Saturday, January 27, 2024

THE WORLD'S WORST WAITER

I spent the year before I came to the abbey taking Greek at Saint Louis U. and waiting tables at a fine dining establishment downtown.  For the record, I was, without a doubt, the world’s worst waiter.  I forgot which tables I was assigned, I brought entres before salads and deserts before drinks.   I once spilled an entire tray of margaritas down the back of a patron’s blouse.  And worst of all, no matter how I tried, I couldn’t, for the life of me, remember the difference between Boston clam chowder and New England clam chowder.  Now…in my defense, The Wedgewood Supper Club (name changed so I don’t get sued) was a horrible, horrible place to work.  The busboys hated the waiters, the waiters hated the matre’d, the Matre’d hated the cook…and everyone hated Mister Van Crackle (name changed so I don’t get sued).  Not only was he a selfish, and irresolute leader, but he actually stole our tips.

Now, the reason I’m reliving this nightmare with you is because today’s reading about Jesus and the demon reminds me of a particular interaction I had with Mister Van Crackle.  You see, being universally scorned by my peers and employers had one advantage: I had nothing to lose.  So.  I wrote Mister Van Crackle a letter listing my greivences and had it notarized.  Of course, I never heard back from him.   He didn’t fire me or stiff my tables.   He just acted as though I’d never written the letter at all.  Which was infuriating!  So I sent a copy to the president of the Club Corporation of America, who, perhaps because even at that level, I was known mediocre employee, also ignored it.  I decided, then, to rewrite the entire letter, and send it certified mail to the board of directors.

I may be brash, but I’m not an idiot.  I had enough good sense, even then, to run it by my father first.  Who said, and I quote: “Mister Van Crackle knows you’re unhappy, right?   Presumably the president of the corporation knows this as well.  Am I right?  Both have chosen ignor you, right?  Well, then.  Listen carefully:  There’s a fine line between being assertive, and being an ass.  You are about to cross that line.”  When I continued to protest, he said, and again I quote: “He won.  You lost.  Get over it.  Get on with your life.”


For the first time in months, I, by my own volition, shut my mouth.  And with that, the demon of discontent left me.  I’m reminded of a quote from Saint Augustine: “It was not until I ceded the victory to Satan, that My Lord was able to win the victory on my behalf.  For what am I to myself without You, but a guide to my own downfall?”


A few weeks later, I quit my job, and went to wait tables at Augustino’s (which name I need not change because I loved it there).  Augustino Gabriele (whose name I won’t change because I love him too) had thought of an ingenious way of building comradery among his employees: about half-way through the night, he would steel $10 from the tips of every waiter in the house, put it in an envelope, and then give that envelope to the person on staff that we voted most helpful.  I remember accusing a busboy of helping me just so he could get the envelope.  All he did was smile at me and say, “Heck, yeah I want that envelop.” And that night, he got it.


A certain brother asked Saint Pambo of the Desert: Please help me! The devil is preventing me from loving my neighbor!


The elder said in reply: “Oh shut your mouth. Why don’t you just admit that you don’t want to be merciful? God said long ago: I have given you power over all the forces of the enemy?  Do you think He’s a liar?  Now go stamp down that evil spirit yourself!”


What these stories have in common is that same command that Jesus gives the devil in our gospel today: Be quiet.  Every exorcism begins with that simple command: “Shut your mouth.”


Oh, that today you would hear his voice:

"Harden not your hearts as at Meribah,

as in the day of Massah in the desert,

Where your fathers tempted me;

they tested me though they had seen my works."


“Brothers and sisters: I should like you to be free of anxieties,” says Saint Paul.  But you and I know that you won’t be, so instead, I’ll repeat—and I’ll repeat again—the words that Jesus proclaimed in the presence of the man with the unclean spirit:  “Be quiet.”  When you are overwhelmed by anger or lust or frustration or despair, when the demons of concupiscence and resentment gain the upper hand; when Satan himself seems to have definitively won the day, and everyone around you has surrendered to his lies…Be (pause) quiet.”  Admit you are powerless.  Admit that you lost.  Cede the victory so that Christ, who alone speaks with authority, can step in.


A clean heart create for me, O God, a steadfast spirit renew within me. Give me back the joy of your salvation, and a willing spirit sustain in me. THEN, O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.

 

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

 

 

Sunday, December 24, 2023

EVERYONE IS IN ON IT BUT

    Christmas is a return to our origins. It is possible to feel the “Spirit Christmas”, but only if we have the strength of mind to go back to kindergarten, and pretend that we never left. So I will not apologize, on Christmas morning, for taking you back to the origins of the human race; to those nursery rhymes which came together to form the introduction to the oldest story in the world, a story which begins at a time when the world did not exist at all. Those kindergarten stories have fallen out of vogue in recent years. We don’t like to be caught reading them; it was the same with our stuffed animals when we outgrew them. But I’ll say this much for those old kindergarten stories: you can write them off as primitive or patriarchal…or even sexist…you can undermine their authenticity by picking apart their authorship and archaeological accuracy, accuse their God of cruelty or barbarism…but you can’t escape those stories altogether. They will haunt you, primitive as they are. 

