What did de Montfort Mean By “True Devotion to Mary”?

de MontfortYesterday the Church celebrated St. Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort (1673-1716), a French priest and author of the important treatise “True Devotion to Mary.” Mother Teresa thought this book was important enough that he should be named a Doctor of the Church. St. John Paul II chose his papal motto to refer to it: Totus tuus, “totally yours,” was one of de Montfort’s formulations of Marian devotion.

But what did de Montfort mean by “true devotion”?


The book is perhaps best known for its reference to “consecration” to Mary. Many Catholics, at some point in their lives, make a consecration, often with some reference to de Montfort. This is indeed something de Montfort recommends:

Those who desire to take up this special devotion, (which has not been erected into a confraternity, although this would be desirable [it now has]), should spend at least twelve days in emptying themselves of the spirit of the world, which is opposed to the spirit of Jesus, as I have recommended in the first part of this preparation for the reign of Jesus Christ. They should then spend three weeks imbuing themselves with the spirit of Jesus through the most Blessed Virgin. Here is a programme they might follow. . . .”

Based on the six paragraphs that follow, someone put together a series of meditations and many prayers to be said. Someone else recently came out with a book that shortens the time and tries to make it easier. Many Catholics go through this process, say the prayer at the end, and consider themselves “consecrated.”

But in the paragraph before he explains “preparation and consecration,” de Montfort says, “Although this devotion is essentially an interior one, this does not prevent it from having exterior practices which should not be neglected. ‘These must be done but those not omitted.’ If properly performed, exterior acts help to foster interior ones.

This section of the book suggests six other “exterior practices,” from wearing little chains to praying the rosary and the Magnificat, to “contempt of the world,” as exterior ways to nurture interior devotion. Consecration is parallel to these other devotions – and all of them are secondary to de Montfort’s real concern.


De Montfort is at pains to prevent us from “false devotion.” His section on false devotion is more than twice as long as his section on consecration.

False devotion is insufficient devotion – but there are different kinds of insufficient devotion. “Scrupulous devotion” is afraid that if we think about Mary too much, we will forget Jesus. Much of de Montfort’s book tries to explain why this is not true: true devotion to Mary always leads us closer to Jesus.

But other kinds of false devotion are, in an interesting way, different but similar to this insufficient devotion. “Presumptuous devotion,for example, thinks that just a few prayers (or, perhaps, a few external devotions, whether scapulars and chains or thoughtless rosaries and consecrations) absolves us of the need for a real spiritual life. “Presumptuous false devotion is different from scrupulous false devotion in the sense that one thinks devotion to Mary is too powerful, and the other thinks it’s too weak. But they are the same in that neither one is truly devoted.

“True devotion” doesn’t mean saying a couple prayers, or a consecration, and thinking you have your bases covered. True devotion, he says, is “interior, trustful, holy, constant, and disinterested.” True devotion is a “slavery of love” – slavery in the sense that we give our whole selves for love, instead of maintaining our “right” to think more of ourselves than of God. Presumptous devotion might think that consecrating ourselves to Mary is really valuable – but it fails by failing to be in love.

(The first part of being truly in love, he says, is that “Christ must be the ultimate end of all devotions.” If Marian devotion is an excuse for being lukewarm about Jesus, it isn’t real Marian devotion at all.)


At the end of the book, he says true devotion means living our whole life “through Mary, with Mary, in Mary, and for Mary.” Perhaps another time, we can dig into what these formulas mean.

For now, the point is that true devotion means transformation. It means taking Jesus as our all – de Montfort’s personal motto was “God Alone!” And it means taking Mary as a means of focusing our lives more totally on Jesus.

True devotion is not a consecration formula that we follow once and then forget. True devotion is a life transformed.

How could you make Jesus a bigger part of your day?

Good Shepherd: Union


ACTS 13:14, 43.52; PS 100:1-2, 4, 5; REV 7:9, 14b-17; JN 10:27-30

Last Sunday is now well behind us, but despite a busy week, I don’t want to miss the opportunity to comment on its rich readings.

The Second Sunday of Easter taught us about God’s mercy for us; the Third Sunday taught us to worship; this Fourth Sunday, Good Shepherd Sunday, taught us about union.


The short Gospel reading was from the fabulous tenth chapter of John’s Gospel, which is all about the Good Shepherd. Pope Francis says a good shepherd smells like his sheep. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is one with his sheep. He shares in our humanity so that we might share in his divinity.

Our reading begins, “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” What is implicit is that, just as he knows them, so they know him – that’s why they recognize his voice, and follow. Sheep, as we have said in the past, have an important kind of intelligence: they know their shepherd. They don’t have to be driven with sticks; they follow. Faith is a gift – we recognize our shepherd because he has given his own knowledge to us.

They know him because he is among them. They trust him because he knows and cares for them. The shepherd and the sheep are one.

