Monday, February 13, 2017

This Lent: the Sanctification of the Mind

I promised a big reveal today, and here it comes. But first, a message from Blessed James Alberione (this is kind of a "condensed" version of one of his drum-beat themes):
Of all the faculties that God has blessed us with, the gift of the mind is the one that is the most often neglected or even compromised. How often we waste the precious gifts of intelligence and understanding, frittering our minds away in curiosity or in superficial use of the media when God calls us to "be transformed by the renewal of your minds" (Rom 12: 2), to have the very thoughts of God, so that not only is it Christ who lives in me (that is, in my words, choices and way of acting), it is Christ who thinks in me!
One of the spiritual disciplines that most fosters the sanctification of the mind is dedication to some form of study of the faith. It may be reading the Catechism over the course of a year, or setting aside a certain amount of time each day or week to devote to reading the lives or writings of the saints, or recent Church documents, or taking an updating course. Needless to say, Lent is a perfect time to begin a spiritual practice of this sort. That is why so many parishes will be offering weekly lectures or Scripture study programs. Now there is a brand-new program that is both an exploration of the Bible and a presentation of the teachings of the Church in some of the most perplexing issues of our day.

If you find it hard to really agree with Church teachings (or practice) concerning the human body and the meaning of natural marriage, the treatment of the body after death (for example, the prohibition of scattering cremated remains), the vocation to celibacy, and just why birth control is such an issue, or if you accept the Church's position in all these areas but struggle to reconcile them with your love for family members who find some of these teachings impossible to live by, why not dedicate the 6+ weeks  of Lent to a guided, reflective study of Pope John Paul's Theology of the Body? You will be devoting 6 weeks to a unique reading of Sacred Scripture, starting from the very beginning: the gift of creation and the creation of man and woman in the image of God.

Yes, this is the program that I have been working on, preparing the free downloadable study guide so that the video series (a total of 12 hours of content) can be easily and fruitfully used by individuals or groups (whether formal parish groups or informal gatherings and book clubs). Two hours a week will bring you to Holy Week with a deeper understanding of the Bible as a whole, and may help you approach the Easter sacraments personally renewed "in the spirit of your mind," better able to marvel at God's goodness in your own life. I think Blessed James Alberione would also suggest that the discipline itself of following a program of study is a very positive form of penance that can be offered in reparation for the ever-increasing number of offenses against the dignity of the human body: human trafficking, pornography (including films like the new 50 shades series), and the aggressive denial of the meaning and nature of masculinity and femininity, and of natural marriage itself.

Here is a sneak preview of the new program, a 25-minute introduction that is worth watching even on its own. The full series, Discover Theology of the Body, will be released on Ash Wednesday, March 1.  Get 40% off by using the code TOB4LENT before March 8. And...thanks for sharing this info on your social media channels!






Friday, February 10, 2017

The Saddest Day in History

The first readings at Mass this week have been from the Creation story in Genesis. Yesterday we heard about the creation of woman, and of Adam's amazement and finding someone like himself, able to stand beside him in God's presence with freedom and availability, making it "possible to exist in a relationship of reciprocal gift" (JP2). The biblical author remarked (in what seems to us an out of place aside) that "the man and his wife were both naked, but felt no shame."

Back in 1979 Pope John Paul based a number of his Theology of the Body talks on this seemingly random psychological observation ("naked without shame") which, he notes, isn't random at all. "Genesis 2:25 presents one of the key elements of the original revelation.... it is not something accidental."

http://art.thewalters.org/detail/35961/adam-and-eve/
Detail of a Della Robbia Adam and Eve; from the Walters Museum of Art
They were "naked without shame" because shame is not "natural" to us; it is not "original." In fact, the Pope will say, shame, while a consequence of the fall, is a healthy sign: it reveals that something very precious is present even while it is at risk.

