Friday, August 23, 2013

Praying the Psalms

    For about twenty-seven years, I have been praying the Church’s Liturgy of the Hours. For those who do not know anything about it, it is a time-tested rotating recitation of the 150 psalms (well, most of them. . . ), with a selection of Biblical texts and non-Biblical spiritual writings.  Every four weeks most of the psalms are prayed, divided up by 7 daily hours that mark the beginning through the end of the day.  Much has been written about the psalms throughout the centuries.  They provide a deep glimpse into the spirituality of the Hebrew people, including both mystical reflection upon God’s providence, as well as historical summaries from a prayerful point of view. Not to be left out are the complaint psalms, as well as the curse psalms. [These were left out from the current rendition of the Breviary, in whole or in part. Those who revised the Breviary after Vatican II felt that praying for God to dash the heads of our enemies’ babies against the rocks was okay in Latin, but might be off-putting in vernacular languages. I read somewhere that Pope Paul VI wasn’t too happy with this omission, but there you go.]
    For a Christian, the psalms are often prophecy of the coming of Christ, and beautifully express His life and mission, most notably His passion, as seen in psalm 22 (“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”)  But a more profound reflection upon the psalms is to consider that Jesus prayed these same psalms as part of His own spirituality as a Hebrew. When we pray the psalms, we are saying the words that Jesus Himself used throughout His life, including His suffering on the cross.  See psalm 22, mentioned above.
    One of the biggest breaks from traditional Judaism after the beginning of the Church was the eventual abandonment of Temple worship and the sacrifices that accompanied it. Geographically, this made sense as the Church spread beyond Judea and into gentile lands and peoples.  With regard to the Gospel, this makes perfect sense as Christians realized that the sacrifice of Jesus consummated, completed and did away with animal sacrifices. That the psalms remained part of Christian worship and prayer is significant, comprising the daily prayer of monks, nuns and priests for centuries.
    What do we find when we pray the psalms? Fundamental to their spirituality is the simple faith of Abraham, and David. God was not far off, though above the heavens. He is a “helper in time of need.” Though He allows the just man to fall onto hard times, difficulty and even persecution, He remains faithful and with a plan for grace and redemption. He cares not just for the lions and the birds and the deer who long for flowing streams, but nourishes the thirsty soul in marvelous ways.
    We do not know the author of all the psalms, though many are attributed to David. Perhaps it’s best that we do not know who they were. It is not that important. Or perhaps, the anonymity of the psalmists benefits us. The world does not know who they are, but God does. They were privileged to contribute something marvelous to the Divine Scriptures, and their words, inspired by God, will last for eternity.
    Consider our situation. Most of us on earth are not known beyond the circle of our family, friends and associates. Our sufferings and trials, triumphs and victories, great or small as they may be, are virtually unknown to the world, and may not have a broad exposure to the world at large, yet they are known to God. He hears our every groan and sigh, our laughter and joy; He knows our inmost sins and desires, and mercifully offers His grace when no one else cares or knows about what we are going through. Indeed, there is a psalm for every circumstance and situation in life. God Who is beyond us and not in need of us for His own happiness, provided the words to match our feelings and prayers; as well as His response to them, if we are attentive to His inspirations.
    And the marvelous thing about being Catholic is that when we pray the psalms, especially in the Breviary, we know that throughout the world there are thousands of others praying those same prayers. We may pray a sad song when happy, but somewhere in the world another Catholic is suffering, and praying those same words. We join our prayers to his (think: Egypt). Or perhaps we pray a joyful song when we are sad; well, another Catholic somewhere is joyful in some manner, yet they join themselves to us in our sorrow by saying the same words. Thus is the reflection of Saint Paul literally put into words that when one member suffers, all suffer with him; when one member rejoices, all share in that joy. Thus the whole Body of Christ struggles and is grateful together in one beautiful hymn of praise.

Why Daily Mass?

