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.

Et Cetera, Et Cetera

The Readings for the Solemnity of All the Saints

Vidi turbam magnam, quam dinumerare nemo poterat, ex omnibus gentibus, et tribubus, et populis, et linguis : stantes ante thronum, et in conspectu Agni, amicti stolis albis, et palmae in manibus eorum :
I had a vision of a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue. They stood before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands.

JMJ

Google 144,000. Go on, I’ll wait. There’s so much out there! Some folks think that God’s only going to let 144,000 folks into heaven as if there was only that much room. Others think of it as a symbolic number indicating – again – the limited access of the few saved folks. Still others, in to which camp I used to fall, think of it as an exact number of Jews who will convert just before the 2nd Coming and try to evangelize the world. Hal Lindsey had me convinced of this. Don’t get me started on all that is wrong with the idea.

Yet if these 144,000 are evangelists – or a symbol of the function of Evangelists (which I think it is) then the important part is in the next set of verses: for the Evangelists bring in a “great multitude which no one could count”. That’s not a “limited heaven”: It’s infinity – and beyond!

Today’s feast is a mark of the Unity, the Catholicity of the Church: for we, the Evangelizing servants of God on the earth are united with the great multitude which no one can number, in heaven. This happens at every Mass as we gather around the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world: You might not be able to see them with your physical eyes but we are all here, together, around the Altar! When you come forward to receive the Body of Christ, angels are kneeling in awe, your patron saints, and thousands of others whom you do not know – but who know you intimately – are standing with you, praying for you and cheering you on. When the priest says, “The Body of Christ!” and places the host on your tongue, all of heaven responds with a gloriously victorious

Amen! Benedictio, et claritas, et sapientia, et gratiarum actio, honor, et virtus, et fortitudo Deo nostro in saecula saeculorum! Amen! Amen. Blessing and glory, wisdom and thanksgiving, honor, power, and might be to our God forever and ever. Amen.”

The rafters thunder! The earth quakes! A mortal receives the bread of life, the chalice of slavation, infinity on our tongue.

On All Saints Day we celebrate what we rarely acknowledge: the vast majority of the Church is invisible but we are ever one in Christ. These are our most intimate friends for while they share in the knowledge of Christ they love us, pray for us, beckon us on; sometimes I think they get behind us and push. They have been in this same world, they know what it means to be poor, to have a job, to be afraid, and to be ill. They know about raising children, about being lone, about being hungry, about being persecuted. They know what it means to be all the thing humans can be – and still, they have pushed through to God. One step at a time, this great multitude which no man can number has gained the Victory offers by the Lamb.

And they long for us to join them. In the Office of Readings for today St Bernard of Clairvaux said:

Calling the saints to mind inspires, or rather arouses in us, above all else, a longing to enjoy their company, so desirable in itself. We long to share in the citizenship of heaven, to dwell with the spirits of the blessed, to join the assembly of patriarchs, the ranks of the prophets, the council of apostles, the great host of martyrs, the noble company of confessors and the choir of virgins. In short, we long to be united in happiness with all the saints. But our dispositions change. The Church of all the first followers of Christ awaits us, but we do nothing about it. The saints want us to be with them, and we are indifferent. The souls of the just await us, and we ignore them.

Let us not be indifferent! Let us not ignore them! Let us be thankful for their prayers, but let us emulate them as well: for they with us pray for all the souls of the departed. They, with us, pray for the Pope, the Bishops, and our clergy, the living 144,000 we have today. The saints, with us, pray for the peace of the world and the Church. And with us, they pray for the coming of the Great Day when all the Church shall finally be reunited as one in one place before the Throne.

Alla famiglia! A Blessed Feast!

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.

War, Sex, and Weather

The more wealth Israel accumulated, the more injustice they practiced. The one begot the other which begot more of the first.

JMJ

The Readings for the 26th Sunday Tempus per Annum (C1)

Vae qui opulenti estis in Sion… Quapropter nunc migrabunt in capite transmigrantium, et auferetur factio lascivientium.
Woe to the wealthy in Zion... Wherefore now they shall go captive at the head of them that go into captivity: and the faction of the luxurious ones shall be taken away.

Amos really has it in for these folks. Who are “these folks” though? Amos was from Judah (the south), but, in fact, he preached mostly in the north. He preached to or about just about all of the folks in what we now think of as Palestine: passages are addressed to the rich folks in Israel (the northern tribes) the rich folks in Samaria, and to the rich folks in Jerusalem. So, while it is sometimes astute to soften the blow of this prophet by saying, well he was talking to people in Samaria in Chapter 6, but we can learn… Fact is, he was talking to The Rich who lived there. To The Rich who there (and everywhere) have the same problems.

