Friday, March 20, 2015

King David Chooses the Unlikely - and God Does Too

In the Book of Samuel, David, the anointed king of Israel, becomes a fugitive when Saul, the king from whom God removed His favor, tries to kill David. We are told that David "was joined by all those in difficulties or in debt, or embittered, and became their leader" (1 Sam 22:2). For a man about to raise a veritable guerrilla army, this does not seem like very promising material.  Then again, it sounds much like the "tax collectors and sinners" who appear throughout the Gospels following Jesus.

Interestingly, we learn a few chapters later from some shepherds who traveled through the territory of David and his outlaws that "these men were very good to us. We were not harmed, neither did we miss anything all the while we were living among them during our stay in the open country" (1 Sam 25:15).  It turns out that, under a leader like David, the indebted, the embittered, the outcasts of society, can become not only a capable fighting force but upstanding men as well.  Thus does the Old Testament foreshadow here, and in dozens of more prominent examples, the idea that St. Paul explained to the Corinthians: "God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong" (1 Cor 1:27).

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Rights and Responsibilities of Generations

Communitarianism never really took off as a political movement, but its emphasis on both rights and responsibilities broadly accords with the flavor of Catholic social teaching. With that in mind, and inspired by the consciously inter-generational charism of the Sword of the Spirit community, I have been thinking a lot lately, as I watch my own parents age and my children grow, about the rights and responsibilities of generations. Not yet having run the full course of life, I realize these are limited by my own experience, but here are a few thoughts:

  • Young people, from high school students to recent college graduates, have lots of energy and, although they rarely recognize it, time. I would strongly recommend to anyone about to finish undergraduate studies that they consider undertaking missionary work, joining the military, or going to graduate school. This is the season of life for such things. I am glad, for my part, that I completed my PhD immediately after my undergraduate education. While additional "life experience" in the midst of my studies would have been valuable, I cannot imagine trying to finish coursework or a dissertation while raising a family.

  • On a related note: society desperately needs the enthusiastic service of young people. While service projects abound, it feels like many of them involve piecemeal efforts or the ticking of boxes. More organizations for sustained, dedicated service are needed, and more young people should be encouraged to participate in them. The Mormon missionary system comes to mind as a model of large-scale, coordinated utilization of young peoples' efforts.

  • Young single people need support. Two particular manifestations come to mind. First, I am deeply grateful for men a few years older than me who shared their lives. I have learned a great deal from them. With young children, my wife and I now find ourselves spending the overwhelming majority of our social time with other parents of young children. There are many fruits to this arrangement, but I fear that we are doing little to impart our wisdom (such as it is), sometimes gained with sweat and tears, to those who will need it in a few years.

  • Second, the debacle of the Texas A&M Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered Resource Center reminded me of how difficult it is to be a single person in a society saturated in sexual promiscuity. As Genesis reminds us, "It is not good for the man to be alone." Single life was a blessed season for me, but also a trying one, and I lived it in an extremely supportive environment. I cannot imagine doing so at a large public institution such as A&M (itself, by no means the worst of "party" schools). Why are there no Single People Striving to Live Chastity Resource Centers?

  • On the whole, our elders are neither accorded the seat of wisdom, nor would they know what to do with it if they were. Consider the term we use for those advanced in age: elderly. Literally, those like elders, but not actually such. Our society is so far removed from a reverence for our elders that most of us have no idea how to incorporate them into the regular habits of business and social life. Moreover, the generation now reaching retirement is a generation which - collectively, if not individually - rejected the oversight of their elders. If there was ever a sense for how elders gracefully receive deference and impart their wisdom while still permitting a younger generation to lead, that sense has been lost. Many of our elders today, so rarely receiving the respect due to their experience, are either embarrassed by the attention grasp at it in a way which is unhelpful. The wheel must be reinvented.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Spare Our Lives and Grant Us Patience

Simply reading the news reminds me of the urgent need to pray for Christians in the Middle East. The Chaldean Catholic Patriarch of Iraq, His Beatitude Louis Raphael Sako, has asked Christians around the world to pray the following:

the plight of our country
is deep and the suffering of Christians
is severe and frightening.

Therefore, we ask you Lord
to spare our lives, and to grant us patience,
and courage to continue our witness of Christian values
with trust and hope.