    But let’s not talk controversy today.  We’ll pass over the story of creation and the loss of Paradise.  The doors to that fantasy world will remain closed and locked for now, guarded by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens with their flaming swords.  

   The phrase we are asked to meditate on this morning is the very first utterance of fallen humanity; it is when Eve says, “I have produced a child with the help of the LORD.”

    In some abandoned cave, very far away, that first human mother gave birth to that first human child.  She called him Cain.  She and Adam had squandered their inheritance, had wasted it, committed a disgraceful crime and incurred a sentence of death; within a few years, for all they knew, human life would become extinct on the planet. But no, here was something saved from the wreckage; here was a new representative who would carry the torch of humanity. “For a child is born to us, a son is given to us;” the raw material of that Christmas carol rang through the primeval forest with a prophesy of our immortal hope.

    Now, trace the line of Eve’s posterity down through innumerable centuries, until you stop at a point roughly two thousand years ago.  And what do you see?  Why, it’s the same picture of a Mother and a Child! Even the setting is unaltered: we are still in a cave, for crying out loud! And our first thought is, “Heck, this isn’t any different from any other human birth! What mother wouldn’t adore her child? Isn’t that exactly what you see when you visit any labor ward at any hospital in the world?”

    And of course, we’re right. Like Eve, any new mother sees it as a kind of miracle—which it absolutely is; this particular thing has never happened before. And she’s right. All that is visible here—this tiny body—has come from her; has somehow, mysteriously assembled within her out of biomolecules and strings of DNA and amino acids.  How can that possibly happen? And yet we know that it happened, because this tiny thing is a human being, it is linked to an immortal soul. 

    This is indeed a miracle, not just to the mother and father, but to the entire human race!  A new being has come into existence. “For a child is born to us.”  Yes, well, the body comes from us; but the son-this particular Son—is given to us.  The soul doesn’t come from father or mother, but comes directly from God.

Still, the first thing we need to realize about Christmas, is that this birth is just like any other human birth.  And that is our precisely our guarantee: that although He was truly God, he was also truly man. God did not deceive us by taking on the appearance of humanity, like Zeus or Poseidon or Dionysus.  No, he became man.  That was the leverage, if you will, through which the work of our redemption was effected. 

    And, curiously, this is one of the lessons which the early Church found it particularly hard to teach. The first heretics were not people who denied Jesus’ Godhead; almost without exception, they were people who denied his manhood. They could believe that a god might come to earth; what they couldn’t believe was that he’d be human enough to be born—or to die.  This is why Muhammed rewrote the bible.  But also, perhaps, this is why the Middle Ages gave us the Christmas creche. As we kneel before the creche, the first thing we learn is the human reality of it all; God is actually here, among his creatures. Unto us a Child is born; it is not simply that God will come close to us, that he will stand at our side.  No, He will become one of us, become part of us.

     But now that we have said that it was just like any other human birth, we have to add, “…but you know, it wasn’t actually like any other birth…ever.” And the Church is not ashamed of the contradiction; when we are tracing the history of God made man, our very terms of reference are self-contradictory. This was like no other human birth, because the Mother in the cave this time, was and remains a virgin. Christians never lost sight of that—not even for a moment, no matter how great the temptation. And in those first centuries of Christianity, the temptation must have been very strong.  The earliest heretics didn’t try to deny that Jesus was truly divine; they denied that Jesus was truly human.  They argued that he was a ghost; or that he only appeared to be born of the Virgin Mary; he only appeared to suffer and die. It would have made sense if the Church had swung to the other extreme; had soft-pedalled or abandoned the doctrine of the Virgin Birth.  At least then it would have been easier to argue that Jesus was the human Son of a human Mother.  But the funny thing is, Christians have always had this instinct: that your theology is safe when your opponents accuse you of holding two contradictory beliefs.

    Yep.  That’s when you know you’re right.

    Throughout the ages, Christians have seen that Mother in the cave, but never for a second did they lose sight of the Virgin. So take a second look at the Christmas crib.  Your first view was wrong—or at least incomplete. When you first looked at it, it seemed like a beautiful picture of motherhood – that and nothing more. “I have produced a child with the help of the LORD””– it was the old cry of Eve, repeated down the centuries. But now it has reached its crucial expression: this particular cave at Bethlehem will be remembered as the birthplace of the greatest man who ever lived.

    And then…well…have you ever walked into a room and had the feeling that everyone there was in on a joke you didn’t understand—that there was some sort of secret everyone knew but you?  There is something like that in our second look at that Christmas creche. Everybody is keeping just a little too quiet; the shepherds seem to come in on tip-toe, the ass and the ox…they’re just lying there, not feeding, the angels seem to be standing at attention, waiting for something to happen. And then you take another look at the center of the group, and suddenly you notice what you really should have noticed before. A mother? But this is only a girl! It’s not just a question of age, it’s a question of atmosphere; they are playing a trick on you! It’s a girl dressed up as a young mother… And then you remember that there is no room here for dress-up or make-believe. This is the mystery of the Virgin Birth.

