means “earthling”. We are little creatures of dirt. And God lives in us.

The king is here: will you serve him or try to walk away? To walk away ultimately is to destroy your heart – which will destroy your ego as well, making it a hollow shell, a Qliphoth into which Satan can move and have his being. But to stay, well: your self will die then so that you can live forever, your heart in communion with the King. But then you will know – finally – your True Self. You too, will reign.

Great O Antiphons, Advent 2020
O Sapientia (11/15)
O Adonai (11/20)
O Radix Jesse (11/25)
O Clavis David (11/30)
O Oriens (12/5)
O Rex Gentium (12/10)
O Emmanuel (12/15)
O Virgo Virginum (12/20)

This wiki article explains the Great O Antiphons and also why I have eight in my practice rather than seven.

Power of light

O Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae,
et sol justitiae:
veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris,
et umbra mortis.
O Rising Dawn, splendour of light eternal
and sun of righteousness:
Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness
and the shadow of death.

JMJ

RBUCKMINSTER FULLER, aka Bucky, was an American architect whose gigantic, dome-shapes are probably familiar to you. You’ve probably seen a photo, at least, of Epcot Center at Disney World. He thought we could cover cities with domes to protect us from the elements. He never thought about the expense of his amazing ideas, but you’ll notice he only wanted to cover the rich, powerful business-center of Manhattan with his dome. Over the course of his life, he wrote a series of essays on how science – especially Geometry – could help humans solve all the world’s problems. There is no energy crisis, food crisis, or environmental crisis, he said. Only a crisis of ignorance. Because he was using geometry instead of test tubes and microscopes his work tends to sound more esoteric, spiritual. It is from Bucky’s work that we get the word “Universe” as a replacement for “God” in many a popular usage. “Looks like the Universe wanted me here now.” Or, even more esoterically, “Looks like Universe wants me here now.” For most folks, that’s meaningless pop drivel that fills in for saying something religious, but Fuller thought the universe was complicated enough to run on its own and be quite a magical place. We only needed to apply our intellect to it to discover root causes and ways to manipulate it, to make its complications easy to understand, predict, and use. He assumed the root was geometry.

But his ideas always seemed fear-based: if the universe is based on geometry, why do we need to use geometry to protect ourselves from the universe and its elements? Why not use geometry to fix the universe so it’s not always attacking us? One of his essays was the “Omnidirectional Halo” which sounds like it might be spiritual-but-not-religious enough, but he wasn’t talking about Light: he was talking about a geometrically constructed dome (like Epcot). Do we need halos of steel and concrete to close us in and protect us from this wonderful Universe?

I will admit the universe – while amazing and beautiful – can be a sucky place. This is 2020 after all. Many ancient religions seemed to think the universe was a sucky place. Pope Benedict XVI writes that all of the gods of the modern world are either Bread, Sex, or Power. Gods needed to be placated. Powers like the wind and the rain needed to be manipulated to do our bidding sometime divinities needed to be invoked or moved out of the way politely. These divinities fought with humanity for a place in a limited resource, for a seat at a table with limited food.

To this the Hebrew Prophets respond, “Codswallop.” A new light is dawning.

The ancient Hebrews worshipped the ground and source of all being. He chose the pronouns he/him in his own self-revelation to his people. He spoke from fire. He rained down food. Water flowed from rocks and the land flowed with milk and honey. He was not in competition with us for limited resources. He was the source of unlimited life – even for those who rejected him. We are not suffering from a crisis of Intelligence, but rather a crisis of faith in the source of all. We look at the all, itself – the Universe – and think it is enough. We must look beyond until we come to the source of unlimited love.

A new light is dawning.

The thing about light is it always starts dim. Even if you turn on a light switch it doesn’t just pop on: the filament for a microsecond or two begins to glow and brighten. If you could slow it down you would see the light dawn in each of the bulbs in your house. There was a moment before our Central Star, Sol, was lit. And even in the explosion microsecond by microsecond the light grew and dawned. Until for each of us the light of Faith doesn’t just turn on one moment. It grows. As it grows everything around us can be seen more clearly.

Our professor, Dr Anthony Lilles, showed us this clip yesterday. While this conversation between Dr Tolkien and Dr CS Lewis never happened this way, the movie shows us exactly the process Tolkien used to bring Lewis to Christ.

