Magnificat on Visitation Day

Our Lady visited her cousin. Upon arrival, the Blessed Virgin sang a canticle and proclaimed the great truth of religion. Our souls were made to proclaim the greatness of the Lord and to rejoice in Him, our Creator and Savior.

VisitationAlmighty God looked with favor on us–when He made us out of nothing, and when He redeemed us from sin. We can aspire to no nobler place than to serve Him, because He is the great God of all.

Of course we qualify as “lowly”—compared to Him. But to serve Him means blessedness and honor, compared to serving anyone or anything else. By claiming us as His servants, God has taught us to think more of ourselves, to esteem ourselves more highly, than we ever could have, if He had left us to our own little devices.

Has He not shown the strength of His arm? Not only did He array the stars in their constellations, and make all the trees, and blue whales, and chipmunks, and vast fields and flowers, and everything else—not only did He do all these grand things, He also came to help of His servant Israel.

He formed our holy people, the nation marching to heaven—He formed us by promising a good future to Abraham. And then He backed-up all His promises, sending prophets and then His Christ, who dwelt in Mary’s womb when she visited her cousin Elizabeth.

The mercy of God resounds like an organ chord that extends to infinity, filling all time and space. Our souls were made not to test Him, or to rebel, or quibble—but simply to rejoice that He, Who is good and kind and loving, is our Lord.

Re-Assigned

Dear Brothers and Sisters in the Lord in Roanoke:

Bishop DiLorenzo has decided to re-assign me, away from our beloved city. I begged him to reconsider, and I believe some other people did, too. But he has not changed his mind. My new assignment begins July 1.

Over the course of these past two years with you, I have never before felt so much love for my bride, the Church. I’ve had the privilege of trying to help two newly ordained priests come into their own. And I have loved being with you–truly loved being with you.

I will miss you very much. Please pray for me.

ignatiuswriting

I want and choose to be rated as worthless and a fool for Christ, Who first was held as such, rather than wise or prudent in this world.

(St. Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises, third note on Week II: prayer to attain humility)

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Rocky Mount and Martinsville:

Words cannot begin to describe how much I long to gaze out from the altar and behold your beloved faces again.

It doesn’t even bother me that I will never measure up to Fr. Nick. I’m sorry that you will now have a pastor far inferior to the shepherd you have had these past two years. But at least it’s a devil that you know.

 

Love, Father Mark

 

PS. Please don’t ask me what I did to piss-off the bishop so much that he has moved me, with no evident rationale, away from my aged mother in a nursing home, so that I won’t be able to visit her daily anymore.

Please don’t ask. If there is an answer, I’m pretty sure that it’s not available in English.

 

Praised be the Lord Jesus Christ. Now and forever.

A Pilgrimage Ends, Mysteriously

At Holy Mass on Sunday, we hear the end of St. Matthew’s gospel. Let’s meditate on the beginning and end of Jesus’ life. [Click AQUI por español.]

His divine life—the life of the only-begotten Son: God from God, light from light, true God from true God—that life began… well, it did not “begin.” It is. Eternally. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

annunciation-merodeSo the divine life of Jesus: eternal. On the other hand, His human life had a beginning, in Mary’s womb. But it has no end, since He conquered death.

What about the earthly pilgrimage of the Lord Jesus?

His pilgrimage on earth began in the same place where His human life began—just like it does for us. In our mother’s wombs. But, whereas our earthly pilgrimages end with… death, Jesus’ earthly pilgrimage did not end with death.

A lot of people thought it had ended with His death. Usually when condemned men died on crosses in the occupied territories of the Roman Empire, that spelled the end of that particular person’s earthly pilgrimage. When Jesus gave up His spirit and bowed His Sacred Head in death—it seemed to all observers that a human pilgrimage had ended.

