Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time: A Dark Night

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

IS 49:14-15; PS 62:2-3, 6-7, 8-9; i COR 4: 1-5; MT 6:24-34

This Sunday’s readings teach us a little of what is meant by “the dark night of the soul.”

The first reading, from Isaiah, is short and to the point. “Zion said, ‘The LORD has forsaken me, my LORD has forgotten me.’” It is no uncommon event to feel like God is absent. In the Bible, this happens on the grand scale. Here, Zion, the temple of the Lord’s presence, at the center of Jerusalem, has been sacked by invading armies. Calamity! In fact, this only points forward to the deeper calamity: Jesus himself will be led to quote almost the same words, from Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me!” (Matt. 27:46, Mark 15:34).

But we too feel forsaken. We don’t see God. We don’t see him when our lives seem to overwhelm us, when the world around us is not as it should be, and when the world inside us is not as it should be! We don’t see him even though we try to pray, and love him, and want to see him.

The good news of the Cross is that Jesus has been there. He is not unfamiliar with this situation. The reading from Isaiah concludes with God saying, “I will never forget you.” “Suddenly,” says another prophet, “the Lord shall come to his temple” (Malachi 3:1). He has not abandoned us. He will never abandon us.


Then why does he abandon us? Perhaps Paul offers us an explanation in the reading from First Corinthians. “It is of course required of stewards that they be found trustworthy.” God wants us to hold his treasure. First, to love him above all ourselves; second, to preach him, and not ourselves, to others.

Paul has to say, “It does not concern me in the least that I be judged by you or any human tribunal.” But oh, he is judged. He too could feel abandoned. He does his best – “I am not conscious of anything against me” – but others judge him, and attack him, and put him down.

But by these attacks he is purified. “It does not concern me” is precisely the point. He has to learn – we have to learn – to worry about what really matters. To trust in the Lord, and seek him. It is precisely through the Cross that he draws us closer to himself. He says, “what is it that you live for? Physical comfort? Reputation? Self-regard?” If you want those things, pursue them. But if you want God, seek him, and him alone. He is worth the loss of everything.


The closing of our reading from Paul is delightfully double-edged. When, “the Lord comes, he will bring to light what is hidden in darkness, and will manifest the motives of our hearts.” On the one hand, Paul is saying, ‘I don’t care what you think, I don’t care what anyone thinks, I just want to be faithful to Jesus.’ He is the only “judge” who counts.

On the other hand, he says, ‘I too, will not judge.’ It isn’t our judgment that matters, it isn’t our place to say how things “ought” to go, or what is going on in other people’s hearts. If we truly love God above all else, we leave it in his hands.

Our dark nights are ways of learning to trust in God, to know that his presence to us, and his goodness to us, are according to his measure, not ours. Sometimes he loves us in ways that we don’t expect – sometimes he loves us with the Cross, or by sacking Jerusalem. We have to learn to accept that love, too, to know that his plan for us is always perfect, his generosity is always better than what we would have planned. He is there even when we are hanging on the Cross.


In other words, as Jesus says in this Sunday’s Gospel, we cannot serve two gods. We have to decide who we live for. And then – the two edges of Paul’s sword – we are willing to lose other things, and we are also willing to accept that God’s ways of loving us are not always according to our measure. His plan is better.

“Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” God will provide. Not the way we expect, and often not as comfortably as we might hope. But more profoundly than our wildest dreams.

The Cross is our salvation. He joins us there to show us that this is not abandonment, this is training.


What are some unexpected ways that God has loved you?

A Little Philosophy: Nominalism, Voluntarism, and our Spiritual Life

The  Munkeliv Psalter

The Munkeliv Psalter

Today, a (very) short introduction to a major philosophical problem, and how it applies to our spiritual life. I hope I can make this simple and intelligible . . . .

Round about the 1300s, there arose a radically new way of thinking. It is probably the greatest earthquake in the history of thought, and creates a great chasm that separates moderns from the ancients. By ancients I mean Greek philosophy (Plato, Aristotle) but also the thought-world of the Bible, and everything up through Thomas Aquinas, who is partly so important because he was the last one to battle for the old way before the new way broke through. I’m no expert on Eastern philosophy, but I think Confucius stands with the “ancients” in this; Buddhism is probably more like the moderns.