    And don’t think for a moment that Catholic reverence for virginity is just a prudish running away from sex. If we pass over this stuff in silence, it is not because we think them disgusting, but because we think them too holy to be mentioned in common talk. If the Fathers of the Church, from the earliest times, insisted on the virginity of God’s Mother, it was not because they wanted to pay her a compliment, by ascribing to her a well-known Christian virtue.  No!  It was exactly the other way around! They learned to reverence virginity because they had seen it in the Mother of God; because they had seen it in the stable of Bethlehem, and could not forget the experience. What they had seen there was an innocence which spoke to them of renewal. This other woman in the cave had brought them back to Paradise. Christmas Day is a birthday just like any other; and it is a birthday utterly unlike any other; and no wonder, for it is the birthday of us all.

    Go back now to that first woman in the cave; when she cried out, “I have produced child with the help of the LORD.” That was our birthday. The long history of woman’s child-bearing had begun; the process had been set in motion which was to give existence, all those centuries later, to you and me. Eve was the mother of life; and yet, what had she really given birth to when she boasted that she had a child?  She had borne the first murderer. He came into the world to bring death, death to his own brother. And that life which our first mother handed down to us is, after all, only a death sentence; sons of Eve, we are brothers to Cain and Abel, the villain and the victim of the first human tragedy.

    Okay.  Very sad.  But now, turn back to that second cave, that other woman; what did she accomplish? “I have come,” her son tells us, “that they may have life.” “The first-born among many brethren,” St. Paul calls him; our elder brother, who has brought us supernatural life.

I’ll say it again: We can feel the “Spirit Christmas”, but only if we have the strength of mind to climb to go back to kindergarten, and pretend that we never left.  And that is what we are doing when we pay our visit to the Christmas creche. We are going back to the cradle where life—supernatural life—first dawned for us; trying to recapture some breath of our own first innocence, as we look at the girl Mother, and the Infant God, and the manger which was all the cradle he had. It is difficult, at first, to get used to it; everything is so quiet, so secret; that world is so remote; you feel as if everyone is in on the joke but you. Yet this where you belong; you, too, have been born into the family of grace, and this is the cradle of it. Unto us a Child is born, to restore something of childhood, year by year, even to the most jaded, even to the most sophisticated, even to the most disillusioned of us.

 

*I feel obliged to admit that this entire homily was plagiarized from a sermon delivered seventy years ago by Ronald Knox.  All I’ve done is update the language and modernize some of the sentiments.  If you’d like to hear the original for yourself, in all it’s prim and noble rambling British glory, you can find it on YouTube under “Ronald Knox - A Sermon for Christmas Day (1950)”

 

 

Monday, December 11, 2023

“EMBRACE THE SUCK”

Sermon to Saint Louis Abbey on the Second Sunday of Advent

    So I’ve been giving spiritual direction to a young man who was a student of mine.  He and I get along now, but his career at Priory was…well…fraught.  In fact, the best way to imagine our time together would be to picture a mash-up of “To Sir, with Love” and “Cannibal Holocaust.”  I’m actually considering writing a semi-autobiographical account of our relationship entitled, “Night of the Living Dead Poet Society.” This kid was an absolute terror in the school.  I think went out of his way to do bad work.   He was on the cross-country team back when I was coaching the D side—and to give you a little context for that: A side was varsity, B side was junior varsity,C side comprised the kids who couldn’t even make junior varsity, and D side was a small band of boys who actually refused to run.  These kids were real goons. And he was their ring-leader.

    Thus, when I say he was a student of mine, I use the word “student”  in the loosest possible way. He did so poorly at Priory that his parents actually refused to pay for college. So he did what every kid does who discovers that he is a rebel without a clue: He joined the Marines. But this is where the story gets interesting, because he was the sort of kid for whom “fight the power” wasn’t just a rock lyric. He did three combat tours of Iraq, then another in Afganistan.  When the Corps offered to make him an officer, he refused. “America doesn’t need more leaders”, he told me once. “It needs better followers.”

    Well, one Christmas, my friend finds himself in Iraq, brushing his teeth at four in the morning on Christmas Eve. “So it’s Christmas Day in Iraq,” he tells me, “and I have to go on a patrol at 4am to a town where the last time we went there we got ambushed and one of my friends was wounded. And I’m outside my tent brushing my teeth and another Marine looks over at me and says “Merry Christmas…I guess.” We both smile and say at the very same time: “Embrace the suck.”  

   Now, for the sake of this sermon, I wish there was a better phrase for that particular aspect of Marine philosophy, but, as my friend says, “The Corps has never been known for its eloquence.”  So hereafter, I’ll just say “embrace the stink” which doesn’t quite capture the grittiness of the phrase, but preserves a bit of the dignity with which we should treat the Divine Liturgy.

