26 October 2013

Are We Fools?

NB. A little Vintage Fr. Philip ca. 2008 for your Sunday. . .

30th Sunday OT: Ex 22.20-26; 1 Thes 1.5-10; Matt 22.34-40
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Convento SS Domenico e Sisto, Roma

St. Paul, ever the romantic(!), writing in his first letter to the Corinthians, insists that “love is patient, love is kind. Love is not jealous, is not pompous; it is not inflated; it is not rude; it does not seek its own interest [. . .] but rather rejoices with the truth”(1 Cor 13). He goes on to write that love bears, believes, hopes and endures all things; and finally, he declares, as if he has never grieved a betrayal or lost his heart to passion: “Love never fails.” The romantic whispers, “Yes!” The cynic scoffs, “Bull.” The pragmatist asks, “Really? Never?” The Catholic exclaims, “Deo gratias! Thanks be to God!” Who needs for love to never fail more than he for whom Love is God? This is why Jesus teaches the Pharisees that the spiritual heart of the Law is: “You shall love the Lord, your God, will all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind [. . .] You shall your neighbor as yourself.” Listen to Paul again, “Our Lord is patient, He is kind. He is not jealous, is not pompous; He is not inflated; He is not rude; He does not seek His own interest [. . .] but rather Our Lord rejoices with the truth.” Though Paul is writing to the Corinthians to show them how we must love one another—patiently, kindly, selflessly—we cannot, cannot love at all except that Love Himself loves us first. Therefore, with the Lord and because of the Lord, we love Him, one another; and we rejoice with His truth.

Now, that we must be commanded to love says everything that needs to be said about the weaknesses of the human heart, soul, and mind. That we must be commanded to love tells us that we do not eagerly enthrone love in the center of our being, making all we do the children of charity. That we must be commanded to love tells us that we do not love as a way of giving thanks for our very existence, for the gift of being alive. That we must be commanded to love tells us that we do not reason with the grace of God’s wisdom, with the deliberative power granted to us as creatures created in His divine image. That we must be commanded to love tells us that we are not God but rather creatures imperfect without God, longing for God, grieving our loss yet yearning for the peace and truth of His Being-with-us.

Think for a moment of the ways we have struggled in our past to find some small portion of peace and truth. Moses returns from Mt. Sinai to find his people giving themselves over to the idols of their former masters in slavery. Paul admonishes the Corinthians for turning to “worldly philosophies” for their much-needed wisdom. He lashes them for rutting indiscriminately in the flesh, surrendering body and soul to disordered passion and vice. Jesus teaches against the legalistic blindness of the Pharisees; he calls them “white washed tombs,” beautifully, lawfully clean on the outside but stuffed with rotted meat on the inside. In our long past we have turned to idols, pagan philosophies, debauchery and license, and taken an easy refuge in the dots and tittles of the law. Each of these reach for the peace and truth we long for, but none grasp the love we need.

Think for a moment of the ways you yourself have struggled in your past and struggle even now to find some small portion of peace and truth. Do you look to the idols of power, wealth, possessions, or Self to find your purpose? Do you scratch your itchy ears with the wisdom of the world? With the profound systems of material science, the occult mysteries of New Age gurus, the glittering gospels of prosperity and celebrity? Perhaps you search for and hope to find some peace in your body, your flesh and bones. Do you worship at Gold’s Gym, Kroger and Target, Blockbuster, or CVS, searching for peace in a perfectly sculpted body, a full belly, a house full of things, a visual distraction, or over-the-counter cures for the nausea and headache of a life that will not love God? Or, perhaps in this election season, you look to parties and politicians to give you hope and security. Do you look to the Democrats to give you the ease of a well-funded government entitlement? Or perhaps you look to the Republicans to secure your place near the top of the economic food-chain? Do you think Obama will give you hope? Or that McCain will give you security? When we reach down for higher things, we grasp the lowest of the low and in our disappointment we name the Lowest the Highest, and then, in our pride, we pretend to be at peace. To do otherwise is to confess that we are fools fooled by foolish hearts, that we are stubborn mules needing the bridle and bit.