He gives them life, his life – and they will never be destroyed. The earthly shepherd is a dim image of the kind of care that our Good Shepherd gives us. He is the very giver of life. We live in his hands.

And then he concludes (in our little snippet from a long discourse), “The Father and I are one.” He alludes to a deeper discussion about the unity of the Trinity, a unity poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, who is given to us.


In our reading from Revelation, in a more mystical key, John portrays the shepherd as a sheep – the most vulnerable sheep, the Lamb. Of course, Jesus is the Lamb in John’s Gospel, too, but here we have it put together: “the Lamb will shepherd them, and lead them to springs of life-giving water.” He can shepherd us because he has united himself to us. We can trust him because this Lamb shows his concern for us in becoming one of us. When he offers us shelter from the sun and the heat, and relief from our hunger and thirst, we know it is for real.

We look to Jesus in his humanity and know he will care for us.

The Lamb, of course, is also an image of sacrifice. In Revelation he is “the Lamb who was slain.” In this reading, we wash our robes and make them white in the blood of the Lamb. There are two kinds of depth of unity in this remarkable phrase. First, he unites himself to us not only in our relief, but in our suffering. He loves us “to the end,” to the depths, to the most awful aspects of our existence, to blood and death.

And second, he washes us white, which is a sign of purifying us. He makes us good. He doesn’t merely shelter us from the outside, he transforms us from within. He is not merely a distant God who gives us earthly food, he is Jesus who transfigures us, makes our hearts like unto his Sacred Heart, washes us clean.


In our reading from Acts, these mystical images were made concrete and historical. Paul and Barnabas are missionaries. At this point they are in Syria, the northeast corner of the Mediterranean.

The Lord who has united himself to them speaks through them. He has given them his word and they become his mouthpiece. Paul and Barnabas “spoke to them and urged them to remain faithful to the grace of God.” It is Paul and Barnabas who speak, but it is Christ’s word, calling the people to Christ. Christ who has united himself to them unites them to himself.

And he sends them to suffer as he suffered. They are rejected by their people – Christ’s people. They are expelled from the territory, and shake the dust from their feet. And in being rejected with Christ, they are filled with joy and the Holy Spirit – the joy of the Holy Spirit, joy of Christ’s love, poured into their hearts.

The Lamb who shepherds them has made them shepherds. He who loves us calls us to love. Christ who has come to us makes us part of him, rejoicing with him in the Father, suffering with him for the sheep.

Christ calling you. How does he want to take flesh in your life this week?

Should We Imitate the Amish?

people-field-working-agriculture-largeMy family recently had the good fortune to spend a day with an Amish family on their farm. It is an interesting opportunity to think about how we are like and different from the Amish, and how we might imitate some of their best practices.

The first thing to say, of course, is that the Amish are devout Protestants. They are like us in that they are trying to orient their life around their Christian faith. They are unlike us in that their faith is Protestant.


A key way we are more similar than at first appears, and thus there is an opportunity for us to learn from them, is that the Amish do not reject all technology. Rather, they are careful about technology.

They have “bishops,” but I think this means local lay leaders. These lay pastors gather together twice a year to find consensus. It is in these gatherings that they make decisions on technology. (Here already is an interesting similarity and difference: we would never ask the Magisterium to intervene on questions of our bathroom lighting; but perhaps we would do well to have lay communities who discuss such issues.)

Over our friends’ dining-room table hangs a battery-powered flashlight. Modern, yet primitive. But in their bathroom there is a kerosene lantern – and a Bic lighter. They hang their clothes to dry on a line outside, but they wash them in a modern washing machine. The machine is powered, however, by a jet of water . . . I can’t remember where the jet comes from, but anyway, there is no electric line to the house.

In the workshop is a modern electrical saw – connected to a car battery. Many of their tools work on car batteries; they also have a diesel generator for the barn. But on the sewing table in the house there was a notable absence of a sewing machine. The cows are milked using a high-tech vacuum system that attaches to old fashioned milk cans.

In short, the point is not that they reject all technology. The point is that they move slowly and carefully.

We too, who do not reject all technology, could benefit from some healthy skepticism about how technology affects our lives. Cars, lights, certainly screens, and even many mechanical conveniences in our homes – they all make good servants but terrible masters.

How much do electric lights improve our lives? I ask this writing, on a laptop of course, in my windowless basement office at school, mindful both that I’d be in absolute darkness without lights – and that I’d much prefer we didn’t have windowless offices.


A second way the Amish are not so different: they are not necessarily farmers. Just as many of them are carpenters, and many live in small towns.

You don’t have to live on a farm in order to question the role of technology in your life. One of the reasons my family lives in a dense city is so that we can walk to the grocery store, to church, to friends’ houses, to the park, to some parts of work, etc. Let us just distinguish the farm question from the too-much-technology question. Even the Amish make that distinction!

