SO, AS WAS EARLIER mentioned I’ve been wrestling with an article from First Things, published in 2002, called Celibacy in Context. I don’t mean “wrestling” as in struggling with, but rather as in Jacob saying to God, “I will not let you go until you bless me.” Celibacy is not only hard for some folks to imagine doing, but it is also hard for some to even comprehend. Why? The issue of celibacy even came up in my Hebrew class, with the teacher explaining how strange it is to Jewish ears, to hear of a man willingly giving up on what is exactly the first command given to the couple in the garden: “be fruitful and multiply”. What is going on here? This is an ongoing meditation. I don’t pretend that this post will answer all your questions.
Two more images are coming to my mind. The first is Challah, the bread baked for the Sabbath (and a few other festivals in the Jewish year).
Take a look at Numbers 15:18-21:
Say to the people of Israel, When you come into the land to which I bring you and when you eat of the food of the land, you shall present an offering to the Lord. Of the first of your coarse meal you shall present a cake as an offering; as an offering from the threshing floor, so shall you present it. Of the first of your coarse meal you shall give to the Lord an offering throughout your generations.
The Hebrew rendered as “coarse meal” there can either mean meal or dough. Of course, since the destruction of the Temple there is no place to make such an offering, so, in the modern tradition for this Sabbath bread the housewife who is baking it offers a lump of dough, torn from the raw loaf, and says a blessing over it. The lump of dough is burned in the oven. Although only a tiny portion of the batch is burnt, the offering of the lump makes the entire loaf holy. What is given up is real and a real sacrifice, part and parcel of the whole, but it makes everything else holy and, in the end, the reduction does no harm to the joy celebrated. Seeing celibacy in this light is, it seems to me, a good thing. We give up one thing in order to make other things stronger, more holy.
The second image also gets tied to Hebrew class, but not quite as directly. We are working on Psalms because I pray them daily and it seems good to me to learn them in Hebrew. Currently we’re working on Ps 51, one of the most commonly used Psalms, especially in Lent in the Latin rite. In the Byzantine tradition, the Psalm may be said 2 or 3 times a day even in personal prayer! In this Psalm there are many references to forgiveness, grace, and mercy. One of the more common words for forgiveness refers (in “King James style”) to the “bowels of mercy” but the word, itself, comes from the word for womb. God’s womb of forgiveness.
While we’re looking at that, I jumped over to my favorite Psalm text, Ps 18:1b-2, which in the Coverdale, used at my former Monastery, is read as one verse:
I will love thee, O Lord, my strength; the Lord is my stony rock, and my defence my Saviour, my God, and my might, in whom I will trust, my buckler, the horn also of my salvation, and my refuge.
The Hebrew is the same, a collection of first-person possessive nouns. I think it would make a wonderful song, maybe by Miqedem, but it was that first bit, “I will love thee” that caught my eye. It’s sometimes rendered in the present tense as “I love thee”. In the original text the “i love you” bit is the last part of the 1st verse. The whole phrase is only one word, אֶרְחָמְךָ֖ er’cham’kha. I’ve heard that word before, I thought. In Psalm 51. Click after click brought me to this word: רֶחֶם rechem meaning, “womb”. When we speak of God’s mercy (as in Psalm 51) one of the words used is rechem and from that same root we get racham and from that we get the future tense, er’cham or, to add a personal suffix, er’cham’kha. That is, “…to you.” Remember, this verb arises from the image of a mother’s womb. Our loving God “opens his womb of mercy” to us and yet, we do the same to God here! There are other “wombly” echos in Ps 51, but the idea that we can show “rechem” to God – as he can to us – is just mind-blowing. But it needn’t be symbolic. Suddenly, the yes of Mary is her literally offering her womb to welcome “the Lord, my strength; the Lord is my stony rock, and my defence my Saviour, my God, and my might, in whom I will trust, my buckler, the horn also of my salvation, and my refuge.”
The Eastern Gate of Jerusalem is sealed, although Ezekiel prophesied that it would be. Before the historical event, though, (c AD 1540–41) the verses in Ezekiel were read to be related to the perpetual virginity of Mary. Once the Messiah King had passed through the gate of her womb, no one else would. It is from there that we get to celibacy. Paul says that an unmarried man is concerned about things of the Lord whilst a married man is concerned about his wife.
The man or woman who vows celibacy is promising to give the Lord the best part of life – sacrificing one small part in exchange for the whole. They consume the Bread of Life (Jesus) and then leave the gate sealed. No one else may pass that way. The gate through which has passed the king becomes a spiritual womb, enclosing the “Lord, my strength; the Lord is my stony rock, and my defence my Saviour, my God, and my might, in whom I will trust, my buckler, the horn also of my salvation, and my refuge.”
Yes, it’s possible to press this image too far, but this touches on the Greek word used for Mary in the Bible (including in the Greek Septuagint) Parthenos which has the cultural echoes of sexuality set apart for God by choice. All vowed celibates are called Virgins – even those who are not, experientially, virgins.
The mercy of forgiveness can restore even the womb of compassion within us to its original form and intent that it may house the King who is Bread.
DOING A GOOGLE ON A First name is such an interesting project: you find a lot of people with that name, of course – people you did not know, some stars, a few politicians, sometimes a saint or scoundrel if there is one that is particularly notable. Names common in other languages sometimes result in graphics of that name in the other tongue. I was hoping for that as I googled “Eliazar” this morning. I found that it’s common among a few ethnic groups, a couple of gentlemen were giving the 1 finger salute to the camera. On the whole first page of graphics, the best Google would give is this t-shirt. But none particularly hit towards my point.
