Remembering Our Spiritual Authority

Tim PTimothy Pisacich

Assistant Director, Echo

Institute for Church Life

 

 

 

This past December I turned thirty. So perhaps because I just entered yet another decade in life, I’m self-conscious of the things that I cannot remember. The consequences of what feels like a fading memory bring about unnecessary trips to Whole Foods (although honestly, my love for their Prepared Foods is most influential here), to-do lists that I misplace (misplaced lists bring greater freedom!), and a poor ability to remember friends’ birthdays (no excuse here). I wish that I could tell you that my memory of God’s healing presence in my life remained strong as I turned thirty, but in reality, there are things to re-remember.

MosesandtheMasksRemembering how God has acted and does act in our lives and our Church can be difficult. Even the Israelites, while under the spiritual leadership of Moses, chronically forgot about God’s interventions for their well-being.  Again and again, God acted through Moses to show signs of God’s presence with this people. The Israelites miraculously survived the attack of a well-equipped army; God enabled Moses to purify spoiled water and lead the people to twelve springs when they were without water; manna appeared in the morning as food when there was no other nourishment. Shortly following each situation in which God provided with aplomb, the people grumbled about the challenges they encountered while progressing to God’s Promised Land.

The people’s forgetfulness is perhaps best illustrated when the Israelites demanded that Aaron forge a god out of gold just after God was visible at Mount Sinai for six days and the Israelites accepted God’s covenant. “When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, ‘Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him’” (32.1). Moses was away for forty days, and that was enough time for the Israelites to debase their covenant with God; that was enough time to forget God’s presence in the cloud, the purified water, the twelve springs, perseverance during attack, and freedom from slavery. Particularly while they traveled through unfamiliar land, God’s chosen people forgot God’s miraculous works and visible presence.

I used to read this narrative from a distance and with judgment. How could the Israelites be so forgetful and disobedient, particularly when they had the advantage of Moses’s leadership? My disappointment in the desert Israelites remains, but it is now coupled with empathy for a forgetful people in an unfamiliar land. Within my own journey of what I believe to be toward greater freedom, I have also found myself dangerously forgetful in an unfamiliar landscape marked with loneliness, rejection, failure, and anxiety. Because I was transfixed on what was not, I lost sight of what remained: the daily grace of God. I continued to recite our Creed, but proved incapable of trusting these foundational and radical Christian beliefs. Distinct and memorable people, who gave meaning to the words, “faith, hope, and love”, were no longer visible in my foreign, forgetful, land. I did not remember that God became Incarnate, Word made Flesh, to win our salvation.

Moses helped the Israelites remember that God intervened to win their salvation. God empowered Moses to preform miracles, which reminded the Israelites that they are God’s chosen people. While leading the Israelites to the Promised Land, Moses prepared the people and future generations to remember the ways God intervened and provided. He instructed the people to celebrate the Passover sacrifice of the Lord and explain the meaning when children ask, ‘what do you mean by this rite?’ (Ex.12.26). Moses instructed that one omer of manna be kept throughout the ages as reminder of God’s miraculous sustenance in the desert (Ex. 16.32). Moses’s leadership involved moving the people forward to a new land while continually pointing back to the miracles that revealed God’s presence in their history.

Eventually, Moses’s leadership brought the Israelites to the MosesIconPromised Land. What’s more, the Judeo-Christian people remember how forgetful and stiff-necked the Israelites were as they progressed toward freedom. The Torah includes a comprehensive account of their exodus, which, when we reflect honestly, resonates with our own exodus from slavery toward reconfiguration to Jesus Christ. The record of the Israelite’s forgetfulness in-between slavery and the Promised Land assures us that God pursues our salvation. Our journeys to the Promised Land also include stiff-necked dispositions and unfocused cries to see God. Whatever landscape we find ourselves in, our destiny is to accept and remember that God has intervened in a most miraculous way to win our salvation.

When we remember God’s activity in our lives, we exude a spiritual authority that encourages others pursuing the Promised Land. Moses’s lengthiest period at Mount Sinai changed his physical appearance. “Moses was not aware that the skin of his face was radiant, since he had spoken with Him” (Ex 34.29). Our lives can and will look different when we let our personal and ecclesial memories nourish our faith. Remembering God’s activity affects the memories of those around us. We help the world remember that Jesus has already won our salvation.

Last December, back in Connecticut, my dad and I worked on a project together. As we all know, projects with family members bring opportunities for disagreement and strife, which can lead to resentment and misunderstanding. But this Friday evening, as the sun set, I helped my father as he finished one of his long “thought about” and “talked about” hopes: to build a shed in the woods next to our family’s home. Our work together was marked with common understanding, unspoken appreciation of the other, and a sense of excitement upon reaching a goal that some family members literally bet would never happen. As we worked, we helped one another. This is a scene that I am called to remember today because it reminds me how God’s grace is active and at work in our lives.

Fridays Are For Fasting

The Rev. Porter C. Taylor
Canon to the Ordinary
The Diocese of Churches for the Sake of Others (C4SO), Kansas
@porterctaylor

The call in Lent is the call to discipleship. That is, in this penitential season of self-reflection and intentional spiritual awareness we look down the slopes of the Mountain of Transfiguration straight to the Cross on Golgotha and journey with Jesus, the disciples, and one another as we follow the One who has called us. Jesus’ 40-day temptation retreat in the wilderness provides the framework for our introspection and spiritual regimen.  Why?

Because we know that we need the Cross daily.
Because we know the areas of our hearts and lives that are not aligned with God.
Because we know that we are but ashes and dust; we are creature not Creator. 

I think that we need to unmask Lent for those who are unsure about this penitential season. I think that we need to see Lent for what it is, and certainly for what it is not. Lent is not a time to earn forgiveness for your sins. It is not a time to begrudgingly give something up temporarily only to greedily pick it back up after Easter. It is not a time for false humility or personal piety. Lent is not only a tradition for the liturgically minded.

I believe that Lent is for the priesthood of all believers.
I believe that Lent is hope-filled.
I believe we must journey to the foot of the Cross before we discover the Empty Tomb.

In this Lenten Season we are athletes in intense training rather than sinners in the hands of an angry God. There are ancient disciplines and biblical practices that help locate and combat the spiritual flab on our souls. Much like a marathon runner needs to practice for weeks and months on end, stretching before each run, we are stretched through our continual workouts as we practice for the kingdom. N.T. Wright challenges us to begin practicing in the present for the full reality of Jesus’ kingdom in the future.

Our call is not to become spiritual superstars or to take on disciplines to the notice and laud of others. christ-fastingOur call, as Christ-followers and as the Church, is to sacrifice our entire person as our spiritual act of worship (Rom 12); to be formed spiritually as “new creation” (2 Cor 5); to “decrease” so that Christ might “increase” (Jn 3); and to grow in maturity in the faith together (Eph 4). As you can see, this is the call for all believers. In fact, historically, the local Church took on disciplines throughout Lent—particularly prayer and fasting—while her newest converts went through the catechumenate to prepare for Baptism during the Easter Vigil. Lent was a Church-wide tradition. I think it still is Church-wide, or at least still can be.

Lent teaches us to live in the shadow of the Cross and the radiant light of the empty tomb. We learn to die to self and rise in Christ. Taking on of spiritual disciplines, coupled with “giving things up” helps form us more fully as members of God’s Story rather than our own. Our desperate need for grace and the radical reversal of our realities plant us firmly in the tradition of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church which teaches us to rely on God absolutely.

Fridays are for Fasting
As stated previously, prayer and fasting are two of the oldest spiritual disciplines in Christian spirituality and Lenten preparation. The faithful would fast alongside and on behalf of those new believers in Jesus who were readying for Baptism. Fasting has become a regular fixture in my weekly schedule as I set Friday aside for the abstinence of food. Why? I am fasting because I want to draw closer to God through lack of food—I want to encounter him in my hunger—and I have found that prayer and meditation are actually much easier when I am not interrupted by the need to feed.