Lord, peace is the foundation of life;
grant us the peace and stability that will enable us
to live with each other without fear and anxiety,
and with dignity and joy.

Glory be to you forever.

Today's image comes via A Reader's Guide to Orthodox Icons.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Happy Feast of St. Gregory of Nyssa!

On a recent reading of St. John Paul II's Veritatis Splendor, I came across the following rather striking passage (from article 38), which quotes Gregory's De Hominis Opificio, Chapter IV.
Taking up the words of Sirach, the Second Vatican Council explains the meaning of that "genuine freedom" which is "an outstanding manifestation of the divine image" in man: "God willed to leave man in the power of his own counsel, so that he would seek his Creator of his own accord and would freely arrive at full and blessed perfection by cleaving to God" (Gaudium et Spes, 17; cf. Sir 15:14).  These words indicate the wonderful depth of the sharing in God's dominion to which man has been called: they indicate that man's dominion extends in a certain sense over man himself.  This has been a constantly recurring theme in theological reflection on human freedom, which is described as a form of kingship.  For example, Saint Gregory of Nyssa writes: "The soul shows its royal and exalted character... in that it is free and self-governed, swayed autonomously by its own will.  Of whom else can this be said, save a king?...  Thus human nature, created to rule other creatures, was by its likeness to the King of the universe made as it were a living image, partaking with the Archetype both in dignity and in name."

Today's image, a 14th century fresco of St. Gregory of Nyssa in Chora Church, Istanbul, comes from Wikipedia.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Christmas Mystery, as told by The Friendly Beasts

Although I have been known to criticize, in passing, the over-emphasis on carols at Christmas, today I'd like to draw attention to a worthy carol and some aspects of its lyrics. The song is "The Friendly Beasts," known by many people from recent recordings, though the melody and lyrics both have their roots in medieval France.

Jesus our brother kind and good
Was humbly born in a stable rude
And the friendly beasts around Him stood
Jesus our brother, kind and good

I said the donkey, all shaggy and brown
I carried His mother up hill and down
I carried His mother to Bethlehem Town
I said the donkey, all shaggy and brown

I said the cow, all white and red
I gave Him my manger for His bed
I gave Him my hay to pillow His head
I said the cow, all white and red

I said the sheep, with curly horn
I gave Him my wool for a blanket warm
He wore my coat on Christmas morn
I said the sheep, with curly horn

I said the dove, from the rafters high
I cooed Him to sleep so He would not cry
We cooed Him to sleep, my love and I
I said the dove, from the rafters high

Thus every beast, by some good spell
In the stable rude was glad to tell
Of the gift He gave, Emmanuel
The gift He gave, Emmanuel
The gift He gave, Emmanuel

While a cute story about animals at Jesus's birth, the song also probes the very meaning of the Incarnation, the coming of God as a man. Imagine, for a moment, that the president, the pope, a famous writer, or some other person you deeply respected was coming to your home or church. Think of the excitement, both before and after. For years, you'd tell friends and neighbors, "Right there, on that corner of the deck, Pope Francis and I sat and drank a few brews together."

But consider another wrinkle: God is not merely someone you respect or even a dear friend. He is these things, but He is also your maker and judge. His power circumscribes all things. His will holds us in existence. His judgements are perfect and final, for He circumscribes even time itself. It would be with excitement, yes, but also fear and trembling that you would tell your neighbors, "God is coming to my house."

But then a curious thing happens, and it is this point where "The Friendly Beasts" really begins its reflection: God comes "not as a monarch but a child" (as an Ambrosian hymn reminds us). Almightly God is weak. And, as a consequence, He needs our help. Thus do the beasts recount their deeds of kindness to the Christ Child: "I carried His mother to Bethlehem Town.... I gave Him my manger for His bed.... He wore my coat on Christmas morn.... I cooed Him to sleep so He would not cry." As if to emphasize the wonder that they, mere creatures, should render such service to their creator, each of the verses ends with a reminder that this happened to them, personally.

I'm not sure I understand how God became man. I can't explain quite why He needed our help. Indeed, the Church tells us that the Incarnation is a mystery; at its deepest core it is something we cannot fully explain. But we can revel in the wonder of it all. That is what we do at Christmas and that's what the friendly beasts do.

