People Don’t Change, Except When They Do

In the second reading at Holy Mass on Sunday, St. Paul tells us to have the same attitude as Christ. [CLICK por español.]

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St. Paul in Prison by Rembrandt

Which attitude, exactly? He emptied Himself. He humbled Himself. God Almighty–the Creator, eternal Wisdom–became obedient unto death, in the holy Incarnation. The attitude of humble devotion to the will of the Father.

Now, speaking of attitudes–what’s one rule of thumb that a wise observer of human nature lives by? People don’t change.

The bride who imagines that her obtuse, self-centered, thuggish fiancee will miraculously change into a prince, by virtue of marrying her–that’s a woman living in a dangerous dreamworld.

Or the employer looking to hire someone who thinks: Well, her old boss says she’s lazy, and a complainer, and a gossip–but if she could work here, she could become diligent and creative and motivated! That’s a self-deluded boss asking for misery.

People don’t change. Except…

They do. The prophet Ezekiel:

If he turns from the wickedness he has committed, and does what is right and just, he shall surely live. (Ez 18:27)

Catechism puts it like this:

The human heart is heavy and hardened. God must give man a new heart. Conversion is first of all a work of the grace of God, who makes our hearts turn to Him. God gives us strength to begin anew. When we discover the greatness of God’s love, our heart is shaken by the horror and weight of sin and begins to fear offending Him… [paragraph 1432]

Interior repentance is a return to God with all our heart, an end of sin. Conversion entails a desire to change one’s life, with hope in God’s mercy, and trust in the help of His grace… [paragraph 1431]

The same Holy Spirit who brings sin to light is also the Consoler who gives the human heart grace for repentance and conversion. [paragraph 1433]

People don’t change. But God does change people. By His holy Incarnation, and the Redemption He won for us, by humbly doing the will of the Father.

We encounter an exquisite irony here. Certainly, beyond a shadow of doubt: God does not change. What He is, which is the all-in-all: it’s eternal. We might think grandpa is stubborn and stuck in His ways. But that’s nothing compared to the immovable-rock-like permanence of the divine Being.

That said, what St. Paul declared did, in fact, happen: God took upon Himself an attitude, the attitude of humility and self-sacrifice. God didn’t change by doing this. He did, however, touch our stubborn and weary human nature with His grace by doing it. He touched our stubborn and weary human nature with His grace in order to overcome our stubbornness and weariness. The Unchanging entered the human race to change us–to change us back from bad to good.

So let’s never kid ourselves. Imagine you were the father in the Parable of the Two Sons (which we will read at Holy Mass on Sunday), and you had a son with such a sullen attitude that he simply spitted out No! whenever you asked him to help you. If you had to contend with such a miscreant son, you would want to tread very lightly when it comes to investing such a brat with any real responsibilities. People don’t change.

But: On that particular day, the day of the parable… On that day, this person did change.

Catechism-of-the-Catholic-CHurchThe punk made his usual petulant reply. “Help? No.” But then he thought better of it. Some new vision of things entered into his mind. The son saw what he had never been able to see before: His stubborn self-centeredness was wronging his good and kind father. Not to mention the fact that he was condemning himself to shiftless misery by being too arrogant to take a risk.

For the first time, the son perceived: I don’t have to live like this. It would be better; it would be happier; it would even really be easier, for me just to get up and walk out into the fields and see what’s going on. Let me see what contribution I can make. Maybe I could learn how to do something helpful.

So the son strode out into the field…

God’s grace can convert even the hardened sinner. Because the life that Christ embraced in His incarnation–the humble life, dedicated to obeying the heavenly Father–that life alone offers a human being genuine happiness. Whenever, by God’s gift, we catch a glimpse of the Christ-like life, we want to live it. We want that peace–the genuine, unshakable joy of co-operating with God.

Young ladies–give up the idea that you’re gonna change your man by your own magic arts. It won’t happen.

But may none of us ever give up on the idea that Christ can change people. Christ can, and does, turn sinners into saints.

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Cardinal Dolan on Why We Against Deporting Innocent People + Senate Judiciary Dems Against the Bedrock

…But let’s not imagine that one political party or another has the market cornered on nonsense.

Apparently the Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee consider fidelity to Catholic doctrine an obstacle to a judge’s impartiality.

Say what?

Just what body of doctrine should a judge base her opinions on? What body of doctrine holds together more solidly, reflects reality more profoundly, and guides us more humanely than the principles our Church teaches?

Seriously. That’s an honest question, Senators Durbin and Feinstein. Name it. Name the solid foundation for law other than the teaching of the Catholic Church.

