Three Things We’re Reading Today: Martyrdom, Adoption, and Silence

Carolyn PirtleCarolyn Pirtle, M.M., M.S.M.

Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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1. Today the Church honors the martyrs St. Andrew Dung-Lac and his companions. Anna Keating at The Catholic Catalogue offers a brief reflection on these brave souls, followed by a brief video posted by the Apostleship of Prayer in 2008. The video draws further attention to the continued persecutions faced by Christians in Asia by holding up the life of Servant of God Cardinal François-Xavier Nguyên Van Thuán (1928–2002), reminding us that persecutions and martyrdoms are not a thing of the past, and that we as a Church must continue to pray for those who are not only enduring but also perpetrating such persecutions. St. Andrew Dung-Lac and companions, pray for us.

2. As we near the end of National Adoption Awareness Month, Elizabeth Kirk, J.D. offers profound insights about the ways in which adoption can teach everyone about the very nature of family in her article “Is Adoption Second-Best to a ‘Real Family’?”

…adoption is a particular calling (perhaps out of the circumstance of infertility, perhaps not) and not a second-best way of building a family.  This reminds us that parenthood is not simply a natural consequence of biology, but rather the occasion for all fathers and mothers to serve God through the children entrusted to them.

3. Finally, NPR’s Guy Raz’s interview “What We Learn When We Find Silence” profiles environmentalist John Francis, who voluntarily stopped talking in 1973 and only began speaking again after 17 years. Francis describes what led him to his unexpected vow of silence, and how it changed him.

I used to listen to someone just enough to think I knew what they were going to say and then I would stop listening, and then I would start thinking about what I was going to say back to show them that they were wrong, or that I could say that better or, look how smart I am, you know?

Insights well worth stopping for a moment to consider in silence as we enter the hustle and the bustle of the holiday season, and more importantly, as the Church enters the sacred season of Advent, preparing for the night when we will marvel together, “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is giv’n.”


Three Things We’re Reading Today: St. Cecilia, First Nations, and Millennials

TimOMalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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1) For the feast of St. Cecilia (November 22nd), read Rick Becker’s reflection at Catholic Exchange on St. Cecilia and Paul Simon:

Over the centuries, as these words were picked up and incorporated into liturgical prayers in various ways, they were truncated and misapplied. The old Catholic Encyclopedia speculates that “possibly the cantantibus organis was erroneously interpreted of Cecilia herself as the organist. In this way the saint was brought into closer relation with music.”

In time, artists began depicting Cecilia as seated at an organ and singing her lungs out – still her predominant iconography to this day. And then, in 1584, the clincher: The Roman Academy of Music adopted St. Cecilia as its patroness, and the die was cast. The entire universal Church soon embraced her as the special celestial intercessor for all musicians.

Sure, it’s all due to a misunderstanding and misattribution, but so be it. She has taken to the role quite admirably by all accounts, and, who knows? – maybe she really was an accomplished vocalist and musician. In any case, even if her singular role in heaven doesn’t match up exactly with her earthly journey, the mismatch doesn’t impinge on her ability to be a special friend and advocate for all those musically inclined.

I’d like to suggest we do something similar with Paul Simon’s song, despite its saucy theme. It’s a shame to avoid what is manifestly a buoyant, joyful tune – just the kind of music you’d want to revel in on St. Cecilia’s special day. It’s such a fun song, and hard not to tap your foot to it – the melody bounces along, and the accompanying grungy percussion along with Simon’s xylophone counterpoint give it an upbeat, happy feel. Can we spin it in such a way as to mute its offensive storyline?

2) NPR has a piece by Sylvia Poggioli on a recently restored painting at the Vatican (The Resurrection by Pinturicchio) depicting the first known image of Native Americans:

The fresco, The Resurrection, was painted by the Renaissance master Pinturicchio in 1494 — just two years after Christopher Columbus first set foot in what came to be called the New World.

Antonio Paolucci, director of the Vatican Museums, told the Vatican daily L’Osservatore Romano that after the soot and grime were removed, in the background, just above the open coffin from where Christ has risen, “we see nude men, decorated with feathered headdresses who appear to be dancing.” One of them seems to sport a Mohican cut.

The image dovetails with Columbus’ description of having been greeted by dancing nude men painted black or red.


Though, Piggioli is quick to analyze the potential power dynamics of the image (the Pope as longing for the spoils of the new world), there is a deep theological meaning behind a piece of artwork depicting not only the Resurrection but early, Native Americans as somehow involved in the scene of Christ’s Resurrection.

3) The Atlantic Monthly does an analysis of why it’s hard for millennials to find a place to live and work. Worth reading, especially for those interested in parish demographic trends:

The Dayton-SF dilemma isn’t about Ohio vs. California. It’s about a broader dilemma for young workers and, in particular, young couples looking to buy a home, raise children, and achieve the American Dream. The cities with the least affordable housing often have the best social mobility. And the cities with the worst social mobility often have the most affordable housing. When good jobs for the middle class and affordable homes are living in different cities, it represents a slow-motion splintering of the American Dream.



