St. Augustine: “Late Have I Loved You!”

Last week we celebrated the feast of the incomparable St. Augustine of Hippo. In our anti-intellectual age, he sometimes gets dismissed as too complicated. But previous ages considered his thinking to be rooted in the deepest mysticism, and his place in the Catholic intellectual tradition has always been among those who emphasize that God is infinitely above human thought.

Today, just one burst of poetry, from the Confessions. Augustine shows that all the beautiful things in the world are just distractions, unless they lead us inward, to the greatest Beauty, which is God.

 

st-augustine-of-hippo-2So late did I love You, O Beauty, so ancient, and yet so new! So late did I love You!

For behold, You were inside me, but I was outside, and sought you there. I, unlovely, rushed heedlessly among the things of beauty that You had made. You were with me, but I was not with You.

Things kept me far from You, which would not have been, if they had not been in You.

You called, and cried aloud, and broke open my deafness. You gleamed and shined, and chased away my blindness. You breathed out odours, and I drew in my breath, and now I breathe heavily for You. I tasted, and now I hunger and thirst. You touched me, and I burned for Your peace.

–The Confessions, Book 10, chapter 27

The Psalms on Worship

King David, Westminster Psalter

King David, Westminster Psalter

Our Psalm 26 next turns us from moral concerns to worship – and thus takes us to the heart of the Psalms.

The move already began in the section we considered last week.

I do not sit with the fraudulent

I hate the coming together of those who do evil

And I do not sit with the impious.

In Hebrew, “those who do evil” is “those who spoil things,” whereas “the impious” is a rhyming but unrelated word that means those who are just plain wicked. The Greek of the Septuagint, however, translates that wickedness as “impiety”: to be just plain wicked, rather than a ruiner of things, points more deeply, to one’s relation with God. The deeper problem is not just what we do, and what we ruin, but who we are, and how we relate to the Ultimate.

***

The next strophe addresses worship more directly:

I wash my hands in innocency

And I circle round your altar, o Lord

This is the verse the priest used to begin with as he washed his hands before offering the Eucharist, though in the reformed Mass he says only a loose paraphrase. From a glance at several other ancient rites of the Mass, it looks like those who do not use this Psalm do not wash their hands at all. In other words, the priest washes his hands because it goes with this Psalm.

It’s a nice image. We want to be prepared for worship. Jesus gives a parallel image when he talks about wearing wedding garments at a wedding feast. It’s simply a matter of fittingness. It is only right that we come to the altar “clean,” prepared, made right.

***

We could go a step deeper and say this kind of preparation is itself an essential part of our worship.

There is a parallel between the two verses we put above: “I wash my hands,” “I circle round your altar.” Worship is something we do. The “circling round” is itself worship, the person actively “entering in” (here, literally) to the praise of God.

Similarly, washing his hands is not just preparatory to worship. It’s part of worship, part of proclaiming who God is and how we stand in relation to him.

And we wash our hands “in innocency.” It is part of worship, to be sure, to include our bodies: to walk around, physically wash our hands, stand, kneel, turn to the altar, lift up our hands and voices, etc. Our bodies are part of us, and so they are part of our prayer.

But even more, our hearts are our inmost selves, and so as we lift up our hands and voices, we above all lift up our hearts. We truly lift up ourselves in praise of God.

And so we not only wash our hands in water, but in innocency. We offer our souls in worship. And central to offering our souls is our moral state.

The point of all this is that, in the Psalms, morality and worship are not two separate things. “I will wash my hands in innocency, and circle round your altar” means that my whole life enters into worship.

***

The Psalms root us firmly in the imagery of the Temple in Jerusalem. Going “round the altar” bespeaks the pride of the people of Israel in the house of God. It was somewhere you went with joy, somewhere you longed for, “the glory of Jerusalem, the joy of Israel, the fairest honor of our race.” (The phrase will later go to Mary, but Mary and Jesus are prefigured in the Temple.)

Worship is joy. The only thing more wonderful than getting ready to go to the Temple (washing our hands) is going to the Temple itself (circling the altar). Or: washing their hands as they entered the Temple was a time of great joy.

