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Tag Archive: Church

On the Satisfaction of Devotion

Posted: Monday, June 25, 2012 (11:43 pm), by John W Gillis


A friendly hand fell lightly upon my shoulder one January morning several years ago, as I was spending a few extra minutes before the tabernacle, after finishing Morning Prayer. I was running behind schedule that day, but since at least the beginning of the new school year, my old friend had also apparently been coming to the church quite a bit later than she used to, because it seemed to have been the better part of a year since we’d seen each other. I’d wondered about her now and again over the previous few months – wondering if her health were intact, even wondering if she had passed on to heavenly glory while I’d been away over the summer…

I would go into the church to pray most mornings after dropping my girls off at the neighboring parish school, and my friend used to be there almost every morning, in very early anticipation of the 9:00 daily Mass. Usually, she’d come in after me – into the side room where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved – walking with short but determined steps, to stand before the tabernacle: head bowed, right hand extended above her shoulder to gently touch the face of the ark, paying homage to her Lord. But she would never fail to stop and greet me with a friendly smile and a twinkling eye on her way by – unless she’d gotten there before me, in which case she would wave to me energetically from her pew in the middle of the nave, if she saw me come in.

My favorite days were those times I was late, and she didn’t notice me come in. On those days, thinking she was all alone in the church, she would sometimes break out into song, lifting her shaky voice loudly to heaven in obvious gratitude for all the love, grace, and kindness she has been blessed to experience in her life.

And I’d think: if only I could pray like that… On those special mornings, I’d always be sure to catch her eye and give her a big smile on my way out.

The reason I was taking my time that morning was to read a bit from the writings of Saint Francis de Sales, whose feast day it was. In the second section of Part One of “Introduction the the Devout Life”we read:

[T]he world vilifies holy devotion as much as it can. It pictures devout persons as having discontented, gloomy, sullen faces, and claims that devotion brings on depression and unbearable moods. But just as Joshua and Caleb held both that the promised land was good and beautiful, and that its possession would be sweet and agreeable (c.f. Num 13.33-34), so too the Holy Spirit, by the mouths of all the saints, and our Lord by his own mouth (c.f. Mt 11.28-30), assure us that a devout life is a life that is sweet, happy, and lovable.

In our day, no less than in Francis’, the devout are popularly portrayed as somehow missing out on the fun, but the devotion of this old woman clearly reveals a deep satisfaction with the substance of her life – warts and all – which is nurtured in her routine, morning after morning. As she turned from the tabernacle that morning to walk back into the nave, my friend stopped to stoop down and pick up a stick match off the floor. Then she spotted another one next to where I was sitting, and she picked that up as well. She muttered some kind of guess as to how they might have ended up on the rug, then she said: “Now, we can’t have the church burning down, can we? We need it.”

It struck me immediately just how right she was, although earlier in my life, I wouldn’t have really understood her. I recall thinking at the time about the various pockets of local people occupying churches in protest against pastoral decisions to close them, and although I certainly think these folks were missing pretty much the whole point of “church” in their stubborn protestations, I think many of them were also genuinely afraid of losing something precious – not nearly as precious as the salvific fellowship of being joined to the Body of Christ, but precious nonetheless. It’s more than memories. Churches are places where our faith is transformed from the lonely struggle to be personally open to God, into the victorious unity of the communion that actually is itself our promised glorious future in nascent form.

Church is the place where – even more so than anywhere else – we can never be truly alone. Even when we think we’re all alone in a church, warbling at the top of our lungs, there is somebody appreciative standing before the Lord in rapt attention, with a big smile on his face, listening to us. Where else can we experience life like this, in our drive-thru world of screen names and Social Security numbers? Where else can we divest ourselves of the cloud of anonymous networked resources and information streams, to bask in the familiar, quiet strength of the great cloud of witnesses, and the musty, sensual reminders of generations that sacrificed faithfully that we might be here to remember? It’s tempting to consider ourselves too spiritual to really need church buildings, to live like spiritual nomads who can be home wherever our feet take us, but we are a cultivating people at heart, and churches are where Christian community – and a satisfaction known only to shared devotion – is cultivated.