And perhaps we are fools. Perhaps this is why Jesus finds it necessary to command us to love God and one another. Why command what we would and could do willingly? In Exodus our Lord must command that we not molest the foreigners among us. That we must care for the women who have lost their husbands and children who have no family. He must command us not to extort money from the poor or strip them of their modest possessions for our profit. We must be commanded not to kill one another, not to steal, not to violate our solemn oaths, not to worship alien gods. Why doesn’t it occur to us naturally to care for the weakest, the least among us? To help those who have little or nothing? Why must we be commanded not to destroy the gift of life, not to lie or extort, not to surrender our souls to the demonic and the dead? We must be commanded to love God, to hope in His promises, to trust in His providential care because in our foolish hearts we believe that we are God and that we have no other gods but ourselves.

Are we fools? Probably not entirely. But we are often foolish, often believing and behaving in ways that give lie to Paul’s declaration, “Love never fails.” God never fails, but we often do. When we make the creature the Creator, giving thanks and praise to the bounty of our own wisdom, we reach down for the higher things and convince ourselves that we have grasped truth. We do this when we believe that it is not only sometimes necessary but also good to murder the innocent; when we believe that it is right to murder the inconveniently expensive, those whom the Nazis called “useless eaters,” the sick, the elderly, the disabled. We reach down for higher truths when we create markets for housing in order to exploit for profit the homelessness of the poor. We are foolish when we raise impregnable borders around the gifts we have been given , gifts given to us so that we might witness freely to God’s abundance. We do foolish things because we believe we are God, and so, we must be commanded by Love Himself to love. But surely this is no hardship. Difficult, yes. But not impossible. With Love all things are possible.

What must we do? To love well we must first come to know and give thanks to Love Himself. He loved us first, so He must be our First Love. Second, we must hold as inviolable the truth that we cannot love Love Himself if we fail to love one another. Third, love must be the first filter through which we see, hear, think, feel, speak, and act. No other philosophy or ideology comes before Love Himself. This mean obeying (listening to and complying with) His commandments and doing now all the things that Christ did then. Fourth, after placing God as our first filter, we must surrender to Love’s providential care, meaning we must sacrifice (make holy by giving over) our prideful need to control, direct, order our lives according to the world’s priorities. Wealth and power do not mark success. Celebrity does not mark prestige. “Having everything my way” does not mark freedom. Last, we must grow in holiness by becoming Christ—frequent attention to the sacraments, private prayer and fasting, lectio divina, strengthening our hearts with charitable works, sharpening our minds with beauty and truth in art, music, poetry, and while being painfully, painfully aware of how far we can fall from the perfection of Christ, knowing that we are absolutely free to try again and again and again.

Though we often fail love, Love never fails us. Remember: who needs for love to never fail more than he for whom Love is God?

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Blogging's been light this week, I know.

Several seminary-related duties converged simultaneously this week: individual preaching tutorials; formation advisee meetings; homilist at NDS Mass; helping out at St Dominic's. . .

AND I choose this week to get a cold. Over it now.

Today is more or less a Free Day: run to WalMart; lunch with fra. David (if he's awake before noon!); and the rest of the day reading: got some nifty books in the mail yesterday and Friday. Thank God for kind and generous Book Benefactors. . .who are always on my personal intention prayer list, btw.  :-)

Speaking of books. . .I'd like to hear what HA Readers think of Amazon Prime and Amazon VISA.

Are they worth the price of admission? 
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23 October 2013

Catholic Theological Society confesses leftist bias

NB. I am pleasantly surprised (really surprised!) to see this report. The Catholic Theological Society of America is publicly confessing to its anti-conservative bias.  My long experience with academic bodies like the CTSA tells me that ideological blindness is a permanent condition. Somewhere along the line, someone at the CTSA must've been healed of this particular malady.