When, as we heard in today's first reading, the man and woman decide to order their lives apart from the harmony and balance with which they were created, the first thing each one realizes is not a sense of empowerment (which the serpent had deceitfully assured them of) but a feeling of vulnerability. They make loincloths for themselves, protecting the very signs of masculinity and femininity that had earlier revealed their partnership, their being destined one for the other. They hide among the trees, suddenly finding the presence of God threatening. There has been "a radical change in the meaning of their original nakedness.... This change directly concerns the experience of the meaning of one's own body before the Creator and creatures." From being a sign of a gift to be lived in a communion of persons, the naked body is seen by sinful humans as a "thing" ready to be exploited (even, we see today, by oneself).

All this sprang from the first couple's surrender to the serpent's insinuation against the fatherhood of God. God, the serpent suggested, was not a provident and all-good Giver of Life "from whom every fatherhood in heaven and earth takes its name" (Eph. 3:15), but a jealous hoarder of divine prerogatives, an exploiter of the weak. Their only recourse against this powerful Other was to snatch at equality with God, claiming for themselves the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Once they do, they find themselves not in a garden of delights, but in a whole world of menace starting with the person at their side. For the rest of human history, people will be divided: man against God, "me" against "you",  "us" against "them."

Thankfully, "human" history is not all there is. When, "in the fullness of time, God sent his Son, born of a woman" (Gal. 4:4), he would reintroduce the communion he had intended for us all along. That is what the Church is meant to be: the presence, even in time, of communion with God and among people. When we fall into the old categories of "us" and "them" (no matter who "they" are, or why we are divided) we leapfrog backwards, away from grace and salvation; when we love one another, when "they will know that you are my disciples by your love for one another" (Jn. 13:35),  then we will show the world who God is, and the world will come to believe (see Jn 17:21).


- - - - 

Yes, I know. I can't resist referring to the brilliant insights of Pope John Paul in his Theology of the Body. I can't help it! I have been "under the influence" of Theology of the Body for almost 40 years. It is in the background of my prayer, it has guided me through difficulties, it offers me a kind of overall interpretive lens for everything in the Bible.

Doesn't our world need to rediscover the value and meaning of the human body, made in the image of God, male and female? Don't we all need to be redirected to a life in which the predominant note is not self-defense or hostility, but self-giving directed toward a communion that even on earth represents and makes present the Triune God who made us for Himself? If I could, I would share this treasure with everyone on the planet. Taken seriously at least by the billion+ Christians on earth, it could change history.

The good news is that soon (very soon!) my community will be making a program available that will introduce you to Pope John Paul's thought at a pace you can set for yourself and in a format that will allow for group study, too. If you feel that your understanding of the faith hasn't really been updated since Confirmation, or if you feel you have never really had a fully adult knowledge of the Bible, this could be just what you are looking for to renew your mind. (It could be ideal for Lent!)

Monday I will give you a sneak peak--and a chance to get an early bird discount on a project I personally put a lot of work into!

Monday, February 06, 2017

Theology of the Body resources (a random list)

I found a way to group all my TOB recommendations in one package of links from Amazon (so even the Pauline titles here are linked to Amazon); putting it here as a public service. Stay tuned for an important TOB announcement soon!!!


Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Reading your way through Lent--updated!

What are you doing for Lent?  (Ash Wednesday is just one month away!)

This Lent my community will be revisiting the Gospel of John together, with the guidance of the genial professor Edward Sri. We will be using the "Follow Me" program from Ascension Press, which I reviewed some months back. We could just as easily have chosen a different approach to the same Gospel, one prepared by Thomas Garry, a third-order Dominican from New Jersey who sent me a review copy of his book Through Lent with John's People.

Garry published his book through the Dominican Nuns of the Perpetual Rosary (Summit, NJ), and informed me that "all proceeds from its sale will go to fund the expansion of their monastery." (My first thought on reading that was, "what proceeds?" We could have told them that book publishing is no way to make money!) Well, hopefully the promotion of the book will raise awareness of the sisters' need for new space for the vocations the Lord is sending them, because book sales are not going to cut it.

