Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Rereading Lent with Rene Girard

I've been reading a lot lately written by or inspired by Rene Girard, the recently deceased thinker (and Catholic convert) who discovered in ancient literature (specifically myths from world over) what he considered the violent origin of all human culture, an origin represented in a disguised and sacralized fashion in natural religion. Call it the cultural testimony or remnants of the original sin.

Analyzing his findings, Girard noticed that even the most basic human expressions, starting with language itself, are built on the unsteady framework of imitation—he used the term "mimesis" to prevent the concept from being understood in too external a fashion. The child who says "Dada" or "Mama" acquired that word through imitation of the very one the word represents. Every step of early human development comes about through mimesis, but so also do the values that the child acquires: the scales for measuring beauty and comfort and status (and what-have-you) are all acquired in a mimetic way. The entire advertising industry is built on the socialized way we pick up on what is cool and what is not; what is respect and what is scorn; who is in and who is out. Unfortunately for us, it is not enough for us to feel in sync with our own cultural group by adopting the common value system. Just as in a neighborhood when everyone tries to keep up with the Joneses, mimesis engenders rivalry, and rivalry tends to disrupt the ties of communion and threaten the stability of the family, or clan, or team, or political party.

Enter Satan, the disrupter of communion par excellence, to propose a solution to the impending explosion. It is enough to determine who is to blame for the upset—the persons or religious sub-group or social class  or unassimilated strangers who provoked the current state of malaise. "Expel them," Satan suggests, "and harmony will be restored."

The murder of Seth (in the form of a hippo) by
his rival, Horus (whom Seth had molested)
is one of innumerable myths that fit the
pattern Girard discerned in world religions.

Looking at the standard religious myths of non-biblical literature, Girard realized that all of them told the same basic story: a story of rivalries that reach a dangerous crescendo, but which are resolved when the guilty party (often an unknown visitor or a misfit or the perpetrator of some hideous or unnatural act) is permanently and efficiently expelled by a united action on the part of the majority. (Stoning was a favorite mode and even left a memorial pyramid on the site!). The concord that is born from the unanimous mob action amazes the community, and they come to believe that a god has been among them. The next time disharmony threatens, the group re-enacts the expelling (perhaps slaying a prince or a prisoner of war in the place of the fallen-and-risen god). Their unity of purpose, and the rightness of the cause demonstrate that the accusation is clearly true, and the violent mob of lynchers are really noble priests of the peace-bestowing god.

I know, this is a hard sell for an unfamiliar take on society, and I'm probably not rendering it properly at all. After all, I've only been reading this stuff for the past year or so. But bear with me.

Girard thought he had discovered a hither-to unknown insight about human society. The universality of the myth-pattern and the invariability of the stages and the way they became structured in religious practice seemed to confirm what he was recognizing. At first he may have thought the stories in the Bible were just more of the same.

Except for one thing.

In the myths, the unknown visiting "god" was always considered the real, if mysterious, cause of the community's woes as well as of its restoration. The community which expelled him (through brutal and unanimous murder) was completely justified in its action. In the Bible, though, the victim of mob action (whether his name was Joseph or Job or Jesus) was clearly innocent, and the crowd (of brothers, or of accusing "friends," or of the priests and people in the Praetorium courtyard) was clearly guilty. To his surprise, Girard found that the Bible refused to follow the standard pattern. Beginning with some of the very early books of the Old Testament, the Bible had already begun to name and thus undo the sacralized violence that characterized society and religion since the beginning. (Remember that Cain, who murdered his own brother out of rivalrous envy, was "a founder of cities.")

The weft and warp of society turns out to be rivalry and murder, and Divine Revelation the antidote, administered drip by drip over the course of centuries.

Coming Next: "Divine Revelation's Remedy for Rivalry" and "Is it I, Lord?"

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Free! (It's my favorite word)

Amazon is luring people to give their music service a try with a free month of "Prime Music." It sounds like you get the free two day shipping that is the main draw of "Prime" plus unlimited streaming even of rather exclusive music releases. If you have WIFI and like a variety of music, you might want to take advantage of the opportunity. (The offer is only good during February.)