Eliazar came up in our daily office today. In the Office of Readings we read of the youth of Moses in the household of Pharoah. Then we hear of his slaying of the Egyptian who was abusing one of the Hebrews. Moses runs off to Midian where he meets the daughters of a pagan priest who, eventually, gives his daughter to Moses in marriage. The second son of this union is named “Eliazar”. “and the name of the other was Eliezer: ‘for the God of my father was my help, and delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh.'” (Exodus 18:4) That was the last line of the reading. “My help” or “my helper” (depending on your translation) triggered something. That is the second time that something is called “my helper” in the Bible. Here it is God. But the first time it’s something God wants to give to the Earthling, the man alone in the Garden. “I will make him a helper”, says God. (Genesis 2:18). Both in Genesis and Exodus, the word used is עֵזֶר ezer. Thus there are two “helps” in the first two books of the Bible: one’s spouse and God. Moses comes to see God as he help after he is married.
Something clicked. For the Christian Sacramental Marriage is a sign not of “love made holy” or even “church permission to have sex” but rather of Christ’s union with his Church, of God’s union with his People. This is why God – and the spouse – are both called ezer. But the spouse is not an ezer on the same level as God! The marital union is the closest we can come on the Earthly level to experiencing this intimate communion, but it is exactly only on the Earthly level. The Spousal Ezer is a sign of something that is coming and of something that is present in a hidden and spiritual reality. The Spousal Ezer is a sacrament, if you will, of what God is for his People. We are not married in heaven because we don’t need a sacrament to experience that union. Celibacy is the commitment to live the union in its experienced reality here.
My spiritual Father sent to me yesterday an article from First Things, published in 2002, called Celibacy in Context. (Unless otherwise cited quotes below come from that article.) The discussion in the article was around the existence of married clergy in the Eastern Tradition and how many wester Christians in the Catholic Church read this as “see, their priests get married…” They turn this into an argument against the Latin tradition of clerical celibacy. The author, Fr Maximus Davies, insists that Eastern practice needs to be seen in the full context of the Eastern ascetic tradition – a tradition to which all Christians are called, not just monastics.
Celibacy in Eastern Christianity is viewed primarily as a form of asceticism. Asceticism means, in essence, to live at the same time on earth and in heaven. It means to understand that everything we see in this life, everything we touch, taste, think, and feel, is in some way a revelation of the life to come.
…For an ascetic, time reveals eternity. The ascetic thus wants to be freed from a merely human way of looking at time as a cycle of work and rest, life and death. Instead, the ascetic lives in time as though in the undying freedom of eternity. Therefore the ascetic prays. For an ascetic, food reveals the heavenly Feast. He is freed from a merely animal attraction to food and instead tastes only the spiritual promise that lies hidden inside earthly appetites. Therefore the ascetic fasts. For an ascetic, possessions reveal the many-mansioned Kingdom of Heaven. The ascetic is freed from the slavery to things by seeing in everything the Creator of all things. Therefore the ascetic gives alms.
…It is the same with sexuality. For an ascetic, all human relationships—even the sexual act itself—reveal divine love. Hidden beneath the surface of all smaller loves lies the immeasurable abyss of God’s love. The ascetic realizes that what other people give him by way of love finds its true and deeper meaning in the One who is the source of all love. Celibacy is the practical recognition of the reality that lies behind the image, of the prototype behind the icon.
Davies wants us to see that celibacy is not a call different or divided from marriage, but rather it is the reality, the spiritual form behind marriage. As the Catechism cites it, celibacy is an eschatological sign. “Virginity for the sake of the kingdom of heaven is an unfolding of baptismal grace, a powerful sign of the supremacy of the bond with Christ and of the ardent expectation of his return, a sign which also recalls that marriage is a reality of this present age which is passing away.” (CCC ¶1619.) In heaven there is no marriage, there we will all be celibate. Here, by grace, we can begin to live this life. Thus, even married folks experience celibacy at times – not “abstaining from sex” but rather something else.
Celibacy is not only a sacramental sign. As we are all called to give away alms as if we do not own anything, as we are all called to fasting as if we don’t need food, so is celibacy a further experiential living out of that reality to when we are all called. See 1 Corinthians 7:29ff.
Human love without celibacy is at best mere sentiment, at worst a form of idolatry.
Who then is called to be celibate? Simply put, every single Christian who is capable of love is called to discipline that love through the asceticism of celibacy. Just as every Christian is called to prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, so also every Christian is called to be celibate. Seen in its true context of asceticism, celibacy ceases to be a legal requirement for a small section of the Christian faithful and is revealed instead as an aspect of the universal vocation of all believers.
…Christian celibacy is marriage baptized. Christian celibacy is the revelation of the presence of the Kingdom of God in every relationship. It is the refusal to see other people as things to be used, even for the sake of romantic love. Celibacy means the willingness to see in sexuality not something merely animal, or simply useful or enjoyable, but instead something mystical.
Moses named God his Ezer even after he was married. That’s the key. Even married folks are called to see that God is the reality behind who your spouse is. Celibates are called to live this continually and it is exactly an ascetical choice. But if all Christians (not just certain clerics) are called to live this out in their lives, then every Christian must dig into their marriage, or into their unmarried state, to see that God is the ever-present helper they are really seeking. Your husband or wife is the sacramental sign.
Sacrament is an important word here: a sacrament makes present the reality it depicts, a sacrament effects the thing it describes. Your spouse not only is a sign of God’s help but, in a mysterious way, is God’s help. But you must never forget that, exactly, it is God who is my helper. Your spouse is the mediator or mediatrix of God’s active presence in your life, but he or she is never all of this presence. The spouse is, as we said, a sign of something that is always present in a hidden and spiritual reality. Celibacy (even for married folks) is a call to live into the full reality of that help even now.