Garry has mapped out almost the whole Gospel of John, spreading the passages out across Lent and clear through to Easter Sunday. The Church itself privileges the Gospel of John during Lent, particularly in Year A, but always in the Sacred Triduum and continuing on through the Easter Season, so praying with John is praying with the Church.

Each day's passage is given in full, followed by a reflection (about three pages' worth) and concluding with questions for personal application. Those questions are probably the most valuable part of the book (outside of the Gospel text itself) and could be very helpful in making an examination of conscience before confession. In fact, the person who  uses this book for Lent will probably be led to the Sacrament of Reconciliation on a rather regular basis, because the reflection and the questions themselves do not fail to challenge our all too easy accommodations with the spirit of comfort.

Through Lent with John's People is a worthwhile book for your Lenten prayer.


Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive a tiny affiliate commission. In addition, I received a review copy of the book mentioned above for free in the hope that I would mention it on my blog. I am committed to giving as honest a review as possible as part of my community's mission of putting media at the service of the truth. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Until we meet again--UPDATED (again)

One of my favorite lines in the new translation of the Creed is in that last paragraph where a number of seemingly random doctrines are affirmed: the Church (one, holy, catholic and apostolic), Baptism (one and one only, for the forgiveness of sins), and the "eschatological" part about the fulfillment of it all in eternity. How marvelous it is to say, "I look forward to the resurrection of the dead..."

A Christmas visit in the rehab center right down the street.
Here in the Pauline community, we are affirming that article of the Creed in a newly personal way as we prepare to lay our Sister Mary Veronica to rest. Sister Mary Veronica was the first Daughter of St Paul from Boston, a fact she took no little pride in. She was here, discerning her own call the day the Cardinal Cushing dedicated the cornerstone for our motherhouse, and once told me that St Paul's Avenue (then called "Mount Wally Road") was so overgrown with bushes and hanging branches that she was worried about the finish on her new car as she made her way up the hill that day!

I first made Sister Veronica's acquaintance the afternoon I entered the convent. She was the seamstress, and had already basted together my postulant's habit, going by the size indicated by Mother Paula's memory of me. (That fact alone made an impression. Mother Paula remembered me?) I stood in her tiny sewing room, obeying her "Turn, turn, turn" as she marked the hemline. The postulants' retreat started that night, and I left for the retreat house with my "Sunday" habit ready for the Feast of the Assumption. The habit had a ten-inch hem that would be let down when I made vestition. Those habits were made to last!

Sister Mary Veronica was an artist with a needle and thread. She didn't just make our practical habits, veils and aprons: she embroidered stoles for priests, and did phenomenal beadwork. Her Infant of Prague capes were in high demand with the intricate beading on the white satin under-tunic and the gold beaded highlights on the brocade exterior cape. The capes kept her busy, because many families would request a cape in each of the liturgical colors! I am hoping that someone will bring one of her capes here; Sister's eyesight forced her to put down her sewing needle about ten years ago. (I know she doesn't look it in the photo taken just last month, but she was in her late eighties!)

I know you will pray for the repose of Sister Mary Veronica's soul. Please also pray for the remaining members of our senior sisters' community, especially for those with dementia who are finding it difficult to process what is happening around them--and for Sr Mary Augusta, age 100, who seems to feel that someone cut ahead of her in line!

- - - -

Just to add a few tidbits... We had a lovely prayer service last night with many members of Sr M Veronica's family (for whom she was "Aunt Rosie"). At the almost-end of the service, there was a video of Sister telling her vocation story. On her first visit to the convent, what struck her the most was the happy noise coming from the kitchen where the sisters were washing the dishes; amid the clattering of pots and pans and silverware there was the cheerful banter of the sisters. Summing things up, she said, "It wasn't the habit. It wasn't the mission. I fell in love with the noise." She also filled in more details about that car--it was a blue, four-door Ford, and she loved it!

Last but not least, in a little display of photos and memorabilia set up in the reception hall there was Sister's craft box, and several Infant of Prague vestments with her signature beadwork.

