Intentions of the Holy Father for April

Ecology and Justice. That governments may foster the protection of creation and the just distribution of natural resources.
Hope for the Sick. That the Risen Lord may fill with hope the hearts of those who are being tested by pain and sickness.

Witnesses to Christ

Feast of the Holy Innocents (Dec 28)

Lest we get to watery-eyed about the meaning of Christmas, we should recall the words of the Prince of Peace Himself, "I came to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled! I have a baptism that I am to be baptized with, and how I am constrained until it is accomplished! Do you think I came to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division," (Lk 12:49-51). The message of Christmas is not peace on earth, not primarily at least; rather Jesus Christ himself is the message. Try telling people that in whatever words, and you will quickly learn what He meant speaking about causing division.

Two thousand years ago a cynical, petty tyrant named Herod ordered the slaughter of dozens, scores of innocent babes in Bethlehem and the surrounding district. He did so in the vain hope of stopping God's will, in hope of stopping the advent of the Messiah-king. To this date, including now as we sit here at our computers, hundreds and thousands of Christians are murdered each year in the vain hope of stopping the spread of the gospel, of stopping the spread of the Messiah's Kingdom. National governments collaborate to reduce the population of the developing world to "sustainable" levels. One feels that this language is a cover for a lie. Who ro what is being "sustained" by the programs of birth control, sterilization, and abortion in the developing world? Are they being built up? Or are we in the West being permitted to continue our lavish lifestyle by keeping them in firmly controllable numbers?

We in the formerly Christian West now indulge every appetite and repudiate whatever doctrines interfere with our desires. A gospel of wealth and prosperity, or a gospel of environmental stewarship, or a gospel of multiculturalism, or a gospel of nice all wrestle against and threaten now more than ever to subdue the simple Gospel of Jesus Christ. Moreover, we exploit and slaughter our own children in a horrifying orgy of debauchery and bloodletting, subjecting them to pornography, sexual abuse, neglect, and even outright death.

We must wonder in all the warring against children that the ages have seen, who is Satan attempting to strike? Perhaps he fears the second advent of the Messiah, and so is doing everything in his power to frustrate it.

If we reduce the meaning of Christmas to being kind, being calm, not worrying about what goes on around us, far from living in Faith, we will have abandoned it. The blood of the Darfur Christians, the blood of the Indian and Pakistani martyrs, the blood of Chinese Catholics, all these call out to us that the meaning of Christmas is Christ, and to stand for Christ necessarily entails receiving resistance. If nobody is concerned about what we are saying as a Church, we must not be saying anything very Christian, or even very interesting. Happily, this increasingly is not the case.

Close to the Heart of Christ

St. John the Beloved, Apostle, Evangelist, and Confessor (Dec 27)

Perhaps because of his youth at the time he encountered our Lord, St. John was preserved from the unchastity that creeps into adult life. For that or some other reason it was to St. John that Our Lord entrusted His Blessed Mother (Jn 19:26-27). Perhaps Our Lord trusted him the most because He knew that St. John, of all the apostles, knew His heart the best. After all, it was St. John who, with youthful ease and unabashedness, rested his head upon Our Lord's chest, where he could hear Our Lord's very heartbeat (Jn 13:22-24). This posture, resting on the Lord close to His Heart, listening quietly, is surely the exemplary posture of a Christian at prayer. It was he, who seeing in the tomb Our Lord's empty burial clothes, was the first to understand and believe (Jn 20:8-9).

St. John's writings focus heavily on the reality, meaning, and power of the Resurrection of Jesus in our lives. His writings also focus on our hope of Resurrection, and on the power of love. It is the sixth chapter of his Gospel that gives us our fullest scriptural understanding of the Eucharist - if there was any doubt about what Jesus meant later at the Last Supper, John's recollection of those Eucharistic discourses clarify the matter perfectly. For the convinced Christian, this and other passages serve as beautiful meditations for prayer. He traveled with Our Lord in his formative years, and kept the Blessed Virgin Mary as his own mother in his own home, perhaps for decades more. It was his blessing to be drawn in a very intimate way into the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Surely of all the apostles he knew best the gentle strength of love.

Exiled to the Island of Patmos in his later years, he was blessed by visions from the Holy Spirit showing him many confusing and difficult things. Perhaps only partly understanding them, he assembled them into the Book of Revelation, to finish the scriptural revelation of God to his People, to reveal God's People to themselves.