I love how the friends call each other “Jack” and “Tollers”. Then Lewis described how the light dawned slowly:

WHEN WE SET OUT I did not believe that Jesus is the Son of God and when we reached the zoo I did.” So wrote C.S. Lewis, describing his conversion to Christianity in the sidecar of his brother Warnie’s motorbike, which took place on this day, 22 September 1931. 

Lewis had been reaching this understanding for some time. Reared an Irish Protestant, he rebelled against Christianity following the early death of his mother. While obtaining his education, he slid into outright atheism. However, encounters with Christian friends and reading the works of George MacDonald and G. K. Chesterton drew him back to theism (the belief in God). He wrote of that return to God, “You must picture me alone in that room at Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.” But he did not yet believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God. 

Three days before he came to that belief, he had a long talk with two Christian colleagues: J. R. R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson. Tolkien argued that some myths might originate with God, as a means of preserving a rudimentary level of truth. Lewis said he did not believe there was any truth in them at all. They were still talking at 3AM when Tolkien had to go home. Dyson continued the conversation, pointing out the practicality of Christianity—a religion with power to actually free from sin, instill peace, and provide genuine outside help to change one’s character. 

Evidently, these ideas were percolating in Lewis’s mind as he rode to the zoo. Three months later, on Christmas Day, he expressed his new faith publicly by returning to the Anglican church in which he had been confirmed, joining his local parish and taking Communion for the first time since his childhood.

It Happened TodayChristian History Institute retrieved on 6 Dec 2020

The light dawns.

We have this process: we are convinced we must “make converts” when, in fact, we must only make disciples – people who are learning. It is God who makes converts, God who dawns, God who shows the way forward.

Tolkien saw the light dawning in his own heart from the Catholicism of his youth, he wrote in On Fairy Stories (1947), “There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.” As the light grows, we see that our past was wrongful: but now we are seeing more-clearly. “The Christian has still to work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, hope, and die; but he may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed.” Tolkien, again. He knows that even the ways we are broken – the ways we rejected the light in the past – become ways for the light to grow in the world!

We follow the same gods today: food, sex, and power. They are as capricious as they ever were. They give us hunger and disease, encourage selfishness and pride, and leave us addicted to things that do us no good – even as they fail to kill us, so we only consume more. And we now think we can fix it, only with different sciences: psychology, drugs, and data. We need to be computers now, instead of mathematicians. God actually wants to make us more human: so much so that he became one of us.

Bucky thought his artifice would fix a broken Creation and make it manageable. Tolkien knew that we humans are the broken parts: it we who need fixing. We humans (particularly one human, Jesus) are the tools God is using to fix us. God is fixing things exactly how they were broken. That’s how he works: nothing is lost, rejected, or left behind. Everything of value is redeemed, given purpose, and used to save others.

Christmas is dawning, off in the distance. I’m a day late as I get this posted. But it’s coming! Not just the failed retail holiday that this year will have no holiday parties, not only the celebration of a day off and far too much food. The real Christmas is dawning if you can but see it with the eyes of faith. The light is growing stronger, always.

One day: it will burst in and all that is not light will burn away like so many fading ashes. And Christmas will finally come, for real and forever.

If you are still, you can see the dawn rising now and you can almost hear the angels singing the carols.

Great O Antiphons, Advent 2020
O Sapientia (11/15)
O Adonai (11/20)
O Radix Jesse (11/25)
O Clavis David (11/30)
O Oriens (12/5)
O Rex Gentium (12/10)
O Emmanuel (12/15)
O Virgo Virginum (12/20)

This wiki article explains the Great O Antiphons and also why I have eight in my practice rather than seven.

NOTE: Apart from the fact that I saw this video in class yesterday, Tolkien was on my mind. I lean so heavily on Tolkien for this essay because this antiphon is one of the ways God drew me to him and his church. I have been a Tolkien geek since junior high school. In Tolkien’s world of Middle Earth, one of the great messianic figures is Earendel. The name, Earendel, comes from the Anglo-Saxon word used to translate this Antiphon: the Latin O Oriens is rendered, Eala earendel. Read more here.

