Seventh Sunday in Easter: Praying for the True Gift

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ACTS 1:12-14; PS 27: 1, 4, 7-8; 1 PT 4:13-16; JN 17:1-11a

This Sunday’s readings put us squarely into the Pentecost novena: the nine days of prayer between when Jesus goes up to heaven and when the Holy Spirit comes down.

The first reading, from the Acts of the Apostles, simply gives us the narrative. “After Jesus had been taken up to heaven the apostles returned to Jerusalem. . . . They went to the upper room where they were staying . . . . All these devoted themselves with one accord to prayer, together with some women, and Mary the mother of Jesus . . . .”

This is the ultimate image of the Church at prayer. Jesus has gone to heaven. They pray for the Holy Spirit. It’s the Apostles, and it’s Mary.

This is the original novena. Latter-day Catholicism has many nine-day prayers. But from this novena we can learn what prayer is really all about. What do they pray for? They pray for the ultimate gift of God most high (as one of the ancient hymns for Pentecost says), the Holy Spirit.

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The Gospel, from John 17, takes us to Jesus’s words when he prayed in the upper room in Jerusalem, the night before he died. Words the Apostles must have remembered as they prayed.

There are three key words in this reading. The first is “glory,” which is shared. “Give glory to your son, so that your son may glorify you.” “I glorified you” (notice that he both has glorified, and will glorify) “. . . now glorify me, Father, with you, with the glory that I had with you before the world began.” And “I have been glorified in them,” his disciples.

John 17 is all about communion – it is, indeed, John’s way of taking us deeper into the mystery of the Eucharistic communion at the heart of the Last Supper. The Father and the Son are in deepest communion. They share one another’s glory. And they invite us into that sharing. Nothing less.

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The second key word is “eternal life.” “Now this is eternal life,” Jesus says, “that they should know you, the only true God” – and of course, in the mystery of communion – “and the one whom you sent, Jesus Christ.”

Eternal life is not about a really long time. It is not later, after “this life.” It is not a whole bunch of neat stuff, or a really comfortable place. It is not, in fact, incompatible with suffering, as our reading from First Peter will remind us in a minute.

“This is eternal life, that they should know . . . the only true God.” That’s it. To know him is to have eternal life. Yes, it will make us life forever. Even more importantly, it will be something worth filling forever with – an eternal beach would get old. But it begins now, when we know him.

This is what Jesus came for. This is what the Holy Spirit gives, what the Holy Spirit IS. This is what, forty-some after the Last Supper, the Apostles and Mary pray their first novena for. Just to know him.

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The last key word is “name.” “I revealed your name to those whom you gave me out of the world.” We have looked before at this key word, “name.” It’s at the heart, and the height, of the Our Father: “hallowed be thy name.” For now, let us just say, it is personal. For eternal life to be nothing but “knowledge” might sound cold and dry. Who wants knowledge? But this is true, deepest, personal knowledge. He invites us into the personal relationship which is the inner life of God.

What is the name? Well, that’s what we mean by gifts of the Holy Spirit. The “name,” personal knowledge, of God is not something you can write down. It’s something only known when God’s own Spirit brings us into the glory of his inner life. We don’t pray for a slip of paper with his name written on it. We pray for the Holy Spirit.

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The reading from First Peter is short, but takes us a little more deeply in – and into the situation of the Apostles who pray, still in this world, for the Holy Spirit. He doesn’t take them out of the world, he gives them his Spirit in the world.

And so the key line is, “Whoever is made to suffer as a Christian should not be ashamed, but glorify God because of the name.” If we know “the name” – if we know him, by his Spirit living in our hearts – even suffering is pure joy.

Do we ask God for the wrong gifts?

The Ascension: The Power of Jesus

ascension“Why are you standing there looking at the sky?” the two men dressed in white ask the Apostles at the end of our reading from the Acts of the Apostles. That’s the question for us today on the Feast of the Ascension. Why are we celebrating this feast, “looking at” Jesus going into the sky? The answer to this question, as the answer to the men dressed in white, begins with knowing that looking at the sky really isn’t the point.