    Anyhow, my friend’s story has stuck with me because I think it encapsulates the spirit of Advent. This is the time of year when we teach ourselves to “embrace the stink.”  It is a penitential season.   We’re looking forward to Christmas, but we’ve got to slog through Advent first.  Which means it doesn’t quite match up to the grief and passion of Lent…but neither is it quite a joyful season.  It just kind of stinks.  In the old days, in fact, they used to refer to this as the “Little Lent”—which rather captures the spirit of it.

     Years and years ago, when I was going through a sort of tepid atheistic phase, my confessor gave me this passage to read from a book by Rainer Marie Rilke called “Letters to a Young Poet.”  It reads “I would like to beg you, dear Sir . . . to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. The point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

    In his poetic Franco-Germanic way, the author is making the same point, namely, that we must learn to embrace the stink.  Life is kind of hard.  We’re never quite satisfied with what we have, and we never seem to notice what we have till it’s gone.  But during Advent, we try to remind ourselves to embrace it all.  The Lord is coming.  He’s already here, actually.  But still, we wait for his coming.  And it kind of stinks.

    To quote my friend, again: “It’s essentially a Stoic phrase but in modern Marine language we mean that you’ve got to embrace suffering. “We all suffer together, so let’s enjoy it.  It’s 8 degrees, in a fighting hole, in frozen mud, this stinks, bro.  But we’re in this together.”

    There is a wonderful little song by a rock group called AJR.  I don’t understand most of their lyrics.  I don’t even understand the name of the band.  But this one song begins with narrator explaining how heroic his grandparents were.  His grandpa fought in World War II, and his father was a fireman who risked his life to save people. And frankly, he feels like a bit of a wimp because he had to leave college when he got homesick.  He says, “I think I actually bored my therapist”.  But—and this is why I love the song—it ends with this phrase: “Even the world’s smallest violin needs an audience.”

    Most of us have probably never patrolled a hostile Afgani village at 4am or nearly frozen to death in a foxhole.  But that doesn’t mean our suffering is less worthy or even less heroic.  What it does mean, though, is that in the midst of our suffering, we must make room for gratitude—to grin at our brothers and sisters and “embrace the stink.”

Saturday, April 1, 2023

Sinners in the Hands of (an Angry) God

Sermon to the Saint Louis Priory School, Friday, Fifth Week of Lent



Praised be Jesus Christ...now and forever!

I want to start off this refelction with a story.  I’m sure you’re familiar with it.  It’s a story from the life of a saint, although his name escapes me at the moment.  He was born into a prosperous and loving family, raised in a supportive home, was popular with his peers, excelled in his classes—you know the saint I’m talking about, right?—he was good-looking and well educated.  He grew up, got married, had several loving children and died at a happy old age.  You know who I’m talking about, right?  Right?  No!  Of course you don’t.  Because that is the story of no saint EVER.  You just won’t find a saint in the church’s calendar who lived without suffering.  In fact, you won’t find any human person in the history of the world who lived without suffering.  You’ll find plenty of examples of people who tried hard to avoid suffering.  You’ll find lots of excuses for non-saints and non-heroes--stories about people who would have been heroes if everyone around them hadn’t been such jerks.  But I challenge you to find a man in the history books who had a good, easy stress-free life, filled with happiness and success.

            Think what our history books would be like if our heroes had made excuses rather than face their suffering: I can imagine Abraham Lincoln saying to his grandchildren, well, I would have won the war if my generals had just done what I told them.  Or imagine Winston Churchill whining to his wife that England just had to surrender to the Nazis because really, what chance did they have of winning when his own cabinet wouldn’t support him.  I can imagine Alexander the Great. No, we’ll call him “Alexander the Mediocre” explaining that he never conquered Greece because, well, the Greeks were really, really good soldiers.   And I can imagine Jesus saying to the Sanhedrin, “Oh, fine.  You don’t want my help, then I give up.  You guys sort all this out yourself.  I’m gonna take a nap.”  But that’s not how heroes do things.  It’s not the way saints do things.  And it’s not the way God expects you to do things.

Because no one can keep you from being a saint—not your teachers, not your friends, not your boss, not your enemies…in fact, the harder they try, the greater saint you’re likely to be—provided you are willing to face your suffering.

A few days ago, I was complaining to a friend of mine.  She’s a Dominican nun named Sister Jane Dominic.  (No stranger to suffering, by the way.) We’re working on a book together, and I was a little late getting one of my drafts in, so I was making excuses---whining to her about how—you know—it’s tough being a monk.  Our numbers are down and the Church is in crisis, and the culture is against us and I’ve got too much on my plate and I can’t seem to get enough sleep and blah blah blah blah.  And when I was done, she sighed and she said to me, “Well, you know, Father, it would have been nice if Jesus had told us ‘Pick up your marshmallow and follow me.’  But that isn’t what he said, is it?”  I’ve got to admit, she has a point.