***

The question is sometimes posed whether worship is “for God” or “for us.” When people say, “worship is for God, not for us,” I think they are trying to make the point that worship means nothing if it is not focused on God.

But worship is for us. It is good for us to look to the Lord. It is good for us to enter in, liturgically (through ritual washings) and morally (through washing in innocency). This is our highest fulfillment.

One of the greatest glories of the Psalms is making vivid for us the goodness of worship. Indeed, the Psalms themselves manifest the point: by talking of all of life, but in the context of praise.

Are there parts of our life that would make more sense by thinking of them as on the way to worship?

Twenty-Second Sunday: Trusting God, Even to the Cross

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

JER 20:7-9; PS 63:2, 3-4, 5-6, 8-9; ROM 12:1-2; MT 16:21-27

This Sunday’s readings teach us that God is sweeter than life and stronger than death.

The Gospel is the second half of last week’s story. Last week Peter professed that Jesus was the Son of God. “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you,” Jesus responded, “but my heavenly Father.” Then, “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church.”

But this week, “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly.” “God forbid, Lord!” said Peter (maybe better translated, “goodness gracious!”). “No such thing shall ever happen to you.”

Jesus responds, “You are an obstacle to me.” Skandalon means something like a stick you trip on; it’s a nice parallel to “upon this rock I will build.” And parallel to “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you,” “You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”

***

Then Jesus applies it to us. “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” Interesting: in all the Gospels, until Jesus goes to Jerusalem to die, the only times he ever mentions the cross are in saying the disciples must carry it. He doesn’t tell them that he will carry a cross, too.

***

The reading from Jeremiah is a classic. “You duped me, O LORD, and I let myself be duped; you were too strong for me, and you triumphed.”

How did God dupe him? By convincing him to be a prophet – and then making him prophecy the Cross. “I must cry out, violence and outrage is my message. . . . I say to myself, I will not mention him, I will speak in his name no more. But then it becomes like fire burning in my heart.”

The Cross appears on two levels. First, it is what Jeremiah must preach: in effect, he must preach that the people have to carry their crosses.

But this preaching is itself Jeremiah’s cross. “The word of the LORD” – this word of “violence and outrage,” of repentance and the cross – “has brought me derision and reproach all the day.” Just as Peter rebuked Jesus, the people rebuke Jeremiah for preaching the cross. To preach the cross is a cross.

And yet the strength of God, and the sweetness of God, compels him. How could he turn away from God’s call to him?

***

Our reading from Romans takes us deeper. “I urge you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship.”

Now this is interesting. They are supposed to use precisely their bodies for spiritual worship. (The Greek word for spiritual, logike, from logos, is even more intellectual and unbodily than the English word “spiritual.”)

“Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” The message is all about ideas and thinking. But the expression is bodily.

And this is the heart of the matter: to choose God as our God, to recognize him as God, has concrete consequences. If we are going to worship Jesus, we have to accept the cross. If we care about the will of God, we will have to express it in bodily sacrifices.

***

We return, then, to the Gospel.

To think as God does means choosing a different standard. To think as men is to fear death, fear suffering, fear the cross.

But to think as God does means accepting the cross: Jesus’s cross and our own.

Why? First, because God is powerful. “For the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father’s glory,” says Jesus. The cross is terror if it is the last word. But it is not the last word.

Indeed, Jesus had just told them “that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly . . . and be killed and on the third day be raised.” If there is no resurrection, the cross is terror. But God is with us, and there is resurrection.

Second, we accept the cross because God is sweet. “Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Losing our lives is not the point of the cross. The point is that we give our all for him, because he is worth it. To lose everything and gain God is to lose nothing at all.

What cross do we fear to carry? Why?

St. Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort, Preacher

de MontfortWe welcomed this Marian month of August with the feast of the Preacher St. Dominic. Let us end it thinking about the Third Order Dominican missionary preacher St. Louis de Montfort (1673-1716), best known as the greatest of all apostles of Marian devotion, and author of the classic True Devotion to Mary.