There’s a parallel at the beginning of the reading. “He presented himself alive to them by many proofs.” The word “proof” points us to something. The miracles, and even his appearance, were not ends in themselves. They were there to prove something else: his power over death, and his divinity. We miss the point if we just focus on the miracles.

Then he tells them, “wait for the promise of the Father . . . . In a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” The language is vividly Trinitarian, and he points to the deeper miracle, which is not his ability to rise from the dead, find miraculous catches of fish, or rise into the air. The deeper miracle is his ability to share with us the divine life, the Spirit of God.

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They ask, “are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” He says, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you.” Yes, he is restoring the kingdom, but this “kingdom” is way greater than the earthly kingdom they expect. The new kingdom will be their transformation by the divine life he gives to them.

This will extend far beyond the earthly limits of Israel. The new Israel will go “to the ends of the earth.” The “power” they will receive is way beyond earthly power.

Paul tells us more about it in our reading from the letter to the Ephesians. “The Father of glory” – notice again the Trinitarian language – will “give you a Spirit of wisdom and revelation resulting in knowledge of him.” That’s the outcome. If you’re looking for political power and earthly miracles, maybe this seems disappointing. But knowledge of the Father is infinitely more, takes us infinitely deeper, than any earthly ambition.

“The eyes of your hearts” will “be enlightened.” We will “know what is the hope that belongs to his call, what are the riches of glory . . . and what is the surpassing greatness of his power for us who believe.”

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This is the point of the Ascension. Christ exits the earthly realm – and carries us into the heavenly. He goes from the limits of earthly existence, where we see his earthly face and his earthly miracles in a particular earthly place, to the ultimate extension, both throughout the whole world, and beyond the world into the life of God.

Our readings over and over again use the word “power” and other related words. “The surpassing greatness of his power . . . his great might.” But this is the power of sitting “at his right hand in the heavens,” entering into the presence of God. This goes “far above every principality, authority, power, and dominion”: the true kingdom is so much more than the earthly things we dream of.

And though we can speak of it as “putting all things under his feet,” it goes much deeper to say he is “head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of the one who fills all things in every way.” “Who fills all things in every way” speaks of God himself, the Creator. The awesome mystery is that he gives himself to the Church, calls us beyond the limits of creation, into the Trinitarian life of the Creator – which is supreme, infinite love.

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The Gospel reading from the end of Matthew is short and to the point. “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Perhaps the words are too familiar. But the promise is that his “power” extends “to all nations,” so that we can share in the Trinitarian life.

Are our ambitions high enough? Do we recognize how powerful Christ is? Powerful enough not only to raise the dead, but to share with us the divine life.

The Gift of Piety

Seven-Gifts-Holy-SpiritWe have considered the gifts of contemplation: understanding (which helps us to penetrate the meaning of God’s words) and wisdom (which helps us to know God himself). We have seen the gifts of the difficult parts of the active life: counsel (which helps us figure out what to do) and fortitude (which gives us the strength to do it). Now we are considering the gifts of ordinary life: knowledge (which helps us to see all things in relation to our love of God) and today, “piety,” by which we live this out.

Isaiah presents these as pairs: “a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of counsel and might, a spirit of knowledge and piety.” The last one, which we will consider next week, is presented on its own: “and his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.”

St. Thomas points out that in each of these pairs, there is one that gives knowledge, and another that follows through on that knowledge. In the case of counsel-fortitude and knowledge-piety, Isaiah 11 cites the gift of knowing first, as if first we know, then we do.

But in the case of wisdom-understanding, the order is reversed. St. Thomas suggests that this is to show that in ordinary life, we know more than we can act on, and so knowledge has a kind of primacy – but when it comes to knowing God, the simple contemplative gaze of wisdom will always exceed the understanding we gain from words. It arises from that understanding, but infinitely exceeds it.

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So we already have a clue to what “piety” means: parallel to the other pairs, piety is the living out of our knowledge. The love of God (the Holy Spirit) causes us to see everything in a new light (the gift of knowledge). Piety is acting on that knowledge – not just in the hard cases, but in every case.