Power of the Keys

O Clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel;
qui aperis, et nemo claudit;
claudis, et nemo aperit:
veni, et educ vinctum de domo carceris,
sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel;
you open and no one can shut;
you shut and no one can open:
Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house,
those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

JMJ

LET US SEE How the world is overthrown. What is the Key of David? It’s a reference to Isaiah 22:22 – which is said of Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, but fulfilled in the Messiah. I’ve been wondering about this “key” though. What is it? Walk everything back to King Saul, David’s immediate predecessor and the first King of Israel. The Israelites had been ruled only by judges – and that only when necessary. The Torah was their governance and it was enforced by everyone (including the priests and Levites) with an appeal to the Judges or Prophets as needed. Then the people decided they wanted a king. The Prophet Samuel said he wouldn’t do it, but God told Samuel to go ahead and do it. The people were not rejecting Samuel’s judgeship – but rather God’s Kingship over them. So Samuel followed God’s command and gave the people King Saul who turned out to be a right putz.

Then came King David whom God described as “A man after my own heart.” God seemed to use Saul to prove a point but then used David (and Solomon) to raise Israel to previously unknown heights. What is the Key of David? How is it fulfilled in Messiah?

While these Antiphons for Advent are based on Scripture, they are not actually scripture – this one verse, sung once a year, pulls from three different places in Isaiah and weaves in some images later used in the Gospels. They are, more than anything, meditations. So they are worth mulling over with that in mind: they are like Dream Images, subject to many readings.

This is 2020 and what has happened has happened, so that’s where my brain is now. This year, for me, has raised the question of governance and how God participates in human actions. So at this point in time, the Key of David seems to be governance of the social order. The Messiah is named here as exactly the ruler of Temporal Order, what we now call mistakenly the “Secular” order. I say mistakenly for there was literally no concept of this “secular” order until the time between the American and the French Revolutions. There was no concept anywhere of “Church and State” prior to that time – even in places that were not Christian. For everywhere, the social order was governed by Authority and that Authority was partially religious.

Ancient Rome had laws and religious taboos had did all cultures until the modern mind broke these apart. When Caesar crossed the Rubicon he was not being “revolutionary” but rather he was committing an act of impiety – which signaled revolution. He was disrupting the divinely-instituted structures of Roman society. Likewise, Jesus was fully aware that his actions of impiety against both the Jewish and Roman structures would be seen as “politcal” as well as “theological”. These are the same things. Christianity teaches that all authority is God’s and he graciously allows men to participate in that. Only we moderns try to divorce Divine and Human Authority – and we fail. American has her own secular religion. We are unable to govern without it.

So, I think the “Key of David” signifies this joint rulership of “Church and State” which were not divided in Jesus’ day nor at any point in history until the latter part of the 18th Century amid the people of the “Enlightenment”.

The King of Israel held a religious function, an eternal as well as temporal one. And so the Key of David, the rulership of both the Sacred and the Secular, falls into the hands of Messiah. From him it passes to his body, the Church. Only modern, enlightened people in our pride imagine that these two things can be ruled separately. Most of the world and all people have known to the contrary for all of human history. And has our delusion done us so much better? Hardly. Our people are uncared for, our economy has run amok, the unrestrained content of our dreams, imaginings, and nightmares pours forth around us with never a thought to “should” only “could”. And when asked why “because it’s there” or “I wanted to” is the only answer possible. Because all other options have been removed from the table.

This is the darkness and the shadow of death in which we live and move and lose our being.

We need someone with the Key of David to close and lock away those things which are unhealthy for us, to open those ways which are good, true, and beautiful. We need someone with the Key of David to come and lead us from the prison house we have made for ourselves with – as the Orthodox/Byzantine prayer says – our “slavery to our own reasoning”.

This is prayer the Church offers here to the Messiah who is coming: rule us, lead us, take us out of our own traps and set us free.

Great O Antiphons, Advent 2020
O Sapientia (11/15)
O Adonai (11/20)
O Radix Jesse (11/25)
O Clavis David (11/30)
O Oriens (12/5)
O Rex Gentium (12/10)
O Emmanuel (12/15)
O Virgo Virginum (12/20)

This wiki article explains the Great O Antiphons and also why I have eight in my practice rather than seven.