My Good and Faithful Servant: the Gift of the Eucharist

Tim KenneyTimothy J. Kenney

’14 MTS Candidate 

Boston College School of Theology and Ministry

This is the time of year when things begin to draw to a close, when the leaves on the trees have stopped being pretty and are just plain dead, when the thrill of pumpkin spice lattes seems to have run its course, when the sun goes away for a while and leaves us with the cold reality that is winter. A common complaint among Notre Dame students is that, in coming to ND they say goodbye to the sun for six months of the year. A perma-cloud spreads over campus and leaves everyone wondering if the sun will ever return. I never really understood this problem because, being from South Bend, I think my body was just acclimated to low levels of Vitamin D.

With the waning of another year, we’re given an opportunity for reflection. Where have we grown since this year began? What new challenges am I facing in my life? What am I still struggling with that was a problem a year ago? Now I know someone you are probably screaming at your computers right now that I’m even breaching this subject in the middle of November. There goes another loon skipping Thanksgiving and Advent and jumping straight to Christmas and New Years! He probably already did his Christmas shopping too! Don’t worry friends, that is most certainly NOT what I Permacloudam doing here. I’m talking about the end of the Liturgical year, which will conclude with the Feast of Christ the King and kick off a brand new opportunity for us to live as a Church, to serve and love God, to process and live our faith.

In this spirit of looking back to the things we’ve missed or could have done better, I’d like to reflect on a shorter period of the more recent past. As in less than a week ago. If you went to Mass this weekend, then you heard the priest or deacon proclaim Matthew’s Parable of the Talents. Likely in his homily he noted that, in the ancient Near East a talent was in fact a unit of measure for gold or silver, therefore emphasizing that the servant who squandered a single talent wasn’t hoarding a nickel, he was wasting an entire years salary. Yet in English we have the added benefit of what talent means in our language. The parable can serve as a helpful reminder that we’ve been given a lot of opportunities and are expected to actually do something with those in our lives.

There is a disadvantage, however, we have because of the words having two different but applicable meanings, much in the same way that we have a difficulty distinguishing different types of love because English only has the one word ‘love.’ Since this point has to parable_of_talentsbe conveyed through a nonverbal medium I’ll make a distinction between a talent, such as musicality or athleticism, and a Talent, such as faith. A talent could be a Talent, something we’re given and should seek to use as a way to praise and serve God, but a Talent really cannot be reduced down to a talent, that is, something we’re good at. At the end of our lives, God is not going to ask whether we really used that ability to burp the alphabet to its full potential, our judgment will depend on far more important matters.

We have an opportunity at end of the liturgical year to reflect on our actions and re-energize our efforts to embrace the Talents we have been given. But this requires that first we pause and consider what these Talents might be. In searching for an answer we must turn to the Eucharist. God has provided us with the most important Talent we could want in the Sacrament of the Altar and the mass that prepares us to receive it. Mass is an opportunity for each of us to live out our faith in community, reflecting the love and community we are called to cultivate with the world. We should seek constant community with those around us, whether through service or prayer, mission or restoration, preaching or nurturing. The Eucharist not only establishes us as a community, it allows us to act as Christ for the world. It is a special opportunity for us to participate in this community, to love one another fully as our neighbor because we recognize Christ in each other.

In a shorter time frame, we can recognize both the incredible Talents extended to us in the liturgy of last week and, in a similar sense, see next Sunday as a return of the Master. Going to Mass isn’t just social and it isn’t simply functional either–it’s transformative. There is something expected, demanded of us in this gospel and it can be applied right there in the Mass. When you sit down in your pew on Sunday, ask yourself, what have I done in the last week? We have been given the incredible gift of Christ in the Eucharist, but how often do we come back the next week and find at no point in between did we given Him any thought at all? Every time that we walk into the church and have not given a thought to our mission or vocation in the past week we’ve buried those Talents in the sand.

If the year teaches us anything, it’s that something new is on the other side of it. The Feast of Christ the King ends the year, but then Advent begins the new one. If on the last day of the year I reflect that I have completely squandered the Talents God gave me, I should feel guilt but not despair. I have a need for forgiveness, but am in now way permanently stuck in this state because, to quote Monty Python, “I’m not dead yet!” I still have a tomorrow, a new year and new opportunities to serve God. This is true whether we have multiplied our Talents five times or buried them in the dirt. We can always love God better and he is continuously making the grace to do so available to us. So too, on the smaller scale, are we called to reflection when we return to Mass this weekend. There will "In return for my love they slander me,      even though I prayed for them.  They repay me evil for good, hatred for my love." Psalm 109:4-5inevitably have been times in the past week when we missed opportunities to praise God in all things. But this shouldn’t drive us away from church, it should be a reminder of the new opportunities that are on the horizon and draw us to the Eucharist.

If we really incorporate God and prayer into our lives, we have the opportunity to discern the actions God is really calling us to. Because of this, we can determine or reaffirm the Talents God is giving us and how we should be multiplying their fruits in the world. These aren’t New Years resolutions, they’re vocations.