Now, if you look at your Bible, you may be confused. The Hebrew original, on which modern translations are based, doesn’t say piety, it says, “fear of the Lord.” This (perhaps unpleasant) phrase is in fact repeated: “the spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord; and his delight will be in the fear of the Lord.” We will talk more about fear of the Lord next week; for now, suffice to say that the Hebrew word also means “reverence.” We live out our love of God through reverence in all things.

But the tradition spells this out a little more deeply. Somewhere around the year 250 BC the Jews in Egypt produced a Greek translation of the Old Testament, called the “Septuagint” because, according to legend, there were seventy independent translators who, inspired by God, all gave the exact same translation. The deeper point is that the Jews, and later the Christians, including official Church teaching, counted this translation as itself inspired. There is real insight in the Septuagint.

The Septuagint gives a different word for this gift, another word for reverence, without the element of fear that occurs in the last gift. The Latin translation translates this as “pietas.”

Well, the point is, we needn’t put too much weight on the particular word piety, but it expresses the tradition’s insight into what kind of “reverence” we live in our ordinary lives.

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The Latin word pietas is vastly richer than the English word piety – and you simply have to forget what piety means in English if you want to understand it. Pietas is the kind of reverence we have for our parents. It is honoring our father and mother, and other people like them.

This is a fabulous insight into the ordinary attitude of the Christian. The heart of this gift is not that we quake in fear before the Lord, but that we recognize him as Father, and give him the respect he deserves. That is how a Christian treats a tree, and that is how a Christian treats another human being: as if God is Father. This is the root, too, of what we said on Memorial Day about patriotism: the root of patriotism is pater, Father. We act as if God is Father.

The ancient Romans had very neat insights about this (as do the Confucians, and many traditional societies), which the Western Christian tradition has embraced. The Romans said, if you respect your father, you respect his children and his household. Reverence.

When the Spirit of God, the love of Father and Son, is in our hearts, our attitude toward everything is shaped by that love.

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Think of someone who annoys you. What would it mean to let your reverence for our heavenly Father shape that relationship?

Augustine on Love of God and Love of Neighbor

Augustine – following St. John – makes it simple: love is love. Love God, love your neighbor: they are inseparable.

Augustine speaks of this in terms of the Church: if we love God, we love Jesus, God incarnate; and if we love Jesus, we love all the members of his body, the Church. I only add, as I have mentioned here before, that for Augustine, love of the Church also includes all those who might one day be members of the Church – all those for whom Christ died, which is everyone.

st-augustine-of-hippo-2“He that loves not his brother whom he sees, how can he love God whom he sees not?” (1 John 4:20)

But if you love your brother, could it be that you love your brother and love not Christ? How could that be, when you love members of Christ? When therefore you love members of Christ, you love Christ; when you love Christ, you love the Son of God; when you love the Son of God, you love also the Father.

The love therefore cannot be separated into parts. Choose what you will love; the rest follow you. Suppose you say, I love God alone, God the Father. You are lying: if you love, you love Him not alone; but if you love the Father, you love also the Son. Behold, do you say, I love the Father, and I love the Son: but this only, the Father God and the Son God, our Lord Jesus Christ – who ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of the Father, that Word by which all things were made, and the Word was made flesh, and dwelt in us: this alone I love.

You are lying; for if you love the Head, you love also the members; but if you love not the members, neither do you love the Head. Do you not quake at the voice uttered by the Head from Heaven on behalf of His members, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute ME?” (Acts 9:4) The persecutor of His members He called His persecutor: His lover, the lover of His members.

Now, what are His members, you know, brethren: none other than the Church of God. In this we know that we love the sons of God, in that we love God. And how? Are not the sons of God one thing, God Himself another? But he that loves God, loves His precepts. And what are the precepts of God? “A new commandment give I unto you, that you love one another” (John 13:34).

Let none excuse himself by another love, for another love; so and so only is it with this love: as the love itself is compacted in one, so too all that hang by it does it make one, and as fire melts them down into one. It is gold: the lump is molten and becomes some one thing. But unless the fervor of charity be applied, of many there can be no melting down into one.

-St. Augustine, Sermon 10 on First John

Memorial Day: Gratitude and Patriotism

flagsMemorial Day nicely illuminates key aspects of Catholic spirituality – of our life in but not of the world.

