Friday, February 29, 2008

Freedom and acceptance

In a structurally dependent being, as is the human person, freedom always begins specifically as acceptance. The more one knows how to accept, the more active one becomes.
Christ would draw the comparison between the vine and the branches -- the only life that feeds many lives. We can apply this comparison to every true community: the life that keeps everyone together is the power of my freedom that opens itself and gives itself to others.
The greatness of human freedom is such that it will not rest if not in a community of all, a "catholic" community.
One thing best demonstrates how much the community affirms the freedom of the person: it is realized even if others do not acknowledge me, even if they refuse me. If I want them, if I accept them nonetheless, then there is a more conscious, vigorous, and thus ever truer communion with them.
For this reason, no sign of personal greatness is more sublime than forgiveness. Freedom seizes in love even one who hates; not even the most dogged enemy can elude my love, and thus my freedom seizes him and dominates him much more deeply than he can violate and conquer me.
'Forgive them Father': abandoned by everyone, Christ created the universal community... (Luigi Giussani, The Journey to Truth is an Experience, page 26).
The above passage has been a great prayer of mine, lately. I want the kind of freedom that will allow me to make every moment of my life a gift. I want to belong to the whole world.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

At home

We moved into this house two and a half years ago, but only in the past day or two have I started to feel at home in it. With each move, it seems to take me longer to feel as though I belong in a house. I began to feel at home in this community, with my new neighbors and friends, much more quickly. But this house, which I loved the moment I first saw a picture of it, has felt like a place of exile all this time.

In one of last month's posts, I took a little moment to ponder the meaning of the word "house":

And then the Don Giussani's talk concludes with the introduction of a new term, "house":

And this vocational company has the house as its first way of documenting itself - not only in a chronological sense, but also as the force which shakes us as the angel "shook" Mary, shook her heart. So this word ... carries the total meaning of our lives: either we learn through that company or else we don't learn at all. This is why the Bible would make us talk about the house as the place - according to all the analogies the term has - where God communicates himself in his humanity, i.e. he communicates himself as Man-God.
When we begin to ponder what he could mean by "house," we have to turn to all the ways the word is used in the Bible -- "House" of David, meaning the unbroken line of descendants who are connected by the bonds of blood; "House" of the Lord -- the habitation, the place where God's glory dwells, the place where we go up with joy; "House" of God, where Jesus was outraged at the money-changers; "House" of his own body, which he would rebuild in three days; "House" that we build on the Rock and not on sandy soil; "House" or temple of the Holy Spirit, that is, our bodies; "House" built of living stones, of which Christ is the cornerstone and the apostles are the foundation; "House" of the new Jerusalem, bedecked with jewels, in which a room will be prepared for us...

On the wall of every Memoris Domini house, those who make up its companionship place a sign, which says, "The house is the place of memory." Those in Memoris Domini are the living "memory of God," present in the world: "Memory is the consciousness of a presence that has begun and lasts: memory is the consciousness of His presence.... Memory has become the most important word of our community: the community is the place where one lives memory. I would like to detail some aspects of this reality of the community, a word that indicates a companionship that is not born of the flesh or blood but from Christ, whose life is memory. As St. Catherine of Siena said: 'Memory has been filled with blood.' Our memory is filled with the blood of the cross and of the glory of the resurrection, because the Cross of Christ cannot be conceived without the resurrection" (Don Giuss).

The house is the place of memory. I've lived in 23 houses (including apartments) in 42 years of life, and these houses have been more the subject of memory, rather than the place of memory. In fact, many of these houses have felt like places of exile. I am also reminded of my insightful friend who once commented that I am like a homeless person who wears her whole wardrobe at all times, winter coats even in the blazing heat, because I have no place to put things away. She was struck by the way I lived the memories I had accumulated, like layers of clothing, that interfered with my ability to live with my current "weather." But what of the memory of God? It was buried deep beneath the layers: muffled, obscured.