Friday, November 21, 2014

A Note from Myself

A couple weeks ago my wife and I visited my family in Arizona. Among other things, we went to mass with them on Sunday, the Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica. Also, I cleaned out some old school notebooks and things while I was there. Scribbled on the back of a reader from a UD History of Germany class, I found this short reflection:
Today's flight was glorious beyond description. We were in a small plane and flew low out of the Valley, due east, over the Superstition Mountains, some open pit copper mines, and a series of canyons. The landscape was so wild, and so beautiful, and so lovely that words fail me. I suspect that standing on the peak of Olympus Mons, surrounded by such barren beauty, would be rather akin to my aerial survey. I nearly cried to think that such wonders are passing away with the rest of the created universe, longing for that same redemption I seek. But I found solace in the thought of sharing such a vision, and in seeing it reborn in the hereafter.

-Sunday, November 9th, 2003
Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

What Guy Fawkes Day Means to Me

Guy Fawkes Day, also known as Bonfire Day, is a curious holiday.  It commemorates the failure on 5 November 1605 of the Gunpowder Plot, a scheme by a group of Catholics to blow up parliament and the Protestant King James I.  The plotters were betrayed, the barrels of gunpowder under the House of Lords were discovered in time, and the king's life was spared.

Members of the Gunpowder Plot
I find this a curious occasion to commemorate because it conforms neither to the major trend in holidays, nor to the primary exception.  Most holidays celebrate glorious triumphs such as victories in battle (e.g. Lepanto Day / Feast of the Holy Rosary), political successes (usually independence), or momentous spiritual events (e.g. the Incarnation or the Resurrection).  Some holidays, such as Thanksgiving, do not celebrate a particular triumph, but point to successes generally.  Apart from this major trend of celebrating victory, there is an exceptional category of holidays, which recall tragic failures, either gloriously defiant (e.g. the Alamo or the July 20 Conspiracy), or horrors from which we have, broadly speaking, taken some meaning or learned some lesson (e.g. Good Friday, September 11th, or Memorial Day).

But why do the English celebrate Guy Fawkes Day?  One might say it has become little more than an excuse for fireworks and bonfires, and this is probably true, but it only pushes the question to one step remove: why this day, and not some other?  The failure of the Gunpowder Plot was as much the fault of bumbling plotters as it was as success for the Crown and its supporters.  More to the point, the Plot was defeated not in honest battle or by national effort, but by shadowy intrigue.  Hardly the stuff of most victories.

Guy Fawkes Day, Lewes, England, 2011
Sadly, the real reason Guy Fawkes Day may have caught on in England is that it offered a chance to spite Catholics.  Indeed, the centerpieces of Guy Fawkes celebrations has traditionally been the burning in effigy of Mr. Fawkes and the pope.  Although other figures are often substituted today, this makes the holiday more than a tad bit awkward for Catholics.

But I have come to see the need for a third kind of holiday, the commemoration which does not yet possess resolution.  Perhaps my recent excursions into the historical books of the Old Testament have pushed me in this direction, for they are mostly filled with rebellions, defeats, and exile, epitomized by  Psalm 137: "By the waters of Babylon, / there we sat down and wept, / when we remembered Zion. / On the willows there we hung up our lyres. / For there our captors / required of us songs, / and our tormentors, mirth, saying, / 'Sing us one of the songs of Zion!' / How shall we sing the Lord’s song / in a foreign land?"  We have a small appetite for commemorating such events when they are recent, though memory quickly fades.  But history is replete with such calamities.  The burden of history, though it need not be overwhelming, certainly rests heavy on us, if only we open our eyes to see it.

For me, Guy Fawkes Day commemorates the difficulty of living in the world but not of it.  It commemorates the confusion that results when trying to square the demands of eternal faith with the demands of temporal politics.  It commemorates well-intentioned devotion gone awry.  It commemorates the reality that my co-coreligionists have undertaken actions I cannot always explain or justify.  It commemorates divided Christendom.  This is, or should be, a painful open wound.  Although there are lessons to be learned, I do not think we are yet at the point where we can say that we have learned them.  For now, we must simply recall.  We must bear the weight of history and trust that wisdom, some day, will follow.