Starting from Caesarea-Philippi

You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.

Christ took the disciples to a remote place in the north, and they discussed an interesting question. Who do people say that the Son of Man is?

Who do we say that He is?

catechismNow, few people pick up the Catechism of the Catholic Church looking for drama. But the transition from Chapter 1 to Chapter 2 offers some drama. Chapter 1 had ended with the fall of Adam and Eve. The Catechism quotes Vatican II, “the whole of man’s history has been the story of dour combat with the powers of evil.”

Then, drama. Paragraphs 422 and 423:

But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. …We believe and confess that Jesus of Nazareth, born a Jew of a daughter of Israel at Bethlehem at the time of King Herod the Great and the emperor Caesar Augustus, a carpenter by trade, who died crucified in Jerusalem under the procurator Pontius Pilate during the reign of the emperor Tiberius, is the eternal Son of God made man. He ‘came from God,’ ‘descended from heaven,’ and ‘came in the flesh.’ For ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father. . . And from his fullness have we all received, grace upon grace.’

The exchange between Christ and Peter, which we hear recounted in this Sunday’s gospel reading–this exchange serves as a kind of spiritual fountainhead for the Church of Christ.

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Bagpipes at the Ocean, Dogs, and Fr. Louis

This lovely morning I heard a bagpiper saluting the sun rising over the Atlantic Ocean, and I thought:

We all live in the household of the Almighty Father, where the board overflows with food. Some sit at the table and eat their fill, and some of us linger like dogs underfoot. But we, the curs of the divine household, eat plenty, too, from the scraps that fall. The only thing that matters is to be inside the house.

Merton Seven Storey MountainClick HERE for a short homily on Matthew 15:21-28. Click HERE for an even shorter one…

Okay: Seven Storey Mountain

Thomas Merton entered the Catholic Church at age 23, while a student at a big-city university. As did I. Before leaving the house to go receive his first Holy Communion, Merton worried whether brushing your teeth violated the prescribed fast. I did, too.

During his first year as a Catholic, Merton undertook the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, sitting on the floor of his bohemian downtown apartment. Me, too. He found a way to quit smoking and felt like a new man. Yes.

During his twenties, Merton made a retreat at a Trappist monastery, and the indulgent love of the heavenly Father wrapped him up like a silent blanket. Ditto.

Merton visited Rome. “I started with the misconception common to Anglo-Saxons, that the real Rome is the Rome of ugly ruins, the Rome of all those grey, cariated temples…then I began to haunt churches…And without knowing anything about it I became a pilgrim.” Sounds familiar.

After joining the Church, Merton had to wait to embark on the path to the priesthood, so he taught school. Me, too.

Merton wrote a lot of religious poems. Merton could not stay away from the tabernacle. Merton adored Christ crucified. Merton kept copious journals. Merton rode a lot of trains and took a lot of walks by himself. Merton wondered if a real Christian had to go live in Harlem or East Baltimore like the Catholic Workers. Merton loved Shakespeare and Dante and admired T.S. Eliot. Merton studied Spanish. Merton had one sibling, a brother, a couple years younger. Merton fell in love with St. Therese. Merton did some hitch-hiking in upstate New York. Yo tambien. Yo tambien

I have read Seven Storey Mountain three times. Each time, it seems more familiar.

But the differences are much starker:

Thomas Merton was a real writer, genuinely brilliant. Merton was born in France and grew up on Long Island (It is wonderful to imagine rural Long Island, as it was in the 1920’s!) and England. No one in Merton’s family frequented church regularly. When WWII came, he submitted to the draft, but he didn’t have to go, because his teeth were so bad.

Woody Allen ZeligOn the other hand, I have some of the best teeth I know of. And I grew up going to church. And, even though Merton and I both visited the Trappists and thought of staying there to live in our coffins until the final bell, I knew I was really supposed to be a parish priest–in spite of how difficult this would make things for the poor people of the parishes.

Seven Storey Mountain contains not a few jeremiads, tirades against the world–the world that deserves damnation. At 22, I did not understand these passages. At 29, I loved them. At 44, well…

Merton always includes himself among the guilty. He practically blames himself, all his youthful sins, for the eruption of World War II. But: While this book contains stunning, enormously consoling interior honesty, it, meanwhile, contains precious little human connection with other people.

(For example, without getting into anything disedifying here, my dear reader: I read with not a little disgust the cursory manner in which Merton dismisses the young ladies with whom he had been in love–without so much as a trifling description of any of them as recognizable people. Were they not his friends? It seems odd that they pass like inhuman props through the storyline. I promise that I will never write my own One-and-a-half Storey Mountain, because it would itself provoke the divine wrath for its tediousness. But, if I did, there is a woman or two who would receive more fulsome and respectful treatment.)