I still struggle with a literal and figurative inability to put things away.
St. Joseph Catholic Church in Hong Kong, where I received First Communion and Confirmation

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Monsignor Luigi Giussani, 1922-2005

Teacher, friend, passionate witness

...My first thought goes to your Founder, Mons. Luigi Giussani, to whom many memories bind me and who became a true friend of mine. Our last meeting, as Mons. Carrón mentioned, took place at the Cathedral in Milan, in February about two years ago, when our beloved John Paul II sent me to preside at his solemn funeral. Through him, the Holy Spirit raised in the Church a Movement, yours, that would witness to the beauty of being Christian in an age when the opinion was spreading that Christianity is a difficult and oppressive way to live. Fr Giussani then committed himself to awaken in youth the love for Christ, "Way, Truth and Life", repeating that only he is the way towards the fulfillment of the deepest desires of the human heart, and that Christ does not save us regardless of our humanity, but through it. As I was able to recall in his funeral homily, this courageous priest, who grew up in a home poor in bread but rich in music, as he himself liked to say, from the beginning was touched, or rather wounded, by the desire for beauty, though not any sort of beauty. He sought Beauty itself, the infinite Beauty which is found in Christ...

...On an anniversary dear to you, the Pope still wants yet again to repeat that the original pedagogical intuition of Communion and Liberation lies in reproposing the Christian event within contemporary culture in a fascinating and harmonious way, perceived as a font of new values and able to orient one's entire existence.

The event that changed the life of the Founder has also "wounded" a great many of his spiritual sons and daughters, and has given way to multiple religious and ecclesial experiences which form the history of your vast and well-organized spiritual Family. Communion and Liberation is a community experience of faith, born in the Church not by the will of an organized hierarchy but originating from a renewed encounter with Christ and thus, we can say, by an impulse derived ultimately from the Holy Spirit. Still today, it offers a profound way of life and it actualizes the Christian faith, both in a total fidelity and communion with the Successor of Peter and with the Pastors who assure the governing of the Church and through spontaneity and freedom that permit new and prophetic, apostolic and missionary achievements... (ADDRESS OF HIS HOLINESS BENEDICT XVI TO COMMUNION AND LIBERATION PILGRIMAGE PARTICIPANTS, St Peter's Square, Saturday, 24 March 2007)

Friday, February 22, 2008

Anniversary Mass

Today is the third anniversary of the death of Monsignor Luigi Giussani, founder of the lay ecclesial movement Communion and Liberation.
Well in advance, our small local CL community approached our bishop to ask him when and where he would celebrate Mass on this day and whether he would be willing to include the Mass intention. We learned that he would be visiting a parish in a town nearby to say the 8:30am Mass for the school children there and that he would be willing to offer the Mass for Father Giussani. Plans were made, rides coordinated, and a small brunch planned for after the Mass, but then today arrived with sleet and freezing rain mixed with snow... and school was canceled.

When school is canceled, there is no school Mass and therefore no bishop and no Mass intention! We called everyone and decided not to risk the icy roads for a Mass that would be like all the others offered later in the day, when the roads would be less treacherous; but the brunch would still happen at the arranged time. Then I called my pastor to ask him whether he might be able to help us somehow; he told me he would call me back. Meanwhile, my friends began to arrive at my house for brunch; then my pastor called to say that a priest would be saying Mass at the chapel of a local hospital at 11:30am, and he was willing to offer it for Father Giussani. We quickly fed the children pancakes, piled into our cars and raced to the hospital. By then, there were 11 of us (including children). The Mass was small, intimate, and simple.

What strikes me most about what happened today was how determined I was to see that the Mass should happen, and how flexible and patient and generous my friends were when the plans changed and changed again. It is a miracle that this Mass took place and that we were present and able to celebrate it together -- a miracle that needed the cooperation and generosity of many people. I am in grateful awe that my pastor was willing to make the arrangements for us with so little notice, that the presiding priest was willing to help us, and that the people who came to the Mass were willing to tolerate bad driving conditions and a lot of general uncertainty in order to be together and present for this beautiful moment of prayer.

Afterwards, we returned to my house to eat and to reflect together on our lives. We spoke about so many things. It was an exhausting day, and one I will treasure in my heart.

Veni Sancte Spiritus, Veni per Mariam!

Wednesday, February 20, 2008


I just returned from the GS winter vacation. GS is the high school arm of Communion and Liberation, and it is the place where the charism of Father Giussani first made itself felt and evident, when he began to teach high school in 1954.
Participating in GS allows me to come closer to the charism of this movement than during any other thing that I do in CL. The presence of Christ is most palpable at the vacations and in the school of community with the kids. So, I find myself asking, "Why?"

