The Fruits of the Spirit: Getting Specific

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Give Us This Day: The Eucharist

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

The Juxtapositions of Easter

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph and the Rediscovery of Love

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Where is St. Joseph in your devotional life?

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

How do you find time to breathe?

Confirmation: Thy Will Be Done

seven sacramentsBy Baptism we call God in heaven our Father. Ordination reminds us of our highest call, to hallow his name, but Marriage points us to the call to let him be king of love of all the earth.

In the fourth petition of the Our Father, we turn to God’s will, and an opportunity for insight into the sacrament of Confirmation.


Now, the first key to understanding this step in the Our Father is to distinguish it from the statement before. “Thy Kingdom Come” and “Thy Will Be Done” are not the same.

Kingdom does point to authority. In Greek and Latin, if anything, the word points even more to authority. In English, “kingdom” refers to the realm over which the king rules, but in those languages, it could also refer to God’s kingship itself. But don’t let this draw you astray.

The classical tradition makes a distinction between a king and a despot. A despot does whatever he wants. But a king does what is good for his people. A classic way of saying it is, the despot rules for his own good, the king rules for the common good. Of course, a despot might call himself a king. But someone who rules for his own pleasure and not the good of his people is a despot.

(Parallel distinctions are made with other governing arrangements. An aristocracy and an oligarchy are both ruled by a small number – but the difference is whether they are ruled for the good of all the people or just the good of the few. And in the classic use of the words, when the people rule, it’s only called “democracy” if they are selfish; a “republic” is when the people care about the common good.)

The point is, the most important question is not only who rules, but why, or for what?

In other words, we miss the meaning of God’s kingship if we just say, “he’s the king, he can do whatever he wants.” No, what makes him a king and not a tyrant is that he cares about his kingdom. There is a connection between his “kingship” and his “kingdom.” And to call God king is a beautiful thing.

God’s kingdom is a beautiful thing, where everything has its proper place, everything is ordered and right and beautiful. Nothing is dismissed or rejected, everything is in place.


Now, all of that is lost when we turn to the word “will.” Indeed, my mentor in the thought of Thomas Aquinas taught us to be careful about using the word “will.” Will precisely does not make the distinction between a benevolent king and a tyranical despot. In each case, the ruler’s will is done.

It is often wiser to talk about God’s plan rather than his will, to get a sense that there is some order and intelligence, not just brute force or willfullness. Note that Mary does not say “thy will,” but “thy word”: she sees the intelligence in God’s plan. Modern Catholic spiritual writers often reduce her “fiat” to a “yes” – but again, one can say yes to a tyranical will. Mary’s fiat goes deeper than that.

Nonetheless, Jesus teaches us to accept God’s will.


All these cautions about thinking of God as mere willfulness can help us understand why we do say “thy will be done.” We say “will” when we don’t know why. “Kingdom” is a hopeful word, where we see the beauty of God’s plan. “Will” is an abandoned word, where we have no idea why he’s doing what he does.

And that has a place in our prayer life too. We need to know that God is a king, whose will is always for the good and beautiful and orderly and helpful. But we also need to know that his plan is often beyond our ken. Sometimes all we can say is, “thy will be done.” I don’t know why you’re doing this, God, but I accept it.


In the traditional Western view of the sacrament of Confirmation (the Easterners have not developed this theology, and the West has been careful not to get too far ahead of them – but the middle ages did have a rich theology of Confirmation), this is the sacrament of battle. We are anointed to bear witness – but not a witness of rich words, a witness of suffering.

In the traditional Western practice of Confirmation, the bishop slapped you – just as a medieval Lord would wound his knight with his own sword, to say, you go out to suffer.

When we say, “Thy will be done,” it is as if we call on our Confirmation. We attest our willingness to do, and to accept, God’s will, come what may. We grit our teeth, realizing that fighting for the beautiful kingdom will sometimes mean just getting beat up. In Confirmation, we receive the grace to grit our teeth.

In what parts of your life does it feel like God’s will makes no sense?

Liberation from our Past

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

IS 43:16-21; PS 126: 1-2, 2-3, 4-5, 6; PHIL 3:8-14; JN 8:1-11

Easter is but two weeks away. And as we look forward to Easter – and realize that Lent is all about looking forward to Easter – this Sunday’s readings remind us that the Christian life is about looking forward, not back.

Repentance is such a different thing depending which way we are looking. Looking back, repentance would be about beating ourselves up. Looking forward, repentance is about transformation, on the way to transfiguration and resurrection. So too Confession.

And I have been pondering the eschatological aspect of the Mass: “until you come again,” “a pledge of future glory,” “as we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.” Christ who died prepares us to meet him face to face.