II. Observations/Problems

A. Many CTSA sessions, both plenary and concurrent, include jokes and snide remarks about, or disrespectful references to, bishops, the Vatican, the magisterium, etc. These predictably elicit derisive laughter from a part of the audience.

B. Many CTSA members employ demeaning references. For example, the phrase “thinking Catholics” is sometimes used to mean liberals. The phrase “people who would take us backwards” is sometimes used to mean conservatives.

C. Resolutions are a significant problem because an individual member can bring to the floor of the business meeting a divisive issue that not only consumes important time and energy but exacerbates the ideological differences that exist among theologians, typically leaving conservatives feeling not only marginalized but unwelcome. (CTSA members who have trouble understanding this as a problem might ask how they would feel if they were part of a professional society that passed resolutions criticizing a theologian they hold in high regard or endorsing views they reject.)

D. In recent decades, conservative theologians have only rarely been invited to be plenary speakers and respondents.

E. In CTSA elections, there is a general unwillingness of many members to vote for a conservative theologian. Scholarly credentials seem often outweighed by voters’ partisan commitments.

F. Some conservative theologians have experienced the feeling that a number of other members “wish I wouldn’t come back” to the CTSA.

G. In sum, the self-conception of many members that the CTSA is open to all Catholic theologians is faulty and self-deceptive. As one of our members put it,the CTSA is a group of liberal theologians and “this permeates virtually everything.” Because the CTSA does not aspire to be a partisan group, both attitudes and practices will have to shift if the CTSA is to become the place where all perspectives within Catholic theology in North America are welcome.

The whole report is available here.

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22 October 2013

Living a Life of Departure

Blessed John Paul II
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Notre Dame Seminary, NOLA

Two weeks before petitions for solemn vows were due and two months before my class was scheduled to take solemn vows, I find myself sitting in the student master's office for yet another Come to Jesus talk. These talks had become a regular feature of my three years of studium formation; and this time, Fr. Michael, the Student Master, was really not happy with me. After six semesters, three summers, and countless dinner table conversations, you'd think that by now he would've been used to my peculiar sense of humor. But looking across at his pinched face and gritted teeth, I could tell that his training as a tax attorney and Patristics scholar had done nothing to prepare him to deal the weirdnesses of an over-educated 38 year old redneck-convert from Episcopaganism. I knew before he spoke a word what the topic of this exhortation would be: my complete lack of docility. I was unprepared to embrace the life of departure that every Dominican friar must be willing to live. In other words, I would not gird my loins nor would I light my lamp. The master would return from the wedding and find me sound asleep, snoring loudly.

What is a life of departure*? What does it have to do with remaining ready for the master's return? A life of departure is a life lived in constant readiness to move, a sort of perpetual vigilance against getting too settled in, too snug and comfy with who we are and where we are serving. As itinerant friars, Dominicans live lives of departure quite literally. I've been professed for 13 yrs and I've lived in five provinces, three countries, and nine or ten cities here and abroad. In one academic year, I logged almost 60,000 miles of air travel! That's Dominican life. But what would a life of departure look like for the laity, or for diocesan clergy? Notice the tension in our gospel story. The servants are girded. Lamps are lit. They wait for the knock on the door. Even though they aren't doing much, they are wound up to spring into action when called. Just being ready, always ready to answer God's call is holy work. Being ready to snap into sweat-inducing labor at a moment's notice means that we cannot rest too long or too soundly; we cannot dig down our roots too deep; we cannot let yesterday's work haunt us nor tomorrow's work worry us. Whatever comes next when God calls is what we are charged with doing. A life of departure is a life lived right at the edge of expectation, right at the brink of just letting go of everything for the love of Christ.