I have another friend in the religion business who likes to say, “You can’t expect to be more successful at your job than Jesus was.  And look what they did to him”. 

            The readings for next two weeks of Lent are going to be pretty dark:

from Jeremiah:

"Terror on every side! Denounce! let us denounce him! All those who were my friends are on the watch for any mistake I make.”

To the psalms:

The waves of death surged round about me, the destroying floods overwhelmed me; The cords of the nether world enmeshed me, the snares of death overtook me.

Or even this, from the Gospel of John:

I have shown you many good works from my Father. For which of these are you trying to stone me?

And those are just from today’s readings.  We haven’t even gotten to the part where they capture, torture, beat, bully, and kill Jesus. (Yeah.  Sorry, guys.  Spoiler alert.  Jesus dies at the end.)

But wait.

That’s not the end, is it?  You know the real spoiler; that’s coming too.  He rises from the dead.  But there’s no resurrection without a death and a burial.  There’s no heaven without a purgation.  And, as Mother Teresa said, love, to be true, must hurt.

Two weeks ago, I got to preach at the Senior Retreat.  I’d been reading a sermon by an eighteenth-century Puritan name Jonathan Edwards.  The Puritans were a little… well… puritanical.  And they were pretty big on hellfire and brimstone.  And I was reading these sermons, and they’re actually pretty entertaining; so I decided to adapt one of them for my talk to the seniors.

“The Bow of God’s Wrath is bent,” I bellowed, “and the Arrow made ready on the String, and Justice bends the Arrow at your Heart, and strains the Bow, and it is nothing—nothing but the mere Pleasure of God--and that of an angry God, without any Obligation at all--that keeps the Arrow one Moment from being made drunk with your Blood. O Sinner! Consider the fearful Danger you are in!  The Wrath of almighty GOD is now undoubtedly hanging over a great number of this very Congregation: So flee this wicked world: Be quick!  Run for your Lives!  Don’t look back!  Escape to the Mountain, lest you be consumed.”

Yeah.  I got pretty much the same reaction out of the seniors.  Because, come on.  We don’t really believe in Hell anymore, do we?  Isn’t Jonathan Edwards just a little over-the-top?  God’s really, really, really nice.  He wouldn’t send anyone to Hell…would He?

I’ll tell you this much: for all their many faults, the Puritans at least knew what they were being saved from.   And we may not remember Jonathan Edwards for his sermons on God’s Saving Mercy, but it’s rather hard to have a sense of that saving mercy when we don’t know what God is saving us from.

I’ve been reading another book this Lent by a black Southern Baptist minister.  It’s called “The Cross and the Lynching Tree.”  There’s some stuff in it that I find problematic, but he makes one observation that has changed the way I think about Jesus’ death, and it is this:  Jesus was lynched.  An angry, lawless mob, executed him in a demeaning and disgusting manner while the government turned a blind eye.  It was horrifying and it was dehumanizing.  And it took those early Christians three hundred years before they started making sculptures and paintings of Jesus’ death.  So if you’re wondering what the soldiers looked like when they laughed at Jesus on the cross, have a look at some of the photographs of lynchings.  They’re not hard to find; there are lots of them.  The photographs were sold as postcards to tourists.  Look at the faces in these photographs.   Folks like you and me.  Laughing.  Children with big smiles pointing at charred corpses hanging from trees.  And if you think it’s a little early in the morning for such a graphic description, I’d remind you that we have sculptures of such an execution in every room of our school.  Look at the crucifix.  And ask yourself: was that really necessary?

You have fifty days of celebration coming up, during which you will be invited to reflect on Christ’s glorious resurrection.  But for the next two weeks, you will be asked to meditate on His passion, His torture, and His death.  If you do this with a sincere heart, then I promise your own suffering will lighten a little.  Your suffering will begin to mean something, because your suffering will be united with Christ’s.  This is how you will find the courage to be saints.  And this is how your suffering will save the world.


In the name of the Father…

Sunday, October 16, 2022

The Golden Compass -- a Catholic defense

 Several years ago, while studying Milton at Oxford, I decided to hike out to Philip Pullman’s house and ask him to sign my book.  I’d read The Golden Compass that spring, and was so taken with it, I immediately started teaching it to my Seventh Grade English students.  In my opinion, no Fantasy writer since Tolkein had written with such literary integrity as this Oxford Atheist.  I thought it a shame to be so close to someone like that and not try to meet him.

            The catch is that I am a Roman Catholic Benedictine monk.  I joined Saint Louis Abbey in 1996 at the age of 25, and have been here ever since, teaching English and Classics in our school.  It was my abbot, in fact, who suggested I go to Oxford in the first place.  At the same time, however, a monk away from his monastery is in a precarious sort of position, so when I hiked the seven miles to Cumnor and knocked on Mr. Pullman’s door—in full habit, and carrying my psalter in one hand, The Golden Compass in the other—part of me expected a demon to answer (or a “daemon”); I had read reviews of his books which condemned them for being “anti-Christian”, “anti-God”, “anti-Catholic”, and, most notably, “Anti-Harry Potter.”  For this last attribute, I could almost overlook the first four.  Sitting in his living room with his dogs in a heap at his feet, I found him charming, gracious, and kind.  