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Brides of Christ Closing the Year of Consecrated Life

Today, the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, is also the closing of the Year of Consecrated Life. This year of Church attention on the various forms of special consecration got a little lost in the excitement of the unexpected Jubilee Year of Mercy, but today's feast gives us one last chance to reflect on the mystery of a consecration rooted in the baptismal consecration. And I received an invitation to reflect a little further on this when a sister from another community asked for some input on a paper she is writing as part of her graduate studies.

Sister said that in Africa, religious sisters are frequently referred to as "Brides of Christ," but in her studies in North America, she observed that this language was not exactly the title of preference. Instead, she was told, Sisters prefer to be identified as "women of the Church," this reflecting the option for social justice. And so she put the call out to women religious in a very modern fashion: via Facebook message! " I would like to know  your congregation's view on the 'bride of Christ' metaphor. Do you still use it? Do you have another model that you use to refer to women religious?"

Interestingly enough for me, her question came the day after I myself was musing on the title "Bride of Christ," so I was delighted to give it some more thought. And since that generated way more than a Facebook message's worth of content, I am just referring Sister to the old Nunblog for my reflections on her question. (As the Lady Alice More said in "A Man for All Seasons": "If anyone wants to know my opinion...he only has to ask for it!")

Dear Sister,

Thank you for your question. I really benefited a lot from thinking it over. In fact, just the day before your inquiry, I had been reflecting on the image of the “Bride of Christ” in connection with another project. Your question just gave me the excuse I needed to delve a little further into my own convictions.

I had never ever heard the expression “women of the Church” used to substitute for “Brides of Christ.” It seems a very poor, pale replacement. In fact, it is the very weakness of the substitute that triggered most of my reflections. “Women of the Church” is valid enough as it stands, but it is nowhere near as evocative and rich as the term it is meant to replace. Frankly, it doesn't say very much to me.

First vows for Paulines in Pakistan (Jan 25)
In my community (Daughters of St Paul) we do not use this expression very much, but we do not use a “replacement” for it either. We tend to think of ourselves more in apostolic terms, and identify ourselves charismatically (as “Paulines” or “media nuns”), taking the relationship with Jesus as a matter of fact and of the public record. (Since “apostle” means “one who is sent” the Sender is automatically included!)

Personally, I do not use the expression “Bride of Christ.” I am not a particularly romantic type of person, and do not identify too much with the expression, which I think I have heard mostly from much older people (i.e. my parents' generation) and found in books published fifty or more years ago. Given our highly sexualized culture, I have also found that when the expression is used today in secular media (for example, in an article or post about a group of sisters or about women religious in general), it is used with an air of bemusement or mild ridicule. Today's culture being as unhealthy as it is, the expression “Bride/s of Christ” can even be distasteful (outside of extremely fervent Catholic circles).

The expression “Bride of Christ” may have fallen by the wayside in the affluent world, but it is making a comeback among some younger women religious. It is possible that some of the younger sisters are taken with the romance of all things “retro” and might be somewhat uncritical about old things, but I think they are also telling us something very important about the imagery of the “Bride of Christ” and we need to listen to that.

I believe (very strongly!) that the language of the “bride of Christ” ought to remain part of our self-understanding as women religious, but not flaunted or used casually in secular contexts where it can be either grossly misinterpreted or treated as the quaint but bizarre belief of a marginal culture. The language is based on an analogy; it is not a bare fact that stands on its own.

Among the values of the “Bride of Christ” image:

The virgin/bride is an archetype: a foundational human symbol that simply cannot be done away with or replaced. Assumption of this image makes a powerful statement about Christianity. I think it is especially unwise to reject ancient insights in light of modern sensibilities which may be (to use biblical language) “passing away.”

What does the virgin/bride archetype “say”? I believe this image speaks of both present and future realities:
Present realities:
Beauty (when is a woman more lovely than on her wedding day?)
Gift of the “whole” self, and one's whole future
Focus on the Groom!

Future realities:
Fruitfulness (children)
Fidelity (lifelong)
Fidelity (exclusivity)

At the center of all these present and future realities is the one word that sums it all up: LOVE. A bride is a woman whose existence is practically synonymous with love. To say “bride” is to speak of love: a love that is somehow new, dawning, brimming with promise. To say “bride” is to evoke a happy future: a future which is the full flowering of the love that is promised on the wedding day. (That happy future is the main reason we celebrate other people's weddings with so much joy!)

