“Among Women”

Hail Mary ImagePart 5 in our series on the “Hail Mary”.

This week’s meditation on the Hail Mary is about vocation. Mary is not generically blessed: she is blessed among women.

St. Elizabeth’s words pair this statement with a description of Jesus as “the fruit of your womb.” In English (though not Greek or Latin) you could think of the word woman as coming from “womb” (like a man, but with a womb!), and the womb is the most womanly part of woman.

In fact, this pair spells out what we saw in the first pair. Mary is full of grace because the Lord is with her – but the Lord is with her as fruit of her womb, and she is with him, and full of grace, precisely as woman. Mary makes it so concrete: she lives in union with Jesus not through abstraction, but through her vocation as his mother. She carries him, births him, nurses him, cooks and cleans and mothers for him, bosses him around at Cana, and experiences his ministry, his cross, his resurrection, and his ascension – and even Pentecost, and her own arrival in heaven – precisely as his mother. Her vocation colors everything about her relation to him.


It colors, too, her relation with her neighbor. Beautiful that the one who calls her “blessed among women” is her woman friend – and, indeed, her relative, descended from a common womb – Elizabeth. Together they are doing women’s work, preparing for their babies. She relates to Elizabeth not as an abstract individual, but as a woman – and, in addition to her gender, also in a family, in a place, in a historical period, in a language, etc. They are not abstractions, they are people, and it is there, in their human particularity, that God’s grace comes to meet them.

Nor does Mary’s femininity shut her off, as if “among women” means that she doesn’t get to be around men. Luke adds the nice little detail that she “entered Zechariah’s house, and greeted Elizabeth” (Luke 1:40): Zechariah is around too!

More importantly, Mary has Joseph. There are various things to love about St. Joseph, but one of the finest – Marie-Dominique Philippe’s The Mystery of Joseph explores this in all its Scriptural richness, but it also plays a prominent role, for example, in Leo XIII’s encyclical on St. Joseph Quamquam pluries – is that Joseph is Mary’s husband. Mary and Joseph are not abstractions, they are a man and a woman, making a home together. Together they marvel at the things that are said of Jesus (Luke 2:33), together they seek for him (2:44-46), Mary speaks for his feelings, “your father and I have sought you sorrowing” (2:48). They were engaged to be married, and Joseph trembled to take her to himself, and trembled to lose her. They built a home together, eating dinner, knowing their neighbors, and establishing customs: “his parents went to Jerusalem every year for the passover” (Luke 2:41).

And later Jesus will give Mary to John to be his mother (John 19:26-27), and she will gather with the apostles as “mother of Jesus” (Acts 1:14).

In all of these things Mary is profoundly woman, profoundly in relationship, profoundly personal. There is no abstraction in the life of grace. Grace graces our life, in all its particularity.


Is this limiting? Well, yes and no. To speak of Mary in terms of her womb is to reduce her to biology. And, indeed, Jesus is careful to say there is more to us than just our biological acts: “rather, blessed are they that hear the word of God and keep it!” (Luke 11:28) But Mary keeps the word of God in her vocation. Her biology – “the womb that bore him, the breasts he sucked” (Luke 11:27) – becomes the place of her encounter with Jesus.

We are limited by our vocations. We cannot meet Jesus anywhere else than where we are. Those limitations are very real: so many things I can’t do – and so many things I must do! But the wonder of the Incarnation is that God, who created this particularity in the first place, then took it on himself when he walked in a particular body in a particular time and place, comes to meet us right where we are. Sometimes that seems unimportant: Mary is “just” a woman, not a priest like Zechariah. But it is God who makes the little things matter.


By the way: did it ever occur to you that Mary had a funny accent? “They that stood by said again to Peter, Surely you are one of them: for you are a Galilean, your way of speaking gives you away!” (Mark 14:70; cf. Luke 22:59 and Acts 2:7) They will know that we are Christians by our funny accents.

Click here for the rest of the “Hail Mary” series.

The Spirit of Envy

image for vicesPart 6 in our weekly series on the vices.