Christ the King of the Universe…and the Mundane

Jessica Keating_headshot

Jessica Keating, M.Div.
Program Director,
Human Dignity and Life Initiatives
University of Notre Dame

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Dorothy Day passed the winter of 1948 on her daughter Tamar’s West Virginia farm helping her with the daily tasks of country life and children as they awaited the birth of Tamar’s third child. Included in a volume of Day’s diaries, On Pilgrimage, her entries from that winter show the beauty of smallness. She writes of the trials and delights of living close to the land, the pains and joys of child-rearing, and the hidden life of the family; nothing falls beneath her notice.  Noting the activities of the day on January 20, 1948, she writes:

25036143-36A3-491E-B33A-849222667E73_mw1024_s_nBreakfast of sausage, hotcakes, apples and coffee. Dishes, water heating for clothes, bread-baking. That was today. Yesterday it was pumpkin pies. These things do not take all morning so I have time for writing letters. Then there is the arrival of mail, at 11:30 in the morning, always something to look forward to in the country, with a book arriving from a friend, a package of food from my sister. Yesterday it was fish balls, cheese, baby food, candies, and two toys. (On Pilgrimage, 78)

She writes of other matters, too: of capitalism and communism, of poverty and destitution, of the “fear and distraction these days over the state of the world,” and of the duty of delight and wonder (85).

It is in the midst of one such entry, as she reflects upon the realism of joy and the paradox of the Christian life, that Day observes, “we can suffer with others, we can see plainly the frightful chaos, the unbelievable misery of cold and hunger and bitter misery” (85). Yet all the while, Day observes, we know the truth of St. Paul’s words “that the sufferings of this time are not to be compared to the joy that is to come” (85; Rom 8:18). Indeed, “if we pray enough, the conviction will come too, that Christ is our King, not Stalin, Bevins or Truman. That He has all things in His hands, that ‘all things work together for good to those that love Him’” (85; Rom 8:28).

Sizing2_800Christ the King of the Universe holds all things in His wounded, glorified hands: angels and saints, sun and moon, stars of heaven, shower and dew, fire and heat, frost and chill, hoarfrost and snow, night and day, light and darkness, seas and rivers, mountains and hills (Dan 3: 52-87). The whole of the cosmos resides in the crucified hands of Christ. These very same hands that hold the entirety of creation also hold the bread-baking and the bitter sufferings of this age, the washing of dishes and the making love, the cleaning and clothing of children, the caring for the sick, visiting of the imprisoned, the feeding of the hungry, the burying of the dead.
angry-kidsChrist’s kingship baffled the disciples and continues to overthrow our own paltry notions of kingship, whether they are notions of political messiahs or nationalistic fervor or more nearly the small realms of power we aggregate for ourselves and protect like tyrannical children. Thus we often bend the stunning reality of Christ’s reign as King of the Universe to our own pedestrian imaginings of political kingship, envisioning the vast and majestic implications of Christ’s power as King and the eschatological judgment of the Son enthroned in glory surrounded by the heavenly court as little more than a glorified president with a well-functioning congress.

Yet the one who holds the scroll in his right hand, the one who sparkles like jasper, is also the King who laid His divine prerogatives, naked, hungry, needy (Rev. 4:3; 5:1). Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI notes the paradox of the Christ’s kingship:

Jesus, the Son of Man, the ultimate judge of our lives, wished to appear as one who hungers and thirsts, as a stranger, as one of those who are naked, sick or imprisoned, ultimately, of those who suffer or are outcast; how we treat them will be taken as the way we treat Jesus himself. We do not see here a simple literary device, or a simple metaphor. Jesus’s entire existence is an example of it. He, the Son of God, became man, he shared rouault-crucifixionour existence, even down to the smallest details, he became the servant of the least of his brothers and sisters. He who had nowhere to lay his head, was condemned to death on a cross. This is the King we celebrate! (Christ the King Homily, November 20, 2011)

This is the King whose reign extends over all that is seen and unseen. This is the King who sparkles like jasper. This is the King of glory who descends into the small and mundane obscurities of human existence in order to glorify them—the baking of pumpkin pies, the writing of papers, the weeping of tears—that all may shine like jasper and diamond. This is the King who sits on the throne of the Cross, whose seat of power is crucified love.


Livin’ la vita litourgia

Anthony OleckAnthony Oleck

MTS Student, History of Christianity, University of Notre Dame

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“The purpose of all Christian liturgy is to express in a ritual moment that which should be the basic stance of every moment of our lives.” – Robert Taft

One of my responsibilities as an Assistant Rector is to coordinate the communal spiritual and liturgical life of the undergraduate men’s residence hall in which I live. This involves a lot of planning: I work with Campus Ministry and undergraduate “liturgical commissioners,” sacristans and musicians to ensure we are well-stocked in chapel supplies, prepared with music, Extraordinary Ministers and Lectors, and priests lined up to celebrate Mass every Sunday through Thursday, among other things.