This is the key to our Gospel reading this week, the woman caught in adultery. There is no question here (any more than in Pope Francis’s comment, “if he has repented, who am I to judge?”) of remaining in sin. Jesus concludes, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”

The question is whether we get stuck in the past. Jesus “bent down and wrote on the ground.” One classic interpretation is that, like writing in the sand, our past sins can be wiped away at a stroke by the hand of Jesus – and we can move forward.


There is also, of course, an important teaching in this reading against judgment: “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” But again, Jesus is looking ahead.

The key is given in the Epistle, from Philippians. The reading concludes, “Just one thing: forgetting what lies behind but straining forward to what lies ahead, I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus.” Straining forward.

But this theme runs through the whole reading.

Watch how he plays with the word “possess”: “I continue my pursuit in hope that I may possess it, since I have indeed been taken possession of by Christ Jesus. Brothers and sister, I for my part do not consider myself to have taken possession.”

First, there is the tension between “hope that I may possess” and “I do not consider myself to have taken possession.” Christian hope doesn’t mean we think we are perfect – but nor does it mean we give up on being perfect. It means we hope we are on the path to perfection. Not that we are without sin, and ready to condemn those who sin, but that we strive toward the goal.

Second, there is the tension between “that I may possess” and “I have indeed been taken possession of [or, taken hold of]by Christ Jesus.” Again, Christian righteousness is not about thinking we’re perfect – but about thinking he is perfect, and the author of our perfection. We hope because we know he can do it.

And so hope rests on faith: “not having any righteousness of my own based on the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God, depending on faith to know him and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings.” Faith is essential: not because by it we are already perfect, but because by faith we discover the power that can make us perfect: Jesus who is our goal, and who transfigures us so that we can enter into union with him.

Those who would condemn the sinner don’t realize that life is about transformation. We pray for her transformation just as we pray for ours, trusting that all the strength is in Christ. Just as he died and rose from the dead, so too he can bring life to our souls dead in sin.


Our first reading, from Isaiah, returns us to the Lenten image of Israel in the desert. He begins with the Exodus: “Thus says the Lord, who opens a way in the sea, and a path in the mighty waters, who leads out chariots and horsemen, a powerful army, till they lie prostrate together, never to rise.”

But then, after calling to mind God’s work in the past, the prophet says, “Remember not the events of the past, the things of long ago consider not; see, I am doing something new!” The point of those stories of long ago is not to look back, but to look forward. Christ is working our Exodus, this Lent, our passage through the desert to the promised land.

“For I put waters in the desert, and rivers in the wasteland for my chosen people to drink, the people whom I formed for myself, that they might announce my praise.”

God has not forgotten us. He has not left us to how we were. The joy of the Gospel is that Christ is working transformation in us, not leaving us as we were but working a new work in us.

How are you stuck in the past? How can Christ liberate you?

Why Not Eat?

gluttonyOne of the pillars of Lenten penance, and of traditional Christian living, is fasting. We “give up” various things for Lent, but traditionally, the focus is on not eating. For almost the entirety of the Catholic tradition, you only got one real meal a day through the whole of Lent. (And although it wasn’t formally included in the 1917 Code of Canon Law, there was an older tradition of giving up another pleasure of the flesh for Lent, too.)

There’s wisdom in this practice.


Thomas Aquinas defines four central virtues of human life. There’s prudence (picking the smartest means to reach our ends), justice (giving people what they deserve from us), fortitude (doing what’s difficult), and temperance (giving up what feels good when it isn’t appropriate).

As the modern practices of “giving things up” for Lent makes clear, there are a lot of forms of temperance. Not getting distracted from your work is a kind of temperance. So is being simple. Humility, not getting angry, and gentleness are all forms of temperance.

And yet, being bodily creatures, there is a more basic kind of temperance: temperance from the pleasures of the flesh. On a biological level, the most basic temperance is about food, drink, and sex. Nowhere is temperance more vivid, more basic, more direct than in these fleshy passions. Nowhere is it more obvious that our desire for pleasure is out of control.

It must be said: temperance is the lowest of the four virtues. But fasting also requires a lot of prudence (both in picking how much to eat and in using fasting as a means to greater ends) and fortitude (because it’s tough). Justice is much higher than temperance – but the other three virtues all help us to be just. It’s hard to treat other people right when you have no self-control.


I often teach John Cassian’s Institutes, a classic piece of Egyptian-desert monastic wisdom from the early Church. Most of the Institutes is organized around what would later be called the seven cardinal sins, along with the deepest sin, pride. (Cassian’s seven are gluttony, lust, greed, wrath, self-pity, sloth, and vainglory. The later tradition would refine self-pity into envy, which is unhappiness focused on other people’s excellence.)

One of the many things I love about Cassian is the way he starts with gluttony. Gluttony is far and away the least of these sins. It is not connected to any Commandment, it doesn’t involve any grave disorder.