On the one hand, the Catholic cannot wholly entrust himself to any earthly nation. Our “alien allegiance” has sometimes been misunderstood, as if the Pope were just a foreign sovereign. But rather, our only true sovereign is Christ the King, our true homeland is heaven, and our true nation is the Church: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, that you may show forth the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (I Peter 2:9).

There’s something lost in translation, but the real heart of Vatican II’s understanding of the Church is the phrase “people of God.” But “people” here, Latin populus, is not the plural of “person”: in Lumen Gentium, we’re not a bunch of individuals who are each a “person of God.” The “people” is a collective – connected with Peter’s words “race” (genos, like genus) and “nation” (ethnos). The Church is our country, our true ethnicity, and we are meant to see ourselves as part of that country before we are part of any other.

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On a day like Memorial Day, this shows itself, in one sense, negatively. (Don’t mistake me – I’m getting to the positive!) As Christians we can never submit ourselves wholly to this earthly nation, or its moral mishaps. My grandfathers fought in World War II, and I am grateful for them today. On balance, they did much good. But we must never forget that the Church (our true nation) unequivocally condemns our earthly nation for targeting civilians, not only at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but also at Tokyo, Dresden, and many other cities we carpet-bombed.

Nowhere else do we more clearly see the distance between Catholicism and jingoist nationalism than in the importance of such moral condemnations. We can never say that whatever our country does, or whatever helps our country, is good. Our country has committed, and will continue to commit, many moral atrocities. (We need not name them here.)

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That must not stop us, however, from honoring our soldiers on Memorial Day.

At the heart of the soldier’s vocation is the Gospel precept, “no greater love has any man, than to lay down his life for his friend.” Or, as America the Beautiful says, “who more than self their country loved.”

What most defines a soldier is not that he kills, nor that he carries a gun. What most defines a soldier is that he puts his own life in harm’s way to protect his homeland – and that he submits himself to the higher authorities of his country in so doing. A Christian soldier cannot be obedient when his earthly authorities contradict Christ the King. But outside of those circumstances, his obedience is the sign that he seeks not his own good, nor his own pride, but the good of his country. That he lays down his life for his friends.

This is among the most noble things a human person can do.

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A soldier goes to war out of gratitude for his country; Memorial Day encourages us at home to imitate that gratitude. The soldier recognizes that his homeland is worth giving his life for. For the beauty of the land, but even more for the beauty of his people. A truly Christian soldier cannot, of course, think that his people are without sin. But that doesn’t stop him from loving their music, their food, their leisure, the things they build, their ways of relating.

My great-grandfathers and grandfathers went to the First and Second World Wars in regiments from Wisconsin. I think we miss the nature of patriotism if we think they only fought for the broad idea of America. They sang, till their death, almost bizarrely patriotic songs about their home state, and their home city. It was those details they fought for. They fought for home.

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When the commandments – and the example of Jesus – tell us to honor our father and mother, they remind us that home itself is a gift from God. We are not of this world, and no earthly country can ever claim ultimate sovereignty over our hearts. But our love of God itself demands gratitude for the people and places we belong to.

This is the deepest meaning of laying down our life for our friends. To realize that God didn’t make us to be radical individuals, but to love the people around us intensely, so that we would lay down our life: for Wisconsin, New Jersey, Rhode Island, or whatever our earthly home may be.

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Think of the soldiers in your family’s history – and let them lead you to deeper gratitude for the home God has given you.

Sixth Sunday of Easter: Being The Body of Christ

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ACTS 8:5-8, 14-17; PS66:1-3, 4-5, 6-7, 16, 20; 1 PT 3:15-18; JN 14:15-21

“On that day you will realize that I am in my Father and you are in me and I in you.”

Our readings this Sunday take us deeper into what Scripture means by calling the Church the Body of Christ. We are truly identified with Christ, so that those who hear us hear him, when his Spirit penetrates our hearts.

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The reading from Acts tells of the proclamation of the Gospel to the nations. The deacon Philip goes down to Samaria, to Jerusalem’s closest non-Jewish neighbors. He proclaims Christ, and “the crowds paid attention to him.” Notice already: he points to Christ, and the crowds receive him as Christ.