As I am sure anyone involved in the planning of liturgy – be it as a choir director, Master of Ceremonies, or sacristan – can tell you, it can be very easy to get distracted from one’s own prayer before and during Mass by all of the responsibilities that come with planning a liturgy: Did we put enough hosts out? Do these hymns make sense with today’s readings? Do these Mass Settings have enough Latin in them to pacify the ‘traditionals’ while also appealing to the ‘liberals’? Did I put too many coals in the thurible (should we even have done incense at all…)? I thought I specifically told the choir not to play ‘Lord of the Dance’… (author’s note: “Lord of the Dance” has been one of my favorite songs since second grade, and I will always stand by it. But if you’d ever like to discuss it’s place in the Mass, I would be happy to talk through that with you sometime).

At least in my own experience, I can sometimes get so caught up in the external trappings of the liturgy (which are nevertheless important), while forgetting to acknowledge the underlying reality that the liturgy expresses. Or, to borrow from Taft, I am often too preoccupied by the individual “ritual moment,” in a way that distracts me from the “basic [liturgical] stance” that should underlie “every moment of our lives.”

I think this is also what David W. Fagerberg means when he speaks of the term liturgical as having two uses – one thin, and one thick: “Temple decorum and ritual protocol is liturgy only in its thin sense; in its thick sense, liturgy is theological and ascetical.” (Theologia Prima: What is Liturgical Theology?: 9) Alexander Schmemann also speaks to this distinction when he writes:

To find the Ordo behind the “rubrics,” regulations and rules – to find the unchanging principle, the living norm or “logos” of worship as a whole, within what is accidental analexander-schmemannd temporary: this is the primary task which faces those who regard liturgical theology not as the collecting of accidental and arbitrary explanation of services but as the systematic study of the lex orandi of the Church. This is nothing but the search for or identification of that element of the Typicon which is presupposed by its whole content, rather than contained by it… (Introduction to Liturgical Theology, 31)

Lest the reader think I am attempting to dispense of attention to liturgy in its ‘thin’ sense, I should note that the external trappings and ritual protocol of the liturgy are indispensable, as are the people who are committed to its planning and ‘execution,’ so to speak. This is an important role, and should not be dismissed. I am a big believer in beautiful liturgy  (to the extent that human hands can make a liturgy beautiful). But it can behoove even – or rather, it can behoove especially – those of us involved in liturgical ministries to have liturgy’s “thick” sense held before our faces a little more often; to be reminded of the basic stance that is expressed by the individual “ritual moment” that is the Mass.

More than hymns, incense, prayers and ritual – though it includes all of these things – liturgy is fundamentally an eternal reality, expressed in an individual moment. I think we should concern ourselves with the planning of reverent and well-thought out liturgies, but this work should draw us further into the ‘thick’ sense of liturgy – not further away from it. So often we are so concerned with thin liturgy, that we completely lose sight of thick litourgia. And it is the thick sense of liturgy – the underlying reality of the Eucharist, the kenotic love of the Trinity extended eternally and through all ages – that we are called to live. Again, the externals of the Mass play a significant part in this, but ultimately it is the total self-emptying of Christ in the Eucharist that I participate in and that overflows into my life and ministry as an Assistant Rector.

This kenosis, this gift of self, defines liturgy in its most fundamental (thick) sense, and it is such a disposition – a liturgical stance of self-emptying love – that should undergird every moment of our lives. To recognize such does not invalidate our attention to the “externals” of the liturgy, but rather expands and reorients such attention, reminding us that the true source of liturgy is Christ’s work, not ours. And our efforts to coordinate and plan beautiful liturgies – which are not by any means rendered meaningless by this recognition – should serve only one purpose: to lead all (ourselves included) deeper into the mystery that is Christ’s self-gift in the Eucharist.

Liturgy is meant to be lived, even more so than it is meant to be planned. I have learned as an Assistant Rector that things like setting up for Mass, scheduling priests and choosing hymns can also serve as external expressions of an eternal kenosis, when I allow them to.



Three Things We’re Reading Today: Martin/Douthat, Sacred Literature, and Facebook

Tim O'MalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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1) It’s not often in modern journalism that you get a glimpse into a genuine dialogue between two people, who fundamentally disagree. This recent contribution from America Magazine from Fr. Jim Martin, SJ and Ross Douthat of The New York Times does just that. Excerpts won’t do the piece justice, so read the whole thing.

This piece is one, which does better than anything that I’ve read, in describing the kind of assumptions that went into discussions around the Synod on the Family. It should be studied by all women and men of good will.

2) Ethika Politika has a splendid piece on the role of the sacred in literature. It’s apart of a broader debate on the reinvigoration of Catholic letters as a whole that has unfolded at First Things, Commonweal, and America. But Michelle Tholen sums it up beautifully:

Though this seems a harsh truth, it must be solidly understood in order to correct the current crisis in Catholic fiction. Our belief and faith in Jesus Christ must touch and inform every aspect of life; works of culture cannot be excluded. They are, in fact, a vital part of our humanity, our composition of body and soul. Literature should, as all things should, have the purpose of perfecting us and deepening our relationship with God. If successful, it can then reinvigorate our families, parishes, and the larger “secular” society.