I more or less stopped making that morning drive to the neighboring parish school a couple years ago, when school carpools and other scheduling disruptions changed the substance of the household morning routine. But as my youngest daughter was completing her last days at the school a couple weeks ago, I wanted to circle back and close the loop, so to speak, regarding the heritage of prayerful encounter I’d had the privilege to experience before the tabernacle, morning after morning, for more than seven years. And I wanted to see my sweet, happy, and lovable friend one last time, to say good-bye. So I created opportunities to attend a couple of the 9:00 Masses over there in hopes of seeing her, and I made a point to drive over on the final morning of classes to recite Lauds before the tabernacle one last time, but I never saw my friend.

I don’t know where she is now, but I’m sure she’s singing still. Her devotion was her vow to radiate joy in the world through a life of genuine gratitude for whatever it was that constituted her daily bread, and I am profoundly grateful for the satisfaction of having shared in that joy in some small way, as, each in our own way, we shared that prayer space together before the Lord, day after day.

We have the duty and joy of sharing in this prayer whenever possible

Posted: Sunday, May 29, 2011 (5:02 pm), by John W Gillis


Quote of the Day for Sunday, May 29th, 2011:

Taken from the website of an Anglican priest in New Zealand, Bosco Peters, on the proper place of the Liturgy of the Hours in the prayer life of the life of the Christian believer:

Many who pray the Daily Office have a personal Rule of Life, or even an expectation or vows that require that regular discipline. These can often end up feeling guilty when a particular Hour has not been prayed by them. Some, in fact, will then try to "catch up" what they have missed – even gluing a number of Hours together and praying them one after the other. This comes out of an individualistic interpretation of Christianity whereby individuals join the church for mutual support of individual spiritual growth. The Liturgy of the Hours seen as the Prayer of the Church, and the spirituality that goes with this approach, flips this on its head.

The Church as Christ’s Body, in that perspective, exists prior to individuals joining it, and individuals become Christians precisely through their incorporation into this community (primarily through baptism). The Liturgy of the Hours, as the Prayer of the Church, and essentially the prayer of Christ (the whole Christ – head and members) is ongoing, and we have the duty and joy of sharing in this prayer whenever possible. When we miss the prayer we can be conscious that the prayer goes on – we do not catch up with it, rather we pick it up again when we can.

Peters makes a great point about how the Liturgy of the Hours should act as a kind of school for understanding the ecclesiology of the Church’s life of prayer. I must admit that I have sometimes done the exact thing he speaks of here, worrying about “catching up” Offices I may have missed. Such an attitude completely misses the point of liturgical prayer. It is the Church who prays – even Christ as Head of the Church – and we believers are invited into that perfect faithfulness as participants in something that totally transcends our own feeble acts, whether pious or impious. Our modernistic mindset resists that wisdom, but the entire enterprise of Christianity is rooted in a self-renouncing, participatory salvation through Christ’s perfect worship of the Father. That is a truth at once humbling and exhilarating.

Christ reigns by unfolding Himself in men

Posted: Monday, January 31, 2011 (11:47 pm), by John W Gillis


Quote of the Day for Monday, January 31st, 2011:

A. G. Sertillanges, from his venerable book The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods:

Christianized humanity is made up of various personalities, no one of which can refuse to function without impoverishing the group and without depriving the eternal Christ of a part of his Kingdom. Christ reigns by unfolding Himself in men. Every life of one of His members is a characteristic moment of His duration; every individual man and Christian is an instance, incommunicable, unique, and therefore necessary, of the extension of the “spiritual body.” If you are designated as a light bearer, do not go and hide under the bushel the gleam or the flame expected from you in the house of the Father of all. Love truth and its fruits of life, for yourself and for others; devote to study and to the profitable use of study the best part of your time and your heart.