    It is a rather idiosyncratic element of Catholicism that many Catholics attend daily Mass.  According to Canon Law it is not an obligation in any way, not even for priests. In fact, the obligation “legally” for Catholics is attendance at Sunday Mass, and a few select Holy Days of Obligation.  Happily, a recent article [for which I do not have a link] showed that many non-Catholics are striving to attend Sunday services while on vacation, though generally if a non-Catholic is away from his or her local church service they do not try to find a comparable service should they be away from home on a Sunday. Catholics are so used to attending Mass on Sunday that they will strive to find a local Catholic parish while at the beach, skiing, or even traveling in foreign countries.  This is a testament to the universality of the Catholic Church, since the same Mass is offered in every Catholic Church, regardless of language, culture or country.
    But let us return to Catholics and daily Mass. Usually, a given local parish will have at least one daily Mass. Attendance numbers vary by locality, but one can usually find a group of lay Catholics willing to show up and worship the Lord in the Mass for no other reason than a love for the Mass and the opportunity to receive Holy Communion.  Daily Mass is on average about 25 to 30 minutes long, at most, and may or may not have a homily/sermon.  What IS present at every Mass is the Sacrifice of Jesus Christ, made present again for our benefit, and, more importantly, for the adoration of God.  Even in the prison camps of the gulag or the re-education camps of communist countries, priests would seek to obtain bread and wine for a simple offering of that Sacrifice in the midst of horrible conditions. Blessed Pope John Paul II wrote about some places where priests were outlawed in which the faithful would gather in their ruined churches and spend time in prayer together without a priest, laying an abandoned stole on the altar as a reminder of the Mass, and a painful symbol of what they were missing by not having the Mass. How spoiled we are in this country.  Heck, I have two Catholic parishes within 5 minutes of my house where I can go to 5 or 6 different daily Masses should I choose, depending on when I wake up in the morning; and there are a few others not more than 10 to 20 minutes away for even more opportunities.
    What is it about daily Mass that is so attractive to some Catholics?
    I’d like to ask this question in another way: what is it about most Catholics that they do NOT attend daily Mass, when it is so accessible and freely offered for a mere 30 minutes out of their day?  I’m more perplexed by that than the availability of the Mass for me.  I admit I need to be more grateful for what’s available, than confused by the lesser numbers of attendees.  But still. . .
    So, a simple daily Mass, with no singing, fewer readings, perhaps no homily, and a small number of people: What’s taking place?  The same sacrifice, the same glory to God, the same effectiveness for our salvation as the highest liturgy offered by the Pope in the splendor of Saint Peter’s Basilica. Jesus willingly and lovingly makes Himself present in the humble and simple elements of bread and wine. Good gracious, that’s amazing.
    But why go every day?
    At every Mass, on a daily basis, the readings are different, the prayers are different, the vestments, antiphons, Eucharistic prayer, the priest are different.  Even the hosts and wine brought to the altar are different.  And this is the key.
    The belief of the Church is that once a host is consecrated, Jesus Christ is really, truly and completely present. That host no longer is bread.  It IS the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ.  His presence remains even after the Mass is ended, and thus the need of the tabernacle, which holds the Divine Presence of Our Eucharistic Lord.
    During the Protestant reformation, the idea was put forward that Jesus is only present while the celebration was going on; afterwards, Jesus was not present, and so the hosts could be disposed of. This thinking was sadly reintroduced during the upheaval after Vatican II (but not because of Vatican II, let the reader take note), and so Eucharistic Adoration was frowned upon, if not positively prohibited.
    Yet, Jesus’ Presence continues after Mass, and so we bend our knees in adoration and love before the tabernacle, God’s abiding presence among us.
    But let us take note of something else.  And this is crucial, so to speak.
    Those hosts brought to the altar for the consecration by the priest are new every time.  One does not re-consecrate hosts. Take it another step forward. When we attend daily Mass, or even Sunday Mass, we bring our needs, prayers, sufferings, intentions, desires, and every other part of our lives to the Lord.  On any given day, these things in our minds and hearts are different, at least in their percentages. Some days are joyful and full of gratitude; other days are fraught with struggles and needs; most days are a mix of all of these things.  They are united to the bread and wine at the offertory, and made a part of the Sacrifice of the Lord.
    What we should take away from this truth is that when we bring these things in our lives to the Mass, they become God’s property, His possession, united to the Perfect Offering of Jesus to the Father. They are no longer “ours”. God takes them into Himself; they become His needs, desires, sufferings and thanksgiving. We and our petitions are transformed into God’s “treasury”, His concern. In a similar way to the truth that the hosts are no longer, and never will be, mere bread, so our intentions at Mass are no longer ours, but God’s. And He has a long memory for the offerings of His children.
    Every day is a new opportunity to adore and serve the Lord. Every day has its own trials, struggles and gifts. In daily Mass we unite unique sacrifices of our own to the One Unique Sacrifice of Jesus.  To quote Mother Teresa again, “The moment we give something to God it becomes infinite.”  This is true no other place more than in the daily celebration of the Mass of Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Christianity and the gays