Today we will focus on St. Louis as preacher. He was first educated by the Jesuits, and then at the original Sulpician seminary in Paris, heart of the new “French School” of spirituality, established by great spiritual heroes including Cardinal Bérulle (1575-1629), St. John Eudes (1601-1680), St. Vincent de Paul (1580-1660), and especially Jean-Jacques Olier (1608-1657) particularly to renew the heart of the priesthood. But de Montfort finally decided to become a Third Order Dominican.

The Dominicans share with these other groups a great love for Mary. But they are distinct in their emphasis on preaching, and it is to the mission of preaching that de Montfort devoted his life.

***

De Montfort’s True Devotion is a challenging book, for at least two main reasons.

The first is the radical drama of redemption that he spells out. On the one hand, of course, is his very high devotion to Mary. An uncareful reader could think de Montfort places Mary in the center, though he is insistent that she is not.

The book begins, “It was through the Blessed Virgin Mary that Jesus came into the world, and it is also through her that he must reign in the world.” He insists throughout that Mary is essential entirely in order to keep our focus clearly on Jesus.

He aims “to show that Mary has been unknown up till now, and that that is one of the reasons why Jesus Christ is not known as he should be. If then, as is certain, the knowledge and the kingdom of Jesus Christ must come into the world, it can only be as a necessary consequence of the knowledge and reign of Mary.”

“With the whole Church I acknowledge that Mary, being a mere creature fashioned by the hands of God is, compared to his infinite majesty, less than an atom, or rather is simply nothing, since he alone can say, “I am he who is”.

Mary is placed very high to help us keep Jesus at the top.

On the other hand, he so emphasizes sin that an incautious reader could confuse him with the absolute negativity of the Jansenists. “You will consider yourself as a snail that soils everything with its slime, as a toad that poisons everything with its venom, as a malevolent serpent seeking only to deceive.”

In truth, these two teachings, the horror of sin and our absolute dependence on Jesus, go together. In short, de Montfort emphasizes the great drama of Redemption.

***

A second thing that is hard about de Montfort’s True Devotion is that he is short on practical details.

He condemns “false devotions to Mary”: the Scrupulous, the Superficial, the Presumptuous, the Inconstant, the Hypocritical, and the Self-interested.

He recommends various devotions: the Magnificat, the Hail Mary, the Rosary, the Feast of the Annunciation, as well as some lesser-known ones like “the Little Crown” of twelve Hail Mary’s, and the wearing of symbolic “little chains.”

And he offers a four-week plan for consecration to Mary, perhaps the best known part of his teaching. But there is nothing to prevent one making this consecration and still remaining superficial, presumptuous, inconstant, hypocritical, and self-interested.

He says true devotion is interior, trustful, holy, constant, and disinterested. And he says the truest practice of devotion is through “contempt for the world.”

But how does that work? What do we do? He doesn’t tell us. In the end, True Devotion according de Montfort is an attitude, a worldview, not a technique. There isn’t any particular thing to do. True Devotion is about how we look at the world.

***

And that is where the two difficulties of True Devotion – the overwhelming drama of Redemption and the lack of practical details – come together in the mission of de Montfort as a preacher. Finally, True Devotion – to Mary, to Christ, to the Christian faith – is not about concrete practices. It is about how we see the world.

That means preaching. And it also means study. Not study of the Summa, and not study just for professors – to the contrary, de Montfort insistently focused on preaching the Gospel to the poor and simple. But we must “study” our faith through thoughtful meditation on the rosary, on the Hail Mary, on the Our Father (which he calls “the most beautiful of prayers”) and other Scriptural prayers, and on the whole of the truth of our Catholic and Biblical faith.

Let us consecrate ourselves to a deeper awareness of the truth of faith.

Are there ways that we get to busy “doing” to be properly aware of the drama of sin and redemption?

