Parting Thoughts on Formation in the Aparecida Document

brazil-popeFor several weeks we have been examining chapter 6 of the Aparecida Document, “The Formative Itinerary of Missionary Disciples.” Before we close this chapter, and move on to the third main part of the document, some thoughts on putting this into practice.

My feeling coming away from this chapter is that there’s so much important work to be done . . . and I’m not sure how to do it. What can we do?


Some of us are directly engaged in the institutions considered as “places of formation for missionary disciples”: I am the head of a “family, first school of faith” I teach in a Seminary and a Catholic University.

But even in those institutions, it isn’t always easy to know how to promote formation. This chapter, for example, insisted on the importance of “initiation to Christian life.” Although my wife and I try to do a lot, it is striking to discover how difficult it is to get into our children’s souls. They sometimes tell me that they pray outside of family prayer times, but I don’t really know; I don’t know how engaged they are. (And, as Flannery O’Connor said, “stories of pious children tend to be false”: patting ourselves on the back for the games our children play or the sweet things they say is not the same as really forming them in the faith.)

This is all the more difficult in the university. I am fortunate to be able to proclaim Christ in my classroom – but how do I bring them to an actual encounter? I can talk about moral obligations, but how do I promote real moral conversion? I can talk about a lot of things: but ultimately, we are dealing with other people’s souls. And not only, as with my children, do I not have access to their wills, but in other contexts, I don’t even have access to most of their lives. I don’t know what goes on when they leave my classroom.


I feel this all the more acutely as we move into other areas, like the parish and “small ecclesial communities.” It is easy – and perhaps helpful – to daydream about a really lively parish, where people are really initiated and formed as Christians. But in practice, priests are busy, I have put on events in our little parish that no one comes to, and even when I help with formation events in more lively parishes, there’s still the question of how you get people in the door, how you get them to listen, and how you get them to actually embrace what we are teaching.

We attend our neighborhood parish, in the belief that investing in a less-than-perfect parish is a witness to our faith in the truth of the sacraments, our fidelity to the Church, and our call to mission. But the weaknesses of our parish make it all the harder to get any great programs going. I respect those who go out of their way to find better parishes, but I’m not sure it solves the problem. Still the question is how to initiate those who are not initiated, and form those who are not formed. Abandoning the weak doesn’t solve much, and even in a great parish, there remain many who do not want to go any deeper than they have already gone.


What to do? (This is a pep talk for me as much as for my readers.)

First, we can attend to our own formation. We can keep always before our eyes our own call to encounter with Christ, moral conversion, discipleship in Christ’s teaching, communion with other disciples, and mission – and continued development on the intellectual, spiritual, missionary, and communal levels. We cannot give what we do not have. If we work at our own formation, we never know what opportunities may present themselves, even in casual conversations.

Second, we can do what we can. Think of the music director. There’s only so much he can do, for example, to promote moral conversion, and drive people to confession. But he can do that: he can choose hymns with challenging texts, and the tunes he believes will draw people higher instead of coddling their complacency.

We too should do what we can. Last Sunday I chatted after Mass with an older woman, very nice, but not very fervent. What can I do to promote her formation? I can witness, by occasional words and by my public actions, my love of Christ, the moral transformation that love has brought about in my life, my commitment to the Church. Sometimes that seems like not very much. But at all times, we just have to do what we can.

Setting aside big programs, what are little ways that you can promote integral formation in your parish?

Pope Francis on Being Evangelized by the Poor

The following words from Pope Francis take us to the heart of the “preferential option for the poor.” They are a brilliant challenge.

Francis points out that the poor are not only to be recipients of our largesse. They should teach us. We need to see in their faces what suffering really means – especially us middle-class Americans who are so isolated from true suffering. He contrasts an “activist” way of approaching the poor with a “contemplative” one.

The latter part of the quotation urges the importance of including the poor in the Church. Think of all the pastoral initiatives you know: how many of them are not directly focused on the rich and powerful – missions to lawyers, to intellectuals, to colleges, to people online, through middle-class white pop culture, etc.? But if we need to contemplate the poor, what happens to us when we exclude them? What happens to our witness if we only go to those who can materially benefit us?