    One of the most shocking aspects of the ministry of Jesus, to his contemporaries, was His outreach to the outcasts of His day: lepers, tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners. The leaders, both religious and secular, of His day found His association with such people scandalous. This trend continued into the Church after the Lord’s ascension. The most dramatic instance of this was in Corinth, where Saint Paul had success not among the rich, powerful and wealthy of that city, but among the least.  “Not many of you were well-born. . . “ 
    The question is, who are the lepers, the outcasts, sinners and rejects of today?  Moved by the example of Mother Teresa and the example of a friend years ago, I spent a lot of time serving the residents of an AIDS hospice/homeless shelter run by the Missionaries of Charity a few years back. Few things equal the experience of changing the diaper of a grown man who cannot move because of his infirmities, or dressing the bandages of another man whose very blood could infect me with a deadly disease, or counseling still another man who had given up hope and wondered at 3 a.m. what was the best way to kill himself without it being messy.  Earl, for those who may wonder, passed away from natural causes a few days later with the Church’s sacraments.  I’ve rarely felt closer to another human being than in that middle-of-the-night conversation about why it was better that he not take his own life.
    Of course, Mother Teresa was quite insistent that those who hunger today are not necessarily those who live on the streets, or who wallow in poverty in the alleyways of Calcutta, but may be those right in our own families, who hunger, not for bread, but for love. 
    And then, I’m confronted with the current public insistence from those in the LGBT community, and their supporters, for recognition and acceptance.  Are they the lepers, outcasts and sinners of today, who require love, support and mercy?  It would seem so from the cultural insistence on accepting those who profess such a condition, state in life, personality, way of life. 
    Of course, that is the problem. What, exactly, am I supposed to accept, condone, support or advocate?
    A person “comes out” and says, “I’m gay”, or “I’m bi-sexual”.  What is it that he or she is stating? For example, a man states openly, “I’m homosexual.”  Okay. And my reaction should be...what?  If I am supposed to congratulate him, for what am I congratulating? His courage in announcing it publicly? Announcing what? That he has a sexual attraction to other men? I just don’t understand why that is something to congratulate or praise.  It doesn’t matter if he chooses to be so attracted, or not. Why is that something to congratulate? or praise? If he chooses to be so attracted, is that in itself an act of courage?  Or maybe he did not choose to have such an attraction, but does choose to announce in some public way that this is his condition. What’s congratulatory about announcing that?  Is it the fact that having this attraction is often frowned upon or persecuted, and by expressing it he is showing courage in the face of public rejection? I suppose standing against the culture can be a good thing, but many things are contrary to culture and in itself that is not a reason to celebrate something. A large majority of people are opposed to beating other human beings without reason, but not all are. Should a people-beater be praised for standing against the culture?
    Yet the argument is made that a person who has a same-sex attraction is not hurting anyone else, so it is different than doing violence to another person.  I would agree with that. I’d rather have someone with same-sex attraction in a neighborhood who doesn’t beat people over someone who goes about hurting others by violence.  So if some man who announces in some public way that he has a sexual attraction to other men, what is the moral obligation on my part to do anything? Frankly, I don’t see any obligation on my part, unless I am in some position to speak with such a person and see what I can do to help him follow Christ more closely, given his situation. 
    I simply do not understand the societal pressure to advocate for and support the social agenda of this segment of society.  Being told I am biased and discriminatory for not supporting gay marriage is a huge leap from respecting the personhood of someone who has same-sex, dual-sex, whatever-sex attraction. Sure, I respect the personhood of someone who has same-sex attraction. What’s so hard about that? It’s basic humanity.  Does that then obligate me to accept same-sex marriage, for example? Accepting the personhood of others is part of my faith and understanding of humanity. Yet, marriage means something, and two guys or two women getting together just doesn’t match up to that meaning.  It’s not anger or hatred of anyone. In fact, it’s rather non-emotional other than the joy of knowing that when a man and woman are united in a stable relationship, and then when that union leads to new life that something unique has happened: new life, a new human being now exists who otherwise would not be here. 
    So, on a human, natural, Constitutional level, I really don’t care if any particular man or woman has whatever sexual attraction.  I have my preferences for certain types of women.  But to claim some sort of societal acceptance of my or anyone’s personal desires is a dangerous path, especially when separated from the natural situation of human beings.  What is the basis of societal acceptance of personal preferences? What if a general trend should occur that advocates the elimination of certain people for their personal beliefs. Is that a legitimate exercise of Constitutional principles?  Is it the determination of polls, or popularity victories?
    But I digress. Somewhat.
      I really do not understand what I am “supposed” to embrace or accept when a person “comes out”. Some men prefer blondes.  Some prefer brunettes. Some like full-figured gals; others want the model figure type. Is expressing a preference some sort of potential crime, or offense against culture? I just don’t get it.
    So, citizen A likes other men as sexual partners. I find that odd. Or as Hillaire Belloc quipped, “The world is full of double beds, and many a fair maiden heads; this be the case there’s no excuse for sodomy or self-abuse.”  Receiving special government protection for a particular sexual category is simply strange. Especially when such attraction has no societal benefit such as the advancement of race. Doesn’t human life have a claim to special protetion? Maybe not.
    I’ll always try to be kind to others, regardless of their individual struggles. But inserting current societal mores as normative has all sorts of strange consequences.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Christ and science

