Saturday, February 27, 2010

the puppies are gone

So I told you that when we got home from our trip, we found that someone had dropped off two puppies at our place, expanding the canine population to five on our farm, right? We kept and fed them, and spent more than a little quality time watching them play and inhale their two daily meals. Not wanting to be attached, I named them Thing One and Thing Two although I really wanted to call them Stanley and Todd, or something like that.

Thing One and Thing Two were growing rapidly and their presence were causing more anxieties on the farm: bitter and sweet for the two humans who have a weakness for canine antics, confusion to the three dogs in residence, and the front and backyards densely plastered under unwanted organic fertilizer.

Thing One and Thing Two had to go. This last Wednesday I finally sat myself down and whipped out an ad that said "free puppies to good homes" and dispatched it by email to the Sunday Classifieds, then prayed to Bishop Sheen for help at Sunday Mass. I picked Bishop Sheen because I'd seen him on EWTN the day before. I'd thought that the impish grin on his face while he waited for audience's reaction to his joke had to be the best definition for the word "winsome." While I kneeled to pray I saw that grin again. "Humor me, dear Bishop: find a home for the puppies."

We were flooded with phone calls that day, and that day only. Thing One went to a newly wed couple who practically swooned on first sight; Thing Two struck smitten a thirty-something man who showed up with his Mom in the driver's seat. He called it "Horse" on catching first sight of the dog through the glass door. "Ain't you gonna take your baby?" asked the mom. "Yes I'm gonna take my baby." was the reply and he went with the dog in his arms and sat both of them in the passenger's seat. I had the slightly dreamy feeling that the mother and son pair had walked straight out of a Flannery O'Connor story.

The phone calls and visits made our day unusually sociable. I thanked Bishop Sheen for his humor and gave him all the credit. As the excitement calmed a bit, I went back to look at the Classifieds and it occurred to me, that maybe, just maybe, that the ad was accompanied by this cute picture might have helped too -

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Why We Need Lent by Fr. George Rutler

I want to share a reflection on Lent by Father Goerge Rutler which is just too good to keep to myself. It was written when Pope John Paul II was still alive, but nothing, not a bit, is dated about the piece.

All italics are mine.

Why We Need Lent
Fr. George Rutler
Lenten days bring two images immediately to mind, at least to my own idle mind. The first is of the bishops' gathering that first established Lent in 325 during the great ecumenical council in the Turkish town of Isnik — then called Nicaea. Some of the bishops there had been mutilated in the persecutions of the emperors Maximin and Licinius. A dubious record says there were 318 bishops in all, but we do know that their fifth canon ordered a time of fasting and penance lasting 40 days that we now call Lent, presumably because Moses, Elijah, and Christ had fasted 40 days. There are bishops maimed like those Nicean bishops today in China, though our government and many corporations have not advertised them. When one of them, Ignatius Cardinal Kung, was released in 1985 after 30 years in prison, he was surprised to learn that the Church's Friday meat abstinence had been changed. Evidently he did not think this an improvement. While his internment had been a perpetual Lent, he thought the mortifications of his brethren in the West had been sustaining him. In fact, it had been the other way around.

The bishops of Nicaea knew the consequences of mortification, the grief of it when inflicted, and the grace of it when voluntarily assumed. So they extended to 40 days what first had been a penitential period of three days before Easter. The season was catechetical as well as penitential, preparing catechumens for baptism and collaterally instructing all the faithful. Over the years, the nature of the Lenten fasts and penances varied, and not until the seventh century in the West was Ash Wednesday added so that Lent might last the full 40 days if Sundays were exempted. As early as the time of the Council of Nicaea, however, the Church in Jerusalem had kept Lent for eight five-day weeks. The word "Lent" comes from the Old English lencten, after the season of spring with its lengthening daylight. Christians, bringing to fulfillment an instinct of most religions, have known that some period of mortification as a "prayer of the senses" serves as a prelude to a spiritual rebirth.