St. John, so close to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, so chaste and pure, pray for us.

Men on a Journey

An assistant pastor at my parish a few years ago began a group called the Men of Emmaus. It's really a ragtag bunch of Catholic ne'er-do-well hoodlums. At our 7:30 a.m. Saturday morning meetings, our staple has been to read together the Mass readings for the following Sunday. Sometimes we have special speakers in to speak with us. It amazes me how many of them seem willing to come back and speak to us again! The men are eager - sometimes very eager - to explore the meaning of the Gospel and to encourage each other to live out its implications more thoroughly.

These are the sorts of things you might hear in a typical meeting: "How should we vote? Should we bother? I've made mistakes in my past and now I am seeing more fully how they affect my family. How much to give to the poor? Do I do enough around the parish? Let's take up a collection to help pay bills for this man who's just lost his job. Will you be quiet!? How can I witness to Christ in my office without turning people away from Him? It is hard to be the only Christian in my home. Dude, you blew it the other day. Anyone want to go for a hike?"

Sometimes the "encouragement" can stop just short of a fistfight, but what really raises my eyebrow is how even in the near-fistfights there is no (or little) rancor and much love. After our discussions (and sometimes apologies!), we head upstairs for the 9:00 a.m. daily Mass.

What raises my spirits, and gets me out of bed at 7:00 a.m. on Saturday mornings is the effect of our dopey little group. I've been going with varying frequency for a few years now, and it seems to me that something has been changing. In the men, and in the group, I see a gradual groping toward Christ. Men are investing themselves more deeply in their families, turning off the TV and picking up spiritual books, engaging in the Church's apostolate, frequenting the confessional, learning about our holy Faith - all the sorts of things that one would expect to accompany growth in holiness. These things strike me as sure signs that the Jesus virus is circulating among the group. May it stoke in us a fever of burning charity.

Now it looks like we are going to begin to read the Catechism as a group. That's great! The Sunday scripture readings, reflections, and talks are like puzzle pieces of our faith - the raw material and power of our Faith. Organized and systematized, put together into a coherent whole picture, they gain a strength and meaning otherwise inaccessible. That's what the Catechism is for, to help us to organize the Faith in our minds so that it can structure the way we think, act, and live.


St. Stephen, First Martyr and Deacon (Dec 26)

It is telling that immediately after the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ (Dec 25), the Church chooses to remember and honor St. Stephen Protomartyr.

Why is that? Well, just as the First Martyr's day follows Our Lord's First Day, so we must be prepared to follow our Lord into martyrdom if we wish to honor His life and death.

A glance at the Rembrandt I've uploaded with this post, or at the biblical account of the martyrdom (Acts 6 & 7) reminds us of a young man named Saul. He held the cloaks of Stephen's murderers so that they would not get bloodied along with their hands. He approved the execution of the saint, and never really felt fully rehabilitated for his part in the crime. But he did convert when our Lord appeared to Him. The Bible doesn't say so, but it isn't farfetched to imagine that Stephen's peaceful, even eager, embrace of a holy death haunted Saul. Christ's blood, mediated through Stephen's bloody witness, brought about Saul's redemption, conversion into Paul, and sanctification into St. Paul.

As we witness and remember the birth of Our Lord in these eight days of His octave, let our witness transform us, and by His grace transform those who witness us.

St. Stephen, servant of the Gospel and first to lay down your life for it, pray that like thee, we might be blessed to lay down our lives daily in service to Christ. Amen.

Merry Christmas

Thank you, Jesus, for not leaving us alone down here. More personally, I am very grateful for a very, very nice day.

Fourth Sunday of Advent

The Fourth Sunday of Advent is come and gone. We've heard the prediction to the wicked king Ahaz of Judah, that a virgin should bear a child and name him Emmanuel; we've heard the account of the first fulfillment of that prediction in St. Matthew's gospel. The question is, "Has the Virgin given birth to the Christ Child in my heart yet?" He was born 2000 years ago, give or take - but has it made a real difference in the way I live my life? Has He been born into me yet? What concrete things have changed in my life as a result of loving Jesus? That's the test. Being nice doesn't cut it - who tries to be, or thinks of himself as, mean? Being a Christian means putting off the Old Man and putting on the New, putting on Christ.