Aparecida on the Communion of Vocations

brazil-popeAs we continue to explore the Aparecida Document’s insights on “The Communion of the Missionary Disciples in the Church,” today we pause to consider the section on “Missionary Disciples with Specific Vocations.”

 c. Missionary Disciples with Specific Vocations

     i. Bishops, missionary disciples of Jesus High Priest

     ii. Priests, missionary disciples of Jesus Good Shepherd

          1. Identity and mission of priests

          2. Pastors, inspirers of a community of missionary disciples

     iii. Permanent deacons, missionary disciples of Jesus the Servant

     iv. Faithful laymen and laywomen, disciples and missionaries of Jesus, Light of the World

     v. Consecrated men and women, missionary disciples of Jesus, the Father’s Witness

This beautiful section brings together a general insight with several specific insights.

***

The general insight is that the communion of the Church (and our formation as holy members of the Church, the ultimate goal of Part Two of the document) is built up by the diversity of vocations.

This is, of course, the great insight of St. Paul, one of his central insights: “For as we have many members in one body, and all members have not the same office: So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and everyone members, one of another” (Rom 12:4-5; see also 1 Cor 12 and 14, etc.).

The communion of the Church is not built up by treating everyone the same, but by recognizing the distinct tasks we each fulfill in the one Body.

***

Thus Aparecida leads us in celebrating the distinct vocations, and encouraging each to live their vocation more fully. It further emphasizes this by underlining what is common in the distinct vocations. All are missionary disciples, called to follow Jesus as disciples and be sent out in his name as missionaries.

And so Aparecida, taking this insight a step further, considers each vocation under distinct aspects of the mission of Jesus. Each vocation is a way of making present a particular aspect of Jesus Christ.

***

Bishops, then, are called to think of themselves as “missionary disciples of Jesus High Priest.” They must first think of themselves as priests, consecrated above all to offering the sacrifice of the Mass and bringing the people into union with Christ.

They must think of themselves always, also, as High Priests, that is, the leaders among the priests, the ones given “highest” responsibility. A bishop who loses his priestly identity, or forgets his call to leadership, loses his way of holiness and of conformity to Christ.

He also loses his sense of communion. The bishop is not merely called to be an  individual Christian. He is called to live a vocation in and for the Church.  Already, this section underlines the main theme of Aparecida: we cannot be true  disciples without being missionaries, giving our life to bring Christ to others.

 But let us note, too, that we who are not bishops ourselves lose sight of the communion of the Church, and our call to service within it, if we make ourselves High Priest. It is the job of the bishop to lead. It is not the job of anyone else to scold the bishop for the way he leads. To do so is precisely to lose our sense that he is high priest, not I. It is to place ourselves outside of the communion of the Church.

***

Priests, says Aparecida, are called to be conformed to Christ as Good Shepherd. Again note the emphasis on service. Priestly holiness is not focused on the self, but on care for the sheep.

Christ’s image of shepherd wonderfully underlines this call: the priest can never complain that his sheep wander in the wrong direction. He should expect that! But he is nonetheless called to shepherd them back: to follow them wherever they wander, to gently guide them, to give his whole life to their sanctification.

Aparecida quotes a priest: “My mass is my life and my life is a prolonged mass!” But it takes that aspiration deeper by showing that a truly priestly identity views these profound words precisely in relation to the sheep they are called to shepherd, the Church gathered at the mass.

***

Deacons make present “Jesus the Servant.” Ah, if only we had space to lament the loss of this essential vocation of serving the material needs of the Church!

Lay people are called to be “Light of the World,” to go out into all of creation and “show” the true and glorious nature that God has created. Lay holiness reveals reality.

And consecrated people are called to be “the Father’s Witness,” always leading us more deeply into the gentle embrace of the God who created and redeemed us.

***

The more we live our own vocations, and love the vocations of others, the more deeply we enter into the communion of the Church.

Are there ways we think of ourselves in leadership vocations that are not ours?

Benedict XVI on Making the Bible our “Staple Diet”

The following brief quotation, from Pope Benedict XVI’s opening address to the Latin American bishops gathered at Aparecida, nicely drives home the centrality of Scripture in Catholic spirituality.