The second image that comes to mind when I think of Lent is that of the Church of St. George in Velabro along the Roman Forum. Unlike the Church in Jerusalem, whose own altars fasted on the weekdays of Lent by forgoing the liturgy, the Church in Rome celebrated Mass every day of Lent and with special ceremony. At the end of their workday, the faithful would gather around the bishop of Rome and his deacons in procession to a church appointed for the day. The Church of St. George was the station church for the first day after Ash Wednesday, and since St. George is the patron of soldiers, the traditional gospel reading for that Thursday was about the centurion who asked Christ to heal his servant. To that church in the course of his tumultuous pontificate during the eleventh century, Pope Urban II brought a portion of the skull of the great martyr George. Others of his relics are entombed outside what is now the entrance to the Ben Gurion Airport in Israel.

When I was living in Rome some years ago, it fell to my lot to preach each year at St. George on the Lenten station day, beginning when I was a deacon. By then, George's official status on the Church calendar had been reduced in the neuralgic spirit of the late 1960s, though he continues to be the most honored saint — except for Mary — in many Christian nations. Last year, Pope John Paul II undid the revision of the feast, making St. George's Day a solemnity in such nations as England and India. And of course, like the Nicaean bishops in their endurance, the survivors of Soviet Russia have restored St. George to their banners, and a new Church of St. George the Mega-Martyr shines in the sun across Red Square from the sullen tomb of Lenin the Martyrer. Ostpolitik is gone, and St. George remains.

Lenten Lightweights
All this is by way of saying that Lent is not for the fey. That is because Christianity is not for them either. Sentimentalists who are Catholics on their own jerry-built terms have no place for Lent. Cafeteria Catholicism, their fast-food version of the heavenly banquet, is neither feast nor fast. Its pastiche of Catholicism has become an anthropological vignette whose day is already past. The felt banners and ceramic butterflies that replaced crucifixes in the late 1960s and 1970s are fading away to the land of kitsch — detritus of the liturgical Martha Stewarts of their day. There is even a rumor that genuine observance of Lent is coming back. The anticipatory "gesima" Sundays that preceded Ash Wednesday before the Second Vatican Council, for all their psychological usefulness, unfortunately may have gone the way of all fleshlessness (pray to St. George Redivivus for their return), but at least the sense of Lent perdures.

I live in the middle of Manhattan, where Ash Wednesday is perhaps the most popular religious day of the year, albeit confused with Mardi Gras the day before and being quickly surpassed in popularity by Halloween. Thousands come to the Catholic churches for ashes, many without full knowledge of what the ritual really is but at least palpably aware that we are dust. Even the bulimic syntax of the English translation of the rite cannot rob our sense of mortality of a pathetic majesty. We are an Easter people, and as St. Augustine was wont to say, Alleluia is our song. But without confession of our many morbid betrayals of the living God, the song becomes a ditty, and instead of the scarred bishops calling the people to repentance as at Nicaea, the paschal landscape is festooned with harmless adults dressed as rabbits hiding eggs from bewildered children.

Thomas Merton recalled in The Seven Storey Mountain that before he became a Catholic, his Easter consisted of an abbreviated service of Morning Prayer followed by an egg hunt on a manicured lawn. Such Easters are like the festivals in the twilight of imperial Rome when, as Suetonius records, the great men spoke of the gods but secretly consulted the stars. Some have so lost confidence in the resurrection of Christ that they keep little of Lent at all. There are places where there are Ash Wednesday and Easter and in between an extended St. Patrick's Day. Great Patrick would be the first to cry out against this from the heights of Croagh Patrick, his fasting place for all 40 days.

One could go to the other extreme and think of Easter as merely an interruption of a yearlong Lent. That is the piety of the rigorist for whom every silver lining has a cloud. Worse, there are certain Catholic types with the mottled spiritual complexion of the Jansenist nuns of Port Royal who were "pure as angels and proud as devils." Patrick lit a Paschal fire, not a Lenten fire. All his fasts were for the feast ahead, and he knew that fasting is not only for the self, since in the Christian community one also fasts for the dead. A parable of the Lenten-Easter economy appears in the chronicles of Nennius the Briton and Tírechán the Gael. They wrote separately of how Patrick fasted another 40 days on Mount Aigli near the end of his life:

And the birds were a trouble to him, and he could not see the face of the heavens, the earth or the sea on account of them. God told all the saints of Erin, past, present and future, to come to the summit of that mountain which overlooks all others, and is higher than all the mountains of the West. On that mountain, God commanded the saints to bless the tribes of Erin, so that Patrick might see by anticipation the fruit of his labors, for all the choirs of the saints of Erin came to visit him, who was the father of them all.

