God Speaks

Cicada specimen

Far be it from us presumptuously to speculate about the prerogatives that Almighty God has. As we concluded last week, He reigns supreme. His transcendence cannot be doubted. We certainly cannot tell Him His business.

But: we can, and we must, humbly acknowledge certain prerogatives which God indubitably has. We know He has them, because He has, in fact, exercised them.

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Visitation Facts

Mets sweep Yankees

Blessed are you who believed that the promises of the Lord would be fulfilled. (Luke 1:45)

The faith of the Blessed Virgin Mary offers us the antidote to the prevalent myth of the 21st century.

Because the myth contains an element of truth. Anybody remember? “Religion cannot have anything to do with knowledge, because God, if He exists, is too mysterious to be known. Religion is about your deepest personal feelings.”

VisitationNow, the true part: Religion does indeed offend God if we offer it with anything other than absolute personal sincerity.

There’s only one way to address God honestly, and that is from the center of my heart and mind. No one else can have a relationship with God for me. I have to do it myself.

But here’s the thing; here’s what the Blessed Mother teaches us by her own absolutely intimate personal relationship with God:

When we stand in truth before our Maker, we see that we ourselves do not have what it takes to live, to thrive—even to exist. We are not sufficient unto ourselves. We depend on God for every moment’s breath.

And we need salvation. Death comes for everyone. No amount of personal feelings about God can keep me from dying. Death constitutes the ultimate objective, impartial, non-emotional fact. The only really honest feeling I can have about this fact is: “God, help me! Lord, save us!”

So, if we accept the true part of our century’s myth about God, then we see clearly how false the other part of the myth is. We need objective knowledge about God’s plan. Without it, we can have no real hope and no real joy. We need to hear His promises, believe in them, and believe in His power to fulfill them.

What did the Blessed Mother know about herself, above all? That she could not save herself. She was conceived without sin, by a special dispensation of the grace of the Cross. But her immaculate conception only made her more aware that she needed God. And more aware that God Who says, “I will save you,” will do it.

Marie OsmondWhat’s the difference between a Catholic and an Evangelical?

A Catholic believes everything an Evangelical believes about Jesus and the Bible. But you can sit and drink a beer with the Catholic; you can talk about the Mets sweeping the Yankees, and the Catholic will not feel obliged to bring up religion.

Now, in truth: This is the more genuinely evangelical approach. Catholicism survives and thrives precisely because it is perfectly compatible with living the life of a normal baseball fan.

But: we cannot accept; we must dispute; we have the duty to object to the idea that one religion is just as good as another, because it really has to do with your personal feelings. It doesn’t. Maybe some religions have to do with feelings. But ours has to do with what God Himself has said to the human race, the commandments He has given and the promises He has made.

So if my buddy says, in between reflections on Stephen Strasburg’s prospects, that his brother left the Church to marry a Mormon, but that’s okay because he’s happy! I have to reply, “Can’t agree with you there, pal. I would sooner die than miss Mass, even if I got to marry Marie Osmond. Cheers!”

Summer Project

Reading Sirach has given me an idea for a summer project.

How about if every day of the summer we do this: Pause to focus on one single item of our experience which shows the ineffably wonderful wisdom of God?

fireworksCould be: ‘Lord, how splendid that You designed our digestive systems to assimilate nutrients in such an efficient and yet delightful and dignified fashion!’

Or: ‘Lord, You keep the sun shining so I can go fishing in the evening!’

Or: ‘Listen to the music of the cicadas, the song of the living earth!’

Or: ‘Gosh, two minds separated by enormous distances of time and space can share the same mysteries, through the medium of a book—how awesome!’

Or: ‘Almighty Creator, You water our planet in such an elaborate manner that the pull of gravity produces waterfalls and other alluring spectacles which also offer a cool respite from the summer heat!’

Or: ‘God gives us all this, and baseball season, too? Come on!’

Every day of summer: Something. Anything. Could be really small, like: ‘Yes! There is such a thing as iced coffee!” Or big, like: ‘Because of the chemical system which God designed, fireworks are possible.’

