Every Fire Burns Differently

By Hans Memling, Public Domain, Link

The Readings for the 33rd Sunday, Tempus per Annum (c1)

Et morte afficient ex vobis : et capillus de capite vestro non peribit.
They will put some of you to death…but not a hair on your head will be destroyed.

JMJ

Our readings today are from very apocalyptic texts. They struggle to share with us a vision of the future, and yet they also strive to remind us it is the present that we must always be concerned with.

Let’s start with the epistle to the Thessalonians, Saint Paul with his “If you don’t work you don’t eat.” This can be played politically if you like: poor people can’t eat because they can’t work. That would be contrary to literally everything else in the Bible – and would be projecting onto ancient cultures our capitalist values of exchanging work for money and money for necessities. Paul wasn’t talking about politics or economics. Rather Paul was talking about disorder in the Church community. People thought the world was about to end so they were giving up on their daily responsibilities. Paul was saying, “If you think the world’s about to end then you don’t need to eat do you?” He was directing his people away from some abstract future back to today. We don’t know when the world will end. We are not saved at some mystical, future endpoint. Today is the day of salvation, stop all this prepping for doomsday.

The prophet Malachi shares with us a rather gruesome vision of the last day ending in fire. We are used to this, I think: hellfire is a very common trope stretching from jokes about the stereotypical Street Preacher to the Left Behind books and movies. Yet there is also hope in this passage: for notice that the Day of the Lord is coming like fire but that general fire of terror will, for the righteous, come into focus as the rising of the Sun of Justice. The fire is still real fire it’s just a different sort of fire for the people who are expecting it, indeed living for it. We know this from other places in the church’s teachings where some of the fathers say eternity in hell and eternity at God’s Throne are the same thing. Scriptures say our God is a “consuming fire”. The righteous, however, want to be consumed in that fire. It is the unrighteous who do not wish to be consumed and will be burned. But it is the same fire. We will all be eternally roasting in the warming fires of God’s love. But someone want to be there.

The Gospel ends with a glorious promise from Jesus. As he was facing his own death he prophesied the death of (some of) his followers. Yet, mindful of his own Resurrection he said no part of you will be destroyed. We die yet we live.

Jesus’ communication of the Last Day cannot be comforting to everyone. He does not address this as prophecy to the unconverted but rather to the Believers. He predicts all kinds of violence against the Believers. He predicts hatred and destruction for the Believers. Yet like Malachi, Jesus invites Believers to see this with hope. No matter what they do to you, no matter how hard they persecute you, no matter how painfully they deal with you, no part of you will be destroyed.

This puts the lie to those who imagined something of a Rapture before the end of the world (like the Left Behind books). Those who believe in the Rapture think God is supposed to take the church out of the world before all this trouble begins. But Jesus says the church is going to go through all this trouble and, in real ways, will be the target of all this violence. We will die but we will not be destroyed. I think the words Jesus said about the temple could be said about the church today. No stone will be left on top of another stone when the world is finally done with us. But the church will not be destroyed for the church is not a building it is the people and the Gates of Hell will not prevail against the church.

The righteous have nothing to fear. This is not doom and gloom for those people of faith who dance with Jesus: but only for those people who do not share the same hope.

Like Hanukkah in November

The Readings for the 31st Sunday, Tempus per Annum (C1)

Parati sumus mori, magis quam patrias Dei leges praevaricari.
We are ready to die rather than to transgress the laws of God, received from our fathers.

JMJ

Here are sons of whom a Mother can be rightfully proud! The Story of the Seven Maccabee Brothers is a wee bit of a misnomer: they are 7 Brothers whose tale is told in the book of 2nd Machabees, as it is called in the Vulgate. Readings from 1st and 2nd Maccabees have also been coming up in the Daily Office. So it’s like Hanukkah coming early in a way. This story is one of particular meaning to me. The Greeks, having set up idols in the Temple are now going around Israel inviting the townspeople to worship idols and eat pork. These seven brothers, along with their mother and their teacher all refuse and are killed. It’s the last in a line of stories about the barbarism the Greeks committed against the Jews. The last line of Chapter 7 is “Enough has been said about the sacrificial meals and the excessive cruelties.”

Pardon a slide into Bible Geekery: these 1st and 2nd Maccabees are in the Catholic Canon, linking the historical period just before Jesus (c. 160 BC) with the Gospels. There are actually 4 books of Maccabees in the Orthodox Bible, but only 2 in the Roman Catholic Bible. The Wiki says that the Moravian Brethren rather liked 3rd Maccabees and 4th Maccabees was printed in some Romanian Catholic Bibles in the 18th Century. There’s an interesting discussion about why these books are not in the Jewish Canon here.

What do these martyrs (indeed, the entire story of the Maccabees) teach us as Christians?

In the first 3 centuries of the Christian Era, the Church endured serious persecution and at the same time, found ways to care for the poor, to house widows and orphans, to take exposed babies off the street and raise them in their own houses. The Church grew despite imprisonment, death threats, laws passed, and murderous rampages. Certain writers said that the church was growing because of the martyrdom. “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church,” said Tertullian. The Church had inherited these books from the Jewish tradition and read them the same way: stirring stories inspiring her children to give up their lives rather than “transgress the laws of God, received from our fathers.”