What is most remarkable to me is the sacrifice, or total gift of self, made by Chris Bacich and the other adults who lead GS. A lot of the ordinary sacrifices are easy to identify: the sacrifice of sleep, comfort, time, effort. But none of these sacrifices would carry any persuasive force with me except that they are a part of a more global sacrifice that is difficult to name or describe. In any given moment, Chris and the other adults give their undiluted attention to the persons in front of them, particularly to the kids. This attention has several qualities. First, it is passionate, full of passionate questions: "What are you looking for?" "What do you want?" "What has happened to you?" These questions aren't repeated like slogans. Sometimes they are not even formulated in these words but are rather communicated in everything that is said and in the way that each person is looked at and recognized. The gift of self is also present in the way every activity, talk, and meeting is thought out and prepared. These things aren't planned out or strategized in any programmatic way. No one ever chooses something to set before the kids in order to elicit a particular response from them. That would be manipulation and abuse of power. No, what happens is simply that the adults work at preparing everything with intensity and passion, a passion for Christ and for the humanity of each of the kids, and then the adults dive into the games, or the singing, or the presentations, with the same passion and intensity that was present as they prepared. Everything that Chris does matters to him. Not only does everything he does matter, these things carry the weight of total meaning. And what give his life total meaning is something outside of him, something greater than he is, something present in his relationship with all of reality. Out of dedication to this "something," he gives all his attention to whatever or whomever is in front of him. And the same can be said of the other adults in GS. This work represent a sacrifice, not because it is work they wouldn't ordinarily want to do -- quite the opposite. This work, in service of another, is the only thing that gives life savor and joy.
And the kids come out and say things like, "You care more about my life than I do." They recognize that this "something" that the adults live for and give themselves to is in them, among them. Or rather, in us, among us all.
Even the hairs on your head are numbered.

In Search of Freedom

How many
times have
you said:

The most used and least known word
in the human vocabulary.


We are here, wide open, expecting to be able to go away with more clarity about what we are looking for, through having experienced it, because something of what we are looking for has happend to us. We know it's what we were looking for because it happens. But to expect it, and to recognize it when it happens, since we don't know what we're really talking about, what openness, what wide-openness is needed in each one of us! Being open to all the possibilities: this is the true attitude of man, which coincides, not with just any feeling, but with the category of possibility, the supreme characteristic of reason. In front of this question, nothing is more reasonable than this longing -- since we don't know what answers it and we are not the measure of what exists and what can happen --, of being open according to the entire category of possibility. We know it's not simple...It's not simple to be open, wide open, because... skepticism begins to take root in us and the measure begins to become our own. From the time when we were children, and had all our curiousity wide open, how often we now discover in ourselves the narrowing of that total openness! (from "What Are You Looking for?" Exercises of the university students of Communion and Liberation, Julian Carron, p. 5)

Friday, February 15, 2008

Who do you love?

Christ isn't present, with any certainty, in what we love and want; he's present in the one who loves us and wants us.

Another way to say this is Christ isn't necessarily present in what we would be willing to give our lives for; he's certainly present in whoever would give his or her life for us.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Three answers

1. “It is written:
One does not live on bread alone,
but on every word that comes forth
from the mouth of God.”

When I was a kid and would read today's Gospel, I thought Jesus was referring to scripture when he spoke of "every word that comes forth from the mouth of God." It always puzzled me that one could take literal nourishment from the Bible. But it occurred to me today that since the world, in all its particularity, was created through words that came forth from the mouth of God, that what Jesus is really saying is that the world, precisely as God has made it, is good enough for him. A stone is a stone and bread is bread -- each of these things are precisely what God intended them to be. The world and all it contains are knit together according to an order decided and executed by God. Reality is sacred; don't mess with it!

2. “Again it is written,
You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.

God has given us reason for a purpose. We must use it -- not bury it in the ground to hand it back to him when he returns. Reality, including the laws of gravity, all exist according to God's divine Law. To disregard this reality is to mock God's masterpiece. We are called to live in our circumstances, according to the givens of our environment. We can't ignore gravity; we must learn to respect it as a gift from God.

