Lead Us Not: The Anointing of the Sick

seven sacramentsWe come at last to the end of our series on the Seven Sacraments and the Our Father. We conclude with the strangest, and perhaps the most interesting, part of each.

The Anointing of the Sick is a strange sacrament. Like Confession, it deals with things we don’t like to think about.  The old name was Extreme Unction. Unction and Anointing are two translations of the same idea. The classic verse for the sacrament is James 5:14: “Is any sick among you? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.” The Greek for “anointing” is a slightly eccentric word, from which the Latin tradition gets “unction.” But the “oil” is the standard olive oil always referred to by “anointing.” In short, anointing and unction are two words for the same thing.

The bigger difference is “extreme” and “sick.” The old name emphasizes that the sacrament has to do with facing death (in extremis). But there was a bit of an abuse that grew up in the early modern period, parallel to the withholding of other sacraments, whereby this sacrament wasn’t given until you were basically dead. The new name, “of the sick,” is supposed to highlight that yes, it’s about facing death – but we face death before we’re dead.

All in all, this sacrament is about that strangest fact of human life: death – and the way that Jesus is present to anoint us at the hour of our death.


Meanwhile, our final two petitions of the Lord’s Praye r– or are they one? – are even stranger. “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Lead us not? It’s not, “lead us out,” which would make sense, but “do not lead us.”  Are we really worried that God will lead us “into temptation”?  And why is it “but” deliver us? That’s a curious word, suggesting a connection between the two phrases that is not obvious.


If we think about the Anointing of the Sick, with some help from the Greek of the Our Father, we can get some insight.  The word for “temptation,” peirasmon, is about testing. It has the suggestion both that we can pass the test – and that we are being put to the test, facing something really difficult.  There are many tests in life – but the ultimate test is death. How will we react? Will we submit to temptation – the temptation to despair, to deny God’s mercy? All of the little tests of our life prepare us for this one. All the little times we are challenged lead us to this ultimate challenge, where we will either accept God’s mercy, extended through the sacrament of Anointing, or reject it, as we so often reject God when put to the test.


The next key word, however, is “into.” The prayer does not talk about being led while “in” temptation, but about being leading “into” temptation. This is even stronger in the original languages, but “into” talks about your ultimate destination. To be led “into” a house is to end in the house. To be led “through” a house is to end on the other side.

Perhaps what we are saying is, yes, God will give us tests. It is God himself who, somehow, in some hard to understand way, gives us death as the ultimate healing from sin. But death is not meant to be our end. Too many people – and too many of us, too many times – go “into” temptation, but never come through on the other side. If God is going to give us the test, we pray that he lead us “through.”

If you lead me to temptation, let me not end in it.


The prayer expresses this idea with the word “but.” Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. “But” signals that these are not two separate petitions. Deliver us from evil is the alternative to being led into temptation. The test itself can be our ultimate destination – we can end in death, and despair, and emptiness – or it can end with our liberation from evil.

You likely know that the “evil” of our English translations is a bit abstact compared to the Greek. In Greek, it’s in the masculine, not the neuter. Neuter would signal a thing, but masculine signals a person. And it is a definite article, “the evil one,” not just abstract “evil.” The evil one – the word has overtones of both “hurtful” and “guilty” – wants to claim us. He wants us to end in despair. We will face the evil of death – but let us be delivered by it from the grips of the destroyer.

We pray for God to lead us through the test, to pour his anointing oil on our tests, and make death itself our final liberation from evil and sin.

If you had to predict based on how you dealt with the tests of this day, how would you expect to relate to God at the hour of your death? How could you prepare for that final test better?

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?

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?

Our Father: Baptism

seven sacramentsToday we begin a new series, exploring the sacraments through the Our Father. I laid out the general theme in a post several months ago. Now I want to take some time to consider how each line of the Our Father helps us think about a sacrament.