Lord Jesus, in these last days before Christmas, and in these last days before your Second Coming, please come into my heart in a new way. Transform me Lord. Amen.

Mama Mary, you are the Great Mother of God and my mother as well. Please bear Him to me, and me to Him. By your gentle childbirth, please bear me gently, but more importantly, bear me swiftly. Amen.

Faith and Detachment

This from Melody Beattie's Codependent No More:

Detachment also involves accepting reality - the facts. It requires faith - in
ourselves, in God, in other people, and in the natural order and destiny of things in this world. We believe in the rightness and appropriateness of each moment. We release our burdens and cares, and give ourselves the freedom to enjoy life in spite of our unsolved problems. We trust that all is well in spite of the conflicts. We trust that Someone greater than ourselves knows, has ordained, and cares about what is happening. We understand this Someone can do much more to solve the problem than we can. So we try to stay out of His way and let Him do it. In time, we know that all is well because we see how the strangest (and sometimes most painful) things work out for the best and for the benefit of everyone.

It doesn't sound to me like detachment, as Beattie defines it, requires faith. It sounds like it is faith. Atheists have been winning the cultural argument in recent years because they have redefined faith. They say that to have faith is to believe that there is a God. Thus God's existence slides, in our minds, into the realm of the doubtful. It is not. It is absolutely certain. All it takes is a good hard look at the world to realize that there must be some sort of God. If there weren't a God, how the heck did everything else get here? "It just always was?" That's not a scientific theory - its a philosophical dogma. That's why more and more scientists (practicioners of the "hard sciences" first and foremost) are becoming more open daily to the existence of God.

Faith is not belief that God exists. Faith is belief that He loves us. That is hard. Especially in light of all the sin, apparent meaninglessness, and destruction in the world. These are the things that have hardened most atheists' hearts in the first place. We must be careful lest we let them harden our hearts without abandoning the knowledge of God as well. We can become practical atheists if we act as though God did not love us, God did not have a plan for us, God were not in charge. While all the while proclaiming God's existence, and even that "Jesus is Lord," we might still act as if not, act in the same way as the worldlings around us: hording wealth, resisting change and growth, fearing death. Such are the people, one fears, that will at the end of their days say, "Lord, Lord!" only to hear that sickening reply, "Truly, I say to you, I do not know you," (Mt 25:11-12).

Dear Jesus, help us to be like you. Help us to trust in our Father's plan for us. Transform our hearts to love you better. Lord, I believe - help my unbelief!

Daily Dose of the Mystery

I normally attend the 6:30 a.m. daily Mass at St. Martin of Tours, my home parish. If I oversleep that Mass by accident, I can always attend the 8 a.m. daily Mass at Mother Seton parish, around the corner from where I work. Today I slipped out of my office for a few minutes to attend that one because an early conference call precluded going to St. Martin. Of course, if I lived closer to Mother Seton, its 6:30 a.m. daily Mass would work too. In addition to passing St. Martin on the way to work, I pass St. Rose of Lima parish. Its 8:45 a.m. Mass is a bit later than I prefer, because I like to be out of the office by 4:30 or 5 p.m. at the latest.

Going to St. Martin has the added advantage that the priests there hear confessions after almost every weekday Mass. Only when funerals cut the schedule too close are confessions omitted. At Mother Seton confessions are heard not only at the customary Saturday afternoon times, but also Wednesday evenings. That can be handy if I am leaving work late, or after dinner, and I have a need or desire to go.

What's my point with all this babble about scheduling? Well, it's just that I am very grateful. I know in many places it is much harder to get to daily Mass, and even scheduling confession can be prohibitively difficult. I am very grateful to God and to the priests at St. Martin of Tours and Mother Seton parishes, and the other parishes in the area. These things, these sacraments, are absolutely indispensible for the steady progress in natural and supernatural virtues that is supposed to mark the Christian life. Our priests sit long hours in the box, awake earlier than otherwise necessary, and hop in the car at all hours of the night to make sure that their faithful have access to the sacraments. Their labor of love is a tremendous service to us all.

Please God, let us not forget to thank our priests for their work when they finish absolving us, when they communicate us, when they visit us. Reverend fathers, may God bless you for it.