We cannot live or preach the Gospel, he says, unless we know its “content.”  Christian faith is not just a general attitude.  It has content.  We have to know its richness and its wholeness.  And though the Catechism is an invaluable summary, Scripture itself is the Word of God.  Indeed, notice how he pairs the “content and spirit” of the faith: you cannot know the spirit of the faith without also knowing its content

And according to Benedict XVI – and Vatican II, and the Tradition, the Fathers of the Church and the medievals – there is no other way to know that “content and spirit” then to learn “to read and meditate on the word of God,” and so attain “profound knowledge of the word of God.”  This, he says, is “indispensable.”

Are Pope Benedict’s words elitist?  Does he make it so only intellectuals can know the faith?  No.  Scripture is for everyone.  To know the Tradition and read the lives of the saints is to discover that the simplest, from Antony of the Desert to Thérèse of Lisieux, found in Scripture not an obstacle, but the food of faith, their “staple diet”.  The real elitism is to refuse to “train people to read and meditate.”

POPEAt the beginning of this new phase that the missionary Church of Latin America and the Caribbean is preparing to enter, starting with this Fifth General Conference in Aparecida, an indispensable pre-condition is profound knowledge of the word of God. To achieve this, we must train people to read and meditate on the word of God: this must become their staple diet, so that, through their own experience, the faithful will see that the words of Jesus are spirit and life (cf. Jn 6:63). Otherwise, how could they proclaim a message whose content and spirit they do not know thoroughly? We must build our missionary commitment and the whole of our lives on the rock of the word of God.

-Benedict XVI, Inaugural Address of the Fifth General Conference of the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean, Aparecida, Brazil

 

The Psalms on Guile

King David, Westminster Psalter

King David, Westminster Psalter

Our meditation on the Psalms, and on Psalm 26, has taken us through righteousness and trust in the Lord, to the depths of righteousness in the human heart (and kidneys!), and now into the reality of sin.

Psalm 26 presents a cry against sin:

“I do not sit with wicked men

Nor come together with deceivers

I have hated the coming together of those who do evil

And I do not sit with the impious.”

This long protestation is typical of the Psalms.  Notice that lines one and three speak of evil generically.  Line four speaks of evil specifically in relation to God, as if to summarize: the real heart of wickedness is the lack of love of God.

But the only specific sin listed is deception, or dissembling, or guile.  (There are a handful of Hebrew words around this topic, which the Vulgate gathers under the word “dolus,” or guile.)  I have written about this topic in the past, but here let us investigate it in the context of the Psalms.

***

We all know sexual sin is a problem – but it is not the central sin that the Psalms have us focus on.  Instead, the Psalms urge us to think specifically about guile – and of guile as a model of all other sin.

Guile is the combination of violence and untruth.  It is untruth specifically used to injure someone else.  It thus neatly ties together sin toward neighbor and sin toward God.

And it neatly defines each.  Sin towards neighbor ultimately consists not just in the breaking of a commandment, but in doing harm, the opposite of benevolence and love.

But sin against God consists not in injury – we cannot hurt God – but in rejecting reality as he made it: rejecting the truth.  The importance of truth brings a realism to our love of God: love of God is not just a vague feeling, but an embrace of his plan, his kingdom, the world that he made.  We love God by loving the truth.

(Indeed, it is argued that truth is the best definition of natural law.)

***

The Commandments – the Ten Commandments, and all the more specific moral teachings of the Church – mark out untruth and injury to neighbor, but they do not exhaust the ways we can fall short, nor do they exhaust the riches of true love of God and neighbor.

An “intrinsically evil act” is one that the Church, in her wisdom, has discerned always to be a kind of guile.  But the Psalms take us deeper, by helping us see the essence of sin.

Lust and sexual sin are a kind of guile.  They hurt our neighbor precisely by denying the truth of the person, the body, and sexuality.  And in so rejecting nature as God gives it, in so embracing untruth, they turn away from the God who created us.  They fail to love both neighbor and God.

But sexual sin is not the only kind of guile.  By focusing on guile, the Psalms teach us to see the essence of sin, and so to see both what’s wrong with the more obvious sins and, even more importantly, to see more clearly the less obvious sins.