3) A really splendid piece on the kind of dispositions social media forms in us, dispositions that actually make it more difficult to pray. At least, so says Mark Bauerlein at First Things (Prayer in the Facebook Age):

We are in danger of losing these replenishing, corrective moments of solitary faith. Silence and seclusion are harder to find, and fewer people seek them out. You find a lone bench in the park on a fall afternoon, gaze up at the sky through the branches, and begin the Rosary only to have a power walker march by barking into an invisible mic. It’s not just the noise, it’s his connection to absent persons, as if to say that being in one place alone with the Lord is insufficient.


“Dazzled and blinded by virtue”: Jean Valjean on receiving mercy

Anthony OleckAnthony Oleck

MTS Student, History of Christianity, University of Notre Dame

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Last weekend a friend and I drove three hours to Findlay, Ohio, for the wedding of a mutual friend of ours. As we discovered on this trip, six total hours is just enough time to get in just enough Taylor Swift, listen to “I’m Gonna Be (I Would Walk 500 Miles)” by the Proclaimers about seventeen times, and lose our voices from singing the entire soundtrack of Les Miserables at the top of our lungs. While I would not deny that Taylor Swift’s music is full of meaning and utterly transcendent in its own way, I have always found there to be something especially moving about Victor Hugo’s seminal work, often referred to affectionately as Les Mis (not to be confused with another character by a suspiciously similar name).

One of the central themes driving the narrative in Les Miserables is the constant tension between justice and mercy. The question, which seems to arise in every epoch of man’s existence, is raised and reflected on throughout the work: how do we understand and receive both justice and mercy, and how do we incorporate each into the structures of our social and private lives? How do we, as human beings, hold together these two seemingly opposing realities? And, to take it a step further, how are we as Christians supposed to reconcile our belief in God’s Justice with our trust in His Divine Mercy? How might we hold these antinomies together without the one eclipsing the other? Perhaps a kind of contemplation on the characters of Jean Valjean and Javert can provide some insights.

For those of you who have not seen or read Les Miserables, go watch it. Then dry your eyes. Then read this post.

I would like to attempt a kind of side-by-side audio and visual comparison of three different scenes from Tim Hooper’s 2012 film adaptation of Hugo’s masterpiece.  I should note that this is not meant to be an expert’s exegesis of either Victor Hugo’s work or any of its later adaptations, and neither do I claim any theological, philosophical, theatrical or musical authority on which to base my thoughts. Rather, this post is intended as a simple reflection on a favorite film of mine, in which I see many connections to ecclesial, spiritual and liturgical life.

Jean Valjean, a life transfigured by mercy

For those unfamiliar with the basic story, this scene takes place after Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) was recently released on parole after serving nineteen years in a French prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving children. He wanders bitterly from town to town, not being able to find food, shelter or work. He is treated with such contempt that his life after prison is almost no life at all. Victor Hugo describes it as “the sea,” which is “the inexorable night into which the penal code casts its victims. The sea is measureless misery. The soul drifting in that sea may become a corpse. Who shall restore it to life?” (Les Miserables, 95)

This “restored life” comes in the form of Bishop Myriel, the bishop of a small town in France. He is well-known for his unsurpassable kindness, charity and simplicity. He invites Valjean in to have dinner and to rest for the night, but after the bishop has gone to sleep Valjean sneaks away, having stolen the bishop’s only material wealth: his silverware. Valjean has, at this point, resigned himself to life as a criminal and outcast.  After all:

Human society had done him nothing but injury; never had he seen anything of her but the wrathful face she calls justice, when showing it to those she strikes down. No man had ever touched him except to bruise him. All his contact with men had been by blows. Never, since infancy, since his mother, since his sister, never had he been greeted with a friendly word or a kind look. Through suffering upon suffering he gradually came to the conclusion that life is a war and that in that war he was the vanquished. He had no weapon but his hatred. He resolved to sharpen it in the chain gang and take it with him when he left. (89)

Valjean encounters mercy for this first time when he is dragged back by the local police and told to return the stolen silver to Bishop Myriel. The bishop not only vindicates him and gives him the silver, but also relinquishes the two most valuable items in his home – two silver candlesticks – that Jean Valjean may “become an honest man.”

The scene above shows Valjean struggling with this act of mercy – he has been so hardened by his life that he is not quite sure how to accept it. He stands as at the edge of a precipice: he knows that he “must conquer or be conquered, and that the struggle, a gigantic and decisive struggle, had begun between his own wrongs and the goodness of this man.” (111) Eventually Valjean concludes that he must die, in a sense. He must “sanctify his life; to escape from men and to return to God.” (220) This, for Valjean, was “more than a transformation – it was a transfiguration.” (ibid) Valjean encounters mercy, wrestles with it, and allows it to transfigure his life.

Javert’s Order & Justice

Contrast this with Javert, a prison-guard-turned-inspector who makes it his life’s mission to hunt down Prisoner 24601 (Valjean), who violated his parole years before. I won’t go into too much detail here, but I’d like to point to just a few similarities and differences between his and Javert’s capacity for mercy.