3. “Get away, Satan!
It is written:
The Lord, your God, shall you worship
and him alone shall you serve.

Just as we respect the world, in all its fine detail, exactly because it exists according to the words that come forth from the mouth of God, and just as we respect the laws of gravity because they were built into the world according to the magnificent order God spoke into the cosmos, so any grasp for power is a direct participation in the great lie that seeks to contravene the order of the universe. "Look up and count the stars, if you can," says God to Abraham. If you can!

After these three answers, the Gospel tells us that angels ministered to Jesus. Put these three answers in your hip pocket and in any circumstance, find which one applies and whip it out. It's the surest way to invite the angels.

Friday, February 8, 2008

The meaning of sacrifice

The sign of a life that goes forward in love for Christ, that is, that adheres to and participates in his companionship, is gladness. “I have told you these things so that my joy may be in you and your joy might be complete.” Christ said this a few hours before he died.
alone is the mother of sacrifice, because sacrifice is not reasonable if it is not attracted by the beauty of the truth. It is beauty—“the splendor of the truth”—which calls us to sacrifice.
- from How a Movement Is Born
Notes from a talk by Msgr Giussani at the international meeting of Communion and Liberation leaders in August 1989.

One of the actions promoted by GS as early as 1958 was charity in the area of the “Bassa milanese”. Every week, several hundred students went from Milan to its outskirts, called the “Bassa,” where the living conditions of many families were close to the poverty line and social life was practically non-existent. One afternoon a week, the students stayed there playing with the children and organizing, in accord with the local parish priests, periods of reading instruction and catechism. They also tried to help the families meet their needs.
“Life must be total sharing,” explains Fr Giussani, “but disattention, fear, love of comfort, obstacles in the environment, malice, all empty life of the value of charity.
To create a mentality of charity, the most humble and effective way is to begin to live some remnant of free time expressly, purposely as a sharing in the life of others. Commitment involving physical sacrifice, moreover, is essential for it to influence our mentality.”
The charitable proposal thus was and is the educative tool for bringing about this “conversion.”
- from Culture:
a test of experience, political action, ecumenism
on the CL website

  1. Be deeply rooted in love for the Kingdom of God, which happens not because of what you do, but through the offering of sacrifice. It is only the Cross that saves he world.
  2. May this make you calm and joyful in whatever task you are assigned. ...So, even if you work doesn't go as you had dreamed, accept it happily; feel the kingdom of God, Brazil and the destiny of GS much more in never being discouraged, in adapting yourselves to everything, than in any other ability.
  3. Just as you have to be faithful to our community and to the values and the directives given for your spiritual life and for educating your persons, so for the activity and behaviour with others and the environment the rule is a deep adaptation: Do not have any pretensions and don't pass a negative judgement on anything.
Be in love with the Lord who has chosen you to begin something that could be very fruitful for his Kingdom: and don't worry about anything except being there, obedient and willing.
Gratiam agimus propter magnam gloriam tuam (We give you thanks for your great glory).
And you, too, are a hem of that glory, not what you manage to do, but you yourselves, your offering.
- from
Fr Giussani's letters to the first four students of Gioventù Studentesca (Young Student) who left for Brazil. It was 1962.

  1. I have to tell you that you are making possible a great thing and a great dream.
  2. It is a sacrifice precisely because it is something great. And the sacrifice is the adaptation and the obedience. Jesus began to save the world by depending on Mary and Joseph, who certainly did not have the ideas of the kingdom of God that Jesus and his divine Father had.
  3. The balance in keeping faithful to our values must be first of all interior, and in what you do, before being a matter of what you expect of the others. Here go carefully, and don't…
Just be, and for the moment don't preach too much. This is only a practice-run. You have not gone there to change Brazil. You have gone there in order to begin a service. Have deep understanding and forbearance with the others.
- from Fr Giussani's letters to the first four students of Gioventù Studentesca (Young Student) who left for Brazil. It was 1962.