In brief, the ancient way of thinking thought that the world basically made sense, even if we can’t figure it all out. And it believed that our minds basically have the ability to see some of that sense in the world, and to live accordingly.

The new way is summed up by the terms Nominalism and Voluntarism. “Nominalism” is from the Latin word for names. Nominalism says that we give “names” to things, but we don’t really know what they are. You call that thing and that thing “flowers” (or that thing and that thing “human”) but beyond imposing a name, you have no idea what they are.

“Voluntarism” is from the Latin word for will. Once the world doesn’t make sense, all we can do is make acts of blind will – and God is nothing more than a naked will.

The ancients saw us as basically in contact with the real world around us; life was about finding our place in Reality. Moderns sometimes impose ideas on the world, but they don’t think there is any Reality, any “nature,” to conform to.

The break has many, complicated causes, which probably include (a) the rise of powerful nation states (kings never want you to have ideas that can push against their own will), (b) a horrible fourteenth century, including the Black Plague, the Hundred Years’ War, and the Avignon Papacy, which all made the world seem pretty meaningless, and (c) the increasing challenges of philosophy, which made people want to give up.


What does this have to do with us? Three things:

Latin Bible, Malmesbury Abbey, Wiltshire, England

Latin Bible, Malmesbury Abbey, Wiltshire, England

First, nominalism-voluntarism makes us think about God in terms of his “will.” Modern Christians spend a lot of time trying to figure out what God “wants” them to do. (And they trust their feelings more than their minds to figure that out.) Pre-modern Christians tried to find God, and believed they could live accordingly. Think about heaven, they would say, and you’ll figure out what that means for earth.

Second, nominalism-voluntarism makes us “instrumentalize” reason. We think of our mind as a way to win arguments, but not a way to live life. Sometimes my theology students, for example, expect me to feed them apologetic arguments so they can prove people wrong. But just contemplating the mystery of Jesus? Boring! And pointless. They say, “we can’t really know anything about this stuff anyway, so why try?” (Thomas Aquinas says, the tiniest bit we can know about God is more joyful and wonderful than anything else in the world.)


Third, it cuts us off from the Bible. First, because we just aren’t in the Bible’s thought world. The Biblical authors, being ancients, didn’t think like moderns. We can deal with that two ways: by reorienting our way of thinking to match our faith – or by throwing out the Bible as irrelevant to modern life. Unfortunately, we mostly choose the latter option.

Part of the reason we throw out the Bible is because it doesn’t fit my items one and two above. The Bible doesn’t tell us what God’s will is for us here and now. Traditionally, Christians thought they could learn about Jesus, and then see with their own eyes (and minds) what that has to do with their lives. But a friend of mine recently told me he gave up on praying with the Bible because it isn’t practical enough. Yikes.

Many modern Christians who do read the Bible just look for ways to win arguments. But that’s not what it’s for. It’s for contemplating the Beauty of God. Because Jesus is not a naked will. He is Beauty, and Wisdom.

We don’t have to think like nominalists and voluntarists. That’s why the Church encourages us to return to the Bible and to the “perennial philosophy.”


How do nominalism and voluntarism sneak into your relationship with God?

Confession: The Repentant Life

Seven Sacraments Altarpiece, Rogier van der Weyden

Seven Sacraments Altarpiece, Rogier van der Weyden

This week we consider the sacrament of Confession as a model for the Christian life.

As we walk through the sacrament, we will find several models for the Christian life.

First comes our examination of conscience. The point of examining our conscience is not to figure out how much God hates us, but to find ways in which we have failed to love God and our neighbor. The distinction between mortal and venial sin matters – but let us not make it too important. Sin is any failure to love.

This is about ambition. The point is not to wallow in our sin, the point is to get better. To say frankly to ourselves, “that’s not how I should have treated that person,” so that we can not do it in the future.