Whither, Lord?

In my heart, I feel a desire to go off someplace: to a monastery or into the wilderness; I also feel a desire to plunge into the heart of the world, and to be with my family and closest friends. These desires come from sources as conflicted as the desires are conflicted: fear and guilt, longing and love, trust and joy. With these are jumbled together our encounters and day-to-day experiences as we seek to follow Our Blessed Lord. The work of discernment, I am coming to discern, is bringing these motivations, experiences, and desires to Jesus in prayer, and asking Him to help us identify them for what they are, and sort through them, and then to understand which are worthy of a Christian.

Heart of Charity

"Haven't you seen the sparkle in Jesus' eyes when the poor widow left her little tithe in the Temple? Give what you can give: the merit is not in the littleness or greatness, but in the will with which you give," The Way, #829.

Our Bright and Morning Star

Our Lady of Guadalupe (Dec 12)

When the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to St. Juan Diego, a humble, illiterate Indian peasant whose back was bent more steeply each day by the weight of Spanish oppression, the timing could hardly have been better.

In 1519, a band of Spanish newcomers organized the vassal nations of the mighty Aztec empire to overthrow it. For two years, Spanish incursions into Mexico had failed, but at last Cortez had found the secret: appeal to the natives' hatred of their own native overlords. The Aztec empire was rapidly undone, but what replaced it was not much better - not for the natives at least. They replaced one overlord for another, and the dark serpent gods of the Aztecs were replaced by the cruel whips of the Spaniards. Their impression of the Cross was that its long end cut like a sword. For twelve years they labored under this darkness, and their cruel oppression could only make a mockery of the love of Christ preached by the missionaries that accompanied the new conquerors.

In Europe at about the same time, the great darkness that had descended upon Christendom during the late Middle Ages burst into a storm called the Reformation. The Church began to hemorrhage there, as hundreds of thousands of people of all stations joined in the Protest of Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Calvin.

In this dark gloom a star arose. She was a Morning Star, the first light before the Sunlight, in a darkness so deep that she could almost be mistaken for the Sun at a distance. She was Mary. The Queen of the Universe condescended to speak to a peasant farmer of a crushed race, just as her Son had condescended to speak with peasant fishers of a crush race, 1531 years earlier. She appeared to Juan Diego, calling him "Dieguito," like calling him Johnny. She sent him to go speak with a bishop, a veritable prince of the new conquerors. "But what if he does not believe me?" To which she replied with a gentle reproach that has echoed through the ages, "Am I not here, I who am your Mother?" Little Johnny, Juan Diego, went to see the bishop. Miracles attended their meeting and the bishop was convinced. The picture she imprinted upon Juan Diego's cloak moved the bishop to tears. He ordered a great shrine to be built at the spot where the Virgin had stood, making Spanish roses bloom in the cold December winter of the central Mexican plateau.

A greater miracle followed. The Indians converted. Though Spanish law insisted that baptized persons be released from servile bondage, that incentive had produced few converts in 12 years of domination. Now, at a word from their mother, the Indians converted by the tens of thousands, nay, by the millions. Baptistries - chapels dedicated exclusively to baptisms - were built around the country, and the Franciscan missionaries had to send home for more brethren, so great was the demand for baptisms and catechisms. They complained about sore shoulders from pouring so much water over so many heads. The Virgin had called herself the Lady of Guadalupe - a town near the bishop's home. Historians speculate that she may have called herself the similar-sounding Coatlaxupe ("Co-ah-tul-ah-shoo-pay") because she spoke in Nahuatl, Juan Diego's language. Whether she called herself that or not, it is a name she well deserves, for it means she crushes the serpent. And that is what she did. With one fell blow, she undid the cults of the Feathered Serpent whom the Indians had formerly worshipped, along with its human sacrifices and bloodlettings, and at the same time she undid the cruel Spanish bondage to which the Indians had become subject, surely itself a manifestation of the malice of the same serpent who had slithered in the garden of Eden so long ago. Following the Morning Star, the Dawn had indeed come, bringing the Sunlight of God's own Son to Mexico.