The key question is how technology affects our lives, and whether we let it interfere with greater goods, such as family and our relationship with creation. For us as for the Amish, these are questions of living a devout life.


And yet the key way that the Amish differ from us is that they are Protestants – a radical form of Protestantism. They are a radical wing of the Mennonites, who are perhaps the most radical wing of Protestantism. There are two key differences.

First, the Amish embrace a kind of Protestant piety called “separation from the world.” Although this specific Amish family was very welcoming to pagan Catholics like us, deeper than the Amish concern about technology is their concern about non-Christians, strictly defined.

The Catholic position on this issue is best defined in a line from St. Paul: “I wrote to you in the letter not to associate intimately with fornicators; yet not altogether with the fornicators of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or with idolaters; for then you must go out of the world” (1 Cor 5:9-10). Paul makes a distinction between “intimate association” (it’s a fancy word in Greek) and “going out of the world.”

We are called to be leaven. We are called to be in the world but not of it. We can learn from the devout Amish desire to be careful what paganism we allow into our homes or our churches. But we cannot flee the world as the Amish do.

That’s tricky. There’s no way around it: simplistic answers are easier to apply – and usually wrong. Every heresy is an effort to make complicated things simple and clear.

A second problem is related to the first: radical Protestantism, including the radical Amish, pit faith against reason, and even man against God, in ways that Catholicism doesn’t allow. There is a thin line between prohibiting idols and smashing icons. The Amish happily ignore that line. They reject books, and learning, and art, and politics. Nowhere in their house is there an image of Jesus. We can take inspiration from their devout life, but the Catholic answer has to celebrate the image of God more than that.

What is the role of technology in your life? How could it be better?

Third Sunday of Easter: Worship


ACTS 5:27-32, 40b-41; PS 30: 2, 4, 5-6, 11, 12-13; REV 5:11-14; JN 21:1-19

Last week – the second Sunday of Easter, Divine Mercy Sunday – the Church focused on Mercy. This week our readings turn us to worship. Worship is the positive to the slightly negative side of mercy. Mercy comes in where something is lacking. But God’s mercy, by strengthening us in our weakness, allows us to worship – and God’s awesome mercy becomes a new reason for worship.


One of the great joys of the post-Vatican II revised Lectionary is that, beside the traditional readings from Acts of the Apostles and John’s Gospel, we now also get a taste of the Revelation, or Apocalypse, of St. John.

There are various ways to read this book. Protestants sometimes get into trying to predict the future. The Catholic tradition tends not to comment on the book too much – but isn’t into soothsaying. (Jesus said no one knows the day nor the hour, not “just decode the Bible.”) There’s a modern movement (by ex-Protestant Catholics) to turn this book into code for the liturgy. Probably closer to the mark, but I don’t know if it’s necessary.

Literally, “revelation” (in Latin) or “apocalypse” (the same word in Greek) means “pulling back the veil,” seeing what’s hidden. It’s not the future that St. John’s Apocalypse “reveals,” but the present – the spiritual battle that rages all around us. It is a great joy when we learn to read this book, and so to see through the veils to spiritual realities.

One of the greatest joys in this book is the image of the saints in worship. This Sunday we had the angels singing, “worthy is the Lamb that was slain,” and then “every creature in heaven and on earth” crying out, “To the one who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor, glory and might, forever and ever.”

This is not soothsaying. This is the song at the heart of every true Christian. This is worship. Let us discover it.


But if Revelation gives us the mysterious songs of heaven, this Sunday’s Gospel leads us into worship in the most human ways. “When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he tucked in his garment – for he was lightly clad – and jumped into the sea. The other disciples came in the boat.”

There is no other scene in the Bible that so brilliantly shows what worship means. Little children understand the story. Peter is so delighted to see Jesus that he turns to foolishness. Worship is not foolish, but there we have the heart of Christianity – deeper maybe, even, then the discovery of God’s mercy. To be so in love with Jesus as to put on your clothes and dive into the water.

Then they ate a meal with Jesus. There are several meals, but this one on the beach is the most touching. Just to be with him. This is why we go to adoration, what we’re really doing when we pray the rosary, the heart of everything: just to be with him.

And then the Gospel takes us a step deeper. “Do you love me, do you love me, do you love me?”

“Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” The threefold repetition, of course, overcomes Peter’s threefold denial. But let us not over-complicate things. The heart of worship is simply the repetition of love.

And finally, that love issues forth in service: “feed my lambs.” If you love me, love your neighbor. If you love me, do my work. If you love me, carry my cross. If you love me let them dress you and lead you where you do not want to go, and die for me, to “glorify God.”

That’s what worship means. Everything else comes back to adoration, profound love of Jesus and of the Father, nothing else.