One thing every day. A different one each day. All summer long.

Work New Wonders, Lord

ecclesiasticus sirach

Give new signs and work new wonders. (Sirach 36:6)

In the first reading at Holy Mass today, we read Jesus ben-Sirach’s prayer for the re-unification of Israel. The wise man prays that God will intervene in history again to show the whole world that He is Lord, by restoring the divine kingdom of His chosen nation.

The wise teacher of this book has already outlined all the principles of an upright life. He has recounted the mighty works of God in creation and in the Covenant. And Jesus ben-Sirach has explained how living right—humbly submitting to God’s laws—that this offers the perfect religious sacrifice to God.

But that’s not all the wise man has to say. It’s not just all morals and piety. Actually morals and piety are just the beginning. Once we are moral and pious, then we must turn to God and humbly beg Him to bring it all to fulfillment by filling the heavens and the earth with His ineffable glory.

Now, of course, the Lord answered Jesus ben-Sirach’s prayer. He answered the prayers of all the ancient prophets. By sending the Messiah. The prophets knew that the wonders which God worked in Egypt, at the Red Sea, at Mount Sinai, and in the battles for control of the Holy Land in the days of Joshua—the prophets of old knew that all this was just the beginning. The Lord’s coup de grâce for His enemies was yet to come.

sistine isaiahAnd God proved the prophets right. He came in the flesh, born of the Virgin. He conquered sin and death. He extended the covenant to include all the nations of the earth. He filled His Church with grace so that She could equip God’s children for eternal life.

But, in fact, the works of God still are not over. The prayer of Jesus ben-Sirach constitutes part of the solemn, official prayer of Christ’s Church, chanted day in and day out by nuns and monks and priests. We still pray that God will give new signs and work new wonders, to show the world His glory and to unite all His scattered children.

Let’s never give up praying for God to intervene anew in history for the sake of our salvation. In fact, let’s make that prayer a priority. It’s not that He hasn’t done everything already by sending His Christ. He has done everything. But He can still make it all wonderful again, in a new way, by the unfolding of the surprising designs He has stored up in His infinite wisdom.

Exercise is good; doing an honest day’s work is good; getting a good night’s sleep is good; reading a good book; following the Nats or the Orioles. Perfectly good ways to spend time.

But let’s put humbly praying for God to give new signs and work new wonders at the top of our daily list of priorities.

God Exists

Osprey flounder

The Spirit of truth will guide you to all truth, says the Lord. (John 16:13)

Truth elicits trust. When someone’s account of something, or someone’s message, or someone’s testimony proves itself to be true, then we trust. Our minds open up. Here is someone I can believe. Here I can learn.

We can all think back, I hope, on the teachers we truly respected and liked. They understood and loved what they taught. They had thoroughly investigated their subject matter. We could listen and learn with confidence.

The Lord calls us all to become good teachers like that. Good teachers of the Gospel of Christ. Good teachers of the hope that is in us. Good teachers of prayer, of morals, of life.

But, of course: No one can become a teacher without first learning. And we learn when we trust.

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Stuck with Me

One usually reflects with gratitude on the labor of one’s mother on one’s birthday. But I have to thank her on my ordination anniversary, too.

NewMellerayAbbeyAbout fifteen years ago, after my second year in the seminary, I had it in my mind to join the Trappists and spend the rest of my days making caskets in the monastery in Peosta, Iowa.

But my mom knew me better than I knew myself. She talked me out of it. To paraphrase: ‘You may be an obtuse goofball, but you nonetheless have the makings of a halfway decent shepherd of souls. You owe it to the good Lord who made you to use those talents.’

…So that’s how you got stuck with me, my dearly beloved church.

Back around the same time, in the 1990’s, I heard a middle-aged priest give a talk about his vocation. He began, “I’m not going to tell you why I joined. I am going to tell you why I stay.”

Why do I stay? ‘I am not strong enough to dig, and I am too proud to beg.’

Just kidding. Kind of.