Notice, by the way, that the harshest, most challenging words here on the centrality of the poor to our apostolate are quotations from St. John Paul II.

pope francisThis is why I want a Church which is poor and for the poor. They have much to teach us. Not only do they share in the sensus fidei [i.e., they too have insight into the meaning of our faith], but in their difficulties they know the suffering Christ. We need to let ourselves be evangelized by them.

The new evangelization is an invitation to acknowledge the saving power at work in their lives and to put them at the centre of the Church’s pilgrim way. We are called to find Christ in them, to lend our voice to their causes, but also to be their friends, to listen to them, to speak for them and to embrace the mysterious wisdom which God wishes to share with us through them.

Our commitment does not consist exclusively in activities or programmes of promotion and assistance; what the Holy Spirit mobilizes is not an unruly activism, but above all an attentiveness which considers the other “in a certain sense as one with ourselves” (St. Thomas). This loving attentiveness is the beginning of a true concern for their person which inspires me effectively to seek their good.

This entails appreciating the poor in their goodness, in their experience of life, in their culture, and in their ways of living the faith. True love is always contemplative, and permits us to serve the other not out of necessity or vanity, but rather because he or she is beautiful above and beyond mere appearances: “The love by which we find the other pleasing leads us to offer him something freely” (St. Thomas).

The poor person, when loved, “is esteemed as of great value” (St. Thomas), and this is what makes the authentic option for the poor differ from any other ideology, from any attempt to exploit the poor for one’s own personal or political interest. Only on the basis of this real and sincere closeness can we properly accompany the poor on their path of liberation.

Only this will ensure that “in every Christian community the poor feel at home. Would not this approach be the greatest and most effective presentation of the good news of the kingdom?”(JP II) Without the preferential option for the poor, “the proclamation of the Gospel, which is itself the prime form of charity, risks being misunderstood or submerged by the ocean of words which daily engulfs us in today’s society of mass communications” (JP II).

Since this Exhortation is addressed to members of the Catholic Church, I want to say, with regret, that the worst discrimination which the poor suffer is the lack of spiritual care. The great majority of the poor have a special openness to the faith; they need God and we must not fail to offer them his friendship, his blessing, his word, the celebration of the sacraments and a journey of growth and maturity in the faith. Our preferential option for the poor must mainly translate into a privileged and preferential religious care.

-Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium

The Psalms on the Glory of the Lord

King David, Westminster Psalter

King David, Westminster Psalter

We have been meditating on the Tabernacle (and later Temple) in this line from Psalm 26: “Lord, I love the dwelling place of your house, and the place of the tabernacle of your glory.” This week let us consider the Glory that abides there.

The Psalms often proclaim the glory of God, and even say that it is our glory. Let us consider what it means to meet this glory in the Temple.

(Let me acknowledge that I have before me notes from a lecture Saturday night by Fr. John Saward on poverty and liturgical beauty.)


First of all, as we have considered before, the Hebrew word for glory refers to weight, dignity, and Magnificence. To speak of God’s glory is to say that he is awesome, awe-inspiring.

At the heart of worship is wonder, admiration, adoration. To discover how amazing God is.

Our acknowledgement of his magnificence, including the magnificence of our worship, indicates the purity of our love. We acknowledge him as the greatest, the highest, the best, as needing nothing from us – and then we offer him our greatest, our highest, our best, as a way of saying that he is worth giving everything for.

And in our discovery of God’s wealth, we acknowledge that he is the source of our wealth. Everything good we have comes from him, and should return to him. But so too, everything good we have is worth nothing compared to him. We lift it all up in worship, and acknowledge him as the most high.


A second meaning of glory, perhaps more directly present in the Greek and Latin translations, but central to the greater theology of the Psalms, is Beauty.

It is important to add this element to our understanding of God’s magnificence. God is not just a big will, not just crass power. He is wealth, yes, and awesomeness, and power.

But even deeper, he is beauty. This is important when the Psalms say, “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Ps 19:1). The heavens – and the earth, and everything that is made – shows not only that God is powerful, but that he is wise, and good, and that he sets things in order. He has a plan, and not just a will.

I have commented before that “thy will be done” can run afoul if not connected to “thy kingdom come.” For God to be king is for God to make everything right – and beautiful.