Recently the majority of the 32 postulants for ordination in my (Anglican) Diocese have agreed to join up with tradition and spend Fridays in fasting and prayer for one another. Fasting has become a sort of spiritual solidarity that they can offer up in the midst of any circumstance or trial. We are not earning or winning anything through this spiritual practice, in fact I have personally found myself desperately hungry well before the time is up. If I can meet our Lord in the bread and wine of the Eucharist then why can I not meet him in the words that “flow from the mouth of God” because “man does not live by bread alone”?

In his book On Liturgical Asceticism, David Fagerberg relates a poignant story about fasting from the Desert Fathers, “No fast should be held inhospitably rigid that it cannot be broken.” He goes on to share a story in which a monk breaks his fast and his dining companion asks why. The monk replies, “Because I can always fast but I will not always be able to dine with you. We can eat now and I can resume my fast later.” The point is not to become self-righteous or Pharisaical but to approach the Father through our own oblations and sacrifices in the knowledge that he has already wooed us to himself and that he desires our praises, both verbal and physical.

Will you join us and set Fridays in Lent aside for fasting? This is not a “misery-loves-company” type invitation but rather an opportunity to train our bodies, hearts, and minds in the contemplation and adoration of He Who is Greater than we can ever comprehend; it is a request for you to participate in the spiritual life of the Church in a meaningful way; it is a chance for you to remove every hindrance and encumbrance while we run the race set before us. The goal is not weight loss or personal holiness (per se): the goal is always God. It is the God whom we meet in the absence of a few meals and it is He whom we meet in the presence of physical hunger.

Perhaps our physical hunger can serve as a mirror or catalyst for spiritual hunger. What if I longed for God the way I longed for food after a 24-hour fast? What if I pursued God with zeal as I do the meal ravenously consumed once my fast has broken? What if? Perhaps this is an opportunity to the glory of God . . . will you join me?

Pass this along to friends and family as a challenge to live life in Lent together. Join with those who have gone before and set the example for those who will come after. Lent is a launching pad for the life of the disciple to be continued daily after Easter.  May we journey together as one voice, one Body. May we all observe a holy Lent.

Our Brothers and Sisters in Iraq

BrianPierceOPBrian Pierce OP 

Province of St Martin de Porres, United States. Former Promoter of the Nuns.

 

TimothyRadcliffeOPTimothy Radcliffe OP

Province of England. Former Master of the Order of Preacher

Editorial Note: The following piece was received from Fr. Brian and Fr. Timothy last week, seeking to raise awareness about the plight of Christians in Iraq. Please spread this piece far and wide, noting that Fr. Brian Pierce and Fr. Timothy Radcliffe are authors of this piece. 

At the invitation of Fr. Amir Jaje OP, the Vicar of the Arabic Vicariate of the Province of France, we made a visit to Iraq, from January 8th to 16th. We are very aware of how superficial our understanding of this complex and beautiful country and its suffering, but even so we would like to share what we have heard and seen, the hope that our brethren and sisters keep alive, and what we can do to support them. Please forgive any inaccuracies.

Our brothers and sisters belong to one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, dating almost from the time of Christ. They are our elders and so we must be with them in this terrible time. Also the suffering of Iraq is symptomatic of the crisis of our whole world. ISIS, or Da’esh as it is more usually called in Iraq, is a child of our times. Its violence derives, at least in part from the violence of Western culture, with its love of guns. The jihadists love to watch our films with all their endless killing. We are complicit with what is happening here. Our invasions triggered the crisis that the Iraqi people now endure.

We started in Baghdad. A travel website advised us not to go at all, but if we did, to remain within the fortified Green Zone, where nearly all foreigners are sheltered. If one travels outside that fortress, the advised means of transport are either helicopter or armoured car. Neither the brethren nor the sisters had either of these! As we drove around Baghdad with our brother, Amir, at no time did we experience any tension or feel any threat. Everywhere we were welcomed with a generosity which is astonishing, given how our countries have played a part in the explosion that is ripping apart this country.

Of course it is not entirely safe: there were suicide bombers and kidnappings even while we were there. But the most potent weapon of terrorism is terror. If we let terror prevent us from visiting this city, or if it keeps us imprisoned behind the high walls of an impregnable fortress, the terrorists have won. Iraqis feel forgotten and betrayed, but if one visits our brothers and sisters in Iraq, the welcome is beyond words. After Baghdad, we flew to Erbil where we joined a delegation of three Dominican sisters, Dusty Farnan, Marcelline Koch, and Arlene Flaherty, who were visiting the refugee camps in Kurdistan. We enjoyed the unforgettable hospitality of Sister Maria Hanna, Prioress General, and her community of marvelous and beautiful sisters.

What We Saw

MosulChurchesThe numbers and statistics are numbing.  500,000 Christians and Yazidis, together with a number of Muslims, fled the ancient city of Mosul as Da’esh (ISIS) swept through the Nineveh Plain in early August 2014.  A few days later the predominantly Christian villages of Qaraqosh and Bartola were emptied of Christians in a matter of hours, as the ISIS forces marched towards these two predominantly Christian communities.  With no time to prepare for their tragic exodus, the local people left taking with them only what they could gather in their arms, as they fled in cars or by foot towards the Kurdish region of Iraq.

We met a couple in one of the refugee camps whose baby daughter was snatched from the mother’s arms by an ISIS militant as they were leaving Qaraqosh on a bus.  There is no word of the baby’s whereabouts.  A Catholic pastor, who now directs one of the refugee camps in Ankawa (the ‘camp’ being nothing but the dark, damp concrete shell of an unfinished shopping mall) told us that of the four churches that he served in Mosul, one has been turned into a weapons’ warehouse, while the other three are being used as prisons and places of torture.

We heard heart-breaking stories of betrayal by long time Muslim neighbours and friends as ISIS swept through these predominantly Christian towns and neighbourhoods.  Some of the Muslim neighbours have even phoned their former Christian neighbours, taunting them, saying, “We have your homes now and are selling the merchandise that you left behind in your shops.”  Though we met many people who still hold onto the hope of returning, others have said that the betrayal by former friends and neighbours has created a wound that can never be healed.

One of the bishops in Kurdistan told us that due to the violence and the absence of any substantial help from the Iraqi government, approximately 1800 Christians are leaving Iraq each month.  Some are resettling, at least temporarily, in surrounding countries (Lebanon and Jordan principally), while the others go to Europe, Australia or North America.  It is often the more educated who flee.  For many, this is the beginning of a life in exile, resigned to the possibility that they may never see their homeland again.  Some Christians say that they must leave for the sake of their children.  Those who stay are the poorest, although some Christians and Muslims who have the means to leave have chosen to remain, committed to the difficult task of helping to build a new Iraq.  Our Dominican sisters’ and brothers’ courage in staying to build the future with their people is a powerful witness of their faith in God’s steadfast love and mercy.

We were told that the local Kurdish authorities have now begun to close the borders to new waves of refugees, leaving them with no place to seek asylum and safety.  There are approximately 120,000 refugees in Ankawa (a Christian suburb of Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan) who are now living in one-room cubicles (called caravans) about the size of a camper-trailer.  In many shelters two caravans are joined by a common bathroom, while in other shelters there are only public bathrooms and showers.  Many people are sick with colds and other ailments, due to the unusually cold winter this year and the precarious living situations.  Some family trailers house 8-12 family members, and in one we were told that 26 people from a single extended family are living in a single caravan, an almost unbearable situation.

