7LW: Behold

JMJ

This is the third in a series of posts on the Seven Last Words of Our Lord from the cross. There is a menu and a posting schedule at the bottom of this post.

Behold Your Mother.

IWONDER ALWAYS Why Jesus took this moment to address his Mother as “woman”. In the gasping asphyxiation of the Cross, was woman easier to say and be heard than mother? Was Attha (woman) a mishearing of Amma (mother) pronounced when one gasps? What is clear though is that in the next line he calls this woman Mother giving her to John the Beloved and through him to us.

Over the Altar of Byzantine Churches there is often an icon called Our Lady of the Sign: Mary with her arms raised in intercession while Our Lord, from within her womb as a child, raises his hands in benediction over the Altar and the unbloodied sacrifice of the Eucharist. Mary is a sign of the Whole Church, raising our hands in prayer at the altar while Christ, our God, blesses the world.

What does it mean to have Mary as our Mother, to have the Church as our Mother?

For 2,000 years each of us have wrestled with the meaning of this question. The Church Fathers are very clear: “He who does not have the Church as his mother cannot have God as his father.” (St Augustine.) Behold your mother.

How each of us hears this command to “Behold” will be predicated on our journey to her. For some our mother will look like calm statues of Our Lady of Grace that can be ignored or sat in a corner while life goes on. For some she will look like Our Lady of Guadalupe, gazing out at us with the eyes of our own people, even though our people are ignored or even oppressed by the Church. For some our Mother will stand with open arms like the Miraculous Medal, while for others she will be so angry as to cry in silence like Our Lady of La Salette. She may be a beautiful woman radiating peace like Our Lady of Lourdes, or she may reveal hell to us, like Our Lady of Fatima. Going further back – especially if we’re not from these parts – Our Mother may seem like a stern Queen or a giggling maiden.

What each of us sees in our Mother the Church, our Mother Mary, we will also see in our own hearts.

Behold your Mother, Jesus says to us. We may see a mother like one of the ancient Goddesses, or we may see a mother like a mid-century Sitcom. We may see Boadicea or we may see Olivia Hussey. We may see a strident ruler like Victoria or an outdated stereotype like Bea Arthur. What we see when we behold our mother, though, will tell us more about ourselves than about either Mary or the Church – for they are the same.

The Church is the Body of Christ, born of Mary and conceived by the Holy Spirit. This is no more a metaphor, no more a symbol, than the Eucharist. Our Mother stands across time and eternity, across space and heaven and yet is here, in the in the present, in the person sitting next to you in pew and in your own heart. CS Lewis’ Uncle Screwtape lets us into the secret:

One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans. All your patient sees is the half-finished, sham Gothic erection on the new building estate. When he goes inside, he sees the local grocer with rather an oily expression on his face bustling up to offer him one shiny little book containing a liturgy which neither of them understands, and one shabby little book containing corrupt texts of a number of religious lyrics, mostly bad, and in very small print. When he gets to his pew and looks round him he sees just that selection of his neighbours whom he has hitherto avoided. You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbours. Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like ‘the body of Christ’ and the actual faces in the next pew…. 

….Work hard, then, on the disappointment or anticlimax which is certainly coming to the patient during his first few weeks as a churchman. The Enemy allows this disappointment to occur on the threshold of every human endeavour. It occurs when the boy who has been enchanted in the nursery by Stories from the Odyssey buckles down to really learning Greek. It occurs when lovers have got married and begin the real task of learning to live together. In every department of life it marks the transition from dreaming aspiration to laborious doing. The Enemy takes this risk because He has a curious fantasy of making all these disgusting little human vermin into what He calls His ‘free’ lovers and servants—’sons’ is the word He uses, with His inveterate love of degrading the whole spiritual world by unnatural liaisons with the two-legged animals. Desiring their freedom, He therefore refuses to carry them, by their mere affections and habits, to any of the goals which He sets before them: He leaves them to ‘do it on their own’. And there lies our opportunity. But also, remember there lies our danger. If once they get through this initial dryness successfully, they become much less dependent on emotion and therefore much harder to tempt….

Behold your Mother. That is, Homer. Or the Church.