- - - - -

Just a little more, I promise (maybe).

We just laid Sr Veronica to rest in our tiny burial chapel. There are only three spaces left (and the competition is, well, maybe not fierce...). Sister's relatives are lingering over cake and coffee in the dining room and we are telling stories. I was reminded about how every Sunday for 20 years she and a companion (sometimes a team of novices or postulants) headed downtown to the TV station for the 7 a.m. TV Mass, bringing a white box of vestments and altar linens, setting up the books and vessels and then carefully packing it all up again. The TV Mass was the beginning of CatholicTV, so it was a good fit for the media nuns circa 1970.

Because Sister was a native Bostonian, we all got to know her family, especially her mother, Mary who came here often as a volunteer. Mom Rizzitano died not too many long years ago, and Sr Mary Veronica faithfully visited her mother's grave, bringing fresh flowers as often as she could. When she was no longer able to drive, Sister would ask Sr Maria Ruth (the voice of Radio Paulinas) to bring her--and then she would user her allowance treat Sr Maria Ruth to Dunkin' Donuts (this is Boston, after all). One time, Sr Ruth mentioned at breakfast today, after they had their coffee and donut, Sister Mary Veronica went back to the counter and bought a dozen more donuts. Then they drove back to the cemetery to give the box to the cemetery workers. That box of donuts represented over 25% of Sister's monthly allowance: a sign of how grateful she was for the often forgotten people who make things happen for us.

The takeaway for me in all this is that Jesus meant what he said in Matthew 25; what John of the Cross said summing it up: "In the evening of life, we will be judged on love."

Monday, January 23, 2017

Doing the Devil's work

That's what the scribes in today's Gospel accused Jesus of: "By the prince of demons he drives out demons." Jesus answers them with a bit of rhetoric that is just as valid today as it ever was: If a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.

This weekend the United States showed itself to the world as a "house divided." We had the inauguration of a President who ran a campaign of divisiveness (his rhetoric pitted his own party's candidates against each other until he was the only one was left standing). The election itself (with the electoral college going one way and the popular vote the other) highlighted the divisions in the country even more. Then, in response to the new President's history of loutish words and deeds against the dignity of women, millions (around the world!) marched for women. But organizers of the Women's March, too, led a "house divided," refusing to accept pro-life women's organizations as partners. In other cities, pro-life events were held to mark the anniversary of the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion and split the United States to this day.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:F%C3%A9lix_Joseph_Barrias_-_The_Temptation_of_Christ_by_the_Devil_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg
In the Bible, the enemy of human nature goes by several names. He is (as in today's passage) "Beelzebul" (beel/baal means "Lord": one who claims complete authority), "the Satan" (enemy), "the devil" (accuser, slanderer). We do the devil's work every time we cast another person or group as the adversary, increasing the distance between "us" and "them" until they are all but impossible to bridge.

That is what made the participation of so many pro-life women and groups in the Women's Marches so admirable. Yes, the organizers of the March will continue to claim to speak for "all women" (with their very divisive message). We can't control their message, but those women who joined with other women this weekend refused to accept the status quo of a house divided. They took a step into the breach--and for a few brief moments, the world paid attention to them. Who knows how many other privately pro-life women in those marches took courage from seeing normal, youthful and positive representatives marching both for women and for life?

Today the US Bishops ask Catholics to observe a day of prayer and penance for the legal protection of unborn human life. On Friday, the annual March for Life will be another occasion to affirm the value of human life in a way that does not divide or condemn, but that invites everyone to a deeper appreciation of the gift of life "from conception to natural death."

Jesus has already won the victory over death, and he won it for all of us, but we do not proclaim that victory if we are intent on doing it the way the devil does: by dividing. Today, pay attention to the way words, slogans and policies do the devil's work--and be on the lookout for words that instead step into the breach, casting out the devils of non-communication, of accusation, of epithets, and affirming the good that every human heart can't help but desire.