And the reading from Acts of the Apostles takes us a step deeper into the same spirit. On the one hand, we have suffering. “We must obey God rather than men.” And so they had to “suffer dishonor for the sake of the name.” To love him is to be willing to suffer.

But let us not over-focus on the suffering. Let us not over-complicate. The heart is love. “We gave you strict orders, did we not, to stop teaching in that name.” They “ordered the apostles to stop speaking in the name of Jesus.” But the apostles rejoiced “that they had been found worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name.”

Yes, suffering. Yes, obedience. But deeper than that is their joy in savoring the name of Jesus. The name, which is not a talisman, not a magic word, not an obligation, but the simple savoring of the goodness of God. Oh, sweet Jesus!

That is worship.

Where is worship in your life?

Second Sunday of Easter: The Mediation of Mercy and the Sacred Heart of Jesus


ACTS 5:12-16; PS 118: 2-4, 13-15, 22-24; REV 1:9-11a, 12-13, 17-19; JN 20:19-31

The Sunday after Easter is Divine Mercy Sunday, a new feast created by St. John Paul II, in response to a call by St. Faustina Kowalska. It is a wonderful feast – but it takes some unpacking.

It should be said, first, that feasts do not come from one visionary alone. Take the Sacred Heart. People associate devotion to the Sacred Heart with St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, a nun in France in the seventeenth century. She did indeed call for such a feast.

But she didn’t make it up. Devotion to the Sacred Heart was already important in the Middle Ages. And the Church didn’t accept it merely because Margaret Mary said so. It was providing insight into the needs of the time – more on that in a minute. This doesn’t mean Margaret Mary is bad or unimportant – in fact, it points out that Margaret Mary had both a great grasp of the Tradition and an inspired eye for the needs of her time. She is a great saint – but she is a great saint because she was not suggesting wild ideas.

Similarly, St. Faustina has important insights that we should hear. But those insights are important not because she made them up, but because she didn’t. And the Church’s articulation of those insights take them beyond St. Faustina, into the teaching of the Church. Divine Mercy is the Church’s feast, not just St. Faustina’s. That’s why St. Faustina is a saint: because she preaches the Catholic truth.


Now, there is reason to be hesitant about the Divine Mercy devotion, if not rightly understood.

The key problem is abstraction. Divine Mercy has in many ways supplanted devotion to the Sacred Heart. But the Sacred Heart focused on the person of Jesus, particularly the union between his divinity and humanity. Devotion to the Sacred Heart is not abstract, it is personal and it is intensely incarnational.

Divine Mercy, by itself, runs the risk of becoming an abstraction. To be specific, the danger is that “mercy,” apart from Christ, can lead us to think that our conversion doesn’t matter. People tend to think that mercy means God overlooks our sins. To the contrary, God’s mercy is in healing us and converting us.

The Sacred Heart, being so intensely human, reminds us that God’s mercy restores our humanity. It reminds us of the need to love. It reminds us of the humanity of Jesus, and of his virtues. We pray, “make our hearts like unto thine” – which is the right understanding of mercy, the opposite of God just overlooking our sin.

It is important that our devotion to Divine Mercy maintain this incarnational, human element.


St. Faustina, of course, helps us. Her image of Divine Mercy (above) shows that Divine Mercy is a commentary on the Sacred Heart, and on the sacraments – not a replacement for them. In the image, Jesus does not overlook us, he looks intently on us – and the sacraments pour forth from his Sacred Heart to heal our sins and unite us to his glory.

St. Faustina also gives us the Divine Mercy chaplet, which reminds us of “his sorrowful passion,” the pouring out of his Heart on the Cross, and of the Eucharist, “the body and blood, soul and divinity of your dearly beloved Son.”

And underlining it all are the words, “Jesus I trust in you.” St. Faustina does not let us turn Divine Mercy into an abstraction. It is another insight into the Sacred Heart of Jesus.


So too the Mass that the Church gives us. The Feast is placed on the octave of Easter Sunday. As Pope Francis has said, it is thereby “dedicated to the glorious wounds of the risen Jesus.” Like the image, it points us not into abstraction but into Easter.

The reading from Acts tells us of grace mediated by the apostles, as Peter’s shadow brings healing to the humanity of the sick. The second reading, from Revelation, has us falling before the feet of him who “was dead, but now [is] alive forever and ever” – embracing the feet of the Risen Lord. And the Gospel has Doubting Thomas probing the wounds of the Risen Christ and the Apostles given the ministry of Confession: “whose sins you forgive are forgiven them,” “Peace be with you.”

The Divine Mercy comes to us through the sacraments of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Mercy is no abstraction, it is union with Christ, crucified and alive.

What does the Heart of Christ teach you about Divine Mercy?

The Fruits of the Spirit: Getting Specific

Dublin_Christ_Church_Cathedral_Passage_to_Synod_Hall_Window_Fruit_of_the_Spirit_2012_09_26There is a tendency in modern Catholicism to try to simplify everything, to eliminate words until there’s nothing but a simple glance at God – as if it were more humble to think we have immediate access to God than to approach him through little details.