I’VE JUST FINISHED Another 40 hours of Hebrew with the wonderful folks at Citizen’s Cafe Tel Aviv. Their class schedule just does not fit with my life this semester though, so I’ve taken on three hours of class time a week working with two tutors at iTalki: Shmuel and Gil. While both are helping me with conversational Hebrew, Gil is also helping me with Tanakh. As a Third Order Dominican the daily office is part of my obligation: praying the psalms is part of my ongoing spirituality. I have long desired to at least be able to meditate on them in Hebrew. Shmuel is engaging me in conversation on many topics and being all-together encouraging as I continue to work on language acquisition. When I leave a class with him I’m shocked at how much Hebrew I’ve spoken. I may leave his ears hurting… but things seem to improve.
I’ve also started a blog in Hebrew. Granted, I can only say so much sometimes. Really simple sentences! There’s a post over there comparing two songs. I’m going to need to break that out into a full-on post here in actual English.
Why is this language so easy for me? I don’t know: it’s a joy to wrap my brain around a verb form. To be handed a shoresh and a binyan and just conjuagate. Shmuel told me how to do future tense… and boom. Everything made sense. Don’t know why, it just did. What is God doing? I don’t know. Let’s wait and see. I can’t speak French at all so, Lay Dominican though I am, Ecole Biblque is right out.
FATHER ABBOT LOOKED AT ME. Mr Novice, Day Two. I had said something like, “yes, I can make the Daily Hours and Mass, and I see the Lectio Divina on the daily schedule, but when do I pray?” He asked what I meant. And I replied, “Usually I wake up and say these morning prayers, then I say these intercessions. I say a Rosary and a Jesus Psalter. I say certain prayers for my family…” Father held up one volume of our breviary. “That stuff doesn’t matter. You can do it whenever you want. This is your prayer.” I’m still digesting what he meant. I was taken aback: prayer doesn’t matter? Only Liturgy? (You see my failings… but ok.) Six years later, holding another breviary in an entirely different context, Deacon Totah said, “As you do this, your personal prayer becomes enfolded in the Church’s prayer.” He was responding to pretty much the same question asked, this time, by a member of my Deacon class. When a member of the Church is obligated to so much liturgy prayer might seem far away.
Almost all pious devotions such as the Rosary and the Jesus Psalter are, exactly, liturgical prayer. We forget this. The Rosary, especially, was once called the layman’s Psalter. Its 150 beads replaced the 150 Psalms that the clergy sang in Church. A member of the laity, especially the illiterate, could thus pray these prayers without a book. The older, Dominican form of the Rosary is, very much, a lay office, recited antiphonally in a group – just like the Friars singing their Psalter. Even today, kneeling with a group of people in Church, fingering their beads, one can feel the full voice of the Church engaged in a fully liturgical act. It is really the Church’s prayer – not a pious devotion. This is even more true now, with the Rosary so widespread, that various members of the clergy and laity are as obligated to say the Rosary as they are to the Daily Office. For example, all of the thousands of members of the Dominican Family, Friars, Nuns, Sisters, and Laity, as well as the Rosary Confraternity, say the Rosary every day. This is literally a chain of Common Prayer. But – and here you can see my Protestant roots are showing – how is it prayer?
For an answer, we will start with the Catechism.
“Great is the mystery of the faith!” The Church professes this mystery in the Apostles’ Creed (Part One) and celebrates it in the sacramental liturgy (Part Two), so that the life of the faithful may be conformed to Christ in the Holy Spirit to the glory of God the Father (Part Three). This mystery, then, requires that the faithful believe in it, that they celebrate it, and that they live from it in a vital and personal relationship with the living and true God. This relationship is prayer.
Read it from the bottom up if any of the following is confusing.
Faith is a great mystery. The Church describes this mystery in her creeds, she celebrates this mystery in her sacraments to the end that all of us may be conformed to Christ. The Mystery of faith requires that the people of God both believe in something – that is, give their assent – and then do something with that belief. We are called to be living in a real, active, personal relationship with God. This relationship – in which we assent and respond to God in his Church – is prayer. Without it, we are not really Catholics. At all.
Prayer is not the words we recite (they are part of it) nor is prayer the things we do (they are part of it) but rather the entire relationship is prayer. Haec relatio est oratio. The Catechism then goes on to note parts and functions within prayer, but it all begins with the claim that Prayer is the relationship in which we live out the great Mystery of Faith. In this context, the idea that one’s personal prayers and petitions should be encompassed by liturgical prayer makes perfect sense: if one’s needs and wants cannot be expressed in the action of the Church then they needn’t be expressed (perhaps shouldn’t be expressed) at all.
In my Protestant background, something called prayer arises in the extemporaneous composition of the moment. One does not prepare something to say to God any more than one would prepare something to say to one’s spouse. Prepared texts are “praying out of a book” and don’t count or, at best, come a distant second. Yet anyone who has improvised a prayer out loud with others knows it’s really easy to fall into “The Prayer of the Just”. “Father, we just want to thank you for just everything that you have done in our lives. And Father, God, we just need to ask you…:
The Catholic idea of prayer is exactly the reverse, as the Catechism teaches: prayer (this relationship) is initiated by the Holy Spirit, through the Word of God (that is, Jesus, the Bible) experienced in the liturgy of the Church and responded to in the human heart. The Spirit gives this relationship to us mediated by the Church’s teaching and only then do we humans get to do something. And if you read further, our doings, our response, our entire side of the conversation is also the Holy Spirit acting in us and through us, mediated by our lives.
Our personal relationship with God can only be in Christ and, as such, can only be carried out through his Body, the Church. All real prayer is, therefore, liturgical: mediated through the Church. Like a wedding, it is the Sacramental Action that creates the root from which the relationship grows. It is to this liturgical action that our hearts must conform. Not the other way around.