The simple truth is, I never found Pullman’s books offensive, though I fully expected to.  I had heard that his book was permeated by anti-Catholicism, but the “Church” he portrayed in his fantasy series bore so little resemblance to the Church I love, that it was actually difficult for me to relate to my own experience.  Frankly, I was willing to grant that, in a parallel universe where the Church granted preemptory absolution and had a “Pope John Calvin I,” certain things might indeed go horribly wrong for the Magesterium.  I was well aware that Mr. Pullman’s theological views were crucial to his writing, that he had no love for organized religion, and that he despised C.S. Lewis; but in the end, I felt that—in spite of himself—he had created a true and beautiful work of art.  In short, he had not allowed his theological agenda to interfere with his vision.  Unlike Dan Brown, who lies to his readers, and Tim LaHaye who patronizes them, Pullman treats his audience with respect and honesty.  He doesn’t pretend to write historical fiction, and he doesn’t sacrifice artistic integrity to rhetoric.

Now, I teach 7th Grade English, and over the course of the past few years, I’ve been talked into reading dozens of books in the so-called “Fantasy” genre—from the vapid and offensive “Spell for Chameleon” to the dull and unimaginative “Pendragon”—and all of them were lifeless, puerile, watered-down Tolkeins.  Here, suddenly, in the writings of an avowed atheist, I found myself drawn into a unique world of fantasy, where bears built their souls out of steel, and Tartars in dirigibles fought air battles with witches.  But what I found most surprising of all were the parts of the book NOT original to Pullman.  As he explained to me over tea that Saturday afternoon, much of the theological roots of his fantasy world came straight from the poems of John Milton and William Blake. Thus we find angels at war with God, souls freed from the underworld by a prophesied savior, and (as I explained to Mr. Pullman) for me the most poignant image, a young person who gives up human love and affection for the sake of building a heaven on earth.

Upon Mr. Pullman’s recommendation, I wound up reading William Blake’s “Marriage of Heaven and Hell.”  Frankly, I’m a little embarrassed that I’d never read it before, but I’m equally embarrassed to admit that, in my opinion, Blake sounds like a total wacko.  But then, so do Ezekiel, and St. Francis, and John of the Cross, and all the really great mystics.  Having read Blake, I have a much keener understanding of what Mr. Pullman was trying to tell me that week in his living room.  Above all, he deplores what he perceives to be the Christian division between body and soul, with its inevitable scorn of bodily functions and desires.

But then, Blake was raised on a strict diet of Calvinist rhetoric, and indoctrinated by the Swedenborgian sect, so he can’t really be blamed for rebelling against a form of Christianity that had divorced itself from a eucharistic vision of the world.  Catholics are much more reluctant to draw a strict line between body and soul—between “this world” and “the next.” Christ himself, after all, preached that the Kingdom of God was “at hand,” and for the Catholic, the Eucharistic liturgy is literally “heaven on earth.”  So those cultures which preserved a eucharistic vision of reality (Roman Catholic, Eastern Catholic, Orthodox…) never did subscribed to the false dichotomy which so offended Blake.  The French, the Italians, the Greeks, the Spanish…these are peoples who have always been famously comfortable with their sexuality and with their bodies—famously at ease with the bodily pleasures: food and wine, passion and dance. And this attitude comes out of—rather than in spite of—their religious culture: a culture which feeds BOTH body AND soul at the Eucharist. Only in Calvinist/Lutheran cultures does one find this prudish and desperate repression of bodily desires—an attitude which, even to this day, we label “Puritanical.”

I wonder how Blake’s theology might have changed had he apprenticed himself to, say, St. John Bosco (the juggler, magician, acrobat and educator) rather than Swedenborg—if he had read St. Irenaeus (“The Glory of God is man fully alive”) rather than St. Augustine.  And I wonder if Philip Pullman’s understanding of the Church might have been different had he spent more time with Gerard Manley-Hopkins and less with William Blake.

If anything, J.R.R. Tolkein’s reliance on pagan iconography actually had the effect of reviving certain forms of paganism in the Twentieth Century.  Similarly, I expect Pullman’s reliance on Catholic imagery might have the opposite effect of that which he originally intended. Insofar as it is art, it will be venerated.  Insofar as it is rhetoric, it will be forgotten.  And our children may indeed be rescued—at least temporarily—from the largely vapid world of “fantasy literature.” 

In the end, because Mr. Pullman’s understanding of the Church is faulty, his rhetoric falls flat; and because he relies so heavily on Christian iconography, the world he has created remains fundamentally Christian.  But could he ever have avoided it?  “The seed of the divine,” says Justin Martyr, “is present in all things true and beautiful;” so Mr. Pullman, in creating something beautiful, has enshrined the truth in his novel, even if, occasionally, that truth is obscured by some personal ignorance.  In the end, one must admire him for having the courage to not allow his religious agenda a pride of place above his artistic integrity.[1]

 

--Fr. Augustine Wetta, O.S.B.

