Seeing

The Samaritan saw the wounded man. Seeing the man in his distress moved the Samaritan—moved him to compassion. He saw, and seeing moved him. Seeing the reality of the wounds, the suffering, the victimization of the innocent.

Was the robbery victim perfectly innocent? Perfectly pure? We don’t know that. Be he did not deserve to be robbed and beaten and left half-dead by the side of the lonely road. That much the Samaritan instantly saw. The others had not seen it—the priest and levite, distracted as they were by important matters…

How can we see each other like the Samaritan saw the wounded man? I find myself a bit overwhelmed today, as if by an avalanche of events and emotions. The man eight nights ago manifestly did not see the people in the plaza below like the Samaritan saw the wounded traveler. An unimaginable blindness had overtaken the man in the Mandalay hotel. Scales harder than granite covered his eyes. Not that he couldn’t see to aim. Obviously he aimed successfully. But he could not really see what he successfully aimed at.

Why? What caused his lifeless blindness? Must we not find compassion for him, too? Somehow?

Then Tom Petty died. And it seems like Prince just died. Like yesterday. And I cannot handle all this death of my musicians.

Plus today is the anniversary of the martyrdom of St. Denis. They cut off his head on Montmartre in Paris. But he picked it up and carried it a few miles north of the city, preaching the whole way, before he lay down and died.

Some profound Europeans met in the city of St. Denis last week. They made an amazingly penetrating statement about themselves. It’s a statement that can help us Americans a lot, I think.

Jason Aldean made a statement on Saturday, too. He’s the musician who was singing when the shots rang out last Sunday night. He covered Tom Petty’s “Stand My Ground” in New York on Saturday. To very inspiring effect.

But these gentlemen of Europe managed to express some principles for us. Principles by which we can stand our American ground, even when things happen that can drive you to despair. I’ll probably have a lot more to say about this Paris Statement. It distinguishes the “true Europe” from the “false Europe.” For today let me just quote these few sentences:

The true Europe has been marked by Christianity. The true Europe affirms the equal dignity of every individual. This arises from our Christian roots. Our gentle virtues are of unmistakably Christian heritage: fairness, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, peace-making, charity.

I think we can substitute “the true America” for “the true Europe” in this quote.

The true America has been marked by Christianity. The true America affirms the dignity of every individual. This arises from our Christian roots. Our gentle American virtues are of unmistakably Christian heritage: fairness, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, peace-making, charity.

Brother Knights, and all dear brothers and sisters, fellow Americans, let’s celebrate Columbus Day by begging our Lord Jesus Christ for the grace to live the love that lets us see each other like the Good Samaritan saw the wounded man.

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Essential Book on the Mass

Brant Pitre Jewish Roots of EucharistJesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist by Brant Pitre

In Jerusalem, while Pontius Pilate served as Roman procurator, a learned rabbi gathered his disciples to celebrate the Passover. The rabbi kept the feast, according to the dictates of the Torah and the sacred traditions that held sway at the time.

Except that he didn’t follow all of the customs. He altered the ceremony somewhat, and he said new and different things.

Why? What did he have in mind?

Well, a learned young scholar of Scripture and antiquity provides a thorough answer. “Unlocking the Secrets of the Last Supper” sounds a little breathless to me, as a subtitle. So this treasure sat on my to-read stack for three years. Finally had a chance to plow through it while sitting on the beach.

Who knew? Who knew how excellent–how essential–what a invigorating tour-de-force this little book is?!

Pitre tackles his points like St. Thomas Aquinas tackles his. Methodical. One might even say: Plodding. But plodders can and do give us the truth in magnificent fashion. Upon finishing Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist, you find yourself with a shiny new jewel of knowledge in your hand.

Our Catholic religion involves the perpetual celebration of the Passover. Our religion centers on the celebration of the Passover. We know this. But nowhere near as well as we should.

Celebrating the Passover means: I myself, we ourselves, have the one, true God to thank for liberating us from slavery, preserving us from death, establishing a covenant with us, giving us ceremonies by which we can worship Him uprightly.

Celebrating the Passover means keeping a night vigil for the Messiah, who will lead us from here to an un-fallen world, a divine kingdom. (And he will feed us with heavenly manna as we make our way.)

Perhaps you’ve attended a Seder or two. But: celebrating the Passover two millennia ago–when Jesus of Nazareth ministered as a rabbi in the Holy Land–meant some things that got lost when the Romans destroyed the Temple, a generation after the earthly pilgrimage of Christ.

It meant: consecrating a blood sacrifice and consuming it as a meal. It also meant seeing the love of God–in the form of the holy show bread, which the temple priests brought out of the tabernacle to show to the pilgrims. It meant believing in the heavenly liturgy that Moses had seen on Mount Sinai, which showed him how the religious ceremonies of the People of God ought to go. And celebrating the Passover in the early 1st century meant looking forward to the day when the Holy of Holies in the Temple would hold the missing Ark of the Covenant again.

Dr. Pitre’s book shimmers with ancient historical details you’ve never heard about–and which will take your breath away. Like the fact that the temple priests drained the blood of the sacrificed lambs by skewering their bodies on two spits. In the form of a cross.

Or that Jews of the time believed that God had manna ready in heaven, which would rain down when the Messiah came. Or: the chalice of the Garden of Gethsemane–“Father, may it pass. But your will be done”–it was the fourth cup called for by the Passover ritual.

This book winds up being an endzone dance for the doctrines about the Mass propounded by the fathers of the Council of Trent. Pitre gets funny in the last chapter when he reports how he did years of research, only to find everything he wanted to say in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Are you looking for good spiritual reading? A careful Scripture study that builds gradually towards sublime insights–insights which make familiar Catholic things new and wonderful again? I wasn’t exactly looking for that–but I found it anyway.

Bravo, Dr. Pitre!