First, fast to starve the devil, then feast with the saints.

Fasting, Not Dieting
For a long while, when there was a compact and coherent Christendom, Lent as the "truce of God" was a palpable social fact: Charity was flaunted, wars were suspended, and executions were postponed. This last was not because anyone thought capital punishment was intrinsically evil. It was because the law courts closed for Lent. To meet the Lenten deadline (yes, I said deadline), executions in the Papal States were speeded up to get them over with by Ash Wednesday. The salutary moral effects of the papal executions often brought about a celebratory spirit inconsistent with Lenten sobriety. With a flair alien to the morbidly edifying public posture of contemporary social engineers, the papal executioner sometimes wore a carnival costume. Blessed Pius IX's octogenarian executioner killed 500 criminals during several papal reigns, including Pius's, but Lent was time off for him.

Lent is an occasion of sin, for it is a time when the flesh is made weak. It is the only occasion of sin that one can seek out legitimately. St. John Chrysostom preached: "God does not impede temptations, first, so that you may be convinced of your strength; secondly, that you may be humble, not proud; thirdly, that the devil, who may doubt whether you have really abandoned him, will be certain of that fact; fourthly, so that you may become as strong as iron, understanding the value of the treasures which have been granted to you."

Self-denial can strengthen the self as no glib kind of self-affirmation can. In California, I saw an advertisement for a preparatory school in which the top student in the senior class said that the school had taught her who she was, to feel good about herself, and to be satisfied with her choices. This Valley Girl vacuousness would have driven Socrates to drink a second nightcap. For those three smug confidences run afoul of the classical triad of erudition: Self-knowledge is delusional without perception of eternal beauty; self-contentment eradicates the civilized discontent born of a quest for eternal truth; and satisfaction with one's choices is barbaric if one does not choose eternal good.

These transcendentals prefigure the temptations of Christ. During His 40 days in the wilderness, the prince of lies would have had Him turn stones to bread (nature defined materialistically in contradiction of natural aesthetics and supernatural faith); fly (happiness as vainglory in contradiction of natural wisdom and supernatural hope); and exercise power (morality as artifact of the will in contradiction of natural law and supernatural love). Diabolical deceit accepted instead of rejected now plays out its tragic drama in the wilderness of our schools and other social institutions.

Nonetheless, pilgrim voices still chant as guardian angels descant: "Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil." This cantus firmus of Lent means taking evil seriously enough not to fear it. To neglect evil is to take the self too seriously, which soon makes the self a fearful thing. This is a stubborn canker in spiritual discipline, and it is especially a problem with mortifications such as fasting, which can be self-defeating when done apart from a transcendent love. Fasting and abstinence should be nonchalant, done with panache, for the life of grace is nothing if it is not graceful. "When you fast, anoint your head and wash your face" (Matthew 6:17).

We have all had the experience of meeting or knowing people who make a fetish of fasting, even to the length of weighing themselves in the process. With a deluded spirituality, they claim to fast but only diet. The scales of justice are not in the bathroom. Fasting is meant to teach humility: If I cannot do without a few sandwiches, I should speak with reserve about being a soldier of Christ.

Was it not a special favor from God to watch the joint beatification of Pope Pius IX, Abbot Columba Marmion, O.S.B., third abbot of Maredsous Abbey in Belgium, and Pope John XXIII? It was a happy day for goodly fat people like all three and a day of abasement for aesthetical ascetics in "a sentimental passion of a vegetable fashion" who want only gaunt saints on their prayer cards. Enthusiasts who cut down on food principally to improve their tennis game would be less eager to fast if it added weight. In a perversely affluent culture where thinness is an outward sign of wealth, getting fat is not necessarily a way to humility, but it does guarantee humiliation. To paraphrase Chesterton on the angels, the key to heroic virtue may not be in being light but in taking one's self lightly.

Much Communion, Little Confession
The sacramental economy of Lent acquaints earth with heaven without equating them. The 40 days are dialectical (earth separated from heaven) in their stress on dying to the old man and denying the passions, and analogical (earth in consort with heaven) by their focus on eternity. If you can get through the treacle in John Keble's volume of poetry, The Christian Year, you can abide for a while in fine lines like this for Septuagesima Sunday:
The Moon above, the Church below,
Wondrous race they run,
But all their radiance, all their glow,
Each borrows of its Sun.