In fact, what makes gluttony interesting is precisely its naturalness. Of course, it’s not natural to eat too much. (Cassian adds pickiness and snacking to his description of gluttony.) And yet the desire for food is a healthy, normal desire.

You have to eat or you will die. All the other kinds of sins you can completely give up. But gluttony requires prudence. In fact, the greatest sin connected to gluttony would be hurting yourself by fighting too hard. Cassian has a lot of extreme things to say about fasting (he was an Egyptian monk) – but his closing word is “fast as if you were going to live a hundred years.” That is, fast in a healthy way.

It would be healthy to eat a lot less than we do. Many of us (especially fat Americans) would probably be healthier after forty days of one meal. Doctors even say that the biggest thing you can do to live longer is just eat less.

Fasting is not about killing yourself. It’s about learning to be prudent, learning that you don’t need nearly as much as you think you do.


After Vatican II, the rules on fasting were mitigated. Previously, fasting had been defined as one meal a day (with an allowance for two snacks); now–at least in Canon Law–there is no rule. Previously, there were three short seasons of fasting, the Wednesday-Friday-Saturday of Summer, Fall, and Winter Ember days, in addition to Lent; now they are gone. Previously, every day of Lent (except one Solemnity) was a fast day; now only Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are. The fasting rules are much easier.

This is part of a greater pattern after the Council, including, for example, the modification of many liturgical prayers. There had been a genuine heresy running through the Church, Jansenism, which saw nature itself as evil. After the Council – for good reason! – things were revised to focus on love instead of on evil. We can only understand evil when we understand love. We are in a remedial time, when the Church tries to focus on the most essential of all, and rediscover the goodness of God. There was good reason for taking the emphasis off of self-denial.

But that doesn’t mean we should forget fasting. Precisely because eating is necessary, fasting is a good way to rediscover the difference between saying food is evil and simply saying we don’t need so much. It’s a good reminder that love goes beyond the law.

What have you learned from fasting?

Thy Kingdom Come: Marriage and the Family

seven sacramentsIn the last two weeks, we have considered the beginning of our life of faith in Baptism (by which we can call God in heaven our Father) and the leading fruit of that new life, which is praise (the hallowing of his name) sacramentally made visible to us by the Ordained Priesthood.

But there is life on the other side of the altar rail, too. We offer our lives on the altar, through the hands of the priests – but our sanctification, our life as children of God and of praising the Father, would be incomplete if God’s kingdom did not penetrate into every aspect of our lives.

And so after “Hallowed be thy name, we say, “Thy Kingdom Come.” And alongside the priesthood, which offers all to God, there is the sacrament of marriage, by which that kingdom penetrates into human life. When we say that third line of the Our Father, let us think of the sacrament of the Christian family.


Now, let it be said immediately: marriage is not everything. Just as last week we said that the sacramental priesthood makes visible in a few people the truth of the universal priesthood of the faithful, so too marriage makes sacramentally visible the broader truth of the kingdom of God. Those who are not married – and those to whom we are not married – are also places where that kingdom is manifested. But marriage is the sacrament that makes it visible.

Just as those who are not ordained priests look to the priests to manifest the truth of their own priesthood, so those who are not married – and the married themselves, in all their other relationships – look to marriage to make visible the meaning of God’s kingdom. And just as we can think of the ordained priesthood to help us remember what “hallowed be thy name” means, we can look to marriage to help us remember what “thy kingdom come” means.


Marriage is the ultimate human relationship, “the greatest friendship,” as St. Thomas Aquinas says, the first discovery of bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh, another human to whom I can relate, as St. John Paul II reminds us in his meditations on Genesis.

Marriage is the necessary condition for child rearing. This is fabulous. The Second Vatican Council (echoing St. Thomas) calls it “the school of deeper humanity.” Children need to be taught what human life is about. Marriage teaches them. Although we need to take our children to church – to see the ordained priest hallow God’s name – that is not enough. Children also need to be taught human relationship.

When the Church traditionally said that children were the “primary end” of marriage, there was a delightful circularity. On the one hand, the point is that children desperately need the witness of a true marriage: not just a marriage rightly sealed at the altar, but a marriage lived in all the grandeur of human friendship – marriage serves children. On the other hand, in order for marriage to serve this “end,” it must be an end in itself: unless marriage is a magnificent friendship – again, not just sealed at the altar, but lived out in all its “busy generosity” (as Vatican II again proclaims) – it does not serve the children.

Marriage is human relationship, the love of one person for another, in its most fundamental expression. There are those who love more than married couples. But there is no greater icon of what human love is.

Sex is kept in marriage not because marriage is about sex – but because sex is lower than marriage. Sex is the act by which babies are made, and so sex must be kept in the place within that magnificent friendship – including lifetime fidelity – where those babies can flourish. Sex is unitive, too – because you wouldn’t want procreation to happen without union, wouldn’t want children to come into the world without the magnificent friendship of marriage.