Even more, it is about God’s mercy. We can be fearless about our sin because we know that Jesus is stronger. Confession is about asking to be set free: absolution literally means “unbinding.” If we like our sin, God will let us keep it. If we bring our sin to Jesus – like all the sick people, who begged for his touch – he will unbind us.

The Christian life is marked by a frank, fearless acknowledgement of sin.


Second, in the sacrament we must confess our sin. We make our acknowledgement of sin concrete. Repentance is impossible – even on a purely psychological level – if we just walk around vaguely looking at the sky and thinking we’re bad people. That achieves nothing.

But Confession is about speaking our particular sins. This particularity takes us to a whole different idea of what “sin” even means. If we keep things general, sin seems to mean that God just sort of vaguely doesn’t like us, in general. He doesn’t like us. But by particularizing sin, we realize that it is particular acts that are a problem.

In a sense, by concretely naming our sin, we put it outside of ourselves. It is not I who am sin, it is that: that action, that choice I made. I can separate myself from that choice. And the goal is to conquer that sin, not to conquer me.

The Christian life gets concrete and particular about what sin means.


Third comes contrition. This is tied to a “firm purpose of amendment”: that is, a desire not to do it again. But again, this shows how freeing Confession is. We are not saying, “this is just the way I am, and it’s terrible.” We are saying, “it doesn’t have to be this way. My heart can love better than that.”

But in fact, contrition goes deeper, more personal, than just a “firm purpose.” (What cold words!) Contrition means sadness. There is supposed to be an emotional component to this. Because emotion expresses love. I’m not just obeying rules. I love God, and I love these people, and it makes me sad that I don’t do a better job of loving them.

Now, our contrition doesn’t have to be “perfect.” We are not as sad as we ought to be. But we should be sad. In fact – no room to spell this out in all its grandeur here – this is the real goal of Confession: to nurture a real sadness about our failure to love, so that we can love better. Did you know that it is sacrilege for a priest to absolve you if you don’t express some kind of (imperect!) sadness about your sin?

The Christian life sheds tears over sin. Not anger, tears.


Fourth, we do penance. We make reparation. What does that mean? Perhaps the key is to look to our hearts, not to the world. Sin is a problem of the heart, not a matter of consequences.

So reparation is not about fixing everything that’s ever gone wrong. It is about fixing my heart. It is about setting off in a new direction, taking a step away from sin and toward true love.

The Christian life is about change, repair, improvement. In this sense (and only in this sense!) the Christian life is penitential.


Finally, we cast our sins on Jesus. That’s the purpose of the priest: he’s just some schmo; he is a dispenser of grace only because he is sent forth as such by Jesus.

We accept our “penance” from the priest precisely to mark that the way forward is not on our own – how fearsome that would be! – but in union with Jesus. We set off beside him. He helps us shoulder the cross of repentance.

The Christian never thinks of sin apart from the merciful and saving love of Jesus, and always seeks means to be closer to that merciful love.


How do you express repentance in your life?

Blessed Jordan of Saxony on Spiritual Struggles

jordan of saxonyBlessed Jordan of Saxony (1190-1237) was one of the heroes of the first generation of the Dominicans, and St. Dominic’s successor as Master of the Order. He was especially famous for his recruitment of vocations: they said when people heard he was coming to town, they would sewing habits for all the men who would be joining the Dominicans!

But he is also justly famous for his letters to Bl. Diana d’Andalo, a Dominican nun. Below, an excerpt. These letters are beautifully exemplify true Christian friendship. The below is also a fine statement on how the love of Jesus draws us through struggles.


Be strengthened, dearest daughters, in the Lord Jesus,” your
Spouse, whom you have prudently chosen for yourselves in
preference to all the desirable things of this world, and whom,
as I hope, you hold tightly with the arms of prayer and tears,
and press close lest He flee from you. Do not fear, therefore,
because “there is now nothing to condemn in you,” since you
possess the Author of salvation, the Lord Who wills, knows
how, and can deliver you from all distress, tribulation and
even anguish of heart.