The largest camp – the Ankawa Mall – is home to 400 families, AnkawaMallapproximately 1700 persons.  Creatively they have set aside a space that serves as a kind of coffee house where people can rest and enjoy a game of dominoes. Both of us were soundly beaten! The Dominican sisters of St. Catherine are working with two priests and a brother of another congregation in a new neighbourhood on the outskirts of Erbil where 200 newly built houses are being rented to accommodate refugee families.

Unfortunately they are not completely free from the danger of violence in their new environment.  A suicide bomber, a fundamentalist Kurdish Muslim, blew himself up inside Erbil some weeks ago, stoking the fear that even within the boundaries of their ‘new home’ as refugees, they cannot be totally safe.  It is estimated that about 18% of Kurdish Muslims are members of a fundamentalist sect.

The psychological and mental toll on these refugees is worrisome, given that the future is so uncertain.  In one camp we watched as thirty to forty desperate refugees protested before one of the priests working in the camps, begging for answers and relief.  The priest stood before them patiently, gently listening to their desperate cries for help, with few answers to give to their anguished demands.  The harshest pain is the stripping of their human dignity.   Their needs are simply overwhelming.  The heroism of aid workers, volunteer doctors, nurses and pharmacists, priests and sisters, many of whom are refugees themselves, is incredibly moving in such circumstances.

The Yazidi refugees, many of whom are being cared for by Church aid agencies, suffer an added burden, of being considered by many of their neighbours as devil-worshippers.  The Church has called on Muslim leaders to be more forthright in denouncing the use of religion as a pretext for violence.  While some claim that Islam is a religion of peace, others say that it is a religion born in violence and that it will not stop until all ‘unbelievers’ are converted or destroyed.  Moderate Muslims, however, have bravely stood alongside their Christian and Yazidi neighbours, sharing in their struggles and offering aid to the refugees.

Few Iraqis trust the Western nations, demanding that they must assume their responsibility for this crisis, even as the war games for control of the region’s vast oil reserves continue.  Muslim fundamentalism, backed by money from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, uses the greed and economic voraciousness of the West as a pretext for their own self-serving and violent aims.

We happened to be in Iraq at the time of the brutal massacre at the Charlie Hebdo studio in Paris.  The “I am Charlie” campaign has reverberated throughout Iraq and surrounding countries. This will only lead to more violence.  One Iraqi Dominican sister commented to us: ‘As they march in Paris for freedom of expression, we are the ones being killed in retaliation for the cartoons.’  The Dominican friars in Ankawa held a two hour prayer vigil in solidarity with the victims of the Paris massacre, while echoing Pope Francis’ plea for prudent restraint.  Freedom of expression is not a ‘right’ disconnected from social justice, non-violence and ethical responsibility.  Meeting offense with more offense will lead to more violence.  We Christians must show that non-violence has the power to change the world and issue in a new era of peace.

Many talked of Westerners who are joining ISIS and other international jihadist groups. Though we cannot always stop the radicalised young from setting off to the Middle East, it does not seem constructive to punish or arrest those who return to the West, disillusioned by the violent and extremist expressions of Islam. We must welcome the young home and help them to be healed of the wounds of war. Only education and the pursuit of justice will defeat fundamentalism.  In the end, those who return home disillusioned by the violence of ISIS may be the best preachers to other young who are tempted to join these violent groups.

IraqiUniversitiesAccess to schools and universities is seen as one of the important and urgent steps needed in order to stem the rise of violent fundamentalism.  One bishop in Iraqi Kurdistan said that thirty to forty universities and a number of hospitals are desperately needed if they are to stem the flight of all persecuted Iraqis to other countries.

What Hope?

The question that constantly haunted us during this visit was: How can our brothers and sisters in Iraq keep hope alive? We were often told that in Arabic there are two words for hope. ‘Amal’ is the everyday optimism that things will go well. ‘Raja’ is a deeper hope, based on our trust in someone, above all God. Most of these Christians have lost all ‘amal.’ They see no future at all except sad exile in foreign lands. A bishop told us that even the babies in the womb were longing to go.

But there are signs of that deeper hope, ‘raja’, even if it is not clear how it may come to fruition. Staying in Iraq is already a sign of hope. A chemistry teacher said to one of our sisters: ‘Why are you still here? France will accept you.’ When many of the disciples fled, Jesus said to Peter: ‘Will you also go?’ (John 6.67). Peter remained. Jesus abides with us, and remaining is a powerful sign of hope when so many are leaving. Who knows what we would do in this situation? If we had children, would we dare to stay and risk their future? It was not for us to urge members of this most ancient Christian community to stay and keep alive their unique tradition. But we hoped that some would. Our brother Atisha is a wonderful example of this witness.

It is a source of hope that some Muslims say that if the Christians go, the Iraq which they love will be finished. The relationship between believers of different faiths has been the core of Iraqi identity. In a Muslim restaurant in Baghdad, offering ‘impregnating chicken’, ‘sheep full of rice’ and ‘upside down chicken’, there was an image of the Last Supper of Christ with his disciples, and a light burnt before an icon of the Virgin and her child. We gave a public lecture to almost three hundred people in Baghdad, seventy percent of whom were Muslim. They begged the Christians to stay. One young man said: ‘‘Why do we debate whether the Christians should stay or go? They were here before we Muslims arrived.’

It is hopeful that Christianity is sometimes recognised by Muslims as a religion of peace. When soldiers came searching for weapons in Baghdad they entered a Christian home, but when they saw the Christmas crèche they said: ‘You are Jesus. There are no weapons here’ and left immediately. It seems to be above all the Christians who welcomed and collaborated with the Yazidis. Christians have something essential to offer if Iraqi society is to find a new unity.

IraqCreche

We were told that this year many Muslims bought Christmas trees. Of course this may in part be due to the dominance of the Western world in the media and its image of Christmas. But for many Muslims, especially the Shia, this was an expression of shared devotion: Muslims and Christians standing together before the tree to make a wish, honouring the prophet Jesus.

This hope peeps through in the simple determination to get up each morning and do what must done today. One of our brethren, Nouiran, said: ‘Hope means that I live now, whatever may happen tomorrow.’

This hope shines through in the Christian commitment to go on caring for others even when our own future is so uncertain. In a clinic in a squalid camp we met a woman who had owned three pharmacies until the dreadful night when ISIS came. Now she works as a volunteer, dispensing what few medicines they have. She said: ‘I have lost everything, but I have learnt gratitude for the little that remains. This is why I come.’

In Baghdad we were bowled over by our visits to two homes. Mother Theresa’s sisters run a home for children of all faiths who have been abandoned because of their disabilities. Who could forget the intelligent, gentle face of Nora, born without arms or legs, who feeds the younger children with a spoon held between her teeth? Two consecrated virgins welcome 60 older women of all faiths who have no home, with whom we laughed and prayed. The joy in these places is sacramental of a hope for a new world.

We visited two centres for refugees built by the brethren, called ‘the Vine’ and ‘Hope.’ Our brothers Najeeb and Sarmad explained that it is important that every family have a home with a window and a door. One needs to look out but also human dignity requires a space for privacy. Here the refugees themselves are involved in building emergency caravans and homes, an employment which gives them some income but, even more important, dignity.

Memory shores up hope. One can hardly imagine the hope given to the people staying in one of these camps when the phone rang on Christmas Eve, and Pope Francis was there to tell them that they were not forgotten. Let us remember them too and be a sign of our God who never forgets anyone: ‘Can a woman forget our suckling child, that she should not have compassion of the child of her womb? Yes, these may forget, yet I will not forget you. Behold, I have graven you upon the palms of my hands; thy walls are always before me.’ (Isaiah 49.15f)

When we visited these and other centres, we were impressed by how our brothers and sisters remembered the names and stories of so many of the refugees. There is a hunger for recognition. So many NGOs treat people as just numbers, units with material needs rather than the dignified children of the People of God, each of whose name is known to God.