Little World

downtown Charlottesville mall

The other night, I reached the end of an era in my little life. I read the final words of Anthony Trollope’s The Last Chronicle of Barset. Sweet sadness overwhelmed me.

Six Barsetshire novels–all of them about the country clergy, their families, their interactions with their neighbors and doctors and benefactors. About how young people move from the county into London, and their city lives. About the scramble for suitable marriages and adequate incomes.

Trollope concludes the series with a seriously wise reflection on the clerical life, which I would like to quote at length. But I will save that for an appendix to this post.

…For five years, from 2011 to 2016, I lived in greater Roanoke, while my dear mommy lived in Washington D.C. She hasn’t driven a car in decades, but she loves to ride the train. It doesn’t take a geographical genius to figure out the perfect place for the two of us to meet for a couple days during those years: Charlottesville.

Airbnb provided us with small downtown apartments. We ate at The Nook, or Citizen Burger, or Downtown Thai. My mom shopped at Caspari while I took my daily run up the hill and around the University Rotunda.

So my first reaction to the big news of the weekend involved intimate geographic familiarity. “Emancipation Park” is not a place I read about in the news; it is where I have done cool-down stretches at the end of numerous runs.

So I have experienced an enormous amount of frustration in trying to find a straightforward and clear report of what exactly happened on Saturday and where–by which I mean: at the corners of which streets (because I know them all).

I weep because downtown Charlottesville does not in any way deserve this crushing disturbance. Downtown Charlottesville deserves to have its own quiet life, and not be the object of a news-camera spectacle.

In August of 2015, the peaceful carp pools of Bridgewater Plaza, Franklin County, Va., also became the focus of the insatiable media spectacle, because of arbitrary and cruel death. I wept then, for the same reason.

I refuse to do any grandstanding for an end to racism here on my blog, at least not today. What I want to do is: pray that downtown Charlottesville gets to return to normal life, with people eating al fresco of a summer evening, sipping Budweisers, and leaving the moral absolutes alone.

Appendix. From the final paragraphs of Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire series:

Before I take my leave of the diocese of Barchester for ever, which I purpose to do in the succeeding paragraph, I desire to be allowed to say one word of apology for myself, in answer to those who have accused me–always without bitterness, and generally with tenderness–of having forgotten, in writing of clergymen, the first and most prominent characteristic of the ordinary English clergyman’s life.

I have described many clergymen, they say, but have spoken of them all as though their professional duties, their high calling, their daily workings for the good of those around them, were matters of no moment, either to me, or in my opinion, to themselves…

There are those who have told me that I have made all my clergymen bad, and none good. I must venture to hint to such judges that they have taught their eyes to love a colouring higher than nature justifies.

We are, most of us, apt to love Raphael’s madonnas better than Rembrandt’s matrons. But, though we do so, we know that Rembrandt’s matrons existed; but we have a strong belief that no such woman as Raphael painted ever did exist. In that he painted, as he may be surmised to have done, for pious purposes–at least for Church purposes–Raphael was justified; but had he painted so for family portraiture he would have been false.

Had I written an epic about clergymen, I would have taken St Paul for my model; but describing, as I have endeavoured to do, such clergymen as I see around me, I could not venture to be transcendental.

Sacred Cosmopolitanism

Christ: the Light of the American Nation

[talk before Transfiguration Vespers]

Christ is the light of all nations. Hence this most sacred Synod…eagerly desires to shed on all men that radiance of His which brightens the countenance of the Church. This it will do by proclaiming the gospel to every creature…

By an utterly free and mysterious decree of His own wisdom and goodness, the eternal Father created the whole world. His plan was to dignify men with a participation in His own divine life. He did not abandon men after they had fallen in Adam, but ceaselessly offered them helps to salvation, in anticipation of Christ the Redeemer, ‘who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature.’ All the elect, before time began, the Father ‘foreknew and predestined to become conformed to the image of His son, that He should be the firstborn among many brethren.’ He planned to assemble in the Holy Church all those who would believe in Christ…

The mystery of the Holy Church is manifest in her very foundation, for the Lord Jesus inaugurated her by preaching the good news, that is, the coming of God’s kingdom…

When Jesus rose up again after suffering death on the cross for mankind, He manifested that he had been appointed Lord, Messiah, and Priest forever, and He poured out on His disciples the Spirit promised by the Father. The Church, consequently, equipped with the gifts of her founder and faithfully guarding his precepts of charity, humility, and self-sacrifice, receives the mission to proclaim and establish among all peoples the kingdom of Christ and of God.

“This sacred Synod” eagerly desires to shed on all men that radiance of Christ which brightens the countenance of the Church–the radiance that shone on Mount Tabor, at the Transfiguration. What is “this sacred Synod?’ Correct! The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council (Lumen Gentium 1-5). In other words, the successors of the Apostles and teachers of the Church, gathered to declare to us solemnly the doctrine we need to keep in mind.

Vatican II stallsChrist the light of the Church, the light of all nations.

Now, Christ enlightening the nations involves fundamentally supernatural realities. As we just heard, the Holy Spirit operates, and He does the enlightening. His work transcends our human understanding. But we can also consider the business from the natural point-of-view. We can consider “Christian culture” on the purely practical, human level.

What does the Church do? First and foremost, the Church prays–she celebrates the Sacred Liturgy. And what does that involve? It involves supernatural things, to be sure, the operation of divine grace–but, like I said, let’s leave the supernatural aspect alone for the moment. From the natural point-of-view, the Sacred Liturgy of the Church involves a group of people reading and reflecting on the Word of God, in a disciplined manner, over a sustained period of time.

By “Word of God” here, we mean: the Bible. The Bible is the Word of God. Also, the Bible is a collection of books about people, all of them non-white, none of whom ever spoke English. God wrote the Bible. Also, non-whites who never spoke English wrote the Bible, to tell the story of a lot of non-whites who never spoke English.