Fr. Basil Pennington wrote in Thomas Merton, My Brother, that Fr. Louis changed significantly, and disavowed Seven Storey Mountain, because of an experience in Louisville.

Here’s how Merton describes the experience. (From his private journal, March 19, 1958):

Yesterday, in Louisville, at the corner of 4th and Walnut, suddenly realized that I loved all the people and that none of them were, or, could be totally alien to me. As if waking from a dream–the dream of separateness, of the “special” vocation to be different. My vocation does not really make me different from the rest of men or put me is a special category except artificially, juridically. I am still a member of the human race–and what more glorious destiny is there for man, since the Word was made flesh and became, too, a member of the Human Race!

Thank God! Thank God! I am only another member of the human race, like all the rest of them. I have the immense joy of being a man! As if the sorrows of our condition could really matter, once we begin to realize who and what we are–as if we could ever begin to realize it on earth.

Beautiful. But Pennington gets carried away with this, I think. After all, Merton had profound experiences as often as most people drink coffee. If we all had a nickel for every profound experience Thomas Merton had, we would have some money to give away if and when we became Trappists.

To be altogether blunt: I think the idea of invoking “later” Merton against the “pre-Vatican II piety” of the genuinely famous Merton (Seven Storey Mountain has never gone out of print) is patently stupid. Statements like the following, which can be found in a “Note to the Reader” by a Mr. William H. Shannon in the 1998 edition of Seven Storey Mountain, simply boggle the mind:

The pre-Vatican II church into which Merton was baptized was a church still reacting–even three centuries later–to the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. Characterized by a siege mentality, wagons-circled around doctrinal and moral absolutes, it clung to its past with great tenacity.

Can this man have possibly read the canons of the Council of Trent? Anyway, the idea that Vatican II gave us a New World Order in our Church–this idea has been thoroughly exposed as a fraud. Time has made mincemeat of the idea. And if we look at the whole question of early vs. later Merton that way, our thoughts will linger on altogether too shallow a plane anyway.

Let me speak solely for myself. Yes–I can say, “Me, too,” to an awful lot of what Thomas Merton wrote in Seven Storey Mountain. I found enormous consolation in my twenties from Merton in his twenties. But, now that I am older than Merton was when he went to Louisville to for a doctor’s appointment in 1958, I find the jeremiads of Seven Storey Mountain somewhat uncharitable and pretty pointless. So let me say:

I love being a secular priest. I am no good at it, interiorly or exteriorly. But I love God, His Christ, His Church, and His world. I love the fact that the second Vatican Council gave us not a New World Order in the Church, but the mandate for the New Evangelization. Which we pursue, in the immortal words of Woody Allen, in the exact same place where you can get a good steak.

Ave, Regina caelorum

Sixth anniversary of the ridiculous Fr.-Mark-White weblog! 811,000 visits so far.

The hope held out by the Gospel is the antidote to the spirit of despair that seems to grow like a cancer in societies which are outwardly affluent, yet often experience inner sadness and emptiness. Upon how many of our young has this despair taken its toll! May they, the young who surround us in these days with their joy and confidence, never be robbed of their hope! (Papa Francesco at Holy Mass today with the youth of Asia)

Pope Francis is greeted by well-wishers as he is flanked by South Korean President Park upon his arrival at Seoul Air Base in Seongnam

…Click HERE for my defense of Mariolatry. I heard a sermon today which claimed that we don’t pray to Mary. But I beg to differ…

…For all the catechists who will soon get back to work, here’s an insight from Fr. Louis’ (aka Thomas Merton’s) book about his early life, Seven Storey Mountain. He recalls his visits to the parish rectory on W. 121st St. in New York, to receive instruction in the faith, prior to his baptism in the fall of 1938.

If people had more appreciation for what it means to be converted from rank, savage paganism, from the spiritual level of a cannibal or of an ancient Roman, to the living faith and to the Church, they would not think of catechism as something trivial or unimportant. Usually the word suggests the matter-of-course instructions that children have to go through before First Communion and Confirmation. Even where it is a matter of course, it is one of the most tremendous things in the world, this planting of the word of God in a soul.

Much more to come here re: Fr. Louis. And very much looking forward to seeing you in the various classrooms soon, dear fellow catechists!

Song of Pius X gerontion


Shortly we will mark the centenary of the holy death of Pope St. Pius X. He breathed his last as the guns of August sounded. (Click HERE to read a homily about his all-important encyclical Pascendi.)

Cardinal Newman gave us Dream of Gerontius. And T.S. Eliot wrote a poem about an old man at the end of World War I. I imitate the genre with a (purely fictional) death song of Pius X.

He awakes, “O holy God,” on his lips.
Old, dimmed eyes see dawn light
through the gauzy window shades.