And so, in time, as our hearts become more conformed to the Liturgy, we can express our desires and intentions freely – because our intentions are conformed to Christ already. We, as Sons and Daughters in the Son, can act as boldly as he does, reaching out to his Father and our Father. Liturgical prayer becomes the way that our personal needs are expressed to the Father, as we open our hearts more fully to the prompting of the Spirit, we will find liturgical actions holding, containing, our deepest thoughts, the cries of our hearts, “for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered” (Romans 8:26) This interweaving of our personal voice with liturgical prayer can happen in the Rosary, in the Daily Office, and in the Mass. It becomes our continual Lectio Divina.
But it begins in humble submission to the words the Church put in our mouths. The liturgy is our only prayer until all our prayer becomes liturgy.
HERE IS A PRECES of our parable: Jesus says at the Last Judgement God will divide us as a farmer does the sheep from the goats. The sheep will find out that they have often fed, clothed, and cared for Jesus. And they will say in all humility, No… we did not. And the goats will be told that they have never fed, clothed, or cared for Jesus. And they will say in self-justification, But we never had that chance: we would certainly have done so if you had shown up.
And then both groups will be told the punchline: when you did – or did not do – these things for the poor, the hungry, the homeless then you did – or did not do – these things for Jesus.
Then the sheep get into heaven and the goats go someplace where heaven is not, and the story ends.
Readers might have heard a sermon that goes something like this: Jesus never asks either the sheep or the goats if they’ve kept any religious rules. Did they’ve gone to mass, did they say their prayers? Jesus only asks if they have cared for the poor. Care for the poor matters, but Jesus doesn’t care about religious rules. A more subtle form of this sermon might conclude that people who care for the poor will get into heaven long before anyone else. Then it swerves off into “social justice” and trying to “build the city of God” here on this planet to “get ready” for the second coming.
However, this parable is not about ditching religious duty in favor of a crypto-Marxist reading of scripture.
In terms of animals following religious rules, a better example might be pigs. To be kosher an animal must have split hooves and chew its cud. Pigs have hooves that are split, but they do not chew the cud. You can’t see that, so if you look at a pig briefly you might think it’s Kosher on the outside… but it’s not. Horses chew the cud, as do rabbits. They have the right insides, but they have the wrong kind of external features. Rabbits not only chew the cud, but they are also cuddly. The inside counts as much as the outside. But this parable is NOT about following rules. Sheep and goats are both Kosher. They are both sacrificial animals. They both – unlike pigs, rabbits, or horses – follow all the rules: on the inside and on the outside.
You miss the point if you don’t catch this. Jesus is not talking about Marxist bunnies or Capitalist pigs here. This scene from the Last Judgment takes place after the pigs, rabbits, and horses have all been sent away already…
Both sheep and goats are goodly, clean things. Both are acceptable symbols for us, the religious folks. Follow all the rules. Do everything right.The sheep, however, follow through on the spirit as well as the letter of the law. The goats fail to do so. The sheep realize that, beyond the law, there is love.
It is almost like Jesus saying to all the Good Sheep and the Good Goats…(Realized here that my “Jesus Voice” sounds like Bishop Barron….) “Oh, one last thing… you went to mass every day, you prayed every day, you never broke a commandment. Good. Good. All important, all needed….”
Did you get the point?
You can’t use this parable to say “there are no rules except care for the poor.” Love God AND love your neighbor. Do right by both. No one is saved by doing anything: but love and faith require doing to be real. There is something beyond the rules: your whole life must be changed into Christ.
There are no generous pigs here. There are, however, people who follow all the rules and do nothing important. (Rabbits are cute, though.)
NOT THAT THERE’S Really this kind of ranking system, but I imagine that “The Prodigal Son” is one of the more well-known of Jesus’ stories. Perhaps equally as often what they know about this story is wrong. We use “prodigal” as a way to describe anyone who goes away and comes back, although that’s not what “prodigal” means. Many folks know about how forgiving the Father was in this story and use this story as one of Jesus’ “don’t judge me” moments to try and get the Church to bend (or even break) her own rules. They only know what they want to hear. What they have learned though, is sort of an inoculation: it keeps them from wanting to know more.
First, we’re going to start with the meaning of “prodigal”. It’s about how you spend, waste, give away, or otherwise use or misuse your money. It’s not about coming back.
spending money or resources freely and recklessly; wastefully extravagant. “prodigal habits die hard”
having or giving something on a lavish scale. “the dessert was crunchy with brown sugar and prodigal with whipped cream”
When the younger son says to the Father, “split your stuff in half and then give me what is mine…” he is saying, “I wish you were dead now.”
The Father concedes this. So it is the Father who is the first prodigal in this story. Yes, the Son runs away and spends all of Dad’s hard-earned dough, but the Son is only doing what he’s seen Dad do already. And yes, I know: the Son is prodigally sending his money on wine, women, and song. However he’s spending only irresponsibly – and he’s copying Dad. Dad, of course, could run a business, take care of a family, and lavish a gift on his son. Son does not have the kind of discipline needed to navigate in the real world. That said, I knew lots of kids in college who made stupid money choices. I was one of them! Again, the Youth probably wanted to do “things” with his money that would make him happy. He didn’t want to do responsible things like pay bills. That’s boring – let Dad do that – but as long as I have money, let there be a party! The Son thinks Dad made some wonky choices and the Son thinks, Hey, I can do this better.
And, like most irresponsible youths he comes to himself after a while, snaps out of it. Grows up. Settles down. Stops being prodigal in a bad way and – one hopes – becomes prodigal in a good way, like Dad.
But then the problem with reading arises: because the older brother is a bit of a putz, at least in the normal reading. So I want to speak for him.