 

 

 

 

I received a Christmas card from Pullman.  I was proud of the “Catholic” reaction—more lay than Episcopal.  He can get mean.  His theology is a little used.  

 



[1] It’s worth noting that, as the trilogy progresses, the anti-religious “message” becomes more explicit. By the end of the book, his rhetoric takes over—few of my students actually make it to the end of the third book, though many of them try.

Sunday, September 11, 2022

The Splendor of Poop...And Other Theological Truths I Learned from my Three-Year-Old Niece

Georgia then...
Georgia then...
  I’m not a fan of children.  It’s no secret.  They creep me out.  They always seem to be watching me, and never have anything constructive to offer about their observances.  They are largely uneducated, they’re selfish, their hygiene is deplorable, and their conversation lacks depth.  I once had a thirty-minute discourse with my two-year-old niece during which her only response—in fact, the only word she used during the entire conversation—was “Fork.”  And little babies are even worse.  Imagine a six-foot, physically mature baby.  It would literally tear you to pieces for a cheerio.  
            But my niece, Georgia, was the exception.  (I say “was” because she’s much older now.) But as a baby she was no less selfish and no better educated than most of the other small human children I’ve known.  Mysteriously, however, I found her more tolerable.  Besides that, being related to her, there was just no avoiding some social interaction.  At three or so, the conversation began to attain a certain depth, but it tended to revolve around unicorns, which I don’t find all that interesting.  One Christmas, I was obliged to spend an entire hour playing “American Girl Dolls” with Georgia (and for the record, I cannot imagine a less enriching, less intellectually stimulating pastime than having tea with a fake human.  There wasn’t even any actual tea—and even that took twenty minutes to arrive at the table.  Still, I persevered.

            The thing is, tea—even invisible tea—has a certain stimulative effect on my digestive system, so about half way through, I had to excuse myself.

            “Gussy, where you going?” she asked.  (For the record, there are only three people in the world allowed to address me as Gussy, and they are all related to me.)

            “I’m going to duck in to the bathroom for a moment,” I answered.   “I hope that’s okay.”

            “Fine,” she said.  “But it’s gonna be stinky.”

            She said this with such gravitas that I felt obliged to thank her for the warning. 

            When I returned a few minutes later, I found Georgia deep in thought.  She seemed almost troubled.

            “Is everything okay?” I asked.

            “Gussy,” she said after a bit more silent reflection, “did Jesus poop?”

            It wasn’t anything I had given much thought.  Presumably, he had a perfectly efficient digestive system.  But then again, the food he consumed was harvested from a fallen world—not to mention that certain fibers and whatnot, even and especially in a perfect digestive tract, would have to be expelled.

            “Yes, Georgia,” I said, “I believe he did.”

            At this her face brightened.  In fact, the whole room seemed to get a little brighter.  She grinned at me, shook her doll in the air and shouted, “Jesus pooped!”

            She spent the rest of the Christmas season discoursing on this theological wonder to her parents, her friends, her relatives…even complete strangers.  On her way out of church the next Sunday, she was still spreading the good news.

Because, you see, at that time in her life, Georgia was only really good at one thing.  And it was a revelation to her that, thanks to the incarnation, she could be like Christ when she did it.

And she really did have the scriptures to back her up. After all, Saint Paul himself said, “Everything. You do, do for the glory of God.”

You may remember that Martin Luther used the analogy of a dunghill covered by snow to illustrate his theology of humanity’s utter depravity.  We’re all basically manure, he said, but Jesus hides this from God’s aight by covering us with the snow of his grace, so that when he looks down on us, all he sees is the purity of the snow. And that is dead wrong.  It’s wrong because it does not acknowledge the fundamental goodness of God’s creation. 

Our identity, in other words, is in our goodness—NOT in our sinfulness.  What’s more, the eucharist itself ensures that our flesh is imbued with divine dignity.  “The cup of blessing that we bless, it is a participation in the Blood of Christ! The bread that we break, it is a participation in the Body of Christ!

            We call the story we read this morning “The Parable of the Prodigal Son.”  And isn’t that just typical us to identify the main character by his worse attribute.  But you can be sure the father in the story does not know him this way.  When the prodigal son returns from his journey covered in filth, the father recognizes him immediately—recognizes him from a long way off—as “this son of mine” and “your brother.”

            Over the summer, a friend told me about an encounter he had at the University where he is campus minister.  He was confronted by a representative of the LGBT community who announced that he identified as female and demanded to be treated as such.  “Fine” said my friend, “but that goes both ways, doesn’t it?  You have to treat me the way I identify, don’t you?”  His interlocutor grudgingly agreed that he would.  “Fine then,” said my friend, “I identify as your brother.”  And the two hugged it out, then went their separate ways.