Memory of the past can be a sign of hope in the future. Things need not necessarily be as they are today. Our brother, Najeeb, just managed to snatch the Vicariate’s centuries’ old archives form under the noses of ISIS and carry them into exile, keeping alive the memory of the past. These help us to remember that we have survived crises in the past.

The most intriguing sign of hope was the commitment to education. If ISIS is just defeated militarily, then it will be reborn in another form. The true enemy is the blind fundamentalism that fuels its violence. In 2012, the Dominican Father Yousif Tomas Mirkis, now the Archbishop of Kirkuk, founded the Baghdad Academy of Human Sciences. It has 500 students, mainly Muslim. They study philosophy, sociology, anthropology, as well as English and French. They earn certificates granted by DOMUNI, our Internet University. Is it crazy to attend lectures on Wittgenstein when ISIS is decapitating people? But in this violent storm, the Church must cling to its belief in reason. The logo of the Academy is the Dominican shield, with a pencil in the centre, supporting a big question mark. Archbishop LogoMirkis told us: ‘We need places where people can breathe the oxygen of debate.’ Here they discuss whether it is true that ‘Je suis Charlie’ rather than just chant a slogan. The Church keeps alive a belief in reason when many others look only to force. Intelligence can break through the walls of prejudice and stupidity.

Our magazine ‘Christian Thought’, edited by Fr. Philippe, is widely bought by Muslims who wish to think and dialogue with us. It is not for spreading Christian ideas, but so that the Christian tradition of reflection can open a space for dialogue. 800 hundred years ago, in ancient Baghdad, Christian, Muslim and Jewish scholars studied together. Fr. Amir’s commitment to dialogue with the Shia scholars in the south of Iraq, in Najef, is a witness to hope. One of us attended a summit of Christian and Muslim leaders in Rome in December, where many Shia spoke with affection and respect for his work.

In Ankawa in the north, we visited Babel College, where many of our sisters and brothers teach. Two of our sisters have doctorates in scripture, from Oxford and Notre Dame. What a wonderful and long-sighted expression of hope to form scholars in such terrible circumstances. Three of the professors in this Christian college are Muslim. There are 120 lay people in the lay programme.

Beauty too makes hope visible in the face of the ugliness of violence. We had a very moving afternoon in Baghdad when we visited the Church of Our Lady of Deliverance, where on October 31, 2010 forty-seven lay people and two priests were massacred, along with the five suicide bombers who blew themselves up after entering the church during the celebration of the Eucharist. During our visit to the church we met a woman who was shot during the attack, losing the baby in her womb.  The new church, beautifully reconstructed with fine wood work, with the names of the dead carved on the walls, is a sign of the victory of the resurrection, when the dead barren wood of the cross blossoms as it will in Iraq. We believe that the blood of the martyrs will be fruitful.

Finally, in the camps, there are many children whose playful laughter gave us hope. We visited two hospitals in Baghdad founded and run by the Dominicans sisters of the Presentation and of St Catherine, each of which has a maternity ward. Here the future citizens of Iraq are being born, Muslims and Christians side by side. One sister, a midwife, was described to us as ‘the mother of Iraq.’

When we visited the camps in the north children came bounding up to meet these strangers in white habits. They had been dragged out of their homes, fled for their lives, and live in squalor, but they had a confident, trusting spontaneity which is not always evident in Western children. Just before communion in the Chaldean Catholic rite, two children come up to the altar to receive the sign of peace from the priest which they transmit to the congregation. Perhaps these children are the messengers of hope for the future, even if now we cannot imagine what form this might take.

What Can We Do?

This is a question which we often put to the brethren and sisters. Frequently the response was: ‘Tell people the truth of what is happening here.’ This is our motto: Veritas.

  • The truth is that this is a vast humanitarian catastrophe, which is crushing millions of lives.
  • The truth is that this disaster has largely been triggered by the West’s bungling intervention in the region, mainly in pursuit of its own interests.
  • The truth is that the confrontation with ISIS is symptomatic of a crisis which afflicts the whole of humanity at the beginning of the twenty first century, as traditional cultures confront modernity.
  • The truth is that the violence of ISIS is in part a sour fruit of the violence of a global economic system which is creating ever greater inequalities between nations and within nations. We should inform our politicians, invite them to visit Iraq and to work for a solution to this catastrophe.

Secondly, the Dominicans of Iraq ask for our prayers. Many of them pray every day: ‘How long, O Lord, how long?’  (Psalm 15.1) We should besiege the heavens with our prayers, like the importunate widow beating on the door of the judge until he gives her what she wants (Luke 18.2ff). We must pray frequently and insistently for peace in Iraq, and for its Christians, in our communities, our parishes, our various ministries.

Thirdly, it would be wonderful if some of the wider Dominican Family were to visit our brothers and sisters in Iraq, and meet the people whom they serve. The bumper stickers distributed by the Order during the last Iraqi war read: ‘We have family in Iraq’. We still do. Come, especially if you have some skill that could help the refugees, if you are a nurse or a doctor or an expert in the care of people with trauma. Maybe small groups of young people could come for a couple of weeks to be with the young in these camps, to share their experience. This would be transformative, both of those who come and those who are visited. Of course it is a little risky, but we should not be governed by fear: ‘Perfect love casts out fear’ ( I John 4.18).

Finally, we can raise money to help these refugees, so that they can live with dignity and hope. Funds to support the work of the brethren and sisters should be sent, marked ‘For Iraq’ to:

PROVINCE DOMINICAINE DE FRANCE
DOMICILIATION : HSBC FR AGENCE CENTRALE
IBAN : FR 76 3005 6001 4801 4854 2857 016
Code B.I.C. : CCFRFRPP

J.R.R. Tolkien and the Season of Lent

Jon JordanJon R. Jordan

Dean of Students

Coram Deo Academy, Dallas, TX

One of my favorite bits of dialogue in Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring confronts us with an age-old debate about spiritual disciplines in general, and the Christian season of Lent in particular. Before embarking on their Journey to Mordor, Elrond—the Lord of Rivendale—shares a final message with the Company that is to join Frodo on his quest: Frodo himself is bound to complete the journey, while the members of the Company are “free companions” that may “come back, or turn aside into other paths, as chance allows.” Gimli—the renowned Dwarf warrior—gives a response that begins the dialogue in question.
‘‘Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens,’’ said Gimli.
‘‘Maybe,’’ said Elrond, ‘‘but let him not vow to walk in the dark, who has not seen the nightfall.’’
‘‘Yet sworn word may strengthen quaking heart,’’ said Gimli.
‘‘Or break it,’’ said Elrond.
Gimli argues that a vow made on the front-end of a journey may serve as a sustaining force for when difficulty is faced. Elrond counters that, at times, the weight of such a vow might actually break one’s will along the way. Both positions are worthy of considering further, but what light can this conversation shed on the ancient Christian practice of Lent?

The Church calendar has historically served as a way to center our lives around the life of Christ, and the season of Lent serves (1) as an opportunity to re-live Jesus’ forty days of fasting in the wilderness and as (2) a period of preparation for our celebration of the Crucifixion and Resurrection. It has traditionally been celebrated as a season for (1) fasting, (2) the adoption of a new spiritual practice, and (3) giving of time and money to the poor. These practices are not particular to Lent, but are in fact some of the most central practices of the Christian faith, commanded repeatedly throughout the New Testament (see Mt 6:1-18). An important side-point here is that Lent, as a season that simply asks Christians to act as Christians, is a gift from God and should be received by all Christians as such.

So how then should we approach Lent? With Gimli’s determination and rigidity, or with Elrond’s patience and grace?

The Church’s answer to this questions, as is so often the case, is “yes” to both. Be like Gimli as you fight against sin in your own life and injustice in the world. Use this period of 40 days (plus 6 Sundays) to re-center your spiritual life. Don’t let the calendar of culture dictate your devotion to Christ. Put forth effort to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). On Ash Wednesday, the Church is somberly called to “the observance of a Holy Lent.”