And so too the worship offered in the Tabernacle and the Temple is not only awesome, but exquisite, lovely, well-ordered, beautiful.

And what God gives to his saints is not just power, but beauty, the radiance of being fully alive.


One way to understand that beauty is through a third word connected with “glory,” Light.

“In your light we shall see light” (Ps 36:9). This moves in two directions. God himself is the light, like the sun, shining with glory. He is dazzling. The sun itself bespeaks both magnificence and glory.

But to understand light, we have to turn downward, too, to that which light illumines. Light allows us to see truth. Darkness – such an important metaphor in the Bible, especially in the New Testament – is about hiding. Darkness is where you go when you don’t want the true nature of your actions to be shown.

(God, too, sometimes is hidden – but only as the sun dazzles our eyes by its brightness.)

Light is the place of revelation, where our actions are shown, and where the things we act upon are shown. To live relationships in the light is for ourselves to be seen, to see truly who our neighbor is, and to see truly what that relationship is meant to be. It is to see clearly, too, sin, and the way it mars reality.

To speak of God’s glory in this way is to speak of him as the truth itself. It calls us to rise back up and look at him, dazzling light itself, as the revealer.

This is what we do, for example, when we dwell on Scripture. (Fr. Saward said the melismata of chant buzz around the sacred word like bees, sucking the sweetness of God’s revelation. As does all true sacred art.) We discover the truth that it reveals, and we discover that God is Truth itself: the revealer, the maker of that which is revealed, the beautiful and magnificent artificer of beautiful and magnificent things.


 The Psalmist finds this glory both in nature and in the liturgy. We discover God’s beauty in all his works, and we turn to express it, in (the list is Fr. Saward’s) our chant, our ceremonial, our iconography, and our architecture.

Where could we better express the beauty of Jesus and his kingdom?

Twenty-eighth Sunday: The Feast

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

IS 25:6-10a; PS 23:1-3a, 3b-4, 5, 6; PHIL 4:12-14, 19-20; MT 22:1-14

As we approach the end of the Church year, the readings continually urge us to think about divine judgment – and help us to understand what it really means.

Our Gospel reading is the parable of the wedding feast: “The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son. He dispatched his servants to summon the invited guests to the feast, but they refused to come.”

This story enriches our understanding of judgment in two directions. First, it shows the real meaning of punishment. The king in the parable casts the unworthy guest “into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.”

We tend to focus on the wailing and grinding of teeth. We could call this the “active” aspect of punishment: the king is hurting that man! But we ought to focus on the “darkness,” and even more, the “outside.” We could call this the “passive” aspect of punishment: the true punishment is not what the king is doing to the man, but what the man is refusing to receive from the king.

God has prepared a feast for us. Hell is not where God, or anyone else, whips us. Hell is where we would wail and grind our teeth, because we are outside, in the darkness, without the great feast that God offers. He has prepared a feast; it is we who choose to starve.


Second, this story shows the real meaning of “worthiness,” the criteria of judgment. It does this through a series of images of unworthiness. Paradigmatic are those who “laid hold of his servants, mistreated them, and killed them.” Perhaps we are not surprised that “The king was enraged and sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.” Here it seems, again, that punishment is an active thing: they actively do evil, and he actively punishes them for that evil.

But first comes another interesting – and ultimately revealing – category. “Some ignored the invitation and went away, one to his farm, another to his business.” What excludes these ones from the feast? Not the king’s positive action against them, but their failure to receive the feast he offers them.

These ones seem innocent enough. Farms and businesses aren’t bad. But the image of the feast calls us to see more deeply what the real criterion of judgment is. It’s not that they’re hurting anyone. It’s that they refuse to receive the feast. They choose to remain in the darkness, outside. In this sense, their farms and businesses are not so innocent: not because those things making the king angry, but because they are choosing wailing and grinding of teeth, choosing something else instead of the feast.

Indeed, only these characters make sense of those who kill the servants. Why do we kill the prophets, kill the martyrs, kill Jesus, hate the messengers of the Church? Only, and precisely, because they distract us from our other interests by calling us to the feast. This ends in destruction, to be sure. But it is self-inflicted.