See, the issue is that “Our Mother” really is that blundering idiot sitting in the pew next to you, socially distant and holding to the Amen far too long at the end of every prayer or corralling six kids who will not sit still, or wearing all the wrong clothes for Mass. Did they bother to shower before coming from their overnight gig?

Behold your mother.

This is God saving the world and you have but one duty: give your life away for them as Jesus did.

Even if Mom is a bit tarted up with felt banners.

7LW: Today

JMJ

This is the second in a series of posts on the Seven Last Words of Our Lord from the cross. There is a menu and a posting schedule at the bottom of this post.

Today you will be with me in Paradise.

PUT YOURSELF ON THE CROSS next to Jesus there. We want to imagine our self as, perhaps, “The Wise Thief” and we impart all virtue to him and pray we can be like him. The Byzantine Liturgy has a hymn called an Exapostalarian sung on Good Friday, “The Wise Thief, thou didst make worthy of paradise in a single moment,” but put yourself in the theif’s place. I mean really.

When you’re honest with yourself, do you recognize your sinfulness? I mean really honest with yourself. I don’t mean, right now, while you’re reading these words but rather, over all the course of your life, are you honestly aware of all the missteps? And, perhaps, if you are like me, you not only have “missteps” but outright rejections or even betrayals that weigh on your mind, your heart. Do you lay awake at night and say, “What was I thinking?” Are there times when you point at your misspent youth and chuckle and say “Wow, I was a fool.” But then other times you wonder, “Did I break everything then? Was I such a fool that that can’t be fixed”

We might look at ourselves in the mirror of our lives and see, in the past, was I so in the employ of darkness that even now I cannot enter the light.

And Jesus whispers to us, “Today you shall be with me.”

Imagine hearing these words – entirely unexpectedly – after having said, “I deserve this.” That’s exactly what the Thief said, “I totally messed up and I deserve this crucifixion. I deserve this public humiliation. I deserve this pain. I deserve this blood. This suffocation.” So, the thief knows exactly the kind of man he is. “Today…”

Is there doubt now? For knowing who you are, what you are, what you were in the past, what you may even now crave to still be… of course there is doubt.

CS Lewis puts this doubt even into Narnian Paradise where a dead Calormene soldier (the “bad guys”) finds himself in the Heavenly garden at the end of The Last Battle. I don’t want to unpack the theology because there is a controversy that is not the point of this essay, but – even standing in Paradise – the Wise Calormene doubts he should be there.

Is that you? It’s me.

How can this God who knows not only everything I ever did – or even ever will do, who knows how I rejected him, blasphemed him, denied him in public (and in private); how can this God whose very pains, wounds, suffocation, and bleeding were, in ways I cannot understand, caused by my actions say to me, “Today.”

This is the cost of love: not Jesus’ pains, but you letting go of your doubt. That is the cost of Love. If you love Jesus, it’s ok to be honest about yesterday but also to let go of your doubts about today.

Trust is such a hard thing to gain, but even harder to extend. We sort of want a vengeful God. We want him to be judgy and spiteful. Of course we usually want that directed at others, at our enemies, but in our more self-reflective moments that same vengeful and spiteful God should be directed at us, right? For, in the first person, if anyone deserves that treatment it’s me.

When the Wise Thief heard the word today what did he think? Did he leaned back and relax on the wood of his cross? I doubt that. The nails were still as painful the air still as hard to grasp in lungs constricted by crucifixion. Did he suddenly wonder if he was crucified next to a crazy man? Paradise in the middle of all of this? Scripture doesn’t say. We should not interpolate.

But for me, for you, we have both heard the word today, just now. And like the thief we have the rest of our lives before us to contemplate what that means.

Denial of the reality can sound like we’re being spiritually mature. We can make a “humble brag” and say something pious like Domine, non sum dignus as we thumb our chests. But God wants to move us one step further along. It’s not enough to be aware of your sins, to know that you deserve what’s coming to you. When Jesus prayed, a moment ago, “Father, forgive them.” He included you.

And now he offers you Paradise.

Not pie in the sky by and by when you die. But Today. We see heaven each time we see Mass. We touch eternity each time the host enters our body. Will you deny it or open up to it?

Trust is hard to earn – but even harder to extend. Really. Paradise. You need only trust and it’s yours. Today.

The Mystery of Mercy

JMJ

This is part of a series of posts on the invocations of the Jesus Psalter. There is a menu of these posts at the bottom. The invocations will be considered thematically.