These are just simple, straightforward historical facts. Of course, the fact that everything about the Bible involves non-whites who never spoke English takes nothing at all away from its holiness as the Divine Word. Abraham, Moses, King David, Elijah, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Lord Jesus–not a white person among them. Isaiah, Ezekiel, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, St. Paul–not an English speaker among them. Tons of holiness, yes. But nothing “American”–if by ‘American’ we mean English-speaking.

Now, these foreigners–whose lives and writings we study in the Bible–we interact with them in church. The Sacred Liturgy of the Church involves our constant interaction with a lot of foreigners. Also, they themselves teach us, by their own example, this whole important lesson of interacting in an open, friendly manner with foreigners. During their lives on earth, the heroes of the Bible made it their business to interact with people they thought of as foreigners–Egyptians, Ethiopians, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans. The Israelites we read about in the Bible opened themselves up to the world, for a reason. They believed that God deserved to be glorified in Jerusalem by all the nations, not just their own nation.

Here’s one little example of the cosmopolitanism of the Israelites. Perhaps we devoted Bible readers never thought twice about it. When King David fell into his great sin, he committed adultery with the wife of an elite member of his own army, named Uriah. Uriah the…Hittite. Hittite, as opposed to Israelite. In other words, this close neighbor of King David was not a Hebrew, but must have become part of King David’s people by accepting the religion.

king davidSo ancient Israel had a cosmopolitan culture. Jesus of Nazareth grew up, and then exercised his ministry as a rabbi, at a crossroads of civilizations. He received the Jewish culture from his parents and from the synagogue in Nazareth. And that culture involved associating with non-Jews. This association with non-Jews served a particular purpose, namely to further the glory of God. And, of course, this interaction with foreigners became especially urgent once Christ commissioned His apostles to preach the gospel to all nations, as the passage from Vatican II we read earlier reiterated.

Let’s pause and give “cosmopolitanism” a definition and then distinguish two kinds of cosmopolitanism. “Cosmopolitan,” if we judge by the magazine of that name, can mean a lot of objectionable things. But, for the sake of what I’m trying to say here, can we agree that cosmopolitanism simply means a state of peace among people speaking different languages in the same territory? When peoples speaking different languages share life together in one place, seeking friendship and interchange, instead of hostilities, a “cosmopolis” exists.

Now the two kinds. What we can call “secular cosmpolitanism” reigns supreme in international institutions and in the world of globalized commerce. The shallow, materialistic “culture” of secular cosmpolitanism regards the revelation of Jesus Christ as a matter of indifference. Maybe it’s true; maybe it’s not. The Bible and the Sacred Liturgy don’t demand submission and obedience; they are merely interesting artifacts of human history.

On the other hand, let’s go ahead and call the gregarious openness of the Israelites and the Apostles “sacred cosmopolitanism.” The very truthfulness of the Bible, the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, the work of the Holy Spirit, and the inevitability of Judgment Day–adherence to the truth of these realities demands that Christians cultivate the virtue of cosmopolitanism, precisely to serve the cause of God’s glory. The urgency of evangelization requires that we engage in friendly relations with our neighbors, no matter who they are or what language they speak, in order to build up the kingdom of Christ.

Our culture, therefore–the Christian culture of all the people who spend time every week studying the Bible–it involves sacred cosmopolitanism. By coming to understand ourselves through reading the Bible, we understand ourselves as citizens of the one, big world, the world that extends way beyond the boundaries of Martinsville, or Virginia, or the USA.

We encounter all of this, in fact, just in the first two words of the Our Father, the Lord’s Prayer. “Our Father.” A Christian knows, having interacted in a cosmopolitan manner with the cosmopolitan saints of the Bible, that the us of the Our Father includes all the citizens of…planet earth. To any Christian, the idea that the ‘our’ of Our Father means any group smaller than everybody–that the ‘our’ means just good golfers, or people with I.Q.’s over 110, or just Hopi Indians, or just Dallas-Cowboys fans, or even just Christians–such an idea would be patently absurd. Yes, there are distinct identities in this world, distinct “cultures,” Jews and Greeks, different races and language groups. But there’s only one God, and He loves everyone with His fatherly love. That’s the Gospel. So we must practice a cosmopolitan way of life to extend that Gospel. Just like our heroes, the non-American, non-white, non-English-speaking cosmopolites we read about in the Bible.

So far, so good? Now we come to “the controversy.”

When I was in the seminary at Catholic University, I had a theology professor named Peter Casarella, who has since moved to Notre Dame. Also when I was in the seminary, I religiously read a monthly magazine called First Things, which was edited at that time by Father R.J. Neuhaus, who has since died. First Things is now edited by… Rusty Reno.

Anyway, Dr. Casarella and Mr. Reno met at Notre Dame recently to debate immigration. What does the Church teach about it? In the debate, Dr. Casarella reviewed the episodes and teachings in the Scriptures which demonstrate our responsibility to welcome the alien. Then he reviewed the teachings of the popes and bishops, which have emphasized the right that people have to migrate and the responsibility that host nations have to protect the human dignity of immigrants.

Reno then responded to Dr. Casarella with some captivating arguments. Reno conceded the basic concepts of a Christian’s duty to help those in need. But he accused the magisterium of the Church of a fundamental incoherence on the subject of immigration. He leveled an accusation that I myself had to take to heart. It’s what moved me to want to give this little talk. Let me quote exactly what Reno said:

The Church rightly sees its own mission as borderless. The Church is a supernatural society that transcends ethnic and national boundaries. However, precisely because of our Church’s universal mission, bishops and other Christian leaders often misjudge the finite and natural reality of a political community, which is not universal. So the Church is Israel, not the United States of America. And so the Sermon on the Mount applies to the Christian community and not to a political community–at least not, certainly, directly. And a functioning society requires social unity. This is especially true for democratic nations, which depend upon a high degree of civic friendship to undergird the sometimes-bitter give-and-take of political struggles for power… Newly arrived immigrants usually form their own communities, which is entirely understandable. But this does not reinforce social solidarity.