Friday, January 06, 2017

Book Review: Love, Henri

On this day when the Universal Church commemorates the Epiphany of the Lord (we in the US celebrate it on Sunday), it is fitting to highlight a really good book for spiritual seekers.
I haven't even finished the book yet, but it is so good I am doing a public service and writing a review of it anyway. Heck, this is a book so good that I recommended it to the Pauline book guru, Sister Julia Mary who this morning told me, “You know that Nouwen book? Well, I'm only on page 10 and it already has a bookmark on every page.” And then she went on to share a passage that had really impressed her (and me: it was the first page I bookmarked, too).

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1101906359/ref=as_li_qf_sp_asin_il_tl?ie=UTF8&tag=bescatboo-20&camp=1789&creative=9325&linkCode=as2&creativeASIN=1101906359&linkId=af3418ab21b5828aa2a39a57431a4689Love, Henri is a collection of letters from Henri J. M. Nouwen, a Dutch priest and author who won the world's accolades (as well as teaching posts at Yale and Harvard), but found his deepest fulfillment in living community life with the disabled. Along the way he published book after book of his (often deeply personal) spiritual reflections. His experiences and insights resonated with many. His correspondence was not limited to personal friends or collaborators or ministry professionals, but included generous and thoughtful letters to readers, many of whom entrusted him with their struggles (and some of them, it becomes clear, with sharp criticism).

The book is filled with warmth, with spiritual treasures—and with the name of Jesus, Jesus loved and doggedly sought. In one letter alone, the name of Jesus appears in every paragraph (6) in addition to references to “He/Him” and “the Lord.”

Jesus was his hope. In a time of deep interior pain, he wrote, “I am quite, quite aware that this pain is given to me to purify my heart, to deepen my love for Jesus and to give Him every inch of my being.”

Jesus was his message. “The desire to proclaim Jesus,” he wrote to someone who had asked about the value of evangelization, “belongs to the essence of knowing Him and loving Him.” To a friend about to begin theological studies: “The church, the world need you to speak about Jesus, loudly, clearly, intelligently and with great zeal. Whether you become a priest or... marry...you are clearly called to proclaim the love of Jesus.” To another professional contact: “Ministry is to point again and again to the Lord.” To the superior of a Benedictine community he wrote, “Speak often about the life of Jesus. That is where the spiritual life starts.”

Nouwen's letters are, to me, striking for their honesty and for a freedom that was unclouded by the need to conform to the expectations or values of an elite (despite being immersed in the class-conscious Ivy League environment). Seeking to follow Jesus, he spent long periods of service in Latin America (later realizing that he was not cut out for the particular kind of intensity that involved), but eventually found his way to L'Arche at the invitation of the founder, Jean Vanier. This was a discovery. “Precisely because they are so dependent on others, [profoundly disabled people] call us to live together, sharing our gifts. ...people from the most different cultures … have started to live in community”; “the call of the handicapped to form communities of love is truly a blessing from Heaven.”

I have read several of Nouwen's books, and enjoyed them. I found particular inspiration in his Road to Daybreak and In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership. But these letters contain so much more. They remind me of something I experienced when meeting Pope John Paul in 1985: As the Pope greeted us one by one, gazing in each one's eyes as if entirely at our disposition. I felt flustered and a little embarrassed by the complete availability of such a great man. Nouwen, too, made himself completely available in these letters with their assurances of concern, awareness, of continued prayer for the recipient in whatever the situation at hand.

I might risk comparing the Nouwen of this book with several other important Catholic spiritual writers. Thomas Merton comes to mind first. Nouwen explicitly rejects this comparison in one of his letters, saying that Merton is too towering a figure for him to even consider himself in the same category. He was wrong. Merton had a very different temperament and vastly different life experience, but the two priests have something much deeper in common: a profound and explicit desire for communion with God and the ability to be honest with themselves and before God. I also hear echos of the letters of St Ignatius Loyola, another man who shared his spiritual journey deeply with any who might profit from it, and who carefully and thoughtfully responded to those who wrote to him with their spiritual struggles. Finally, the gentleness and practicality of Nouwen's counsels reminds me of the beautiful soul of Jean-Pierre de Caussade.

