1) Over the weekend, the Institute for Church Life’s director John Cavadini was featured in the New York Daily News. Cavadini wrote on the Pope’s visit and the spiritual and moral discomfort that Catholics should prepare for:
Nevertheless, pride and all, I am preparing to feel less than comfortable at many moments during the visit of the Holy Father, and perhaps for many moments afterwards, too. After all, it is Francis himself who exhorted all of us Catholics, whether so-called conservatives or so-called liberals, “each Christian” in fact, and “every community,” and, not to make too fine a point of it, “all of us,” to “go forth from our own comfort zone in order to reach the peripheries” in need of the Gospel’s Good News.
So I am preparing — did I mention even praying? — to receive the discomfort I fully expect into my heart and to let it live there for a while, out of obedience.
Mary’s consent to carrying, birthing and raising Jesus provides a powerful corrective to rape culture. Mary’s consent is the most important “yes” in salvation history because with that yes Mary bore the child of God (thus becoming the Theotokos) and participated in bringing to fulfillment God’s plan to redeem the world. God did not send the Holy Spirit to conceive Jesus without Mary’s consent; Mary’s full verbal consent was required and obtained before Jesus was conceived. God waited for consent; and it was not “implied” or “presumed” consent. Luke 1:38 is clearly Mary’s full consent to God’s plan. This has significant bearing as a Catholic statement on rape culture and the ways in which “actual consent” are supplanted with “implied consent.”
3) Over at “The Liturgical Theologian,” Rev. Porter C. Taylor reviews Maxwell Johnson’s The Church in Act. The review can be read here:
The opening chapter provided an intriguing and welcomed development in Johnson’s thinking. Whereas in Praying and Believing Johnson seemed to support Paul V. Marshall’s view on lex orandi, lex credendi, this book seems to demonstrate a more complex thought process. Johnson roots his argument in the belief that liturgical developments preceded and shaped doctrinal maturity. In recounting the development of baptismal spirituality in the early church, Johnson rightly asserts the normative and transformative role of liturgy in and over doctrine.
Today we celebrate the feast of St. Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist, and although this is only the second post of this series, I’m going to depart from last week’s model of sharing a piece written specifically for a feast day and turn instead to three brief excerpts from a famous sacred choral work which utilizes the very Gospel text for which Matthew is celebrated today as a saint: Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.
After an early version was performed on Good Friday in 1727, Bach revised and expanded the work in 1736, and continued to make adjustments until 1746, when the piece was finalized in the form we now know it today. While today the St. Matthew Passion is often performed in concert halls, Bach actually wrote it for use during a service held at the Thomaskirche (St. Thomas Church) in Leipzig, where he oversaw the music used in worship. As music scholar Michael David Shasberger puts is, the St. Matthew Passion is to be heard “as an active witness to the Gospel not as a museum piece.” This music was intended to instill in those listening an awareness of the fact that the Passion of Jesus Christ is not merely a historical event; rather, it is a mystery that must be contemplated and appropriated by believers in every generation.
In terms of structure, the St. Matthew Passion is written in the “oratorio” style: the text of Matthew’s Gospel is sung by a narrator (designated as the “Evangelist”), various soloists (representing different characters), and a chorus (not only representing the crowd in the Gospel but also drawing the congregation into the action). There are also other movements such as arias (solo songs) and chorales (strophic hymns) interpolated throughout the Gospel text. These movements utilize poetic texts, some of which incorporate other scriptural sources, but many of which are wholly original. These non-Gospel provide theological commentary on Matthew’s Passion narrative; they pause the dramatic action and provide the listening congregation with an opportunity to contemplate the mystery being presented.
Countless books and articles have been written on various facets of the St. Matthew Passion. But I want to focus here on the way in which Bach’s music brings the words to life in such a way that the music itself becomes a form of theological commentary. With regard to the text of Matthew’s Gospel, this theo-musical drama is particularly apparent toward the end of the work.