I am told that in the Eastern rites there is a custom of singing Alleluias quietly as Lent starts to remind the faithful of what the season of fast is all about: "Lord let me know my end and the number of my days." The Western rite's Laetare Sunday in the middle of Lent does something of the same, prompting the faithful to keep an "eschatological perspective" or, more felicitously, to "keep an eye on the prize." Lent is a sublime paradox, weaving the pattern of suffering and joy that is the human condition, mortally tragic for the behaviorist and divinely comic for the graceful.

John Paul II is a case in point. Surely the pope's physical infirmities are a mortification for a man of such spiritual authority. He is the only vicar of the one of whom it was said: He saved others, but Himself He cannot save. The sight of the pope so constrained by his illnesses makes him an icon of Lent, and as he gives his blessing urbi et orbi with trembling hands, he is an icon of Easter at the end of days many more than 40.

The saints have reiterated this: Unsought mortifications are more difficult than self-prescribed ones. Patience with long lines at the supermarket, rock music on public address systems, and the wrong people running things can be harder spiritual trials than fasts and vigils. If 40 days pass with our thinking we have kept a good Lent, we have kept a bad one. That would break the commandment against tempting God. To tempt God is to put His justice to the test by the ridiculous spiritual impertinence that authors of spiritual manuals delicately call "presumption." It is what provoked the biblical imprecations against meretricious rituals and abominable sacrifices.

This is a point that may have eluded a Catholic archbishop in South Africa who, in an earnest effort to make worship more indigenous, recently proposed sacrificing cows for blood libations at Mass. I never expected to have to take up my pen against animal sacrifice, but new occasions teach new duties. The eucharistic sacrifice is different from all the other sacrifices of all the religions that have ever tried to appease heaven. First, it is all-sufficient, so we need not turn the sacristy into a butcher shop. Second, it is rational and therefore inseparable from moral truth. In Romans 12:1, St. Paul declares the Eucharist to be an offering of spirit and mind, and Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger has identified intuitions of this in the ancient Dead Sea and Alexandrian Jewish communities. The moral dimension of the "reasonable sacrifice" (logike latreia) of which Lenten anticipation is a prophecy and an icon, is the reason we call this sort of presumption a bad thing, like praying to God without having first incarnated that prayer in acts of charity, or receiving much communion and confessing little. We may tempt God — that is the tawdriest privilege of a free will — but God is not mocked. Not for long. Presumption has its consequences. Look at the 360 degrees of desolation around us. Look at our parishes. Lent should mean more of both confession and communion, spiritual reading, examination of conscience, benevolent acts, and prayer issuing in resolution.

Much Ash But Many Miracles
Modern man has had a long Lent. You could say it lasted the entire 20th century. Postmodern spiritual fatigue perversely engenders a kind of compensatory hysteria: eclectic revivals of blood sacrifice in sub-Saharan lands and liturgical dancing around altars in suburban America. As a church, we have been mortified: By neglecting the intellectual case against Christ's cultured despisers; by trusting in bureaucracies and utopian movements; by imputing divine inspiration to private conceits; by slothfulness in the face of infanticide; by complacency about hunger and injustice; by grossly exaggerating the value of entertainers and professional athletes while neglecting spiritual heroes; by confusing tradition and nostalgia; by degrading our artistic patrimony; by banality in the pulpits; by scandals and refusing to speak of them as unspeakable; by the consecration of mediocrity; by voting for degenerate Caesars when we had the political power to dethrone them; by contempt for history; by impatience with God's unfathomable patience; by failing to give God thanks for the grace of living in a time of so many saints and miracles — in short, by softness in hard times.

In the same 20th century of so much ash, we have witnessed many miracles, which perhaps only a later generation will recognize as such. Lents come and go, and however we may keep them, there is always Easter at the end. The Lent-Easter cycle has nothing to do with the the change of season from winter to spring, for south of the equator everything is opposite. It has much to do with the rhythms of the body asleep and then awake, and much to do with the course of history with its ups and downs.