But also remember that we are far more like the first Adam, who failed his temptation in the garden, than we are like the second Adam, who triumphed over temptation in the wilderness.

Be like Elrond as you let your failure during this season serve as another reminder of your need for a savior. Don’t let your adoption of new disciplines “puff up” your ego, but instead recognize them for what they are: gifts from God given to a sinner who does not deserve them. This is why the Ash Wednesday service has also traditionally included the imposition of ashes on the forehead while the phrase “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” is spoken as a reminder of our frail, fallen nature.

May this Lenten season be for us one more way “that we may remember that it is only by [God’s] gracious gift that we are given everlasting life” (Book of Common Prayer, 265).

Fr. Ted and the Eucharist

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

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Contact Author

Obituaries often reveal more about what matters to a specific society than the meaning of the life of the person who has recently passed. In the case of Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, CSC the most prominent obituaries have tended to emphasize that here was a figure not afraid to follow his principles even if it meant conflict with the Vatican or the President of the United States (especially President Nixon). Such obituaries of Fr. Ted offer the portrait of a disciplined maverick, whose creative vision transcended all forms of authority. His life is not simply that of the ideal priest but the portrait of an American leader.

Of course, there are exceptions to such communal obituaries, exceptions that often originate from those who knew him best. Not as the leader who took on  heads of state and the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. Rather, it was the obituary of a man, who loved the Eucharist:

“When he said Mass, he really meant it,” [Fr. Ernie Bartell, CSC] said. ‘He wasn’t doing it for show or to impress the trustees or anything like that…He became a very real role model in that respect.’

Because of its brevity, one may tempted to pass over this line as an example of a fond remembrance by a fellow religious. But in the contemporary university, where every event is analyzed for its fundraising potential, Fr. Bartell’s claim is worth holding onto. The celebration of the Eucharist for Fr. Ted was not something in his arsenal for impressing trustees or holding court in the homes of donors. The sacrifice of the Mass for Fr. Hesburgh was that sacred action he performed daily in his status as priest.

HesburghMassHesburgh’s wisdom here is not something easy for present day Notre Dame to hold onto. For us, the omnipresence of Eucharistic liturgies on campus is often less about the vision that should suffuse our scholarship and teaching and more a talking point to convince others, including our donors, that we remain deeply Catholic. The heart of the university is the Eucharist, not because it sells, but because it is a constant, prophetic reminder that our intellectual life is but part of a larger economy of gift that we participate in.

The University that forgets this truth risks treating the Eucharist as an idol, a form of self-worship. As Jean-Luc Marion writes:

Hence the imposture of an idolatry that imagines itself to honor ‘God’ when it heaps praises on his pathetic ‘canned’ substitute…exhibited as an attraction…brandished like a banner…and so on. In this sense, profanation would increase with the bustle of a too obviously ‘political’ worship: political in the sense that the community would seek to place ‘God’ at its disposition like a thing, its thing, to reassure its identity and strengthen its determination in that thing (God Without Being, 164).

The gift of the Eucharist becomes a “thing” that we use to get what we desire instead of re-shaping what it means to desire in the first place. Fr. Ted understood the danger of this Eucharistic idolatry. And perhaps, this remains one of his many great gifts to Notre Dame. A sense that the Eucharist transcends the specific mission of the place, moving us toward the offering of our whole lives to the God who gives and gives and gives.

 

Saving Communication

Danielle Zsupan-JeromeDaniella Zsupan-Jerome, Ph.D. 
Assistant Professor of Liturgy, Catechesis and Evangelization
Loyola Institute for Ministry,
Loyola University New Orleans
Author, Connected Toward Communion: The Church and Social Communication in the Digital Age (Liturgical Press, 2014)

On January 23rd, 2015, Pope Francis published the annual World Communications Day Message, a regular tradition of the Roman Catholic Church since 1967. These annual messages offer a brief reflection on some aspect of social communication today, and in terms of published Church documents on the topic, these have kept the conversation going and relevant since the most recent social communications document we have from 2002. I look forward to the Message each year—it is the Church’s opportunity to go in and go deep with a focused reflection, without the necessary background and overview required of a longer document. In our digital culture where short and sweet reigns, these messages, averaging 10–15 paragraphs each, are Church documents made palatable for our digital appetites.

This year’s Message joins in to the larger theme on the mind of the Church: the family. Bearing the title “Communicating the Family: A Privileged Place of Encounter with the Gift of Love,” Pope Francis draws us into the scene of the Visitation (Lk 1:39–56) to reflect on communication as it is learned and as it unfolds in the family. True to the style of these messages, Pope Francis goes in and goes deep—his thoughts about “the womb as the first school of communication, a place of listening and physical contact where we begin to familiarize ourselves with the outside world” are profound and will animate my spiritual reflection on this topic for a long time.

When it comes to the theology of communication, Roman Catholic thought relies significantly on the theology of revelation. We ponder how God has communicated Godself to humankind, and how that communication is offered in its fullest in the person of Jesus Christ. (Dei Verbum, §2). Christ is called the Perfect Communicator, elevating his words and actions, but also and more fundamentally highlighting the union of his divine and human natures as already a profound and intimate act of communication between God and humankind (Communio et Progressio, §11). From Christ, the Word made flesh, we also ponder the Spirit, who gives us the ability to speak (Acts 2:4) and we maintain a strong impetus for communication in the mission and evangelizing identity of the Church. And what is liturgy, if not the perfect language for us to continue to say who we are as Church? And what is service and ministry, if not the revelation of the Word made actual in faith?

Into this theological context on communication, Pope Francis invites two pregnant women embracing one another in such joy that makes infants in the womb leap. Reflecting on the first chapter of Luke— from the angel’s arrival to Mary’s song—profoundly enriches theological reflection on communication, and makes a strong case for communication as a central aspect of the story of salvation. As one of the first moments of the Christian story is a messenger of God’s Word bringing that Word to a young woman who offers her “yes” of hospitality to it, we may wonder if, on a most basic level, we are saved by communication. And if so, in what way does this saving communication speak to our digital culture today, where in many cases, communication needs actual saving? (See the cases of Brianna Wu, National Catholic Reporter, Amanda Hess, Justine Sacco for examples of communication and online harassment, verbal violence and public shaming.)

The fact that the Christian story begins with an act of communication is profound. We have an angel (literally “a messenger” or official carrier of the Word of God) coming to Mary with an active Word that is both heralded and made actual through her acceptance of it in faith. The angel heralds the Word as he explains God’s promise to Mary (“Behold, in your womb you shall conceive and bear a son. . .” and “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. . .”), but it is Mary who will become carrier of it, as her fiat opens her mind, heart, and body in hospitality to the Word and it becomes flesh within her. We praise Mary for her faithful fiat, but it is also an amazing lesson on communication: a posture of listening, openness, hospitality to the Word culminating in a life-giving response.

Visitation medieval
The Visitation by Master MS, 1506, Hungarian National Gallery

I love also that communication begets communication in this passage. The actual Word in the womb of Mary animates her to become a communicator of it immediately.   The first step after Mary’s yes to the angel is her “setting out to the hill country in haste” to go see Elizabeth. As Mary greets Elizabeth, her very act of communication (that is, a word of greeting) is so filled with grace that the unborn baby John recognizes it and leaps in the womb, and Elizabeth too becomes filled with the Holy Spirit and “cries out in a loud voice saying ‘Most blessed are you among women’” (Lk 1:42). As soon as Mary receives the Word in her womb, she becomes a communicator of the Word, and Mary’s communication begets Elizabeth’s communication. The Word reverberates powerfully through the story, grace-filled words stirring Spirit-led joy, evoking words of blessing in turn.