Javert illustrates a man obsessed with justice. His is a life that values above all else justice and order, both the logos and telos of his existence, and admires the stars for their order. There is no room for mercy in the cosmos of Javert (of course, an argument could be made that Javert is a more complex and misunderstood character than many realize – but this cannot be taken up here). Eventually, Javert finds himself standing on a precipice, much like Jean Valjean. He is faced with a choice: to allow mercy to penetrate his heart and transfigure his life, or to turn from it.

It is his nonnegotiable commitment to justice that closes Javert off to mercy when it is extended to him through Jean Valjean. The story of Valjean and Javert is one of the most tragically beautiful stories in literature, and the musical score reflects this. It is no coincidence, for example, that the melodies of these three songs intertwine and overlap, Javert’s inability to understand “if this man can be believed… if his sins can be forgiven, his crimes reprieved.” And, like Valjean, Javert inevitably reaches the conclusion that he must die. His death is not one of hope for a transfigured life, however, but a tragic death immersed in despair. His life became so centered on justice and the “law” that he could neither recognize nor receive the mercy that draws one into true justice and a new life, the logos of which is mercy and love.

Valjean followed the path of Saint Peter, who, upon seeing the face of the Lord, “turned and wept bitterly.” (Luke 21:61-62) This weeping is a natural response, as this kind of mercy “hurts [one's] soul… as too vivid a light would have hurt [one's] eyes on coming out of the dark.” (Les Miserables, 111) Perhaps none can articulate this better than Hugo when he writes:

The future life, the possible life offered to him, all pure and radiant, filled him with trembling and anxiety. He no longer really knew where he was. Like an owl seeing the sun suddenly rise, the convict had been dazzled and blinded by virtue.

Yet Valjean, like Peter, did not despair. Despair was the sin of Javert, of Judas, who, “throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, departed; and he went and hanged himself.” (Matthew 27:5)

When we gaze upon the face of mercy, how will we respond? Will we allow it to transfigure us, or turn from it, like Javert, in despair?


In Praise of Adoption

TimOMalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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The following piece is written in honor of Adoption Awareness Month (November).

Recently, I found myself reading a book on Thanksgiving, a text that my wife was considering using for a parents’ gathering at our parish. The authors of the children’s book were concerned with presenting a wide swath of humanity, all assembling together to celebrate the American meal par excellence. One page, specifically, grabbed my attention. One of the aunts arrived at the meal, a child in tow (along with pumpkin pies). The text made sure to point out that the infant, who the aunt was bringing along, was her “adopted child.”

At first, I admired the move made by the author of said book. It is normative for adopting parents today to reveal to their son or daughter (at the right time) his or her status as adopted. Undoubtedly, this is healthier for the psychological development of the child, who grows up aware of the particularity of his or her narrative. This book publicly recognized that there are children in the world, who are also adopted. If literature functions as a kind of mirror, the adopted child encountered in this Thanksgiving narrative a recognized status. There are other adopted children in the world. I am not alone.

Yet, since my initial reading, I have grew concerned about the function of the adopted infant in this children’s book. When I introduce my son to other people, I generally don’t say, “The toddler who is presently trying to throw himself into a mound of snow–he is my adopted child.” No, he is my son. Although my wife and I did not conceive him through sex reproduction, he is the sacramental embodiment of our love extended into the world (along with the gift of his birth mother and father). Although we don’t share genetic material with one another, we share biological matter all the time with our toddler. SleepingBabyI hold him when sickness takes over his body, no longer thinking twice about wiping snot from his nose or cleaning vomit off the floor. When I eat yogurt in the morning, there is no doubt that this food is also his, as he toddles toward me–his mouth agape to receive a food that he normally rejects (except when dad is eating it). My heartbeat is recognizable to him, enough so that he calms down as soon as I hold him in the midst of a restless sleep. He is mine, and I am his.

Nonetheless, whether adopted or not, Kara and I will experience the reality that all parents come to know so well. Our son, the one who drastically changed our lives, re-oriented every facet of our existence (like a dictator), will one day make it clear to the world that he is not ours. That he is an independent being, capable of thought and action, apart from his beloved (and adopting) parents. In reality, every child born into the world is an “adopted” child insofar as that creature is never really “ours” to begin with. And from the perspective of the child, he or she is born into a family GiftoftheSon(whether adopted or not) that was not chosen by the child. All that we receive in our earliest days upon earth is given to us without anyone seeking out our particular interest in receiving it. Born into the world, each of us are adopted into a language, a culture, a religious tradition, an ethos. Our facial gestures, our style of speaking, our interests–these are bestowed to us as gift. As I’ve written elsewhere:

Every human being, in fact, is adopted (or at least should be) into an ecology of…love. Adoption is a sign for all Christians that a person’s fundamental identity is as one who has received love: the love of God generously and precariously poured out upon creation, the love of God manifested in Christ, who reveals to us that our humanity was made for total self-gift. Those relationships with teachers, friends and parents, which immerse us into the logic of this sort of love, reveal to us that we are indeed beloved.