One of the final movements featuring the text of Matthew’s Gospel is a recitative—sung speech. Singing in German (since the Lutheran tradition utilized the vernacular), the Evangelist proclaims:
And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent; and the graves were opened and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, and came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many. Now when the centurion, and they that were with him, watching Jesus, saw the earthquake, and those things that were done, they feared greatly, saying:
At this point, the chorus provides the voice of the witnesses, confessing: “Truly this was the Son of God.” (Mt 27:51–55)
The relationship Bach creates between the text and the music enhances our awareness of the incredible drama in this moment. As the Evangelist describes the Temple veil tearing from top to bottom, the cellos paint a musical portrait of fabric ripping through a series of incredibly fast descending and ascending scales. The description of the earthquake is accompanied by a low cello tremolo (a string technique that creates a trembling or rumbling sound), and steadily climbing notes underscore the description of the dead rising from their graves. The Evangelist’s description of the fear descending on all present is reflected in the haunting and dramatic melody, sung at a hushed volume.
The radiant music of the chorus confessing Jesus’ divinity pierces through this dark moment, and from that point on, the Evangelist resumes the Gospel narrative with music suggesting that, even in the face of Jesus’ death on the Cross, there may yet be reason to hope.
While Bach’s setting of the actual Gospel text is dramatic and memorable, without a doubt, the most famous excerpt of the St. Matthew Passion is the chorale that appears throughout. Often sung in Good Friday liturgies today as O Sacred Head Surrounded, the music of this hymn actually did not originate with Bach. In its first instantiation, the melody was a secular love song by Baroque composer Hans Leo Hassler; however, by pairing this tune with a text by Paul Gerhardt in the St. Matthew Passion, Bach gave it new life as a hymn contemplating the depths of Christ’s Passion.
The chorale appears several times throughout the St. Matthew Passion, and, in keeping with Bach’s practice of utilizing music to provide theological commentary, each iteration varies slightly according to what has just occurred in the Passion narrative. In the penultimate appearance of the chorale (just after Matthew’s description of the crowning with thorns and mocking), the chorus sings two verses: the first in a powerful, declamatory style, hailing the sorrowful beauty of the Sacred Head crowned with thorns; the second in a spirit of trepidation and fearfulness, acknowledging the utter gravity of what is unfolding.
O head, full of blood and wounds,
Full of sorrow and full of scoffing!
O head, wreathed for mockery
With a crown of thorns!
O head, once beautifully adorned
With highest honor and renown,
But now highly abused:
Let me hail thee!
Thou noble countenance,
Before which shrinks and cowers
The great weight of the world,
How art thou spat upon!
How pallid art thou!
Who has treated the light of thine eyes,
Light that no light else can equal,
So shamefully amiss?
In the final appearance of the chorale, Bach transforms it into a dirge as the chorus pleads with Jesus to assist them in the hour of death.
When once I must depart,
Do not depart from me;
When I must suffer death,
Then stand thou by me!
When I most full of fear
At heart shall be,
Then snatch me from the terrors
Of fear and pain by thy strength!
The lower key, the tension-filled harmonies, the sparse use of instruments, and the altered melody—all of these musical decisions reflect the somber bitterness of Christ’s Passion, and the reality that all must eventually face death. And yet, even in the darkness of the Crucifixion, the chorale ends with a beautiful and perhaps unexpected resolution on a quietly hope-filled major chord, reminding the listener that all is not lost. Christ’s life does not end with death; rather, Christ tramples down death by his own Death and becomes the source of eternal life for all who make the words of St. Matthew’s Gospel their own: “Truly this was the Son of God.”
For more on the St. Matthew Passion: • Read the text and translation here.
• Listen to the full work here.
 Michael David Shasberger, An Introduction of J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion for the Contemporary Congregation (D.M.A. Dissertation, University of Southern California, 1983), 41.
I have only been able to find two radio stations so far in St. Louis. The first is a 1970s rock station – certainly filled with talented musicians, but not my scene. So instead, I spend most days driving to and from work listening to the pop music station. One song has been played over and over in the past few days, written by “up and coming” artist Hailiee Steinfeld, and it is particularly disturbing to me – both in its content and in its indication of the attitude prevalent among young adults and those on college campuses.
The song is called “Love Myself.” Every time it comes on the radio, there’s a blurb by the artist telling listeners that she just wants them to know that they can do whatever they’re doing on their own – they don’t need anyone else to tell them they can. The song itself consists of Ms. Steinfeld proclaiming that, any time, she is just going to love herself, and she doesn’t need anyone else. Perhaps the most startling lyric: “I’m gonna put my body first/ And love me so hard til it hurts.”