Jesu, Jesu, Jesu, have mercy on me
Jesu, Jesu, Jesu, help me
Jesu, Jesu, Jesu, strengthen me
Jesu, Jesu, Jesu, comfort me

THE OPENING Invocations on the Jesus Psalter each are begging God for Mercy. If we fail to understand the meaning of “mercy” the whole thing will be lost. When we hear “have mercy” me may imagine a victim being beaten and crying out for mercy. We may imagine a prisoner on death row begging for mercy. Or perhaps we imagine a heroine in a classic drama begging for mercy on behalf of her parents or village. This idea of mercy is rather late though. The idea that we would need God to stop beating us up is not what is implied in these invocations as we can see if we take them together.

In Latin, mercy is misericordiae. In Greek, ἐλέησόν, eleison. In Hebrew, חַסְדֶּ, chesed. The Latin carries the poetic resonance of “let your heart beat with mine”. The Hebrew is such a strong word that traditional English translations like the Authorized Version render it as its own word: lovingkindness. The Greek is even more poetic, for it comes from the word for olive oil. It implies soothing, healing, and luxurious touch. It’s a warm massage after a hard workout. When we pray at Mass, “Lord, have mercy” we should hear these overtones instead. When we pray for peace or healing, an end to violence or injustice, we are not asking God to stop whipping us with these scourges. Rather we are asking for the loving, soothing oil of God’s presence to heal us, struggling through a world of sin.

When we ask for Jesus to have mercy on us, we mean – literally – in his blood, the sacramental and real presence of his mercy in our lives.

When we ask Jesus to help us this is part of the same mystery, is it not? Jesus, soothe our wounded muscles and help us to heal, to get strong again. Strengthen us and comfort us! Do you see how all of these are just deeper unfoldings of the prayer for mercy?

Help me is the plaintive cry of a child, but we need help even in praying the prayer. Without Christ we can do nothing. When we know that, then any action, any prayer, any motion becomes for us either a participation in or a rejection of God’s mercy. Strengthen me is the next logical request! We are moving forward in our skills, we need not only help to do… but to get better at doing. We ask God to add more weight to the bar, to help us bend just a little further, to break us a little more so that we may heal in a better posture.

It’s possible to hear the prayer of “comfort me” as some sort of hand-holding, huggy-squeezy moment. But if you’ve ever had deep tissue massage, physical therapy, or even surgery you know that not all things comforting are comfortable. And, if you’ve ever sat on a soft sofa, lain on the wrong mattress, or had too much chocolate, you know that comfortable is not always the right thing.

But the comfort of God’s mercy may not be the comfort we’re looking for, for it comes in the unshielded openness of Confession, it arises in the middle of a hard day’s work in the vineyard. The comfort of God’s mercy is like the muscle memory where you make the motions because it is easy to do so – where you’ve schooled everything in your life to bend to God’s will. Only in doing God’s will, then, is there any sense of rightness, of comfort.

These four intercessions are not at all what they seem. As you meditate on each in turn, your prayer for mercy may go from “I’m a sinner, forgive me” to “I am lazy, draw me forward” to “I’m tired, kick my backside” to “I’m ready to go again, charge!” As you open to God’s mercy, you may discover that even the cross you bear is, itself, God’s mercy acting on you. And you will be crucified daily because of love.

Jesu, Jesu, Jesu, esto mihi, Jesu.

Jesus Psalter Menu
Introduction
The Mystery of Mercy
The Mystery of Relationship
The Mystery of Reality

7LW: Forgive

JMJ

This is the first in a series of posts on the Seven Last Words of Our Lord from the cross. This series will continue through Lent. There is a menu and a posting schedule at the bottom of this post.

Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.

Forgiveness IS NOT ONLY Something nice to do it is a hallmark of Christianity. Ancient religions are filled with curses, imprecations, taboos, and days of impropriety. Many of the traditions allowed for paybacks of some kind: debt which had to be paid, curses which had to be undone, ditches that had to be filled. If you read the earlier books to indicate that the “Jewish God” was like this, you’d be wrong, though. It’s not correct to say the God of the Old Testament demanded repayment: as if the blood of bulls or of goats could repay for sins. Sin took life – the very life force – from one. Sacrifice restore that balance but it did not forgive. God taught us in the sacrificial rites that something was off. Something was amiss in humanity. Something needed fixing.