For the early Church poverty was the norm. For this Church, powerlessness was also the norm. Although there were slaves and patricians all in the same Church communities they were all under a ban from the government. They were strange at least, ostracized often, hunted down sometimes and killed. The Church was not tax-exempt, the Church did not own huge swaths of property or giant buildings, and the Church was not given to splashy quasi-militarisic shows of liturgical triumphalism. This is not the case today, especially in America and Europe: the Church is largely white, middle class, and wealthy. When the Church thinks of people of color at all it tends to be in a rather colonial, paternalistic manner. This is even true of American Catholics for whom, in a real way, the Spanish, Latin American Church is our origin. We reject the poor on a regular basis: we hide from the differently-colored incursions in “our churches” even when those churches are dying. We take refuge in the fact that “this culture was ours at one time” and we think to reclaim it in the future.

For the early Christians the 7 Maccabee brothers were a sign that when the whole world was literally out to kill you still, God is in control. We think we’re being persecuted when we’re asked to yield cultural space to others. We confuse evangelism with expanding “Democracy” and Wal*Marts. We want to be in control and we will fight to keep that power. When so many American Catholics reject the Church’s teaching on economics, sex, and political morality, perhaps today these seven are not a useful sign. Their willing martyrdom seems meaningless to us.

Let us pray for a day when that meaning returns.

The Amazon in Burning

The Readings for the 31st Wednesday, Tempus per Annum (C1)

Nemini quidquam debeatis, nisi ut invicem diligatis : qui enim diligit proximum, legem implevit. Dilectio proximi malum non operatur. Plenitudo ergo legis est dilectio.
Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law… Love does no evil to the neighbor; hence, love is the fulfillment of the law.

JMJ

Have you heard about the Servant of God, Xu Guangqi? He is one of the Three Pillars of Chinese Catholicism. He was converted to Catholicism by the Jesuit priest, Matteo Ricci. The latter, leading the Jesuit mission in China, made some interesting choices in regard to Chinese cultural practices (including the veneration of ancestors). These were first (1645) rejected and then (1656) accepted by the church. In 1939 the Holy See re-assessed the issue and Pope Pius XII issued a decree authorizing Chinese Catholics to observe the ancestral rites and participate in civic ceremonies Confucius-honoring. I’m not familiar with either the writings of Xu Guangqi, Matteo Ricci, or Confucious, but I’m in no position to argue with Pope Pius XII or his Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. The wiki sums it up, saying, “Confucianism was also thus recognized as a philosophy and an integral part of Chinese culture rather than as a heathen religion in conflict with Catholicism.”

There’s another writer I know of…

During my neopagan days, from about 1982-1999, I became infatuated with the writings of Aleister Crowley. My teacher said she was convinced that anyone with an adult take on the pagan religion would find themselves in bed with “Uncle Al” as she called him. I was not attracted to his work for the sake of “power” or magic. (He would have called it “Magick”). In all the pagan writers published in the modern world, he is the only one with any philosophical depth, with any sense of real Truth being out there somewhere. His entire philosophy was wrapped around words that show up in St Paul over and over: Love and Law. He added a third word which St Thomas Aquinas will bring into the mix: Will. Aquinas says, “To Love is to Will the good of the other.” Paul says this is the fulfillment of the Law. “Love is the Law, Love under Will,” said Crowley.

I’m not at all convinced that I won’t meet him in heaven. He was so very hung up on Agape. He misunderstood it, often enough, but he just could not let it go, or maybe better – it would not let him go. Truth be told, I was reading one of his more esoteric works when a line about offering all to the divine caused me to turn back to Christ. (“Don’t hold back even a pinch of yourself”, he said. “Or your whole work is wasted.”) And so here I am, meditating on Bible and still able to hear about Crowley. In this month of the Holy Souls, I don’t think it untoward to pray for his repose.

So. The Amazon Synod.

Remember, before we go on: Love is the fulfillment of the Law. Love is willing the good of the other. Is there any greater good to will for anyone than their salvation? Not really.

Did you ever hear of Pachamama? You may have missed the entire storm (if you’re lucky), but in short here’s what happened: in the time since Matteo Ricci when to China, it’s become possible to travel the world by airplane and so the missionaries in China, I mean the Amazon Basin, didn’t have to wait on letters and reports posted by sailing ship to get between themselves and the Home Office in Rome. Indeed, it became possible for the entire world to learn what was going on with the mission work in China, I mean the Amazon Basin. Instead of waiting 300 years or so, the Church was able to talk about it now.

Is there anything in their culture, like Confucious or Crowley, that might lead someone – digging deep enough – to come to Catholicism? I don’t know. Some priests did think so: and they brought these things to Rome. Sadly, they did it in front of the Media Circus called the internet.

This did not make the talking heads online happy at all. This really annoyed the Anti-Francis folks. This seriously pissed off the Catholic Right. They let loose on some Racist Rants about the people in the Amazon, about culture, about colonialism, about power in the Church, and – most importantly – about their own sense of the loss of that power. It was sad to watch really.

If you don’t understand the synodal process in the Church you might think that a bunch of bishops saying things in Rome means the teaching of the Church is thus. In reality: those bishops were, essentially, talking in front of the Pope as advisors. The Pope is the Decider Guy here – and what he says won’t come out until (if?) he writes an Exhortation. That document has the weight of the Church’s teaching authority behind it: it’s Magisterial as we say. Nothing else is, however. So we have to wait. We may not have to wait 300 years as the Chinese did, but if there is an “Amazonian Rites” controversy it will – sadly – be colored by race and colonialism. It will be the Church’s desire to protect and elevate her children to salvation pitted against the West’s desire to deforest the Amazon and grow hamburgers and soybeans.