But Amos’ problem wasn’t with the riches of The Rich. We do Amos a huge disservice when we think he’s talking about “the wealth of the rich and the poverty of poor”. The NABRE refers to the “complacent” which is technically ok. But it avoids the fact that Amos is talking about those who have enough money to – as the Hebrew says – “be at ease”. The Latin cuts right to the quick and says, “The Rich”. We need to see the context of the problem: which is that Amos is talking about how the wealthy are treating the poor, misusing their riches because of idolatry. Wealth, per se, is not the problem. In the Hebrew prophets, both the rich and the poor have obligations in God’s world. Straying from God’s path into idolatry always means injustice: Falling out of right relationship with God results in falling out of right relationship with people.

The people of the Northern Tribes, following the example of their king, had begun to worship the local deities of Anat, Asherah, and Baal. The goddess of War, the goddess of Sex, and the god of the Weather.

War, sex, weather: worshipping these had made the northern tribes very wealthy indeed. And the more wealth they accumulated, the more injustice they practiced. The one begot the other which begot more of the first. We know this to still be true: it’s the addictive cycle of sin. We do something and it feels good, so we want to do it again. We make allowances in our lives do to it again, and, before we know it, we are ordering our lives around feeling good. We cut off things that make us feel bad – then we cut off things that make us feel bad about feeling good. Our entire modus operandi becomes feeling good. But what if what “feels good” is, itself, bad?

War, sex, and weather. Three cornerstones of our current cultural climate outside and inside the church really.

We love war. Even if we don’t want a new Land War in Asia, even our peace prize-winning President was a warmonger. We have a war on drugs, a war on poverty, both of which became a war on the poor. We have military actions around the world that destroy and disrupt the lives of the poor – who cannot afford to get out of our way. We love to use the technology of war, in the hands of police and civilians, against the poor: through surveillance and physical harm. We do all of this to protect our wealth.

Even in the Church, where we should study war no more, we find ourselves supporting much of this – even cheering on wars that support Israel against our Christian brothers and sisters who made the unfortunate choice to be born in Palestine. And we support a new warmonger Because of the Judges™. We love war.

Sex needs no introduction, but we do love it. We are obsessed with it both inside and beyond the Church. I don’t mean that in the correct theological way where we welcome the divine gift and treat it as the blessed sacrament that it is. If recent revelations are indicative of the deep waters of the Church, we have been very happy, as a community, to turn our eyes away from sexual sins so that we might enjoy our own peccadillos. The culture that gave us “Catholics for Choice” to destroy children is the same culture that gave us clergy who do the same. The same culture that gives us Jim Martin gives us Cardinal McCarrick.

Beyond the Church, our sexual economy destroys the poor around the world, at home with porn production and addiction, abroad with trafficking and disease. And we try – at all costs – to colonize other lands as modern-day, sexual conquistadors committing culture destruction by our imperialist ideas of autonomy and amorality. We love sex. It’s our basic ID card and our tombstone. And sex is nearly always about wealth and power: only the wealthy can afford the “choices” that make their lack of responsibility possible. Only the poor have no choice when it comes to objectification. Only the rich can afford to make and unmake life choices over and over.

Weather: surely we don’t worship Baal, the god of thunder. Yet weather is part of the culture of injustice. Look at pictures of NYC in the 70s and see the smog. That smog is gone now. Why? All the factories and industries that used to be in NYC (and all their jobs) are now in the third world when we can pay less and pollute their skies instead of ours. And we’ve made NYC so clean that we’ve raised the rents and driven out the poor. We are terrified of global climate change, yet we’re culturally unable to address the root cause which is not our consumption of things, but rather our consumption of the poor. We are happy to move our water, earth, and air pollution to other parts of the world. China even gets our garbage – because the idea of recycled toilet paper bothers us. When we do accept the need for change, we still foist our worst choices on the poor. We tell them not to eat meat, yet “plant-based” foods are filled with chemicals in other parts of the world from our industrialization. We rob the world of health and then tell them to eat better or else climate change is their fault.

We worship weather: and neither our fear of climate change nor our indifference to it will let us care for the poor. Amos would have choice words for us, telling us we’ll be the first. It’s not our riches that condemn us: it’s our failure to participate in God’s self-giving. The Fathers tell us the only reason we have wealth is to share it with the poor. God’s self-giving is called kenosis in the Greek. His grace allows us to pour out our selves in slavish labor for to give all our wealth away to the poor. But we need more furniture, you know, and more cheap plastic junk from Wal*Mart, and organic farm produce which we won’t pay a fair price for – preventing the farmer or industrialist from being able to do his job with workers justly paid.