We defy you to come up with anything better. We defy you to come up with anything even remotely as good. We defy you to produce anything anywhere near as coherent, rational, sensible, decent, and fair as the social doctrine of the Holy Catholic Church.

 

Bozos Smart Enough to Feel Stupid

Two pictures appear in today’s Holy Mass readings which stunningly oppose each other.

On the one hand: The whitewashed tombs that hold dead bones and every kind of filth. The image represents the self-righteous hypocrisy of the Pharisees that Lord Jesus was excoriating at the time.

On the other hand: the words of Psalm 139.

Lord you search me and you know me. Where can I flee from you? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I sink to the nether world, you are present there. If I take the wings of the dawn; if I settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall guide me, and your right hand hold me fast. If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall hide me, and night shall be my light’ –For you darkness itself is not dark, and night shines as the day.

As Switchfoot put it in their song “Dare You to Move,” Where do you run to escape from yourself? Where you gonna go?

Honesty. With oneself. How can we possibly achieve such a highly unusual accomplishment? Don’t we have to admit that the moment when we think we have finally become 100% truthful with ourselves is precisely when we lie?

brunelleschi_crucifixAfter all, as Eminem put it: Dumb it down? I don’t know how (huh-huh) how-how. At least I know I don’t know. Question is are you bozos smart enough to feel stupid. Hope so.

How about this for a definition of hypocrite: The hypocrite = the one who does not live in a constant conversation with God the Father of mercies.

Faith in the Crucified can cure human hypocrisy; nothing else can. Because His mercy must come first. We have no hope of achieving honesty with ourselves unless we believe in God’s mercy. The inside of the tomb is simply too much to handle without it.

But: He died to atone for all my sins. Because I know that; because I believe that He can forgive and will—then I can have the courage to go inside and pick up all the dead bones and worms and snakes and cricket carcasses and show them to the One Who sees everything. Because I know that as soon as I show them to Him, they go away.

RIP, Big Frank

DiLorenzoThe man kept Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop on his desk for years. So you figure he was ready.

For all of bishop’s many kindnesses to me, I give thanks. For his few injustices against me, I right readily forgive him. May the blame not attach itself to him. I refuse to press charges.

May he forgive me for all the ways I have failed him–all of which he sees with perfect clarity now. He has much more to forgive me than I him.

He knew how to have fun. He and I had fun in his office, over straw hats, and with a desk calculator (trying to figure out how many hundreds of thousands of dollars it would take to rebuild all the Church property within 300 yards of Orange Avenue in Roanoke). And I basically laughed in his 300-pound face when he lectured me about keeping fit.

I pray with all my heart that we will dine together in the life to come, a proper southside-Philly Italian meal, without him having to worry about his tricky digestion or his sugars. My dear departed dad was 100% clueless, and that often left me in difficult situations. But I always knew he loved me, with the desperate love of a father who wished he could guide his son, but just didn’t know how. I’m weeping right now, because I saw the same in Bishop DiLo. Resquiecant in pace, both of you, dear fathers. I owe you both.

…Richmond sede vacante is weird. For us parish priests of the diocese, I think it’s even weirder and more doleful than Roma sede vacante. May the good Lord comfort us and help us.

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.

The Light Moses Saw

Moses’ face became radiant after he conversed with the Lord on Mount Sinai. The very radiance of the prophet’s face terrified the people.

No surprise. When the Lord created, He began with “Let there be light.” According to some ancient rabbis, this original light exceeded the brightness of the sun by seven times. Some say the Primeval Light actually exceeded the brightness of the sun by 60,075 times.

eclipse glasses(If you’re wondering where the number 60,075 came from, you’re like me; I wondered the same thing. The only answer I could find is that it has to do with the number of possible combinations of the letters in a Hebrew word. But I really don’t know the answer.)

Anyway, we can gather that Moses, when he received the Commandments from God, got to see a light much greater in brightness than the sun, possibly the full Primeval Light. As a result, in order to avoid terrifying the people, Moses had to don a veil for his face.

This serves, I think, as an opportune time to remind you, gentle reader, that you will need solar-eclipse glasses two weeks from Monday. Very, very dangerous to observe an eclipse without them!

According to the ancient rabbis, God has preserved the full Primeval Light for the righteous in the life to come. And, as we know, the apostolic rabbi St. Paul commented on Moses’ veil in his second letter to the Corinthian Christians. St. Paul teaches that the Holy Spirit transforms us into the likeness of the unveiled glory of God, Jesus Christ.

First and Second Regeneration

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Purim moon tonight. One more cycle to the holy Pasch.

On two occasions during Lord Jesus’ earthly life, the Father spoke out from heaven, saying, “This is my beloved Son!” At Christ’s Baptism. And at His Transfiguration.