Now, don’t get me wrong – the idea of self love and self worth is not only beautiful and important, but extremely Catholic. In order to truly worship God and submit to the truth of His works, one must recognize him or herself as the Lord’s creation and see the inherent beauty in that. While difficult, this is an entirely necessary step for anyone expecting to love creation and others. However, this true, humble, loving of oneself is entirely different than that which is espoused in the aforementioned song.
The loving of oneself in the Christian tradition is inherently communal – the love of self, rooted in the acceptance of Christ’s redemption of all humanity and humankind’s adoptive sonship with God, compels the believer to recognize that same beauty, that same divine sonship, in those around him or her. Self-love, and Christianity in general, are inherently other-centric.
This song proclaims entirely the opposite. Steinfeld confuses the purpose and nature of loving oneself, proclaiming that her love of self is not only separate from the other, but that this self-love in fact leads to separation. Perhaps even more fearful is her assertion in her “introduction” of the song, which suggests that correction and suggestion, two concepts rooted in the Catholic tradition in the love of the other and the desire to see the other at his or her best, are detrimental to one’s love of self and should be brushed off. This attitude is one I have seen on a broader level in the secular world, both within my campuses and in adults. We shrug off the obligation that comes with the Catholic idea of love of self – after all, that’s too hard. It precludes me from my ability to judge others and to do what I want, when I want. It makes it incredibly difficult to keep up with the immediate satisfaction of desires that has become so common, so advertised, and so valued. Instead, we would rather define self-love as the complete and total acceptance of how we are and how we act based entirely upon ourselves, our relative idea of truth, and what is easier in the short term. Quite frankly, it’s a tempting and glamorous view of life.
However, this is a view of life and of love with perilous consequences for the soul. When I hear the lyrics of this song, I am reminded of C.S. Lewis’ interpretation of Hell in The Great Divorce – I hear this young singer shrug off any responsibility other than her own, and I see the Hell-dwellers who became so stubborn, so set in their own ways and their own versions of the truth, that they couldn’t break out of themselves long enough to see the beauty that awaited them. This self-centric view of love and life leads to isolation, to judgment, and to a long-term lack of fulfillment.
This attitude is one that is incredibly hard to crack, but one that we must commit ourselves to resisting – after all, our souls, and those of the rest of the world, are at stake. In the Eucharist, we are reminded over and over again of the true meaning of Love, a Love that draws us in and raises us up, one that compels us to go forth and serve the whole world. This dangerous mindset, one which will certainly be present with me for the rest of my life, is one that can only be conquered by participating in that living and eternal sacrifice.
1) The Catholic Church still has a long way to go in Religious Education and Catechetical formation. Initiatives such as the Institute for Church Life’s Echo program provide one way forward in this area. In “America Magazine,” Joe Paprocki takes up the question of the current state of religious education:
Forty years later, it is safe to say that much has changed in the world of religious education. And yet, like Chicago Cubs fans, one might say that we Catholics are still waiting for many of the ideas raised by Monsignor Kelly to come to fruition. For starters, he advocated greater resources and personnel for religious education, lamenting the fact that in the past these had been assigned “with great reluctance.” Unfortunately, this continues to be a serious concern, as cash-strapped dioceses, many scrambling to pay legal fees and settlements in the wake of the sexual abuse crisis, continue to drastically reduce their budgets and staffs for catechetical ministry. This has had an unfortunate trickle-down effect as more and more parishes are doing away with professionally trained catechetical leaders in favor of the part-time or volunteer secretary who is asked to “run the kids’ program.”
The denial of God – or the blithe bracketing of the question of God – is not a harmless parlor game. Rather, it carries with it the gravest implications. If there is no God, then our lives do indeed belong to us, and we can do with them what we want. If there is no God, our lives have no ultimate meaning or transcendent purpose, and they become simply artifacts of our own designing. Accordingly, when they become too painful or too shallow or just too boring, we ought to have the prerogative to end them. We can argue the legalities and even the morality of assisted suicide until the cows come home, but the real issue that has to be engaged is that of God’s existence.