But in this case, it had not. By no means. He rose from the dead on the third day, Easter Sunday morning. And He spent another forty days as a human pilgrim on earth. Walking, eating, talking, etc., like we do. Except that now He could not die. Because in His human flesh, He had already overcome the power of death. His resurrection has taught us that death does not go on forever, like infinity. It has a limit. And Jesus’ human life extends beyond that limit of death.

Now, maybe we want to ask: Lord, why did you continue to live as a pilgrim on earth for forty days after you rose from the dead? As opposed to fifty days, or ten? Or six years? Or ten thousand years? Or just a few hours?

We know that the Apostles needed some further instruction. They needed exactly forty days worth of further instruction, apparently. But maybe we think we need some further instruction, too? And we’d like to encounter Jesus here on earth, as a fellow human pilgrim here. But He’s in heaven, and His presence on earth lies hidden behind different veils. He does indeed come among us—in the Blessed Sacrament, and the other sacraments of the Church, and in our brothers and sisters, especially the poor and suffering. But we can’t see Him. We greet Him here on earth solely by faith.

So I don’t think we can really answer the question: Why did He stay forty days after He rose–as opposed to forty years or forty minutes or forty thousand years? We don’t know that answer. We just know that what happened happened. Forty days after He had risen from the dead, His human pilgrimage on earth ended, because He… ascended into heaven.

Pietro Perugino AscensionGood! Correct! But before we settle back and preen ourselves for knowing that easy answer, let’s consider how little we actually know about it.

We reflected earlier on the beginning of Jesus’ human pilgrimage, in the womb of the Virgin. But we have a hard time really grasping, really getting a lock on that reality.

After all, we have a hard time conceiving fully the reality of any human conception. Do I altogether understand how I myself came to be in my mother’s womb? How my human pilgrimage began? Does my mind have a lock on every aspect of that reality? Every biological, historical, relational, anatomical, nutritional, sociological, ontological aspect? And there are lots of other aspects besides. I for one cannot claim to understand fully even a single one of those aspects.

Then, in Jesus’ case, you throw in something else. When the Holy Spirit conceived Him in Mary’s womb, God Almighty, eternal and ineffable, began a human pilgrimage. God became a tiny baby. That’s what we call a genuinely unfathomable mystery.

My point here is: The same degree of mystery attends the end of the Lord’s pilgrimage. We believe in the Incarnation, because God has given us the gift of faith. We need that same gift of divine faith to hold in our minds the sublime reality of Jesus’ Ascension into heaven.

Yes, we know as a simple fact that His earthly pilgrimage did end. But that conclusion of His pilgrimage involved a human being, body and soul, entering…

Heaven. The realm of God. Eternity. Perpetual peace. Utter happiness that nothing can disturb. Endless joyful music that never gets boring. A meal that never leaves you tired or bloated. Fearless, comforting friendship. Wisdom with no darkness at all.

The pilgrimage of the Lord Jesus ended by Him entering all this, body and soul, as a man. The same beatitude that He had, as God; the same communion with the Father that the eternal Son eternally possesses—now this man, Jesus, God incarnate, entered into it. With that His pilgrimage on earth ended.

In this, and in nothing less, lies our Christian hope. In our pilgrimage on earth, we must often drink the cup of bitterness. This world, beautiful as it can be, does not know justice. It does not know truth. We will truly enjoy happiness only when we share in the undisturbed communion that binds the divine Father with the divine Son.

Jesus, every bit as human as we are, has entered into that communion completely, in His flesh. Therefore, we fellow human beings can hope to get there, too.

Pangs of Strife

When a woman is in labor, she is in anguish because her hour has arrived; but when she has given birth to a child, she no longer remembers the pain because of her joy that a child has been born into the world. So you also are now in anguish. But I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you. (John 16:21-22)

I’ve never given birth. I think we men, and everyone who has never borne the pain of childbirth–we have to concede to mothers the definitive interpretation of John 16:21.

Leonardo da Vince Madonna and ChildBut:

What about when the bishop suddenly decides to re-assign you to a place 70 minutes away from your mother, who lives in an assisted-living facility (which right now is across the street)? How about when ecclesiastical authority arbitrarily wounds the heart of the woman who endured the pangs of childbirth so that you could come into the world?

