Monday, June 16, 2014

An Entirely Original, Irreducible Presence

Giotto, The Raising of Lazarus, Scrovegni Chapel
"...For the Lord comforts His people and shows mercy to His afflicted.”Despite this preference, we challenge the Lord with our murmuring. “But Zion said, ‘The Lord has forsaken me; my Lord has forgotten me.’”  How often we think this! He could react to this provocation like us, with our usual reactivity, getting angry, but He surprises us with an entirely original, irreducible presence. Instead of letting Himself be determined by our murmuring, by what we say or think about Him, He takes the opportunity to show once again how different He is, challenging our reason in an astounding way: “Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget you.”What would our life be if we could not hear these words over and over?...  Spiritual Exercises of the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation, Fr. Julián Carrón  
What is the meaning of freedom? Of obedience? The questions came up yesterday, during a day that was filled with extraordinary beauty: Mass at which, for the second week in a row, we were so blessed to have Monsignor Cornelius preach, this time on the mystery of the Trinity; lunch at a Taiwanese noodle place in Pittsburgh where we happened to be seated at the bench where we could watch the chef, through a large window, making the dumplings and noodles by hand:   video  then a visit to the Phipps conservatory where we saw strange and gorgeous orchids and butterflies, then a concert dedicated to the life and poetry of St. Francis, where we heard some of the most lush, ravishing, and sublime music, including this beautiful setting of St. Francis' Canticle of Brother Sun. The entire day was an exploration of freedom's dimensions. Freedom is the capacity to say "yes" to Life, to Beauty, to Love. To the extent that we are willing to be obedient (to pay attention with our whole being and then give ourselves over in service to Life, to Beauty, to Love as they present themselves in the concrete faces and events of each day), that is the extent to which we can say we are free. Nothing can stop me from being faithful to the ones I love. Nothing can prevent me from loving the others, even if their love for me is imperfect or absent. Freedom is obedience to this Love. Because nothing can prevent me from hating - but if I hate, I am enslaved. So freedom is not in the choice of whether to love or hate. Freedom flows from one choice and is stifled and suffocated if I make the other choice.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

To Look at Myself Without Fear

Giotto, Wedding at Cana (detail), Scrovegni Chapel
What enables us to look at everything–even our mistakes, even this lack of self-awareness–without fear, free from the temptation to justify ourselves (like the publicans, who went to Jesus because only with Him could they be themselves, without having to reject anything of themselves; this is why they sought Him out, why they needed to return to Him–to be able to be themselves, finally)? The certainty of His covenant, the certainty that He will take even our mistakes as an opportunity to make us discover how different He is, who He is. The certainty of this love defines the covenant that God made with us, as the prophet Isaiah reminds us: “Thus says the LORD: ‘In a time of favor I answer you, on the day of salvation I help you, I form you and set you as a covenant for the people, to restore the land and allot the desolate heritages, saying to the prisoners: Come out! To those in darkness: Show yourselves! Along the ways they shall find pasture, on every bare height shall their pastures be. They shall not hunger or thirst, nor shall the scorching wind or the sun strike them; For He who pities them leads them and guides them beside springs of water. I will cut a road through all my mountains, and make my highways level. See, some shall come from afar, others from the north and the west, and some from the land of Syene.’ Sing out, O heavens, and rejoice, O earth, break forth into song, you mountains. For the Lord comforts His people and shows mercy to His afflicted.”  Spiritual Exercises of the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation, Fr. Julián Carrón 
Because I overslept, I neglected two very important responsibilities this morning: I began my day by breaking two important promises! It was a very hard fall from glorying in the awareness that I've been given another beautiful day in which to live and then a moment later realizing my mistake!  But remembering God's covenant with me makes me ask: does this mean that I wave God's mercy, like a white flag, to signal to those I've wronged that they cannot or should not be disappointed with me? Do I bother apologizing or making amends when, after all, Jesus is planning to use my frailty and error for everyone's good? Maybe those who've been let down by me ought to thank me for sleeping in? LOL. I think all of these options fall into the category of "justifying oneself." God's mercy doesn't justify me. [I like the way that the word "justify" is used in physics: to line things up so that they are in order]. I have some work to do today, and it may take more than one day to get my behavior to line up with reality. But I can undertake this work without shame or pride or anything other than cheerfulness, if I do it within the awareness of His mercy.