I recently got to chat with a holy older friar, a somewhat prominent theologian, distinctly conservative (for what that matters) and an expert on moral and spiritual theology. We were talking about Pope Francis – and the rage against him from some parts of the Catholic world, who proclaim him insufficiently pro-life, etc. “We have some elder sons going on,” quipped the old friar. And so we have two excellent tales: the prodigal son’s elder brother, and the conservative outrage at Pope Francis, with which to consider the second-to-last of our vices, envy.


The elder brother is perhaps easier to understand – because he is at a greater distance. When the father treats the prodigal son well, the elder son is outraged: “these many years have I served you, never at any time transgressing your command – and yet you never gave me a kid, so that I might make merry with my friends!”

The first lesson of the elder son is that there are sins other than those of the flesh. These are subtler sins, but no less poisonous in our relationship with God and with our neighbor. He followed the commandment – but that wasn’t enough, because he still raged against the Father and against his brother. Sin is altogether finer than we often think. It is all about those two simple relationships: yes, slovenliness and lust hurt our relationships with God and man – but the point is the relationships, not the lust. Envy strikes just as deep. Indeed, it strikes deeper, because it lays hidden. At least the prodigal knows he has a problem.

Envy hates the goodness of others because it is in love with its own goodness. The Latin invidia, the source of our word envy, means something like “looking into,” as in, with a look that burns holes in the other. It is different from jealousy: it isn’t about wanting what the other person has. It is about hating the other person, hating his goodness, because it is a threat to my pride. This is dangerous stuff. It comes close to the sin that brought down Satan: he could not stand to see Jesus and Mary elevated, could not rejoice at their goodness.


What is going on in conservative outrage against Pope Francis? It’s worth noting that they constantly misquote him, and build false oppositions between him and his predecessors, though I can’t get into that here.

That holy old friar said – laughing, because he is actually humble – “It’s not fair! I’ve trained my whole life to say intelligent things, and Francis wins them over with a simple gesture!” Envy, invidia, burning holes in him with their eyes. How dare he be loved! How dare he suggest there is any goodness in the world other than mine!


Francis has something to teach us about the cure for envy, too. It lies in being part of a community. When I view myself as an individual, a free agent, then other people’s success looks like nothing but competition. But that is not the reality. We are on the same team! My brother’s goodness is good for me!

Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium (a favorite document of Pope Benedict’s), says,

“The laity should, as all Christians, promptly accept in Christian obedience decisions of their spiritual shepherds, since they are representatives of Christ as well as teachers and rulers in the Church. Let them follow the example of Christ, who by His obedience even unto death, opened to all men the blessed way of the liberty of the children of God.”

Obedience means, first, being a team player. Obedience to legitimate authority – even my boss! but especially my pope and my bishop – is an important way to cultivate a sense of team work, of being part of a community that is bigger than myself. Finding myself in the communion of the Church, instead of outside, being critical, helps overcome my sense of competition against other people’s goodness. Obedience is at the service of community.

Second, obedience means respect for my elders. Their wisdom is my gain. The Christian longs to learn from his elders: from Scripture, from the Tradition, from the Magisterium, also as a way of cultivating a sense that the truest goods are ones that are shared. Respect for our elders is a sure way to fight envy.


Are we elder sons: at work, in the family, in the Church? No worry: God has mercy on us too. A fabulous line lies hidden in the parable of the Prodigal Son. “The elder son . . . was angry, and would not go in: therefore his father came out, and entreated him.” Even when we refuse to stoop, he stoops to us.

Click here for the rest of the “Vices” series.

Pastoral Care of Families

The Pope has called an “extraordinary” (in other words, short-notice) “synod of bishops” (in other words, a selection of bishops from around the world to advise him) for next October to discuss “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization.”  What a wonderful, important discussion to have!

A nice side benefit of such an initiative is that we at the grassroots can do our own brainstorming about the pastoral care of families.  Even if our ideas never make it into a papal document, it can do us a lot of good to think about what might be helpful.

Yesterday I read an excellent short piece on this topic by Micah Murphy at Truth and Charity.  I don’t know him, or this Web site, but what I really appreciate about Murphy’s approach is his joining of what is most deep and essential with really practical thinking.  Things like homilies encouraging families to “slow down and embrace silence” (well, my four-year-old is screaming at the moment, but I know what he means); lots more confession times; and the importance of Masses for whole families, not breaking families up into age groups.  Essential but practical.  Also so important: creating communities of families — and he has very concrete ideas for how to do this.