The "newness" brought about by the Holy Spirit through the Incarnation can be described as the forgiveness of sins; the Incarnate Son is the Redeemer of Man, and the Invisible Father revealed through the Incarnate Son is the "Father of mercies." Human insufficiency before the vocation to divine life (the religious sense) is further augmented by the poison of sin that has taken residence in the human heart. For Giussani, the human posture before the Mystery is thus that of the "blind beggar" before Christ. Spirituality is the cry for mercy. The gesture or act through which Christ restores reality to its original truth is "sacrifice," understood as a participation in the Cross. As a result of truth, fidelity to the truth about reality and the openness to Divine Trinitarian Life engraved in it always involve sacrifice. That is why there cannot be spirituality without asceticism, as Louis Bouyer insisted. This asceticism is thus not a denial of the goodness of creation and the world but the affirmation that the distortions brought about by sin are not the ultimate truth of the world. So powerful is the redeeming sacrifice of Christ that Giussani can say that what sin has brought about "doesn't exist," that the only reality is Christ, who is, through sacrifice, all in all. Awareness of this reality allowed Peter to declare his love for Jesus in spite of having betrayed him. This yes of Peter is paradigmatic for Christian spirituality in the thought of Giussani. Indeed, the sacrifice that makes it possible ensures that the "passion for humanity" that is characteristic of the Christian is not obscured or destroyed by sin. As such, this kind of asceticism is the greatest contribution the Christian can make for the good of the world. It is the highest form of charity. Christian spirituality thus understood is a sacrificial love for the world, seeing and living our life in Christ as the Original and Ultimate Truth of all that exists, by the power of the Spirit, to the glory of the Father.
- Lorenzo Albacete, in A Generative Thought, page 45-47

Positivity of Life and Memory
Milan, June 10, 2001
I wanted first of all to greet you, asking of you the charity to offer something, some of your toil, also for me. But it is obvious that this happens in the face of the other duty, which is even more true than having a particular that is in some way interesting for one’s own life. This other duty is that Christ has called us, and if we have said “Yes” to Him, we have said “Yes” to the meaning of the whole world. Imitating Christ means to imitate One who lived for love of the world.
In this sense we can and must say that our action–as a judgment on what happens or as sequela attempted by our frail will, out of the very trust God has made us experience with the decision to place ourselves in His sequela–our action (since the purpose of our every action is Christ) and any relationship we have must be tackled positively.
Positivity is the great law of those who have a reason for guidance or correction, but first and foremost, self-guidance and self-correction. To the extent that we live the memory of Christ, it becomes a door flung open, a window opened wide onto positivity.
And not least among the difficulties that we live is the fact of non-immediate peace of mind in all that we do, if this peace of mind is understood as generated by a feeling, dictated by temperament, lack of reflection, or presumptuousness.
On the contrary, positivity as the criterion of all that we do, this affirming everything starting from a positivity, normally–I say normally, at a certain point, at least for the times fixed by God–is a source of sacrifice, a source of pain; it is a rising up, a finding prepared before our eyes a future which, in its particulars, in any case, is hard. To grasp positivity in all that we do or see others doing, or that we know to be in the world, this positivity demands a great faith. A faith that is great—not faith as a wave welling up in our hearts, but faith in the most stringent or final sense of the word.
We shall return to these things; we shall certainly come back to these things we are saying today in the August Retreat, because this observation is fundamental. But in the meantime let’s remember that, since what I have said about faith is true, the question is seen better–better than by making technical examinations or comments obtained by our strength, by the strength of our eyes–through memory: it is memory as it is lived that makes us find all that is an answer to what you have posited as a problem.
-- from Notes on Memory, by Father Giussani

Monsignor Giussani: The greatest joy and greatest sacrifice in leading a people is in asking God sincerely and continually -- hence the Spirit and the Virgin -- for light for one's intelligence and ardent fire for one's charity given all the problems that arise in the heart of every man in face of events that the mystery of God allows, problems that appear in the heart and work of each one, in the place where he finds himself.
- from A Founder Speaks about Communion and Liberation, in ZENIT

The nature of a people can be understood from its work, from the value it ascribes to that work. For the meaning of the world is affirmed or denied not so much through words but through the offering of one's daily work, through the sacrifice made for the work of Another. This happens with the commitment of each one in that piece of reality that the circumstances propose every day, to manipulate and transform it, asking always to be active co-workers with Christ, sharing with Him the will of the Father who is in heaven. Building cathedrals-of stone or of people-is the most thrilling task there is for a Christian, as the great T.S. Eliot asserts in the dramatic perspective that affirms the alternative between good and evil or violence: "And if the Temple is to be cast down, we must first build the Temple."
- Giussani, on the CL website