If we do not love them, if we do not will their good, if we confuse our culture of solid housing and urban squalor, indoor plumbing and venereal disease, “free” elections and neoliberal wage slavery with “the good” that we are colonially forcing on them… we will fail as missionaries. Our love will die. And so will they.

We might not know their songs or their culture, but we can still destroy them.

Added Later: Look. The Holy Spirit is in charge here. God is in control. The Church has survived bad popes, silly popes, evil popes, and popes with kids in their house and politicians in their pockets. At one point the entire Church was Monothelite. Jansenists have tried to take it over. Arians have tried. (And the Aryans, too.) Gnostics have tried. Church still here. The Church “against which the gates of hell shall not prevail” is nonplussed by missionaries from the Amazon.

What really scares you?

The Readings for the 30th Thursday, Tempus per Annum (C1)

Certus sum enim quia neque mors, neque vita, neque angeli, neque principatus, neque virtutes, neque instantia, neque futura, neque fortitudo, neque altitudo, neque profundum, neque creatura alia poterit nos separare a caritate Dei, quae est in Christo Jesu Domino nostro. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

JMJ

All right, yes. It is All Hallows’ Eve; in fact as I write it is after first vespers. But this reading at Mass this morning made me cry. There is nothing that can separate us from the love of God. I’ve been thinking about this all day. Nothing can separate us from the love of God. And yesterday’s reading said all things are working for our good. Follow st. Paul’s argument in this chapter:

The flesh is weak. We are born in the Flash and we are tempted by the flesh. Yet through adoption in Christ, we are children of God, Children of the spirit. And in this adoption in this Grace we are victorious. And so everything that was bad before now only leads us closer to God. Everything that was a threat before now is completely destroyed. Paul, of course, is not saying that we cannot be hurt by the sword but he is saying the sword cannot hurt anything important.

You may remember Orwell’s 1984. I don’t remember a lot of it, but Room 101 sticks with me. In Room 101 the state applied torture to the worst traitors. The torture was the thing the traitor most feared: “the worst thing in the world.” For the hero of the book, Winston Smith, the worst thing is rats. He is tortured (by fear – not by physical pain) into saying that his lover, Julia, should be fed to the rats instead of him. That’s all it takes: giving up of his love: making his own avoidance of pain to be of more importance than her experience of it. Once he had thrown Julia under the bus he didn’t need to be tortured anymore. He was let go.

I wrote yesterday, if I lose Jesus, literally nothing else matters. If I gain Jesus, literally nothing else matters. Paul, today, tells us as long as we walk forward through anguish, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, the sword, death, life, angels, principalities, the present, the future, powers, height, depth – forward always in faith – we will be victorious. Paul knows that the flesh will chicken out at any one of those things, or pride might make us “buck up” despite our fear. Paul wants us to know that the Love of God in Christ is the only thing that matters.

What scares you? I don’t mean, are you scared of heights or Stephen King movies. What really scares you? What conversations make you feel backed into a corner over your faith? What scares you the most about having to be a confessional Christian at some point? Losing your job? Losing your home? Losing your ability to support your family or yourself? Paul was writing to a people who could lose their life – and did – by the hundreds. And he was telling them that, yes, you could die. But that there was a more important victory gained by that death. I think he would say the same to us: yes, all that you fear is possible – and more. But so what, he would continue, you still have Christ!

Tomorrow’s feast of All Saints can be called the feast of all those who didn’t give a fig for things that scared them. I’m not saying they didn’t get scared, mind you, but they went forward anyway. Sometimes that can just be war or a social injustice. They picked up their cross and manfully strode forward even though they knew, in the end, on that cross they would be nailed down.

It’s All Hallows’ Eve: a night filled with scary things that shouldn’t scare Christians at all. But there are many things in this world to be afraid of. Still: not worth a fig compared to the glories yet to come. What have we to be afraid of that Jesus has not already conquered?

Salvific Synergy of SIn

If everyone gets in, God wins. I call it the God Wins Law.

En to Pan

The Readings for the 30th Wednesday, Tempus per Annum (C1)

Domine, si pauci sunt, qui salvantur? 
Lord, will only a few people be saved?

JMJ

As with other questions, this one is transparently not what it seems and Jesus sees through it. Notice how Jesus instantly goes from “will only a few people…” to “you must…” Jesus knows that the question will only a few people be saved is really a coverup for, “How little do I have to do?” the man that’s not wondering if his notoriously sinful stepfather will actually get into heaven. The man thinks “If my notoriously sinful stepfather can get into heaven I don’t need to worry about it.” This often becomes the God-Win’s question: God’s going to let everyone in – including Hitler – so why bother? If Hiter can get into heaven then it’s ok. Or: if even Hitler can get into heaven, then this is all a load of fewmets striking windmills.