diana_jordanWho therefore among you, even though for a time
assailed by weariness, afflicted with hardness of heart, with
the torrent of devotion dried up, would dare to say: “My Lord
hath abandoned me,” and He hath no care for me because I do
not feel the usual outpourings of love”? May such words
never come from a spouse of the gentle Jesus Christ. They
may say this who are ignorant of His accustomed ways,
namely of the way He is wont to inflame the desire of His
spouses. As I have often told you when I was with you, to this
purpose does your Spouse withdraw Himself for a time:
that you may seek Him ardently, and having sought Him you
may find Him with greater joy, and having found Him you
may hold Him more tightly, and holding Him you may not let
Him go, as the Spouse who in the Canticles after much
Searchings, and many questionings whether anyone had seen
her Beloved, exclaimed, when she had at last found Him, “I
hold Him nor will I let Him go.”

Give Us This Day

Sermon on the Mount, Fra Angelico

Sermon on the Mount, Fra Angelico

Part 8 in our series on the Our Father.

These last several weeks, we have been noting the descending movement of the Our Father, from Our Father in heaven to the fear of evil, from God’s name to his kingdom to his bare will.

We have now pierced the clouds, as it were, and come down from heaven to earth. The transition began with the last line of the first part of the prayer, when we asked that earth might be as heaven. But we now land squarely on the ground: Give us this day our daily bread.

Although this whole line is traditionally counted as one petition, we will break it into two, and this week focus on the simple phrase, “give us this day.” (In English this is first; in Greek and Latin, it is a post-positive, which amounts to the same.)


We are no longer in the eternity of the heavens, but in “this day.” These words point in two directions. On the one hand, they emphasize that in our world, we cannot see ahead. There is only this day; we meet God here and now, or not at all. All that follows is framed by this narrow focus on the present. In that sense, this world is very different from the eternal, broad view of the heavens.

On the other hand, there is a kind of mirror of eternity in the present moment. Eternity is not a long succession, not a really long time, but an eternal today. Eternity is living in the now. In another way, then, to focus on the now is to take a very eternal, divine perspective. God is always now.


The key shift between the two parts of the prayer is from an emphasis on God (your name, your kingdom, your will) to an emphasis on us (our daily bread, our trespasses, as we forgive, us not into temptation, deliver us).

But again, this opening line sets the standard for what will come after. Grammatically, we are on the receiving end. We don’t first proclaim what we will do, but beg God to do “for us”: give us! Thomas Aquinas says Christian moral theology is not so much about what we do as what God does for us. The Christian perspective always sees God as a provident Father.

Indeed, this is the first step in applying what we have learned “above the clouds,” in the thy’s of the Our Father, to the world “below the clouds,” this day, where we live. To call God Father is to see ourselves in a position of receptivity. The Father provides bread for his children. Even deeper, the Father provides the very existence of his children, and their nature. We are, and we are what we are, because God makes us. This is the perspective of calling God Father. This is the first thing to know about on earth as it is in heaven.


To look ahead: our daily bread treats God as our provider, the one who sustains us every step of the way. And it narrows our view to the this day: not God’s provision once, and then we will handle very well ourselves, thank you, but God’s continuing sustenance every day.

Forgive us then quickly shifts the subject, from what we ask for (very minimal: nothing but bread) to our recognition that we have no right to ask – and that God the Father nevertheless always provides, always receives us back.

As we forgive is the only thing we ourselves do – but it is a not-doing. All we pledge to do is not hold grudges. (Though, we will see, this is no small thing.) To realize that it is the Father, who forgives us and daily provides for us, who ultimately matters. If I receive everything, on the one hand, I have no right to hold back, to be unforgiving. On the other hand, I have no need to be stingy, because he always provides, always gives, every day.

Lead us not into temptation is the strangest line of all: as if God might lead us into temptation! But it underlines our absolute reliance on God, a sense that we are always following, and if we are to be safe, it is only because he keeps us safe.

And deliver us from evil sees all victory over harm as being in God’s hand.

In short, all of the Christian life, everything we have to say about this day, “below the clouds,” is that God gives to us, this day.


How do you cultivate a sense of receiving everything from God?

Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time: The Holiness of Love

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

LV 19: 1-2, 17-18; PS 103: 1-2, 3-4, 8, 10, 13-14; 1 COR 3:16-23; MT 5:38-48

Our Sunday readings teach us about the holiness of love, the connection between love and holiness.

In the reading from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus will say, “Love your enemy . . . that you may be children of your heavenly Father. . . . Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The connection between love of God and love of neighbor is absolute.

The reading from Leviticus says the same thing, and straightforwardly. “Be holy, for I, the LORD, your God, am holy. . . . You shall not bear hatred for your brother or sister in your heart. . . . You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” To be holy, to be united to God, is to love, not hate.


Now, if you are paying close attention, you will notice that the Lectionary has left out a big chunk: we skip from “be holy” in Leviticus 19:1-2 to “love your neighbor” in verses 17-18. What is in between?

The rest of the Gospel reading might make you worry about what else we might find in Leviticus. This is where Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. . . . You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.”

There is nowhere in the Gospels that so seems to pit Jesus against the Old Testament as this Sunday’s reading. Many people, reading only this, think that the Old Law – given above all precisely in Leviticus – is about hatred and revenge (along with a bunch of really annoying ceremonial rules). Thank God Jesus has saved us from the horrible Old Testament!

But remember that last week we heard Jesus say that he came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it, and in last week’s Gospel reading Jesus went to some length to show that his moral teaching is really about intensifying the Old Law, not replacing it. “Thou shalt not kill” becomes “whosoever is angry with his brother.” He does not reject the Law, he doubles down on it.

This is essential to understanding what Jesus says about this week’s Old Law teachings. “An eye for an eye” is not a command of revenge; it is a command that limits revenge. It means, if someone pokes your eye out, you can’t go kill his family, and you shouldn’t be poking out people’s eyes unless they’ve done the same to you. A well-meaning but thoughtless bumper sticker tells us, “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” To the contrary, “an eye for an eye” means that if you have two eyes – which most of us do – you have no right ever to poke anyone else in the eye. The Old Law was limiting revenge, not commanding it.

So too when it says, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” This is a command to love, not to hate. It is a command to hate only your enemy – and it explicitly says that your neighbor is not your enemy. Jesus goes even further, but if we all loved our neighbors and only hated people who (a) were really our enemies and (b) were far enough away not to count as our neighbors – well, we’d be be pretty loving people.


All of this just means that the Old Law is not so ugly after all. Take some time to flip open Leviticus – or the Psalms – and find what it teaches about loving your neighbor. In the part our reading skips over, for example, Leviticus tells God’s people to leave some grain in their fields for the poor. We could learn a lot about love from the Old Testament. We could gain a good foundation for Jesus’ teaching by obeying the Old Testament’s strict law of love.


The reading from First Corinthians takes us deeper into this teaching on love in two ways.

First, practically, it tells us to renounce our own wisdom. How much peace there would be if we held our own opinions a bit more loosely!

But second, and more theoretically, it tells us that we are God’s temple. All I can say is that if you read the whole letter, you will find that it is not speaking primarily about us as individuals, but us as a community, a “people.” The “you” in the reading is plural; the temple is singular.

God dwells among us when we live as community; we worship him only by coming together. This is the deepest meaning of “Church,” and the deepest meaning of the commandment to love.


How does your love or hatred of your neighbors express itself when you come to worship?

O Clement, O Loving, O Sweet – Mary in the Salve Regina

The Deposition or "The Florence Pieta", Michaelangelo

The Deposition or “The Florence Pieta”, Michaelangelo

As a complement to last Thursday’s meditation on the sigh at the heart of the “Hail Holy Queen” (Salve Regina), today let us consider the prayer’s portrayal of Mary. We can learn much about her, both as our advocate and as our mother, by leaning on these beautiful words.

The final sighs are perhaps the most telling. Just as the whole prayer revolves around sighing for the sight of Jesus, so the ending has the three beautiful “oh’s”: “O clement, o loving, o sweet virgin Mary! Pray for us!” The final word to Mary is nothing but that sigh.

And yet the sigh is couched about with descriptors, and they are very rich.