Adoption, as a form of family life, serves a prophetic function in the Christian life. It reminds us of the “giftedness” of life itself. Life is not “gift” because it is an extension of our own biological productivity. Life is gift because…it is. Everything that we receive is inscribed in an act of generosity that is divine love itself. From a Christian perspective, a marriage is fruitful (and thus Trinitarian and Eucharistic), not simply when it introduces new biological children into the world, but when it forms a space in which we come to recognize the concrete gift of love itself.

My child is thus “adopted,” but in a very really way, his adoption is not entirely distinct from all of us who enter into a world that we did not choose to abide within in the first place. My son has not chosen his parents; but nor did I, a product of a biological marriage. Adoption is a particular form of family life, consonant with the Christian narrative as a whole, that inscribes us primordially in the gift first received. Much theological work still needs to be done relative to a number of these themes.

Nonetheless, it is inadequate to articulate a sacramental theology of marriage, which perceives adoption as a benign aberration vis-a-vis biological Christian family life. Adoption, for both child and parent, introduces a particular form of life that is radically sacramental in its particularity. It reveals to us God’s plan for humanity, for creation itself, as adopted into a love that we can only imagine. Adoption, biological childbirth, and spiritual paternity or maternity together reveal a full image of what constitutes entrance into the family of God.


Adoption is worthy of such praise, not simply in the month of November, but all the days of the calendar year.



finding the other side

Renee RodenRenée Roden

AmeriCorps Volunteer



That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side.” Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. (Mark 4: 35-36)

TimesSquareIn a city that never sleeps, spaces of silence are rare luxuries. Obviously, interior silence is always available to those who seek it; and there are few things more refreshing than popping into a church off a busy avenue, and finding that the Eucharist is exposed on the altar, just like it was waiting for you to arrive. Surprise Eucharistic Adoration is a great delight to the heart, it’s true. But it becomes exhausting to keep constant vigilance over the interior silence.

So it becomes necessary to find spaces where the interior silence inside of us is not fighting the noisy world around us, but can bask in the peace of the exterior world.

One Saturday, I found such a place, a little oasis of peace and quiet in the desert of New York’s constant soundscape. I traveled up to the The CloistersCloisters, which is the magical little mock-monastery in upper Manhattan. That morning, armed with my journal (to take notes on the artwork. Pro-tip: going to a museum with a journal makes you feel more intellectual. Even if you never open it once.), a cupcake, and a book for the train (currently reading: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Trying to read up on my new home.)

I stepped off the second-to-the-last-stop on the A train, and found myself on a street corner that looked similar to any other corner on any other block in upper Manhattan. But then, I looked slightly south down the road, and saw a wall of trees rising out of the park, like a thicket surrounding a fairy-tale castle. So I set off into the woods; and, already, my feet felt lighter as I found myself surrounded in brilliant fall colors, the particular sort of sunlight that is made out of sun shining through trees, blue sky, and the sweet smell of mulch and fallen leaves decomposing. I followed the winding paths  and stone stairs up to the top of the hill, and sitting in radiant splendor was this recreation of a beautiful Benedictine Monastery.

As I wandered through the different cloisters, courtyards that had been constructed out of fragments of  medieval French monasteries, I was awed by the stillness that suffused the hallways. I felt refreshed, renewed in my mind, heart, and body. As I was wandering through the museum, and basking in the autumn sun over the Hudson river, I kept thinking of how “like Europe” this was.

But, what I think I was feeling was a similar feeling that many Notre Dame undergraduates first experience while studying abroad: finding the other side.

Studying abroad is the first time that many students spend their time actively seeking beauty. Although this is far too often warped into a competition to see who can get the most notches on their “I Saw All the Seven Hundred Wonders of Europe According to Rick Steves” belts, the driving force behind many students’ study-abroad careers is an active pursuit of the beautiful. Time that would have been spent maybe playing video games is now spent wandering through small Catalan villages or time that may have been wasted at a kegger or a day party is spent wandering Paris side-streets. Even time that is well-spent in studying is often put aside in favor of pursuing the beauty in the students’ new environment.  The understanding that travel is part of their education, and an explicit time limit lead the students to sense that their time ought not to be wasted, that every moment is precious, and that every day one should see a sight worthy of note. A lack of routine and a set friend group or community lead students to explore. Exploration of new territory generally tends toward a search for the beautiful: Find the most charming café, the most awe-inspiring painting, the most beautiful sunset, the quaintest bridge, the most authentic pub, the sweetest cannoli.

And one does this, for the most part, alone. Although there are many friendships made, nourished, and sustained while studying abroad through Notre Dame, there is necessarily a certain amount of loneliness that comes with a search for beauty.  You are in a new country, without the creature comforts of home, family, and friends, which leads to a sense of solitude. Perhaps the words of the psalmist: “My one companion is darkness” have new meaning to a globe-trotting student stuck alone in the Zurich airport for the night. And even in our lighter moments, there is a new sense of loneliness. Beauty, especially the visual arts, but all beauty, demands our attention. In order to see it, we have to stop seeing everything else around us. We have to stop focusing on a multiplicity of things, and focus on the one thing right in front of us. The processing of beauty is necessarily an interior process. We find that it is just us and the Cathedral around us, or the mountain scene, or the Pieta. We encounter all this beauty not just with our eyes, but with our selves, in an interior way.