Not to mention tearing you away from the ministry that you feel like you have just begun, and the people whom you feel like you have just gotten to know and love, and the routines that you have just gotten used to?

And all of this for no evident reason?

So I guess we all have our share in the agony which our Lord uses as His metaphor in John 16:21.

Nonetheless, I have it on good authority: the pain of childbirth does end. This bitter strife doesn’t last forever.

Our loving brother Jesus, very much alive and well, ascended somewhere beyond this veil of tears. He dwells in a place where everything makes perfect sense to everybody. And you never have to say goodbye. And your mother never has to suffer just because your bishop is apparently a mean person.

What makes us Christians is that we believe in that place, the place where the Lord Jesus now lives. And we know that, when we cling to Him, we can find our way there.

Forty Days, Active and Passive

We don’t keep the Solemnity of the Ascension of Christ today, because our bishops moved the observance to Sunday. But: Today Lord Jesus mounted the heavens, forty days after He had risen from the dead.

Let’s discuss the Ascension on Sunday. But what about the forty days thing?

Velázquez cena in emmausWe spend forty days before Easter doing penance. Because…

Lord Jesus fasted forty days in the desert. Like Moses and Elijah. And Jonah told the Ninevites that they had forty days to repent. And Noah and Co. spent forty days on the ark while it rained, then another forty days waiting to open the windows after the ark came to rest on Mount Ararat.

One interpretation of all these forties might be: It takes forty days of concerted effort to put a good resolution into effect. No one can break a bad habit, or form a good one, in a single day. If we decide to make a change in ourselves in order to serve God better—that’s a forty-day project.

But that’s Lent. That’s the disciple of Christ making his or her own decision, making a personal resolution, and working to implement it by his or her own lights, actively struggling against the force of human inertia.

Right now we’re talking about something else. For the forty days after Easter, the disciples received from Christ the sublime, as-yet-unseen mysteries of divine love. During the first Easter season, the disciples made no personal resolutions, engaged in no personal struggles, did no penances. After all, the Bridegroom still remained with them.

Instead, during those forty Easter days, the disciples took the better part. They sat at the feet of the King Who had conquered death in His own flesh. And, after those forty days, those disciples were way-more thoroughly changed than anyone can change him- or herself during Lent. They had attained supernatural clarity of mind and firmness of purpose. They had received gifts which they never could have attained on their own in a lifetime of Lents.

So: Forty days can involve action, and forty days can involve contemplation. Forty days can involve a self-improvement struggle of my own design, implemented by my own will. And forty days can involve the utter abandonment of my mind and will to the supernatural power of heavenly love.

We need both, apparently. Struggle season and receive season.

But let’s not romanticize receive season. Passive purification involves immeasurably more pain than active purification. Active purification unfolds according to my will and my plan. Passive purification involves my personal will getting ground down, gradually ground down to practically nothing. So that the Lord can build it back up into what it is meant to be: the staff He can wield with His mighty hand to accomplish glorious things.

The American Inner-Contradiction

Say-no-to-circumcision

I will not leave you orphans. I will ask the Father, and He will send the Spirit of truth. (John 14:18)

When God created the human race, He did it with fatherly love.  Adam and Eve had no human parents. But they were absolutely not orphans.  God provided for them in every way.

We let Satan, in his malice and dishonesty, turn us into orphans. He led us away from God our Father. But the Lord had a plan to rescue us, to save the human race from the existential orphanage. And for most people, that plan involves baptism in our infancy and learning about Jesus in our earliest youth. We avoid the existential orphanage by getting born into a Christian family.

That said, I think we’ve all heard of parents who say, “We’re not going to raise our child in any particular religion. We’ll let our children decide about their religion when they grow up.”