Today, in Mexico City, a teaming metropolis with tens of millions of people from every country conducting every manner of business, the old pyramids of the Aztecs stand empty and desolate, while the gardens at the Lady's Shrine are swollen with greenery and life. The Basilica of Guadalupe stands as a visible lighthouse for Christian sailors at sea in the dark and raging waters of our times. The serpent seems to have arisen again, this time under the seductive guises of the gods Autonomy and Choice. Still he demands human sacrifice and turns women's wombs and doctor's operating tables into his altars. As tens of millions of children are murdered within their sanctuaries each year around the world, Our Lady, who appeared to Juan Diego pregnant with Our Lord and full of life, is again invoked to crush the serpent's head and to put an end to his reign of death. The Virgin of Guadalupe, already crowned Queen of Mexico and Empress of the Americas, has been designated by Holy John Paul the Great as the Great Protectress and Patroness of the Unborn. It is to her that we cry out: "Mother, save our children! Bring us back to Your Son!"

Mexicans frequently quote the prophet Isaiah beneath their images of the Virgin of Guadalupe: "God has not dealt thus with every nation." Indeed. He loves all people, and has given us His Son. And to those of us who fear Him and love His Son, He has also given His mother.

Remember, oh most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help, or sought thy intercession was left unaided. Inspired by this confidence I fly unto thee, oh Virgin of Virgins, my mother. To thee do I come, before thee I stand, sinful and sorrowful. Oh mother of the Word Incarnate, despise not my petitions, but in thy mercy, hear and answer me. Amen.

Our Lady of Guadalupe, Queen of Mexico, Empress of the Americas, Great Protectress and Patroness of the Unborn, Queen of All Hearts, Mother of the Church, Mama, pray for us!

Down on a Mat

Our parish youth minister invited me to help out with the Christian Awakening (C.A.) Retreat #28. About 50 teenagers attended the retreat in one capacity or another, with 10 adults chaperoning it.

Some of the teenagers are very impressive as Christians. I have seen them give up their day off to help old ladies move before the Sherriff's deputy arrives to evict her. I've seen them keep vigil with Our Lord into the wee hours of the night. I've seen them pick up their grades, take responsibility for their actions, and set good examples for their peers. I've seen them have a lot of good, clean fun. Other kids going come from very unstable families with absentee fathers, lack of supervision, even drugs or violence in their homes. The amazing thing is the amount of overlap there is in the two groups: kids who come from hell on earth who have begun to fix their eyes on heaven, and so are finding even life here-and-now transformed a bit.

Likewise, some of the kids coming on the retreat did so entirely voluntarily, this being perhaps their second or third annual retreat. Others were pressured by friends or parents using more or less coercive measures.

The Gospel reading for today's Mass (Mon after II Sun of Advent; Is 35:1-10; Ps 85; Lk 5:17-26) coincides beautifully with my experience over the past weekend. The Gospel story is the one in which a paralyzed man is lowered by his friends on a mat through the roof of the house where Jesus is teaching. There were too many people for the man's friends to bring him that way, and so they had to get creative. On our retreat, we found ourselves with too many difficulties to manage on our own. We had to let the Holy Spirit orchestrate what we hoped would be, in the lives of many of these kids, a new creation. The paralyzed man may have had some sort of faith, or maybe not, but that was entirely irrelevant because he couldn't do anything one way or the other about it. But his friends had faith, and they carried him through when he couldn't do for himself. So with our kids: perhaps they believe in God, or a god of some sort - but most of the retreatants had never encountered or gotten to know Him, and even if baptized their faith, the life of Christ dwelling in them, was a vestige of what God would have it be. So it was that the leadership team, adult chaperones, and the more spiritually advanced teenagers had to carry our younger friends to Our Lord. In the Gospel, Jesus sees the faith of the friends and is moved to give the paralyzed man what he needs. On our retreat, Jesus clearly heard our prayers and gave our young friends what they needed.

On the retreat, the talks focused on helping the young people to see themselves clearly and to risk themselves by giving confidence to brothers and sisters in Christ and to Our Blessed Lord Himself. The talks aimed at inspiring conversion and proposing to the young people a new, better way of living that will help them be happier in this life and certain of their destiny in the next. The talks were filled with the living testimony of people they know: parents, parish members, and peers. Small group discussions focused on helping them connect the message they had heard with the daily course of their own lives.