Holy Baptism. One of the seven… sacraments. The sacrament of regeneration. God generated us in the first place, in the Garden of Eden. When Satan tempted us, we fell, and we became the sinful, mortal human race that we are. Then God sent His beloved Son to re-generate us.

We enter into the re-generation process through Holy Baptism. When we get baptized into Christ, everything starts fresh–human purity restored, an open-ended friendship with God begins.

Gerard David TransfigurationYou know that Lent exists primarily as the final period of preparation for adults who will be baptized during the night before Easter. Lent primarily means the final stage of study and purification for non-Christians about to become Christians. The ancient People of God passed dry-shod through the Red Sea and marched on, toward the Promised Land; Lent exists primarily for us to integrate the stranger and the sojourner among us into our nation, the pilgrim Church.

Lent also exists to remind us already-baptized Christians about what happened to us at the font. God regenerated us there, to live as His friends, as the children of His household. We need to reach into the depths of our souls to rediscover the always-new, always-fresh presence of Christ’s truth and life. When we were baptized into Him, Jesus claimed us as His forever.

We already-baptized people, as we reach into these lovely interior depths during Lent, usually find that we need to be re-cleansed by the baptismal water. And that’s as easy as… going to confession! One ancient name for the sacrament of Confession is… second Baptism.

But, speaking of second things—what about the second time the Father declared, “This is my beloved Son!” The gospel we read at Holy Mass every second Sunday of Lent. When the Lord’s body shone with brilliant divine light, transfigured. At that moment, the human regeneration accomplished by Christ, usually invisible to our eyes, was revealed.

St. Thomas Aquinas says that Christ’s Baptism in the Jordan River was the sacrament of our first regeneration. And Christ’s Transfiguration is the sacrament of our second regeneration. Our bodily resurrection. When Christ comes again, in the glory He revealed at the Transfiguration, sin and Satan and death will no longer have any power over us. According to God’s own design, we will shine then like the stars in the sky.

Feast of the Holy Cross

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Church of the Holy Sepulcher

Anyone know why we keep a Feast of the Holy Cross on September 14?  (Or on the Sunday closest to September 14, if it’s a Maronite parish?)*

On September 14, AD 335, they carried a piece of the cross of Christ in solemn procession into the newly dedicated Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.

Lord Jesus was crucified outside the ancient wall of the city, on the hill called…  Golgatha.  After He died, they laid Him in a nearby tomb, as we read in John 19:  “In the place where He was crucified, there was a garden; and in the garden, a new tomb.  There they laid Him.”  Mount Calvary and the Holy Sepulcher stand only a few dozen yards apart from each other.

When the Roman Emperor Hadrian visited the Holy Land during the 130’s, he renamed Jerusalem after himself, and he ordered that the sites of our Lord’s crucifixion and burial be covered over with earth, and then a pagan temple built there.  Hadrian hated Judaism and Christianity.  St. Dimitry Rostov put it like this in his homily for this feast:

[The Roman emperor wanted] the remembrance of the name of Jesus Christ to vanish from the earth…  The place where he was crucified and buried was made a dwelling-place of demons, so that every nation would forget Christ, and the places where Christ had walked would never serve to remind anyone of Him.

Therefore, the Holy Cross and the tomb of Christ remained buried underground for almost two hundred years.

But: one thing we can certainly say is that the Christians of Jerusalem knew precisely where they were.  We can safely say that, from the first Easter Sunday onward, not a single day passed without a Christian going to pray at the holy site.

So when the Emperor Constantine finally legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire in AD 313, and when the emperor’s mother St. Helena went to the Holy Land to find the cross and the holy sepulcher, there were still Christians there, and they knew where to tell her to look.

Tenth Station of the Cross

So let’s keep this anniversary feast as an occasion to rejoice in the genuinely amazing faithfulness of Christians through all the tumults of history.

And let’s focus especially on this:  our forefathers and foremothers in faith have held on through thick and thin not because they have had so much virtue—though many of them certainly have had great virtue.  The main reason, though, is this: it’s the truth.

Our ancestors who have handed our sacred tradition down to us have simply been faithful to what they knew to be true.  The great triumphant mystery of God-made-man involves facts.  And those facts have been remembered faithfully and handed down to us primarily because they are true.

After all, that’s the only reasonable explanation for us being here together right now, dear reader.

Let’s look at it this way.  A man regarded by the authorities as a delusional political nuisance was executed as a common criminal on the outskirts of a ramshackle city, which the Romans thought of as an outpost in the outer reaches of barbarian hell.  If CNN had existed to report the news of the Roman Empire at the time, the chances that Wolf Blitzer would have mentioned this particular execution:  zero.