3) What does it take to be Catholic? A recent Pew Research Center study surveyed 1,016 self-identified Catholics to find out what they described as “essential” to their Catholic faith:
The answers reveal that for most Americans, Catholic identity is rooted more in how they live and believe than in whether they check off the boxes for official Catholic measures:
* 68 percent cited “having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ” as essential. * 67 percent: Belief in Jesus’ actual resurrection from the dead. * 62 percent: Working to help the poor and needy. * 54 percent: Devotion to Mary as the virgin Mother of God. * 54 percent: Receiving the sacraments. * 42 percent: Being part of a Catholic parish. * 41 percent: Being open to having children. * 34 percent: Celebrating feast days or festivals that are part of your national or ethnic heritage. * 33 percent: Opposing abortion. * 29 percent: Working to address climate change.
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us.For creation awaits with eager expectation the revelation of the children of God; for creation was made subject to futility, not of its own accord but because of the one who subjected it, in hope that creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God.and not only that, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, we also groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.
For in hope we were saved. Now hope that sees for itself is not hope. For who hopes for what one sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait with endurance. In the same way, the Spirit too comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings. And the one who searches hearts knows what is the intention of the Spirit, because it intercedes for the holy ones according to God’s will.
We know that all things work for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those he foreknew he predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, so that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined he also called; and those he called he also justified; and those he justified he also glorified. (Romans 8:18-30)
Does that happen here? Does that happen here?
When I walked into one of my freshmen quads the other night, that was the first question they asked me. “Hey Rose — those sexual assault emails were pretty scary — does that happen here?” As a new RA in Lyons hall, a few things went through my mind – first, I was horribly embarrassed that during their first week of class here at Notre Dame, they had already received three notifications that this new home we’re trying to bring them into and create still has a serious problem keeping students safe. And as much as I wished I could sincerely answer that no, Notre Dame students are above this crime, I knew that the emails were a critical reminder to us all that we are not past our own history of sexual violence. More importantly, these emails came as a sign of incredible bravery and progress toward a community where any sexual assault is reported and taken seriously.
I thought of the girls’ parents whom I’d met last week, ensuring them I’d help them loft, find classes, and make sure they got home safe at night. They had come from all over the country and the globe to bring their children, their most sacred gifts, here to South Bend, Indiana, at a school where nothing goes wrong, and there are single sex dorms and parietals and rules and police and RA’s and so many nice brochures; yet without fail, every couple of weeks we still get that email with the subject line, Crime Alert: Sexual Assault and that same body text that starts “Sexual assault can happen to anyone.” And my last thought, looking at the girls in the room I asked myself, are they afraid to be here? Are they afraid of the men’s dorms and the environment and the upperclassmen because this kind of crime regularly happens on campus? Have we tolerated or even created an environment that causes our newest students, our youngest brothers and sisters to be afraid of Saturday nights? And it broke my heart to think that these new students, my newest residents could be afraid of a place that I love so much — I love the dorms and the people and faculty and beautiful spirit that is Notre Dame. I know that we are all blessed to be here and Notre Dame has blessed me with the most beautiful friendships and relationships that I’ve ever had, — but why is it that we, as students in this beautiful place continue to fail each other in this grievous, repulsive way?
I am proud to be gathered here with you today because it demonstrates our will as a student body to end this history of sexual assault on campus and beyond, however, while prayer and reflection and awareness are so important, absolutely nothing will guarantee the future safety of the students of Our Lady’s university besides a sincere and relentless effort by each and every student and classmate and roommate to step in, speak up and respect one another. As we reflect upon the words from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, we grow in faith and hope with the knowledge that “in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us” and that through the united strength of our student body, these crimes against our friends will become a thing of the past. And I am confident that one day we will all be ready to answer that question — does that happen here? Does sexual assault happen at Notre Dame? One day we will answer confidently It absolutely does not. Because if God is for us, who, then, can be against us?
Prepare for the sacrament with these questions: since the last time you came to confess, what’s happened? By the way, that’s the purpose of telling the priest how long it’s been since your last confession. You’re not paying a utility bill. Precision isn’t the point. You’re giving the confessor the first glimpse of your soul. Hearing, “about a month since my last confession” prepares the priest for what’s coming. So does, “Father, it’s been many years.”