Domine, si pauci sunt, qui salvantur? We’re asking is there hope for me? If it’s only a few, there’s really nothing to be done, let us despair and fall into grave sin. Jesus puts it back on us: Contendite intrare per angustam portam : quia multi, dico vobis, quaerent intrare, et non poterunt. Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough. This is the same lesson as “a camel passing through the eye of a needle”. It’s hard enough for this thing to happen – with all the things of this world, with all the pains, distractions, joys. I saw a four-box comic today in which a cat is looking at autumn leaves and comments, “Life is transitory… but so enchanting.” That’s all of us: we become enchanted by the things of this world. We struggle for a little while, but then we fall back into watching the world and being enmeshed by it.

Scimus autem quoniam diligentibus Deum omnia cooperantur in bonum. We know that all things work for good for those who love God. This line from St Paul is the hinge, on which these two readings turn. For really, omnia (the Greek word is πᾶν pan) means “all”. All. ALL. All things. If you love God, then all things are working for your good: Paul’s Greek phrase is πάντα συνεργεῖ panta synergei. If you love God, then your past sins are not wiped out (as I heard in a sermon on Sunday from the Master of the Dominican Order). God doesn’t forget (God can’t forget), rather God repurposes. By the grace of God in the sacrament of confession – even your sins are turned into stepping stones towards heaven. All things. All means all. Even the things that you have to dredge up in a life confession, even the things from high school that make you blush.

There’s great comfort here in realizing that I am the only sinner I will ever know. No one but you knows what you’ve done (even if you tell me, I can’t look into the state of your soul when you were doing it). I am literally the only person I can look at and say, “I knew that was wrong. I knew why it was wrong. And I dismissed all that and did it anyway.” I don’t need to rewrite your sins – or even know them, they don’t exist.

Other things work for our good too – all things – that abusive parent, the job that objectified you and fired you for illegal reasons (but you can’t prove it), the sexual partner that ruined your teen years, the accident on the freeway that made you late for work, the wildfire that destroyed your house, the wind that sent you to Oz, the wardrobe that sent you to Narnia, the rocket that exploded in midair and made you afraid of flight. The job that opened your eyes to new careers, the teacher that changed your mind about world history, the baker that gave you free coffee, the priest that makes you laugh in confession. The cat, the computer, the laundry, the bus that breaks down in the middle of the Californian desert so you can’t get to a wedding on time… all things work for our good. There is only one good, though: entering through the narrow gate.

Passing through the narrow gate, I want only to hear one thing: Wow, you made it. The crown of heavenly witnesses may only gasp and let out a sigh of relief, but I pray to hear Wow, you made it.

If I lose Jesus, literally nothing else matters. If I gain Jesus, literally nothing else matters.

SNAFU

Our greatest boons become our greatest banes. The more we prop up, the more falls down. Yet we continue, refusing to listen.

The Readings for the 30th Tuesday, Tempus per Annum (C1)

Scimus enim quod omnis creatura ingemiscit, et parturit usque adhuc. We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now;

JMJ

Have you ever had a bad manager or a boss who couldn’t lead? Hopefully, this is not now! If you remember, a broken leader ruins everything. Man was intended by God to have the place of kingship in Creation; to rule in God’s name (and some think, possibly, in God’s power) over the world. But man fell. Paul says all of creation suffering s because of us: the fall of man broke everything. This doesn’t mean that plants and animals are stained by original sin but rather that the management is so dysfunctional that everything else sucks.

What’s that mean for us? We can’t know. Everything is broken – even the tools we have available to us (as of perception and expectation, experience and knowledge) are all disordered. What we see, what we find out, what we can know is limited not by our ability but by our broken perception. Life feeds on life now – not just animals, but humans as well, and when we die our bodies compost and rot and our souls depart. This is not as it should be: we don’t know what it should be, but we know it’s wrong. Our very heart cry out – even watching Wild Kingdom we know that the cute animals are going to get eaten. Yet, we know the predators have to eat as well. We can’t reconcile this. Could we have if we had been the rightful kings of creation?

Even when we try to fix things we make things worse. What have we done in the last half-century to fix things? What has not made things worse? Recycling seemed like a good idea, but it’s not working unless shipping all our plastic to China seems like a way to save oil. We’ve tried to save plants and animals by carving out tiny strips of their homeland, like reservations on which they can be trapped in dwindling populations. We find more and more ways to do things we don’t need: like travel, shop, consume luxuries, and be offended. Yet we do so at great expense to our world and yes, I know I’m saying this on a computer.

Our greatest boons become our greatest banes. The internet is a warehouse of porn and child abuse. Airtravel destroys our atmosphere. Cars ruin our lives. Electricity starts fires, kills birds, and ruins our sleep cycles. Our ability to produce huge quantities of food has resulted in nutritional deficiency, addiction to sugar, and perhaps even genetic damage. Our technology destroys older cultures, habitats, and our own jobs. Our democracy elects demagogues. Our freedoms become license. Our liberty becomes hate. The more we prop up, the more falls down. Yet we continue, refusing to listen.

Softly Jesus whispers about the kingdom, Simile est fermento, quod acceptum mulier abscondit in farinae sata tria, donec fermentaretur totum. It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of wheat flour until the whole batch of dough was leavened. Take it from a San Francisco baker: Jesus wasn’t talking about a packet of yeast, but rather sourdough. Jesus knew from his Mother how to bake bread. You have a pinch of yeasted dough from the last batch that you keep. You put that into the new batch and the whole thing turns into yeasted dough. Take a pinch of dough and save it for next time. We are that pinch of dough, Christians. A little leavening in the societal dough results in the whole thing rising.