Philip has the power to bring life to lifeless bodies, to heal what is broken. Here we go beyond him just being a clever preacher or a nice example. Christ has given Philip a share in his divinity, he has given him the power to do what only God can do.

He heals souls, too: “unclean spirits, crying out in a loud voice, came out of many possessed people.” Philip shares in the divine authority of Christ. It is as if Jesus himself is present in Philip.

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He then gives the people to whom he has preached a share in this divine power. Actually, the deacon calls for the Apostles, Peter and John, “who went down and prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Spirit . . . . They laid hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit.”

This is one of the clearest Scriptural testimonies to Confirmation (see CCC 1288). “They had only been baptized,” but the Apostles had another gift to impart.

First notice that, though it is unclear what exactly this “receiving the Holy Spirit” means, it is a big deal. The Holy Spirit has already brought them to conversion, but now they receive a share in his power, somehow parallel to the power Philip himself has.

Second, notice that it is conferred in a hierarchical way. The key point here is that they aren’t just individuals with spiritual power. They are part of an ordered community, the Church, where all share in the divinity of Christ, but the whole is constituted by the distinct vocations of the members. All receive Confirmation, but only the Apostles can give it, thus binding the Church into one instead of dispersing it into spiritual individualism.

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Our reading from First Peter is “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope.” Ah yes, very nice, we should be educated, and practiced in apologetics, right?

Well, not exactly. Actually, Peter describes the approach to this apostolic “readiness”: “Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts.” Again it is like Philip. They didn’t listen to Philip because he was such a practiced preacher. They listened to him because Christ was present in him. He shared in the authority, and the divinity of Christ.

Thus Peter says to “do it with gentleness and reverence,” and “good conduct in Christ.” Then he puts a point on it: “It is better to suffer . . . For Christ also suffered for sins once, the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous, . . . he was brought to life in the Spirit.”

This “readiness to give an explanation” is simply an identification of the whole person with Christ, most pointedly in redemptive suffering. We can preach because Christ is present with us.

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Or, as John never tires of saying, and repeats again in our reading this Sunday, “you are in me and I in you.”

John speaks of this in a divine way: “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth.” This is pure Trinitarian invocation, shooting as high as he can shoot, and his claim is that the life of the Trinity comes to dwell in us. We can bear witness to the Gospel because the Gospel itself dwells in us, “the Spirit of truth.” “You know him, because he remains in you, and will be in you.”

But John also speaks of this in a mundane way, at the beginning and end of our reading: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. . . . Whoever has my commandments and observes them is the one who loves me.” The commandments are as high and as lowly as this: to love Jesus, and let him dwell in us.

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Do you ever let other “methods” of speaking the Gospel replace simply intimacy with Christ and his Spirit?

The Little Hours

page186-Liturgy of the hoursThe Liturgy of the Hours sanctifies time by spreading liturgical praises throughout the day.

Traditionally, there is prayer in the night (the old hour of Matins, composed of three sections called “vigils”; Vatican II reformed this into the Office of Readings, and gave the option to non-monks to pray it during the day), morning prayer (called “lauds,” or the hour of praise), prayer at the beginning of the day (the old hour of Prime, which Vatican II suppressed: it mostly ended up being tacked on to other hours), mid-morning, midday, mid-afternoon, evening prayer, and bedtime, or compline.

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liturgy five partFun fact: in the old Roman reckoning, time is counted from sunrise, with the length of “hours” adjusted according to the length of the day. Thus the “third hour” would be nine a.m., the sixth noon, etc. But a funny inversion happened in the history of Western languages. The main meal was often eaten after mid-afternoon prayer: the ninth hour, or nona hora. Thus the hour of the main meal came to be called “noon,” from nona, or ninth – but we slid it earlier and earlier, all the way up to midday.

Meanwhile, it was common to take a little rest after midday prayer, at the sixth hour, sexta hora. This nap came to be called siesta, from sexta. We have inverted noon and the siesta, but their names come from the liturgical hours that preceded them.