But Scripture, and the Tradition, give us so many little ways, so many concrete ways of approaching our spiritual life. We are not given a Buddhist wall of darkness. We are given a rich panoply of small, concrete approaches.


One little passage that manifests this richness is in Galatians 5:17-25.

For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh. And these are contrary to one another; lest whatever you may will, these things you do.

Here is a first opposition, “flesh” vs. “Spirit.” It is an optic to think about the role of God in our lives. But it is also unclear what it means. So St. Paul gets specific.

But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law. Now the works of the flesh are clearly revealed, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lustfulness, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, fightings, jealousies, angers, rivalries, divisions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkennesses, revelings, and things like these; of which I tell you before, as I also said before, that they who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.

The Law helps specify what love of God means. Really, there’s just “love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength” – but it’s helpful to get specific. It’s helpful to have an examination of conscience that helps us find what is not love. Here, Paul gets specific – more specific, deeper into the heart – than the Ten Commandments. This long list of sins helps us understand what he means about the “flesh” warring against the Spirit. Notice that it includes many sins that are not “fleshly,” but that are about excluding God from our life: idolatry, hatred, anger, division, etc. It is worth spending time with this list.


But the Tradition seems to find the next paragraph even more helpful:

But the fruit of the Spirit is: love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, faith, meekness, self-control; against such things there is no law. But those belonging to Christ have crucified the flesh with its passions and lusts. If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.

Here is a deep meditation on what the Cross and the Resurrection mean for us: to be reborn by the power of the Spirit. And what is the Spirit? Well, the Spirit is simply love – and yet Paul can get more specific than that. His list takes us deeper.

Curiously, the Latin tradition gets even more specific, adding three “fruits of the Spirit” to Paul’s list of nine. The Tradition adds patience to long-suffering, has humility and modesty for meekness, and adds chastity to self-control. Specifics are helpful.


One way to use this list is to focus on one a day. (It’s nice that they don’t line up with the days of the week, so you can go through the list and keep getting different fruits of the Spirit to think about on Wednesday, for example.)

On the first day of the month, we might think about love, calling to mind in various situations that love – love of this person before me, love of God who calls to me, love even of his creation as I deal with it – is a fruit of the Spirit. Throughout the day we imagine the Spirit breathing love into us.

But we can see deeper if, the next day, we imagine the Spirit breathing joy into us. And the next day peace, and then patience, and kindness, and goodness, long-suffering, humility, fidelity, modesty, self-control, and chastity. Love is everything – yet working our way slowly through this list, perhaps one gift per day, can help keep our meditation fresh, help us see the many aspects of love, the many parts of the transformation the Spirit of Christ longs to work in us.

The Word of God reminds us that each of these virtues is a gift from the Spirit. Again, we could simply say, “all is gift,” and that would be true. But if we spend a day now and then living patience or fidelity as a gift, perhaps we can better appreciate what it means to say that God works in our lives.

The spiritual life is very simple – but we are not. Thank God that Scripture is a thick book, not just a 3×5 card. Thank God for all the little meditations he gives to us, all the many aspects of his work in us that we can discover.

How could you enliven your days by meditating on the various Gifts of the Spirit?

Give Us This Day: The Eucharist

seven sacramentsWe come now to a turning point in the Our Father, and in the sacraments. Our first four sacraments named permanent states of life. Baptism at the beginning, and then Confirmation as we reach some kind of adulthood, initiate basic membership in the Church. Holy Orders and Holy Matrimony initiate the two principle offices, or forms of service, in the Church.

But the next three sacraments mark the way we live out those vocations: the Eucharist as our daily bread, Confession when we fall, and Anointing of the Sick when we enter the most fundamental suffering.

So too there is a turn in the Our Father. The first half of the Our Father is all “thine”: thy name, thy kingdom, thy will. (It begins with “our” Father – but it names him, not us, reverences who he is instead of asking anything for us.) The second half of the Our Father is all “ours”: our daily bread, our trespasses, deliver us.

The linchpin is “give us this day”: here we turn from the long-term to the specific struggles of our day to day.

And the lead-off point is “our daily bread”: we turn now from long-term vocations to our daily struggle.


The Eucharist is in many senses the center of the sacramental life. The only other sacrament with such a claim to centrality is Baptism, the beginning and doorway to the sacramental life.

And in many senses, the two petitions that go with these two sacraments sum up all the rest. To call God “Our Father” is everything. If we could pray nothing else all day, we would have everything. Or rather, every other prayer – including the other petitions of the Our Father – spell out for us what it means to say “Our Father.

So too, “give us this day our daily bread” contains everything. It is the simple realization that everything is a gift. Calling God Father and asking for bread both point to the deepest gift, the gift of life itself – the life given us by our parents and sustained by our daily bread.