What are we doing about this?

Fake News & Latin Rite Baptists

The Readings for the Feast of Sts Simon and Jude, Apostles

Estis cives sanctorum, et domestici Dei, superaedificati super fundamentum apostolorum, et prophetarum, ipso summo angulari lapide Christo Jesu : Liberavit me Dominus ab omni opere malo : et salvum faciet in regnum suum caeleste, cui gloria in saecula saeculorum. Amen. You are fellow citizens with the holy ones and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the Apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the capstone.

JMJ

On all feasts of the Apostles we celebrate the unity of the Church around Christ, and the living continuity we have with the Apostolic Church in the unity, today, of all the Bishops around the Pope: where Peter is, there is the Church. I’m a new convert and I tend to get a little Rah Rah about Francis. When St John Paul II died, I cried. Our Orthodox Parish went to the Catholic Basilica in Asheville as a group (at our Priest’s suggestion) and prayed for his soul’s ease. When Benedict XVI was elected and later liberated the usage of the Latin Mass, I nearly became Catholic. I followed “reform of the reform” blogs. Then one day (as the Cardinals were meeting) I found myself thinking what if the new Pope was named “Francis”? And I got verklempt, living in San Francisco. My entire office was livestreaming the Papal Election. When the name Francis was announced, we all gasped.

Although I’ve been aware of Popes since Paul VI, Francis is – in a way I can’t explain – my Pope. I love Benedict, and I sorry to have missed the young John Paul, but I became Catholic under this Pope.

One of the things that has been driving me bonkers lately is watching American Lay Catholics pull away from the Pope – this Pope. My Pope. The German Liberal bishops don’t bother me. The conservative African and Asian Bishops, the liberal ones from Latin America and all the American Bishops are with the Pope. But American Laity are pulling away. Why?

Underneath issues of theology – even when the Pope speaks clearly – I think it’s politics, by which I mean the American Culture wars that have been driving us batty for 50 years. Follow along on this Twitter thread, which starts with Fulton J Sheen and includes the Tweeter’s own meditations. (I’m not sure where one ends and the other begins.) In the beginnings of the culture wars, when American Catholics were – largely – white, middle-class folks in fedoras, union men with good jobs, and wealthy foreigners, the idea was to fit in. Catholics excelled at fitting in. Kennedy basically sold us all down the river by saying “Elect me and I won’t be Catholic.” He literally said exactly the reverse of what he should have said. American Catholics became convinced that to be “a good Catholic” was to be “a good American”: Patriotic, Successful, Boring.

The decades leading up to the Second Vatican Council were very prosperous – and spiritually dead. Fulton Sheen points out that “the youth” are leaving the Church because the Church was just an aspect of “The Good Life” and they discovered they could have “The Good Life” without it. Getting rid of all their parents’ markers of culture was more of the same: and so the church doubled down. (This is not in Sheen.) The Church became what the kids said it was.

Cardinal Spellman turning kids into their draft boards for the Vietnam War and using his priests to sniff out peace activists. Turning Catholics over to federal investigators… the Church caved in completely to the Political Culture. Some churches still bear these marks, having in them American flags near the altar and (usually) a Papal Flag as well. The Holy Name Society and the Knights of Columbus both bear the marks of this: requiring the Pledge of Allegiance and other shows of patriotism out of place in a religious organization, but largely harmless. But middle class, successful, boring, patriotic Catholicism became identified with what would be known as a “right-wing” position and, increasingly, a partisan one.

Then came the Vatican Council and the left fought back. And, it must be honestly stated, they did a lot of damage, they espoused not just harmless political positions, but sometimes openly anti-Catholic ones: communism, socialism, liberalized moral laws, etc. The war of Boomers against their parents Cultural Catholicism remained partisan, still had no depth, and was only just a Catholicism of a Different Culture. Hippies winning instead of squares. Clergy making bad choices to be relevant to the kids. Two guitars and a flute, felt banners, hand-holding, happy clappy, Kum-by-yahlicism.

And so now… we have people trying to reassert the tradition: the Latin Mass returns, the reform of the reform grows, the Tradening taking root and throwing far out the Modening Crowd. But confusing the perennial tradition of the Church with the conservative politics of the 50s. The Mods fight back with the policies of the Liberated 70s – and insist they need their felt banners for social justice.

Into this madness wade the hierarchs – some having taken sides in the political wars and others having the spiritual health of the church in mind.

The truth comes out when the Pope does something “anti-American”. But this is not a partisan issue for it comes from both the left and the right. If the Pope speaks of the Environment or Economy, the right gets upset. If the Pope speaks of sexual morality or tradition, the left gets upset. Both claim the Pope should stick to religion and not talk about these things… by which they mean the Pope should be more like Kennedy and leave us alone.

Catholics who have political axes to grind take over media outlets and talk schism. Raymond Arroyo is as dangerous as James Martin. Social media (including blogs and podcasts) become tools of wanks marshaling a vortex to spew political agendas. With the left in control of many publishing houses, the right gets TV and Radio, and both urge us to diss the Pope. The social media generate fake news because it covers up the real issue: our economic policies and environmental practices are unjust. But to fix them would make life in America a lot less opulent. So this is bad. Our passions and consumption – sex, food, greed – are all out of line. But scandal keeps us looking at the sins of others instead of our own sins.