So what is your story? Do you feel closer to God or more distant? Why? Is there greater, or less, satisfaction for you as you survey your fellows? What do you think has been happening in your life? Why?
The celebration of the Eucharist is the sacrament par excellence of the church and the primary locus of her communion with the triune God. Any theological conversation about the often-ambiguous “communion of the saints” must begin and end with a robust understanding of koinonia in, with, and through the Trinity. The powerful imagery of heavenly worship portrayed in Revelation 4-5 comes to earthly fruition in our own sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. It is my contention that the church militant is most connected to the church triumphant through her doxological and eucharistic worship.
These experiences have left me thinking: So what exactly does Jesus look like? Does Jesus look like a white man with a beard and long hair? How about an American man with German and Polish heritage in his early 30’s sporting ten-inch-long light brown hair with a full beard and brown eyes (i.e. me)?
At the beginning of the academic year, the Center for Liturgy often finds itself in the midst of re-articulating the vision that animates our work. We are a Center at the heart of the University of Notre Dame’s Catholic mission; one that renews the Church through liturgical scholarship and education. We publish material on this blog and in a nationally recognized journal, we hold conferences and host guest lecturers, and we teach courses to undergraduates and graduate students at our University. In the coming months, we’ll be talking about an expansion in our summer offerings related to Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, working with Newman Centers, and more.
Yet, the articulation of a mission includes far more than the activity that we perform on a yearly basis. Over the last five years in which I have served as director of the Center for Liturgy, we have listened to those involved in liturgical and catechetical ministry in the Church. We have held conversations with undergraduates and graduate students about the state of liturgical education in the United States. We have met with other universities engaged in the mission of liturgical formation according to their own unique charism.
We have come to the conclusion that the liturgical renewal promised by the Second Vatican Council is, well, unfulfilled. Too often this unfulfilled vision becomes an occasion to blame others.
It is the fault of liturgists, who treated the rites as their own plaything.
It is the fault of catechists, who never really taught the fullness of what the liturgical and sacramental life consists of.
It is the fault of the hierarchy, who hold on at all costs to a clerical approach to liturgical celebration and formation.
It is the faulty of the laity, who seem too apathetic about their own liturgical vocation.
While such blame is often cathartic, offering an easy solution to the renewal of the liturgical life of the Church (get rid of those at fault), these blame games seem to ignore that the Second Vatican Council presented a vision of liturgical prayer as so important to the life of the Church that it should not be surprising that there is work that remains. Further, the very moment in which the Church recognized the liturgy as central to her identity was also the precise moment in which modern, secular approaches to being and knowing alike won out over theological accounts of what it means to be a human being in the world. The problem with much liturgical renewal today is that it ignores the difficult task of liturgical formation. National liturgical gatherings continue to repeat the same tired phrases again and again, ignoring the fact that these phrases are often meaningless to the modern person. Full, conscious, and active participation is a desired goal. But, what about the fact that it seems more and more Catholics choose not to be present in the first place?
The Center for Liturgy, thus, believes that a renewal of liturgical formation is necessary under the rubric of the New Evangelization. That the goal of liturgical renewal is not ultimately oriented toward better liturgies alone (though this should also take place). Rather, it is to make possible an encounter with Jesus Christ through the liturgical rites; an encounter that ultimately transforms what it means to be human. The purpose of liturgical prayer is thus the formation of a way of life, a disposition of gratitude that is the source of meaning of human life. As Pope Francis writes in Evangelii Gaudium:
The disciple is ready to put his or her whole life on the line, even to accepting martyrdom, in bearing witness to Jesus Christ, yet the goal is not to make enemies but to see God’s word accepted and its capacity for liberation and renewal revealed. Finally an evangelizing community is filled with joy; it knows how to rejoice always. It celebrates every small victory, every step forward in the work of evangelization. Evangelization with joy becomes beauty in the liturgy, as part of our daily concern to spread goodness. The Church evangelizes and is herself evangelized through the beauty of the liturgy, which is both a celebration of the task of evangelization and the source of her renewed self-giving (no. 24)
In other words, the mission of the Center for Liturgy is what one becomes through the practice of liturgical prayer; the kind of life that one lives through learning to praise and adore the living God.