Once we have given our attention to the piece of art, once we receive something, it necessarily draws a response from us. It is a conversation that occurs in private, even when we are in a crowd. Although we may be surrounded by a great crowd of people snapping photos on their phones, and we are all perceiving the same object, we are alone in our perceptions.  There is a raw honesty inTheDavid this sort of solitary encounter with beauty, which occurs, even in a loud, crowded physical geography, in silence. One does not walk through an art museum, talking on the cell phone the entire time.  Anyone who encounters the David will necessarily stop talking with whoever is next to them (at least for a moment or two): and actually behold at the beauty that is in front of them. Even in that split second, there will be a moment of silence, of solitude in beholding the beauty in front of us.

Timothy Husband, the curator of the Cloisters, spoke to Richard Preston of The New Yorker, about his experience with the Unicorn tapestries. The Unicorn tapestries are astounding. They line the walls of a small gallery on the Cloisters’ main floor. Their presence on the unassuming gallery walls transforms the small room into a forest of color. One could spend weeks looking at these mysterious tapestries, and find eternities of beauty in their depths. Mr. Husband, as On Mondays, when the  the museum is closed, he will dedicate spent looking at the Unicorn tapestries:

“Sometimes I come in here and try to pretend I have never read anything about them, never heard anything about them, and I just try to look at them, . . . then there is a solace in their beauty, and one can stare at them in pure amazement.” (“Capturing the Unicorn” The New Yorker, April 11, 2005)

As I walked through the stillness of the Cloisters, stared at the Unicorn tapestries, and basked in the beauty of the fall day, I felt the interior wells of stillness inside of me replenished.

The pursuit of beauty teaches us to cultivate silence in a positive, constructive way. Solitude is no longer just an escape from the overload of activity all around us, but an activity worth pursuing for its own sake.

As we seek what is beautiful, spending our time searching for the beauty in our environment, we find ourselves drawn at the same time inward and outward. We are drawn out of ourselves, out of the hamster wheel of daily concerns that we constantly run over and over in our minds. And we are drawn inward, into the still, small space inside of ourselves, where we can find that silence that Christ sought on the other side of the lake.


Three Things We’re Reading Today: Limits of Liturgy, Busyness (Part 2), and Ancient Humanity

Tim O'MalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Contact Author

1) PrayTell has posted a column from Msgr. Francis Mannion on the limitations of liturgy within the life of the Church:

The third implication is that the liturgy cannot be the only place within which Christian education takes place. In many parishes, there is no adult education apart from the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, which reaches only a very small percentage of people. Formation in the Scriptures and the teaching of the Church often does not take place apart from the homily, but the homily is not able to proclaim by itself the whole of Christian faith.

The fundamental problem here is that too much is being asked of the liturgy. The Church is expected to yield up all its riches on Sunday morning, and disappointment occurs when this does not occur and the liturgy collapses under the weight.

2) A follow-up (actually technically a prequel) to the wonderful piece on busyness by Omid Safi:

In many Muslim cultures, when you want to ask them how they’re doing, you ask: in Arabic, Kayf haal-ik? or, in Persian, Haal-e shomaa chetoreh? How is your haal?

What is this haal that you inquire about? It is the transient state of one’s heart. In reality, we ask, “How is your heart doing at this very moment, at this breath?” When I ask, “How are you?” that is really what I want to know.

I am not asking how many items are on your to-do list, nor asking how many items are in your inbox. I want to know how your heart is doing, at this very moment. Tell me. Tell me your heart is joyous, tell me your heart is aching, tell me your heart is sad, tell me your heart craves a human touch. Examine your own heart, explore your soul, and then tell me something about your heart and your soul.

Tell me you remember you are still a human being, not just a human doing. Tell me you’re more than just a machine, checking off items from your to-do list. Have that conversation, that glance, that touch. Be a healing conversation, one filled with grace and presence.

3) A piece (from the Jesuit Post) that links the “oldness” of human life on earth with a sense of the newness of what has taken place in Christ:

Christ may have come “late in time”, but he came at a time when knowledge of him could be reliably remembered through the written word, transmitted through the continual contact of mobile peoples and shared among the billions of people that have come after him. It may be useful to remind ourselves of this from time to time. Unlike many of the other religious movements of the time, early Christianity was not tribal or regional. Christians consciously proclaimed a gospel for all times and all peoples, and indeed for the whole cosmos. The Paschal Mystery is not an interesting historical event; it is the event in the 200,000-year history of our species. Today, just as much as 2,000 years ago, it is our exciting job to let the world know just exactly what has happened to the human race in its recent history, and invite them to plunge into its new current.

Notre Dame Center for Liturgy, Institute for Church Life

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