Friday, June 13, 2014

My Face in the World Today

Giotto, Baptism of Jesus, Scrovegni Chapel
Thus the gap between intention and experience has nothing to do with the gap between theory and application, but indicates that the content of awareness and of affection has de facto become another, regardless of ethical coherence or incoherence. It is as if without realizing it at times we have shifted, oriented our gaze elsewhere; we have become centered on something else (the essential has not been denied, but has been transformed into an a priori, a postulate in the back of our minds that does not define who we are, our personal identity and our face in the world today). We have seen this demonstrated particularly clearly at certain moments of our history, as we will see tomorrow. For now, let it suffice to recall what Fr. Giussani told us, and as we repeated in the Beginning Day: “the project had taken the place of presence,” 12 without our realizing it.   Spiritual Exercises of the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation, Fr. Julián Carrón
When I woke up this morning, I was so glad and grateful to be alive. Every morning it's the same. I am unable to wake up in the morning without saying, "You" to the one who makes me: "Thank you for another day, for more life." This is not because I am better than those who do not wake up with this thought. It's not a question of ethics or morality at all. My spontaneous gratitude is a direct result of the fact that I could have died - on several occasions. I don't know why I didn't die. I'm quite certain I would have died, had I not made a change, back in my early twenties. And I also know that the change could not have happened if I had needed to rely on my own strength. Psalm 18 is, essentially, the story of my life (except for the part about how righteous the psalmist is - I was far from good when he rescued me): "He set me free in the open; he rescued me because he loves me." This is my identity. To say anything else about me would be absurd. But sometimes I do forget that I am loved, that I am being made by Love. As my day goes on, I run into problems that I try to solve from a different vantage. I literally forget who I am, and I need to be reminded of who I am. And for this reason, I am so very blessed to have friends, to have you. So, thank you. 

Thursday, June 12, 2014

What Defines Us

Giotto, Finding of the Child Jesus, Scrovegni Chapel
It is crucial to grasp what we are saying, so as not to immediately reduce everything to the problem of our mistakes or daily frailties, our instances of moral incoherence. In talking about the distance between intention and experience, the core is not primarily coherence, how often we err, but what defines us even when we err; the core issue is the content of our self-awareness, our real substance, what we actually pursue and love in action, what is essential for us. In fact, one can be incoherent and yet be highly focused on the essential, like a child–described so often by Fr. Giussani–who misbehaves mightily, drives his mother to distraction a thousand times a day, but at the center of his gaze there is no one but his mother. Heaven help anyone who tried to take him away from her! He would wail and scream; he would be inconsolable.   Spiritual Exercises of the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation, Fr. Julián Carrón
Why do I tend to reduce things to the problem of my mistakes and daily frailties? Or why do I tend to reduce things to the problem of others' mistakes and daily frailties? What's that about? Control and power. See, if the problem has to do with my mistakes, then I can fix them. And if the problem has to do with your mistakes, I can shame you into fixing them. Instead of seeing the mistakes as sign that I'm ultimately not in control, I use them as the occasion to assert myself and my own power. This is why looking at problems in terms of my mistakes or your mistakes is an occasion of pride, of making ourselves into gods. The problem is not whether we make mistakes. It's a problem of where I choose to turn my gaze