The Center for Liturgy at Notre Dame is thus oriented toward creating educational opportunities that renew the Church in this way of life. There is something “lay” about our approach insofar as we see liturgical prayer less about who gets to do what during the liturgy; and more about the renewal of politics, culture, and family life.
For this reason, the Center for Liturgy focuses our undivided attention on the kind of imagination that the liturgy forms us in. The imagination is the human faculty that enables us to make meaning in the world. It allows us to see a simple activity as getting up in the middle of the night to care for a sick child as a Eucharistic offering. It is that faculty that forms us to see our work in the world as a similar offering. It is the faculty that transforms two people living together as married into an image of Christ’s self-giving love of the Church in the sacrament of marriage. Our educational programming is concerned about fostering this kind of imagination not simply through the liturgy but through the work of catechesis, of theological education, and a style of research that takes seriously the lay experience of liturgical prayer. Of the union between liturgy and politics, justice, spirituality, our relationship with the environment, ethics, vocation. Of discerning those cultural obstacles that make liturgical participation difficult in the modern world and then promoting the kind of “liturgical ecology” that holds up human life as gift.
This is the work that inspires us on a regular basis. It is the mission that will continue to infuse our programming. We are not a Center that plans on gathering people because they want to prepare for the new liturgical reform (or the reform of the reform of the reform). We see value in these conversations. But they are not ours.
Our mission, is taken directly from Pope Francis’ own address to theologians:
A theology – and not simply a pastoral theology – which is in dialogue with other sciences and human experiences is most important for our discernment on how best to bring the Gospel message to different cultural contexts and groups. The Church, in her commitment to evangelization, appreciates and encourages the charism of theologians and their scholarly efforts to advance dialogue with the world of cultures and sciences. I call on theologians to carry out this service as part of the Church’s saving mission. In doing so, however, they must always remember that the Church and theology exist to evangelize, and not be content with a desk-bound theology (no. 133).
Ours is not a desk-bound theology. It is a theology that seeks to renew the liturgical life of the Church so that the entire cosmos might experience the transformation of love made possible through the Christian vision of existence. We think this involves a renewal of preaching, of music, of aesthetics, of catechesis, and spirituality. This is the mission of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy moving toward into its fifth decade of existence.
Madeline Lewis Notre Dame Vision Mentor-in-Faith (2014) University of Notre Dame, Class of 2017
When I was little, I would always jump at the chance to go with my mom to the grocery store. Not because I wanted to help her out, really- I was pretty much just in it for the perks: being helper at the grocery store gave me a considerable sway in which items my mom purchased. And there was one food in particular that I wanted to make sure she didn’t screw up: the pudding. Obtaining my favorite kind of pudding was actually a strategic art. I would make sure I was extra nice and helpful when we got to the aisles leading up to the pudding section, and once there, I would casually slip in a request for my favorite pudding pack. Looking back, I realize what a blessing it was that my biggest crisis as a child was whether or not our cabinets would be stocked with my favorite kind of pudding. My cup overflowed with childhood blessings: my parents cared for us with a beautiful fullness of love, and my childhood is one happy blur.
This is why it came as such a shock when, the summer before my junior year of high school, my parents sat my brothers and I down to have a talk with us. That whole conversation is one unhappy blur, but I know they said these words: your dad… prison… three to five years. I could tell that my parents were just as surprised to say these words as we were to hear them.
There was a whole lot I didn’t understand, but the short version of it is that my dad was a lawyer who represented a man who turned out to be very bad. When this man got caught he told the authorities that my dad was part of his scheme. The important part, though, is that suddenly, I was so far away from that little girl whose biggest crisis was obtaining her favorite pudding at the grocery store. I was confused by what I thought was now a very broken version of the life I had formerly known and loved. My cup of blessings, I was sure, had been knocked over, and all of my blessings were quickly spilling out.
It was this tangled heart, sorrowful and confused, that I carried with me the first time we visited my dad in prison. I tried my best to pretend like I didn’t see everything: the security guards, the barbed wire, the paleness that washed out my dad’s tender face. We couldn’t touch or sit next to my dad. Still, there was one thing we could do: buy him food from the vending machines. Of course, there was always a constant battle amongst my brothers and I over who would take the bag of quarters and go buy the food. But my mom managed to convince me to go pick out some treats for our family: “You can pick out whatever you want” she said.