***

The deepest sins of all, for example, are envy and pride.

Envy rejects the goodness of our neighbor.  Jealousy, not quite the same thing, wants what our neighbor has.  But envy hates him for his excellence.  Envy wants to do injury, to diminish someone else’s accomplishments, merely because we want to be superior.

Envy is rooted in untruth.  First, the untruth that sees injury to ourselves in another person’s excellence.  I hear that someone else has done what I can’t, and I react with anger!  But second, untruth that cuts down that person’s accomplishment.  Rather than giving thanks to God for what he has created in that person, envy tries to dismantle the truth.

***

Even more deeply, pride wants the world to revolve around us.  Pride is like envy towards God himself.  It does not want to receive, does not want to worship, but wants itself to be the center.

Pride is really the heart of sin: a straightforward failure to love God.  Pride wishes there was no God – like the “impiety” we saw in the Psalm above.

But pride is not easy to get at.  It’s not covered by the commandments.

Pride is not about injuring your neighbor, so it’s the one sin not directly covered by guile.  Yet by pushing us to think about the role of untruth in all of our other sins, the Psalms’ emphasis on guile helps us to see beyond the commandments, into the essence of sin, and of love.

Can you think of some ways guile attacks you, even when you aren’t breaking any rules?

Twenty-First Sunday: God Builds the Church

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

IS 22:19-23; PS 138: 1-2, 2-3, 6, 8; ROM 11:33-36; MT 16:13-20

Our Sunday readings this week teach us about the presence of God within the Church.

The Gospel reading is Matthew’s great account of Peter’s confession of faith: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”; “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. . . .  I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.”

There are many rich ways to approach this text.  I would like to focus on the words, “I will build.”  “I.”

***

Our reading from Isaiah gives a parallel.  “I will place the key of the House of David on Eliakim’s shoulder; when he opens, no one shall shut; when he shuts, no one shall open.”  Clearly there is a parallel to when Jesus says to Peter in our Gospel, “I will give you the keys to the kingdom.”  Jesus is invoking this Old Testament parallel.

But the deeper parallel is not the keys.  The deeper parallel is “I.”

The reading begins with God speaking to the previous master of the palace.  “I will thrust you from your office and pull you down from your station.”  The authority belongs to God.  It is God who drives Shebna out.

Then, “I will summon my servant Eliakim. . . I will clothe him with your robe . . . .  I will place the key . . . .  I will fix him like a peg in a sure spot.”

The part about the peg is nice: God has full authority.  God is in charge of the House of David, so fully in command that he can make things fit perfectly.

It is this divine power that explains Eliakim’s authority: “when he opens, no one shall shut” – because behind Elikaim is God.

Even deeper, “He shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to the house of Judah.”  Eliakim can be a father only because of the power of God behind him.

***

So too Peter – and his successors, both the popes and even the bishops.

“I will build my church,” – I! – “and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.”  Peter is not stronger than the netherworld.  But God is.

“Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”  I hope it’s obvious that Peter has absolutely no power to affect this – unless God not only gives him the power, but upholds it, at every moment.  It is because God builds the Church that the Church has authority.

(The binding and loosing, by the way, is the root of the power of Confession – our penance is the “binding” part.  It is also the root of the power of Indulgences, and the works of penance that gain them.)

The Church is a work of God.  It is God whom we trust when the Church teaches, when the Church administers the sacraments, and when the Church gathers us together in unity.

***

Behind this is a deeper work of God.  “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you,” Jesus says, “but my heavenly Father.” See the way God works internally.  Just as God is able to give Peter the keys, so God is able to give Peter the faith.  God is more intimate to us than we are to ourselves.  God illumines Peter so that Peter himself makes confession.

Even deeper, the conversation begins, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is.”  “Son of Man” is a phrase from the psalms.  It emphasizes that Jesus is man.  But Peter recognizes that Jesus is “Son of God.”  Among other things, the Incarnation shows just how intimate God is with his creation.

***

Our reading from Romans takes us to the deepest theological roots of this intimacy.  The reading begins with the inscrutability of God’s judgments.  But it concludes, “Who has given the Lord anything that he may be repaid? For from him and through him and for him are all things.”

