Sing, but keep going

Yesterday’s reading from the Office, the last of the liturgical year, is also one of the best, St. Augustine at his most eloquent. Like this time of year in the liturgy itself, it’s as much about beginning as it is about ending. It captures that joyful hope that so characterizes the Advent season and which I think is much in need these days — that flicker of unfailing light to guide us through the winter darkness.

Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, Rome

There’s nothing saccharine in Augustine — Rome was crumbling as he wrote, and his honesty about his own failings and man’s sinfulness is unflinching — but that’s what makes his alleluia really count. Despite his own weakness and wrongheadedness, he knew God’s pursuit was unfailing. And he knew — something I feel acutely today given the state of the Church and the world — that there is still so much work before us…

“Let us sing alleluia here on earth, while we still live in anxiety, so that we may sing it one day in heaven in full security… Even here amidst trials and temptations let us, let all men, sing alleluia. God is faithful, says holy Scripture, and he will not allow you to be tried beyond your strength. So let us sing alleluia, even here on earth. Man is still a debtor, but God is faithful…

“O the happiness of the heavenly alleluia, sung in security, in fear of no adversity! We shall have no enemies in heaven, we shall never lose a friend. God’s praises are sung both there and here, but here they are sung in anxiety, there, in security; here they are sung by those destined to die, there, by those destined to live forever; here they are sung in hope, there, in hope’s fulfillment; here they are sung by wayfarers, there, by those living in their own country.

“So, then, my brothers, let us sing now, not in order to enjoy a life of leisure, but in order to lighten our labors. You should sing as wayfarers do — sing, but continue your journey. Do not be lazy, but sing to make your journey more enjoyable. Sing, but keep going…”

St. Augustine, Sermo 256

Office of Readings

Saturday, 34th Week in Ordinary Time

Thomas Aquinas on eternal life

The end of the liturgical year coincides with a number of gems from the Office of Readings, including this conference from St. Thomas Aquinas, which I’d never taken note of before. It reinforces a number of things that I’ve noticed over the past several years researching the theme of baptism of desire. The first–that eternal life means union with God–is perhaps the most important and, today, the most neglected. Heaven, in others words, does not mean having more treats, but communion with God. It’s maybe uncomfortable to say in our age of “moralistic therapeutic Deism”, but those who don’t desire communion with God don’t really want what we mean by heaven. In the end, heaven has more to do with how we love than with where we are.

Here’s how Thomas puts it:

Final Judgment, Orvieto Cathedral

“The first point about eternal life is that man is united with God. For God himself is the reward and end of all our labors…

“Next it consists in perfect praise…

“It also consists in the complete satisfaction of desire, for there the blessed will be given more than they wanted or hoped for. The reason is that in this life no one can fulfill his longing, nor can any creature satisfy man’s desire. Only God satisfies, he infinitely exceeds all other pleasures. That is why man can rest in nothing but God. As Augustine says: You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our heart can find no rest until it rests in you

“…eternal life consists of the joyous community of all the blessed, a community of supreme delight, since everyone will share all that is good with all the blessed. Everyone will love everyone else as himself…”

St. Thomas Aquinas, Credo in Deum

Office of Readings

Saturday of the Thirty-third week in Ordinary Time

Catholic self-help

My friend and Jesuit classmate Fr. Michael Rossmann has just published a book, which upon its release held the status of Amazon’s #1 book in “self-help for Catholics”. Actually, I didn’t know there was such a category (and neither did Fr. Rossmann).

Inside the snappy cover, Fr. Rossmann makes a point I think is very important today — really saying yes to something or someone means saying no to other things. Never committing in order to keep one’s options open means refusing to choose the things that matter most.

The book is called The Freedom of Missing Out and continues the long Jesuit tradition of practical help for good decision-making that goes back to St. Ignatius’s rules for discernment. In fact, the influence of Ignatius is not far below the surface, though the book is illustrated with examples from all walks of life and lots of contemporary research. While Rossmann draws on the best of the Catholic tradition, his words about commitment and freedom will ring true to people of any religion.

Signs of Easter

With winter now banished, one of my favorite signs of Roman spring is here — flowers sprouting from the tile rooftops. Above, my favorite, the corner of St. Ignatius Church seen from the terrace of our building, below a more modest view from my room. I’m not sure what this annual effusion of greenery means for the structural integrity of the tiles — and, I guess, I don’t really care. I find the flowers exuberant and surprising and, yes, just a tad reckless. In other words, a perfect sign of Easter.

I’ve always thought the flowers — life and beauty — breaking through the tiles a nice metaphor for the Resurrection, like the angels dressed in dazzling white among the scattered tombstones. This year they’ve also put me in mind of Peter. Peter is, after all, a slightly reckless figure, the desires of his heart a step ahead of his own moral capacities. His love for Jesus leads him to boast of his fidelity on Holy Thursday — “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death” — and then to find that his steadfastness has fallen short of his aspirations. It is devastating to read of Peter’s betrayal; one can imagine how much more devastating it was to live it.