The climax of the story is the Magnificat, Mary’s heart-song that she offers powerfully, prophetically—imagining this young woman saying these ancient words is seeing evidence of the Word inside her animating her. These words are the first we hear from Mary after she conceives, her first recorded words as carrier of the Word. They are words of joy, awe, hope, promise, trust, strength, freedom, and justice. They begin to tell of Jesus Christ before he is born to speak for himself in the countless ways he will. The lessons on communication continue, giving us a sense of what Word and Spirit sound like when a faithful person gives herself over to them in an act of communication. St. Paul too identifies the gifts and fruits of the Spirit (1 Cor 12:7–11; Gal 5:22–23) and we see these resounding in the Magnificat.

What does saving communication hold for the saving of communication? It offers us intentionality, a posture to take on when engaging in communication in and through the mirifica technicae artis of digital communication.  It is a posture of listening, openness, hospitality. It is welcoming and seeking to offer a life-giving Word. It is commitment to the question, to seek and to learn more before jumping to a narrow and condemning conclusion. It is a recognition of encounter and of presence when considering the other behind the screen. It is communication infused with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control—the fruits of God’s Spirit animating the communicative act. It is an authentic outward movement to meet the other, traveling in haste to the hill country with a message of joy that begets joy. It is making way for Good News to be born, lived, shared.

Practicing Lent: The First Rung of the Ascent

murphy_2This post, written by Professor Francesca Murphy of the Theology Department of the University of Notre Dame,  was originally published on First Things on March 18, 2011. We re-publish it here as part of our series on Lenten Practices during this season of Lent.

 

Catholics today are encouraged to give up for Lent “favorite things” that are often less tangible than “whiskers on kittens” and “warm woolen mittens.” But there is something important to be said for the traditional practice of giving up meat. I have been abstaining from meat on Fridays and through Lent for about five years and have discovered that giving up meat makes it easier to give up other things, like web-surfing, TV, or reading newspapers.

Vegetarian and vegan practices are not something new, imported from eastern religions. They have sustained the Church since the first centuries. They belong to us for some of the same reasons they were practised by ancient Pythagoreans and modern Buddhists: natural, human religious wisdom acknowledges that the body must be tamed before the soul.

We split spiritual and carnal abstinence in two, and define abstinence as something that happens in the head not the body. johnclimacusHowever, Christian spiritual writers depict the ascent to God with the metaphor of a ladder. Experienced spiritual travellers like St. Bonaventure describe the ‘soul’s journey to God’ as ascending through sensible things, taking pleasure in their beauty, while being purged of undue attachment to them, up to the mind, and its graced experience of God, and on up into God himself. They knew all about the effects of giving up meat. Abstaining from the ‘mind’ habits is more lightly achieved by a vegetarian. Giving up favourite things paves the way for giving up favourite ideas .

Here’s the thing: the spiritual writers know that we are carnal creatures, and that we cannot skip that step in the ladder of ascent. When we try that, we’re aiming to leap up a step before we’re ready. We won’t make it. When we can’t make it, we will think of Lent”and possibly other disciplines as well”as a brief but necessarily failed resolution to do something impossible. You might say, rightly, ThomasAquinasIcon anything is possible with the grace of God . But, why not let the grace of God work with your animal nature? Grace, as St. Thomas Aquinas taught, “does not destroy nature, it perfects it.” God’s grace works against our fallenness. But it does not eliminate our created human nature. It makes our natures whole. As carnal, embodied creatures, our desire to eat meat works in us at a more elemental level than desires for cognitive pleasures. Our carnality is at the rock bottom of what forms us as persons. Our fallenness, it goes all the way down too, so why not let God’s grace rebuild you from the bottom up?

Early in Lent, we hear the Gospel accounts of Jesus fasting for forty days in the wilderness: the Devil’s first temptation to the Incarnate God was to turn rock into bread. He must beat that temptation before he can thrash the temptations to security and power. Fasting and abstinence are not a matter of “what would Jesus do?” It’s a straightforward matter of what Jesus did, the spiritual path he actually took. A child can see that the Bible story tells that Jesus was hungry in the desert. As fully man, Jesus knew that hunger can help us to discipline other, ‘higher’ cognitive desires. The first thing his forty days in the wilderness teach us is that absence of the food we crave can become a place in which the grace of God shapes and forms us.

Lent calls us to a deeper participation in the love of God. God loves you as a carnal, embodied creature. The first part of your nature he would heal is your body and its physical desires. Even this omnipotent Doctor can’t wholly heal our mind and soul until we let him access our bodily desires.

It’s sometimes said that people who worship a crucified God must be anti-body. It’s said that the accent on suffering in Christianity is telling us to despise our bodies. The opposite is true: you never know you are embodied more than when you are suffering, and that includes wanting food you can’t have. Christian fasting and abstinence is not intended to destroy or eliminate the body. It’s not intended to make a negative statement about our embodied condition. It’s intended to cleanse and sanctify that condition. Christians “crucify” their bodies in the hope of rising one day in resurrected bodies, our physicality sanctified by the grace of God.

Christ rose in the body, and his resurrected body was marked by the wounds of the crucifixion. He bears in his resurrected, glorified body all the marks of the victory he had won in the body. He did not win a disembodied victory.

Ilya Repin, Follow Me [Get Behind Me], Satan (1891)
Follow Me [Get Behind Me], Satan  by Ilya Repin (1891)
A few practical suggestions. Our Lenten abstention seems to begin on Ash Wednesday and run until Easter morning. Or does it? Canon Law requires us to fast for forty days, as Jesus fasted in the wilderness, yet Lent lasts 46 days. It includes six feast days, and these are the Sundays of Lent. You can eat meat on Sundays in Lent. You don’t have to, but you can.

If you are mocked as a legalist for fasting or for feasting on feast days, remember the Proverb: “A soft answer turneth away wrath” (Proverbs 15.1). When people (usually siblings) scoff at your efforts and say, “That’s nothing,” you should reply, “Yes, it’s really easy.” Explain that practising temporary vegetarianism is no big deal, just the first rung on a ladder whose upper reaches are beyond you.

If you make no song and dance about your fasting, family and friends won’t disrespect your religion on account of it. They may respect it more, though if they do, it’s not you , but the religion your abstention represents they respect.

Dig out a vegetarian cookbook. It’s easier, for the weak-willed, than working through the vegetables in cookbooks for omnivores, because one is not distracted by pictures of roasts and chicken stews. The danger of gourmet vegetarianism is there, but often enough one will eat something less palatable than the plate one’s eyes and stomach demand. Look at Eastern Catholic and Orthodox websites and Greek or Middle Eastern cookbooks for recipes: veganism has flourished in their fasting culture since the first millennium. Lenten fasting Catholics are looking forward to the church “breathing with both lungs,” East and West, in the future.

Some Christians are already year-round vegetarians. My advice to them is to go vegan in Lent and on Fridays. Meat-eaters may find Lenten vegetarianism so spiritually enriching that they take it on to Fridays during the rest of the year (except for Easter and Christmas seasons), and to an Advent Fast, and even adopt the Eastern fasts, like the ‘Dormition Fast’ the fortnight before the Feast of the Assumption, which the East calls the Feast of the Dormition. Catholics can set a day a week aside from taking from the earth, and let it be. For us that day is Friday, the day of the crucifixion.

God is love, and the incarnate God sympathises with our weakness. Not eating meat is about having a heart for yourself, as an embodied creature, and so having a heart for others. “I, if I am lifted up from the earth,” on the Cross, “will draw all to myself” (John 12.32). God wills to draw all humanity into his body. All of nature, his entire creation, vegetable, animal, and human will be made whole in heaven. Our wounds will be glorified, as the means by which God heals the created world. We share the Church’s universal mission by fasting with the poor. This is authentic sentimentality: it is feeling with others, by being genuinely beside them.