In fact, a life of departure is a life lived by just letting go of everything—everyTHING—for the love of Christ. For the sake of his name, and in his name, to be constantly ready to jump at his Word, we let go of our long-range plans; our packed schedules; our assessments of failure and success; our competitive comparisons with peers. We cannot properly gird ourselves or light the lamps if our hands are busy with the work we think is vital. Now, of course, we need plans, schedules, assessments, etc., but they cannot be allowed to become the measure of our availability to serve. Patience, perseverance, docility—all of these are not only better measures of service, they are also better tools for serving the Master. A life of departure, a life of constant service is a life lived in the eternal shade of God's wisdom. Who can honestly say, “I know it all already”? Or even worse, “I know enough to get the job done.” Knowing is not serving. And knowing just enough and no more rewards ignorance. To serve—in Christ's name—means letting go of what we think we know, and being ready—always ready—to be moved by divine wisdom from the comfy pretense of Knowing All to the hard reality of Loving Others. 
As servants, we wait upon the return of our master. Loins girded. Lamps lit. When he returns, he will serve us. And from his service, we will learn what it is to die. . .to die for love of him.

*I borrowed this phrase from Hans Urs Von Balthasar.

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21 October 2013

Catholic Priesthood ca. 1964 (ft. Dominicans!)

One of my preaching students at NDS brought this vid to my attention. . .

1964! Ah, a good year. . .

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20 October 2013

With the stubbornness of a rented mule

29th Sunday OT

Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

St Dominic/Our Lady of the Rosary, NOLA

Pray always. Pray always without ceasing. Pray always without ceasing, AND do not grow weary. Is there anything we can do always and without ceasing that doesn't make us grow weary? Even those things that we love to do will eventually grind us down, exhaust our reserves, and cause us to crash and burn, so why should prayer be any different? Why wouldn't a ceaseless conversation with God wear us out? The intense focus required: brow creasing, eyes squinting, lips running. Your mind flipping through catalog after catalog of petitions, names, causes, needs, and wants. Memory stoking conscious thought with prayerful fuel: pious phrases; exhortations; the names of interceding saints; useful titles for Mary and the angels. Fingers counting out beads, or shuffling through stacks of holy cards; eyes picking out the details of a statue, a station, or a crucifix. Bowing, kneeling, standing, maybe even crawling, only to stand again and genuflect. Why doesn't a ceaseless conversation with God wear us out? Maybe it should. But it doesn't. Perseverance in prayer—always, without ceasing—cannot weary us b/c prayer is our direct line to the source and summit, the center and ground of our very being: God who is Love Himself. 

Pray always, without ceasing and do not grow weary. Be persistent, persevering in prayer. That sounds good. It sounds like the sort of advice we want to hear from the pulpit. We want to hear our preachers exhort us to be persistent, to be persevering, but let's be frank with one another. Words like “persistent” and “perseverance” are just the polite substitutes we use to disguise a vulgar truth: a successful prayer-life requires a bull-headed stubbornness. I mean something akin to the sort of stubbornness that we expect from a rented mule*; or the iron will of a two year old refusing her nap time. We're talking about a level of determination and dedication that would make an Olympic gold-medalist blush with shame at his own laziness. If you will live a life in God's blessing, weariness is not an option. Why not? B/c the stakes are too high. B/c the costs of laxity are too great. Consider: prayer does nothing to change the mind of God. Prayer changes the pray-er. If we cannot or will not recognize the blessings that God has poured out for us, it's likely b/c we have failed to be stubborn enough in using prayer to open our eyes to see. His gifts never stop coming; they never cease flowing. If we will to see and receive His gifts, our prayer can never cease. Gratitude must always be on our lips. 