Let’s acknowledge that, from a certain point of view, this makes sense.  Each year activists demonstrate on May 7, Worldwide Genital Autonomy Day–the anniversary of the German supreme court decision making infant circumcision illegal. When the court issued that decision a few years ago, Jews and Muslims argued that it interfered with the free exercise of their religion. So the German legislature passed a law overturning the court decision.

baptism-holy-card1But the free-exercise of religion argument actually begs the question.  Isn’t free exercise an individual right?  But a baby is his or her own individual, with at least some fundamental rights that do not depend on his or her parents’ decisions. Especially the right to life, of course.

And isn’t the freedom of the individual our great American ideal?  Who decides who I am?  I do!  Who decides what I believe and how I live?  I do!  Who decides how I will pursue happiness?  I do!

But hold it. If we’re honest, don’t we have to admit that there is a great deal more to the story of who I am than just what I myself have decided? When I was sixteen years old, I wanted to sleep until noon on Sunday.  But my mom did not leave me orphaned.  She called me in plenty of time for church.  If I didn’t get out of bed right away, she poured ice-water down my back.

So, fellow Americans, grateful as we are for our precious heritage of respect for individual rights, let’s have the courage to face some aspects of our lives that don’t involve options and free choice. After all, ironically enough: None of us can claim an individual right to our American heritage of respect for individual rights. We have only received that heritage as members of something bigger than ourselves, as a part of a national tradition that we did not invent or choose, but which we received as a birthright.

Hence: the inner contradiction of the American mind. On the one hand, we think:  The worst thing is when someone tries to take away your freedom.  Nothing is worse than being forced to obey something you don’t agree with! But on the other hand, we know that isn’t really true.  Losing one’s precious independence is not the worst thing.  The worst thing is: being left an orphan. Being left with no heritage, no identity at all.

Our heavenly Father has not left us orphans.  The pilgrimage of Jesus has revealed that the Father loves us with the same love with which He loves His only begotten Son. And of course our heavenly Father wants us to be free; He protects our individual rights like no one else does.  But the freedom of the child of God is not the freedom of a fatherless orphan. We don’t attain freedom by obeying nobody. We attain freedom by obeying God, instead of obeying anyone or anything less than God.  In other words, to be independent of Satan the father of lies, we must embrace fully our total dependence on the Almighty Father.

circumcison knifeThere’s no option; there’s no choice about God being God. If I try to put myself in God’s place, I, in fact, obey and serve Satan. Since that is precisely Satan’s sin.

The crusaders against religious circumcision of infants, and the parents who treat religion as something optional, something for adults to choose or not to choose: they imagine a totally autonomous, self-determining child.  Theoretically, the child should get to decide everything.  But in fact such a child is left with no birthright, no heritage, no identity.

The children of God, on the other hand, accept with pride and gratitude the million and a half things that we didn’t decide and can’t decide. We know we don’t have “freedom” to determine who our parents are, or where we come from, what language we learn as our native tongue. Much less do we ourselves decide whether or not we will ultimately die and go to meet the infallible divine Judge, Jesus Christ.

We struggle to obey our heavenly Father’s law and His Church’s teachings; we humbly confess and ask pardon when we don’t.  And each of us acknowledges that even my own distinct individuality is not properly “mine.” God has given it to me, as something to use to give Him glory, alongside my brothers and sisters in the divine household.

Getting Religious about Christianity in Antioch, Syria

 

antiochs-map

If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father. (John 14:28)

The Acts of the Apostles shimmers with ancient place names. Lystra, Derbe, Perga, Attalia, Pamphylia. And the two Antiochs—one in Pisidia, now Turkey, and the other in… Syria.

Antioch, Syria, is where the disciples were first called… Christians. St. Peter governed the Church universal from Antioch for a time, before he sailed for… Rome.

I think we might be able to go so far as to say this: Antioch, Syria, is where Christians first got used to rejoicing that the Jesus we love has gone to the Father. Got used to the idea that Christianity is a mystery of faith. That Jesus gives us His peace through our religion, in the sacred liturgy.