Sin is a symptom of this sickness.

In the case of God, responding to Christ’s intercession forgiveness is instant and forever and for all involved. When Christ begs forgiveness here, it’s not just for the soldiers at his feet, it’s literally for you and me as well. We suffer from this thing amiss which has, as a presenting symptom, sin in general and each of our discrete acts of sin in particular. Christ begs forgiveness for us all and the Father offers it to us all.

But the thing amiss won’t even let us accept God’s Gift of forgiveness. To accept the forgiveness offered is to say we are wrong. This one thing amiss is so ingrained in us that we feel like it’s our true human nature. It’s almost like our identity: it’s who we are – or who we feel we are – and to accept forgiveness is to admit that who we thought we were is not who we were intended to be. We are addicted to shoring up this fake identity. We build arches and buttresses, fortifications and ramparts designed to prop up this imaginary thing. This thing is thinking that we are God, we are self-made, we can do whatever we want. To accept forgiveness is to admit that that is a lie, that our entire identity and sense of self is smoke and mirrors.

We learn to think this from our parents and from generation after generation of our predecessors. We come to imagine that to accept this forgiveness is somehow to betray them as well. So ingrained is this sickness, this fake identity that to accept this forgiveness is to die in a real way. To accept this forgiveness to be crucified. Jesus prays from the cross for our forgiveness he’s inviting us to join him.

Saint Paul says, “I am crucified with Christ and yet I live. Yet not I but Christ who lives in me.”

When we die, Christ lives, and we are forgiven.

The curious gift of this forgiveness is that once we accept it, once we accept that we are not God, we are given the Divine ability to forgive others in exactly the same way.

And so, from the Cross of our lives, we can hang suspended in pain and bleeding and still say, “Forgive.”

We can take every gift God has given us in the death of Jesus only by admitting that we are not God and that we need these gifts. But in doing so we become empowered to dispense those gifts to all around us.

And, like Jesus on the Cross, we have the divine gift to offer forgiveness even to those who do not seek it, who may even reject it if they knew we offered it.


The Jesus Psalter: Intro

JMJ

ENGLAND’S PERSECUTION OF the Catholic Faith began with what is euphemistically called the Herician Reform. Henry VIII had no intention of “reforming the Church” but rather of creating a new Church with himself as the head. He wished to replace an infallible Pope with an omnipotent King. To this end, much like politicians today, he catered to certain parties in the Church without actually believing any of it. He sought, successfully, to rip the British Isles away from the bosom of their Mother, the Church. He did so by a combination of political, economic, legal, and corporal means, stripping away the Church’s position, lands, and temporal authority. What was left, though, was refined like gold in the fire. The Catholic faith, even when illegal within the Empire, spread like vines of morning glories, seemingly overnight popping up in places and opening to the sun’s light, bearing seeds and dying before night, only to sprout again in the next golden day.

The faith of this Church was fed by men who, on fire with zeal, left England to train as priests on the Continent, and then returned secretly to say illegal Masses in homes. The faith was whispered in the ear and passed by word of mouth. The prayers and devotions were hidden in pocket sized books, or pasted behind covers of other titles. And in the end, the blood of the martyrs watered the growing Church as monarch after monarch tried – and failed – to slay the Bride of Christ. This Church increased her strength using the Mass when she could get a priest, a devotion to the Blessed Mother – the Rosary, and a devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus.

This last had been growing in the English Church for a while before the Reformation. In fact, the reverence for the Holy Name is common in Orthodoxy and Protestantism as well. Before the “reform” began, in the very early 16th Century, a Brigittine monk, Richard Whitford, began a pious practice called the Jesus Psalter. Consisting of a series of pious ejaculations to the Holy Name, it was a core devotion supporting the faithful in the troubled times of Henry, Edward, Mary, and Elizabeth. Your host heard of this reading a book by Msgr Robert Hugh Benson called Come Rack Come Rope, a fictionalized account of the persecution under Queen Elizabeth. One character offhandedly says to another, “You must pay more attention to your Jesus Psalter.” Google quickly found a copy on a trusted website and a rabbit warren opened of comparative texts, and research.