All of the above are subsumed into the Church's use of the image of the bride of Christ, an image which started not with Christ, but in the Old Testament. The image of the human bride of the divine Bridegroom is a biblical image, especially significant in the prophets, in St Paul (especially 1 Cor 7 and Eph 5), and in the book of Revelation, the last divinely inspired words we have from the early Church.

St Paul saw the married couple, husband and wife, as a “type” or symbol-in-person of Christ and the Church. So the primary “bride of Christ” is not the religious sister, but the Church. It doesn't take much to then see the consecrated woman as a “type” of the Church-as-Bride, and it didn't take long for the Fathers of the Church to make this explicit. Thanks to them, the spousal language became a part of the Liturgy of the Hours and Office of Readings for Virgins and Religious. This is especially clear in the antiphons and the use of Psalm 45 (an ode for a royal wedding) for the Common of Virgins.

The image of the bride evokes election (being called personally, by name). It is the relationship, not the work that is primary. I think this is lost when “women of the Church” is chosen because it is presumed to speak of social justice. No, my primary relationship in life is not with my ministry (or even with my fellow believers, co-members of the Mystical Body), it is with the Lord Jesus in whose name and for whose sake I am baptized and am engaged in ministry. This relationship with the Lord is one of communion, not the one-flesh union of natural marriage, but a communion that hopefully grows toward that undivided union with the Lord that is the nature of heaven.
Then there is the mystical tradition of the Church in which the spousal image (and the biblical Song of Songs!) plays such an important part. Although men like Bernard of Clairvaux and John of the Cross contributed powerfully to this mystical tradition of the soul as beloved spouse of Christ, women are the icon of the virgin/bride/Church. Even the liturgical designation of “virgin” for women only (even though there are many virgin men saints) underlines the importance of this image. The liturgical title is not about a woman's biological status, but about what Facebook would call her “relationship status” and then, more profoundly, not about the woman at all, but about the Church: The woman depicts the Church as Bride in a way that a virginal man cannot. (The male priesthood, then, is the counterpart--is there a correlation between rejection of the title "Bride of Christ" and resistance to the male priesthood? Just wondering.)

Just as the image of the bride evokes the hope of future happiness, the “Bride of Christ” is an eschatological sign (cf. Mt 22:23-33). Humans are designed for marriage. The bridal image says that the woman religious is not a shriveled, lonely, unfulfilled person who devotes herself to work because she never found a partner in life; she is united to her life-partner and at the same time, she evidently “awaits” him as her most “blessed hope” (cf. Tit 2:13): her apparent single state speaks of the one who is coming. This is a huge sign of hope to those who understand the Christian faith, and enough of a question mark for those who do not to provoke them to approach the woman herself and ask their questions—which they do—giving the sisters an opportunity to proclaim the gospel. It is also significant that women religious find the vow of chastity the most meaningful of the three evangelical counsels (1993 Nygren and Ukeritis study of Religious in the US). I even read once that the psychological profiles of women religious match those of married (not single) women!

So the image of the "Bride of Christ" is liturgically and biblically rich; our state in life is not marginal to the Bible. Instead, with a self-understanding as "bride" we women religious find ourselves spoken to powerfully across the arc of divine revelation. It is fitting that there be in the Church a living "key" to the Scriptures.

- - - - 

As we close the Year of Consecrated Life during this Jubilee of Mercy, it was a special grace for me to have the opportunity to reflect a bit more on this title, to recognize more explicitly how rich it really is, and what grace it suggests for me and for the Church.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Hand-wringing about Foot-washing

"I have given you an example: as I have done, so you must do."
One month ago yesterday, Pope Francis signed a document (released today) changing the liturgical rubrics for Holy Thursday's Evening Mass of the Lord's Supper. Actually, all he did was eliminate the restriction of the rite of foot-washing to men (Latin: viri). The Pope's goal is that the rite express the breadth of Christ's mercy, which led him to give himself for everyone.