We got used to the idea that we pass through this world as pilgrims. Yes, the Christians of Antioch were officially citizens of the Roman Empire, or they were members of other peoples whom the Romans had subjugated. Officially, that is, according to the Roman census.

But we Christians learned in that first generation that our true citizenship is somewhere else, in heaven. And we learned that what we do in this passing world, in this pilgrim life, fundamentally is: Wait. We wait.

We love God; we love our neighbor; we celebrate the mysteries of Jesus, with Whom we achieve great intimacy by faith. And we wait for Him to come again from the Father. Or we wait for our pilgrim lives to run their course. Whichever comes first.

Yes, we try to keep ourselves occupied doing good things in the meantime. We Christians here love Roanoke as much as the first Christians in Antioch loved their hometown, too. We pray for peace and prosperity and justice for all, even here in this earthly city.

But this is not our home. Our home is with Jesus, Who is with the Father. We rejoice that He is with the Father—and that He wills that we wind up there, too.

True Heaven

Biltmore Asheville

You believe in God; believe also in Me. (John 14:1)

Almighty God made the heavens and the earth. He knows all and governs all.

Every generation of mankind gets born basically knowing this. Knowing that the Creator made us. Mother Nature herself puts within us an overwhelming desire: to know God and to have His friendship.

Then we encounter the confusion and disinformation of this self-obsessed world. It tries to talk us out of the most basic truth, the truth of intimate prayer. The fact that the God Who made us has a plan for us, loves us, and draws us to Himself constantly, so that, in the end, we can share His blessedness.

The world wants us to obsess about far-lesser things. Like switching from cable to Netflix. Or: does the style of my car really suit me? Or: What will I have for dinner?

But: Above all this; before all this; encompassing all this: our Creator, our God. Prayer. Our Father. Thy will be done. Give us our daily bread. Deliver us from evil.

ice cream coneThis great God to whom we pray made the heavens and the earth. And He raised Jesus from the dead.

Some divine things remain altogether mysterious to us. We can’t quite imagine the act of making the heavens and the earth out of nothing. Not to mention knowing everything and guiding everything with perfect wisdom.

But we can feature the facts of Jerusalem in 33 AD; we can picture them with no problem: Unjust men mercilessly executed the great teacher of love for no good reason. They laid His expired body in a tomb on Friday evening. Then, on Sunday morning, some of His disciples saw Him walking around, very much alive and well.

We can see these historical events of Easter in our mind’s eye. Then we wonder: How did this occur? What power intervened? Who exactly was it, that overcame the cruel blow which left the Lamb of God dead and cold?

The answer is: God. The Creator. The same unimaginable power that made everything, knows everything, and governs everything. He raised Jesus from the dead.

And that’s when God really showed His true colors. Yes, He shows His true colors every time He makes the sun rise. But He really revealed Himself when He raised Jesus from the dead.

Jesus said: “Believe in God; believe also in Me.” We believe in God Almighty, the Creator, Who raised Jesus from the dead. And we believe in the Christ of God. As Jesus put it: “He who has seen Me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9)

As I mentioned, mankind gets born religious. But we have a lot of religions on earth, and our religions can and do partake of the confusion of the fallen world. Some of the natives of these lands imagined a heaven with unlimited supplies of pipe tobacco. And in the Arab world, there’s something about virgins.

Charles Bosseron Chambers Sacred Heart of JesusBut our religion aims at one thing: Jesus Himself. We hope for no greater reward. God can give us no greater reward than His only-begotten.

Now, fair enough: some of us might get distracted sometimes. Maybe some people daydream of bowling in heaven, for all eternity. Or eating endless ice cream cones, one after another. Or dozing in a hammock on the back porch of the Biltmore down in Asheville, with a servant ready to bring a mint julep whenever you want one.

But no reward we can imagine truly reveals the perfect, unending happiness that Almighty God has prepared for us in Christ. Anything that we could fanatsize about falls short of the truth, no matter how lavish or luxurious. Our imaginations cannot exactly help us with this, except when, asking for the Holy Spirit’s help, we imagine Jesus Himself.