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The origins of Arbor Day

Sequoia National Park

Happy Arbor Day! I guess the date varies from year to year, depending on the optimal conditions for tree planting. It so happens that this festival of tree planting has ecclesiastical origins, as I learned in Joan Maldoof’s delightful little book, Treepedia: A Brief Compendium of Arboreal Lore. Turns out, “In 1805 a Spanish priest initiated the first modern celebration of tree planting, called the fiesta de arbol.” A bit more research revealed that the precise location of the first Arbor Day was Villanueva de la Siera, Spain. The event began with the ringing of church bells and Mass, followed by the characteristic planting of trees–then a party. Viva España! The first official American celebration of the event came on April 10, 1872 in Nebraska. Today, according to Maldoof, it is celebrated in more than forty-three countries. Happy planting!

Bernini’s beads

Can you spot the rosary?

When I reached the end of the station pilgrimage the last time around, I was struck by the details.

For the sacramental theologian such as myself, there’s a deep lesson in the details of the journey. The Son of God’s Incarnation meant entering fully into the reality of human life, with all its diverse moments of suffering and disappointment, of hope and joy, of sometimes just getting by. The Passion narrative is the most vividly detailed part of the Gospels, and the Resurrection stories too, though reflecting the discombobulation of that utterly unprecedented event, also retain the sort of vivid details that stick out in one’s mind even when the world has just gone outside-in. Mary thinks Jesus is the gardener. Jesus eats a bit of fish. The sacraments depend on the details of the Lord’s life, too, on what he ate at his last meal.

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Pontius Pilate, postmodern man

I was recently reminded of a post I wrote on the old Whosoever Desires blog eleven years ago. It was prompted by controversy over Mel Gibson and The Passion of the Christ, but the questions it asks are perhaps still worth considering this Spy Wednesday as well…

Nathan’s post on Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ last year generated a lot of discussion and ended with an intriguing question:  “Why does Pilate always get so much empathy from us?”

It would be easy, at this point, to start tossing around charges of anti-Semitism, charges which would allow us to feel a certain measure of moral superiority over those less enlightened than ourselves.  Then we could pray like the righteous Pharisee, “God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, anti-Semites like Mel Gibson over there” (Lk 18:10).

Throwing around such charges is a way of doing precisely the same thing that blaming the Jews for the crucifixion once did:  deflecting guilt from ourselves.  I would suggest a far more troubling answer to the question, “Why do we empathize with Pilate?”

Because Pontius Pilate is the character in the Passion who is most like us.

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Soldier saints

San Giorgio in Velabro, Rome

I’ve noted before the prevalence of former soldiers among the saints of Rome, a fact especially evident in the first week of Rome’s station liturgy, when day two is celebrated at a church dedicated to St. George and St. Sebastian and day three at the site two other former soldiers, the brothers John and Paul, were martyred in 360.

The prominence of these soldier saints is especially striking while war rages in the Ukraine. Though the signs were all there ahead of time–this was not the first time Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine–the attack and the resistance to it has seemed to jolt the West from a deep and dangerous torpor. A friend recently showed me a poll asking the people of various nations if they would be willing to fight for their country; less than half of Americans said yes–and that was high for the West. In his inaugural address, John F. Kennedy, pledged to the world, “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” Today, in the face of crisis, presidents compete to issue stimulus checks because, hey, free money. Something seems to have been lost.

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Feast of the Chair of Peter

To celebrate today’s feast, I walked over to St. Peter’s Basilica this morning, especially keen to see the church decorated for the day–the candles lit on Bernini’s spectacular sculpture of the Cathedra Petri and the first pope’s statue decked out in his party regalia.

Cathedra Petri, Bernini

In the past I’ve always had class or other obligations or there were too many tourists or the world was closed for pandemic, so I’d never visited the basilica on this feast. Today, like Goldilocks but without the hair, I found everything just right. Just a smattering of visitors early in the morning, and as a bonus I was able to get to the altar of St. Leo the Great, which is in a part of the church that is sometimes blocked off. Leo is a favorite of mine because of his lapidary teaching that what was visible in Jesus when he walked the earth has passed over into the sacraments (Sermon 74).

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Like a bush in a lava waste…

Craters of the Moon National Monument

Today’s first reading from Jeremiah brought to mind the surreal landscape of Craters of the Moon National Monument in central Idaho, which I visited on a long road trip through the American West several years ago.  It’s a surreal landscape of lava flows, ash, and shards of rock so sharp they’ll slice through your shoes if you wander off the trail.  

Jeremiah’s image of a “barren bush [that] stands in a lava waste” to describe those who trust in men and not in the Lord brought Craters of the Moon to mind.  I remember rounding a cinder cone, descending onto a river of hard rock, and thinking I’d wandered into Mordor.

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