After a quick perusal of the mostly stale and overpriced options, I came across a glimmer of hope: there, waiting for me in the vending machine, was the most glorious looking pudding cup, handcrafted by the prison kitchen. With haste, I shoved $4 worth of quarters down the coin slot. I may be in the strangest and most saddening place I have ever been, I thought, but gosh-dang-it, I will get this pudding cup.
Unfortunately, it was right at that moment that the vending machine ate all of my quarters. Not only did I not get the pudding cup- I had also wasted all of the money my mom had given me.
So, it is at this point that I started to heave heavy sobs in front of a vending machine in a federal prison in southern Michigan. And at this point, my thoughts were somewhere along the lines of this:
I have nothing. It’s not fair. My heart is so very, very empty.
(I think you can tell that this wasn’t really about the pudding cup anymore.)
Now, I know it may seem strange, but something started happening once I got to college and started eating at the dining hall. I couldn’t get pudding for dessert without thinking of that prison pudding cup. At first, this was just another reminder of the brokenness that I thought was surrounding my family from all sides. And my goodness, I was so tired of all of those reminders. I was tired of having to awkwardly change the subject each time someone asked what my parents did for a living. I was tired of my new friends wondering why my dad wasn’t there to move me into my dorm room at Notre Dame, why my dad wasn’t in any of my graduation pictures, and why I’d sometimes leave the room abruptly and excitedly to catch one of my dad’s rare phone calls. I didn’t want to share the story of my family with anyone because I only saw the brokenness.
But as I thought more about that prison pudding cup, I began to realize something important. Me, sobbing in front of that vending machine? That isn’t the whole story.
There was something deeper than the brokenness, something that gave my family the grace-filled opportunity to love each other more fully, in the most unexpected of circumstances. In fact, when my dad came back home this past spring, I saw this love present in my family more than ever before, and coming home from college was so exciting.
Now, being a typical college student, one of the first things I did when I got home was head to the fridge in search of food. To my surprise, there was a little gift waiting for me there: a pack of my favorite pudding, that my dad had picked up at the grocery store just for me.
The thing is, this little gift of pudding was a reminder of a whole lot of love- and the surprise of those pudding cups waiting for me wasn’t the only surprise. For, even in the years that I had thought were broken, there had been so many surprising gifts of love: the gift of a new friend hearing my family’s story and not loving us any less, the gift of generous strangers who helped my family make ends meet each month, the gift of family and friends that visited on holidays and birthdays so that our home would never feel empty, but filled with love- love in overflow.
I never wanted to tell a soul about my family situation when it was, to me, only a story of brokenness. But as time passes, and God’s grace abounds, I am starting to see the fuller story. It’s not the story of a cup knocked over. It’s not the story of a cup emptied to the last, desolate drop. It’s the story of a strong, loving hand- a God that steadied and filled my cup with blessings even when I couldn’t see it: Blessings in overflow. I’m still learning that I always need God’s help, even today, to see all of the stories of my life as a story of love. But He always steadies my heart, giving me the grace to see the real and hidden story, with joy and in thanksgiving.
The most important thing about parenting I learned from my dad. It wasn’t anything he said, it is what he did, day after day.
That I learned the most important thing about parenting from my dad is not surprising. After my mom left him when I was seven and my brother was three, my dad raised us on his own at a time when single parents were not as common, and a single dad was rare indeed. With a broken marriage and shattered finances, followed by job insecurity and one health problem after another, my dad gave himself over to both the obvious and the millions of imperceptible daily duties of bringing up two young boys. My greatest education in parenting comes from what my dad chose to build his parenting upon.
My father attended daily Mass every morning at 6:30am. In and of itself, this practice was neither a form of overt piety nor heroism; in fact, when I asked my dad recently why he went to Mass every day, he said, “I just enjoyed it. It was a good way to start my day.”
Mass always ended a couple minutes before 7am (so I’ve been told!) and he would race home afterwards to pack our lunches and get my brother and me ready for school. Otherwise, his days were no different than the great many parents who tend to their kids, work their jobs, cook meals, pay bills, attend school meetings, drive to sports practices, and maybe find a half-hour or so of down time at the end of the day. In all those ways, what he did then is much like what I do now. And yet I can’t help but think about the sheer volume of it all for one man, about the way he poured himself into it all, and about the simple routine that started all those days.