See, at the start of the story, Dad divides everything in half and gives one whole half of everything to the younger brother and one whole half to the older son. It says the property was divided between them – not just to the younger one. That might sound just to you, with your 21st-century ears, but to a Second Temple Jew or in many cultures around the area, that would have already been entirely wrong. By right, the older brother gets anywhere from 2/3 of everything all the way up to everything. It’s the older brother who’s getting screwed here. And, when the younger brother comes back, and the father says, “All that I have is yours…” it might be better to hear that as “The only stuff we have left is your stuff.” When the fatted calf gets killed for this welcome home party the calf belongs to the older brother.
I’d be a bit indignant about this too.
Dad’s been very prodigal with his family stuff. The father is just as guilty of wasting his belonging as the younger son. The older son is saying, “Hey… wait. That’s my stuff!” And, let’s be real, it is.
Where the older brother fails here is to think it’s about stuff – his stuff, my stuff, your stuff, our stuff. But it’s not about stuff. It’s about love. It’s about family. It’s being together in the end that’s what counts.
But more than that, the older brother is only acting as if he hasn’t anything at all. The Father already gave him his half of the stuff. (Jesus says this happened at the beginning of the story.) He’s acting this way to get the right to complain. You never gave me a fatted calf… well, actually, everything was given to you at the beginning of the story. Why are you complaining? What are you afraid of?
The older brother is acting like the guy with one coin (Luke) or one talent (in Matthew). In the both stories, the servant hides things away because they are fearful of the master. In the Lukan story the servant is described as “wicked” but in the Matthew story the servant is “slothful”. The Greek implies that the Master is accusing the the servant of being scared of doing anything, of being timid. Jesus seems to be saying the same thing here: yes the younger brother ran away, and took a huge risk and came back. He had every reason to be afraid, and yet he was not. He was bold as all get out – just like Dad. But the older brother had no reason at all to be fearful or angry – and yet he was still that way: love is prodigal. Fear is not.
Fear is risk adverse. Timid. Careful. “Where’s my stuff” is not a greedy question here, it’s the voice of fear. That’s not Jesus’ way at all.
BETWEEN THE CFR Podcast and my own t0-read (especially Transformation in Christ and He and I) list I’m in the midst of a flood of thoughts about interior freedom. This is a specifically Christian conception, although it may have non-Christian predecessors in pagan philosophies. How can a person respond fully from, the core of their being, to God as he is really presenting himself to them? To do this the person must be free, but this doesn’t mean free of external chains: a saint can be imprisoned, beaten, enslaved, abused, tortured, maimed, and nearly dead – while still being free to respond to God.
Understanding that external forces can only “kill the body, but not the soul” is a first step, or maybe the first step is realizing that no matter what the world says, God says we are free in the Son. That means that even when the world says you are “oppressed” or “unfree” in any way, you’re not actually hindered at all from responding to God in a way that mirrors the mystery of Holy Matrimony: free, full, faithful, and fruitful. We fear external forces and this fear can prevent us from being free. It is the fear itself – and internalized response – that is the cause of our unfreedom: not anything on the outside. If God calls and we do not respond because of fear, we have failed. It’s not that someone else has prevented us. God does not call us foward if he doesn’t give us the gifts to move in his will. A fearful rejection of God’s call is a lack of faith in God, a lack of confidence in his promises.
Today’s epistle, though, finds St Peter describing to us an entirely different kind of hindrance to interior freedom: those who fall pray to their own desires, “especially those who indulge in the lust of defiling passion and despise authority… They have eyes full of adultery, insatiable for sin. They entice unsteady souls. They have hearts trained in greed. Accursed children! Forsaking the right way they have gone astray…”
It would be especially easy in today’s church to point at Cardinals, Bishops, Priests, Monastics, Nuns, theologians, etc, and say, “they are like this” but to point at or to point out… would be to make us like the Pharisee in Sunday’s Gospel. It’s damnable to point out this failure in the second or third person, but far more difficult and far more laudable to point out this sin in the first person. In the second person, just saying “she gets to do this…” becomes an excuse for me to do it as well. But saying out loud, “I am doing this because I want to…” and saying it with that level of honesty can help others seek their own healing. Peter calls out those who want to. They are enslaved to their own addictions to sin. And they lead others to the same enslavement.
It’s easy, as I mentioned, to point at others.
I spent most of my twenties and thirties involved in things this way. My parents turned into activists, now launching others in this direction. It pains me, today, to see the blowback of my own enslavement.
But freedom comes not from one’s own license to do whatever one wants, but conformity to the God who’s very name is love.
CS Lewis’ Screwtape Letters has a passage on this at the very beginning:
To us [the Demons] a human is primarily food; our aim is the absorption of its will into ours, the increase of our own area of selfhood at its expense. But the obedience which the Enemy [that is, God] demands of men is quite a different thing. One must face the fact that all the talk about His love for men, and His service being perfect freedom, is not (as one would gladly believe) mere propaganda, but an appalling truth. He really does want to fill the universe with a lot of loathsome little replicas of Himself—creatures whose life, on its miniature scale, will be qualitatively like His own, not because He has absorbed them but because their wills freely conform to His. We want cattle who can finally become food; He wants servants who can finally become sons. We want to suck in, He wants to give out. We are empty and would be filled; He is full and flows over. Our war aim is a world in which Our Father Below [that is, Satan] has drawn all other beings into himself: the Enemy wants a world full of beings united to Him but still distinct.
…Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.
When that desire to obey manifests, it is God’s Grace that does so. When we lean in, it is His Grace that causes us to lean in at all, and gives us the needed time and energy and tools to do so. It is the dance of human freedom to be God’s Son that moves us, but the Dance is God.
We can only do it when we are Free.
And God will break all the chains we hold out to him.