I like, too, that Murphy has links to other pieces where he has been writing about concrete pastoral strategies.  I especially like his “5 Catechetical Tips for Reaching the Most Important Audience.”  And his writing style is pleasant, funny, and positive.

We could do with a lot more of this pastoral kind of thinking.  I encourage you to check out his piece.

The 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time: The Journey to Jerusalem

St Dominic with BibleThis reflection refers to the readings for Sunday, October 13, 2013.  For last Sunday’s reflection, click here.

2 KGS 5:14-17; PS 98: 1, 2-3, 3-4; 2 TM 2: 8-13; LK 17:  11-19

As you probably know, Naaman the Syrian was mad about how the prophet Elisha cured his leprosy: “I thought, he will surely come out to me, and stand, and call on the name of the Lord his God, and strike his hand over the place, and heal the leprosy.” But instead, Elisha told him to bathe in the River Jordan. “Are not . . . the rivers of Damascus better than all the waters of Israel? May I not wash in them, and be clean? So he turned and went away in a rage.”

That comes before Sunday’s reading. This week we read the end of the story. The interesting part is about dirt: “Naaman said, If you will not accept, please let me, your servant, have two mule-loads of earth, for I will no longer offer holocaust or sacrifice to any other god except the Lord.”

This is a strange request: two mule-loads of earth? But it is the key to the story. Naaman had no problem believing the God of Israel could heal him: that is why he came to Elisha, and he expected Elisha to “call on the name of the Lord his God.” What he did not expect was the physical connection to the land of Israel: “May I not wash in the rivers of Damascus, and be clean?” At the end he not only decides to worship the God of Israel – he wants the dirt. He wants a connection to that holy land – just as Elisha healed him through a connection to that land.


Our Gospel takes up this theme in two ways. Jesus is on a journey to Jerusalem. In fact, all of Luke’s Gospel is built around this journey. In one strange place, it says the Samaritans “did not receive him, because his face was as though he would go to Jerusalem” (Luke 10:53). What such a face looks like, I have no idea. But the point is, that is who Jesus was: a man on his way to Jerusalem.

In fact, our reading today, which is near the end of this journey, begins, “as Jesus continued his journey to Jerusalem, he traveled through Samaria and Galilee.” Well now, the first thing you learn about the geography of the Holy Land is that Galilee is in the North, Samaria is in the middle, and Jerusalem is in the South. But Jesus was already in Samaria “on his way to Jerusalem” in chapter 10. Now in chapter 17 he’s going through Galilee – in the wrong direction – but still on his way to Jerusalem. In other words, we are not just talking about the direction he is physically travelling. Even when he’s headed the other direction, Jesus still has his heart set on Jerusalem.

And he sets others towards Jerusalem. In this story, too, there is healing of lepers. But the more interesting parallel is the focus on the land. First, he tells the healed lepers, “Go show yourselves to the priests.” He sends them up to Jerusalem (or at least to the local representatives of Jerusalem).


But then comes the punchline. “One of them, realizing he had been healed, returned, glorifying God in a loud voice . . . and he fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him.”

Jesus is the true Jerusalem. He is the Holy Land. He is the temple. He is the great king’s city.

Modern authors like to say the God of the Gospels is “personal.” That’s okay. But in Scripture, the bigger point is that he is particular. Yes, yes, he is everywhere. But more importantly, he is somewhere. The waters of Jordan, the dirt of Israel, the walls of Jerusalem, Mount Zion: they all speak of him being somewhere in particular. We love the face of Jesus because it is his face; we go on pilgrimage to where he is.

One aspect of this is that it builds a Church. Where he is – and where his vicars of various kinds are – there is the Church. That is the point of the Bible’s nationalism: when we go where God is, we become part of his people, united to everyone else who gathers by that same God. We make a pilgrimage together up to Jerusalem – to Jesus.


The epistle makes this just as particular. “Jesus Christ . . . a descendant of David.” Particularity: not “universal Messiah from nowhere.” And we go to be united to him: “If we have died with him, we shall also live with him, if we persevere, we shall also reign with him.” And he remains there, waiting, ever faithful.