Love, Henri is a beautiful and worthwhile read.



Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. In addition, I received a review copy of the book mentioned above for free in the hope that I would publish a review of it. I am committed to giving as honest a review as possible as part of my community's mission of putting media at the service of the truth. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Community Night

New Year's Eve is a special night for Paulines, since it was during adoration at the dawn of the 20th century that our Founder received that special "light" that would mark not only his life, but that of the Church (and of yours truly!). This year we made our retreat all day Saturday and ended it with our community Holy Hour in the evening. We were joined by the women attending our Pauline Discipleship Week, an intensive discernment experience. (Please pray for them as they move toward the conclusion of this very enriching week.)

On the following night we (and the visitors) shared a community recreation that was especially well-planned by our "entertainment committee." The sisters had the inspiration to challenge us to coming up with 90-second skits on the theme "#MediaNuns: the Musical." I am proud to say that I was the first "act" booked for a slot (even if I was third in the lineup). The contributions were so spot-on I had to share them with you.

Sr Domenica was our conductor!
In addition to the mini-musicals, other songs of the season were sung: Sisters from our seniors community led us in a beloved Italian carol written by none other than St Alphonsus Liguori, Tu Scendi dalle Stelle ("You come down from the stars, O King of Heaven..."). When Sister Emily Beata (from Buffalo) and one of the discerners (also from Buffalo) announced that they were going to share a Polish carol, my ears perked up. It has been four years (or more) since I sang Dzisiaj W Betlejem with the choir at Our Lady of Mt Carmel--and it was just this carol that they had chosen! Naturally I jumped up to sing with them, despite my rusty Polish pronunciation! (My music in Chicago had my own carefully written pronunciation guides written below each word: Dzisiaj W Betlejem = Gee Shy Bet-lay-em.)

Now for the "originals" submitted to #MediaNuns: the Musical

Daughters We have Heard Online, presented by the Brazilian outreach team to the melody of Angels We have Heard on High (the audience was asked to provide the "Glo-r-i-a in Excelsis De-e-o.")

Daughters we have heard online
Sweetly sing in cyberspace,
and God's people in reply
Asking: Let us see His Face! (Gloria...)

People, why this jubilee?
Why this joy for all to see?
Word made flesh to set us free
Media showing how to be Gloria...

Daughters, give His holy Word
Making sure that all have heard,
Books and CDs, cyberspace
Bringing all to see His Face (Gloria...)

Human river flows along*
to eternal destiny
Our life, our total song
Jesus to the world to bring (Gloria...)

*This line is a reference to a powerful question our Founder raised in a sermon: "Mankind is like a river, flowing into eternity. But where is humanity going?"


My own contribution built on the holiday melody "Up on the Housetop."

Up at the crack of dawn we rise,
Eyes already on the prize.
Down to the chapel, quick, quick, quick--
A cup of coffee should do the trick.

First things first,
Hear the Word,
Then proclaim what we have heard
Through all the media every day,
Jesus the Master,
Truth, Life, Way!


And finally the classic "Twelve Days of Christmas" in which twelve sisters of very good will each represented a day:

On the first day of Christmas, the good Lord sent to me: Life as an FSP!
Then:
Two authors writing
Three concerts praising
Four important meetings
FIVE TWEETS OF JOY!
Six new book covers
Seven books a-printing
Eight parish book fairs
Nine packages shipping
Ten readers leaping
Eleven e-mails waiting
All the sisters praying

   

Monday, January 02, 2017

BFF: The Saints' Edition

Today is the Feast of Sts Basil the Great and Gregory Nazianzen, Bishops and Doctors of the Church--and best friends. The witness of their friendship (as narrated in the first person by St Gregory) struck me profoundly as we read it this morning in chapel. They seem to have enjoyed a rare kind of friendship, one that human hearts yearn for in this "valley of tears."