At today’s Mass, we hear the Lord declare that the bond of marriage cannot be severed, except by the death of the body. The bond of a priest with Holy Church cannot be dissolved at all, even by the death of the body.

We priests have no right, on our own, to stand in Christ’s place. But He puts us there anyway. He gives us His Bride to be our bride, too. I never knew a heart could hold the kind of love that I get and give on any given Sunday morning. Ten years of Sunday mornings, and I still think I have the most beautiful bride in the world. I am the luckiest man alive.

pantocratorI wanted to be a monk so that I could make friends with death. But being a parish priest makes you friends with death, too. Why do we wear black? Because life on earth is short, friends.

Christian people get buried with the feet facing east. When the Last Day comes, and all the bodies rise and stand, the faithful will see the Lord. He will come from the east, with the dawn.

But we priests have the un-merited privilege of being buried in the other direction. Because—in spite of how unworthy we are—He has chosen us to stand in His place. Forever.

So—I’m sorry. I am sorry to have to tell you that you will be looking at this ridiculous mug for all eternity–God willing we make it to heaven.

But, by the eternal light, maybe my looks will improve. And we will all see Jesus, too, anyway.

Happy anniversary to you, my love.

A Story the Interwebs Cannot Tell

We have been down this road before, on this silly weblog. And I had to eat my words.

GeorgiaBut I think I have a question which the internet simply cannot answer…

You might have thought that my favorite Scripture verse is

When I summon him, he shall approach Me; how else should one take the deadly risk of approaching Me? says the Lord. (Jeremiah 30:21)

since that verse adorned the little holy card published unto the world on the occasion of my ordination as a priest, lo these ten years past.

Or you might have thought that my favorite verse is

You knew I was a demanding man. (Luke 19:22)

or

The wedding day of the Lamb has come. (Revelation 19:7)

Dust Bowl farmsince I myself told you so last year.

But I fibbed. My real favorite verse is Sirach 7:15:

μὴ μισήσῃς ἐπίπονον ἐργασίαν καὶ γεωργίαν ὑπὸ ῾Υψίστου ἐκτισμένην

or

Non oderis laboriosa opera et rusticationem creatam ab Altissimo.

My question for the interwebs is this:

Why, dear interwebs–considering the fact that both γεωργίαν and rusticationem certainly refer to farming, to agriculture, to husbandry (as the names of two great farming states, one in the US and the other in central Europe, both bear witness, not to mention our delightful Anglicization of ‘rustic’) –why, pray tell, did the New-American-Bible rendering of this verse change from

Hate not laborious tasks, nor farming, which was ordained by the Most High.

to

Do not hate hard work; work was assigned by God.

when the Revised Edition of our beloved American Catholic NAB was published in 2011?

Of course there must be a reason for such a stupefying change. I am certainly no scholar. I vaguely know that Hebrew fragments of Sirach were found at the Dead Sea in the years between these two translations. The eminent, humble, and wise translators must have had a reason for rendering this verse in such a way that it makes a joke out of the way the neo-Vulgate renders it (i.e. with the word rusticationem prominently employed, as can easily be seen on the Vatican’s own website).

Only a reason of great moment, a compelling discovery in the bowels of the Qumran community–or some other place studied by diligent archaeologists and philologists–only such a solid reason could possibly induce the translators to change this verse and remove one of the key concepts of the sentence (i.e. farming).

Dear internet, can you disclose this reason to me? Doesn’t look like you can.

Salt and Fire

Everyone will be salted with fire.

Not being fundamentalists, we freely acknowledge that the text–not to mention the versification–of the Mark 9:40’s has inconsistencies among the various manuscripts and translations.

Does Mark 9:49 read: “Everyone will be salted with fire?” Or does Mark 9:48 read, “For everyone shall be salted with fire, and every victim shall be salted with salt?”

Yes.

But I think we can say without doubt that the moral of the story is: No one can understand the Bible without grasping one salient and salty fact.

book clubUntil the coming of Christ, God took pleasure in the sweet smelling aroma of fresh flesh meat burning on the altar which stood at the very place where Abraham had been willing to sacrifice Isaac, until the angel staid his hand.