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lauds1One of the great pushes of the liturgical reforms at Vatican II was to rediscover the sanctification of the hours in the Liturgy of the Hours. It is for this reason that the name was changed from “The Divine Office” to “Liturgy of the Hours”: to underline that the point of these prayers was always precisely to spread prayer throughout the day.

It was standard practice in the couple centuries before the Council to squish the hours together. Even a contemplative monastery might, for example, pray morning prayer, mid-morning, midday, and mid-afternoon first thing in the morning, then evening prayer, compline, and matins before dinner. Sometimes it was more confused than that: I have seen horaria of otherwise healthy nineteenth-century monasteries where morning prayer of the next day is prayed before dinner. This sort of misses the point.

It is especially strange when one sees that the traditional ways of distributing the Psalms (there were a few different ways) focuses on times of day. Psalms that mention morning go in the morning, etc. But over time, otherwise healthy religious orders lost track of this liturgical sanctification of the day.

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downloadAlong with calling for the restoration of the hours to their proper places, Vatican II also called for a broader distribution of the Psalms. Traditionally, monks have prayed all 150 Psalms (plus Old Testament and Gospel canticles) every week, some Psalms every day. This is the heart of traditional monastic spirituality. But it takes a lot of time to pray it well.

One might be working along alright – and then one finds five Psalms at dinner (unless one also has to catch up on the three from mid-afternoon), another three at bedtime, and then nine in the middle of the night. Five Psalms for morning prayer might work alright – but it was immediately followed by three more for prima hora, or Prime. And then three more in the mid-morning. It’s hard to keep up with this.

Vatican II’s solution was to spread the Psalter out over multiple weeks – the Council just said “multiple,” the final decision was four. The reason for this was not to water down the Liturgy of the Hours, but to beef it up. Even contemplatives were having a hard time praying the Divine Office seriously. By diminishing the amount of material that had to be covered, the Council Fathers hoped to make it easier to pray the hours at their proper time of day, and to pray them well, really entering into the Psalms instead of just saying them quickly. They hoped to reestablish a true Liturgy of the Hours spirituality.

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One way we can embrace this mentality is by cultivating the often forgotten “little hours”: mid-morning, midday, and mid-afternoon. The true spirit of the liturgy does not require us to say as many Psalms as the monks did. But if we broke three times, or even once or twice, in the course of our day to pray even one Psalm, or one part of a Psalm, or just a Hail Mary and an Our Father, we too could help to immerse all of time in prayer.

The Gift of Knowledge

Seven-Gifts-Holy-SpiritWe turn now from the extraordinary and difficult parts of the active life (helped by the gifts of counsel, so we know what to do, and fortitude, so we have the strength to do it) to the ordinary. The gift of knowledge has a generic name, and it points to a general reality. Life in the Spirit doesn’t just help us know God himself (wisdom), understand his words (understanding), and know what to do in difficult situations.

Life in the Spirit changes how we see everything. In Scripture, the number seven is symbolic of fullness. The point of meditating on the seven gifts in Isaiah 11 is to see the fullness of the gift of the Spirit: to see that it’s not just one thing or another that God’s presence affects, it’s everything.

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There’s a positive side and a negative side to our spiritual knowledge of this world (that is, all the knowledge that isn’t specifically about God/wisdom, his word/understanding, and hard choices/counsel).

The positive side sees God at work in the world, and discovers more deeply what it means to call him Creator. In Baptism, for example, we see that water is in the Father’s hand. He made it, it belongs to him, and he can do with it what we would never have imagined. The world is charged with the grandeur of God.

Maybe this is the central lesson of the wedding feast at Cana. We see that God can make wine out of water – and so we see more deeply what it means to say that he made wine and water in the first place. He isn’t joining late in the game: he made these things, all things, to express his goodness.

We see, too, that wine is worth making. It’s the most splendid symbol that the world exists purely to express God’s goodness. And so the conjunction of wine and marriage speaks volumes, too. As he made wine, so he made celebration, and friendship, and family. The gift of knowledge finds all things in God’s hands.