St. Augustine on Spiritual Warfare

Just as we have descended to this evil state through one man who sinned, so through one man (who is also God) who justifies us we shall ascend that height of goodness.

No one should be confident that he has passed over from the one state to the other, until he has arrived where there will be no more temptation – until he has achieved that peace which is his aim in the many varied struggles of this present warfare, in which ‘the desires of the body oppose the spirit, and the spirit fights against the body’s desires.’

Now this war would never have been if human nature had, by free choice, persisted in that right condition in which it was created. As it is, however, human nature has refused to keep that peace with God in happiness; and so in its unhappiness it is at war with itself.

And yet this evil state is better than the earlier condition of this life; for it is better to struggle against vices than to be free from conflict under their domination. Better war with the hope of everlasting peace than slavery without any thought of liberation.

Our desire is, indeed, to be free even of this war; and by the fire of divine love we are set on fire with longing to attain that orderly peace where our lower parts may be subdued to the higher in a stability that can never be shaken.

But even if (perish the thought!) there were no hope of attaining this great good, we ought none the less to prefer to continue in this state of conflict, with all its troubles, than to allow our vices to have dominion over us by ceasing to resist.

-St. Augustine, The City of God, Book XXI, chapter 15

Blessed art thou

Hail Mary ImagePart 4 in our series on the “Hail Mary”.

The Hail Mary is full of pairs, reflecting back and forth on one another. After the greeting, “Hail! Rejoice!” comes the pair, “full of grace” and “the Lord is with you.” We saw in the last few weeks that these two things state two sides of the same coin, the inside and the outside, something about Mary, something about Jesus, or perhaps, what Jesus does in Mary, and where Mary stands with Jesus. (But which is which?)

Later we will have “Holy Mary” and “Mother of God”: two sides of the same coin. Then the contrasts “Holy Mary” and “us sinners,” “mother of God” and “pray for us,” “pray for us” and “us sinners,” “now” and “at the hour of our death,” “mother” and “death.” All mirrors reflecting back on one another, coins with two sides. The action of God and its reflection in us.


This week we begin another such pair: “Blessed are you” and “Blessed is he.” (This one, too, is complicated, also including the parallel “among women” and “the fruit of your womb.”) The statement, of course, is from Elizabeth in Luke’s Gospel. Luke goes out of his way to tell us this is an inspired saying: “Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. And she spoke out with a loud voice, and said, Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.” (What a splendid detail: “with a loud voice”! In the Greek it’s actually “a big sound”! She was excited, like the babe, leaping in her womb!)

There are actually two words for “blessed” in the Greek. Here, it’s eulogeo, which literally means, “spoken well of.” But we also have makarios, which means “happy,” supremely happy. The Beatitudes are makarios, and in the story of the Visitation, Elizabeth goes on to say, “blessed – makarios, happy – is she who believed” and in the Magnificat, Mary will respond, “all generations will call me blessed: makarios.” But actually, in Mary’s words, we see the connection between the two: how do they speak well of her, eulogeo? By calling her the supremely happy one, makarios!

And the flip side is that eulogeo, “spoken well of,” also goes two ways: we speak well of her because she is happy. But she is happy because God has spoken well of her: he has given her is “blessing.” God’s word makes it happen. Mary is the one God has given his good word, therefore the supremely happy one, therefore the one we speak well of.


The parallel with Jesus is really mind-boggling: but, like other parts of the Hail Mary, it has a claim to be the very Gospel itself. Think of the incongruity of the parallel: Mary is blessed, Jesus is blessed. Now . . . Jesus is God. He is THE blessed one. His blessedness, you would think, is beyond what anyone else can claim, incommunicable. But Elizabeth – or, the Holy Spirit in Elizabeth – claims that Mary is, in a sense, the same. Blessed as Jesus is blessed.

That’s how the early Church formulated the Gospel: “God became man so that man could become God”: a favorite saying of the Fathers. And “sons in the Son.” Or as St. Paul says, “You know the grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ, who, though he was rich, yet for our sake he became poor, that you through his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). Jesus didn’t just come to tell us about God, or to fix it up so that we don’t have any more problems with God. He came to share his own blessedness. Mary is the first fruits.