The absence of obligation, joy, and that cheerful heart Paul extolled among the Corinthians are not just exterior traits or a superficial mask of contentment: we can make a sacrifice that costs us so much effort that it makes us weep. However, unltimately it can be done with a certain spontaneity. It can be done willingly, in short, as if it were the ineliminable urge to express something we want to express, with passion, like the expression of something that is worth living, and therefore, manifesting.
-- Giussani, Why the Church, p 100

Neither the apostles nor Christian tradition imposed this communion, this sharing of things; however, it remains the natural expression of the reality of the faith. It is not other than this personal tension, this profound spontaneity which characterizes communion.
This is the opposite of moralism, of the sacrifice conceived and made in the name of a formal sense of duty. This is the gift of self to God, the gift as the true fruit of a person's adherence to the great fact based on the recognized state of communion: sharing the same reason for living.
-- Giussani, Why the Church, p 101

From this ontological value of the company springs its moral value: it is the fruit of freedom. Its root is Christ's presence, but in its acknowledgment and consent it is the fruit of our freedom.
This hint gives rise to the moral formula that most intensely summarizes and best points out the praxis of our life.
“The greatest sacrifice is to give your life for an Other's work.” This phrase is analogous to what Christ said: “No one loves his friends as much as someone who gives his life for his friends.”3 But, even more deeply–as the whole of St. John's Gospel affirms–this phrase recalls Christ's own experience: He gives His life for the work of the Father.
- from The Greatest Sacrifice is to Give Your Life for Another's Work, Giussani

To give your life for an Other's work, if we are not to be abstract, means that everything we do, the whole of our life, is for the Movement. To say that what we do is done to give growth to the charism we have been given to share in is to say something that has a precise, historical reference point, its own chronology, its own physiognomy, something that can be described and even photographed; something that has names and surnames and, at the origin, one name and surname. If to give your life for an Other’s work doesn't indicate a name and surname then its historicity vanishes, its concreteness crumbles, and you no longer give your life for an Other's work, but you give your life for an interpretation of your own, for what you like, for your own profit, or for your own point of view.
To give your life for an Other’s work; this “other,” historically, phenomenally, as it appears, is a particular person; in the case of our Movement, for example, I am the one. As I say this, it is as if all that I am were to disappear (because the “Other” is Christ in His Church). A historic point of reference remains–the whole flow of words, the whole torrent of work that was born from that first moment in the Berchet High School.4
To lose sight of this point is to lose the temporal foundation of our unity, of the usefulness of our actions; it is like making cracks in a foundation.
- from The Greatest Sacrifice is to Give Your Life for Another's Work, Giussani

Off the wagon

How does being on or off the wagon apply to Lent, though?

It seems, from my little bit of research, that the temperance movement was animated and driven by a concept of the human person that is very different from the Catholic conception. The temperance movement sought to solve a social problem first of all through social pressure. Then, the intemperate stood up and took a public pledge (that made no mention of God) to overcome their socially unacceptable behavior through an effort of self-control. Finally, the temperance movement successfully lobbied for laws that would prohibit the sale of alcohol, in an attempt to control those who would not take the pledge and those who took it but couldn't keep to it. That these laws did not do what they were designed to do is not my point here.

The Church does not ask for any kind of pledge during Lent, she doesn't ask us to choose a socially unacceptable activity to give up as part of our Lenten observance (sin is out no matter what the season), she never suggests that we can overcome sin of any kind (including intemperance) through any effort of self-control, and she doesn't attempt to control her children through the use of a legal system.

Why underline these points? Because I think that the mentality of our culture still harbors the concept of the human person that gave birth to the temperance movement. I think that we, as Catholics, sometimes succumb to the idea that Lent is the time to reform our lives through an effort of will. I think that we view Lent as a test of our self-control. When we fail to keep our Lenten observances, we feel we've failed the test.

Maybe it's useful to fail this test, year after year, if only because it might teach us that we are powerless to control ourselves. Perhaps this repetitive failure might one day lead us to the truth -- that apart from Christ we can do nothing. "Apart from Christ" being the operative phrase in that sentence.