We had this issue in the Orthodox Church: mostly converts (but also some troublemakers from “the Old Country”) who were certain they were more correct than their bishops. We called them “Byzantine Rite Baptists”. They could walk quite far from the faith in their “purity”, becoming Congregationalists in all but name. It’s good to see this is another way in which Catholics and Orthodox are alike in America.

Look: you can walk away from Pope Francis if you want – even because of politics – but that makes you a Protestant. You’re more like Henry VIII than Luther, granted: so you can still have Mass and robes and stuff, but you’re still Protestant.


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This Line Runs Through the Human Heart

I know the Pharisee is the Bad Guy: but how we end up praying like him is important.

The Readings for the 30th Sunday, Tempus per Annum (C1)

Oratio humiliantis se nubes penetrabit, et donec propinquet non consolabitur, et non discedet donec Altissimus aspiciat. Et Dominus non elongabit : et judicabit justos, et faciet judicium : et Fortissimus non habebit in illis patientiam, ut contribulet dorsum ipsorum. The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds; it does not rest till it reaches its goal, nor will it withdraw till the Most High responds, judges justly and affirms the right, and the Lord will not delay.

JMJ

These two get their own Sunday Feast in the Byzantine liturgy. We’re reminded to be not like the Pharisee and to be rather like the Tax Collector. Still, Sirach says that God listens to everyone. But he leans on the side of the weak, the poor, the orphan, the widow. We want to make sure we’re on the right side, of course, and although the Just will be heard, regardless of who they are, the poor get heard first. So, it’s entirely possible that God will hear the Pharisee in the Gospel today when he prays. But we want to be on the right side. It’s easy to see where Jesus was going: this dude was doing it right. That dude didn’t even do it. That said, a parable is not a 1:1 correspondence. It’s not a story about all Jews are bad (the Tax Collector was a Jew as well) nor is it a story about Pharisees (who were, actually, the liberal party in Judaism at this time). It’s not a story about Rabbinic Judaism, nor is it a thing about the social outcasts.

The Greek doesn’t even say that the Pharisee is praying properly: the Bad Guy is, in Jesus words, praying πρὸς ἑαυτὸν pros heauton “towards himself”. The Pharisee starts out with a traditional prayer within Judaism: “Blessed are you O Lord, Our God, King of the Universe, who has made me a man…” and then gets lost ruminating. The Pharisee is doing what many of us do when we get to Mass, really: an attempted prayer becomes a falling down a rabbit warren inside the heart, planning lunch for after, thinking about shopping lists, or what happened on the way to Church this morning. The Rosary goes from “meditating on the passion” to “thinking about that guy I hate at the office” rather suddenly. My evening prayers seem to always get taken over by thinking about moving the furniture.

The Tax Collector can’t remember liturgical prayer and says only what’s really on his heart: ἱλάσθητί μοι hilastheti moi. (This not the origin of the Jesus Prayer, which is a different verb.) Be propitious to me, or even propitiate for me. He sticks with something short and sweet. He doesn’t brag. He just asks God for help.

Honestly: we are both of these things, right? It matters not if one is a rigid Trad or a floppy Mod. One can be lost in ruminations and pride, or one can be praying from the heart. We can read from a book or make it up as we go along. But either way, if we’re’ not careful, we might find ourselves thinking “Whoa, where did she get that dress?” or “Dang, I really need to get denture tablets on the way home.”

Who or what triggers your Pharisee moments? When do you go from talking to God to talking to yourself? When do you catch yourself – or do you not? Is it a moment of lust, or of envy? Is it a moment of judgment? Do you find yourself lamenting the aging soprano that can’t keep up with her section, or does the altar server in sneakers drive you bonkers? Maybe you make it your business to know all the folks who are in cohabitations, or the same-sex couples that are actually couples. Does Father have some liturgical ticks that suck all the blood out of your face or do his homilies leave you wondering about the possibility of having him replaced by a simplex priest? When you get ready to pray is it work that you end up thinking about?

In a podcast I listen to, a priest admitted that sometimes his prayer consists of running into the chapel, placing both hands on the tabernacle, and screaming. Thus the spirit, with cries and groans, prays through us! It would seem by today’s Gospel that such a prayer is more effective than sitting with a prayerbook, finding the prayer, reading the prayer, and closing the prayerbook. I know the Pharisee is the Bad Guy: but how we end up praying like him is important. How can we pray more like the Publican?

Theodicy

Rev’d Canon Edward N. West

The readings for the 29th Saturday, Tempus per Annum (C1)

Putatis quod hi Galilaei prae omnibus Galilaeis peccatores fuerint, quia talia passi sunt? Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were greater sinners than all other Galileans?

JMJ

Back in 1985, I took a year off college. I really wasn’t sure what I was doing and by a twist of the post office and federal record-keeping no one could tell me where my financial aid forms were. Thus, three days before the school year started (I was already living on campus) as I was sitting in a student club office in the Loeb Student Center, I freaked out, filed for a leave of absence, and moved out of NYC to Atlanta. That worked for about 4 months. When I went back to my parents’ house for Christmas I stayed. Then, in the back of the (Episcopal) Diocese of New York newspaper, I found an advertisement for the Institute of Theology. It was a “late vocations” program as we would call it now. It met on Saturdays (and a couple of nights in the week) and was taught actual professors from actual seminaries. I begged permission from everyone to attend, got my pastor to write a letter, got references from some surprising folks, begged and got a waiver on paying for it… and off I went. A semester in “Seminary” to see if I liked it: a pre-vocations program if you will.