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Where Your Treasure Is

Giotto, Massacre of the Innocents (detail), Scrovegni Chapel
We are alone with our need, documented in many questions that have emerged in these months. Now, if this is our situation, what enables us to stand? In other words, what is the essential thing we need to live as human beings, according to all the depth of our need? What is the essential for us? There is no other way to capture what is the essential for us than discovering in experience whence we expect to find the answer to the need of living. It would be easy, even obvious or taken for granted–because of the education we have received–to answer immediately that for us the essential is Christ, the presence of Christ.
But we cannot get off so easily. A mechanical answer will not suffice. In fact, observing ourselves in action, we often must yield to the evidence that for us the essential is elsewhere.
The criterion for discovering it comes from the Gospel. “Where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.” Here you see the distance between the intention that Christ be the essential of life, and the discovery that often in experience this is not the case. Here the difference between intention and experience emerges. Thus, we can discover that even in good faith, the essential has become something else, and is no longer Christ; we have shifted to something else, maybe even in the name of that essential that continues nonetheless to be quoted in our discourses.  Spiritual Exercises of the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation, Fr. Julián Carrón
I am discovering more and more each day that it is not enough for me to be happy. It's not enough to seek my own fulfillment. If the others who have been put in my path are left alone with their need, then the answer I thought I had was not sufficient. Christ is not something for me, alone, to treasure in privacy. If I think that this is how he is, then what I'm holding in this deluded embrace is an idol and not Christ. Jesus told us that he is the True Vine: he, then, is a plural, a vast multiplicity of persons, whose flesh seems to form boundaries between one and another but whose true Flesh is Christ, the one who makes us one Body. Christ allures us by appearing with the face of Beauty, but Beauty isn't his only form: he also calls to us from the eyes of those who hurt us, from within the heart of ugliness, too.  The very life of Christ, the blood in his veins that he gives us to drink is called Mercy.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Nature of Your Needs

Giotto, Flight into Egypt, Scrovegni Chapel

So then, what happens when you engage with all the factors of life, with all of life? The more you live, the more the nature of your needs appears before your eyes. The more we discover our needs, the more we realize that we cannot resolve them by ourselves, nor can others,–people like us, wretches like us. “A sense of powerlessness accompanies every serious experience in our lives. This sense of powerlessness generates solitude. True solitude does not come from being physically alone but from the discovery that a fundamental problem of ours cannot find its solution in us or in others. We can well say that the sense of solitude is borne in the very heart of every serious commitment to our own humanity.” What needs to be answered is precisely this sense of powerlessness, which ultimately generates the solitude that each of us experiences in life. Without this answer, all the rest is distraction.  Spiritual Exercises of the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation, Fr. Julián Carrón
All of the activity I undertake has to do with striving to find an answer to my need, which grows larger and more intense with every passing year: organizing the fundraiser for the GS, organizing the pilgrimage, going to make copies of the reading for School of Community, preparing for my meeting tomorrow in order to try to figure out where the Good Shepherd atria will be re-located, even writing here... and then also all the smaller things - picking Serena up from band practice, reminding Sylvie to practice piano, making a date to meet with friends - are all, if I look closely at them, attempts to respond to this great need I have for Life, for Life to the Full. If I were to undertake these tasks with the idea that their end results would answer my need, I would fail at them and then I would be bitter and full of resentment. If we don't raise any money at all for the GS, if no one accompanies me on the pilgrimage, if everyone stays home on Thursday morning so that I am alone at School of Community, if we have to shut down the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, if I forget to pick up Serena, if Sylvie gives up playing the piano, or if the calendar yields not one date to get together with friends, then what? I don't know, but I won't be disappointed. Because everything I do or attempt is a response to One who had the first word. I know I'm poor and little and fragile, and possibly these responses of mine are inappropriate in front of that first word. But this doesn't matter because He will continue to speak me into the wonder of existence and speak this Love that reaches me from so many unexpected directions each day.  I know that my poor attempts are not what will conjure His word of Love for me, because it has already been spoken.  But I also can't not respond.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Every Single Gesture