Each prayer was on the same format: Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, [something]. Said ten times, like the ten Aves of a Rosary, there was then a long oration (like the meditation on the Mysteries) and some concluding prayers. Then the next cycle began. There are 15 in total:

Jesus, Jesus, Jesus have mercy on me.
Jesus, Jesus, Jesus help me.
Jesus, Jesus, Jesus strengthen me.
Jesus, Jesus, Jesus comfort me.
Jesus, Jesus, Jesus make me constant.

Jesus, Jesus, Jesus enlighten me with spiritual wisdom.
Jesus, Jesus, Jesus grant me grace to fear you.
Jesus, Jesus, Jesus grant me grace to love you.
Jesus, Jesus, Jesus grant me grace to remember my death.
Jesus, Jesus, Jesus send me here my Purgatory.

Jesus, Jesus, Jesus grant me grace to fly evil company.
Jesus, Jesus, Jesus grant me grace to call for help to thee.
Jesus, Jesus, Jesus grant me grace to persevere in virtue.
Jesus, Jesus, Jesus grant me grace to fix my mind on thee.
Jesus, Jesus, Jesus grant me grace to order my life to thee.

There are many copies online at various websites and historical scans. Some scans going back to the 1590s. While the petitions have remained the same, the orations or meditations have varied. I think they are intended to teach us general ideas, but with the devotion intended to spring up in the heart: so the orations will become personalized. The opening and closing verses have remained the same. The prayers after each “decade” have varied a little, but have always like this:

Have mercy on all sinners, O Jesus, I beseech Thee; turn their vices into virtues and, making them true observers of Thy law and sincere lovers of Thee, bring them to bliss in everlasting glory. Have mercy also on the souls in Purgatory, for Thy bitter passion, I beseech Thee, and for Thy glorious name, Jesus.

O Blessed Trinity, one very God, have mercy on me.

Then an Our Father and a Hail Mary.

This will serve as the introduction to a new series of posts on this devotion. Each post will focus on one or more petitions. Although the petitions will be covered in order, sometimes there are themes. For example, the first three petitions – have mercy on me, help me, and strengthen me – seem to go together. Then “strengthen me” and “comfort me” seem to be of a piece while “make me constant” seems to me its own thing. Although there is no set schedule, there will be a growing menu of linked posts.

The banner image that leads this post contains the prayer, Iesu, Iesu, Iesu, esto mihi Iesu. Since “Jesus” means “Savior” or “one who saves” the prayer is, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, be to me Jesus” that is be to me my savior. Let this be our prayer as we move forward.

Jesus Psalter Menu
Introduction
The Mystery of Mercy
The Mystery of Relationship
The Mystery of Reality

7LW: Introduction

JMJ

FOR LENT THIS YEAR, as I have done for Advent for most of the last 20 years, I will post a series of meditations on a regular schedule. The theme for this series is the Seven Last Words of Our Lord, spoken from the Cross on Good Friday. There is a menu at the bottom, along with a posting schedule: it starts on Sunday 28th February and runs until 30th March.

Everyone has their own Calvary: “Toiling up new Calv’ries ever / With the cross that turns not back” as the old hymn says. Jesus’ last words become our words as well. Let us see where this meditation takes us.

By the light of burning martyrs,
Jesus’ bleeding feet we track,
Toiling up new Calv’ries ever
With the cross that turns not back;
New occasions teach new duties,
Time makes ancient good uncouth;
They must upward still and onward,
Who would keep abreast of truth.

(I mean, it is Lent…)

On Tricking Yourself

JMJ

EVERY ONCE IN A WHILE A whole lot of things will click together and I have to write them down lest I forget them. This is more of a ramble than anything else, but maybe it will point us towards some conversations.

This semester’s class on Church History is reading James Hitchcock’s History of the Catholic Church from the Apostolic Age to the Third Millennium. While the text is a survey rather than an in-depth examination, more like a dictionary than a textbook, many of the short articles highlight something important I’d missed previously. I’ve greatly enjoyed, for example, reading how the heresies of Arianism and Iconoclasm are not “one and done” moments but rather very extended arguments in the Church’s history.

The blurb on Aquinas (about three pages worth of text) really only cruised at a very high altitude over St Thomas’ thinking, but it highlighted the importance of the intellect.