Read Gregory's memorial to Basil (below) and see if you don't agree with me that Basil and Gregory deserve to be named the patron saints of friendship!

- - - - - 


Basil (left) and Gregory (right) with St John Chrystostom.
Icon found in Lipie, Historic Museum in SanokPoland.
Basil and I were both in Athens. We had come, like streams of a river, from the same source in our native land, had separated from each other in pursuit of learning, and were now united again as if by plan, for God so arranged it.

I was not alone at that time in my regard for my friend, the great Basil. I knew his irreproachable conduct, and the maturity and wisdom of his conversation. I sought to persuade others, to whom he was less well known, to have the same regard for him. Many fell immediately under his spell, for they had already heard of him by reputation and hearsay.

What was the outcome? Almost alone of those who had come to Athens to study he was exempted from the customary ceremonies of initiation for he was held in higher honor than his status as a first-year student seemed to warrant.

Such was the prelude to our friendship, the kindling of that flame that was to bind us together. In this way we began to feel affection for each other. When, in the course of time, we acknowledged our friendship and recognized that our ambition was a life of true wisdom, we became everything to each other: we shared the same lodging, the same table, the same desires, the same goal. Our love for each other grew daily warmer and deeper.

The same hope inspired us: the pursuit of learning. This is an ambition especially subject to envy. Yet between us there was no envy. On the contrary, we made capital out of our rivalry. Our rivalry consisted, not in seeking the first place for oneself but in yielding it to the other, for we each looked on the other’s success as his own.

We seemed to be two bodies with a single spirit. Though we cannot believe those who claim that everything is contained in everything, yet you must believe that in our case each of us was in the other and with the other.

Our single object and ambition was virtue, and a life of hope in the blessings that are to come; we wanted to withdraw from this world before we departed from it. With this end in view we ordered our lives and all our actions. We followed the guidance of God’s law and spurred each other on to virtue. If it is not too boastful to say, we found in each other a standard and rule for discerning right from wrong.

Different men have different names, which they owe to their parents or to themselves, that is, to their own pursuits and achievements. But our great pursuit, the great name we wanted, was to be Christians, to be called Christians.





Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The Power and the Glory of "Silence" (revised)


On January 5, Martin Scorsese's film Silence opens in theaters across the country. (It had a limited release before Christmas so as to qualify for the awards season.) The film had been Scorsese's dream project for almost thirty years, ever since he read the novel by Shusaku Endo (“the Japanese Graham Greene”). 

I read the book around the same time as Scorsese, and while it did not grip me with the desire to make the definitive motion picture version, it did leave an indelible impression on me. When a line in a book stops you, stays with you and continues to prod, provoke and pursue you for twenty years, you know that you are dealing with something more than a “novel.” Come to think of it, Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory did the same thing to me (as it did to Bl. Paul VI, who remarked to the author that it was his favorite novel—despite its being on the Vatican's Index of Prohibited Books!).

I am not going to see the film, even though I suspect it will be Scorsese's masterpiece. I watched the trailer (you can see it at the bottom of this post), and that is quite enough for someone who gets sensory overload after an hour in a museum. And, like I said, I read the book and it has stayed with me. But I have also read reviews/commentaries by persons who have neither seen the film nor read the book, and are tied up in knots about it. This has led me to reflect a great deal. Today's anxious Catholic writers resemble the Japanese Catholics who rejected Endo's book when it was first released, and probably also the persons who had The Power and the Glory put on the Index. And I totally understand them, because I was also scandalized by Silence.

Endo's story of an apostate missionary and of the fervent young priests who set out to “seek and save what was lost” is not the story we typically tell about persecuted Christians. I myself wanted Endo's protagonist to be the Edmund Campion of Asia, triumphant in that gloriously paradoxical way we love about martyrs. Instead, like Graham Greene's whisky priest in The Power and the Glory, we get what looks for all the world like failure, but may nevertheless be a flawed faithfulness.