All our efforts to police ourselves are really a sly attempt to justify ourselves in front of the throne of God. What need does he have for our justification? Hasn't he already justified us simply by allowing us to continue to live in each moment? The gift of life is the sign that he approves of us, that he values us beyond any of our actions. What more justification do we need? In the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, who left the temple justified? The man who beat his breast and said, "Have mercy on me, a sinner." Do we really want to "succeed" at Lent? Why? What will our prayer be, then?

We depend on God for everything. If we are given the grace to want to give up something for Lent, let's receive this desire as a gift, not something that has its origin in us (as though we were giving the gift to God!) -- and not something for which we can determine the outcome, either. Success or failure in this endeavor are each gifts from a God who is constantly calling us to be who we are -- dependent, powerless, and in need. During Lent the Church invites us to recognize this fact of who we are in front of God. We are dust, but we must also remember that we are dust that has been formed and shaped in the hands of Another -- Another who breathed his breath into our souls, and gives us each breath of life as a gift. Let's keep asking him to show us the truth.

On the wagon

The American writer, Jack London, on a water-wagon

'On the wagon' was coined in the USA around the turn of the 20th century. The phrase began as 'on the water-cart', migrated to 'on the water-wagon' and finally to 'on the wagon'.

The late 19th century saw the emergence of several temperance organizations, notably The Anti-Saloon League, founded in 1893 and The Woman's Christian Temperance Union, founded in 1874. These followed on from the work of The Abstinence Society which had encouraged millions of men to 'take the pledge'. The Pledge wasn't just a vague intention to avoid drink; it was a specific and absolute promise never to drink again and was taken very seriously:

"I promise to abstain from all intoxicating drinks except used medicinally and by order of a medical man, and to discountenance the cause and practice of intemperance.

Water wagons were a commonplace sight in US cities at the time. They didn't carry drinking water but were used to damp down dusty streets during dry weather. Those who had vowed to give up drink and were tempted to lapse said that they would drink from the water-cart rather than take strong drink.

I took the above text from The Phrase Finder. During this season of fasting and abstinence, I thought it would be a good thing to explore the idea of being "on" the wagon and falling "off" the wagon.

My grandma, Lena, was very suspicious of the temperance movement and prohibition laws, all this despite the fact that her husband's drinking had a catastrophic effect of her own life. She owned and ran a bar before and after Prohibition (the first bar must have been a very modest affair because when she and her husband moved from South Wilmington, Illinois to Bulpitt, Illinois so that her husband could continue his work as a coal miner, the bar was loaded onto a truck and transported down to their new hometown), and brewed her own beer for family consumption. Her sense was that Prohibition had caused the Great Depression because the government was unable to collect taxes on alcohol. In fact, an article on Wikipedia offers some support for her claim: "The cost of enforcing Prohibition was high, and the lack of tax revenues on alcohol (some $500 million annually nationwide) affected government coffers" (link).

The article cited above also makes this interesting assertion: "Catholics and German-Americans were prohibition's main detractors..." Why would Catholics, who have such a strong tradition of abstention as a form of prayer, be hostile to the idea of temperance? I suspect it has something to do with our strong attachment to freedom. Each person chooses for himself what he will give up for Lent. Fast and abstinence are never imposed -- neither by law, nor by social sanction. No one is ever asked to pledge to undertake any particular penance or prayer discipline. Though social pressures do exist in particular communities, they are not encouraged by the Church.

The Church could impose rules and regulations on people. She could counsel that certain practices, behaviors and sins should lead to public denunciations and ostracization. She could issue a license, to be presented before admission to Mass, to all those who have confessed and renounced their sins and can prove that they remain on the wagon. She could do much to ensure that all those who call themselves Catholics would be pillars of their communities and moral exemplars. It would be good for her image. But she doesn't do it. Instead, she does nothing to remove the habitual public sinners, unreformed drunks, and even pedophiles from her midst. She merely gives gentle, quiet reminders that one must confess these sins before receiving holy communion -- but even here, it is possible (and it happens all the time) for unrepentant sinners to receive Christ in the Eucharist -- particularly if these sinners slip into the anonymous mass of a large assembly. The only control that the Church imposes on us is our own freedom. This makes it possible for those with a distorted or stunted conscience to take advantage of her repeatedly.