It may seem very surface-y but something about the way all the words are strung together helped me to grasp some important elements in Aquinas which I’m happy to string together for you here. This will be equally surface-only. I’m still meditating on all of this.

  1. Evil does not exist. It is a deficiency of good. Just as cold is only a lack of heat, and darkness is only an absence of light, so also evil is only an absence of good.
  2. We misunderstand what is good. We do not have differing ideas of what is good but rather a failure of the intellect to grasp the Good and to understand what is the Highest Good.
  3. Notice that it is our intellect that fails first. We’re not thinking rightly, we don’t grasp all the points correctly so when the intellect passes the information on to the conscience, the latter is not properly informed. It makes the wrong call.
  4. No one loves evil for evil’s sake. Humans love what is good for the sake of good. Something is loved because it is perceived as good. The intellect has convinced us – using the wrong information – that something is good when, in fact, it is not or when it’s only not good enough. Even those who love what is clearly evil (from the outside) do so because they think it is the best thing for them or for others.
  5. Those who are loving something that’s not the best for them have made choices and – as St Paul says – their conscience has been seared. It’s sacrificed the freedom of future choice by making the same choice so many times. It’s no longer looking to make another decision and, if it wanted to, it would be incapable of doing so without Grace.
  6. Acting on Evil, then, becomes of failure of intellect, of conscience, and of love. But it is only a failure in that one does not go far enough: one stops short in “the race set before us” and does not “strain for the prize”. One gets distracted. On this last item, CS Lewis’ Screwtape Letters make the point very well. “But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy. It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”

Having all of the above sort of hit me at once as a result of reading that one paragraph in Hitchcock’s History, I drew two conclusions:

This, firstly, is an argument for why we cannot judge someone: they are loving as best they can. We cannot judge love, in fact, to do so would be to damn the virtue we would hope to grow. Reading the books of the New Testament we see this in action: only “insiders” get the strong words. Jesus, Paul, and the other voices in the text, woo and flirt with folks outside of the covenant, outside of the Church, to draw them forward. Strong words of condemnation are reserved for those who ought to know better or those who claim to. Only after you have learned what love actually is can you be accused of failing to love properly.

Secondly, this is a description of how we fail in other areas as well, areas beyond questions of morality, as such. We see the Church as an institution, or as “my parish” or as a political force – each of which is true – and we love it. But we fail to see the Church as the Bride of Christ present in all eternity as Saints and souls in purgatory, the Body of Christ active as his hands and in the world, as the minister of mercy, and as the sacrament of salvation (and so much more). We love only a little and are satisfied – or angry – when that little bit lives up or fails to live up to our personal desires. We see the human person as only XYZ without realizing the whole icon of God present not only in each individual, but in all of humanity together, as one of the Fathers pointed out, many human persons, but one human nature. We trick ourselves into a sort of theological synecdochery where we not only confuse the part for the whole, but we accept the part as good enough and get satisfied – without ever digging deeper. We love not as best as we can but rather we fail to realize there’s so much more to love, so much more to the Church, so much more to the Holy Mysteries, so much more to the Human Person. We love the surface, but not the heart. Then, if someone else also loves “only a little part” but happens to love a “different little part”, we fight with them.

We trick ourselves into hell.

Suicide and Reincarnation

JMJ

LOCKDOWN HAS LEFT ME Dealing with a mild depression. A medical evaluation has indicated this is not so bad as to require medication, but rather a bit of self-management. I need to get out more, albeit safely, and take steps to mitigate the issues that might arise. A mild depression, indeed! If this is mild I’m thankful that God is merciful to me: there are those greatly in need of prayers and grace! Even in a mild depression, the first question every professional asks (and a few lay folks) is “Are you having thoughts of suicide?” I’m not. But why? I mean, apart from God’s mercy, why am I not experiencing what seems to be a very common symptom? Lockdown has left me dealing with a mild introspection as well. To be frank, this mild depression is something I identify, having told my therapist just a couple of weeks ago that in the past such an episode might result in an outpouring of poetry. I recognize the symptoms. What did I do in the past? Did I have such thoughts then? I know I did once (in the Spring of 1985) but only once?

Wrestling through the introspection, the answer came to me that – quite possibly – here is the answer to why I’ve never lived in the same place for a very long time.