The parable ends, strangely, “many are called, few are chosen.” Chosen? It doesn’t match the story, in which many seemed to be chosen. The point is that God’s choice, God’s judgment of us, is purely in our choice of him. Not to choose and not to be chosen are one and the same.

This, too, is the explanation of the third man who is punished, the man “without a wedding garment.” Why is the king so angry with this man? Only because he refuses to celebrate, refuses to participate in the feast. Even to be at the feast, but not to celebrate fully, is already to be in the outer darkness: not because he does not choose us, but because we do not choose him.


Listen closely – like one in a wedding garment – to the reading from Isaiah, where God offers “a feast of rich food and choice wines,” and will “wipe away the tears from every face.” This is the offer. This is what we choose to refuse: to stay instead in the “web” of death.

This is the secret to the reading from Philippians. “I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry.” “My God will fully supply whatever you need, in accord with his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.”

It is not that God gives some rule that we will be punished if we refuse to go hungry. Not at all. Rather, we have no fear of going hungry in this world, when we know that God in “his glorious riches,” offers us the perfect feast, the only thing that really matters, his presence.

Do we approach Christ – in our prayer life, in our moral obligations – as anything other than the most delightful feast? Do we see the darkness of being outside of that feast?

Fr. Benedict Joseph Groeschel, CFR

groeschelThe Protestant sage Stanley Hauerwas warns of the temptation to form a Church “of the world but not in it.” Hauerwas is wrong about a lot of things (mostly because he goes too far) – but he also feeds a steady stream of converts into the Catholic Church. I think this particular phrase gives a good starting point for thinking about the importance of Fr. Benedict Joseph Groeschel, CFR.

I have just returned from Fr. Benedict’s funeral, which packed our enormous Cathedral here in Newark.

Fr. Benedict, as you probably know, was a popular author, where he tried to meld his education in psychology with his formation as a Franciscan. He was a popular personality on television, and a popular preacher; my first encounter with him was when he came to preach a three-hour meditation on the Cross in St. Paul, Minnesota, when I was in college.

Part of his popularity, I think, was rooted in that wild accent, distinct to the neighborhood of Jersey City where he grew up. (Was it Bergen Hill? I can’t keep track of the different “heights” and “hills” of our neighboring city.) But even more it was rooted in a distinct combination of transparent sanctity and deep humanity.

That’s the core of Fr. Benedict: the union of sanctity and humanity – of God and man. I don’t know if his writings were successful in their attempt to pursue this insight through psychology – but the reason he took psychology seriously was because he took humanity seriously.


This is the key, too, to his Franciscan reform. More important than his writings was the little community he formed, the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. With seven younger priests, Fr. Benedict left the Capuchin Franciscans (who were watching a bit too much television, perhaps) and asked Cardinal O’Connor of New York to let them begin a reform.

It says something about the grit of this reform that the C in their initials, CFR, now stands for “community,” after the Capuchins refused to let them have a name that indicates their roots in the Capuchin reform of the sixteenth century. The CFRs are radically Franciscan, radically poor, radically committed to Christ and to his Church. Radical enough to be a threat.

But Fr. Benedict’s great gift to the Church is that the CFRs are also radically human. No one I have encountered makes clearer what Pope Francis means by “the joy of the Gospel.” No one is more filled with joy.


And no one more deeply loves humanity. No one, anywhere, looks you in the eye like a CFR.

At the funeral, the Servant of the Community (their elected head) urged that the deepest lesson we should take forward from Fr. Benedict is what Pope Francis, in Evangelium Gaudium, calls “the culture of encounter.” The Holy Father wrote, “the Gospel tells us constantly to run the risk of a face-to-face encounter with others.” That is the humanity that Fr. Groeschel taught us.


The Church is called to be in the world but not of it, but we sometimes run the risk of being of the world but not in it. The temptation is to make Catholicism a way of being opposed to the world but still worldly: what Pope Francis calls “spiritual worldliness.” As if what Christ – no, not Christ, for such a falsified Catholicism rarely speaks of Christ – as if “Catholicism” were principally about being grumpy and hating people.