First let’s pause and contemplate the abstract concepts here for a moment. The Church of Christ and our nation are not the same thing. Religion and politics are not the same thing. Obvious truths. Reno stands with St. Paul on this one–the St. Paul who had to contend with the “Judaizers.” The Judaizers of the early Church could only understand religion as a national pursuit, the work of the chosen nation. Maybe we could go so far as to say that the sacred Israelite cosmopolitanism which the Judaizers had inherited could not overcome their particular ethnic insistence on the outward sign of circumcision of the penis. Yes, ok, the Church must admit foreigners, in obedience to the command of Christ. But no uncircumcised foreigners! But St. Paul taught us that the distinctive mark of the nation of Israel did not have to apply to the entire Church of Christ. It was Abraham’s faith, not his circumcised penis, that pleased God. Good news, to this day, for adult men who embrace Christianity.

So Reno makes a critical point. Christianity is not identical with national identity; it neither prescribes nor subsumes national cultures. By celebrating the Sacred Liturgy, English-speaking Americans interact in a cosmopolitan manner with the non-Americans of the Bible, just like every people that celebrates the liturgy interacts with them. But we English-speaking Americans continue to have our English-speaking identity, just like every other people that has embraced the Gospel and the life of the Church continues to have a distinct identity–a homeland, a language, a way of life.

So let’s get into this question: Who are we, we Americans? For myself, I’m proud to be an American, and I love our national history. If we start at the beginning of it, I have to admit that, had I lived in the 1770’s, I would have sided with the Tories. I would have been a Loyalist who did not want to break with England.

The colonial governor of Massachusetts then, Thomas Hutchinson, addressed the general assembly of the colony in 1773. He responded to the objections that many colonists had to being ruled by the British parliament. Hutchinson pointed-out that the colonists had means of redress for their grievances other than taking up arms. The movement in favor of independence, Hutchinson said, “must be considered more as an objection against a state of government rather than against any particular form.” I could not have disagreed with that.

But my affinity for the Tories, had I lived in the 1770’s, would have proceeded from more than just politics and economics. What really would have moved me was the idea of losing William Shakespeare as a countryman. If I had faced the choice the colonists faced in the 1770’s, I would have thought that I owed my allegiance to mother England for having given me my mother tongue.

Mark TwainBut that was a long time ago. None of us have had to face the choice that Virginians and the other colonists had to face in the 1770’s. We have almost two-and-a-half centuries of American history behind us now.

Speaking for myself, as a 21st-century American, I take great pride in having Mark Twain for a compatriot. If there’s an answer to the question, Who are we, we Americans? it must involve Huckleberry Finn. Huck, of course, became best friends with a black man. Huck had been taught that God stood behind the laws of slavery, so he feared hell for flouting them. But, in the end, Huck decided he would prefer to go to hell, rather than turn Jim in, as an escaped slave.

So, when we think about things like Mark Twain and the original thirteen colonies and their eminent statesmen, we recognize that Reno has a very-important point about national identity. But: Reno’s abstract distinction between the universal Church and the particular nation runs onto rocky ground as soon as we apply it to our specific case as Americans.

We American Christians know that we cannot completely isolate our “religious identity” from our “political identity.” We know that we owe our fundamental allegiance to God. We strive to serve Him in everything. Meanwhile, we owe it to the Lord to accept the secular and short-term reality of politics for what it is. We know from our experience in the first half of the 20th century that few things make more mischief in this world than the “sacralization” of politics, the idea that the nation has a religious identity, a divine destiny. We fought in World War II against the sacralization of the German, and the Japanese, national identities. The fascists made national identity a religion. Americans, on the other hand, recognize that politics are inherently mundane, inherently un-sacred.

So Rusty Reno accused Church leaders of wrongly applying the laws that govern the Church to the nation, in such a way that we potentially do harm to the great good of our national identity. I myself stand accused by this insightful and penetrating charge. I have insisted that we ought to welcome immigrants with minimal restrictions, and offer an easy path to citizenship for undocumented residents, on the grounds that we have a duty to do so, as Christians. But Reno corners me: Okay, Father. We have our duties as Christians. But don’t we also have duties as Americans? Don’t we have a patriotic duty to control our borders and insist on the rule of law?

Okay. Let’s apply Reno’s objections to our specific situation, to the identity of this particular nation, the USA. We understand politics as the mundane business it is, and we reject the idea that some kind of supposed divine mandate can indicate the pursuit of particular policies, without any reasonable argument. We have to deal with our political questions according to humble common sense and the basic principles of justice, as in: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Frederick DouglassThe Vatican has a semi-official intellectual magazine called “Catholic Civilization.” It recently included an article attacking the strain of American thinking that sees our nation as having a unique role in history, a “mission from God” to extend our way of life–by military force, if necessary.

So we have to go back 170 years, to the origins of this sacralization of the American body politic. We have to analyze the idea of Manifest Destiny. During the Polk administration, the idea that we have a “Manifest Destiny” to rule from sea to sea led to a sequence of events that, if we want to have clear consciences as Americans, we must humbly confront.

During the early 1830’s, Texas faced a illegal-immigration problem. These illegal immigrants spoke English and had snow-white skin. At the time, Tejas belonged to the newly independent United States…of Mexico.

During the 1840’s, Texans asserted their independence as a sovereign nation. Mexico did not recognize this assertion. Then Texas asked to join the USA. One question remained in dispute through all of this: where did Texas end and the Mexican state of Coahuila begin? At the Nueces River, which flows into the Gulf of Mexico at Corpus Christ? Or at the Rio Grande?