As Pope, Francis effectively changed the rubrics on his first Holy Thursday; now he just made it official.  I am not a big fan of women getting their feet washed (and certainly wanted to have nothing to do with it while the rubrical restrictions were in place), but my resistance is mainly from a sense of distaste at all it involves in terms of hosiery (not that ordinary women wear hose anymore).
This is a departure from the 1955 rite (which restored an extinct practice), and from the earlier customs. It is safe to say that the medieval and earlier foot-washings involved men alone simply out of reasons of decorum. Other ceremonial (but non-liturgical) foot-washings with women were carried out by women. Either way, participants were often chosen from the poor, offering exactly the sign that the Pope hopes the revised rite will help manifest: the "limitless charity" of the one who loved us and gave himself up for us. 

We may have gotten used to the visual of "twelve men/boys" representing the Apostles, but the washing of the feet was less about the priestly character of the Apostles than it was a graphic exhortation to service on the part of those who represent Christ--just as it was on that Holy Thursday night.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Winter Storm Jonas and the New Nineveh

There aren't forty days until the meteorologists' prophecies are expected to come to pass (no meteorologist would dare make such a long-term prediction!). Instead, we have about three days until Winter Storm Jonas descends upon the Nineveh of Washington DC. Even now, thousands of cheerful prophets (so unlike the original Jonas--or Jonah as he is more commonly thought of) are packing and planning for Friday's March for Life which will take place regardless of the weather (though organizers are warning participants about the expected storm).
Open wide! Jonas takes a dive in this 16th century ms.

The DC area is not too good handling ordinary snowfall, and Jonas is making the meteorologists so giddy it is worth being concerned for the young people (they are mostly young people) who participate in the March and in the surrounding events.

Friday is also a day of Prayer and Penance in reparation for sins against human life. The US bishops have asked us to pray, fast and give alms (or perform other works of mercy) on this anniversary of the Supreme Court decision that opened the way to legalized abortion. When the people of old Nineveh heard Jonah's message, they repented, "and all of them, great and small, put on sackcloth" (Jon 3:5-10). Given that we are all one body, one human family, there is no way to determine here on earth where my own sins contributed to the weakness of the whole in a way that fostered the conditions we are trying to make up for. An act of selfishness on my part contributes to a more selfish climate for everyone. A curt dismissal contributes to a lowering of respect for those who "don't measure up". Exploitation of another person's weakness confirms society's tendency to manipulate those whom it can and eliminate those it cannot. Acts of penance are not only a way of making up in some way for sins "other people" committed; it is an acknowledgement that "all have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23).

If you go to Mass on Friday, you will see the priest wearing the violet vestments representing repentance. You may not be out in the cold this Friday, but how will you raise (and heed) the voice of Jonas in the Nineveh of the 21st century?

Southerners need to know that "boots" does not mean
"rain boots" or galoshes or even fashionably warm
Uggs, but actual snow boots: waterproof, lined,
not really cute snow boots. (Thanks to the Students
for Life for the great infographic!)

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Turning God into an Idol

It happens in both of today's Mass readings, and it can happen today. Turning the Living God (or as the first reading from 1 Samuel 4 put it, "the Lord of Hosts who is enthroned upon the cherubim") into an idol (first reading) or a golden goose (Gospel).

In the first reading, the Israelite army is having a bad day. Defeated by the Philistines, they decide to force God's hand: carrying the Ark of the Covenant (understood to be God's throne--with God still seated on it!) onto the battlefield. They attempt to turn God into their servant, to wield his power like a tool in their own hands. (It didn't work out the way they intended.)

Rembrandt: Christ heals the leper.
Fortunately, the flip side (a right relationship with the Living God) is portrayed for us in the Gospel. "If you will it, you can make me clean," said the leper on his knees before Christ. And, surprisingly enough, God (in the form of a servant) does bend to the will of his suppliant: "Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand..." The idol-making instinct is not totally overcome, however: as word spread about the miraculous cure of the leper, people came crowding in on Jesus to the point that he was banished (leper-like) far from the populated areas, though "people kept coming to him from everywhere."

St James wrote (scornfully) about people who complain that God does not hear their prayer, when the problem is they are praying "amiss" (Jas 4:2-3). Today's Morning Prayer today seemed to have the answer, starting with the first Psalm (57): "Have mercy on me, you my soul has taken refuge."