Certainly, it is easy to move around the corner as I did recently. But most of my movements have been across the continent whether east to west or north to south. I moved between New York and Georgia multiple times as a child with my family, but I continued this pattern as an adult in the 80s. I also moved from NYC to SF, then to Asheville, then to Buffalo, back to SF, to the Monastery, to Alabama, to SF. What if each of these moves – and some shorter moves as well – was a species of suicide? Frankly, I think they were.

Although I have a real rich resume, I have a somewhat shallow network of friends. Each move resulted in a loss of emotional networks – yes – but also a loss of emotional baggage. I used moves to get away from jobs, relationships, and situations that I didn’t feel like dealing with (or continuing to deal with). I used moves to escape dysfunctional imbalances that I did not want to address. I used moves to escape bullies that I did not want to challenge. This is called, in Twelve-Step work, “the geographical solution”. As is discussed in such programs, it never actually works: wherever you move you’re still there. Sure, moving across the country can extract you from the present struggles, making it possible to start over. The thing is it’s less a new beginning than a reincarnation: one is still the same person, with the same baggage, perhaps painted differently and with a new set of tags, but all still the same. I used moves to, essentially kill myself. But when I came back I was always still me.

Part of this conversation is coming into focus with recent events in my vocational journey – a psych eval, beginning to meet with a therapist, and continuing work on my book on SSA in the Church. It goes further back though. My monastic journey was in the Benedictine tradition. In the Rule of St Benedict, to the traditional monastic vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience is added a fourth: stability. In that journey, I discerned that Canon City, CO, was not where I was going to make that vow, “Make my stability” as the Benedictine line goes. In fact, it was to San Francisco that I made such a vow: here is my spiritual home. When I moved back to SF in 2016, I committed to not leaving, to actually being here (absent some huge and clear sign to the contrary), and to being local, here and now.

At the top of the year in 2019 at a meeting with my Spiritual Director, I spoke of desiring to actually finish things I’d started – to follow through on projects or relationships to the end, good or bad, and to see what happens, finally, when I make promises and keep them. Yes, it’s always today, but one needs roots to have a future. So the only way to keep promises has proven to be in the same place long enough to keep them. The only way to grow healthy relationships is to stay in the same place long enough to have fights. The only way to have an enjoyable job is to stay in the same place long enough to be challenged.

I have mentioned some of the problems that caused me to move. Those problems always seemed to follow me. The relationships that I tried to flee were always the same, somehow. They were recreated with new people – but they were the same. The dead end jobs that I wanted out of were always the same, somehow. I’d find a new company, yes, or work in a new field, but it was the same. It comes to me now but perhaps the problems that caused the relationships and dead-end jobs were internal rather than external. While these internal issues were easily smoothed over in the chaos of a transcontinental migration, after three or four years of stability these problems surfaced again requiring yet another move to escape.

A vow of stability requires dealing with these problems in other ways besides movement. Stability requires a commitment to life, to actually living in a place, with people, relating, taking a stake, even pushing sometimes. It requires happening rather than being happened to. It requires a bit more of what one therapist has called a “sense of being real”. The guy who can kill himself by a yard sale and a job application sent to another state, or enter a dysfunctional (but very fun) relationship in another country via the internet, does not have a sense of being real in the here and now. There’s a reason my fraternity brothers say they can still recognize my bedroom 35 years after college. Stability requires growing up.

Lockdown, therefore, seems to be the spiritual continuation of this process of stability. Diagnostically I think it’s possible my mild depression might be only the sudden onset of normalcy and stability. This is only the fever resulting from a low-grade infection that my mental and spiritual immune system is finally dealing with after decades of running away. Rather than depression, this might just be life: adulting as the cool kids call it. At least in my current Incarnation I have finally decided to grow up.

In the Shell of the Old

JMJ

ONE AND DONE CONVERSIONS are a dime a dozen. There’s a kind of change and an emotional rush and then things go on as they never did before. Or at least so we are told in fairy tales end conversion movies. The Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day. Scrooge kept Christmas the best of any man in London. A kiss from Prince Charming wakes the princess and they live happily ever after. Electing this one politician will solve all your problems. Conversions in the Bible, however, are often more problematic. David stumbles all through his reign, Peter denies Christ, Abraham struggles with God’s promises (what was that bit about Hagar if not a loss of faith?), the Jonah runs away, Moses says “Just kill me now”. These stories are more real – because we know that as human beings “one and done” is not a thing. Today’s feast of the Conversion of St Paul is no different.