Why does she allow it? Why doesn't she protect herself from the humiliation and public disgrace of being used by those who have no respect for her? Because she has the most adequate and complete understanding of our humanity. And why shouldn't she? She has been taught by Christ himself. Christ is the one who was willing to enter the homes of sinners and to share meals with them. He ate with people who committed every kind of public sin, including the unrecognized (and unrepented!) sin of Pharisaism. He did not come to tear down the laws of the Pharisees in order to create a new and better system of laws. He came to embody and thus communicate God's law, which is the hidden order of everything -- the truth of everything -- and to invite anyone and everyone to "come and see."

Sunday, February 3, 2008

"This teaching is difficult..."

There are many teachings that seem difficult -- just as difficult for us as the idea of eating someone's flesh and drinking his blood must have seemed to the disciples who left Jesus after he told them that he is the Bread of Life. On the face of it, the disciples who left him were being reasonable, seeing by the little light they had to go by. If anyone were to say the same thing to us today, we'd think he was a crack pot. I mean, just choose the most morally consistent, wisest, most charitable person you know and imagine that person telling you that you have to eat his flesh and drink his blood. It's outrageous and it makes no sense. Particularly if you can really imagine that you've never heard of the Eucharist, never ever. What else could they think but that he was either expecting them to come at him with knives and forks -- or that he was playing around with them?

But Jesus wasn't the most morally consistent, wisest, most charitable person anyone's ever met -- at least, he wasn't only these things...he was more. No one at all would have stayed with him after his enigmatic words about eating him if they were only following him on the basis of his moral stature, wisdom, or charity.

The disciples who did stay with Jesus didn't understand him any better than the others. Did Peter say, "Oh, yeah, of course I got that -- Bread of Life? Yeah, we eat human flesh all the time..."? No, Peter didn't understand -- no one understood. So then why did he and the others stick with Jesus? Why didn't they just dismiss him as a nut job or someone who was toying with them?

Peter's answer is so simple and so brave and so remarkable: "Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God."

That question -- "To whom can we go?" -- haunts me. It is so full of humanity and helplessness. Nothing else, no one else, can give us what we need. It is the question of someone who has walked down other avenues, placed vain hopes in people or things that have failed him. Morality, wisdom, charity -- all these things fail us in the end. Peter didn't say, "Well, Lord, we haven't met anyone who is as upright as you, as wise as you, or as loving as you, so we'll stick with you." Because a person can be all those things, but when he starts talking crazy talk, you pick up and move on. Peter's answer is that Jesus is "the Holy One of God." And this makes all the difference. If someone really is the Holy One of God, he can even follow a course of action that you consider madness -- like willingly walking into a trap set by men who want to torture and kill him -- and when you quite reasonably counsel him against this insanity, he can call you Satan and tell you to take a long walk off a short pier -- and you'll be unable to tear yourself away from him.

What is this holiness of God that turns everything on its ear? It is this quality that I'm looking for and cannot live without. My life, with all its sadness, complexity, and confusion is there, in front of me, but this other quality runs through it, too. Like a thread of light, sometimes pulled so thin that it's barely perceptible and other times swelling so thick that it overpowers everything, this perplexing holiness will not be denied.

What are the words of everlasting Life? They are not primarily moral words, wise words, even words of love...they are the evidence of a Life that throbs beneath the surfaces of things and that generates the reasons for, the meaning of, all the inexplicable things we face. They are the words that knit us together in our mothers' wombs. They are the words that we repeat to one another, even when we make no sounds, when we live as one thing.

But I can't pretend to understand them. I'm at a loss, just like Peter was. I can't explain them to you. I can only invite you to come and see.

Please pray for my mother

My mother was first diagnosed with non-hodgkin lymphoma in early 1995. Since then she has had periods of hope, periods of anxiety, and periods of hell. Tomorrow she begins a new cycle of chemo. Chemotherapy is a terrible bet a person has to make -- gambling that it may save your life if you poison yourself with toxic chemicals. Please, all you champion pray-ers out there, send up your most fragrant incense for Judy, my mother.

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."