My favorite class was homiletics, taught by the Rev’d Canon Edward N. West. That’s him up there. He called me (and anyone else under the age of 70) “Ducky.” He was as familiar with Eastern as with Western Liturgy, and in terms of heros and people I’d like to be like when I finally grow up, he’s on the top of the list. He had a life-sized painting of the late Czar Nicholas in his apartment that was a gift from a scion of the Royal Family. His first public liturgy was the funeral of Mayor Laguardia. Ok, enough geekery.

My least favorite class was called, “The Problem of Evil.” “Theodicy” is the technical term for this.

I know this has bedeviled Christian theologians for two millennia – and it’s in the Books of Job and the Psalms as well. Rabbi Harold Kushner’s classic work, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, has given a cliched phrase as a talking point. This issue is best put this way: If God really loved us he would fix it so things did not suck. If there is a loving God, things shouldn’t suck. If there are sucky things (and there are) it proves that God is either not loving or not all-powerful.

We had a whole class on this. Two weeks in we had to discuss why people die. I blundered in with “Everything in nature dies, that’s just what happens. And we sinned. So we get to be natural too.” The professor countered with “What about good people?” And I responded with “There are no good people: we’re all sinners.” And he pushed back really hard. Then dismissed me as a young’n who didn’t know nothin. And I had essentially failed the course.

I’m kind of cold I think. Life sucks. Jesus offers us no reason at all why some folks were crushed by a tower and why others were turned into mortar for Roman masonry. And then he says, “Look, you know life sucks, so repent.”

This is God talking. It made sense to me, having lost my brother, his best friend, and the best friend’s sister within 1 year when I went to college in 1982, I find this oddly comforting. It was even more so when in 1984, I lost my grandmother. The world sucks. Yeah, so?

The Greek word most often rendered as “sin” is ἁμαρτία harmatia. It doesn’t mean “breaking the rules” but rather “missing the mark” as in not hitting the bullseye on a target or maybe better missing the target altogether. This is not a more-liberal reading of this verb: in fact, it expands it. It’s not just this sort of thing here – it’s a whole class of things! It’s not just a rule broken: it’s a relationship. With that idea in mind, we can see what St Paul means. An addict doesn’t just get drunk, doesn’t just shoot up: she ruins lives including her own in the present and future tenses. A moment of harmatia breaks communion.

St Paul doesn’t talk about breaking the rules: he talks about “sinful flesh” σαρκὸς ἁμαρτίας sarkos hamartias. What is in the flesh misses the mark. See that? Our flesh is not out and about breaking rules (although we do do that sometimes, yes). It is not being “bad people” that makes life suck: it’s being humans in the flesh. What we have here is a broken, dysfunctional thing. We should not be surprised that it is broken and dysfunctional.

This problem of evil raises another concern: what’s evil? I think we know what evil is: it’s anything we don’t like or – sometimes – don’t understand. We are convinced the Christmas Tsunami was evil, that the boss I hate so much is evil, that the diagnosis of cancer is evil, that having my car broken into is evil, that this election or that is evil. What we may mean is these seem wrong but we’re saying Evil not wrong.

Later in Romans 8 St Paul says, Scimus autem quoniam diligentibus Deum omnia cooperantur in bonum, iis qui secundum propositum vocati sunt sancti. We know that to them that love God, all things work together unto good, to such as, according to his purpose, are called to be saints. (We’ll get there on Wednesday next week in the lectionary.) And so, if all things work together for our good – even the things we call “evil” – is there anything actually evil that can happen to us?

We can be killed, we can become ill with cancer, we can have a tower fall on us, we can have our blood mingled with cement for the Empires building projects, but: if we love the Lord, if we desire to be saints, these things are not evil. They are mysteries leading us to salvation. I realize there was ways for humans to be evil, to miss the mark entirely, but even then God is working out his purposes. Who was more evil in recent history: those who killed millions of people or those who knew what was happening and did nothing? I would not like to face that question on Judgement Day.

The professor, I later found out, had – early during my 4 months in Atlanta – lost his wife to cancer. The entire class was, really, a way for him to work through that. His pushing back made sense after a while. But – legit question – is losing your wife to cancer an evil or just an example of the world being broken? Like I said, maybe I’m cold. But Christians don’t believe that death breaks communion. “For your faithful, Lord,” we say at Mass. “Life is not ended but only changed.”

Is there evil? I think so – but I think when we say something is evil we mean only, “that thing was surprising and confusing.” So many things arise from Natural Consequences, are they evil? If I drink to excess, I will possibly pass out on the subway. Then my wallet could be stolen during my long, sleeping subway ride back to Brooklyn. Is that evil? There’s a sin there, yes (theft) but is that better or worse than the sins of drunkenness and wasting the resources God provided for me to care for my needs and the needs of others? But is it evil? Or just the way the world is always missing the mark?

I don’t know, Ducky. But all things work for our good. I’ll take that.

Mercy and Justice have Kissed

We tend to argue about matters of leisure (such as sex) because otherwise, we might have to discuss the injustice arising from our wealth.

The Readings for Monday, 29th Week, Tempus per Annum (C1)

Stulte, hac nocte animam tuam repetunt a te : quae autem parasti, cujus erunt?
You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?