The purpose here points in both directions. On the one hand, we want to be able to pray the Our Father well. The sacraments can give some substance to the words, a way to focus on what we’re saying. On the other hand, we want to appreciate the sacraments. The Our Father can give us a way to appreciate each of the seven sacraments – and, indeed, a daily way to rediscover them all, for they are all important to our lives. At the heart of the Our Father is the most powerful prayer for making a spiritual communion. But while we’re at it, we can spiritually unite ourselves to all the other sacraments that surround communion.


We begin, then, with Baptism: Our Father, who art in heaven.

Baptism is the sacrament of rebirth. The word means “plunging.” The original rite involved going down into the water and coming up again. (We have radically simplified that rite; the Latin Church sometimes likes to minimize the experiential aspect of the sacraments in order to emphasize the divine power, which does not rely on us.) So the symbolism is of dying, as we go under the water, and rising again as we come up. There is freshness, a cleanness, a refreshment in this new life – just as there is some fear and trepidation as we approach the water. Baptism is death and rebirth.

But behind this rebirth is another element of rebirth, regeneration. It is not just that we are born again from the womb of the Church our Mother. It is even more that we are conceived again by God our Father.

Jesus is the only-begotten Son, the only one who is Son by nature. But in Baptism we are joined to him, so that we become sons and daughters – “sons in the Son,” says a traditional formula. We enter sacramentally into his human death, and so are reborn united to his divine sonship. We receive the power he put into the waters – and it is the “power to become children of God” (John 1:13).

We are born again “not of blood” – that is, this Sonship is not baked into our human nature. “Nor of the will of the flesh”: our sinfulness turns away from this Sonship. “Nor of the will of man” (John 1:13), because we simply do not have the power to make ourselves sons of God. We are born again “of God,” with the sonship only he can give us.


Every time we pray “Our Father, who art in heaven,” we can remember that by Baptism we have been given a rebirth to heavenly life. We have been called – and truly are – sons and daughters of God. This dignity is heavenly, impossible to obtain apart from the infinite divine power of Jesus, through his sacraments. And it is heavenly, too, because our citizenship, our home, our inheritance, is in heaven, with the Father who has made us his own.

Every time we pray “Our Father, who art in heaven,” we ought to remember how awesome our Baptism is. We carry that Baptism with us. It is our spiritual garment, the constant source of our spiritual dignity. And everytime we think of Baptism, we should realize that it has made us able to call the God of heaven our Father.


It is appropriate that Baptism comes first in the Our Father. Baptism is the door, the beginning. We remind ourselves of our Baptism at the door of the Church, because Baptism is our entrance into the mysteries of all the other sacraments, especially the Eucharist, the heart that beats at at the center of the Church, of the sacraments, and of the Christian life. Baptism is our wedding garment, without which we are not allowed entrance.

It is only a beginning. When we pray about Baptism at the beginning, we realize that it must be completed by worship (hallowed be thy name!), by service (thy kingdom come!), by endurance (thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven!). It must be fulfilled by the Eucharist (give us this day our daily bread), by Penance (forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive), and by Suffering and Death itself (lead us not into the Test, but deliver us from the Evil).

We do not understand Baptism if we think it is the end. We do not understand our sonship if we think once we have it, nothing else matters. Baptism, and calling God our Father, is the beginning of our heavenly journey.

How does Baptism change the way you look at your life?

A Method for Praying the Eucharistic Prayer: the Outline

Corpus-Christi-Holy-Quotes-Sayings-Wallpapers-Messages-SMS-3The Eucharist and the liturgy are together the very heart of Catholic spirituality.  The Eucharistic Prayer is the liturgical prayer designed to help us enter into the Eucharist.  Very few of the words are technically required (“this is my Body, this is my Blood” would confect the sacrament), but the prayers are there so that we can enter in.

Entering in is no small thing.  The sacrament makes Christ present no matter what we do.  But it is only good for us to the extent that we let him into our hearts.  Let us try to enter more deeply into the Eucharist.  Let us better pray the liturgical prayers the Church gives us to do that.