A critical point in Silence is the devil's choice presented to the surviving young missionary, when he is challenged to trample upon an image of Christ in return for the release of Christian villagers undergoing horrific tortures. Would it be an act of apostasy? Materially, yes. And yet from the pervading silence comes a voice that insists, “It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world.” (Honestly, isn't that line alone enough for your meditation throughout the Christmas season?)

I remember how my heart sank when I first read this passage. I was disappointed with the outcome, because I had completely missed the point. Endo's protagonist had the human qualities to withstand what he was being put through, but his perseverance still “fell short of the glory of God” (cf. Rom 3:23) who chooses the weak, the “things that are not” (cf 1 Cor 1:27). Even if the young priest continued in ministry, in his own eyes both ruined and obedient, he would be unable to boast or take pride in an unbroken public confession of faith, knowing the ambiguity of publicly committing iconoclasm while convinced interiorly that God had inexplicably willed it. He would be in profound communion with his fallen parishioners. Would that it were so.

In Roman times, there were thousands, perhaps even a million martyrs whose stories we still read, whose anniversaries we still commemorate. But there were also many, probably more Christian holders of “libelli,” documents certifying that the bearer had offered due sacrifice to the gods—had, in other words, made a public act of apostasy or idolatry. (It should also be noted that the libellatici included priests.) In fact, there were so many of these libellatici that the Church actually made a step forward in sacramental theology, thanks to the controversies about what to do with them when they repented (ex opere operato, anyone?).

It didn't matter to the persecutors (then or now) whether the act was sincere or not: the outward conformity alone was sufficient. The Romans didn't care if you believed in Jupiter, as long as you brought incense to his altar. Bishop Barron writes, "the secular establishment always prefers Christians who are vacillating, unsure, divided, and altogether eager to privatize their religion." Moreover, the story is incredibly relevant today. On Christmas Day I read a New York Times story about two women in Qaraqosh, Iraq forced by the Islamic State to spit on a cross and trample on an image of the Blessed Virgin. “ 'Sorry, Mary, that I did that,' [one] recalled thinking. 'Please forgive me'."

Most of us still do not know what martyrdom really is, or what it is like. We can only imagine it, and perhaps we imagine from within our own limited and comfortable perspective right now. We do not know what it would be like to be filled with terror at the prospect, or so filled with the Holy Spirit that, like the Japanese Jesuit martyr Paul Miki, we would continue to preach, exhort and encourage from the wood of an actual cross.

We can—and should—aspire to the heroic victory of a Paul Miki, of a Felicity or Agnes, an Edmund Campion or a Jean de Brebeuf, but history (if not hagiography) is full of also-rans, and Greene, Endo (and Flannery O'Connor, too) use their art to bring us face-to-face with them. It makes me squirm because it is too much like a mirror, pointing to the very real possibilities in my own life for failure, apostasy or just plain mediocrity. Endo (and Scorsese with him) will not allow me to bask in imaginary glory.

Another term for the “silence” of the title could be Dark Night of the Soul. In that darkness of God's seeming absence, we learn to distrust our own ways of thinking, seeing, interpreting in order to be open to God's mysterious, often painfully inscrutable ways, to surrender to a wisdom that makes no sense to us.

I am praying that Scorsese's Silence will be an invitation to faith for those to whom God is absent, silent; for the Simone Weils of the world who feel that they are on the doorstep of the Church, unable to enter until everyone else has at least read the world “Welcome” on the mat. Who knows? Maybe Silence will itself be that Welcome mat.





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Bishop Barron, a big Scorsese fan, writes about Silence: http://www.wordonfire.org/resources/article/scorseses-silence-and-the-seaside-martyrs/5360/

Dale M. Coulter (in First Things) offers a very beautiful and nuanced reflection on the book and history the movie is based on: https://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2017/01/shsaku-ends-silence-and-faithfulness (added to this list on January 3, 2017).

Paul Elie in the New York Times on Scorsese's dream of producing Silence: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/27/magazine/the-passion-of-martin-scorsese.html