US President James Polk proceeded to exploit this relatively small territorial discrepancy as a pretext for a continental war. In his essay “Civil Disobedience,” Henry David Thoreau called Polk’s war with Mexico, “the work of comparatively few individuals using the standing government as their tool, abusing and perverting it.”

American hero Frederick Douglass wrote of President Polk’s war:

Fire and sword are now the choice of our young republic [the USA]. The loss of thousands of the sons and daughters of Mexico have rather given edge than dullness to our appetite for fiery conflict and plunder…But, humble as we are, and unavailing as our voice may be, we wish to warn our fellow countrymen that they may follow the course which they have marked out for themselves; no barrier may be sufficient to obstruct them; they may accomplish all their desire; Mexico may fall before them; she may be conquered and subdued; her rights and powers usurped…but as sure as there is a God of justice, we shall not go unpunished.

The US Congress never considered whether a just reason existed for a war with Mexico. Abraham Lincoln entered the House of Representatives while the war was underway. He then said in a speech on the floor:

I carefully examined [President Polk’s] messages to ascertain what he himself had said and proved on the point of the justice of the war. The result of this examination was to make the impression that, taking for true all that the President states as facts, he falls far short of proving his justification; and that the President would have gone farther with his proof, if it had not been for the small matter that the truth would not permit him… [I suspect] he is deeply conscious of being in the wrong; that he feels the blood of this war, like the blood of Abel, is crying out to heaven against him; that he ordered General [Zachary] Taylor into the midst of a peaceful Mexican settlement, purposely to bring on a war.

My point here is this: Rusty Reno accuses Church leaders, like my humble self, of confusing religion with politics when we insist on liberality when it comes to immigration and undocumented Mexicans resident in the USA. It’s more Christian, he suggests, to leave the universal ideals of the Church at the door, when it comes to building up a country’s identity. But: when we soberly consider the history of our own beloved USA, we find that, in the middle of the nineteenth century, we wound up with the entire southwest portion of our country solely because of a catastrophic confusion of religion with politics, which produced a grave injustice that cries to heaven. Confusion of religion with politics, not on the part of church leaders, but on the part of President James Polk. President Polk insisted on war, not because the circumstances justified it, but because of the widespread quasi-religious belief that the USA had a divine mandate to rule from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

We could spend a few more hours studying the political realities of our North-American continent in the middle of the nineteenth century. No one can pretend that the Mexican government of the time ruled its territories well, any more so than it rules its territories well now. Back then, the Mexican government did nothing to protect its people from the Comanches. Now it does nothing to protect its people from organized crime. We could also consider how the doctrine of Manifest Destiny served the cause of expanding the slave-holding territory of the USA. The Mexican government, for all its faults, had already outlawed slavery, a quarter-century before the USA did.

We could also consider the admirable cosmoplitanism of the Mexican nation. As we know, a million Irish people left home between 1845 and 1852, because of the Great Famine in Ireland. This emigration brought the shamrock to Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, all of which became one-quarter Irish by 1850. But the famous St. Patrick Brigade of the Mexican-American War fought on the Mexican side. As one of the San Patricios, John Kelly, put it in a letter back home, “A more hospitable and friendly people than the Mexican there exists not on the face of the earth, especially to an Irishman and a Catholic.”

But, since we don’t have hours to spend here, let’s just consider these two maps:

Mexcio in 1845

undocumented immigrant pop by state

Rusty Reno made another interesting point in the debate on immigration, a point which Dr. Casarella conceded. National identity preserves Christian heritage in a way that the secular cosmopolitanism of the contemporary international commercial system does not. We have touched on this when we distinguished sacred vs. secular cosmopolitanism. Reno argued that we Christians need to fight to preserve national identity in order to thwart the corrosion of culture that globalized commerce inevitably causes.

Again, in theory, this is an excellent point, one with which I wholeheartedly agree. But, once again, we run onto rocky ground when we apply this to the USA. If it is the case that our identity as Americans involves the preservation of Christian culture, we have to confront these two maps with Christian humility and honesty. According to the testimony of the 19th-century Americans we most admire, the white, English-speaking USA unjustly and unlawfully took the states of Texas, California, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and Utah from the Spanish-speaking United Mexican States. About half of the undocumented immigrants in the USA right now live in that territory. And one-quarter of the entire population of the USA lives in that unlawfully acquired territory.

Who are we, we Americans? When we know the history of our land, we know that Spanish-speaking people share that history. Spanish-speaking people have a just claim to this land. In answer to the charge that undocumented immigrants from Mexico have “broken the law” by coming here, they have every right to respond that the USA broke the law to take control of California, Texas, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah in the first place.

Church leaders like myself hold that the Christian solution to the problem of undocumented residents of our country is to grant citizenship to all those not guily of any felonies. And it seems to me like any honest American, taking pride in our true American identity, would come, in the name of true patriotism, to the same conclusion.

I actually have some more to say about the ways in which our identity as Christian Americans overlaps with the national heritage of Mexico, but I will have to save that for another occasion.

M*A*S*H and the Call of Matthew

MASH cast

Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. (Matthew 9:12)

These words of our Lord remind us of our Holy Father. Pope Francis has said that the Church is a field hospital. Which is cool, because then I can be Hawkeye Pierce.

I desire mercy, not sacrifice. (Matthew 9:13/Hosea 6:6) The Lord also said that the true sacrifice He desires is: obedience. Not burnt animals, but obedience (I Samuel 15:22).

We find ourselves in the middle of a “war:” sin in this world. We suffer because we ourselves sin; we suffer because our neighbors sin; we suffer because our ancestors sinned. We suffer because, instead of obeying the kind will of our heavenly Father, we have filled history with many nonsensical undertakings. Not just the Korean War–nonsensical as it may, or may not, have been.