Part of the challenge of praying the Eucharistic Prayer is that there are so many words – we can lose the forest for the trees.  We need to remind ourselves what each of those prayers is about.

One way we can do that is by adding our own very short little summary prayers.  While the priest says his many words, we can silently say a few, helping to guide our attention into his prayers.  In other words, we can create an outline: we can look at the big headings to remind us what all the more minute details are talking about.

(Here I will focus on Eucharistic Prayers II and III, the ones you most often hear.  But they are, in fact, based on the outline of Eucharistic Prayer I.  Everything I say here applies to that prayer too, and to any other more exotic prayers your priest might choose – though longer prayers like Eucharistic Prayer I include some other elements as well.)


The main four moments of the Eucharistic prayer are the epiclesis, the institution narrative, the anamnesis, and the doxology.

The epiclesis is when the priest puts his hands over the gifts and invokes the Holy Spirit.  We can help ourselves enter in by silently praying, “Come, Holy Spirit.”  (I’ll give you Latin too: Veni Sancte Spiritus.)

Eucharistic Prayer III leads up to the epiclesis by saying, “by the power and working of the Holy Spirit,you give life to all things and make them holy, and you never cease to gather a people to yourself.”  Already we can be praying, “Come Holy Spirit.”


Then comes the Institution Narrative, the story of the Last Supper.  When the priest has said, “this is my body,” it’s traditional to say “My Lord and my God” (Dominus meus et Deus meus).  You can enter into the prayer a little more by saying, “Body of the Lord, bread of life” (corpus Domini, panis vitae).

When the priest says “this is my blood,” you can enter into the rich words of Jesus that he repeats by saying, “Blood of the Lord, chalice of the covenant” (sanguis Domini, calix testamenti).


Immediately after we sing “the mystery of faith,” the priest says a very important but neglected prayer, the anamnesis.  “As we celebrate the memorial . . . we offer you this holy and living sacrifice.”  He lays the Body and Blood on the altar and says, essentially, “this is the sacrifice we offer.”  You can remind yourself of this by saying, “Our sacrifice” or “Our offering” (oblatio nostra), or “for you, o Lord” (tibi Domine).

And at the end, he prays, “through him, with him, in him,” the doxology.  This is another sacrifice prayer: it says that we use the Eucharist to give “glory and honor” to the Father.  You can say, “Glory to you, Father” (Gloria tibi Pater).


Between the anamnesis and the doxology are several especially underappreciated prayers.  They are less important than the four big ones (epiclesis, institution, anamnesis, doxology).  But they are important: they are the central petitions the Church makes, the ones she lays on the altar of the Eucharist.

They are petitions about the Church.  They remind us that the Church comes from the Eucharist; the Eucharist builds the Church.  There’s lots of silly things people say about the Eucharist and community, but this is the real substance of how the Eucharist builds the Church – the Body of Christ builds the Body of Christ.

These are in different order depending which Prayer the priest chooses.  You will have to pay a little attention to figure out which one is being prayed.  But you can do it – especially if you know what you’re listening for.

One set of prayers is about the Church in this world.  You can remind yourself how all these prayers are tied together by calling to mind, “the Church in the world” (Ecclesia in mundo).

Another set is about “our departed brothers and sisters” who are still awaiting “kind admittance to your kingdom.”  Here we recall, “the Church in purgatory” (Ecclesia in purgatorio).

And the third set asks “that we may obtain an inheritance with your elect, especially with the most Blessed Virgin Mary . . . and with all the saints.”  We recall “the Church in heaven” (Ecclesia in caelo).


These short little prayers can help us keep track of what’s going on in the Eucharistic Prayer, and so enter into that prayer.  And by entering into the prayer, we can more spiritually enter into the Eucharist, the Body of Christ.

How do you pray the Mass?  How could you do it better?