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The transition to marriage reminds us, too, that God made not only the material world, but man himself. In the birth of Jesus we discover the innermost depth of humanity. Just as God can make water from wine, even more profoundly, he can make saints, and sons, from mere men. In Christ we discover the awesome possibilities of the human person – and again we are reminded that God made us. This is not a last-minute idea, tacked on to an otherwise meaningless creation. God made creation with all these possibilities baked in. That’s what it means to be human, created in his image.

In the Assumption we find human persons, even their bodies, can be taken up into heaven. We look at the world differently. We have a different understanding of created reality, a new, more penetrating divine knowledge of all that we see.

In the Coronation of Mary, and in the very fact of the Preaching of Jesus, we see the possibility that the human person can share in God’s plan, can see as God sees and will as God wills. The gift of knowledge shows the grandeur of man.

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At the same time, there is a sad side to the gift of knowledge. We discover, too, what it means to call this world a vale of tears. The more we appreciate the awesome dignity of man, the more deeply we feel his abuse and degradation. The more we know what we are called to, the sadder it becomes to see ourselves rolling in the mud.

It is the gift of knowledge, also, that allows us to make a good examination of conscience, to see into the depths of what is wrong.

But even this sorrow is itself a gift of the love of God. We weep because we care, and because we can afford to care. Sin doesn’t bother those who dwell in darkness, and the shadow of death. But to those who have seen the dawn from on high, it is very sad.

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In all of this, remember again that the gifts are not duties, and not just human acts. It’s not that we “ought” to “learn” these lessons. When the Tradition calls these gifts of the Spirit, it sees them more as consequences of our divinization and divine filiation. As the Spirit of God’s love dwells ever deeper in us, we “naturally” come to see more deeply.

Where we have trouble understanding what God is doing, let us ask for deeper love.

Is Now and Ever Shall Be

PFA83070The second half of the Glory Be connects all of time with the profession of faith in the glory of the Trinity. Time can be summed up very simply as beginning, middle, and end. Last week we talked about “as it was in the beginning.” Next week we will talk about the end of time, and why our (very loose) English translation of this prayer says, “world without end.”

But this prayer, both in English and Latin, speaks of the time in the middle as, “is now and ever shall be.” Obviously this is two clauses put together – but it’s important to see how these two fit together. This part of the prayer encourages us to think of “now” in terms of “always.” The God of the beginning and end will always be who he is – and that means now, too. We need to remind ourselves that our now is part of always.

What is always true is true today. We need to insert our today, what is most practical and concrete and right in front of us, into our sense of the always, the doctrines that we believe remain forever. We need to put the ever changing flux of our now into contact with the things that never change, to connect ourselves to the unmoving center of the wheel.

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It’s very helpful in saying our prayers to pause, at least sometimes, after each phrase, so that we see what we are saying. And it is important to see where the pauses go.

With the Glory Be, we can pause, just for a moment, after we say, “glory.” Ah, yes, glory! But after that, we should not pause too quickly. Let us put together, “to the Father and to the Son.”  This is a relationship, and we better understand what the words mean when we put them together. Father and Son, yes – oh, right, that’s what we’re talking about. “And to the Holy Spirit.” This is another statement, which we can only appreciate if we pause after Father and Son, but that deserves recognition on its own.

As it was in the beginning.” Yes, we call to mind the beginning. “Is now and ever shall be.” If we break these two up, perhaps we risk missing the connection between the two, and making the prayer more of a big long list than it needs to be. Now and ever: those are inherently connected. And then “world without end.”

Just the briefest pause, to make sure we see that each of these phrases has its own thing to contribute. It can even help to count them on our fingers: that’s six points, one hand and a thumb. At least some of the time, we should pause just long enough to notice each of these six points.

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When we pray “is now and ever shall be,” we unite all of our now’s to the beginning. As God created the world in the beginning, so now he is still Creator, it is still all in his hands.

We point to the beginning of our faith, as well. We know that the God of Abraham, the God of Moses, and the God of Jesus Christ and of Mary is our God too. Much of traditional Catholic piety involves recalling those past events and applying them to ourselves. “Is now and ever shall be” is a powerful reminder that the God of the Bible does not belong to the past.