Our inability to “know the mind of the Lord” only underlines that he is absolutely before us.  He makes us, not we him.

God has absolute authority over his creation because he made it: it is from him, and through him, and for him.  It is altogether in his hands.  God can speak to us interiorly, and cause us to make an act of faith, because he is our maker.  God can establish a Church, and a Pope, and bishops and priests and sacraments, because Creation is altogether in his hands.  He can work through it because it exists through him.

Are there places where we overlook the Providence of God in our view of Church teaching, or the sacraments, or the fatherly discipline of the household of the Church?

The Queenship of Mary

coronationTomorrow we celebrate the feast of the Queenship of Mary.  The feast comes on the octave of (that is, one week after) the feast of her Assumption.  The Assumption celebrates Mary passing from this world to the next, and is the bigger feast.  But as a conclusion of that feast, the Church gives us a meditation on what heaven is like for Mary.  Mary is Queen.

***

Now, the first thing to see here is that this privilege is not unique to Mary.  St. Peter says we are a “royal” or “kingly priesthood” (I Pet 2:9).  Paul says, “If we be dead with him, we shall also live with him.  If we suffer, we shall also reign with him” (2 Tim 2:11-12).

And in John’s great book about heaven, Revelation, he says, “God made them a kingdom and priests, and they reign on earth” (Rev 5:10).  “I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God, and who had not worshiped the beast, nor his image, nor had received his mark upon their foreheads,or in their hands; and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years” (Rev 20:4).  “They shall be priests of God and of Christ, and they shall reign with him a thousand years” (20:6).  “There shall be no night there; and they need no candle, nor light from the sun; for the Lord God gives them light.  And they shall reign for ever and ever” (22:5).

As in all things with Mary, she shows only the perfection of union with Christ, the highest perfection to which all are called.

***

Mary, and Mary’s Queenship, simply shows us perfect conformity with God – reigning with Christ, by entering into Christ’s reign.

The greatest theologians say it is unclear how exactly Mary reigns with Christ – or, in what sense Mary is “Mediatrix of All Graces,” as Catholic piety sometimes wants to say.

Does Mary herself distribute God’s grace?  Or does she merely ask God, and he does whatever she asks?  Garrigou-Lagrange, for example, says we don’t know.

What’s interesting is that it amounts to the same: what Mary asks for, happens – because Mary asks for exactly what Christ wants her to ask for.  She reigns because she has perfect conformity to Christ’s plan.  To be perfectly part of his kingdom is to share in his reign.

***

The Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit are always useful for thinking through what grace really means, and who Mary is – but they are especially helpful here.

In heaven, Mary has perfect wisdom.  She sees God, and in seeing God she sees all things perfectly, and the place all things have in God’s perfect plan.  Her reign is founded first on seeing as God sees.

From this flows also perfect understanding.  In the Beatific Vision, Mary understands all of Scripture, all of Christ’s words, all the ways he intends things to be.  A perfect Queen is so at one with the King that both would order the same thing.  That is Mary.

Next comes the gift of counsel, which merely means that in the difficult cases, the Holy Spirit illumines her eyes to see the relevant detail, and so to know exactly what is necessary to make the perfect choice.  We call Mary “Our Lady of Good Counsel” because she sees as God sees.

From counsel flows the gift of fortitude.  Completely caught up into conformity with Christ through the driving force of the Holy Spirit, and so with her eyes completely on the Father, Mary never fails to follow through, never gives up before the time.  We could say Heaven is less like being stuck in a place then like having the strength to cling tenaciously to the clouds.  Mary never fails.

Then comes the gift of knowledge, which is merely the created side of the gift of wisdom: Mary sees and appreciates creation exactly as God wants it.

The center of creation is the children of God.  The gift of piety means Mary loves God’s children, the citizens of his city, the way they deserve to be loved – and so participates perfectly in his providence for them.

And finally, the gift of fear, like the gift of fortitude, means she shudders ever to fall away, would never take her eyes from God’s goodness and his perfect plan.