Inviting Christ Into the “Mess”

Anthony OleckAnthony Oleck

MTS Student, History of Christianity, University of Notre Dame

Contact Author

Many controversies and diverging opinions make their way across Notre Dame’s campus. That Fisher Hall (where I currently serve as Assistant Rector) is not the most aesthetically-pleasing building is not one of them. i4slsOnce, a group of Fishermen walking across campus happened to run into university president Fr. John Jenkins, C.S.C. When told which dorm the young men were from, he chuckled and said, “Ah yes, Fisher Hall… well, what it lacks in architectural beauty it more than makes up for in sense of community and spirit.”

If you are not familiar with Notre Dame’s campus, let me give you a brief photographic tour of some of the buildings that should give you an idea of how Fisher compares:

O'Neil Hall..Photo by Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame
O’Neill Hall
notre_dame_golden_dome_by_orgazmo1009-d5rw29i
The Administration (Main) Building
Main entrance of Ryan Hall..Photo by Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame
Ryan Hall
IMG_1467
FISHER!

I have walked the halls of Fisher many times since accepting the position of Assistant Rector last spring. And as I make my way through the building on rounds, I often find it difficult to not notice everything wrong with the place, whether it be the protruding pipes, broken furniture, or unreliable heating. Still less can one ignore the stench that alerts those of us on hall staff to yet another plumbing issue: the now all-too-familiar broken pipe or overflowing sink. Fisher Hall can, at times, be a bit of a mess.

This year’s Lent, though, has begun to change the way I see this “mess.”

IMG_1432The men of Fisher decided to try something new as a community this Lent, and every Thursday  night we have been praying a hall-wide Stations of the Cross. Beginning in the chapel, we weave up and down each hall—stopping periodically (twice on each floor) to recite the Station, a Scripture passage and a few prayers. Last Thursday, as we made our way through the building, I noticed that on each floor our number grew. While we began with only about four or five of us, by the time we circled back around to the chapel there were at least thirty voices filling the corridor with: We adore you, oh Christ, and we praise you, because by your holy Cross you have redeemed the world. Our Father, who art in heaven. . .

IMG_1431
Special thanks to Old College undergraduate seminarian Julian Druffner for making such a beautiful cross!

We walked under protruding pipes and past broken furniture and piles of shoes. But at this moment, I could not see the mess. All I could see were some thirty young men—my brothers—following the cross through our home. Even if just for a moment, something eternal, transcendent, and holy had entered into our “mess,” transfiguring the ordinary and deepening what it means for our community to say “we.”

This Lenten practice has not only been a way to sanctify and deepen both our personal and communal relationships with the Lord, but has also served, for me, as a helpful reminder that Christ always has, and always will, enter the mess. Christ “paid his fare and went on board,” as Scripture notes, “away from the presence of the Lord” (Jon 1:2-3). Like Jonah, Christ was thrown into a “tempestuous sea” (i.e. Creation itself), in order to “cease it from its raging” (Jon 1:15).
imgresSo too does Christ desire to enter the “mess” of each of our lives, however “tempestuous”  they may seem. f8d25160ef08de47d618f6e0f7ebb7e2Perhaps this Lent we can confidently offer to the Lord those parts we would rather not let him see, the parts we are embarrassed by, or even the parts we simply do not typically think to invite him into—our studies, our work, our friendships. We needn’t be afraid, for Christ enters the “mess” to seek out his lost sheep and those who are damaged. Christ’s love penetrates even those spaces that are cluttered with broken furniture, faulty plumbing and stinky shoes.

Practicing Lent: The Practice of Commitment

Tim KenneyTimothy J. Kenney

’14 MTS Candidate 

Boston College School of Theology and Ministry

Finding the right thing to give up for Lent is tough. Obviously it has to be something that will not harm you, physically, emotionally, or otherwise. It has to be something that would actually be difficult for you to do (you can’t give up meat if you’re a vegetarian or chocolate if you haven’t had any since Christmas). There are of course the more obvious choices, the Lenten standards: chocolate, ice cream, pop, snacking between meals. For some these are a real challenge, but for others this isn’t so much a sacrifice as a second chance at their New Year’s Resolution to exercise more often. But something even harder than picking a good Lenten Sacrifice is repeating the process the next year. When I’ve managed to give up something that was really difficult for me, I always end up complacent the next year. I say, “It was really hard giving up ____ last year, I’ll do it again since it was so tough.” The problem is, that never goes as well the second time around. Either it’s not actually that hard to do because I didn’t pick it back up post-Easter or, as is more often the case, I don’t have the same commitment and dedication as I did the year before and give up after a week. Lent takes a serious amount of reflection, focus, and commitment to make this sacrifice significant and meaningful. Otherwise we’re just going through the motions.

RomeWhen people ask me how grad school is going I often tell them it feels like all I do is read. But that’s a little misleading, because I do other things too. I binge watch shows on Netflix, take Buzzfeed quizzes to find out which European city I am (at least twice) or until I get Rome, stalk people on Facebook I haven’t talked to since high school, half-write blog posts that I never submit, watch Disney songs on YouTube more times than I care to admit. The list goes on. So in reality I should say all I do now is read and procrastinate from reading.

As such, it seemed pretty obvious what I should give up for Lent. “Wow, self,” I said to myself, “think of how much more time you’d have to actually get your work done if you cut out all these distractions!” In the lead-up to Lent I so excited to start cutting things out that I started removing apps from my phone two weeks early. But when I woke up on Mardi Gras I took a step back and thought about why I was actually giving these things up. If the day was supposed to be a big party on which I did or ate or watched as much of what I was giving up as I could, a day immersed in all of these distractions would be a waste of time, not a party. I realized these weren’t neutral or positive things I was giving up as a sacrifice for a little while, they were bad habits I needed to cut out period.

I’ve been thinking a lot about time recently, and mostly how I don’t seem to have enough of it. Often I fill my time with as much clutter as I can manage to scrap together. That way at the end of the day I can complain about how unproductive I was. It is pretty clear to me that, were I to cut these little distractions out, I could get a lot more done and probably be a much better student. Lent seemed like the perfect occasion for this purge, but when the time came I realized I wasn’t really doing anything for Lent. I was opening all of this time, which is great, but then I was filling it with schoolwork. Don’t get me wrong, that’s a great thing to do. Personally I think if everyone made a commitment to spend one less hour with their phone everyday we’d all jump up 30 IQ points. But in creating the vacuum in my day by removing distractions, I wasn’t filling any of it with Christ.

We model these forty days on Jesus’ time in the desert before he began his public ministry. It was a time of prayer, quiet reflection, and solitude spent with God. What about my sacrifice was providing for any of that? Where was I making the commitment to spend more time in prayer or to build my relationship with God? After all, what is the point of a sacrifice if it’s entirely self-serving and doesn’t come with a commitment to God?

Catholics tend to irreverently joke about how quickly their Lenten promises fail. I think for the most part this is because we’ve stopped taking seriously just how serious Lent is. It’s not God wanting you to suffer and it’s not something you do to make your grandma happy. It’s a beautiful commitment to God, making oneself a witness in a world that has not simply scorned its Savior, but in many ways has forgotten him. And I don’t want you to think I’m writing this from some self-righteous pedestal of virtue. I failed at my Lenten promise within about two hours of waking up on Wednesday. And that isn’t something to be laughed at; it’s a promise to God that I wasn’t strong enough to keep. But I have to ask myself, how much of this is because I didn’t even involve God in the first place?

And so I ask you, dear reader, to take a second today, tomorrow, next week, or whenever you find it difficult to keep whatever promises you chose to make this Lent, and reflect on two things:

1. How has Lent been for you? Have you been keeping up with your promises, commitments, and fasts?

2. How has Lent been for you and God? Have you involved God in your promises, commitments, and fasts? It’s important to ask not only where has God been present in our lives, but also to reflect on where have we failed to invite him to join us.