LAST NIGHT I attended the vigil service at Holy Trinity Cathedral (OCA), my former parish. Since my Byzantine Catholic Parish does not have vigil services, I think I may make a few trips over to the Cathedral this Lent. The Dean greeted me and asked what prompted my visit and I replied, “Publican and Pharisee.” “Which one are you?” He asked. “That’s what I’m here to find out.”
“We’re all the Pharisee.” he replied.
It’s important to realize that any of Jesus’ listeners would have known the good guy and the bad guy in this story. Everyone hated the tax collectors and everyone respected the Pharisees. Some scholars posit that Jesus, himself, was a Pharisee and there’s good reason to read many of the stories in the Gospel within the context of contemporary, Second Temple rabbinic debates. So, begins Yeshua, Let me tell you a story about a tax collector and a Rabbi I know. Everyone settles down knowing how this will end.
Except suddenly the bad guy is the good guy and vice versa.
This is not a parable about “legalism” or about Jews, this is not even a parable about Pharisees. Yes, the prayer the Pharisee says is a slight mockery of three of the prayers one says waking. But these didn’t (seemingly) start in Judaism. Yeshua taught us not to judge, it would be odd if he made a parable judging others – and teaching us to judge that group of people as well! It’s about You-know-who-the-bad-guy and You-know-who-the-good-guy, except you’re wrong.
This is a story about the listener or, in this case, about the reader.
My brother in Christ drew this 12 years ago. It’s still right. We always want to compare ourselves. Jesus wants us to focus each on our own journey. But we want to see how others are doing. That’s why this week is a fast-free week in the Eastern Tradition: there’s no fasting at all. Meat for seven days! Don’t look at what others are doing. And, by the way, what you can do doesn’t really matter that much either. It’s your heart. Rend your heart, not your garments, as the prophet says. Rend your soul, not your diet. Rend your life, not your neighbor’s.
When we think we know who the good guy is, we usually make a first-person inclusion there. Aquinas says no one loves evil because it’s evil: everyone thinks he’s loving a good. Of course I’m the good guy. Or at least one of them.
The lesson in this parable is that we can’t tell from the outside and – worse – if we’re making judgments at all from the outside, we’re exactly like the bad guy in this story who judged himself good and the other guy evil when… in fact… the other guy was saved.
Rather than looking anywhere else, it’s much better to look at your own plate, at your own heart, at your own life and see what’s out of place and pray for God to have mercy on you. When you sit down to hear a story and it seems you may have misjudged who was the good and bad guys, yes, the storyteller was very crafty.
But the problem (which the storyteller used) was your judgment.
WRESTLING with the idea that one should both Fear God and Love him, praying for wisdom. The image arises first of the Icon of God, a human person. They are awesome, but – even if I do manage to love them for the right reasons, I never fear them except for what they could do to hurt me. If someone triggers my “bully” PTSD, for example, I don’t know what to do except run away. I experience no holy fear in the presence of a human person. Perhaps that is a confessable sin, itself. I don’t know.
Then arose the image of a cat. I can spend rather a long time looking into the eyes of a cat. Every once in a while it dawns on me that the cat is actually looking back. Some place in there is an intelligence that is completely alien, entirely other, and this intelligence is now contemplating me or at least considering if I might be food. Sometimes that’s a bit scary, learning to trust a cat. Cats are so strange, and yet they clearly see you when they want to. Further, they can let you know that they see you: their eyes shift focus from your right eye to your left eye. They can make eye contact with you in a mirror even when they ignore their own image. Was it this experience – one never has it with dogs, but maybe wolves? – that resulted in C.S. Lewis picking a great Lion as his divine character, Aslan?
So there, comes the realization, is the linking of fear and love: so fully other, yet you give yourself over in trust. This is where it is. This is where the incarnation connects us with what is entirely not-us. The Divine becomes a Son of Adam and could we look him in the eyes? Yes. But now? Would those eyes look at us alien and beyond holy? Or would they be the eyes of love looking at us.
In fear, we realize He sees us. He sees me.
And in love, we surrender to the Only Good that can ever Be.
The assignment was to pick 15 questions out of 24 or so. This was the review over the whole class.
I.1 What is Love?
POPE ST JOHN PAUL said, “The only adequate response to a person is love.” Love is the correct response, then, to a person present to us: the icon of God. Love is an act of the will to know and do the good of another – rather than oneself. Since God is Love, this act of self-giving is the action of the Father to the Son and the Son to the Father. In the tripersonal unity of God, this shared love is, itself, another person the Holy Spirit. Since God as ground of being is the source of all being, all existence is an act of and participation in this love. To not-love (to use) is to act contrary to being.
I.4 Utilitarian Relationships.
Yes, the Pope’s insights help me to better understand the feelings I’ve experienced in these relationships. It was said in class (is it a direct quote from St JPII?) “The opposite of Love is use.” Most work relationships are, strictly speaking, use-based. Some more than others, of course. When employed by someone who values their relationship with you the experience is much better than when you are employed by someone who only values your body parts and your skills. Thus, the manager in a fast food chain only needs a certain number of hands to perform an exact number of tasks. Hands can be replaced by other hands. An industrial farmer needs only hands (and muscles) to do certain work. The persons involved are not important. A business owner, using his staff for their specific functions, firing and hiring “at will” while not invested in personal relationships is equally failing in love. It feels very insecure in this sort of job. And there are times now – working for a parish where I feel actual love – it’s possible that something happens that triggers an old fear. I realize what that is now. Of course, in our society, we don’t expect our “job” to provide us with “love”. But equally, we should not expect our personal relationships (friendship, marriage, etc) to feel like work.