           Maps are cool.  We get a bird’s eye view of where we are, or where we might like to be.  The top of the page is north, or up, and the bottom is “down south”.  When we are lost, or trying to figure out where to turn, we think “east is right” and “west is left”.  It makes sense when we view the world in that way.  I’ve discovered that I lose a bit of control when I rely on a GPS system, since I used to be able to grab a map and do it myself.  Driving through Washington D.C. is easy if one has one of those maps.  Plotting out a path takes a quick view of the map.  Of course, the fact that my GPS told me to take a turn where turns weren’t allowed has something to do with my disgruntlement; it cost me a $50 ticket.

In the Bible, they didn’t think like this, since they didn’t have that bird’s eye view.  This strikes us when we hear that Jesus went “up to Jerusalem from Galilee.”  Up?  Galilee is north of Jerusalem.  Isn’t that down to?  Not if one is considering Jerusalem as being on a mountain, so going up makes sense from the sea-level towns around the lake of Galilee.

Mountains, of course, hold a prominent place in the Scriptures: Abraham went up the Mount of Moriah to sacrifice Isaac; Moses went up Mount Sinai to speak to the Lord; Elijah hid in the cave on the mountain as he fled Jezebel, and then heard the Lord whispering to him; Jesus ascended to heaven from the mountain near Bethany.

And so we are faced with the situation of knowing that the sky is only a precursor to a broader space, and outer space, that stretches beyond the solar system, into the galaxy, and beyond to the universe of billions of galaxies. Jesus did not ascend to some planetary system beyond our own, though to the eyes of the apostles He did go up.  The people of the Bible had no idea of how the universe was composed, with its stars of immense size and number. God accommodated Himself to them when He spoke “from heaven”, as when Ezekiel saw the Lord enthroned in the “heavens” and Daniel saw the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven. Heaven is not in the sky; though it is beyond our reach.  And isn’t that the point?

God certainly speaks from heaven, but it is not a place like anything to which we can climb.  It is a different state of existence beyond this earth, and even beyond the multitude of galaxies and stars that bless us with their lights at night.  We could more easily jump from earth to Polaris than make an effort that brought us to the dwelling of God in Himself… without His help and grace.  I would concede to non-believers and atheists that the Bible is lacking in scientific accuracy; it is not designed to be a science book. What it does do is use the ordinary images of those who wrote and read the texts in the original books to explain a mystery that is different than anything we might discover from our own investigations.