JMJ

It was an interesting discussion yesterday with the Third Order Dominicans: how do we care for the poor? Actually, the discussion started with a discussion of Theft and the discussion of the 7th Commandment in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Did Jean Valjean commit a sin when he stole bread for his family?

The Rich Man says, “I will build barns for my surplus…”

In the Catholic Church there is a doctrine on Private Property: we have the right (from God) to own things. But “The right to private property, acquired or received in a just way, does not do away with the original gift of the earth to the whole of mankind.” That is to say, God gave everything to everyone and while you have the right to own your home, for example, “The universal destination of goods remains primordial, even if the promotion of the common good requires respect for the right to private property and its exercise.”

The ownership of any property makes its holder a steward of Providence, with the task of making it fruitful and communicating its benefits to others, first of all his family.

In short, after providing for your family, everything else is yours in trust from God for the care of others.

I, myself, have no family so I wonder how this pertains to me. I’ve made several choices since leaving the monastery about not owning extra stuff, although I think I fail in this. My apartment seems filled with clothes I can’t wear and food I won’t ever get around to eating. How do I become a good steward? At my age and income status, I can’t pretend to be poor. So, I think I’m obligated by today’s Gospel not to be the stupid man in the parable. But how?

This discussion on care for the poor was preceded by a discussion of the false dichotomy between God’s Mercy and his Justice. God cannot be both, it is claimed. Either in Justice, we’ll all get a slapdown, no matter what we do (because we’re that bad), or in his Mercy, we’ll all be ok – no matter what we do or have ever done. The payoff for this argument is usually not at all theological: we mean it only (usually) in the second person. If I project lots of mercy on God, then, really, you have no right to tell me I’m wrong. If I project a lot of Justice on God, then, really, you had better start doing all the right things and I have the right to judge you too.

Both of these aspects play out in a discussion of sexual matters because the world only thinks about sex as a matter of liberty, but that’s an issue of western, wealthy entitlement. There’s nearly no one involved in the Culture Wars who is poor. So, we tend to argue about matters of leisure (such as sex) because otherwise, we might have to discuss the injustice of our wealth. So, it’s better to say, “You, fellow rich white person, are committing a sexual sin.” And to reply, “You, fellow rich white person, have no right to judge me.” Then we all feel good, having done our religious duty, and go back to being fellow, rich, white folks.

In this we make justice to mean “punishment” and mercy to mean “letting me off the hook”. These definitions are neither of them true, and they make God to be petty as we are.

Mercy is God’s divine and infinite condescension to us in kindness and love. The first instance of this, personally and for each of us, is the creation of the entire world. The second is the creation of your individual soul, an act of infinite love and creation in time that took place at the moment of your conception. All things – all blessings, all punishments, all teachings, all correction, all salvation, all purgation, all joys, and all sorrows – arise from this original mercy, or original blessing, as the former Dominican, Matthew Fox, called it. This is an act of Mercy because God has no need of you, no need of the universe, no need of creation at all. God’s love did this.

Then we want to think of human sin and its punishment. Yet we do not think of, even then, God’s constant mercy. For we know that sin is death. We know that we are cut off from the divine life by mortal sin (that’s why it’s called “mortal”) yet, in God’s mercy, we do not die, we are not “smote”. God lets us go on with an eye towards our repentance and restoration. Almost all of life, then, is a mercy. We cannot escape the consequences of our actions for that is part of the way the world functions: if you kill someone, they are really dead. You will grieve that action even if you are absolved. If you spread hate, you will suffer the social blowback from your actions even if you are able to grow towards love. If you commit sexual sin, there’s the possibility of a child, of disease, of re-writing the reward pathways in your brain towards an addiction. These are parts of the world in which we live and each sin means that we must deal with the actions. That’s not justice, though.

God’s justice is a restoration of right relationship.

Imagine you are building one of the barns in today’s parable. The floor should be perfectly level. From that floor, at perfect 90° angles, should rise each of the walls. This means the walls are “plumb”. The structure is “level, plumb, square, and true”. However, let us say that one wall begins to sag inwards. This wall will – eventually – make the adjoining walls weaker. They may begin to sag. And the roof could possibly collapse. So the rich man calls you back and asks you to fix it – to make the wall square again. The process of returning the wall to plumb, when projected on human relationships, is justice.

If we pitched our economic morals with the same arguments we use for sex, it would sound like this: “You have to stop being rich and share with me!” “You can’t judge me, go away.” Environmental morals are the same: our wealth is destroying the world, we are the rich man in the parable.

We want to think of Justice and Mercy in opposition, but, in fact, they are part and parcel of each other. Justice demands a right relationship. Mercy makes it mutually possible. Justice demands I share my surplus with the poor – not store it up in my new barns, level and plumb. Mercy (God’s kindness) allows me to have the grace to do it. It is not “just” for the rich man to build barns unless it is for him to use the barns to more easily invite in the poor. It is not mercy for us to say, “He can do whatever he wants” for that leaves him in wrong relationship, leaves him in his sins. When we remind the rich man of his duty to justice and move him (through God’s grace) to restore a right relationship with the poor, that is mercy. When we use love to show someone walking away from God the right path, we are merciful: and that restores right relationship to God and others, that is justice.

They do not kiss together: they are the same thing.