I.5 Nuptial Meaning of the Body
First, bodies are important. The Human is a Body-Spirit hybrid. Our Bodies express and reveal ourselves and our spirit is the form of our body. The fathers would suggest we are a physical body living in a spirit. It is our bodies that reveal to others who we are. They are the mode and matter of our communion with others as much as bread & wine is the matter of the Eucharist.
Each of us is made for union with another. That union is expressed in self-sacrifice and self-gift. The works of mercy express this, but the most intimate form of gift and sacrifice is the conjugal union. This peak of gift and love is the fullest expression of this mystery so all other expressions of love involving the human body are, as it were, sacramentals of this union. “Awareness of the nuptial meaning of the body … is the fundamental component of human existence in the world” (Theology of the Body). The entire life of a baptized person is engaged in acts reflecting the nuptial mystery.
II.1 Mutual Use relationships
This is an interesting topic because of the number of couples cohabitating. They are, exactly, in a use-based relationship. Perhaps unknowingly they are already experiencing the insecurity and abuse arising in such a relationship. Blatant indicators of this might include objectification of the partner such as sexual comments, bragging about “good catch” etc. More subtle indicators might be jealousy or snarky, emotionally painful comments made toward each other. In class, I thought some of the comments made by “Guadalupe” to “Monty” came close to this subtle level of abuse: she seemed to be looking for a good provider, not a life partner.
Matt Fradd’s The Porn Myth is amazing. It points out that the initial result is a lack of sexual interest in “real” people: you need to “work” on them. The people in magazines/websites are there for free. But then they become objects. Then, after a while, all people are objects – eventually including the viewer’s own self. It’s not just art: it’s the commodification of persons. Even without the added crime of human trafficking, the persons in the images are treated as far less than they really are – icons of God. Thus, it’s a form of blasphemy as well. Art unveils beauty – porn uncovers skin. How might I uncover this? I would listen for certain clues in the conversation. For example, in a men’s Faith sharing group at St Dominic’s a member shared his trouble with this issue. In response, another man mentioned that his wife had trouble because he was up at night watching YouTube videos one after another. I recognized that this was the searching function that many report in pornography addiction. Quietly I would then engage in conversation one on one to see if this was the issue. Perhaps the fiancee is “concerned with internet use” and that might also be a clue. I would ask if the couple are open to praying and talking about this and, hopefully, lead them to speaking with someone who was a bit more skilled such as a therapist or a spiritual director.
II.3 Committing Adultery with the Spouse.
If one approaches one’s spouse without the proper reverence due the icon of God (Christ to his Church) then the sexual approach becomes one of lust rather than love. All human relationships can break in this way: it’s possible to make friends for the wrong reason, to be kind to someone just to get something back, etc. So, also, it is possible to draw near to one’s own spouse incorrectly. It’s possible to use one’s spouse in a sexual act rather than to make a full gift of one’s self in the nuptial union. The spousal union mediates the Love of God to the other person. As with any human relationship, it’s not really possible, because of human sin, for me to love my spouse as fully as God intends. Yet, if I just get out of the way, God can love my spouse mediated through me. I might block this love unintentionally, but to willingly do so is to commit adultery in my heart.
Marriage is a sign in this world of the union of Christ and his Church. Every marriage is this sacramental sign of an eternal Mystery. The closest humans can come, in this world, to the experience of the unity Jesus prayed for in John 17:21-22, is the consummation of the marriage on the nuptial bed. Every human is called to this unity in Christ. “That they may be one,” Jesus asks his Father. “As you and I are one”. We can not know this unity fully, yet, because of human sin. But we can live in the sacramental sign of it (marriage). On the other hand, celibacy is an eschatological sign, a mark of things yet to be. In haven there is no marriage bcause the unity of Christ with his Church is consumated. Each of us shall know as fully as we are known (1 Corinthians 13:12). The vocation to celibacy is offered as a sign of that union. As St Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7:32-33, “An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife.” The celibate man can move through the world as if it is passing away. The married man moves through this world as Christ, sacrificing himself for his bride.
III.4 Language of the Body (as spoken to youth group)
The two shall become one flesh is not just poetry: not just a description of what happens. It is reality: what actually happens. Oxytocin is released in your brain. This causes a feeling of bonding and intimacy. God put this in your brain exactly to bond you with your spouse. Your body is programmed to engage in this committed intimacy. Doing something else with your body – with your hormones, with your emotions – is to introduce a lie into your relationships with others. Lies are no basis for love, no basis for growth. Furthermore, triggering this same response in others (these same hormones, that is) sets them up for a major collapse when you’re done playing with them. That misuse is also no basis for friendship or any other relationship.
IV.1 Car, cell phone, computer, or contraception?
Contraception saves us from being to mercy of our bodies. This in turn saves us from being obligated to control our bodies at all. When our bodies want something we have to choose between the consequences of giving in or not giving in to that desire. There are pills now that can help you overcome diet restrictions without them, for example, lactose might cause embarrassment at a dinner party. You can give in to your desire for ice cream! Of course, you might also gain weight. Contraception means that we can give in to our desires whenever we want without any consequences. That’s why it’s hard to give this up: we have to face the consequences of not wanting to restrain our bodies. Of course, the irony is that we don’t want to be subject to our bodies’ “end product” – reproduction – so we make ourselves more subject to our bodies’ hormonal cycles. They object because they want the freedom to enjoy the gift of human sexuality without the cost of the intended end. I do not believe they actually know what the church teaches on contraception. I mean they know that they’re not supposed to use it, but they’ve been told that their conscience can make that choice to agree or not. I don’t think they realize that it’s impossible to take the church’s teachings on marriage and sexuality as a standalone: they are fully woven into the tapestry of Christian teaching on eschatology, sacraments, morality, salvation, and even World Peace (that is, solidarity).
As with the Eucharist, better catechesis is needed.