The People of God pleased Him by offering pure, non-putrefied offerings in their holy Temple.

What is the Bible? It is books written by God, using the human authorship of men who smelled the sweet smoke rising from Mt. Zion and rejoiced.

Now, of course, we also know that some of the Bible was written during periods when the Temple lay in ruins. And God also spoke through his prophets to condemn the offering of sacrifices by people with impure, selfish hearts.

Leviticus 2:13 commands us to season our sacrifices with salt. In all your oblations, offer salt. Do not remove the salt of the Covenant from thy sacrifices.

Earlier in the chapter, the Law commands that the priest must burn the sacrifice as a sweet-smelling oblation to the Lord.

What does it mean?

Easy. Sweet-smelling smoke must ascend to the one true God. No ifs ands or buts.

But, as we read, He takes no pleasures in rams or bullocks. And the priests of the Old Covenant entered the sanctuary over and over again, with what became a rather absurd gravitas, without ever really accomplishing anything.

Christ our Priest pleases the Father. Christ the Victim; Christ the altar; Christ the Temple. Christ: Head and members. Christ the celebrant of the Holy Mass, which demands our whole and entire selves be laid on the altar with the bread and wine.

May His Gospel be the salt that makes the sacrifice of our entire lives into sweet-smelling smoke for God.

And, lest the salt grow insipid and useless: may we have frequent recourse to Confession!

Learning Wisdom in South Philly

philadelphia shrine rita of cascia

Many God-fearing mid-Atlantic Catholics regard Philadelphia as the center of the known world. Not sure about that.

But the shrine of St. Rita on Broad Street may in fact be the spiritual center of the western hemisphere.

It is good to stop in a beautiful church to pray. It is even better to stop in a beautiful church to pray, and then, after you said your prayers, walk down Federal Street and get a south-Philly cheesesteak at either Geno’s or Pat’s.

St. Rita died 556 years ago today. Pope Leo XIII canonized her 113 years ago, and Pope John Paul II received her relics at St. Peter’s 13 years ago, saying,

If we ask St Rita for the secret to [her] work of social and spiritual renewal, she replies: fidelity to the Love that was crucified.

The Pope went on to refer to St. Rita’s ‘feminine genius.’ Like the feminine genius of God, about which we read in the first reading of today’s Mass:

Wisdom breathes life into her children
and admonishes those who seek her.
He who loves her loves life;
those who seek her will be embraced by the Lord. (Sirach 4:11-12)

The first part of the book of Sirach teaches us how to learn the ways of God. We must fear Him; we must submit to Him; we must keep the commandments, honor our elders, and search diligently for the truth.

Today’s reading from chapter four goes on to point out that the search for true wisdom involves confusion and struggle:

She walks with him as a stranger
and at first she puts him to the test;
Fear and dread she brings upon him
and tries him with her discipline
until she try him by her laws and trust his soul. (4:17)

Two chapters later we read an even more provocative metaphor. Seeking divine wisdom is like submitting to slavery:

Put your feet into her fetters,
and your neck under her yoke.
Bend your shoulders and carry her
and do not be irked at her bonds. (6:24-25)

St. Rita with stigmata“Put your neck under her yoke; carry her…” Sounds difficult. But it also sounds like another sentence of Holy Scripture.

Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart, and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light. (Matthew 11:29-30)

Tornadoes may come. Loved ones may pass away. The world may seem to be filled with nothing but ads, nonsense, junk, and noise–in that order.

But it is not as hard as all that.

When we keep in mind that Christ has conquered death.

St. Rita loved the King of Peace and received the gift of the stigmata, but in a unique way: one prick of a thorn in her forehead.

The confusion and struggle of life pricks us like a single thorn. And Christ rescues us like a tornado of eternal love.

____________________________

…Your humble servant read with delight the news that the cause for canonization of Fr. Matteo Ricci has actually ‘advanced.’

Summer reading suggestion for you: Generation of Giants by George Dunne, SJ.