As if we can oppose loving the truth and being pastoral. There is nothing pastoral about hiding the truth. But neither can anyone claim to really love the truth – or Jesus Christ, the Truth – who is not passionate about bringing that Truth to others. To be unwilling “to run the risk of a face-to-face encounter” is to prove ourselves less than fully in love with the Truth.


Perhaps this is the challenge of Vatican II. After the Council, of course there were those who said we should give up on truth. But there are also those who have said we that instead should give up on the world. Who have made “real” Catholicism consist in being grumpy.

(The Council was no break from the past. It only warned of the danger of heading in the wrong direction. I think Fr. Benedict’s most important writing is this article, on the reform of religious life.)

Fr. Benedict’s gift to the Church is to show a true, radical religious reform, a reform rooted in truly radical poverty and radical love of Christ and his Church, that is not grumpy, but filled with joy, delighted to take the risk of a face-to-face encounter with real human beings, deeply enough in love with Christ to love, too, humanity.

Where is Christ calling us to be more humane?

Aparecida on Places for Formation

brazil-popeThis week we come at least to the final section of the Aparecida document’s chapter on “The formative itinerary of missionary disciples.” At last we consider where all this should happen.

     d. Places of Formation for Missionary Disciples

          i. The family, first school of faith

          ii. Parishes

          iii. Small ecclesial communities

          iv. Ecclesial movements and new communities

          v. Seminaries and houses of religious formation

          vi. Catholic education

               1. Catholic educational institutions

               2. Universities and advanced institutions of Catholic education

Because I do not think it can be over-emphasized – and I think Aparecida has wanted us to see this – let us one more time say: true formation is always about real encounter with Jesus Christ, leading to constant continuing conversion, discipleship and continued learning, communion in the life of the Church and the local Christian community, and mission to draw others into all of the above.


The question is how. One key way to approach that question is to ask, “where?”

Aparecida’s first answer is, “the family, first school of faith.” Obviously not everyone grows up in a family that can form them as true Christians. But let us all – those with families and those without families – realize that there is no greater maker of saints than a holy Christian family. And why? Because in the family come opportunities for real, daily prayer – not occasional meetings, but day-to-day – along with the day-to-day struggle for conversion. Family makes it real.

Let me make an appeal: if in any way we think about marriage without thinking about family as the first school of faith, we fail profoundly.

The exclusivity of family – not everyone is part of such a family – should perhaps remind us, too, that formation needs to focus on the particular. Efforts to form absolutely everybody everywhere end in forming no one. We can only form particular people in particular contexts. Is that unfair? It is the reality of the human condition. Let it drive us to mission: to look to work for formation where we can.


Next come three forms of religious organizations: parishes, “small ecclesial communities,” and “ecclesial movement and new communities.”

The parish exists to be a place of formation. What would it mean to make our parish liturgies real places of encounter with Christ? But what could we do, too, to make them places of personal conversion, life-long discipleship, and communion? And places from which we launch out into mission?

The “new movements” exist to complement the parishes, to pick up where parishes fall short. But let them not replace the parishes, which are natural places of encounter, closer to the reality of family.

And let both parishes and big movements encourage us to think about small communities: all the little ways we can gather together, in various ways in various places, to live the faith more deeply. These forms of communion and encounter are necessary!


Finally, Aparecida speaks of schools: seminaries, houses of religious formation, Catholic schools, and universities. Here perhaps I am preaching to the choir, but let us not forget that this is the real purpose of these institutions, the reason they exist: so that as we give people other skills, we also form them as Christians.

Let us consider, then, too, the importance of these institutions. What opportunities for formation are lost when we give up on our educational institutions?


Now, in all of these places we may still ask, how? How, in any of these places, can we bring people to true formation as Christians? The heart of the answer, I think, is in relationship: our relationship with the truth, and our relationship with one another.

These “places” all remind us that true formation can only happen where people are in real contact, whether it is the more natural contact of families and parishes, the explicitly formative contact of small ecclesial communities and big ecclesial movements, or the explicitly educational contact of seminaries and schools.

Perhaps I should point out that Web pages and blogs don’t make Aparecida’s list. Reading is an important part of formation. But real formation means praying together, living together, struggling forward together. It requires true human contact. Let our internet outreach never falsify formation by reducing it to just one element.