I’m just beginning this book, and hoping to get through it this week. Next week I begin the fourth course (Metaphysics) in my Franciscan University program. No small part of my reasoning for entering that program was to subject my thinking life to a guided discipline for the sake of deepening it through focus – as Sertillanges points out, a stream bounded by  narrow banks flows more impetuously – and this guide looks as if it might provide the knowledge of precisely the corrective I need at this point to tame my tendency to skim too lightly over the demands of systematic study, while relying too heavily on my (fading) abilities of recall. That’s long-hand for laziness.

A man’s self-revelation can only be realized in a sustained submission to the truth for its own sake, which is nothing more or less than an openness to God. But Sertillanges is here going a step further, in positioning the vocation to the pursuit of truth as being one of service, which echoes the point being made about the Church’s sacramental vocation by the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews in today’s first reading in the Mass:

Yet all these [Old Testament saints], though approved because of their faith, did not receive what had been promised. God had foreseen something better for us, so that without us they should not be made perfect. Hebrews 11:39-40 (NAB)

God Did Not Make Us to Remain Within the Limits of Nature

Posted: Sunday, January 2, 2011 (11:58 pm), by John W Gillis


Quote of the Day for January 2nd, 2011:

Henri De Lubac, writing on the nature of the Church, in The Splendor of the Church, p. 237 in the 1999 Ignatius edition:

God did not make us “to remain within the limits of nature” or for the fulfilling of a solitary destiny; on the contrary, he made us to be brought together into the heart of the life of the Trinity. Christ offered himself in sacrifice so that we might be one in that unity of the divine Persons (Jn 17:19-23). That is to be the “recapitulation”, “regeneration”, and “consummation” of all things, and anything outside that which exerts a pull over us is a thing of deception (Jn 17:23; 1Cor 15:28). But there is a place where this gathering  together of all things in the Trinity begins in this world; “a family of God”, a mysterious extension of the Trinity in time, which not only prepares us for this life of union and gives us a sure guarantee of it (Eph 2:19; 1Tim 3:15; 1Pet 4:17), but also makes us participate in it already.

As the new year begins in the waning of the Christmas season, it is good to recall just what the Incarnation was willed by God to effect: the “consummation” of all things in the very life of God. And it is equally important to recall that it is through the agency of the Church that this transformation – this “theosis,” or divinization of created man – is willed by God to be effected in history. Let that mind-boggling truth be a daily reflection for the new year…

Because Being a Christian is Eternal Being and Eternal Youth

Posted: Saturday, November 27, 2010 (8:52 pm), by John W Gillis


Quote of the Day for Saturday, November 27th, 2010:

Hans Urs von Balthasar on Saint Francis and the transcending power of holiness over-against a stifling traditionalism, in Razing the Bastions (1952), from a translation published by Ignatius in 1993 (p.32):

The true peaks rise as the distance grows; we must take care not to consider our own age as an age without salvation or saints. Everything depends on that awareness that we have of our Christianity. For Francis, to be a Christian was something just as immense, certain and startlingly glorious as to be a human being, a youth, a man. And because being a Christian is eternal being and eternal youth, without danger of withering and resignation, his immediate joy was deeper. Not one single year separated him from Christ, the one who had become flesh; from the manger; from the Cross. For him, not one speck of dust had settled on the freshness of the wonder in the passage of time. The hodie of the liturgy on the great feasts was the hodie of his life. Is there a saint who has had any other Christian consciousness of time?

This is a powerful little book (103 pgs.) that is taking me a long time to read, because I am stopping on almost every page to dwell on something Balthasar says.

To really encounter and embrace the eternity that characterizes the life of Christ we share in as Christians is both bracing and mesmerizing. The unity of the Church across time and space, while it may be readily available to consciousness during Eucharistic worship, is otherwise all too easy to lose sight of in the daily hub-bub.