Our petition this week has two parts, each illuminating the other. “Our daily bread” points to the simplicity, the fundamental reality, of the gift of grace. It is our very sustenance. But we might just as well say nothing but, “give us this day, give us this day, give us this day.” “Our daily bread” sums up that absolutely everything is included in “give us this day.”


Our reading of the Our Father with the seven sacraments is meant to help us draw from the sacraments. St. John says, “the anointing which you received from Him abides in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as His anointing teaches you concerning all things, and is true and no lie, and as He has taught you, abide in Him” (1 John 2:27).

There is something here akin to Eucharistic adoration, but with the other sacraments. By “the anointing” he means Baptism, and also Confirmation. We are meant to “dwell in,” or “abide” (two translations of the same word, so central to St. John’s vision) in our Baptism, and all the sacraments, to make a “spiritual Baptism,” as we make a spiritual communion. The sacraments are there – marriage and the priesthood, confirmation, and all the rest – waiting for us to let them penetrate us, waiting for us to let the oil seep into our souls.

When we pray “thy will be done,” for example, we dwell in our anointing, we call on the grace of our Confirmation to penetrate us.

But the most central of all these spiritual acts is, of course, spiritual communion. Jesus comes to us under the appearance of our daily bread so that we can learn to make “give us this day” our constant prayer. All is contained in those words. In that act of spiritual communion is also our spiritual confirmation, our spiritual baptism, our drawing on the priesthood and marriage and the others.

And again, the other words are there to spell out these ones – to help us see the completeness of the grace of the Eucharist. In the Eucharist he gives us the grace of marriage, the grace of confirmation, and all the rest. “Give us this day” is a prayer that contains all the others – and all our other prayers help us spell out what we mean when we pray to receive “this day” from him.


St. John also says, “what you heard from the beginning, let it abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning remains in you, you will abide in both the Son and in the Father” (1 John 2:24). Let us soak in the words of this prayer, steep in these words that we have “heard,” till the grace of the sacraments penetrates and transfigures us.

How could your prayer life express constant dependence on our Father?

The Juxtapositions of Easter

stabat materI have had a busy Holy Week. It’s overwhelming how so many very different things happen at once. That’s true of our spiritual life in general: work, and friends, and medical issues, and liturgy, and all the rest, all at the same messy time. It’s true, too, of the liturgies of Holy Week.

Holy Week begins with a strange juxtaposition. More than one person asked me about it this week: what’s going on with Palm Sunday? Even the name is confusing: “Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion.” Which one is it?

On the one hand, the Mass begins with Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. We sing Hosanna. (Hosanna, it turns out, is a Greek twist on a couple Hebrew words: it appears in the Bible only here, as the acclamation when Jesus enters Jerusalem.) We wave our palms. We acclaim the king.

And then, by the time the ordinary Mass begins, our Hosannas are forgotten. In the first reading, his beard is being plucked. In the second, he is emptying himself, taking the form a slave. The Psalm cries “why have you abandoned me.” And in the Gospel, we read the Passion in its entirety – already, right at the beginning of Holy Week.

Our palms remain awkwardly in our hands, while we are given the voice of a different crowd, crying not Hosanna but Crucify.

But that awkwardness, that strange juxtaposition, is just the point. We who wave the palms are the ones who betray him. And he who is crucified is also the king. This is the triumphal entry that he has eagerly expected. It’s all about that juxtaposition – the palms hanging limply in our hands.


This year we have another, but paradigmatic, juxtaposition. March 25 is ordinarily the Annunciation, the moment of great joy, when Christ comes into the world. This year it also happened to be Good Friday, dated according to the changing moon. Our celebration of the Annunciation is deferred till after Easter Week – but the juxtapostion is normal.

For March 25 is not just nine months before Christmas. We know Christmas is at the solstice, in the bleak midwinter. And it seems just an accident that the Annunciation awkwardly falls so close to Holy Week. But it is not awkward. It is the plan.

In fact, the Church settled on March 25 before it settled on December 25. Though we celebrate Easter following the old, lunar calculations for Passover, the traditional date of the Crucifixion was March 25. It is also the traditional date for the creation of Adam, the fall of Lucifer, the sacrifice of Isaac, and the crossing of the Red Sea.

These things go together. They are all one. Just as Christ is both king and crucified, and we are the crowd that both acclaims him and betrays him, so this is the time of when Adam is re-created, Satan is defeated, the first-born is sacrified, and the seas of death are conquered.

These are not just awkward, accidental juxtapositions. It all goes together. That’s the point.


Many years ago, some half-Christian family bought us a strange cross. Though it is the shape of the instrument of torture, on it are happy scenes from the life of Christ. Another awkward juxtaposition. Is he the Lord of happiness or the Lord of the Cross?