Because the other side of formation is our relationship with the truth: the truth of integral formation. How do we form others in the Christian life? By pursuing it ourselves, in its integrity. By never forgetting that it must be always about encounter with Christ, conversion, discipleship, communion with others, and mission.

But perhaps the last word that must be said about formation is that there is no last word. Once we bring people into contact in the context of real, integral, Christian formation, there is no single answer. The answer is in relationships. It is in creativity. And it is in a passionate thirst for our own formation, and to share deeper formation with others.

What could we do to promote formation in our parish?

Pope Benedict on Loving our Neighbor – Today

Pope Francis’s concern for social justice sometimes makes people nervous. What they perhaps don’t realize is that he’s saying the same thing as his predecessors.

Below is a brief passage from Pope Benedict’s inaugural encyclical, on love. He warns us that sometimes our social thinking is more worried about progress than about real live people today. Yes, we should work for a more efficient market down the road. But let us keep everything subservient to real live human beings.

What could this mean for us, in our day-to-day life?

POPEWhat we have here, though, is really an inhuman philosophy. People of the present are sacrificed to the moloch of the future—a future whose effective realization is at best doubtful.

One does not make the world more human by refusing to act humanely here and now. We contribute to a better world only by personally doing good now, with full commitment and wherever we have the opportunity, independently of partisan strategies and programmes.

The Christian’s programme —the programme of the Good Samaritan, the programme of Jesus—is “a heart which sees”. This heart sees where love is needed and acts accordingly.

–Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est?

The Symbolism of Animals in the Psalms

King David, Westminster Psalter

King David, Westminster Psalter

We have been commenting on Psalm 26 as an opportunity to see central themes that appear throughout the Psalms. Our main purpose is to pray the Psalms better – but also to learn from the Psalms to enrich other aspects of our spiritual life.

Psalm 26 has no animals in it. But let us pause, following last week’s consideration of worship in the Tabernacle and the Temple, to consider the rich use of animal symbolism in the Psalms. Much of this animal symbolism appears in the sacrificial worship of the Temple: all Temple sacrifices used goats, sheep, cattle, or birds, along with inanimate objects like oil, wheat, and salt.


Jesus speaks of separating the sheep and the goats. The contrast is arresting.

It is often said that sheep are stupid animals, but that’s not quite right. As Jesus points out, sheep recognize the voice of their master. They are one of the few kinds of animals that come when called, and that follow, instead of having to be driven with a stick. Consider the difference between a cowboy, who chases the cows with a whip, and a shepherd, who calls them to follow.

Sheep go astray, to be sure, but what distinguishes them is precisely the intelligence that allows them to recognize who cares for them and follow him. Goats are the extreme opposite: utterly unruly and unrulable. For this reason, the Law of the Temple uses goats as a symbol of sin: of failing to listen, failing to know that our Shepherd cares for us, failing to follow.

Sheep, too, are herd animals, part of the flock. Goats are individualists. The Lord calls us into his sheepfold, his Church.

Finally, sheep are discerning: they eat what is clean and pure. Goats are undiscerning. Those more familiar with goats than I am say that goats are the same way in their sexual habits: gross and undiscerning. We are called to stay in the pastures of the Lord, and to eat what really nourishes.

Finally, among the sheeps are rams: a sign of regal authority. Just as the sheep follow their Good Shepherd, so also among them some are set out for leadership and special respect.


The Psalms also use the symbolism of cattle. We think of cattle mostly in terms of milk and meat, but that is not what distinguishes them in the Psalms. Indeed, it is interesting to note that all the animals used in sacrifice are healthy animals: the kind that give nourishing meat and clean milk. Partly for this reason, some cultures worship the dairy animals (sheep, goats, and cows). We are called not to worship them, but to subordinate them to our own good: to use them well.

What distinguishes cattle from the other dairy animals, however – especially in an earlier kind of agriculture – was their strength. Cow are not only farm animals, but beasts of burden. We are meant to identify with them, too: they stay together, work hard, and keep their heads down.

Meanwhile, the Psalms also call us to identify with birds, especially simple doves. Although, like cattle, we should work hard and keep our heads down, like doves, we should not be earthbound, but should stretch to heaven. Doves are a symbol of contemplation.