We hope that in the coming weeks and month our young peoples' life of prayer will flourish, their damaged relationships will continue to mend, their wounded souls will continue to heal, and their joyful innocence will continue to be restored. Please pray for them.

Bless Me Father, For I Have Sinned...

People want to confess their darkest secretest - the secrets about who they are and about what dark things we've done. We are made to share ourselves, and we want to share precisely those parts of us that we most fear are unlovable.

How else do you explain the huge amount of counseling and psychotheraphy going on in the world today? I am not here questioning its value. I am only pointing it out and asking what it means.

How else do you explain websites like PostsSecrets or MySecret? PostSecret is a collection of postcards sent in to the owner, a Germantown, MD resident who collects and publishes the anonymous postcard-sized confessions - in books, and on websites! MySecret is a site started by an Evangelical minister because he realized so many people have so much yuck inside that they just need to get out.

We Catholics have known this need for a very long time. That's why we have the confessional. Confessions can be made anonymously to the priest for the truly ashamed, and face-to-face for someone looking for a gentle gaze. What's more, there's no fear that the secret will be leaked. And the best part is that the power granted by Jesus Christ, True God and True Man, to his apostles so that they could forgive sins, has been handed down generation after generation, right into the hands of the dopey, overweight chatterbox of a priest sitting on the other side of the screen. He can really DO something about your deepest, darkest secrets. He can, by the power of Christ, forgive them and set you on a new track in life.

If you're Catholic and you haven't been to confession in a while, go. If you live in the D.C. area, here's a schedule for downtown confessionals. For those of out in Montgomery County at my parish, St. Martin of Tours, the priests hear confessions after every weekday Mass (M-F, 6:30 a.m. and 9 a.m.), after the Saturday Mass (9 a.m.) and Saturday afternoon (4 pm-ish) before the Sunday vigil Masses begin. I know that in addition to the traditional Saturday afternoon confession time, the priests at Mother Seton parish in Germantown hear confessions on Wednesday evenings starting at 6 p.m. Go. Get it off your chest. You'll feel better. And you will KNOW that God forgives and loves you. No need to post anything on the blogosphere, either.

Pronunciation and Contentlessness

Americanized pronunciation of English words doesn't bother me. People pronounce things however they pronounce them - if the words’ meaning is taken, then the words have done their work.

Increasingly in American culture we do not use words to mean what they mean. It starts with the innocuous example of the word
cool meaning anything but "below room temperature." C. S. Lewis warned against another trend: exaggerating everything in our speech with the words we use. Everything is awesome. When we come across something that truly inspires a soul-lifting wonder and awe, we haven't any meaningful words left, because awesome has already been used to describe in a generic way the rather tasty jam we had on our morning's toast. The trend is pervasive.

More alarming than the trend of using words for anything but what they really mean, is the
growing trend to say anything but what we really mean. That is, the dramatic increase in lying and dishonesty especially notable in politicians, corporate America, and in our schoolchildren. Theirs, I imagine, are only highly visible examples of a vice that is overtaking us all. More and more, we do not say what we mean and mean what we say. Instead, we say what we think will get us out of trouble, or get us what we want.

It is what they say that concerns me more. I do believe that the evacuation of content from our political discourse is an ill omen. This evacuation of content is closely connected with the hollowing of our national moral life as well. This evacuation of content is diplayed in almost daily on our national news. Reasoned debates about ideas and policies by men and women of character is replaced by shouting matches and soundbites between people who, rather than simply admit they haven't got much character, argue that personal character is somehow unrelated to one's work in society. This evacuation is more sinisterly played out in the widespread acceptance of the use of torture or
enhanced interrogation techniques against enemy prisoners-of-war.

These trends interweave and unite in an especially powerful way around sexual topics. Abortions are not said to kill babies, but only to terminate pregnancies. The term making love is slapped on every one-night stand, secret tryst, and vulgar act of fornication imaginable.Contraceptives are not called what they are: devices-to-enable-me-to-do-what-I-want-without-consequences. They are simply protection. Homosexual liaisons are not called that anymore, let alone the more precise terms unnatural and sodomy. They are called alternate lifestyles, and even that term seems somehow to marginalize sodomy too much - the idea that sodomy is alternate to something more common, more normal, more wholesome is to be entirely excluded from the language of our Brave New 1984 World.