I recall a lady who died a few months ago who often rode a bicycle around Rome and unobtrusively attended Mass at our college chapel years ago. Only when I first visited her for dinner did I find out that her home was the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj with its 1,000 rooms, and that she was the Princess Orietta and part of the long Roman memory. A friend wrote after her death that when traveling with her recently on the Via Quattro Novembre, they went over a pothole, and she said, "That hole has been there since the war." Civic intimacy of such charm is born of a profound acquaintance with and an even more profound love of the place where one lives.
Nevertheless, of Rome it has been said that one knows it well after a year and not at all after a lifetime. This is even more true of the mysteries of salvation. Every lapse into sin should remind us of the first pothole in Eden. Lent is a small familiarity with the inexhaustible drama of redemption in which eternity transfigures mortality: "[W]hen I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Corinthians). It is a radical break from all other dispensations whose only response to mortality is to ignore it, to flee from it, or to bury it with horrible dirges. We live many Lents during our lives, and we should not make a big burden of them. We should come to know them well and even cherish them, hot cross buns and ashes and all. But when Lent is done, souls attain to the stature of heaven by having measured their own smallness, and they become strong enough to bask in the blaze of glory by sensing their own fragility and turning it into the transparency of grace.

a little fat off my life

Lent came and went somewhat inconsequentially last time round, meaning I was too busy with my life (of what, I can't even recall with clarity) too live it. Neither did I prepare and give its meaning due thought. This time, I told KDM, I want to pay more attention.

Fat Tuesday came and went too, as in, yesterday. Fat Tuesday really wasn't fat, considering nothing is strictly lean any more, not in my life. I tried to think some lean thoughts, but like everything else, the thoughts stubbornly remained flabby, resisting to be gathered.

If there was one thing I learned from last month's travel, it was that I could live with less, wearing the same clothes two to three times a week without running them through the washing machine. In the two and half week period, I did laundry once, in a rundown room at the end of the motel we stayed, after obtaining quarters from a coke machine in the inn's alley. I did it while others were squeezing in a nap between typical tourist expeditions. Having nothing else to wear, I dashed about between my room and the laundry machine in KDM's bathing shorts and his undershirt. Fortunately it was in Key West, where there's no way in hell you can be underdressed.

In the other towns we visited, there was no self laundry service at the hotels. Yeah, hotels, not motels. The price list on the laundry slip in the rooms read like retail store price tags, and I don't mean the Wal-Mart tags like I'm generally used to. Buying new clothes was hardly an option since the two luggages packed with clothes for both winter (for NY) and summer (Key West) and the take-home gifts were already weighing down my outlooks for the taxi rides to-and-fro airports. Being between a rock and a hard place such, I went for simplicity, or duplicity, depending on how you look at it. At night I either folded, or sprayed water on and hang up the clothes we'd worn that day to be worn again the day after. I even did this to KDM's under shirts without rousing suspicion when he put them on again (and you shouldn't either). Gross? No, solution. I'm not sure my fellow greenie human fellows won't approve my ingenuity as progress to saving planet earth.

If I could live the two weeks on the road without compulsively running to the washing machine like the hamster running the laddered wheel, how much does it take to apply the broken habit to my life at home? Important thing is, I found that it was POSSIBLE. If I could live with less clothes, less shopping, I could like wise do with less other things, and this would even mean cutting down preparation time for other things I do. I don't have to have multiple choices BEFORE I embark on something. That means less dependence on my own schemes for security, more room to serendipitous encounters, improvisations, or, even, in grander things, Providence.

Radical trust, childlike dependence, a magnificent heart, are the common traits of the saints. They really do possess no second pair of sandals. Unlike my own resolution which I have broken for a hundred times to "travel light", they did it. My not being able to keep it tells much about how heavy I take myself and possessions, while they take themselves so light that they travel with the angels.

What does all this have to do with Ash Wednesday? Not much, but I hope it's a beginning to my "paying attention" to the beckoning Forty Days ahead.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

churches we visited on January trip

Photos of churches we visited during our trip last month, in reversed chronological order - I simply don't have the patience to wrestle with the blog format to get it right. To make better sense of time and place you'll need to scroll all the way down, then up, as you go, e.g., begin with Saint Joseph Cathedral, Buffalo, at the bottom, the first town of our visit. After it we flew down to Orlando, where we "worshipped" at Walt's Church of the Mouse; we drove to and stayed in Key West and attended Mass at Saint Mary Star of the Sea (name same to the one Webster of YIM Catholic attends in New England, apparently). New York City of the last leg of our trip, where we paid visit to both Saint Pat's and of course, Church of Our Savior, both within walking distance (everywhere is within walking distance for New Yorkers).