He manages to trundle over
and look out at the piazza.
“O blessed Apostle,

“Father of our line, whose bones
I guard, however ham-handedly,
hear me…

Madness crushed you here.
Your hands, that lowered the nets,
pierced like His.

The rage of a now-ancient
antagonism spilled your blood
and marked this spot,

this city, the See of the universal,
Catholic Father. Poorly
I have succeeded you,

and now sadness overwhelms
my waning days.
Hear me.

What I have known: Christ, and Him crucified.
The altar centering the world.

But what I have seen: machines
clear, haul, lift, and
burn fuel.

Smoky now the fields where I plucked
the childhood grass.
Neighbors now

look at each other differently.
The simple calm of the psalms

on this continent, the silence sits no more.
My several children have ignited
a burning fuse.

The twentieth century crackles like
kindling beside a bomb.
Barbarians move again.

O father! The promise of every turning
of the years: the simple facts,
taught to us

like children. We are children
to Him. We need simple lessons
and quiet.

We need peaceful days, so that
Time can serve the balm and nurture
the earth,

healing, soothing, fructifying,
enlightening by little stages
as wheat stalks grow.

The hidden fruit will come out, in color,
when a century can ripen
like a bunch of grapes.

Father, centuries have intervened, indeed.
Castles have fallen, old friendships grown cold.
But the net has not torn.

We have held on, like children
to what even our unlettered fathers
could teach us.

I have held fast. I have held fast,
too, to the trusting hands
of my children,

born to smell gunpowder on the air
and listen to evil essays in
evanescent irreligion,

the delusion that this age comes
unique and unencumbered with duty,
a canvas for marking

with the abstractions of hard-hearted
maladroits with cigars and facile
theories of love.

Now I die to the sound of howitzers.
O please, gracious father of our line,
may the hundred years

to come bring the re-establishment
for which I lived and died,
the quicksilver

movement of humble Christians who
look not at themselves, but at
our Lord. May we

wake up and hear a crisper rumble, like your very bones
rattling with life, the whole world Church
kneeling here, with bishop-saints

among them. After all, the wood
is green now, really. The smell of simplicity
still lingers in our sky.

But a century of death from now, the wood
will have dried. Our children then
will have to

die for the truth, like you.

Lamp in a Dark Place

Attend to the prophetic message as to a lamp shining in a dark place. 2 Peter 1:19

‘Prophetic.’ To prophesy means announcing something that would otherwise remain unknown. A prophecy gives us other-worldly knowledge.

Transfiguration-raphaelThe prophetic message, to which we must attend: Jesus is Lord. Jesus is Alpha and Omega, beginning and end. A light shines within Him–the unique, undying light, from which all creation has come.

This lamp–the light of Jesus Christ’s otherworldly divinity–His immeasurable mystery–this lamp shines in a dark place.

Seems like this question comes up over and over and over again. Fiftieth anniversary of Vatican II–let’s tackle it again. Is this world a dark place?

Today we pray especially for the Christians of Iraq, who certainly suffer in a painful kind of darkness, the darkness of having irrational enemies with loaded guns pointed at you and your children. And we pray for their neighbors, other religious minorities in the Middle East, suffering alongside our brother Christians. As they mourn their countless dead, they would likely say, ‘Yes, this is a dark world.’

But: When we prophetically declare to the dark world, ‘Jesus is Lord!’ we simultaneously say, “God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son.”

God does not love evil. God does not love darkness. God loves shimmering sunsets and a cup of good wine. He came to live in the beautiful world He made. He confounded the Pharisees with the way He took delight in His friends, and music, and a pleasant evening.

Let’s focus on this concept: Redemption. God came to redeem, not to destroy. Redemption implies two things:

1. This world enslaves. The evils of this world bind and fetter with base selfishness. We cannot even see the way to escape, much less have the strength to follow it. On any given day, any given web-search, the world looks hopeless.

But redemption also implies:

2. Freedom does await. The true, vivid color of the world lies hidden in shadows. But it’s there. It can come out. I’m not gay, I just love rainbows.

The Feast of the Transfiguration, the feast of hope. God loves tomorrow; He does not hate it. He will shine even more light tomorrow, until the undying dawn of the everlasting day.

Poem for St. John Vianney

CureYour heart, and bones, stole, and chalice,
I have knelt beside,
in a poor-town church, frumpy and cramped.

Next door: the wall, where you nailed the bag
that held the week’s potatoes;
the bed, scarcely used.

On the other side (of the altar):
vesting case, little plank to sit on,
and the prie-dieu where they knelt,

thousands after thousands.
Trains brought them; they lined up along the street
to confess to the holy priest.

God beckons. The world has webs.
Your penitents got themselves tangled speaking French.
Here we speak English and Spanish: tangled all the same.