Monday, January 11, 2016

Gearing Up for Lent

I know, I know. It was Christmastide, literally, just yesterday. And yet here we are on the first day of the first week in Ordinary Time, with Lent less than a month away.

Is there something providential about this? In the Jubilee Year of Mercy, I would say so. The liturgy is giving us an opportunity to renew our Advent hopes and our New Year's resolutions, and to consecrate the best of them once again with all the spiritual vigor of the Lenten forty days.

Or maybe the Lord is indicating something completely unexpected: a grace he wants to work in you that you may never have thought to ask for, much less work towards. Here in community, that's what these weeks of Christmas have been for me: abundant and unexpected opportunities for stretching the old comfort zone to include the things I tend to back away from. In these weeks leading up to Lent I have a chance not for a flurry of resolutions, but for some reflection and discernment (along with some King Cake).

What about you? Has Christmas been edging you, all unawares, closer to the Lenten season?

- - - - -

You can find some special resources for this Jubilee Year of Mercy and for the Lenten season on my community's website; please share the link on social media!

Monday, December 28, 2015

Holy Innocents: A thought for the day

A fitting thought on this chilling Christmas "feast":

The Son of God took flesh
and died
in order to punch a hole
in the hard wall
the human heart.

Gregory Collins, OSB

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Blessed Christmas!

It is our glory
to kneel
and adore
the Incarnate Christ.
(Byzantine Liturgy)

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Finding the Christmas Tree in a Sycamore

If anyone was sleeping during meditation this morning, Sister Mary A. woke them up with her heart-rendingly desperate cry for help. Her panic was not at something particularly life-threatening. The poor soul felt stranded at the top of the five steps leading down to chapel: someone had left the electric wheelchair lift at the bottom, and Sister forgot about the gentle bell that would summon a helper without raising the collective heartrate. We have a few sisters like her, whose weaknesses can be a bit distracting, if not unsettling. 

But Christmas is a mystery of weakness. We won't see God as Emmanuel, God-with-us, if we don't get used to the idea of weakness; if we don't come to see ourselves as weak and needy.

Yesterday I came across some meditation notes from November, when the day's Gospel was the encounter of Jesus with Zaccheus, the man in the sycamore tree. In some unexpected ways, I “heard” that Gospel today as a Christmas story. This is what I mean:

In the Incarnation, and on that road through Jericho, Jesus moved toward those polite society shrinks from, the people who are too needy, clingy, erratic, demanding, unpredictable, intrusive. I tend to move quite rapidly in the opposite direction of people who might challenge me with their unexpected helplessness or their violation of societal expectations. I don't want to be put on the spot. Jesus doesn't mind at all. In the Incarnation, Jesus “came to seek and save what was lost.” He did not protect himself from those he had come for: he identified with them.,0.7909,0.35
Zaccheus may not have known this at first. Of course, he was “looking to see Jesus” (we are made for that), but he hid himself in the generous leaves of the sycamore tree so as not to impose his need on Jesus, or expose himself to the rejection of his townspeople. After all, he was a tax collector, “a sinner,” a member of an undeserving class, unwelcome wherever people gathered. It was a weird, symbiotic relationship: Zaccheus profiting from his role as local sinner to extort as much as he could from his tax collector's post, while his fellow citizens could feel vindicated in their resentment and secure in their civic virtue every time they looked at him.

Naturally, then, he was the one Jesus called out to, just as at the Nativity it was the misfit shepherds (lazy, thieving types who were dismissed as outside the Law, since their profession prevented them from observing all the religious prescriptions) and the pagan scholars (pagans!) who received celestial invitations to the manger. God comes to all, but only the weak or excluded seem to recognize him.

It can be so easy to get the Gospel wrong; to think it is for “good people,” or that Jesus' (or the Pope's) presence and nearness is a reward for getting it all right. Today's moralism seems to know only reward or punishment, and sees “fraternizing with the undeserving” as a dismissal of wrongdoing rather than an invitation to a new life. Whether we identify more with the “losers” or with the “in crowd,” we can miss the invitation to go out on a limb and receive the Kingdom of God like a little child if we want it to only confirm us in our way of thinking and keep our hierarchies of power or values in place.

Most of us won't hear these readings on Christmas Day, so why not read them as part of your Christmas preparation? "He came unto his own." He comes to us. What comes next?