But these historical events encourage us to look back further, to the ultimate beginning – to look into the life of God himself. The Father eternally begets the Son. And “eternal” means that he begets him today, too. God is still the Father. Eternally that’s who he is, and who he is for us today. Everything comes back to the Father and the Son. How beautiful to be reminded: yes, this is the deepest truth about right now!

The fabulous prologue to John’s Gospel tells us of the Word, the eternal Son, “all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.” Today too, and always, everything that exists somehow pours forth from the love of Father and Son. “Is now” tells us to look around and see our world, both the material world and human events, through that lens.

And finally, we look back too to the glory of God. It is too easy to forget that beauty, that grandeur, amidst the confusion of everyday life. But our shortest little prayer tells us, don’t forget, God is glorious today, too, and ever shall be.

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What little way could you meditate on eternal doctrines being real in our now, our today?

Fifth Sunday of Easter: Built on Christ

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ACTS 6:1-7; PS 33: 1-2, 4-5, 18-19; 1 PT 2:4-9; JN 14:1-12

“Come to him, a living stone . . . . Let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices.”

Our reading this Sunday from the First Letter of St. Peter launches us into the theme of all the readings. Peter is mixing metaphors, but in a useful way.

First, he talks about a house being built up. Even here the metaphor gets a little mixed, because it’s not clear whether we’re building up or down. Psalm 118’s “cornerstone,” which Peter cites later in our reading, is literally, both in Greek and in Hebrew, “the head of the angle.” It might be more helpful to think of the keystone in an arch: without it, the arch collapses.

But if you want to think about the cornerstone on a building, realize that the first stone you lay determines where every other stone will be – so you’d better be careful where you put it! Still, I like the structural importance of the keystone better: without it, the whole building collapses.

The point is that the building stands or falls in its relation to Jesus.

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Peter’s second metaphor, however, is a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices. We could say that the cornerstone gives the means, but this metaphor gives the end, the goal. Christ builds us up – so that we can worship. Like any mixed metaphor, this one limps a little, but the point is that Christ gives us access to true worship.

And this is active. It’s not that he does the worship for us. He makes us worshipers. He makes us the priests – all of us. In fact, the ordained priesthood is there precisely as a sign of Christ making true prayer available to all God’s people. The ordained allow us to participate in the worship of the whole Church.

The cornerstone is a stumbling block, finally – to mix one more metaphor in – in the sense that without Christ, we lack that full access to the Father. We need him.

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Jesus talks about the same thing in our reading from John’s Gospel. “I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” There’s actually a double conferral of grace here. First, Jesus himself has access only because it has been given to him – but, because it is given, he truly has access to the Father. He receives everything.

Then he gives it to us. And in this second link in the chain, again we have only because we have received – but then we truly have it. Jesus makes us a royal priesthood, or a “holy temple,” and thus we really are. Because he gives us access to the depths of prayer, we really can pray.

This is what he means when he says he is the way – through him we can actually get to the Father. And it’s what he means when he says he prepares a place for us: through him, we can really be there, with the Father.

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But what does this look like, practically? All of this mystical theology pops its head up into the real world in Acts, where we see what the early Church looked like.

There is a dispute, because the Apostles are busy with “prayer and the ministry of the word,” and they don’t have time for “the daily distribution” to the widows. Do you see the two poles? There is prayer and service, our relationship with God and its expression in our relationship with our neighbor.

I think it’s a very sad thing that with the modern restoration of the diaconate we have set them up as mini-priests, also committed to “prayer and the ministry of the word.” Traditionally and biblically, the whole point of the diaconate is that, though priestly work is essential, and in a certain sense it is highest, there is other work that is essential too. The prominence of deacons is supposed to remind us of the diversity of vocations, and of the importance of both what we do in Church and what we do outside.

Being built into a “royal priesthood” also means becoming a “holy nation,” marked for how we behave in relation to our neighbors. That’s why the deacon stands by the altar: because his service to the poor is just as essential as the priest’s service at the altar, and flows from it.

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“Of the kindness of the Lord the earth is full,” says our Psalm. Transformed by Christ, we live out that kindness in the world.

How could we more intensely live the connection between the altar and the poor, between our union with Christ and our love of neighbor?