First, “o clement.” Clement is not a word we use much anymore. The only place I can think of is that when a Governor takes someone off death row, it’s called “clemency,” I think. That’s not a bad place, though, to look for the meaning of the word.

In Latin, clementia means not punishing someone even when they deserve it. To appeal to Mary’s clemency is to say we do not deny that we sin, do not claim that God owes it to us to let us see Jesus. To the contrary, we acknowledge that we are “children of Eve,” caught up in this world of sin.

But neither do we grovel. The way the Salve Regina speaks of sin is as an exile, and it begs for help. Get me out of here! Not out of this world, but out of my sin. Help! Consider not what I deserve: just love me.


The central word for Mary in the Salve Regina is “mercy.” “Hail, Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy . . . turn then thine eyes of mercy toward us.” Mother of Mercy, I think, is about the hardest phrase imaginable in Catholic theology. What does it mean to call Mary “Mother of Mercy”? She is merciful – but even more, Mercy himself is her Son. We need to lean into this, to think hard about what it means that Mercy himself came that close to us. But we need also to tread lightly, lest we flatten the mystery. The Salve Regina is a gentle meditation on Mary’s involvement in the Mercy of Jesus.

We see her first as the clement mother, she who does not punish.


But then the prayer takes us a step further: “O loving.” The word in Latin is pia. It’s one of the most fabulous ideas in the Latin mind . . . but we just don’t have it in English. Pietas does not mean pity, nor does it mean piety – though in a moment perhaps you will see how it is related to both. Pietas is “family feeling.” It means treating your father like your father, your mother like your mother, your son or daughter like your own child.

In a technical definition, St. Thomas says it is justice as it relates to family. I’m not going to try to unravel that, except to say, we need not be unjust to other people in order to recognize that our family has special claims on us, deserves a special something. In fact, we would undermine the deepest meaning of justice as right relation if we didn’t embrace those family relationships.

In Michelangelo’s Pietà, that’s what Mary is experiencing . . . .

Rondanini Pieta, Michaelangelo

Rondanini Pieta, Michaelangelo

We take, then, a step deeper in our understanding of the Mother of Mercy when we say she is not just clement, she is pia. Indeed, she is clement because she is pia: we are spared punishment, given another chance, because we are family. We needn’t say Mary is our mother to say that, when we stand beside her at the Cross of Christ, we become family, and we gain a special affection. Indeed, this is the deepest meaning of calling Mary mother.


And so, in fact, the prayer takes a step further. To be truly pia is not only to be clement, but to be sweet. A loving mother, or sister, or any kind of family member goes far beyond just sparing punishment. A loving family is sweet to one another, helps one another. This is the deepest meaning of mercy: not just clemency, but sweetness, because of pietas.

That is why Mary is our life, our sweetness, and our hope: because she bespeaks the mystery of Jesus becoming family. Mother and mercy are intimately intertwined. A mother is merciful – sweetly merciful, not just sparing but praying for us, and keeping her eye on us. And when Mercy himself takes our sister as his mother, the sweetness truly reaches to the depths of God.


How do you experience, and live pietas: with Jesus, with your own family, and with Jesus’s family?

The Eucharistic Life: Communion

seven-sacraments-rogier-van-der-weyden-bigLast week we considered how our whole Christian life can be summed up in relation to the Eucharist understood as sacrificial worship. But there is a second element to the Eucharist. The Eucharist is sacrifice as Christ lies on the altar, but it is also communion as we receive him in our mouths. Communion, too, is a good way to define the whole of the Christian life.

First, let us understand what happens at Mass. Christ becomes present on the altar. But he becomes present as bread, “the living bread come down from heaven” (John 6, vv. 33, 41, 50, 51, 58: Jesus rather repeats himself on this point). He comes to nourish us, to be our daily bread.

The imagery of the bread is nice. On the one hand, yes, by eating we are united to him. But even deeper, by eating, he becomes our strength. We live with his strength. John’s Gospel gives us a whole series of images for this in Jesus’s teaching at the Last Supper. As Jesus institutes the Eucharist, he teaches us that he will send his Spirit into our hearts (John 14); that he is the vine, and we are the branches (John 15); that we will be one with him (John 17) – and more. In short, in Communion, he becomes our strength, our soul, our life.