But also a sign of simplicity. We are not to be like hawks and eagles, who prey on lesser birds, but like doves, who are friendly, gentle, and simple. That is the way to true contemplation.


Finally, let us consider some animals in the Psalms that are not used in sacrifice.

The lion is, in Scripture, a sign of Satan. He is a killer, too strong for us. And, interestingly, he both roars, striking fear in our hearts, and stalks quietly in the darkness, where we will not see him. Beware the lion!

The deer, meanwhile, like doves, are barely tied to the ground. With their nimble feet, they are able to climb to the heights – and to flee from the predator. They show that the way to reach the good and flee the evil is through lightness, not brute strength.


All of these animals take us into the wonderful world of symbolism. God gave us an imagination to use. He speaks in symbols for at least two reasons. First, because faith is for the simple – especially for the simple – and not just those who can understand fancy philosophy.

And second, because even those of us who study fancier stuff do better sometimes to realize that the spiritual life is richer than our explanations. Sometimes, rather than trying to puzzle out why we are working, we do better just to put our head down and think about oxen.

How could animal symbolism nourish your spiritual life?

Twenty-Seventh Sunday: Visit This Vine and Protect It

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

IS 5:1-7; PS 80:9, 12, 13-14, 15-16, 19-20; PHIL 4:6-9; MT 21:33-43

Our Gospel reading for this Sunday speaks of “when vintage time drew near.” Matthew’s Gospel builds to a fabulous crescendo, perfectly attuned to the liturgical year. It is a real gift of the reformed Lectionary that we can more directly experience how the rhythm of the year is right here in the Gospel.

Vintage time draws near. The end of the year approaches. And our Gospel readings move more and more towards thoughts of the end of time, and the coming of the owner of the vineyard to demand his produce.


Our readings this Sunday take us into this mystery of the Final Judgment by giving three angles on the same metaphor. The tensions among the stories help us to appreciate the many aspects of our relationship with the Lord.

In the Gospel, we are the tenant farmers. “When vintage time drew near, [the owner of the vineyard] sent his servants to the tenants to obtain his produce. But the tenants seized the servants and one they beat, another they killed, and a third they stoned.”

Jesus asks the hearers of the parable, “‘What will the owner of the vineyard do to those tenants when he comes?’ They answered him, ‘He will put those wretched men to a wretched death and lease his vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the proper times.’”

So in the first version, we are threatened that we must give the owner of the vineyard his proper fruit.


But in the Old Testament reading, from Isaiah, we are the fruit. “The vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his cherished plant.”

And he is angry with the grapes themselves:

“Then he looked for the crop of grapes, but what it yielded was wild grapes. Now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard: What more was there to do for my vineyard that I had not done? Why, when I looked for the crop of grapes, did it bring forth wild grapes?  Now, I will let you know what I mean to do with my vineyard: take away its hedge, give it to grazing, break through its wall, let it be trampled!”

Again, there is fearsome judgment at the vintage time. But now we are the produce, instead of the ones who are supposed to give the owner his produce.


Finally, in the Psalm it is not the Lord crying out against the vineyard, but the vineyard crying out to the Lord: “Once again, O LORD of hosts, look down from heaven, and see; take care of this vine, and protect what your right hand has planted, the son of man whom you yourself made strong.” “Why have you broken down its walls, so that every passer-by plucks its fruit?”

All these angles of the story are true, and together they give us the full truth.


We are the tenants. It is our responsibility to work, to be holy, to do right. Isaiah too gives this angle: “he looked for judgment, but see, bloodshed! for justice, but hark, the outcry!” Justice is the fruit the Lord calls for. And it is our responsibility.

But we are also the fruit itself. Though, like the tenants, we are responsible, what God wants is us ourselves. He doesn’t want the “fruits” of justice: he wants us to be just. The Judgment is not, finally, about whether we have been responsible with things outside of ourselves, but whether we ourselves are good. Whether, in fact, we love him.

And that is what we, too, want, so that as in the Psalm, we cry out to him and beg him to make us good. It is our responsibility to be good because the goodness must reside in us ourselves – but the source of that goodness is God himself, working in us.