It is the gifts of the Holy Spirit that make for a perfect sharing in the Kingship of Christ.  We look to Mary to see the possibility of our reigning with him, and to see the gentleness and the goodness of his reign.

How could we meditate on Mary so as to help us focus more on the reign of the Holy Spirit in us?

Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time: Let All the Nations Come

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra AngelicoIS 56: 

IS 56:1, 6-7; PS 67: 2-3, 5, 6, 7, 8; ROM 11: 13-15, 29-32; MT 15:21-28

This Sunday’s Gospel is very strange.  A Canaanite woman comes begging mercy for her demon-possessed daughter.  At first Jesus doesn’t answer.  Then he says what seems obviously untrue: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  But when the woman compares herself to a dog, eating “the scraps that fall from the table,” Jesus heals her daughter.

“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”?

***

The first reading – from Isaiah, in the Old Testament “of the house of Israel” – holds the key.

The New Testament is like the end of a great mystery novel (or indeed, of any great novel, for any great story makes us long to know the conclusion).  Yes, now we know the solution.  But that only makes the rest of the story more interesting.  We don’t know who the Messiah is if we don’t know and love the Old Testament he fulfills.

***

Isaiah speaks of “the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD.”  You probably know that when “LORD” is capitalized, it is because it is a circumlocution for the unspeakable name revealed to Moses, YHWH.  These foreigners are not joining themselves to the abstract God of everywhere.  They are joining themselves to the God who has revealed himself to Israel.

The reading details this emphatically.  It describes them as “loving the name of the LORD”: the “name” speaks of his revelation, of joining the people who know him as by name.

The foreigners in question “keep the Sabbath.”  To worship God is of the natural law.  But to keep the Sabbath is to share in the worship he revealed to Israel.

They “hold to my covenant” – in general, his relationship with Israel – and come “to my holy mountain,” Zion, the temple mount in Jerusalem.  They “make joyful in my house of prayer,” the Temple, and offer “burnt offerings and sacrifices,” the sacrifices of the Law, “on my altar.”

And so this, “my house,” the temple in Jerusalem, “shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” – those of every race and tongue and people and nation (Rev 5:9).

***

This image is absolutely essential to the Bible, and to our Catholic faith.  Salvation is not individual.  As Vatican II put it, “God does not make men holy and save them merely as individuals, without bond or link between one another. Rather has it pleased Him to bring men together as one people. . . . That is why he chose the race of Israel as a people unto Himself.”

“In Christ Jesus you who once were far off” – not members of that nation – “are made near by the blood of Christ.  For he is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of partition between us, having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances, to make in himself from two, one new man, so making peace” (Eph 2:13-15).

By giving the Holy Spirit, Christ destroys the divisions between nations.  But this is not to send us off as individuals.  Rather it is to bring us together, to intensify the unity of Israel and to welcome all into it.  The Church, the new Israel, is more perfectly one.

***

The liturgy barely touches Paul’s difficult discourse on Israel in Romans 9-11.  This week we get a small taste.

“The gifts and the call of God are irrevocable,” he says.  The promises to Israel are not annulled.  The Old Testament is not gone, it is fulfilled.

We “have now received mercy because of their disobedience.”  That is, the failure of Israel to follow the Law by their own strength has taught us to rely on the power of the Holy Spirit (which Paul has just discussed in Romans 8).

But “by virtue of the mercy shown to you,” the strength of the Holy Spirit now fulfilling Israel, “they too may now receive mercy,” and so fulfill his promises to his chosen people.

***

“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

He was sent to the lost sheep, those who strayed from the perfect unity he desired for his holy people.  But in bringing the lost sheep back to that unity, he also brings all nations together as one, so that “my house of prayer shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”

The God who dwells in this people is not a God of scarcity, but one whose mercy overflows, like the scraps falling from the table.  Those who gather around his table, knowing the abundance that is there, he indeed showers with his grace.

Are there people you have a hard time imaginging gathered around Christ’s table?  Could you live greater devotion to his plenty through your relationship with those people?