But with the liturgical year ending today, and the new year beginning this evening, it strikes me that this sense of connectedness can can also be facilitated by even petty traditions. Tomorrow being the 1st Sunday of Advent, the afternoon will be time to pull down the seasonal decorations from the garage, and go through the annual process of setting the house up for Advent. It’s a small thing, and it can get corny, but it serves as an opening both for the kids – and us – to reconnect with our own shared past, and for all of us to share in the drama of waiting and preparation that the Church has practiced for two millennia.

It may not be the kind of transcendent presence to Christ that Balthasar ascribed to Francis, but it’s a start. I suspect Francis would appreciate our poverty.

One Complex Reality

Posted: Sunday, November 21, 2010 (6:00 am), by John W Gillis


Quote of the Day, from Lumen Gentium, #8 (The Second Vatican Council: Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, promulgated Nov. 21, 1964)

[T]he [ecclesial] society structured with hierarchical organs and the Mystical Body of Christ, are not to be considered as two realities, nor are the visible assembly and the spiritual community, nor the earthly Church and the Church enriched with heavenly things; rather they form one complex reality which coalesces from a divine and a human element. For this reason, by no weak analogy, [the Church] is compared to the mystery of the incarnate Word. As the assumed nature, inseparably united to Him, serves the divine Word as a living organ of salvation, so, in a similar way, does the visible social structure of the Church serve the Spirit of Christ, who vivifies it, in the building up of the body. This is the one Church of Christ which in the Creed is professed as one, holy, catholic and apostolic[.]

 

ΑΩ

I am the light of the world (Jn 8:12).

As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world (Jn 9:5).

I am with you always, to the end of the world (Mt 28:20).

You are the light of the world (Mt 5:14).

He who hears you hears me (Lk 10:16).

woman&infant

Benedict XVI on Condoms & Gigolos

Posted: Saturday, November 20, 2010 (4:08 pm), by John W Gillis


Benedict XVI, quoted on the possible justification of condom use in an upcoming book by German journalist Peter Seewald: "Light of the World: The Pope, The Church and The Signs Of The Times," as excerpted in today’s L’Osservatore Romano:

“There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility.”

Boy, is this likely to grow legs! The AP has the story, and the Boston Globe is spinning it with the headline: “Pope: condoms can be justified in some cases”.

No doubt, this comment will be welcomed by many on the left as a kind of Trojan Horse (couldn’t resist!) introducing contraceptive mentality into the Church’s moral reasoning, beginning with an interpretation that asserts the comment “condones” condom use in some situations. But by the same logic, we could also say that the pope is condoning male prostitution, at least in some circumstances.

Of course, neither claim would be true. What Benedict said is not very remarkable at all. He is merely indicating that evil comes in degrees of complexity, and one may find the path toward the good entails several steps of reasonable yet still deeply flawed standing, before reaching something that could be identified as an objective moral good.

BenedictXVI kids This may appear to be an acceptance of the concept of embracing a lesser evil, but it really proposes just the opposite: the embrace of a lesser good. There is an important distinction in the subjective sphere between choosing a recognized evil – no matter how “lesser” – and choosing to mitigate evil, even according to a consequentialist calculus. Nonetheless, the limits of subjective understanding do not provide a license for suppressing the reflective critique of objective reality, especially in the realm of moral truth. The contraceptive use of condoms is still objectively immoral, as is prostitution – male or otherwise.

Despite what folks are bound to encounter ad nauseum in the mainstream press over the coming days (not to mention from the dissident wing within Catholicism), Church teaching has not changed. One can always hold out hope that the coming kerfuffle will prove to be an occasion for many to come to see the Church’s moral doctrine to be not so much a set of prohibitions as a guide to genuine personal and communal fulfillment, both now and forever.