Come Holy Spirit (Veni Sancte Spiritus)

Body of the Lord, bread of life (corpus Domini, panis vitae)

Blood of the Lord, chalice of the covenant (sanguis Domini, calix testamenti)

Our sacrifice or offering (oblatio nostra) or, for you o Lord (tibi Domine)

Glory to you Father (gloria tibi Pater)


Once you have those, you can add the three petitions:

The Church in the world (Ecclesia in mundo)

The Church in purgatory (Ecclesia in purgatorio)

The Church in heaven (Ecclesia in caelo)


The Our Father and the Seven Sacraments

Sermon on the Mount, Fra Angelico

Sermon on the Mount, Fra Angelico

“Give us this day our daily bread” is a classic form of the spiritual communion.  It expresses the heart of receiving communion: Jesus become our bread, our only longing, our daily sustenance.  We enter more deeply into sacramental communion, or enter into it when we cannot sacramentally receive, by entering into this line of the Our Father.

On the other hand, the Eucharist gives us a deeper entrance into that line, helps us understand what those words really mean.  The sacrament gives substance to the prayer.


“Give us this day” is the heart of the Our Father, right in the middle.  The whole prayer, in a sense, revolves around this pivot, gives content to it.  One way to appreciate the Our Father as a whole is to think about how the seven petitions match with the seven sacraments.  As with “Give us this day,” the words of the Our Father help us enter into the sacraments, while at the same time the sacraments help us enter more deeply into the words of the Our Father.

There are other ways, of course, to approach these this.  People have found other ways to line up the sacraments with the Our Father.  I myself have written on this web page a commentary on the Our Father without the sacraments, dividing it into twelve rather than seven.  But this is the richness of revelation: a great writer like Shakespeare frequently says two things at once, and the Divine Author fills his words with a many complementary meanings.


Our Father, who art in heaven.  Baptism is the beginning of our life of faith, and the first line of the Our Father goes with it.  By Baptism we are reborn, not from earth, but from heaven.  By Baptism we can call God our Father; without Baptism, we cannot properly speak of him as our Father.

Hallowed be thy name.  We immediately raise our hands in worship.  And this is the heart of Holy Orders – we the laity look to the priests to lead us in hallowing the name of God.

Thy kingdom come.  The family is the first cell of society, the beginning of our building of the Kingdom.  Holy Matrimony is not the only way we build up his kingdom here on earth, but it is the first seed of that Kingdom.

Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  Whereas the “kingdom” speaks of order and community, “thy will” speaks of pure grit.  “On earth as in heaven” underlines the challenge: in heaven it will be easy, on earth it is hard, but we want to do his will here, as well.  The sacrament of that grit is Confirmation, the strengthening, the anointing for battle.  When we feel overcome, we call on our Confirmation: “thy will be done!”

These first four are the sacraments of mission.


Give us this day our daily bread is the arrival point, the heart of the matter.  It is the strength to live everything else, and the sweetness that the rest is for.

The last three petitions are not mission, but life, living it out.  Each of them has two parts, a complexity like life in the world.  “And” marks each new petition/sacrament.

And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.  “Forgive us” is clearly the sacrament of Confession.  The second part, “as we forgive,” takes us to the depths of that sacrament, which bears fruit in our own transformation.  Nowhere is that transformation clearer than when we who have been forgiven begin to extend that mercy to others.


And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.  The culmination is the richest, perhaps the most difficult part to understand, and it goes with a sacrament to match, the Anointing of the Sick.  Why does it say “but”?  Because temptation and deliverance go together, two sides of the same coin.  It is sickness, and sickness unto death, that shows us the connection.

The Lord leads us to death – death of various kinds, until the full death of our earthly body.  And death (even the little deaths) is the ultimate temptation, the temptation to despair.  But we pray that God will lead us not into temptation – let that not be the destination.  Rather, lead us through temptation, through the tempting, the test, the purification, to the liberation.  The temptations are the place of liberation.  If we can walk not into temptation, but past it, through it, temptation itself can be our liberation from evil.