Both the hollowing of our language and of our national ethic are both tidily summarized by the use of a single word to describe nearly anything and everything, except the thing to which it is most rightly attached: f---.

An Act of Contrition

Oh, God, I am so sorry for all my sins. In choosing to do wrong and in failing to do good, I have offended You, whom I should have loved above all things. I firmly intend with your help to confess my sins, do penance for them, avoid occasions of sin, and sin no more forever. Oh Mary, please help me to love Jesus better. Amen.

Why can I never get it right, this thing called life? Jesus, help me not to rely on me, but only on you. Only on you.

First Snow

The first significant snow of the season is hitting the Washington, D.C. Metro Area as I type. I have a friend in the boonies who is certainly wetting her pants with excitement over the whole thing. As for me, well, I've filed a complaint with management that the thermostat has been set too low. The Complaints Department up in heaven is notoriously unresponsive concerning weather issues. It looks like those of us who'd rather be in the Caribbean will just have to take this one on the chin.

Images of the Invisible God

St. John Damascene, priest and doctor (Dec 4)

St. John Damascene (b. 676) is considered the last of the Church Fathers, a priest, monk, scholar, and he heavily influenced the last (Seventh) Ecumenical Council recognized by all Christians, the Second Council of Nicaea (787). That council was convened to settle a great controversy and threat that had arisen in the East.

The controversy was regarding the use of sacred images (icons, but also statues and other depictions) in worship. The Jews had generally resisted such things holding that one could not depict the Invisible and Living God - no image could capture his essence, and any attempt at an image of God was merely an idol. Christians had generally always tolerated images as a matter of course.

Now Arabic raiders and hordes fueled pressed in against Christendom. They were fueled by passionate conviction in their new religion - Islam. It had only two essential tenants - that God is One, and the Mohammed is His prophet. Yet, part and parcel with those convictions was a third - depicting God was to be forbidden. Everywhere the Muslim Arabs struck, they conquered: Christian Palestine, Christian Egypt, Christian North Africa, Christian Spain, Christian Syria, Christian Persia all fell to the Arabs by the mid-700s. Many Christians became suspicious that they had been mistaken to allow the use of icons. They became fearful that God was punishing Christianity for heresy, heresies that may have even spread by the use of icons. They pointed out that Islam - so crystal clear and simple - forbad icons. The Jews forbad icons. Why should Christianity permit them?

It was in this turmoil that John grew up, as his native Syria was being overrun and taken over by the Arabic hordes. The Muslim Arabs had a modicum of respect for Christianity and Judaism, and what wasn't destroyed in initial conquests and sackings was generally left alone - including the interiors of churches and homes. So it was the Christians continued to have their icons. But in fear was rife in Constantinople, the capital of the Christian East, where the remainder of the Eastern Roman Empire still held on by a fingernail. Several times the Muslim Arabs struck and were repelled, but a seige mentality of fear settled upon that great city.

It was then, in 726, that Emperor Leo the Isaurian of Constantinople began his war against icons. He began passing laws to forbid their use in worship, and even to have them removed from public places. The Christian Patriarch of the city objected, and the emperor responded by ordering an ancient image of the Mother of God, hanging in the cathedral, to be taken down and smashed in the town square. He and his followers became know as the Icon-Smashers (iconoclasts).

At the time, John Damascene was the chief councillor of Damascus and served on the court of the Muslim Caliph who ruled that city and much of the Islamic world of the day. John was a Christian laymen serving the Muslim ruler of his city because he had a very important skill necessary for civil administration and lacking among the Arabs of the day - John could read. Not only that, but John had received the very best classical education available in his time - he read and wrote Greek, Latin, Syrian, studied philosophy, the natural sciences, theology, history, and music. He was a diligent worker, and served the Caliph well, helping to protect Christians from unnecessary difficulties.

While serving on the court of an icon-hating Muslim, John began to write letters to the icon-smashing Emperor, and to the Christian Patriarch helpless to resist the smashing. John, though far away, was anything but helpless. His letters were a brilliant defense of icons. He argued that in the Person of Jesus Christ, God has fully revealed Himself, and thus removed the danger of idolatry formerly attached to images. He quoted scripture, "He is the image of the invisible God," (Col 1:15). "Since God had begun to use images, mightn't we?" John asked. Before our senses could not take in God. Now, because of the Incarnation of the Word of God, the Enfleshment of God, our lowly flesh could take in God - we can eat His Body and drink His Blood. When he walked among us, we could shake His Hand and see His Face. To extend those experiences to later generations by means of images is surely not contradicting God's generous gift of Himself to us. John Damascene argued that denying the use of images was to deny the Incarnation of the Son of God.