This is why, too, the earliest Christians focused on what they called the proto-Evangelium, the first Gospel. “And the Lord God said to the serpent . . . I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed: he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Gen. 3:14-15). Who will bruise the serpent’s head? Well, Jesus will – but this is part of the enmity between the serpent and the woman – Jesus is even called just “her seed.” To show Mary crushing the serpent’s head is not a matter of mistaking “she” for “he.” It is a matter of saying that we communicate in his victory. Because he crushes the serpent, so can we.

When the Son became man, it wasn’t so we could be “sort of like” sons. It was so that we could truly be sons of God, “whereby exceeding great and precious promises are given to us: that by these things you might be partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4).

That’s what we mean by “full of grace.” Blessed as he is blessed.

Click here for the entire “Hail Mary” series.

The Spirit of Wrath

image for vicesPart 5 in our weekly series on the vices.

This week we consider the vice of wrath. The first three spirits we faced, gluttony, lust, and avarice, were about things outside of us; the next, acedia or sloth, was about ourselves; the next two, wrath and envy, are about other people. The last one, pride, will be directly about our relationship to God.

One way to think of the difference between wrath and envy is that envy is toward those who are in some way better than us, while wrath is about those in some sense beneath us. Envy is “angry” that other people are better than us; wrath is angry that people are not good enough. Funny, isn’t it: seems like they can’t do anything right.


The Desert Fathers sometimes said that the only one we should ever really get angry with is ourselves. Perhaps the deeper point is that the only one truly subordinate to me is me. If we rage against sin, or any kind of imperfection, let it be our own.

This is one of the many ways the Psalms are a remarkably helpful form of prayer. The Psalmist is always fighting. He has enemies everywhere. Praying with the Psalms, I find something wonderful happen, time after time. The Psalmist starts talking about enemies, asking God to smite them (the Psalmist never smites his own enemies: he always asks God to do it). And, I don’t know about you, but I always have plenty of people whom I can fit into that role. Ah, yes, him – that guy at work, my friend I am fighting with, the family member who is bothering me – ah, yes, that’s my enemy!

But my first reaction to the Psalmist’s violence is to say, gosh, I guess I don’t really want him to be smitten that badly. I mean, it’s not like I want my coworker to die. But then the other thing that starts to happen, even in the shorter Psalms, is that I quickly begin to realize that my coworker is not my real enemy. Somehow the Psalms turn a mirror on us . . . and we realize that the real enemy is spiritual, not material; inside me, not outside. The cause of my frustration is not him, it’s me.

Medieval art likes to depict devils. They are always kind of silly looking: goofy little guys with bird heads, or something. And it’s helpful to realize: that is my enemy. “The words of his mouth were smoother than butter, but war was in his heart: his words were softer than oil, yet they were drawn swords,” says one Psalm. No, that’s not my colleague. That’s the little voice whispering in my ear that I should drag myself into this fight. And it’s the little voice whispering in my ear, afterwards, that I should continue to dwell on the fight, that I should fill my interior life with attacks on other people.

When we pray, in the same Psalm, “let death seize upon them, and let them go down quick into hell,” we don’t mean our family members. We mean those hellish spirits that are always sowing discord.


Does this mean the real problem is devils? Well, maybe. But it’s nice to notice that the “spirits” we are battling against can refer both to real, external spiritual powers, and to sinful aspects of our own selves. It is both the devil and my own sinful self who cause me problems. And both spirits, the devil and the my own emotions, or selfishness, or whatever: I want all these spirits to be crushed. That is the real battle. That is who I should really be angry with: both the devil, and the part of myself that is so full of hate.

We should be most angry at our own anger.

The Psalms have some horrifying lines: “O daughter of Babylon . . . happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.” Are we talking about infanticide? No: because the children of Babylon are not other people’s children. They are sins rising up within me. Kill them in their infancy. Crush the serpent’s head, before he can climb all the way into your soul.


The Psalms are awfully violent! But the point is, emotion has its place. We are not meant to be cool as a cucumber. We are meant to fight, to rage against the rage within us, to hate our hatred, with violence! To love the Lord, and the neighbor he gives us, with passion.