When we say “thy kingdom come,” we don’t just mean blind obedience to a dictatorial will. We will talk about God’s will next week – but his kingdom is something else, something grander. A kingdom means not just mastery, but a realm flourishing because of the benevolence of its monarch. A kingdom is not just a castle – and the Church is not just the altar – but the whole wonderful happy realm that benefits from a wise and just leader.

God’s kingdom is love. God’s kingdom is when love of God (hallowed be thy name) spills out into love of neighbor, and when God loves our neighbor through us. It is when what we experience at the altar becomes a way of life, a way of love, in our homes.

Marriage is not at all the only place where we love. We pray for God’s kingdom to come in all places. And yet the call of true family – a call we live so imperfectly, but to which the sacrament of marriage calls us and for which it gives us grace – manifests to us the true menaing of thy kingdom come.”

How do the imperfections of your family help remind you of the grandeur of family love?

Fourth Sunday in Lent: Through Death to Resurrection

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

JOS 5:9a, 10-12; PS 34: 2-3, 4-5, 6-7; 2COR 5:17-21; LK 15: 1-3, 15-32

This weekend we pass the mid-point of Lent and come to Laetare Sunday. There are three and a half weeks behind us, to Ash Wednesday, and three weeks ahead, to Easter. The Entrance Antiphon says, “Rejoice, Jerusalem, and all who love her. Be joyful, all who were in mourning,” etc., so this Sunday is called “Rejoice,” in Latin, Laetare. (An interesting point: in the reforms after Vatican II, they did not change these entrance antiphons, so that we could keep the wonderful old musical settings.)

We celebrate having survived halfway through the hardships. The liturgical color, as on Gaudete Sunday, halfway through Advent, is rose.

And the reading, in this year from Luke, is the great joyful Gospel of the Prodigal Son.


The punchline of our Gospel is at the end. The angry older brother complains at the fine treatment of his louse of a little brother. The father says, “Now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.”

Recent preachers have sometimes liked to call this the Parable of the Older Brother. The older brother gets almost as many verses (eight) as the younger brother (thirteen). You could read the story as a set up for thinking about jealousy. There are many other such stories in the Gospel, such as the servant who is forgiven a great debt but will not forgive a much smaller debt. (That parable is in Matthew 18 – but Luke seems to draw a different point from it in the chapter after the Prodigal Son.) The older son, too, has received everything from his father. His jealousy is not becoming.

We can focus on the father, too, whose mercy is a beautiful icon of the “prodigal” mercy of our Heavenly Father, both clement (sparing in punishment) and merciful (pouring out bounty).

But in the context of Laetare Sunday, it perhaps makes more sense to focus on the Prodigal. As we hopefully look forward to Easter, and ponder our Lenten sacrifices, it makes sense to think of death and resurrection. The simple moral of the story seems to be that we have to bottom out to appreciate what we have. The experience of fasting, the experience of the Cross, makes us newly aware of the goodness of life. Indeed, it is in light of this truth that we understand the older brother’s stinginess and the father’s generosity. It is a basic fact of human existence that we have to lose things to appreciate them.


Death and resurrection is the theme to which the other readings point us. In our Old Testament review of the history of conversion, this week we get Joshua. Now, the story is truncated almost beyond recognition.

It begins with the Lord telling Joshua, “Today I have removed the reproach of Egypt from you.” But what has just happened is that, after forty years of wandering in the desert, God has opened the Jordan so they can cross through. The book gives us a strange historical detail: the wilderness generation had not circumcised their children, so God commands a general circumcision before they enter the land. Abraham had been given circumcision as a sign of the promised land; those who were told they would not enter seem to have been told to set aside that sign. But after their suffering, the sign is re-instituted.

Once again, it took forty years in the wilderness for the Israelites to appreciate God’s promises to them. And God called them to celebrate the promise through pain. Through death to resurrection.

In the paragraph we are given, God takes away the manna – because now they will have a land flowing with milk and honey. The manna was a sign of God’s provision, but they needed deprivation to see it. And even that heavenly bread is taken away as a stimulus to enter into the promise. Through death to resurrection.


As usual, our Epistle, from Second Corinthians, transfers these physical parables into spiritual realities. The center of our paragraph is all about reconciliation: “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ.”

But the first sentence is about death and resurrection: “Whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come.” That reconciliation involves leaving behind the old ways. Through death to resurrection – “passing away” is, in Greek too, a word connected to dying.

And the final sentence is about Christ’s death: “for our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” He entered into our punishment, into our penance, so that our Lent could be a path to moral resurrection.

Because finally, Easter is not about feasting on the fatted calf, but on knowing the Merciful Father himself.

What have you learned from your Lenten penances?