Disobeying God wounds souls. And those wounds need emergency care. They need the care of rough-and-ready medical personnel with generous hearts, like Col. Blake or Trapper. On M*A*S*H, they just listened for choppers and then got to work.

The war is real. The medicine is also real. In fact, in the field hospital of the Divine Physician, it’s open-Heart surgery.  The surgeon’s Heart is open.

The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.

(From T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets)

The sin of the world makes our fever charts enigmatic. That is: we fail to make sense, we sinners. Someone has to resolve this unfathomable mystery, the mystery of human confusion. When we find a way to make sense, we’ll be healed.

Christ can make sense of us. Christ crucified, the surgeon with wounded hands. He treats our disobedience with the merciful medicine of His own perfect obedience.

Radar. Margaret. Klinger… Ultimately they all grew cynical about the war effort. But not in this field hospital. We may have personality quirks worthy of situation comedy. But we’re no cynics. Because the chief surgeon in this medical camp is the infinitely merciful, perfectly obedient Son of God.

Annie-Dillard Eclipse Warning

eclipse glasses
(photo from the International Business Times coverage of the 2012 eclipse in Asia)

Maybe you think now’s the time to plan your trip to view the total solar eclipse on August 21. I just scheduled my annual priestly retreat for that week, at a house of prayer in the path of “totality.”

eclipse map

But let’s prepare ourselves. Forewarned is forearmed. This happened in the US in February 1979, and Annie Dillard traveled to the Yakima Valley in Washington state, which fell in the path of totality that time. Here are some passages from her essay “Total Eclipse,” which is the first chapter of Teaching a Stone to Talk:

I had seen a partial eclipse in 1970. A partial eclipse is very interesting. It bears almost no relation to a total eclipse. Seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him, or as flying in an airplane does to falling out of an airplane…

Now [8:15am, February 26, 1979] the sky to the west deepened to indigo, a color never seen. A dark sky usually loses color. This was a saturated, deep indigo, up in the air. Stuck up into that unworldly sky was the cone of Mount Adams [in Washington state], and the alpenglow was upon it. The alpenglow is that red light of sunset which holds out on snowy mountain tops long after the valleys and tablelands are dimmed. “Look at Mount Adams,” I said, and that was the last sane moment I remember.

I turned back to the sun. It was going. The sun was going, and the world was wrong. The grasses were wrong; they were platinum. Their every detail of stem, head, and blade shone lightless and artificially distinct as an art photographer’s platinum print. This color has never been seen on earth. The hues were metallic; their finish was matte. The hillside was a nineteenth-century tinted photograph from which the tints had faded. All the people you see in the photograph, distinct and detailed as their faces look, are now dead. The sky was navy blue. My hands were silver. All the distant hills’ grasses were finespun metal which the wind laid down. I was watching a faded color print of a movie filmed in the Middle Ages; I was standing in it, by some mistake. I was standing in a movie of hillside grasses filmed in the Middle Ages. I missed my own century, the people I knew, and the real light of day.

annie-dillard
Annie Dillard

I looked at Gary [her husband]. He was in the film. Everything was lost. He was a platinum print, a dead artist’s version of life. I saw on his skull the darkness of night mixed with the colors of day. My mind was going out; my eyes were receding the way galaxies recede to the rim of space. Gary was light-years away, gesturing inside a circle of darkness, down the wrong end of a telescope. He smiled as if he saw me; the stringy crinkles around his eyes moved. The sight of him, familiar and wrong, was something I was remembering from centuries hence, from the other side of death: yes, that is the way he used to look, when we were living. When it was our generation’s turn to be alive. I could not hear him; the wind was too loud. Behind him the sun was going. We had all started down a chute of time. At first it was pleasant; now there was no stopping it. Gary was chuting away across space, moving and talking and catching my eye, chuting down the long corridor of separation. The skin on his face moved like thin bronze plating that would peel.

The grass at our feet was wild barley. It was the wild einkorn wheat which grew on the hilly flanks of the Zagros Mountains, above the Euphrates valley, above the valley of the river we called River. We harvested the grass with stone sickles, I remember. We found the grasses on the hillsides; we built our shelter beside them and cut them down. That is how he used to look then, that one, moving and living and catching my eye, with the sky so dark behind him, and the wind blowing. God save our life.

From all the hills came screams. A piece of sky beside the crescent sun was detaching. It was a loosened circle of evening sky, suddenly lighted from the back. It was an abrupt black body out of nowhere; it was a flat disk; it was almost over the sun. That is when there were screams. At once this disk of sky slid over the sun like a lid. The sky snapped over the sun like a lens cover. The hatch in the brain slammed. Abruptly it was dark night, on the land and in the sky. In the night sky was a tiny ring of light. The hole where the sun belongs is very small. A thin ring of light marked its place. There was no sound. The eyes dried, the arteries drained, the lungs hushed. There was no world. We were the world’s dead people rotating and orbiting around and around, embedded in the planet’s crust, while the earth rolled down. Our minds were light-years distant, forgetful of almost everything. Only an extraordinary act of will could recall to us our former, living selves and our contexts in matter and time. We had, it seems, loved the planet and loved our lives, but could no longer remember the way of them. We got the light wrong. In the sky was something that should not be there. In the black sky was a ring of light. It was a thin ring, an old, thin silver wedding band, an old, worn ring. It was an old wedding band in the sky, or a morsel of bone. There were stars. It was all over…

You have seen photographs of the sun taken during a total eclipse. The corona fills the print. All of those photographs were taken through telescopes. The lenses of telescopes and cameras can no more cover the breadth and scale of the visual array than language can cover the breadth and simultaneity of internal experience. Lenses enlarge the sight, omit its context, and make of it a pretty and sensible picture, like something on a Christmas card. I assure you, if you send any shepherds a Christmas card on which is printed a three-by-three photograph of the angel of the Lord, the glory of the Lord, and a multitude of the heavenly host, they will not be sore afraid. More fearsome things can come in envelopes. More moving photographs than those of the sun’s corona can appear in magazines. But I pray you will never see anything more awful in the sky.