For a perspective on Benedict’s teaching on condoms in Africa commendably lacking in hysterical short-sightedness, see medical anthropologist Edward C. Green’s much-discussed WaPo article from March 2009.

Walking on Water

Posted: Sunday, August 10, 2008 (2:10 am), by John W Gillis


I love the readings for this week. The Gospel reading is one of those stories that even unbelievers are familiar with – Jesus walking on the water. It has become a cultural reference, and the phrase “he walks on water” has come to have an immediately identifiable meaning. The Gospel story, for its part, is taken as evidence of (or at least a claim for) the Divinity of Christ.

But, interestingly, in this Matthean version, unlike the parallel in Mark, Peter also walks on water, if only briefly. This suggests some magnificent things about the Church, much like some of the other miracle stories: about how the Church is invited to participate in the transformative power that God reveals in Christ. But the wind caused Peter to become frightened.

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
1Kgs 19.9a,11-13; Rom 9.1-5; Mt 14.22-33

He said, “Come.” Peter got out of the boat and began to walk on the water toward Jesus. But when he saw how (strong) the wind was he became frightened; and, beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!”
Matthew 14:29-30 (NAB)

The wind (Gk anemos) is never something good to encounter in the New Testament (the “roaring like a wind” at Pentecost is a different word in the Greek). Whether frightening the disciples at different times on the lake (c.f Mt 8.23-27), driving Paul and his captors toward shipwreck (c.f. Acts 27.14ff), representing the dangers of clever heresy in every wind of doctrine (Eph 4.14, c.f. the reference to John the Baptist not being a reed shaken by the wind in Lk 7.24), or acting as the force that works to topple the houses built on the two foundations of rock and sand (Mt 7.24-27), the wind seems to encompass all those forces in life that press against us in so many directions, and would divert us from our goals – even our walk toward the Lord.

The thing that most fascinates me these days about this story is that Matthew, but not Mark, includes the subtext of Peter also walking on the water. This episode directly follows the miracle of the disciples feeding a “great throng” (Mt 14.14), including 5,000 men, with 5 loaves and 2 fish (Mt 14.15-21, Mk 6.35-44).

As I said, Mark doesn’t mention Peter’s escapade on the sea, and his ending of the pericope seems, at least on the surface, very different from Matthew’s. In Matthew: Those who were in the boat did him homage, saying, “Truly, you are the Son of God.” whereas in Mark: They were (completely) astounded. They had not understood the incident of the loaves. On the contrary, their hearts were hardened. (Mk 6.51b-52)

This appears contradictory, as if one writer is saying that the disciples really “got it,” while the other writer is saying that they really didn’t. But I think what Mark is saying in his ending is basically the same thing Matthew says in his Peter subtext.

The disciples were not prepared to accept that the power of God is intended to be manifest in the disciples themselves, as lowly and plain and ordinary as they were (and are). We see a similar truth expressed in the Elijah reading: God doesn’t come to the world in the earthquake (or in the wind), He comes in the humble, the lowly, the ordinary, the still small voice. Even in the bread and wine.

In the miracle of the loaves and fishes, Jesus blessed the food and gave it to the disciples, but it was up to them to step out and hand it out to thousands of people – and this happened upon their return from their mission of preaching and healing (Mk 6.7-13). Even so, they would shortly thereafter be perplexed as to how they could get enough food to feed a smaller crowd, when they had even more loaves and fish! (Mt 15.32-39) Likewise, Peter stepped out of the boat and walked toward Jesus, doing something no other sinner had ever done or has done since. But the wind confounded him.

Peter and the disciples had no idea at this point how much Jesus had in store for them – for they themselves to be a blessing for the people. First, they had to learn to ignore the wind, and allow God to be manifest to them, and through them – in the humble and the ordinary.

We live this story still today, and He is with us in the humble and ordinary. It’s not that we couldn’t manifest the very power of God on earth if we were up for it, but we too often become frightened in the wind – even when He bids us “come.”

If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.