Click here for the rest of the “Vices” series.

The 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Living by Faith

St Dominic with BibleThis reflection refers to the readings for Sunday, October 6, 2013.  For last Sunday’s reflection, click here.

HB 1: 2-3; 2: 2-4; PS 95: 1-2, 6-7, 8-9; 2 TM 1: 6-8, 13-14; LK 17: 5-10

Next Sunday’s readings teach us about living by faith. They include the classic line from the prophet Habakkuk, “the just one will live by faith.” St. Paul, of course, makes much of this line in his letter to the Romans. But it is important to have a fully Biblical, Catholic understanding of what this line means. This Sunday’s readings take us into that.

The reading from the prophet is both powerful and a little vague. The prophet cries for help, and gets none. Instead, he gets a “vision”: “for the vision still has its time, presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint.” This is a little vague, and is perhaps meant to be.

As the Letter to the Hebrews says, we “look for a city which has foundation, whose builder and maker is the Lord.” That is, we look ahead, we press toward the “vision” in which God is all in all, where the city dwells in peace and worship, because the Lamb is its light. Christianity is lived within this vision.

But it is lived here and now, where, as Habakkuk says, “Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and clamorous discord.” In our families, in our hearts, in our streets, in our world: this is not the heavenly Jerusalem. So we press on towards the vision. “If it delays, wait for it, it will surely come, it will not be late.”

That, says Habakkuk, is what it means to live by faith. Do not be “rash”: wait for it, live by faith, in the vision of God’s power, and the city he will build.


But the New Testament takes us deeper into what this means. Paul writes to the young bishop Timothy, “stir into flame the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands.” The New Testament takes us into the part of the vision that is here and now; the kingdom of God is among us. God has communicated his spirit to us, his power, his love: “not a spirit of cowardice, but rather of power and love and self-control.”

Timothy’s challenge is to live and proclaim the Gospel in a world of violence. He will have to “bear his share of hardship for the gospel” – but he can do this through the strength of the spirit of Christ, “the strength that comes from God.”

Habakkuk’s vision becomes a little more concrete. It is not just that we live in this world of violence and wait for God’s action. God’s action is in us. To live by faith means looking forward to the city that has foundations – but the foundation of that city is God’s spirit working in our own hearts, giving us the strength to love in this shattered world. Living by faith means believing in the Holy Spirit – “the help of the Holy Spirit that dwells within us.”

The Spirit is in us precisely through the sacraments: “through the imposition of my hands,” by which Paul communicated the priesthood to Timothy, and by which the priests communicate the Holy Spirit to us in the sacraments. To live by faith is to believe that in the laying on of hands is the power of Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist, Confession, the Anointing of the Sick, and Marriage. There is power in the sacraments!


The Gospel is at first strange, and in two parts. The first has us moving the mountains by our faith. Well, the point is not that we should dump mountains in the sea. The point is that God is living and active and powerful. To live by faith is to know that God, who made the mountains and the sea, is powerful enough to work in our hearts, even through the violence and destruction of this present darkness.

But then the Gospel gives us the other side. The Spirit in us is the Spirit of love. On the one hand, he is power – powerful enough to crush the mountains and empty the seas. But on the other hand, he is love. Not just a Spirit, but the Holy Spirit!

And so the second half of the Gospel has us saying, “we are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.” Living by faith in God’s spirit does not mean we have the power to do whatever we want. The power is to love – to do what he wants, to lay down our lives beside him. The power to fight the violence and ruin by putting on our aprons and washing feet.

Dostoevsky on Wickedness

“If the wickedness of people arouses indignation and insurmountable grief in you, to the point that you desire to revenge yourself upon the wicked, fear that feeling most of all; go at once and seek torments for yourself, as if you yourself were guilty of their wickedness. Take these torments upon yourself and suffer them, and your heart will be eased, and you will understand that you, too, are guilty, for you might have shone to the wicked, even like the only sinless One, but you did not. If you had shone, your light would have lighted the way for others, and the one who did wickedness would perhaps not have done so in your light.”

From Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

(with thanks to Zack)