One of the several altars inside the Church of Our Savior, NYC. Fr. Rutler is often seen speaking next to this statue of Our Lord. Flanking Him are Sts. Therese and Anthony. I didn't take photos of Fr. Rutler either during Mass or our visit.

Interior of Church of Our Savior, New York City

- It was still dark when we arrived for the 7AM Mass. People seemed to be just dropping in on their way to work. Just look at the icons: I'd seen them a hundred times on EWTN, on Christ in the City, hosted by Fr. Rutler.

Saint Patrick's Cathedral, New York City

-a short walk from our hotel. I have one word: awesome.

St. Mary Star of the Sea, Key West

- the only church keeping on its property two roosters, which literally crow along side the bells and chants during the Mass: it all seemed perfectly fitting.

St. Mary Star of the Sea, Key West

The day was January 24, two Knights keeping vigil in front of the Memorial of the Unborn

St. Mary Star of the Sea, Key West

Garden featuring the Lourdes Grotto

St. Mary Star of the Sea, Key West, The Church garden features a walk in the form of a rosary, posts in distance are the Mysteries.

Exterior of St. Mary Star of the Sea, Key West

Interior of Saint Mary Star of the Sea, Key West

- one of the most enchanting churches I've ever visited, with half a dozen French doors on either side open to let fresh ocean breeze mix with incense of the mass.
At dawn: Saint Joseph Cathedral, downtown Buffalo, NY

Literally two-minute walk from our hotel. We attended Sunday Mass there, taking all our foreign visitors with us.

Monday, February 8, 2010

first post after a long absence.

It certainly has been a while - I almost forgot the password to log in to my own blog.

We're snowed in today. The sky is shedding goose feathers in a waltz like movement. KDM is busy putting out hay; dogs have been invited into the screened porch. Speak of which, we have total of five furry companions as of today, two having been dropped off while we were on vacation.

And the vacation is still on my mind. Travels always energize me: sights and sounds outside the usual, coy and comfy ruts, even if just for a while. A Chinese proverb likens travel to reading a thousand books, I prefer college courses on account of the dynamics. Reading is a solitary affair, while travel propels you into the living, breathing stream and odors of life.

The highlight of the trip came when we discovered that the Church of Our Savior, the one Father George Rutler pastors, was only four blocks from our hotel, on the same avenue in the heart of Manhattan, NYC. All details aside, during the five days in the Big Apple, amongst busy sightseeing and dinning out, we managed to attend Mass celebrated by Father two days in a row, met and spoke to him in person. One of these days was the feast day of Saint Thomas Aquinas. I simply envy the parishioners who get to listen to this amazing priest preach daily. I don't want to give the impression that Father Rutler is just some celebrity clergyman. What I saw during the simple, mid-day, well-attended, liturgy, was a quintessential parish priest leading and feeding his flock, in the heart of the most bustling city in the world. Of this impression I will share in more details later.

My most cherished "souvenir" from this multi-legged trip are the two books I bought at Our Savior, The Crisis of Saints: the Call to Heroic Faith in an Unheroic World, and The Cure D'Ars Today: Saint John Vianney, both by Fr. Rutler, who graciously autographed both at my request. I'm about half way through the latter, and taking as a penance of putting it down. Father's writings, like his sermons, always have this effect of lifting my mind and heart to another dimension, wherein it is not the persona of Fr. Rutler your thoughts dwell, rather it is the goodness, beauty and grandeur of God that inflame your aspirations. In imitation of our Lord, he doesn't just appeal to your intellect, he "speaks heart to heart," the instrument of knowing, which, in the words of Blaise Pascal, "knows Reason which Reason does not know." To say it simply and directly: he points you to the ultimate source of happiness such that you feel the longing and urgency to live a holy life.

I urge you to read The Cure D'Ars Today, Father Rutler's exposition of the Saint's life. I'm truly grateful that as Catholics, we have the Saints for timeless examples as well as for antidotes to the toxins we're amply exposed to in our own times.