The Catechism teaches us: “Prayer is both a gift of grace and a determined response on our part. It always presupposes effort [b/c] prayer is a battle. Against whom? Against ourselves and against the wiles of the tempter. . .” (2725). Prayer would be a burden if it were not a gift. But b/c it is a gift, it is not only not a burden but a necessary weapon, a weapon against temptation and our own obstinate disobedience. As we daily receive the gift of prayer and use it stubbornly, our disobedience is muted; the chains of sin are loosened; and find ourselves freer and freer to pursue the holiness we were created to pursue. The CCC says, “We pray as we live, because we live as we pray. . .The 'spiritual battle' of the Christian's new life is inseparable from the battle of prayer” (2725). Don't balk at the image of the Christian life as a battle, or the idea that prayer is a weapon in that battle. We are in a fight—don't doubt it—a fight against ourselves, the world, and the Enemy of Life itself. That direct line to the source and summit, the center and ground of our being—Love Himself—feeds and nurtures us in this fight. To let it go, to surrender this life-line to our Strength is dangerous; I daresay, suicidal. In the middle of a fight for your life, your eternal life, you do not abandon your only means of victory.

Writing to his disciple, Timothy, Paul urges, “Remain faithful to what you have learned and believed. . .I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus. . .proclaim the word; be persistent. . .” Remain faithful; be persistent. Why this focus on endurance, tenacity? Aren't we called as Christians to be tolerant and flexible? Aren't we supposed to be willing to compromise in conflict? That's what “love your neighbor” is all about, right? I mean, how do we love others and at the same time remain faithful to what we have learned, if what we have learned conflicts with Christ's command to love? When we love our neighbors, we participate in Love who is God Himself. He is also Truth and Goodness, so we can only love in the presence of the True and the Good. Paul's admonition to remain faithful and to persist in the Truth is a warning to us not to forget that we are vowed to proclaim the Word, the Word who became flesh and bone and died for us. We can only fulfill our vow if we stubbornly refuse to surrender our direct line to Love Himself, only if we tenaciously guard against the temptation to compromise what we have learned and believe. 

How do we keep the weapon of prayer honed and well-oiled? By using it, daily using the gift. What happens when we become distracted in prayer? Those aren't distractions you're experiencing. That's the Holy Spirit showing you who and what needs prayer. What about those dry periods when it appears that God isn't hearing us? He always hears us. Dryness comes when we aren't listening. The surest way of ending a dry-spell is to turn your prayer to gratitude. Gratitude grows humility and humility unplugs the ears. What about finding the time to pray? If you are still breathing, there's time to pray. Talk to God about washing the dishes; driving the kids to school; paying the bills; cooking dinner; mowing the yard. Keep a running conversation going about whatever it is you're doing. What if we grow weary of prayer? Ask yourself: am I tired of being loved? Am I exhausted by being forgiven? If you grow weary of prayer, then tell God that you are weary and give Him thanks for being alive to feel weary! If all you have to say to God is “O Lord! I am so weary!” then say that. Say it until you're no longer weary and then give Him thanks for the gift of being able to tell Him so.

I urged you earlier not to doubt that your life as a Christian is a battle and not to forget that prayer is your greatest weapon. Let me add: prayer is not a technique or a method. It takes no special training, no weekend seminar, or bookshelf full of How-To guides. You don't need to learn how to pray b/c God taught you to pray the moment you were conceived. He engraved into each one of us an indelible desire to seek Him out and live Him forever. In other words, in the great game of life, God made the first move and He continues to make the first move with every breath we take. If we're to be stubborn in prayer, then all we need to do is make each and every breath an exhalation of thanksgiving and praise. Breath in His gifts, breath out our gratitude. If you grow weary of prayer, then I must ask: have you grown weary of breathing? We live, move, have our being in the enduring presence of Love Himself. Prayer is no more difficult than seeing, hearing, touching, feeling His presence as we live and move. Stubbornly refuse then to be moved from His loving-care and just as stubbornly give Him constant thanks. 

*I was asked by a City Boy last night after Mass why a rented mule would be considered particularly stubborn. The idea came from the saying, "They work me like a rented mule," meaning, they worked me hard b/c they do not own me and will therefore not lose anything of value if I were to die while working. A rented mule would be especially stubborn b/c he is usually worked too hard.

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