            To be sure, we live in a culture that insists on finding ugliness and conflict in everything.  But this isn’t something new. Our job as Christians is now and always has been to return with confidence to the Father in the sure and certain hope that he will recognize us as his sons and daughters.  Then to recognize that same sonship in our brothers and sisters.


...and now.

Sunday, July 24, 2022

Our Father

    Saint Luke, the evangelist, spends more time on Jesus' prayer than any other Gospel writer; and in today's reading, he hones in on the core of that teaching:  a communal declaration of faith, an exhortation to relentless prayer, and the assurance that God will answer.

    But it all begins with a request from his followers.  The disciples notice that Jesus has this special way of praying, and they say to him, “Teach us how to pray like that.  Teach us how to pray like you do.”  Jesus’ answer is a seven-stage dialogue of love: seven petitions from the Son to the Father which we, in turn, are invited to share in the Spirit.

    And so we enter into the Trinity by using the very words Jesus himself would use when he prayed…the words he continues to use in his prayer through us.  The whole thing can be summed up in two words: OUR FATHER.  When the Christian prays, it is not the petition of a slave to his Lord or a servant to his master—it is not, fundamentally, “centering” or “mindful”, it is not an “affirmation” or a “mantra” it isn’t an attempt to attain a higher consciousness or personal growth…in fact, to focus on the personal relationship is to miss the point entirely.  The “Our” in the “Our Father” guarantees that this will not merely be a personal relationship with God.  It is an intimate prayer of perfect love, spoken as part of community that is drawn into the relationship of an infinitely loving Father and a perfectly selfless and singularly humble Son. When we speak the words of the Our Father, we are drawn into that relationship, like-like flotsam sucked into a tornado of love (I’ll find better analogy later); my point is that this prayer has a weight, a focus, an attraction, and a gravity all its own--an irresistible pull that, by its very nature draws us toward its center, which is both within us and utterly out of our reach.

It's depths are theologically infinite. It was Saint Augustine who pointed out that, of the seven petitions of the Our Father, the central petition, “give us our daily bread,” matches the central of the seven beatitudes: blessed are those who hunger and thirst; which matches the central of the seven virtues, which is fortitude; which matches the central sacrament of the Christian Faith, which is, of course, the EUCHARIST.

    “So then the Eucharist is our daily bread;” he wrote, “but let us receive it in such a way that we are not only refreshed in our bodies, but in our souls. For the virtue which we aquire here is unity, that gathered together into His body, and made His members, we may be what we receive. Then will it be indeed our daily bread. 

    By uttering the words ‘Our Father’, the Christian enters into the filial love of God’s own son, and in consuming him is consumed by him.  I’ll say it again: the eucharist is the only food that consumes us when we eat it.  “I do not, therefore, regard the bread and wine as simply bread and wine;” wrote saint Cyril of Jerusalem, “for they are, according to the Master’s declaration, the body and blood of Christ. Even though the senses suggest to you the other, let faith make you firm. Do not judge in this matter by taste, but be fully assured by faith, never doubting that you have been deemed worthy of the very body and blood of Christ…partake of that bread as something spiritual, and put a cheerful face on your soul" (ibid., 22:6, 9).

 

          During my travels over the last few months, I’ve discovered some new saints. And although all the saints share a devotion to the Holy Eucharist, I’m particularly drawn to the misfits, the failures, and the losers.  Foremost among those losers are Saint Drogo of Sebourg and Saint Mark Ti Tiensiong.  Saint Mark was addicted to opium, and his parish priest wouldn’t allow him into the church, so he sat outside the doors and would peak in every day and watch the mass from outside.  Since his pastor told him addiction was a mortal sin, and he knew he wasn’t ever going to quit, he resolved to be martyred—which he was.


            Saint Drogo has a longer, more complex story, but you get a certain sense of him from his patronage.  Saint Drogo of Sebourg is the patron saint of ugly People, def people, gall stones, hernias, intestinal blockages and ruptures, nausea, insanity, mental illness, mute people, deaf people, and orphans.  This poor guy couldn’t catch a break….  What’s more, like Saint Mark, he was forbidden to enter the Church because, apparently, he scared the children.  So he dug a hole in the wall of the church and built a shack on the other side, where he would sit and watch the holy sacrifice being offered.  He also happens to be the patron saint of coffee, because, at the end of each day, he would comfort himself by drinking a bowl of warm water.

 

(FYI…I’ve made holy cards of both saints which you can find at the exits this morning.)

 

“Eat Christ, then;” writes Saint Augustine, “for, though eaten, He yet lives, for when slain He rose from the dead. Nor do we divide Him into parts when we eat Him: though indeed this is done in the Sacrament, as the faithful well know when they eat the Flesh of Christ, for each receives his part, hence are those parts called graces. Yet though thus eaten in parts He remains whole and entire; eaten in parts in the Sacrament, He remains whole and entire in Heaven. {Mai 129, 1; cf. Sermon 131; on p.65}

 

In the name of the Father…