But when we are united to him, we are also united to everyone else who is united to him. The “body” of the Eucharist creates the “body” of the Church. Thus he begins his Last Supper discourse with the washing of the feet (John 13), and ends with the prayer “that they may be one” (John 17).

It is popular among orthodox Catholics to pooh-pooh the idea that the Eucharist is a community meal. But it is! The problem is that people fail to appreciate the depths to which this communion among believers goes. We’re not just hanging out. We are being nourished by the one Body and Spirit of Jesus; we are united with one another by our union with him. That’s why the sign of the Peace is really a profound moment in the liturgy – even if (I know, I know) it can be done inappropriately.


All of this takes us to the depths of the commandment to love God and love our neighbor. In fact, that commandment, the very heart of the Christian life, sums up Eucharistic communion. It is a command to live Eucharistic communion. The Church’s discipline surrounding communion – the necessity of being visibly a member of the Church, and of not being in mortal sin, that is, of being in friendship with God – is precisely an affirmation that Eucharistic communion means nothing if we don’t live that communion, with God, and with those who are in communion with God through Jesus (i.e., the Church), in the rest of our life.


How can we practice devotion to this Communion? First, of course, by our love of the Eucharist: by daily Mass, by spiritual communions (even a fervent prayer of “give us this day our daily bread”), by making visits to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.

But again, the point is that Eucharistic communion doesn’t make sense unless it expresses itself in the rest of life. Two ideas.

First, we can practice devotion to communion by obeying the law. Strange idea! But the Church is very insistent that the only reason for laws within the Church is to nurture communion. We have liturgical rules, for example, as a vivid expression that we do not celebrate the liturgy alone, but in union with the rest of the Church.

Law does two things: first, it means submitting my view to someone else’s. There are lots of non-legal ways to do this, of course, but see how obeying law is a way of expressing that mine is not the only opinion in the world that matters.

Second, it means submitting myself to the good of the community, doing what works for everyone, instead of just what works for me.

Think about this, for example, the next time you get in the car . . . .


Second, communion is precisely the key to the Church’s “preferential option for the poor.” This is what Mother Teresa meant by her strange claim that she saw the poor as “Christ in his most distressing disguise”: she saw that union with Christ means union with every human being, for whom he died.

But we express that union most powerfully when we live it out in union with those who have nothing to give to us in return. “If you love those who benefit you . . . do not even the tax collectors do that?”


How do you live communion?

Pope Leo XIII on Self-Conquest

Pope-Leo-XIII-1900As we approach the season of Lent, we do well to think about the battle with our passions. In the quotation below from Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903), notice that he presents this battle not in terms of anything inherently evil about the passions, but in terms of the freedom to do good. That should be our focus as we think of what we will “give up”: true freedom.

By calming the passions nature is largely restored to its pristine dignity. For man has been born under this law, that the mind should rule the body, that the appetites should be restrained by sound sense and reason; and hence it follows that putting a curb upon our masterful passions is the noblest and greatest freedom. Moreover, in the present state of society it is difficult to see what man could be expected to do without such a disposition. Will he be inclined to do well who has been accustomed to guide his actions by self-love alone? No man can be high-souled, kind, merciful, or restrained, who has not learnt self conquest and a contempt for this world when opposed to virtue.

And yet it must be said that it seems to have been pre-determined by the counsel of God that there should be no salvation to men without strife and pain. Truly, though God has given to man pardon for sin, He gave it under the condition that His only begotten Son should pay the due penalty; and although Jesus Christ might have satisfied divine justice in other ways, nevertheless He preferred to satisfy by the utmost suffering and the sacrifice of His life. Thus he has imposed upon His followers this law, signed in His blood, that their life should be an endless strife with the vices of the age.

What made the apostles invincible in their mission of teaching truth to the world; what strengthened the martyrs innumerable in their bloody testimony to the Christian faith, but the readiness of their soul to obey fearlessly His laws? And all who have taken heed to live a Christian life and seek virtue have trodden the same path; therefore We must walk in this way if We desire either Our own salvation or that of others.