It’s never too late to start a new  Lenten promise or sacrifice and its WorkersVineyardnever early too to restart an old one. When Easter comes, whether we’ve been going strong for forty days, thirty-nine days and eighteen hours, two weeks, or just one day, a commitment made to God sincerely, even for the shortest amount of time, is still a commitment to God. When you’re struggling or feel like you’ve failed to keep your promise, I’d invite you to spend some time with Matthew 20:8–16.

“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’  When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

I came across this passage recently and it spoke to me for all of the reasons listed above. Sacrifice, hard work, and commitment are all important. But if we’re doing these things for ourselves or out of fear of someone else or for a reward, what will the fruits of that labor be? What a joy it would be instead to work in the Vineyard of the Lord and have that be reward enough. I’ll be praying that you all have a blessed and nourishing Lent and I’d ask you to do the same for me, one in which we keep our minds, hearts, and souls focused on Christ’s ultimate sacrifice and salvation coming at the end of these forty days.

Practicing Lent: Waking Up

HopeHope Bethany ’15

Theology Undergraduate

Fellow, Center for Liturgy

On Ash Wednesday, I happened to see this picture posted by the  Catholic Radio Channel’s Twitter account:

 

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I enjoy a lot of the programming from the Catholic Channel and have made it through many a commute and car ride listening to its various programs. Thanks to Gus Lloyd’s “Seize the Day” program, I still greet a lot of my friends with “Good morning, child of God!” (and usually do so when it’s too early for anyone to be talking). The graphic design folks who made this edgy-looking graphic with the opening stanza of “Wake Me Up” had a nice thought for the beginning of Lent. The lyrics convey a message that probably resembles the way that many of us pray as Lent begins: “Allrighty, Lord, 40 days, here we go; I have no clue about how this is going to go, but something tells me things ought to be different. I don’t know where it will end, but here I am Lord, and I am trying to start.”

I admire this sentiment, but actually think that the helpfulness of the song “Wake Me Up” as an admirable Lenten posture stops there. Seeing the graphic using the song lyrics in this way on the first day of Lent gave me one more exlost-signcuse to think about the song as a whole, since I began chewing on the lyrics a few months ago. Only half-jokingly, I had started referring to “Wake Me Up” as a kind of secularized “Amazing Grace” since it mentions “finding myself, when I didn’t even know I was lost!” instead of any recognition of the need to be found or an understanding of the need for grace or outside help. After further reflection, I actually think that not only is “Wake Me Up” a version of a secularized “Amazing Grace” but also that the song’s overall posture is a pretty problematic one. In fact, it demonstrates exactly the opposite of the Christian understanding of conversion and specifically the season of Lent and the practices we undertake in Lent.

Let’s look at the next part of the song:

“They tell me I’m too young to understand

They say I’m caught up in a dream

Well, life will pass me by if I don’t open up my eyes

Well that’s fine by me

So wake me up when it’s all over

When I’m wiser and I’m older

All this time I was finding myself

And I didn’t know I was lost.”

The entire point and posture of the rest of “Wake Me Up,” (contrary to the title) is not actually about waking up or changing at all! Instead, its message encourages sleeping through any kind of growth– or we might add, any kind of grace, repentance, or call to conversion. The subject of “Wake Me Up” is absolutely fine with life passing by as he passively sleeps, and he makes no effort to participate in his growth; he asks only that someone awaken him after everything is “all over” and he is a complete project: “wiser and older.”

The refrain of “Wake Me Up” would at the least undervalue and at the most disdain any Lent-like season in our lives, or the spirit of conversion and repentance for which Lent exists. As a Church, during the season of Lent we deliberately ask God to awaken us to what keeps us from loving Him and His creation in a way that we ought to. With the prophet Hosea, we express our desire to: “Say no more, ‘our god;’ to the work of our hands” but to remember who it is we are called to worship with both our lips and our actions.

Sleeping = good. Sleeping through Lent = not good.
Sleeping = good. Sleeping through Lent?  Not good.

Rather than sleeping through another season of our lives, in Lent we ask again and again to be awakened to our sins, to reflect on those sins, and through our commitments to make a physically conscious effort in prayer, fasting, and almsgiving to turn back to God with our whole hearts. In St. Augustine’s “City of God,” he mentions that “A true sacrifice, then, is every work done in order that we may draw near to God in holy fellowship…” (City of God, Book X). The practices of pegreenroom_turn_logonitence that we take up and the sacrifices we make during the season of Lent help us to both identify with the sacrifice of Christ and to re-awaken our knowledge of the need for conversion. (We might remember here that the word conversion comes from the Greek “metanoia” which means, “to turn.”)

While it is true that at all times in our lives we are supposed to be ready for the coming of Christ, the penitential seasons of Advent and Lent help us to keep this truth in mind and to do so more deliberately; this is helpful, because our liturgical attention spans are often short! Lent call us to action in ways that respond to God’s call to turn away from sin, to keep turning, to keep moving, to keep converting.

Sometimes at the beginning of Lent, I re-read C.S. Lewis’ “Screwtape screwtapeLetters,” because the process of reading and chewing on the texts ends up working like a book-long examination of conscience. In the “Screwtape Letters,” the demon Screwtape writes to his pupil Wormwood, giving advice on how to lead astray a fellow who keeps seeming like he is edging towards a conversion. Some of his “advice” to Wormwood can help us think about why persevering through our Lenten practices matters for our life-long journeys of conversion as a whole:

“…the great thing is to prevent his doing anything. As long as he does not convert it into action, it does not matter how much he thinks about this new repentance. Let the little brute wallow in it. Let him, if he has any bent that way, write a book about it**; that is often an excellent way of sterilizing the seeds which the Enemy plants in human soul. Let him do anything but act. No amount of piety in his imaginations and affections will harm us if we can keep it out of his will…” (Screwtape Letters 66-67).

"Here I am, send me."
“Here I am, send me.”

The call to repentance in Lent and the physical practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving help us to wake up to those areas of sin in our lives, to realize where we have created idols that have misplaced our Lord. We recognize through these practices that require our physical involvement along with our thoughts and convictions that our bodies and souls are linked, and that while it might be easier to sleep through another liturgical season, the actions we take with our bodies affect the truths that we hold in our souls.

Maybe, if we realize that our own attitude toward Lent in the past has been more like Avicii’s than anything else, this Lent we might make a further commitment to the practices we began last week and as an alternative to “Wake me up when it’s all over” try to pray and sing with the psalmist:

A pure heart create for me, O God,

Put a steadfast spirit within me.

Do not cast me away from your presence,

Nor deprive me of your holy spirit.

Give me again the joy of your help;

With a spirit of fervor [not sleepiness!] sustain me,

That I may teach transgressors your ways

And sinners may return to you. (Psalm 51)

It is true that as we begin our second week of Lent that we do not know exactly where our own souls will be at the end of this Lent. Nevertheless, this Lent, we do not pray, “Lord, wake me up when it’s all over, at the end of these 40 days, when I’m wiser and I’m older.” We do not ask to mentally “find ourselves” through Lent, as if Lent was just an extension or a do-over of New Years’ self-improvement resolutions. In Lent we ask—and sometimes plead, if we have a difficult time maintaining constancy, for the grace to continue with our Lenten observances, to see where God leads us and to do so actively. Our bodies and souls are united as human beings, and our souls are affected by what we do with our bodies. In her wisdom, the Church recognizes this always, but she especially reminds us of it in Lent in the calls we will continue to hear about prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

“Awake, my soul… ” (Psalm 57:9)

**(Or a blog post. Guilty as charged, C.S. Lewis. This writer herself is usually horribly bad at persevering in Lent.)

Notre Dame Center for Liturgy, Institute for Church Life

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