When Jesus tells the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, the rich man has no name: only money. He ignores the poor man: but he knows his name. How is this? He mentions him by name in the next life. In fact, there are two things condemning him here: he clearly knows his name. But instead of doing what we would do – see a friend (or acquaintance) and ask him to speak to someone in power on our behalf, the rich man addresses Abraham and asks him to put Lazarus to work on his behalf. Even in hell, the rich man cannot bring himself to love the poor – only to order them around. His failure to use his wealth in the ways of justice and righteousness has ruined his relationship with neighbor and, so, with God. Rejecting the latter and the former in favor of comfort and pride, he has found he has nothing.

This is us, worshipping sex, war, and weather from our ivory keyboards stretched on our padded deck chairs…

While the Titanic sinks with us, into hell.

Put your Hand to the Plough

In our modern, rootless and cosmopolitan world, we need to be rootless to serve the God we follow, we are following Jesus.

JMJ

The Readings for Wednesday in the 25th week Tempus per Annum (C1)

Nihil tuleritis in via, neque virgam, neque peram, neque panem, neque pecuniam, neque duas tunicas habeatis.
Take nothing for the journey, neither walking stick, nor sack, nor food, nor money, and let no one take a second tunic.

It’s easy to write this passage off: Jesus wasn’t talking to our modern times; or at least we’re not apostles like, say, bishops. I don’t think we can get away with that. We may have been able to do so for a long time, but this option would have been a luxury in the times pre-Constantine, and I think it’s a luxury for us now as well, to think we can ignore this. The literal meaning may not make sense in this day and age, but I think that’s important. How unwilling would most of us be to give up the physical props we have, the luggage, the food we have in our cabinets, the money in the bank or even our extra clothing? We’re as attached to these things as we can be, I believe, both in general (as a culture) and in particular as individuals. I love having meat in the freezer for me to take out. As I type right now (at about noon) I know there is liver thawing out in my fridge at home. I took it out of the freezer before I left for work. And the freezer was quite full.

Take nothin with you along the way, nihil tuleritis in via. In Greek, Μηδὲν αἴρετε εἰς τὴν ὁδόν, Meden airete eis ton odon. Nothing take for the way. The Greek “τὴν ὁδόν” ton odon is the same phrase used to describe Christianity: “The Way”. That’s important since the Gospels were written for followers on τὴν ὁδόν, not for outsiders. Take nothing with you for The Way. Don’t miss that echo, that hyperlink in the text. We can’t write off this passage: this is Jesus telling us what we need to follow him.

First off, the Way is a path, a journey. It’s not a homecoming. Everything about what Jesus taught assumes apostolicity: his disciples being sent out. This is not limited to the 12 Apostles, it’s all of us. In our modern, rootless and cosmopolitan world, we need to be rootless to serve the God we follow, we are following Jesus. We put our hands to the plough and we don’t look back.

As we walk the Way we don’t need a walking stick: we carry our cross, and the lean on Christ (and so, each other) we don’t need an aid: what kind of support do we use? Politics, ideologies, economics, patriotism, these and all things we use to cover our lack of faith. We carry nothing with us so we don’t need a sack, and we bring no food with us: for Christ is our daily bread, but we rely on our addictions, our jobs, our greed, and our culture for food. Before long we need a sack. We bring no money for we have no need of the goods of this world. What we need is Christ and he provides all things. We do not even bring a change of clothes for we have put on Christ.

The Way is Christ, our support is Christ, our food is Christ, our supply is Christ, and we have put on Christ. Alleluia. What Jesus is saying here, to those who are sent out (that is, all of us) is that when we go (which is always) we are to go only with him.

I realize that some of us are obligated to provide for our families. St Paul says the married man is concerned with the things of married life and this is all well and good. But the rest of us, the single men and women, are to be concerned with the things of the Lord. Jesus adds, “Seek ye first the kingdom God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.” So while I am single (which is to say forever) and if you as well, then, while you are too, we should walk this way.

We are coming to times when this will be needed more: we will need to, more and more, trust God and not look back, to step out and not look down, to just keep walking the Way. The Russian Church had to do this for 70+ years. The Chinese Church is still doing it. I think it will be our turn soon. Shall we be witnesses? Shall we walk the way together with Christ?

What shall we do when the going gets tough if we have not had a chance to toughen ourselves?