Today, St Paul realizes his mistake, but it takes years for him to apply the realization. Certainly, he takes it seriously but he doesn’t quite realize the fullness of the implications. He goes away to learn, to pray, and to meditate. Yet even when he comes back he is still struggling. Biblical Scholars who attempt to put the letters of the Apostle into what they believe is a chronological order can discern theological development on several topics. This is not a bad thing for there is no change there is only evolution. Paul struggles with his brothers and sisters in Christ – even fighting with Peter. And famously there is The Thorn in the Flesh.

Lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong. 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 (AV)

This thorn has been interpreted in many ways: from a hot temper to an annoying physical or even Satanic opponent, from a medical malady to a spiritual anguish, and – which interests me most – temptation to impiety. Not only is this my favorite because it seems to be preferred by many Roman Catholic writers (at least according to the reference linked above) but also it parallels well with other Saints who note that they struggle with doubt and Atheism until their death. The general temptation is just to throw up your hands and walk away. What makes it all worth this? This, of course, can differ from person to person.

I suspect that this – whatever this may be – might well be based on one’s past. This Thorn in the Flesh with which each of us struggle is some part of the old man (pre-conversion life) that God leaves in us for his own purposes: the addict with her addiction, the dissolute with the ease of such a life, the Scholar with the knowledge of his discipline and pride, the rich their skills in the service of Mammon, the magus with her desire for control. Yet all things are for our good – the salvation of our souls and of the world. Our individual thorns then serve a purpose.

One purpose seems to me very personal: if everything from my old life were to suddenly vanish would I even know who I am? Much of my old life was used to craft a (fake) image of who I am; an understanding of my very being and person. Yes, I must depend upon God for my identity and my life but it seems it would a special act of grace, indeed, to take away everything from the past and leave me healthy and whole. I don’t see much record of this happening in the lives of the Saints or in the scriptures. Psychologically, it seems we must build the new man in the shell of the old. Parts of the old go away instantly but other parts take a whole lifetime to dissolve or repurpose: they are the scaffolding for this new construction, the crane towering over the building site that becomes the elevator shaft.

There is something else as well. The struggle is not just a struggle for virtue. It is a struggle for the enrichment of the faith. Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh is not just something he has to struggle with: it’s something that God uses to make the fullness of his power known not only to Saint Paul but also to us. We are surrounded with a “great cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1): not just the Saints and Angels but also those who see our life and our struggle. As someone once said, “Your life may be the only gospel that someone ever reads.” What will they read there? Will they see there a one-and-done conversion moment or will they see struggles for sainthood to which they can relate? When you tell the story of your conversion will it be one of dropping your baggage off and running forward or one of an ongoing journey that was filled with hope and loss?

In a recent movie about his life, Paul struggles not with specific sins but rather with the memory of his early life killing Christians. He wakes up from nightmares wherein he’s ripping children out of their mothers arms. At the end of the movie, after his death, Paul is standing in heaven alone. Over the hill comes a crowd of people, the first line of whom he recognizes as people he has slain. They rush to him and you can – momentarily – feel the fear from the Apostle. They embrace him as their brother in Christ and it is perhaps the most moving moment in the film as fear becomes joy. Your host realizes this is entirely speculation on the filmmaker’s part but this is what happens to our thorns in the end. God does not take them from us: but rather reveals what they have done for us and others. As St. Catherine of Siena prayed, “Do not take this temptation away from me but give me victory over it.” The Victory, though, will be more grace.

This is the Christian hope: that our dry lives become deep wells for others, and that God can take our old and mouldy grain, grind it up, and make of it bread for the Body of Christ.

Only asking hearts our Lord comes
Mine I would freely give
But made of stone and mortar’d sin
too heavy for me to raise
Take this rock and shatter it
Give me a heart of flesh like yours
On fire with love for those
You send to me
To find the damaged icons
To seek the lost and serve
Then burning with your passion’d love
From shards of stone and pride
An altar builded whereupon
At last my heart can rest.

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.