Once, when I was in the middle of one of my precocious, self-centered obnoxi-thons during my early teenage year, my dad’s best friend sort of reprimanded me:
“Someday you’ll realize all that your dad’s done for you.”
More than 20 years later, I still think about that prophecy. With my eldest son now a couple years older than I was when my dad became my sole day-to-day parent, I can’t imagine trying to give him and his siblings all they need without their mother (especially since she is the superior parent). Now that I am myself am in the midst of experiencing the joys and the struggles of parenting, I’m starting to realize what my dad did for me and for my brother.
The most important thing he did for us, though, was that he went to Mass every morning. It is not that all the things that happened the rest of the day were the effects of this one cause; rather, each of those days that I lived under his care were days spent with a man who practiced giving both his joys and his sorrows to the Lord, who stuck to “the familiar ritual of the Eucharistic Prayer in the midst of a life in turmoil,” as Tim O’Malley wrote a few short weeks ago on these very (digital) pages. As much as he had to improvise in those days and over those years, he made that one constant his foundation. And for two boys who lost the stability of a familiar home, he became our stability.
Though the translation of the Missal was different then, I like to think of my father at those early morning Masses when I recite these words before approaching the altar at Mass:
Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof;
But only say the word and my soul shall be healed.
For him, that roof covered our home, and our home was a perpetual reminder of the fracture that had occurred in his life—of what once was but was no longer. Under that roof, we all erred, we all failed, and for all his remarkable virtues and heroic deeds, he also had his fair share of poor decisions. Like all families, ours was, in many ways, unworthy of blessing.
But. I love that word right in this prayer. But I turn to you, O Lord. But I trust in you, O Lord. But your word is not my word because your word heals even when my word wounds…. But my dad practiced opening himself to more than he was by himself, and at couple minutes before 7am, he would race home to make our lunches.
I’ve learned a lot about the Eucharist since I was a child. In fact, I “know” a lot more about the Eucharist than my dad ever did. I’ve studied the Eucharist, I’ve taught the Eucharist, I’ve written about the Eucharist. And yet, there is nothing I could ever think or say or write that would exceed the eloquence of what my dad did, day after day.
He went out before we woke to receive the Eucharist and he brought the Eucharist back to us within himself.
“Become what you receive.” My dad carried what he received into our home and shared Him in the uncountable small acts of love he performed on a daily basis. We fed on his love; he became our bread.
Human sexuality is as sacred as it is powerful. In his book The Holy Longing, Ronald Rolheiser refers to it as the “divine fire.” It is the deep human ache for the yearning for connectedness and creativity. Most importantly, it is a critical part of the human experience. Yet, human sexuality is one of the most misunderstood and mis-channeled aspects of human experience. So often it is ignored or degraded, usually out of fear and shame. Let’s face it: the Catholic Church is not perceived as very proactive when it comes to promoting healthy attitudes about human sexuality. For many, the Catholic Church’s view on sex remains shrouded in fear, shame, and silence. It is no wonder, then, that students on Catholic campuses may struggle to proactively seek out adult support as they try to navigate this rather elusive aspect of human experience at a time in their development when they need it the most.
Language is an interpretation of the universe, a way of making sense. There are always other interpretations but, although it is conjectural, it is not what we would call subjective. Rather, we might say that it is both accurately descriptive and incomplete at the same time. Michael Polanyi writes in Personal Knowledge, “Our choice of language is a matter of truth or error, of right or wrong–of life or death.” We are not nominalists and language is not a game. Babbling babes and poets alike are engaged in serious business.
The cross reveals that the great covenant that God makes with us in Christ offers us the possibility of another chance. This grace is not deserved, but it is nevertheless given.
We can receive this grace in the Blessed Sacrament, indeed, in all the Sacraments of the Church. Once we have received it ourselves, Christ asks that what we have been given, we pour into our relationships with others- imitating what Christ has done for us in the forgiveness that we share with one another.
Notre Dame Center for Liturgy, Institute for Church Life