The Emperor was embittered by John's scholarly resistance. He ordered that within the Empire, John be refered to only as The Bastard. But he went further. The Emperor had forged in handwriting very much like John's a letter offering to betray the city of Damascus to the Emperor. He then sent the letter to the Caliph. The Caliph had John's hand lopped off for writing the note, and dismissed John from his court. This sentence was lightened, compared to how most "traitors" were treated, because of the Caliph's great love and esteem of John for his virtue. When John's hand was miraculously restored, the Caliph offered John his old job back.

Understandably, John was hesistant, and decided to seek ordination rather that returning to the court of the Caliph. The Bishop of Damascus ordained him a priest. He continued his defense of icons, and wrote several beautiful sermons about the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. He made an encyclopedic compilation of all the philosophy of his day called The Fount of Wisdom. The Arabic philosophers who would later influence St. Thomas Aquinas and the Scholastics relied heavily on this book. His writings, and perhaps he personally, greatly influenced the Second Council of Ephesus, at which his doctrine of icons won out. He died sometime before or during the council (787), living to be perhaps as old as 111 (!), but exactly when is unclear.
Notably, as the Protestant Reformation (starting 1517) took its Calvinist turn (in the 1540s), Protestants began removing and destroying sacred images from their homes and from places of worship. While there isn't any argument made at the time connecting this new iconoclastic movement to Islam, one has to wonder. That was the same time period in which Muslim finally smashed through Constantinople and began overrunning Eastern Europe. By the time of Calvin, the Muslims were well on their way toward Vienna and Germany. Perhaps Protestants feared, like the Iconoclast Heretics of the ancient past, that the Muslim's success was due to their rejection of icons.
In our own day, we are grateful to see a renewed interest in traditional parts of Christian worship. The use of incense, consecration bells, icons, rosaries, statuary, and more in our liturgy and churches had shown a tremendous decline since the mid-1900s. Many of those responsible for removing and even smashing beautiful marble altars, replacing them wooden tables, throwing beautiful Stations of the Cross into dumpsters, and replacing them with abstractions entirely unrecognizable as artistry, have done so in the name of "updating" or "modernizing." That is, they were eager to aid and abet the great enemy of our time - the opinion of the "rest of the world," also known as secularism. For a generation or two, Catholics starting trying to fit in with their Protestant and secular neighbors who seemed so successful and powerful, just as Christians in St. John Damascene's day were so worried about their Muslim neighbor's plans. In the last decade or two, thanks be to God, we have seen a dramatic reversal in this trend. Can we doubt for a second that St. John Damascene has been pleading our case in the Heavenly Courts?
St. John Damascene, pray for us.

The Face of Christ

More from Fr. Jean LaFrance's Give Me a Living Word:

"27. The face of Christ must become alive for you: it must have eyes that see, lips that speak and a heart that loves. This is a gift of God and there is no trick to it. Nevertheless all spiritual masters testify to it: you must seek to have the face of Christ become alive for you and that can only be the work of the Holy Spirit.

28. At one time, you felt this breath go by in your life and your eye meet that of Jesus, otherwise you would not be here. From that day on, Jesus Christ ceased to be an abstract entity for you and you had but one wish: to find him again in contemplative prayer.

29. But after that, the sea ebbs away and you are cut short! As the Fathers say, grace abandons us. Your situation is then very painful, for you are yearning for Christ like Adam when he was chased from the Garden of Eden. At certain moments, contemplative prayer may even have lost all its meaning for you or at least most of it. How can you prevent this encounter from falling into oblivion, not in the manner of Proust's "madeleines", but in the biblical sense: "Remember all that happened to you when the face of Christ took flesh in your sight." St. John Chrysostom says that at the moment of baptism, we are enlightened by the grace of the Holy Spirit, but that grace very quickly disappears into the depths of our being and we hasten to forget it. A catechumen recently made the same remark to me," Give Me a Living Word, 9.27-29.