Thus it becomes necessary for every one to guard manfully against the allurements of luxury, and since on every side there is so much ostentation in the enjoyment of wealth, the soul must be fortified against the dangerous snares of riches lest straining after what are called the good things of life, which cannot satisfy and soon fade away, the soul should lose “the treasure in heaven which faileth not.”

-Leo XIII, Exeunte Iam Anno, “On the Right Ordering of Christian Life”

On Earth as It Is in Heaven

Sermon on the Mount, Fra Angelico

Sermon on the Mount, Fra Angelico

Part 7 in our series on the Our Father.

It is common to think of “thy will be done” and “on earth as it is in heaven” as one clause. But we can also think of the latter as its own prayer. (The traditional division of the prayer finds seven petitions; in this commentary, we will divide it into twelve. These Biblical numbers are fun!)

Notice first that we are at a transition point in the middle of the prayer. The first half (six parts, according to our reckoning, but three petitions according to the traditional reckoning) revolves around the word “thy”; the second half revolves around the words “us” and “our.”

The first half concludes with a sort of summary, “On earth as it is in heaven.” The second half begins with its own kind of summary, “Give us this day.” This is typically Biblical. In the Ten Commandments, the first tablet, about honor to God, begins with a statement about God himself, “I am the LORD your God” (parallel to “Our Father”) and concludes with a narrative of God creating “heaven and earth” (parallel to “on earth as it is in heaven”).

The second tablet of the Ten Commandments, about how we relate to people on this earth, is “the only commandment with a blessing” (as Paul says in Ephesians 6:2): “Honor your father and mother that your days may be long in the land.” Similarly, the second half of the Our Father begins with God blessing our days on earth: “give us this day.”


We can think of this transition as piercing the clouds, as it were, descending from heaven to earth. Just as the Ten Commandments, and Jesus’s summary of them, teaches us to look both upward to love of God and around us to love of neighbor, so the Our Father has us look upward to Our Father, in heaven, his kingdom, his will – and then around us to our daily needs, our trespasses, forgiveness, our temptations, and the threat of evil.

The lynch pin, in a sense, is the prayer we consider today, “On earth as it is in heaven.” This is how we think of this world: we want it to be as in heaven, where God is “all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28). “On earth as it is in heaven” is a beautiful gloss on all of the other eleven parts of the Our Father. To call God “Our Father” is to think of earth being united to heaven. When we think of him being (“who art”) “in heaven,” we long for our earth to be as heaven. Right down to forgiving trespasses and being liberated from temptation and evil. Let earth be as it is in heaven! Let me be on earth as I will be in heaven!


We can think of our world this way only if our treasure is in heaven. Only if we long for God to be all in all, only if we long to see him face to face, can our here really be transformed according to that vision. Heaven lost its grasp on the Christian imagination sometime in the last couple hundred years, but traditionally, devotion to heaven was a dominant part of Catholic spirituality. As we saw in the Salve Regina, we sighed, “after this our exile, show us . . . Jesus!” Pope Benedict, in fact, wrote one of his three encyclicals, Spe salvi, precisely on rekindling love of and hope for heaven.

Longing for heaven does mean seeing this world as a kind of exile. It means seeing the things of this world as passing and not truly fulfilling. It means longing for things that we cannot see now, but only hope for.

But, ironically, as our prayer today so pointedly reminds us, love of heaven doesn’t at all mean giving up on this world. “On earth as it is in heaven” means longing for heaven – and longing to live heaven on earth. I think our culture often tells us that heaven and earth are opposed, that loving heaven can only mean you don’t care about this world. The prayer Jesus teaches us says exactly the opposite. I’d note that this is a constant theme of papal encyclicals – think, for example, throughout the writings of John Paul II: love of heaven does not diminish our concern for this world, but kindles it.

When we learn to love the “thy” phrases of the first half of the Our Father, we see “this day” in that light. We learn to forgive and ask forgiveness, to flee temptation and evil – and, more importantly, to rely on our Father for our daily sustenance, and thus to see Him as the one who sets us free to love.


How do you make the connection between heaven and earth?