He beckons: I Am Simple.
I got to gaze at the sky above Ars,
took a run past local cornfields of your farm-fed curacy,

where you wandered to read your Breviary.
You wanted to steal away to the cloister.
They dragged you home to the town church.

You can read souls better now
than you did then, dear Father.

This Hamlet has more offenses at my beck
than thoughts to put them in.
Too arrant a knave for such a patron.

But He beckons.
The simple Fire
in the tabernacle

Who only loves, and shed His blood
so we could make the sign of the Cross,
and untangle everything.

The Bumblers Who Console Christ

“There is no need for them to go away.” Matthew 14:16

The Lord mourned the cruel martyrdom of His cousin, John the Baptist. Jesus lamented the injustice that crushed the life of the greatest of Israel’s prophets. The man who had awoken the hope of the people–hope for a pure and wholesome life, hope for a future worthy of the chosen children of God. The man who welcomed people to this fresh start in the bracing Jordan water. The man who had the courage to accuse the powerful of hypocrisy and selfishness, inviting them, too, to repentance and an honest new beginning… This man had been brutally and arbitrarily murdered. Because the king did not want to go back on his drunken oaths. Herod liked to watch pretty dancing girls. And he had a mean, hard-hearted wife.

head-platterJesus mourned all this. So He sought solitude, as He often did at such times, to pray to the Father.

We can relate to the Lord’s human emotions. I have five cousins, whom I love, and with whom I share tender childhood memories. If I learned that one of them had died, I wouldn’t want to talk to anyone for a while. I would find myself very sad.

Add to that the hope for the nation that John represented. He had brought the simple, beautiful message of the Old Covenant, the heritage of Israel, to the people of Jesus’ generation. John had brought together in himself the holiness of Abraham, Moses, and Elijah, all rolled into one. Then add the fact that this burning light of truth and hope had been killed for no good reason at all, in a dark dungeon, during a drunken revel, with his head brought into the dining room on a platter, as if it were just another roast pig coming out of the oppressive royal kitchens.

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Jeremiah 26:6

jerusalem-sunriseProphet Jeremiah declared to the insincere pilgrims at the temple in Jerusalem:

‘Unless you listen to the Lord, this city will fall into ruins like Shiloh, and throughout the world people will use the name of this city to curse each other.’

Two points to note.

1. Shiloh. The Ark of the Covenant had remained in the ancient city of Shiloh for 300 years+. The Hebrew people had gathered there for generations, singing and dancing on their feast-day pilgrimages. But then King David moved the Ark to Jerusalem. Shiloh wound up abandoned, a ruin, a ghost-town. Sic transit gloria mundi. So passes the glory of the world.

2. Curse and blessing. At a Passover Seder, Jews use the word ‘Jerusalem’ to bless each other in the most hopeful, cheerful way, “Next year in Jerusalem!”

As the New Testament was written, the Romans burned the city of Jerusalem, and its walls fell to the ground. But the books of the New Covenant invoke the name of the city to mean ‘heaven.’ ‘Jerusalem’ is heaven.

The contrasts could not be more stark, and, therefore, illuminating. In the cruel world, ravished by sin and its consequences, the name of the city can serve as a by-word for violence, discord, and suffering.

But, by faith, we see the city over the horizon, the goal of the the pilgrimage, which is life. Blessed Jerusalem, the city of music and dancing, will welcome us, the shining capital of the realm of eternal peace and harmony, the Kingdom of God.

St. Ignatius Feastday and the Holy Land

At one point in his life, St. Ignatius Loyola wanted above all to live in the Middle East, in the land of Christ. Ignatius resolved to go to Palestine and never return home.

As things turned out, he had to return to Europe. The Franciscan superior ordered him to leave Palestine, because the situation had become perilous, due to a war.

Sound familiar?

It appears that the fighters who have taken over a lot of Syria and Iraq, who call themselves ‘Islamic State,’ have systematically sought to rid the land of Christians–and Shia Muslims, for that matter. The Islamic State fighters have committed obscene atrocities with spurious religious justifications, justifications which mainstream Muslim leaders have strenuously denounced.

ignatiuswritingFor a millennium and a half, the original Christian people, the Christians of the Levant, have lived at peace with Muslim neighbors. We recall how, eleven months ago, the church leaders of the Middle East, along with the Pope, begged the western military powers not to attack Syria and foment the civil war there. We recall how, over a decade ago, the same leaders, and Pope St. John Paul II, begged us not to invade Iraq.

Perhaps we can understand a little better now why the Christians of the Middle East made these pleas for peace. It was not simply a matter of naïve pacificism.

Our war in Iraq certainly looks like the fiasco of the 21st century at this point, but that’s not for me to say. What I do know is that we need to pray very hard for our suffering brothers and sisters who live in the land where the Lord called the patriarchs and prophets to Himself, and where He, in Person, walked the earth.