We can imagine Him. His face. His peace. His loving gaze.

On the Lord’s face, the true blessedness of heaven shines out. The undying love of God dwells in His Heart. It operates there, expresses itself through Jesus’ Body, and touches us. We find the reward that our souls seek in communion with Christ, the man, the Nazarene, God our brother. Nowhere else. To see Christ is to see the Father. Our hearts can rest in Him. Here, and only here: divine blessedness.

Philip didn’t understand. “Lord, show us the Father, then we’ll be satisfied!”

We can hardly blame Philip. He clamored like a child. Lord, we believe in You! Give us unlimited ice cream! Or maybe a Lexus to drive in heaven forever!

But Jesus says, No, my children. Do you not know Me? The Father wills to give you a place in His house. And His house is My Heart.

More Art in St. Louis, MO

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has a book. That is, Calvin Tomkins researched and wrote Merchants and Masterpieces to recount the history of wealth, taste, and civic-mindedness that gave the world the Met.

The St. Louis Museum of Art deserves to have such a book. Maybe, if I live long enough, I’ll write it myself. The museum houses a collection worthy of the fourth-largest city in America (which St. Louis was, in 1900). Mr. Halsey Ives, who served the Union as a draftsman in the Civil War, founded the museum. Anders Zorn painted this captivating portrait of him:

Halsey Ives by Anders Zorn

The Met in New York has a Vlaminck river scene, which I have much admired. So does the St. Louis Museum of Art. Le Havre: Le Grand Quais.

Of course the St. Louis Museum of Art has a painting by the greatest painter ever. A particularly interesting one. Here El Greco depicts St. Paul holding not just his sword, but also his letter to Titus.

El Greco St. Paul in St Louis

Turns out 19th-century Missouri had its own “painter.” George Caleb Bingham. Here’s one of the paintings from the Bingham gallery, Raftsmen Playing Cards:

…Of course I couldn’t head back east across the Mississippi without stopping at St. Louis Cathedral. Pictures cannot do it justice. It is everything that the Basilica of the National Shrine in Washington should be, but isn’t. (That is, a completely mosaiced neo-Byzantine jewel box.)

I leave you with the cathedral’s magnificent statue of the patron. (St. Louis campaigned in the Holy Land and brought the Lord’s crown of thorns back to Paris.) St. Louis, pray for us. See you back in Roanoke, Va., dear reader.

 

 

Scenes from St. Louis’ City

The Mississippi rides high. Here’s the plaza in front of the great Arch:

Mississippi high at the Arch

Before they built the Arch, a statue of the patron saint represented the town, like in this old postcard:

Old StL postcard with King Louis statue

Here’s a closeup:

closeup of King Louis statue

The patron must be watching over the city. If he weren’t, I’m sure it would be even more ramshackle than it is.

(The locals here seem to find it impossible to believe that someone would visit their city, on purpose, during a vacation, without having to.)

…In the art museum they have a St. Francis memento mori (my favorite genre). Zurbaran painted it as part of a large altarpiece, but it makes quite an impression all by itself.

…Twenty-five years ago I had no time for pop art, or the sculptor Claes Oldenberg.

But now the everyday objects that he depicted in his sculptures don’t necessarily appear in everyday life anymore.

His three-way plug sculpture in Forest Park took me back to simpler days, and the house I grew up in, and the world before the internet (see below).

Speaking of which, the raging rivers I have seen on this drive reminded me of these lines, written by a St.-Louis native, T.S. Eliot:

I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
Is a strong brown god—sullen, untamed and intractable,
Patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier;
Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;
Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.
The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten
By the dwellers in cities—ever, however, implacable.
Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder
Of what men choose to forget. Unhonoured, unpropitiated
By worshippers of the machine, but waiting, watching and waiting.

(from “The Dry Salvages” in Four Quartets)

Claes Oldenburg plug