This is the sacrament of the sick: God gives us death as the punishment of sin, but then he who walked to the Cross walks with us through death, so that the punishment itself becomes our liberation – because Christ is with us.


What riches can you find in the Our Father?

Living the Sacrament of Marriage: Friendship

Seven Sacraments Altarpiece, Rogier van der Weyden

Seven Sacraments Altarpiece, Rogier van der Weyden

Our last meditation on the sacraments as a pattern for our spiritual life is on marriage.

We can think of marriage coming last precisely because marriage is the sacrament of ordinary life. Not everyone is married, of course, but marriage represents the sacramentalization of the basic way of life. Ordinarily – not always, but ordinarily – we live “between marriage and marriage.” As Genesis says (and Jesus repeats), we leave our father and mother and cling to our wives: we go forth from our parents’ marriage to our own.

To call marriage a sacrament is to remind even those who aren’t married that marriage is where they come from. The celibate are not meant to despise their parents (Jesus condemns that – see Matthew 15 on people using religious vows as a way not to honor their father and mother). To the contrary, they are to reverence the marriage that gave them birth and brought them to life.

Many of us (myself included) were not raised in marriage. But there, too, we are meant to appreciate the tremendous pain of single parenthood, to reverence our parents all the more precisely because we know that marriage is the normal way, and that living without (whoever’s “fault” it might be) is a place of pain. Marriage is the normal place we all begin.


To recognize we come from marriage, however, is to recognize something profound about the human person: we are made for community. It is interesting, in political theory, that the great theorists of the modern world all pretend that society begins with a bunch of adult individuals deciding to form a “social contract.”

But that’s baloney – as Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas would remind us. To the contrary, we start off, long before we are adult individuals, in relationships. Before we know there is an “I,” we know there is mother. And marriage is the normal place for children to grow up – the only place we are supposed to be doing things that make babies! – precisely because children are meant to grow up in the context of relationship. We are meant to discover who and what we are in the context of friendship, of a mother and father who love one another.

Before we are individuals, we are part of a community. We learn to be human by learning what friendship looks like. And whatever our family looks like, we learn, too, that the most profound pain is when that friendship is broken. We are made to be in relationship. We are social beings.


There is a popular idea, unfortunately invading even the thought of some modern Catholics, that marriage is about two people looking inward at one another. To the contrary, the traditional view is that marriage is about looking outward, toward family and society. Marriage creates a hearth, around which is gathered the ever growing community which is the family, eventually including even grand children and great grandchildren. It is the place where we prepare our children to go out into the world, to live as members of a broader community. It is the place we welcome in friends of the family. Marriage is a place not of exclusion, but of inclusion.

Jesus demands sexual fidelity not to make the couple turn in on themselves – “Members Only!” – but, exactly the opposite, to keep their sexuality at the service of their children and their society, to keep them looking outward, to keep them social. Marriage is about being social.


Holy Trinity, Rublev

Holy Trinity, Rublev

Marriage is an image of Christ and his Church. What a wild idea! Marriage is a mystery of unity and multiplicity. On the one hand, it shows how very close people can come together. Again, this is not restricted to man and wife: they are only the beginning. The family is, or is meant to be, a One, a communion of love. Christ comes as close to us as a family around a table. Indeed, the principal image of his closeness is not as Bridegroom, but as child, cheek-to-cheek with his mother. That is communion. That is family. That is what marriage is all about.

Yet the mystery of marriage is that we are also individuals. What a strange challenge is family life, and especially that central relationship, where we try to work together with someone who is not me! Marriage is a sign of God’s respect for our freedom, our individuality. It is a sign that individuality and communion are not at war, but in harmony. Indeed, in the sacrament of marriage, Christ is present to us not by overcoming our personal choices, but by being present within them.


What role does friendship play in your family? In your understanding of being truly human?