Isn’t this the way that Jesus used ordinary, everyday images to reveal the profound truths of the Gospel? Consider the man who finds a treasure in a field, re-buries it, goes and sells all he has and buys that field.  Is that strict justice? There seems to be a bit of injustice involved were someone to do this. An honest man might rather tell the owner of the field of the treasure, and perhaps ask for a finder’s fee. To get caught up in that discussion misses the point, just as gazing upon the discoveries of astronomy or any other science as proof for the “errors” of religion misses the point. God’s revelations are above us not in a physical sense, but in so far as they cannot be measured, calculated or quantified like atoms, molecules or even the stars themselves.

When Moses was granted his prayer to see God, the Lord only revealed His back, for directly viewing God in the face is beyond our minds’ ability.  Reason brings us so far, but still can only get so far as the floor beneath the Lord’s feet, or His back.  Humble use of reason is not afraid to delve into profound mysteries, but it accepts its own limitations. Sure: Investigate study, question and seek, but acknowledge that at some point there is a limit and conjecture is all we have left. And we do not have to lift our thoughts to the heights of the stars to be humbled by what is lacking to our intelligence. Ask any man who has tried to explain the way a woman thinks. Science cannot answer that question.  How much greater is the mystery Who is God Almighty.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Saint Peter. A model for us all.

I think a reflection on the life of Saint Peter is very fruitful, since he was so close to Christ, and so very human.  From a certain point of view, Jesus kind of messed with Peter: at one moment, lifting him up with praise and honors; in another, pulling the rug out from under his feet.  Their first encounter, as recorded by John, was probably a strange thing for Simon Peter.  Right off the bat, Jesus changes his name without a [recorded] word being spoken by Simon.  It is an over-simplification to think that the call of Simon to be a close disciple of Jesus was after the huge catch of fish.  Actually, that definitive call came only after Peter had been following Jesus more or less for about two years.  I find it a disservice to the overall reading of the gospels to turn the "Come, follow me" of Jesus as something happening in a vacuum.  Simon Peter, as the other disciples, needed to spend time getting to know Jesus over the course of a couple of years before they were ready to leave all and follow Him.  Matthew, Mark and Luke relate only that final year of Jesus, as He finished His ministry in Galilee, and then made the final journey to Jerusalem.  John is quite clear that the ministry of Jesus was three years (since John mentions three Passover celebrations, the final one being the, ahem, final one). And it is quite clear that Peter kept his house in Capharnaum, since it was a kind of base of operations for the ministry in Galilee.  Beautiful spot on the shores of the lake. I've been there, and sat on the stones that formed the foundation of the synagogue in which Jesus Himself taught. 

So, Simon Peter had his moments of tremendous faith and devotion, for which he was honored by Jesus Himself.  Then, he would have his misunderstandings and illusions broken down by Jesus.  And let us remember what Josef Pieper, the great German Catholic philosopher says about disillusionment: It is the basis of hope, for hope is about reality, not illusions. 

Simon Peter considered himself close to Christ, and he was, but his understanding of this was too worldly.  He was graced with being the first to proclaim the faith: You are the Christ; but he was also called "satan" by Jesus for trying to stop Jesus from approaching the cross.

Simon fell victim to the pressure of those who demanded that Jesus pay the temple tax, but was lovingly corrected by Jesus in the miracle of the coin in the mouth of the fish, enough to pay that tax for Jesus and Peter.

Peter was blessed with the vision of the Lord on Mount Tabor, but was rebuked by the Voice of the Father, "This is My Beloved Son!  Listen to Him!"  It was as if the Father were smacking away the silliness of Peter who wanted to stay on the mountain.  And isn't it interesting that after that marvelous vision, Jesus comes down the mountain with Peter, James and John, and almost immediately expresses frustration at the lack of faith of His own disciples. 

And much has been written about the rise and fall of Peter surrounding the Passion of the Lord.  Devoted to Christ, yet he denied him. Then granted a private appearance after the resurrection.  How amazing must that have been?  Substance for a meditation in and of itself.

So, Peter was a real guy.  Aspiring to greatness, yet naturally burdened with weak humanity.  Who isn't like that?  What makes the difference?  The love of Christ...and recognizing it.  Peter's greatness is not in his protestations and zeal, but in his humility to know himself well enough to know Jesus wasn't being abusive in correcting him, but loving him in making him better.  The Lord does that with us.  He knows of what we are made. He loves us not in spite of that. but because of it.  For He made each one of us.