Here, the liturgical calendar has to de-juxtapose. On one level, the liturgical year simply comes down to the problem of reading the long Bible. It would be nice to read the whole Bible everyday. It all goes together. And it’s all important – we are not a religion of the 3×5 notecard, where everything can be said in a few words. The Bible is long, because there is a lot to say.

On some level, Holy Week is simply the time when we read this central passage. In fact, we read it a few ways. On Palm Sunday we read from the Synoptic Gospels, whichever Gospel we are reading that year. On Good Friday, we read from St. John. And we need those two accounts; they are different; they are richer in juxtaposition. John is like a commentary on the other Gospels – they tell us of the Eucharist, he tells us of the feet washing, etc.

Liturgically, we can’t read it all every day, so we break it up. But that crucifix we were given has sort of the right idea: the one who dies on Good Friday – yes and the one who rises again early on the morning of the third day – is the one, too, who healed the lepers, taught with parables, came to Cana in Galilee; the one who oversaw Noah and Abraham, David and Solomon, Ezra, the Maccabees, and the prophets of the exile.

In the thickness of the Bible, and the complexities of the liturgical year, we see the rich juxtaposition that makes up the whole of the Christian faith.

What parts of the faith do you find most hard to reconcile with one another? Can you learn anything by thinking about that juxtaposition?

Joseph and the Rediscovery of Love

Guido_Reni_-_Saint_Joseph_and_the_Christ_Child_-_Google_Art_Project“Man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself” (Gaudium et Spes 24). “Whosoever shall seek to save his life shall lose it; and whosoever shall lose his life shall preserve it” (Luke 17:33).

The Bible tells us little about St. Joseph, but what it does tell us is a magnificent example of this principle.


Joseph was betrothed to Mary. The Jewish betrothal ceremony had more weight than our engagement; they were effectively married, just awaiting the moving-in ceremony. Yet when he found her “with child through the Holy Spirit,” Joseph decided to send her away. (Our imprecise modern translations say, “divorce,” but the Greek is more like, “set her loose.”) The first thing we can see is that the coming of Jesus confused Joseph’s plans.

Reading quickly, we sometimes mistake Joseph’s motives – and in the process, we mistake the strength of their relationship. Perhaps he thought Mary had been with another man. But surely no one who knew Mary would think that.

Rather, it says that he found her with child through the Holy Spirit. The text allows us – and the context compels us – to think he knew the child was divine. He sent her away not because he thought she was bad, but because he thought she was too good for him. It says he wanted to send her away because he was righteous; like any righteous Jew, he did not dare step into the sanctuary, knowing he was unworthy to see the face of God.

Indeed, the scandal of Mary is that God has come far too close. It doesn’t seem appropriate. It doesn’t seem possible. So we pretend that Jesus is either less than God or less than truly human. To recognize that Mary is truly the mother of God is to explode our minds. Joseph, being holy, didn’t deny the truth – but he stepped away from it.

Thus the angel has to say, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.” (And we must be told, as well, not to be afraid to welcome Mary into our homes.) Joseph is afraid – but the angel reminds him of his own messianic dignity.


The angel tells Joseph of the role he must play: “You are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” Joseph is the namer. He did not conceive the child, but he is to act as the father.

And he is to name Jesus savior – not destroyer. On the one hand, Jesus seems to upend Joseph’s plans. Like Abraham, Joseph must set off on a trajectory he never expected.

But in losing his life, Joseph rediscovers it. Naming Jesus points to how personal Joseph’s vocation will be. Children need parents – not just institutions – because they need to be known personally, to be known by name (not just by number). Joseph’s fatherly role is beautifully outlined in the naming of Jesus.

And Joseph is to be husband of Mary. We have a strange idea of ancient marriage, as if they didn’t even know their spouses. But though sin has always gotten in the way, marriage has always been about love and relationship. Children need marriage because they need to experience those personal relationships, to grow up in a context of inter-personal love.

The Bible portrays the first marriage, the marriage of Adam and Eve, as a delight, a discovery of another self and an end to the loneliness of being surrounded by mere animals. The Old Testament portrays marriage as the ultimate image of the love of God for his people, a love which is the opposite of betrayal and infidelity. I agree with the tradition that says the Song of Songs is about God and his people, not about human marriage – but regardless, it portrays marriage as profound being-in-love.

And when Jesus gives the grace to restore marriage – a grace given preeminently to his mother – it results in a love like his own. The only commandment to the Bride is to love.

Joseph wasn’t ignorant of Mary. She wasn’t some stranger that he suspected of adultery. She was his best friend. In the story of the Finding in the Temple, Mary can speak for Joseph’s heart: “your father and I have looked for you, greatly distressed” (Luke 2:48).