The Priesthood and Our Spiritual Life

Seven Sacraments Altarpiece, Rogier van der Weyden

Seven Sacraments Altarpiece, Rogier van der Weyden

We continue with our meditations on how each of the sacraments can serve as a metaphor of the spiritual life.

This week we consider the Priesthood. The basic image for the priesthood is the laying-on of hands and apostolic succession. When we see the priest, for example standing at the altar, we are meant to see not just that man, but the bishop, as it were, “behind” him, conferring his power. And as we imagine the bishop, we should imagine the bishop behind him, and the bishop behind him – a long line of men laying hands on one another – all the way back to the twelve apostles in the upper room, with Christ breathing his spirit onto them.

Apostolic succession is a vivid image of everything coming to us from Christ. When we imagine that long line of bishops, we see that the Eucharist comes not just from human power, but from the power of Christ, poured out on the Church. This is precisely why we confess to a priest: so that we can see it is not human power that unbinds us, but the power of Christ.


Imagine a world where everyone was a priest, where I could confess my sins to anyone at all. The problem is, first of all, at the level of symbol. It would look to me like the power of the sacraments is a purely human power. But the priesthood is there precisely to remind us that it comes from God. Thank God he has intervened, he has come with a power greater than our power. It is that action of God that we celebrate when we look to the priest.


Now, “priesthood” is not actually the proper theological term for what we are talking about. Technically, a priest is someone who offers sacrifice. And, on the one hand, we have to be careful to understand what we mean when we say we “offer sacrifice,” and on the other hand, every Christian is called to offer spiritual sacrifices and the sacrifice of the Mass. To distinguish our “priests” by them offering sacrifice and us not is actually an error.

Which is why the Church has never actually called this sacrament “priesthood,” but “Holy Orders.” (Though I won’t challenge you if you keep calling your priest a “priest”!) In fact, the proper word for our priests is “presbyter,” which means “elder,” and the word bishop comes from “episcopus,” “overseer.”

All of these are words that speak about hierarchy. (In fact, hierarchy is just the Greek word for “holy-order.”) There are “orders” within Christianity, higher and lower. There are elders and non-elders, and those in charge of overseeing.


Why is Christianity so hierarchical? Why does it have “holy orders”?

First, for the reason stated above: to show that the power comes from Christ, not from us. The priest is “higher” in the sense that it is through him that Christ acts. If a priest understands that, it’s actually a radically humbling kind of “higher.” The priest is not his own: he is there, not for his own sake, and not by his own strength, but to confer Christ’s power to us. Anything else he does is out of line, an abuse of power. That’s the only reason he has a place in the hierarchy: to teach Christ’s teaching, to confer Christ’s power in the sacraments.

Second, leadership creates community. Again, imagine we were all priests, then imagine Mass: we would all be doing our own thing. To come together requires a director, a leader, a focal point. Another reason the priest uniquely has the power to make Christ present in the Eucharist is so that we will gather around one table, and pray in communion with one another. The priest is a sign both of Christ’s power and of the unity of the Church. Again, this is part of why we don’t want too many priests!


We can practice devotion to the sacrament of Orders in two ways. One is by devotion to the sacramental order. Both by going to the sacraments themselves, which actually have power, but also by asking the priest’s blessing. In fact, he has no power except the sacraments. What we practice, though, when we receive his blessing, is precisely devotion to the power of Christ which acts through those hands.

Second, by practicing devotion to the unity of the Church. Love of parish, love of diocese, love of the universal Church comes out in our love of priest, bishop, and pope. Affection, not for his personal goodness, but for the office he holds, and the way it draws us together in communion.


How do you practice devotion to the priesthood? How do you live out your love for the Church?

Confession: The Repentant Life

Seven Sacraments Altarpiece, Rogier van der Weyden

Seven Sacraments Altarpiece, Rogier van der Weyden

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


How do you express repentance in your life?

The Eucharistic Life: Communion

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


How do you live communion?