The executed man was buried nearby, in a tomb that did not belong to his family–His family being altogether too poor to own any tombs.  The chances of anyone making a written record about the location of the grave:  zero.

little last supperIn other words, we really cannot even imagine anything more obscure and forgettable than the death and burial of this particular man.  Innumerable men and women have died, and been buried, and have been altogether forgotten.  And by all external trappings, the Nazarene carpenter would fit into that human category, the category of the altogether forgettable.

Except for one fact:  He is God.

He rose from the dead.  He poured out His Holy Spirit.  He unites us to Himself through the Holy Mass.  He is the hope and the joy of mankind.

This is what Christians have known from Day One.  So they prayed at the sites of his death and resurrection.  They prayed there even when the worldly powers did everything to try to make them forget.

At Holy Mass, we take our place with these forefathers and foremothers of ours.  The living memory of the living God-made-man survived the ravages of Hadrian and the other Roman emperors who hated Christianity.  The tradition endured to the day when they carried the relic of the true cross into the beautiful new Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher, seventeen centuries ago.  And the living memory of the living God-made-man has endured through those seventeen centuries from then until now.

We take our place beside all our forebears, who have held the faith through all these hundreds of years, and we declare with them:  We adore You, O Christ, and we praise You…

Because by Your Holy Cross You have redeemed the world!

————–

* Praised be the Lord Jesus Christ, this Sunday I am substituting for the pastor of our local Maronite parish, while my beloved parochial vicars hold down the fort at home.

White-Hot Furnace

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to worship the visible golden statue.  Because they insisted on worshiping the unseen God.  For this, Nebuchadnezzar cast them into the fiery furnace.

15-03-03/42Does the fiery furnace have a spiritual meaning for us?  God made us for love:  to love Him and glorify Him in His works.  This demands that we ruthlessly separate ourselves from the temptation to love and worship things that fall short of God.  Therefore, to believe means living in a kind of fiery furnace:  the furnace of divine love, which burns everything impure.

The real God–the invisible, transcendent God Almighty–can send angels to help us.  And the angel who accompanied the three young men prefigured the Son of God, Who was to come–the Angel of Great Counsel, the King of Angels.

“If God were your Father, you would love me,” saith the incarnate Christ.  Christ gives us the purity that makes living in the furnace endurable.  More than endurable:  with Christ’s grace, living in the world for the glory of the Father, loving God and nothing less than God—it becomes pure joy.  Heaven awaits.

The Claverings

Young man falls for his cousin-in-law’s beautiful younger sister. She jilts him and marries for money. Young man goes racing down the wrong career path, but along the way he finds just the right woman. Then his first love returns, a rich widow, offering him everything. A crisis ensues.

The Claverings TrollopeThe entire plot of this perfectly constructed Anthony-Trollope novel turns on this one moment: The protagonist lied in bed at home, laid up with a wicked cold. His mother offers him some advice. He takes it.

…Where does the joy of reading a Trollope novel truly lie? In the comic relief, perhaps? The Claverings has one of the funniest chapters I have ever read. A hapless, ill-educated, blue-blooded boy, cousin to the protagonist, seeks help in his love suit. From a cheap Franco-Polish con-woman, whom he believes to be a Russian spy.

Does the joy come from Trollope’s withering, righteous indictment of all the inhumane cruelty doled out by the heartless oligarchs he manages to capture perfectly? Hugh Clavering strides through the pages of this novel as one of the most believably loathesome villains I have ever encountered, the Victorian drawing-room equivalent of Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight. Does Sir Hugh receive his just desserts in the end? I won’t spoil the novel for you. But we learn a lesson in boatsmanship: don’t go fishing off the coast of Norway in a small craft.

Maybe the deepest joy of a Trollope novel comes from the relentless struggle for honesty waged by the good guys. Henry Clavering faces an enticement to falseness–which he comes by perfectly honestly. The way all the other characters react to his predicament gives us a grand tour of all our predilections to judge our neighbor.

For my money, though, the most amazing thing about this novel is the character of Julia Brabazon. And the Way of the Cross she follows to reach a state of self-possessed kindness by the story’s end.

Now, I can’t say that I wished The Claverings had kept going longer than it does. The plot is not easy on the nerves. None of the characters sits with you like a relaxing companion (as some of the denizens of Trollope’s Barsetshire chronicles manage to do).

But every single page of The Claverings is worth reading. Reading them all both delighted and instructed this particular reader. Of all the things a person can find himself addicted to, Trollope novels have got to be one of the most thoroughly healthy options.