You see the wide world swaddled in darkness; you see a vast breadth of hilly land, and an enormous, distant, blackened valley; you see towns’ lights, a river’s path, and blurred portions of your hat and scarf; you see your husband’s face looking like an early black-and-white film; and you see a sprawl of black sky and blue sky together, with unfamiliar stars in it, some barely visible bands of cloud, and over there, a small white ring. The ring is as small as one goose in a flock of migrating geese – if you happen to notice a flock of migrating geese. It is one 360th part of the visible sky. The sun we see is less than half the diameter of a dime held at arm’s length…

It had nothing to do with anything. The sun was too small, and too cold, and too far away, to keep the world alive. The white ring was not enough. It was feeble and worthless. It was as useless as a memory; it was as off-kilter and hollow and wretched as a memory.

When you try your hardest to recall someone’s face, or the look of a place, you see in your mind’s eye some vague and terrible sight such as this. It is dark; it is insubstantial; it is all wrong.

The white ring and the saturated darkness made the earth and the sky look as they must look in the memories of the careless dead. What I saw, what I seemed to be standing in, was all the wrecked light that the memories of the dead could shed upon the living world. We had all died in our boots on the hilltops of Yakima, and were alone in eternity. Empty space stoppered our eyes and mouths; we cared for nothing. We remembered our living days wrong. With great effort we had remembered some sort of circular light in the sky – but only the outline. Oh, and then the orchard trees withered, the ground froze, the glaciers slid down the valleys and overlapped the towns. If there had ever been people on earth, nobody knew it. The dead had forgotten those they had loved. The dead were parted one from the other and could no longer remember the faces and lands they had loved in the light. They seemed to stand on darkened hilltops, looking down…

The second before the sun went out we saw a wall of dark shadow come speeding at us. We no sooner saw it than it was upon us, like thunder. It roared up the valley. It slammed our hill and knocked us out. It was the monstrous swift shadow cone of the moon. I have since read that this wave of shadow moves 1,800 miles an hour. Language can give no sense of this sort of speed – 1,800 miles an hour. It was 195 miles wide. No end was in sight – you saw only the edge. It rolled at you across the land at 1,800 miles an hour, hauling darkness like plague behind it….This was the universe about which we have read so much and never before felt: the universe as a clockwork of loose spheres flung at stupefying, unauthorized speeds…It coursed down our hill and raced eastward over the plain, faster than the eye could believe; it swept over the plain and dropped over the planet’s rim in a twinkling. It had clobbered us, and now it roared away. We blinked in the light It was as though an enormous, loping god in the sky had reached down and slapped the earth’s face.

Forewarned is forearmed. August 21. Don’t forget your eclipse glasses.

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

Bryson and Supernatural on Sunday Morning

Devil's Tower

Before he hiked the Appalachian Trail, Bill Bryson drove all over the continental U.S. in a Chevy Chevette. He left us a record of his travels, The Lost Continent.

I just finished reading it, having nursed it like a finger of single-malt scotch–taking little sips over the course of a few months. Now that it’s over, I want him to start driving all over again.

Bryson had one traveling ritual that struck me as particularly dramatic. He would check into a motel for the night, take his little pair of scissors out of his kit bag, proceed to the bathroom, and ceremonially snip the Sanitized for Your Protection banner on the commode, exclaiming “I declare this toilet open!”

But his travel narrative includes poetry, too. One Sunday morning he was driving east through Wyoming…

I drove through the drizzle to Devil’s Tower, the mountain used by Steven Spielberg in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the one on which the aliens landed. It is so singular and extraordinary that you cannot imagine what Spielberg would have used as an alternative if it hadn’t been available. You can see it long before you get to it, but as you draw nearer the scale of it becomes really quite awesome. It is a flat-topped cone of rock 865 feet high, soaring out of an otherwise flat and featureless plain. The scientific explanation is that it was a volcanic fluke–an outsized lump of warm rock that shot out of the earth and then cooled into its present arresting shape. In the moonlight it is said to glow, though even now on a wet Sunday morning with smoky clouds brushing across its summit, it looked decidedly supernatural, as if it were placed there eons ago for the eventual use of aliens.

Bryson drove for two months, thirty years ago–which is about when I got my driver’s license and dreamed of such adventures. I actually did do it myself, seven years ago, albeit for just two weeks. And I have an observation to make about the two ways you can drive across America, caressing God’s earth on our splendid, lonely highways. But first, Bryson’s experience of the Grand Canyon, and mine.

Bryson:

Nothing prepares you for the Grand Canyon. No matter how many times you read about it or see it pictured, it still takes your breath away. Your mind, unable to deal with anything on this scale, just shuts down and for many long moments you are a human vacuum, without speech or breath, but just a deep, inexpressible awe that anything on this earth could be so vast, so beautiful, so silent.

Even children are stilled by it. I was a particularly talkative and obnoxious child, but it stopped me cold. I can remember rounding a corner and standing there agog while a mouthful of half-formed jabber just rolled backwards down my throat, forever unuttered. I was seven years old and I’m told it was only the second occasion in all that time that I had stopped talking, apart from short breaks for sleeping and television. The other thing to silence me was the sight of my grandfather dead in an open coffin. It was such an unexpected sight–no one had told me that it would be on display–and it just took my breath away. There he was all still and silent, dusted with powder and dressed in a suit. I particularly remember that he had his glasses on (what did they think he was going to do with those where he ws going?) and that they were crooked. I think my grandmother had knocked them askew during her last blubbery embrace and then everyone else had been squeamish to push them back into place. It was a shock to me to realize that never again in the whole of eternity would he laugh over “I Love Lucy” or repair his car or talk with his mouth full. It was awesome. But not really as awesome as the Grand Canyon.

bill bryson lost continentYour humble scribe, on the same subject, in a journal I kept:

God, of course, is free to do as He wills.  It is pointless to ask why.  Why would He hollow out an enormous scoop of His earth, delving a mile deep into a plateau in the shape of a 200-mile capital J?  Why would He make most of the world in one way, and this part in another?