And so the reading from Philippians takes us deepest into these stories of the vintage.

We cry out to God to make us good: “make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” Notice that “guard” is just what he does for the vineyard: protect us, and make us holy! Deliver us from evil!

And we long for holiness itself, for the goodness which is God: “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

Do we know how precious we are to God? How much he wants us to be beautiful with holiness?

The Rosary and the Liturgy of the Hours

1143_jesus_handing_rosary_to_st_dominic_4f5e857a19fb7October 7 is the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, and so October is a month specially devoted to the rosary. We will take some time this month to consider some practical strategies, rooted in the medieval spirituality from which the rosary was born, in order to pray the rosary better.

This week, let us consider the Liturgy of the Hours.


The Liturgy of the Hours, you probably know, consecrates the day as a whole to prayer by giving special prayers to the main moments of the day.

Psalm 119 says, “In the middle of the night I will rise to give you thanks” (v. 62) and “Seven times a day I praise you” (v. 164). The Tradition fulfilled the first line with Matins: the name means “early in the morning,” but it was before Lauds, or morning prayer. And so as not to double-count Matins, they added to the natural six-fold division of the day (rising, mid-morning, mid-day, mid-afternoon, evening, bedtime) another hour, “prime” (literally “one hour into the day”), somewhere between lauds and mid-morning.

But notice, with regard to Matins, that the interpretation of the line is not as strict as it first appears. St. Benedict (c. 8), for example, says that during winter, “they should rise at the eighth hour of night, so that they may stop for prayer a little after the middle of the night.” They get to the Psalm’s “mid-night” by sleeping specifically “eight hours.” In the summer, “let the hour for the prayers of ‘waking’ be set so as to allow sufficient time for the brothers to attend to the necessities of nature before the prayers at the rising sun.” Here, midnight is frankly abandoned, replaced with early morning. He even says these prayers should be shortened “on account of the shortness of the night” (c. 10).

In short, the principle was not a rigid adherence to a divinely commanded schedule, but exactly the opposite: the principle was to scatter prayer throughout the day, at the most convenient times.


But note, with regard to Prime, the pure joy in fulfilling the Scriptural text. The Psalm says “seven times a day,” and they said, yes, let’s do it, let’s go all the way. Seven is in Scripture a number of completeness, and they embraced the Psalm’s encouragement not to stop short of praying at all the moments of the day, even bordering into the inconvenient.

And they did it precisely through the Psalms. They only are interested in fulfilling this particular line because they love the Psalms as a whole. The Liturgy of the Hours sanctifies all those hours of the day precisely by plunging into the divinely inspired prayers of Scripture.


What does all of this have to do with the rosary? Three things:

1. The rosary was developed in the Middle Ages precisely as a substitute for those who did not have the equipment (especially the books) for the Liturgy of the Hours. Its original spirit is not to be segregated into one part of the day, but to season the whole day with prayer.

2. The deeper insight of the Liturgy of the Hours was not only that each hour should have its prayer, but that prayer is done better when spread into shorter, more intense moments. Modern devotion seems simply to disagree: to prefer the Holy Hour (which is also good!) to this spirit of sprinkling prayer throughout the day, and to pray the rosary all at once. But the medievals insisted that we can pray more deeply when, rather than watching the minutes tick by till our hour is complete, we pray as hard as we can, even for just five minutes, and then return to do it again a few more times in the day.

3. The Liturgy of the Hours was Biblical – and so too is the Hail Mary. The words are not to be missed. It’s hard to pay attention to fifty Hail Mary’s. But if we pray just ten at a time, perhaps we could pray them really well, and discover the richness of the Biblical words.

What I am proposing, then, is that one way to get the most out of the rosary is to make it into a Liturgy of the Hours (and even a supplement to the “real” Liturgy, if we pray that too). The Creed and the first three Hail Mary’s are a fabulous way to begin the day with a profession of faith. Then scatter five mysteries through five separate times of day, if you can, so that your whole day is seasoned with the rosary, and so that you can pray each decade intensely. And end the day, as the monks long have, with the Hail Holy Queen—and with the conclusion of the rosary.

Are there ways you could pray more intensely, and more frequently?