Jesus is savior. He comes to restore, not to destroy. He calls Joseph, yes, to give up his life. Like any marriage, he must give himself unreservedly to his wife, to his child, and to God. In this marriage, he will have to give himself even more radically, as evidenced in his fear to go forward.

But the angel tells him not to be afraid. In giving his life, he finds it again, in laying it down he rediscovers all the riches of love: the love of husband and wife, the love of father and son, the love of friendship, the love of God.

Where is St. Joseph in your devotional life?

(For more meditations like the above, check out Fr. Mary-Dominique Philippe’s exquisite The Mystery of Joseph. (aff))


nature-forest-trees-hillsHere’s an insight I’ve gleaned from my Capuchin Franciscan friends and my study of the history of religious orders: whatever we do, we need time apart. Although Lent is coming to a close, it’s good to remind ourselves, as we push toward the finish line, of our need for retreat.

As with any friendly rivalry, there are lots of great jokes about the religious orders. One of the simplest says there are three things even God doesn’t know: what the Jesuits are up to, what the Dominicans are thinking, and who are the real Franciscans.

The Jesuits are supposed to be mission-driven – but it sometimes seems they’re always getting into trouble. The Dominicans are supposed to preach the Gospel clearly – but sometimes seem lost in complicated ideas. And the Franciscans are, well, men divided by a common ideal.


The genius of St. Francis was to return to the heart. At his time, about the year 1200, it seemed that institution was always conquering true religion. Not long before, St. Bernard had led the Cistercians, a great reform movement of the Benedictines – and within fifty years it often seemed they were more interested in prestige than in the intense spirituality of their founders.

The mendicant movement – the Franciscans and the Dominicans – broke out of their institutions. They were, above all, men on the road, men on a mission. It seemed they had rediscovered the Holy Spirit, the Gospel, and truly personal union with Jesus.

But where St. Dominic looked back into history for practical ways to organize that movement, St. Francis seemed to care nothing for order. Dominic took the thousand-year-old Rule of St. Augustine, used the hundred-year-old constitutions of St. Norbert, and made some modifications for the mission at hand.

St. Francis’s first rule was just a collection of Gospel passages about poverty. He later wrote a second rule, but it’s pretty vague. Liturgically – they’ll just do what Rome does. They shouldn’t have money. They shouldn’t own anything. It’s an anti-rule rule, an anti-institution institution.

That’s the genius and the downfall of the Franciscans. Their founder wanted no foundation but the Gospel and poverty.


The Dominicans have never split. Dominic created a structure within which there could be reform movements, but no one has ever founded a counter-Dominican order.

The Franciscans immediately split, and have ever since. I am friends with a group here who began when members of one branch of the Franciscans went to the bishop and said they couldn’t in conscience remain in that branch, because they weren’t living the Franciscan vows. They set off for a life of radical poverty – and another group quickly split off from them for being too institutional.

It’s both inspiring and obnoxious. That’s St. Francis and the Fransicans: the ultimate idealists, the ultimate movement for pure religious life.


There have been many attempts to square the circle of a Franciscan “order.” The mainline, the Order of Friars Minor, tries to avoid division. Recollect movements tried to pray more. Conventuals emphasized stability. The Discalced emphasized poverty. Observants emphasized the whole package. And through history there have been constant divisions trying to discover the purity of Franciscan life

Here I have to skip over a lot of historical research, and simply say: in my view, it seems like the Capuchins have been especially successful at figuring it out. At the least, they present one solution to the problem.

And the heart of the Capuchin movement is hermitage. They are called Capuchins because of their pointy hood, which recalls the radical monastic movements. The Capuchin solution to the Franciscan puzzle is for everyone to spend a couple days every month alone in silence. Hermitage was certainly part of Francis’s spirituality; the Capuchins determined it was the key.

Why does it work? I think it’s because among all the chaos, all the rootlessness that, in its way, is part of the Franciscan genius, hermitage gives space to recenter. The Franciscan problem is the temptation to forget what it’s all about. Hermitage is a solution.


Hermitage casts some light for us on the sixteenth-century movement for “mental prayer,” so influential, and perhaps so misunderstood, by the age to follow. Mental prayer has sometimes been turned into techniques, or even an opposition to Scripture and liturgy. But the real point is, sometimes we need space, time to think. On the simplest level, sometimes we just need to go for a walk.

Some vocations, especially monastic ones, are clear and orderly and constantly pointing us back to the center. But like the Franciscans, many of us live vocations – from family to the parish priesthood – that are hard to center. It’s part of the Franciscan genius – and part of the genius of our vocations – that we go everywhere, are open to the contingencies of real life, have a flexibility that doesn’t allow us to come to the liturgy seven (or, really, nine) times a day.

Maybe the Capuchin solution can be our solution, too. Maybe what we need is not techniques, but just some occasional time away, even an hour here or there to slow down, have nowhere to go, and remember why we’re doing all this.

How do you find time to breathe?