You can stand on Bright Angel promontory and look out over a red, yellow, and brown expanse beneath you that is so great that everything you ever knew of the earth before could fit inside it.  And it would look small.  My beloved St. Peter’s Basilica, a climate unto itself:  small.  Old Rag Mountain, my favorite long hike of youth:  small.  Empire State Building, Sears Tower:  little sticks.

Forget it.  Manhattan Island could fit into one of the tributary canyons here.  These comparisons are not a reasonable exercise.  The Grand Canyon is simply a different realm of creation.  It is the place where creation occurred, according to the natives, which would put the canyon itself outside the confines of the created, on the divine side of the unbridgeable divide.  You can see why they would say this.

I had driven a great distance; it had taken me a week.  I had seen thousands of miles of the country, our greatest rivers, and some of our splendid cities.  But it was all nothing, reduced to absurd tiny-ness.

I had lived two score years.  Nothing.  I had seen many days in my life, many sweet evenings.  Nothing.  Nothing.  Tiny.  Ridiculously small. Who can even countenance such pettiness, trifles like the George Washington Bridge, Eiffel Tower, Niagara Falls?  Leave it all alone; these are just miniscule particles of dust.

It really is true:  Looking at the Grand Canyon is a cruel blow to oneself. Every earthly thing is reduced to the size of plankton.  It is no wonder that people routinely ignore all warnings and railings and wind up falling to their deaths trying to get just the right photograph.  To see the canyon is a kind of death.  ‘If this thing is real, then everything else I have ever seen or done is a tiddly wink being flipped into a little plastic cup.  What have I been bothering about all this time?’

So I think Bryson and I had some similar experiences. But there are two ways of driving across America. Allow me to illustrate this with another citation, from a current periodical publication.

For years, political commentators dreamed that the culture war over religious morality that began in the 1960’s and 70’s would fade. It has. And the more secular, more ferociously national and racial culture war that has followed is worse.

Thus concludes Peter Beinart’s brief analysis in The Atlantic of how the decline in white American churchgoing has affected politics. He quotes a Notre Dame sociologist: “Trump does best among evangelicals with one key trait: They don’t really go to church.” Beinart goes on to observe:

The most-committed members of a church are more likely than those casually involved to let its message of universal love erode their prejudices.

I think we unworthy “more-committed members” might offer an explanation for this, an explanation that a sociologist would consider outside his ken. Namely: When we receive the sacraments of the Church regularly, God’s grace fills our hearts. In other words, if we sinners who frequent church have any real love in us, there’s a genuinely supernatural explanation. Not having to do with aliens. But having to do with Christ. He reigns above, and He pours the love of His Heart into ours, through the rites of the Church.

On my cross-country drive, when I crossed the Mississippi River in my little 2006 Toyota, I made landfall at the enormous arch that marks the gateway to the West. I stopped in the original cathedral of Saint Louis, which stands on the riverbank, hard-by the Arch. I made a little visit to the Blessed Sacrament and said some prayers.

In his drive, Bryson found communion with his own childhood, and with his fellowman, in souvenir shops and diners. But his elegy of the American road, funny as it manages to be sometimes, winds up sounding a note of melancholy and loneliness.

The other way to drive across America is from tabernacle to tabernacle, from humble parish Mass to humble parish Mass, giving God the glory for making you, not a solitary wayfarer on the great ocean of existence, but  a member of the Body of Christ.

No Legions of Angels, But Some Vultures

Last Days of Jesus PBS

Do you think I cannot call upon my Father, and he will not provide me at this moment with more than twelve legions of angels? But then how would the Scriptures be fulfilled, which say that it must come to pass this way? (Matthew 26:53)

We thank God for bringing the Christian people together in church to commemorate all the details of Lord Jesus’ Passion. We praise the Lord for giving us the time and the opportunity to take part in the solemnities of Holy Week, the anniversary of the salvation of the world. And let’s thank each of our guardian angels, too, and all the glorious choirs of angels above, for making our sacred liturgy, here on earth, possible and fruitful.

Now, maybe you found yourself bored one evening this past week, and you did some channel flipping, and wound up watching “The Last Days of Jesus,” on PBS.

We know that weird vultures circle at this time of year, trying to convince us churchgoers that “intelligent people” don’t believe in things like Jesus rising from the dead and ascending into heaven. On PBS, a ‘Bible scholar,’ trying to give us ‘the historical Jesus,’ explained the Passion as a failure. He said, “Jesus expected for God to vindicate him with his legions of angels, and it didn’t happen.”

Now, I like Bible scholars perfectly well. But you have to start by knowing what the Bible says. And we read from St. Matthew’s gospel that Jesus explicitly did not expect legions of angels to save Him from death. Instead, He willingly accepted His Passion, in order to fulfill the Scriptures. What He expected was: to die in agony as the innocent Lamb, offered in sacrifice for all His sinful brother- and sister-human beings.

What the vultures don’t get is: this has nothing to do with naïve vs. critical. We Christians are not some tribe of knuckleheads who don’t know how to read. Faith in the divinity of Christ is the one thing that makes the Scriptures make rational sense. The books make perfect sense to us, because we believe in Him, in Christ, true man and true God. We believe that God died a human death, and rose again. Believing all this doesn’t make us naïve; it makes us consistent; it actually makes us much more reasonable than anyone who proposes to accept one part of the gospels, but not another.

More importantly: our faith in Christ’s divinity hopefully also makes us apostles of God’s love. God, the God we serve, is: Christ crucified, the true God of love.