“When you see a cloud rising in the west you say immediately that it is going to rain–and so it does; and when you notice that the wind is blowing from the south you say that it is going to be hot–and so it is. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky; why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”
The readings here are taking a turn towards the Apocalyptic readings of Christ the King and Advent. It would be useful to ask “Do we really even know how to read the signs…” and point out all the ways we avoid reading signs at all – not as “fortune telling” but even the way parents ignore the signs of bad behavior in their kids, or how we always hear interviews of “but he was such a nice guy” after a crime spree. Then ask, can we even read ourselves? Tell the story shared in class about how kids learn to track their emotions in journals, and how – eventually – this is linked to hormonal cycles. Do we even know ourselves well enough to do this? For a daily homily that might be enough to get folks thinking about their lives and applying the Gospel. Sadly this Gospel (nor the parallel in Matthew) is not found assigned to a Sunday. There might be more time to add. But in a daily homily, this pointing towards something could lead to interesting conversations after Mass.
The answer is in the middle of page 2. “…the heart of the error of the Sexual Revolution is the identifying of love with sex.” Kreeft’s offering that “nothing less than Jesus will do” reminds me of the Catholic Chaplain at NYU telling the campus Episcopal Peer Minister (me) in 1983, “They don’t need magic or astrology or sex. They need Jesus.” Kreeft continues, “Christianity centers on two equations: God is love, and love is (revealed in) Christ.” This gets to the heart of my comments above in #8: only the full preaching of the Gospel, without hedging and without fear of “what people may say” or “voting with their wallets” will do here. “Christ alone is the answer to the Sexual Revolution. Because nobody else gives us intimacy with God.” The entire article could (should?) be used to initiate a discussion of how sex needs to be included in catechesis not just as a morality issue but as an anthropological issue. For most of RCIA we talk about mystery, spiritual enthusiasm, majestic glory, and ethereal liturgy, but we relegate sex to a list of do’s and do nots.
Christ’s total gift of himself to the Church in the Eucharist is the constant spousal union. Marriage is the primordial sacrament that revealed God’s plan for the world (in a union where all may be one as the Son and the Father are one). This revelation reaches its source and summit in the Eucharist where God and Man are made one in each human being as intimately as God became man in the womb of the Virgin Mary. This union is not something we do but rather something we receive from God. We are then to actively engage it (rather than passively just sit there). This becomes our evangelical action, drawing others into this union.
V.4 Growth in Holiness
This begins in shared prayer. This can be just a Hail Mary or an Our Father at the beginning, but it should grow into a family practice of bringing things before God. Not just prayer in the home, but prayer at Church. As a monk told me when I became Catholic, “Go to Mass all the dang time.” The couple (and soon, the kids) should be used to seeing a church as part of their daily life. I shared this advice with a friend in RCIA and he one day asked, “Are we spending too much time in Church?” I pointed out that there were 24 hours in a day and we were tithing the day, so it was ok. He and his wife are now Eucharistic Ministers, he’s an MC. He’s thinking of applying for the Deacon’s program. As the family grows, the tradition of prayer will take root and holiness will grow as fruit on the vine. The pray should take root in action: the family should begin to engage in the works of mercy. One of the most direct acts of evangelism in my youth with when my friend Barbara wanted to play after school. She was making Rosaries for missionaries to take overseas! She asked me (a Methodist 5th grader…) to help. Her parents watched, smiling. I have young couples who come to help me in the Outreach ministries at St Dominic’s. They will be raising their children in that faith solidly rooted in daily practice (outside of butincluding Mass). Their kids will be inviting neighbors over to make Rosaries.
Mallon’s overlapping of “Welcome” and Marriage Prep in a model of overall evangelism was very exciting! I would tweak a couple of things in his welcoming process though. Here’s where I would make changes for St Dom’s:
A clear and visible welcome booth (YES!), a welcome packet and also a luncheon. But then I diverge: the lunch should be a chance for present members of the parish to witness to their faith and to invite others into that faith. This can include a discussion of the obligations of parish membership, but at that point, the new folks should be invited to consider things over. It’s not a done deal: we’re a bunch of religious nuts. I mean that in a good way! Do you want to join us? Then the new folks should be given some time. If they decide to commit, there should be an official welcome at that point. In one Episcopal congregation from my past, this commitment was made by having the mentor introduce the person to the parish at Sunday worship. They were welcomed and blessed by the pastor and then could participate fully in parish life.
His description of the marriage prep including Alpha is somewhat revolutionary. I would love it if everyone involved in marriage prep were as committed to the faith as they are to getting “the big day” to happen. Marriage cannot help save the souls of people who are not trying to get their souls saved. MAry-Rose took this point “home”!
The line items comparing the marriage process with the formation process of the traditional catechumenate are brilliant. It lays out clearly why this is needed and what it could look like. One thing I have heard at St D’s is that we can’t set up more “roadblocks” if we want people to get married. They will just go elsewhere. I’m not sure if this says anything about morality (we want them married because then they won’t be living in sin). The cynical voice inside of me says two things, one of which I shared in class. “This is about money” and “They won’t go elsewhere, because where else is as beautiful as this place?” If the beauty of the building is drawing them here, let’s use it to rope ‘em in!
The idea of using other married couples to draw others to a relationship with Christ is good: it assumes that the other couples are, themselves, properly catechized. If the data on who believes the Church’s teachings are any indication, it may take a while to get the parish “up to” being the place described in this document. We sometimes have 3 weddings a weekend. That would mean a lot of couples acting as sponsors/mentors! But it is a person-to-person relationship, exactly, that draws others into a relationship with Christ and so it is likely that the relational process will not only draw the new couple to Christ but also the mentors will be better formed in their faith as well.
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