Giotto, Presentation in the Temple (detail), Scrovegni Chapel

Thus the fundamental question is this: what is the essential for us? The essential is that  which answers the question about how one can live. What is the essential for each one of  us? No question is more pertinent as we begin our Spiritual Exercises, precisely because it is so radical. “No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other.” These words of Jesus tell us that each of us can affirm only one thing as ultimate, so unavoidable is the unity of the human “I”. For this reason, in the face of the provocations of life, each of us is forced to decide what ultimate thing she or he prizes more than any other. The impact of circumstances leaves us no way out; it forces us to reveal what we hold dearest. How can we discover what the essential is for us, without self-deception? Once again, Fr. Giussani taught us the method: observing ourselves in action, in experience, because “the factors that constitute humanity are perceived [and we become conscious of them] when they are engaged in action - otherwise they are not noticeable. […] The more one is involved with life, the more one also, even within a single experience, comes to know the very factors of life itself. Life is a web of events and encounters which provoke the conscience, producing all different kinds of problems. But a problem is nothing other than the dynamic expression of a reaction in the face of these encounters. Life, then, is a series of problems, its fabric made up of reactions to encounters that are provocative to a greater or lesser extent. Discovering the meaning of life - or the most pertinent and important things in life - is a goal which is possible only for the individual who is involved with life seriously, its events, encounters, and problems. Being involved with life does not mean an exasperated entanglement with one or another of life’s aspects; it is never partial. Rather, one must live one’s engagement with life’s various facets as a consequence of a global involvement with life itself. Otherwise, one’s engagement risks being partial, without equilibrium, existence possibly becoming a fixation or an hysteria. To paraphrase a saying of Chesterton, ‘Error is a truth gone mad.’” For this reason, “in order for us to be able to discover within ourselves the existence and nature of such a crucial and decisive a factor as the religious sense, we must commit ourselves to our whole life. This includes everything - love, [work], study, politics, money, even food and rest, excluding nothing, neither friendship, nor hope, nor pardon, nor anger, nor patience. Within every single gesture lies a step towards our own destiny.”
Spiritual Exercises of the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation, Fr. Julián Carrón
Wow - observing oneself in action can sometimes be very difficult. Just today, I (basically) told a good friend to "shut up", and later I said something very unkind about someone I love very much. Then I came up with a plausible excuse for my behavior. But I can even see, in my tendency to allow these faults to define me, "a truth gone mad" because these were not the only things that happened today. Looking at the whole day, I also see that Christ came to meet me over and over again: the moment when Sylvie brought me a fresh cup of tea, Serena's loveliness in her new blue dress, running into Marg in the Church parking lot and hearing her speak about how she loved her experience at School of Community, then seeing Connie and John with all their good humor, the glorious surprise of Monsignor Cornelius not only presiding at Mass but also giving an out-of-the-ballpark homily, that second reading (!!), Emily coming to help me when I called, Krista's prompt response to my need, Robyn's painful situation and her request for prayer, Hank's faithfulness, the faces of our Pittsburgh friends (all of you), getting to sing with them (!), Lucia's beautiful eyes, even the rain and the woods and the two together, Stephen cooking dinner... There is so much beauty in my life. My sin is so small and stupid in front of the exquisite glory that comes looking for me every day. And if I'm honest about myself-in-action, there's no denying my distraction, stupidity, and meanness, but these are not the whole of it. I did enjoy Him. I even embraced Him. These faces from which He smiled at me with so much love are so dear. Please let these moments take over and sweep the rest away! 

Dumbstruck by the Mystery

...our temptation is always to impose our prejudices or our measure on reality -- except when we are faced with a fact that leaves us dumbstruck, and instead of dominating the fact ourselves, we are dominated, overcome by it. If there were no moments of this kind, the Mystery could do anything, but in the end, we would reduce everything to the usual explanation. But not even a Nobel Prize winner can stop himself from being dumbstruck before an absolutely gratuitous gesture. If there were not these moments, we would find answers, explanations, and interpretations to avoid being struck by anything. It is good that some things happen that we cannot dominate, then we have to take them seriously, and this is the great question of philosophy. If the conditions for the possibility of knowledge (see Kant) impose themselves on reality or if there is something that is so powerfully disproportionate that it does not let itself be "grasped" by the conditions of possibility, then the horizon opens. If this were not the case, then we could dominate everything and be in peace, or at least without drama. Instead, not even the intelligence of a Nobel Prize winner could prevent him from coming face-to-face with a fact that made him dumbstruck -- instead of dominating, it was he who was dominated. Here begins the drama, because I am called to answer. It is the drama that unfolds between us and the Mystery, through certain facts, certain moments, in which the Mystery imposes itself with this evidence. These are facts that we cannot put in our pocket, which we cannot reduce to antecedent factors.
-- Julian Carron in "Friends, that is, Witnesses."