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The Canonization of St. John Paul II (or the Joy in my Heart)

Divine Mercy Sunday was a crazy day. I celebrated mass at my parish at 7:30 am, and, then hurried over to the high school where I am chaplain to celebrate mass for the Dad’s Club who park cars for the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. After the mass, I helped them park cars for an hour or so then made my  way over to the festival to enjoy good music and good food. The day was topped off with a n unforgettable performance by my guitar hero, Eric Clapton. All of this was expected when I woke up that morning.

However, during the Eucharistic Prayer, at the 7:30 am mass, the LORD gave me a gift I didn’t expect. “May he make of us an eternal offering to you, so that we may obtain an inheritance with your elect,” I prayed, “especially with the most Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, with blessed Joseph her spouse, with your blessed Apostles and glorious martyrs, with St. Rita, St. John XXIII, St. John Paul II …” At this point, I choked up and nearly started weeping. “and with all the Saints, on whose constant intercession in your presence we rely for unfailing help.” John Paul became a saint since the last time I said the Eucharistic Prayer!

This man came to my hometown. This man’s writing helped me fall in love with the truth. He helped me first contemplate the depths of priestly ministry (Pastores Dabo Vobis). He helped me understand the moral life with greater clarity (Veritatis Splendor). He gave me the gift of a fully fleshed (pun not intended) theological anthropology (Love and Responsibility and Man and Woman He Created Them). He gave me my first theological reflections on the family and the beauty of femininity (Familiaris Consortio and Mulieris Dignitatem). He helped me fall in love deeper with the Blessed Mother (Redemptoris Mater). He taught me why I need to go out in to the world to proclaim the Gospel and not follow my natural introverted tendency to be insular (Redemptoris Missio). He hepled me understand for the first time many of the documents of Vatican II. His intellectual rigor paved the way for me to receive so well the teachings of Pope Benedict XVI.

I consider him one of my intellectual mentors, and this man, who taught me so much, is now in heaven, inteceding for me as a brother priest, as a man who tries, even if I fail, to take part in the New Evangelization. He was and is one of the priest I looked up to in seminary, a priest I wished to emulate, both in pastoral activity and spiritual and theological reflection.

All these memories came to a flooding head at my praying the Eucharistic prayer that morning. Such joy filled my heart at him being in heaven, that my emotions couldn’t handle. This man whom I love, both as a father and a pope, is before the throne of the lamb adoring the Lord of Hosts and offering supplication for all of his flock, you and me included.

O WHAT JOY IT IS TO BE CONNECTED TO SO GREAT A CLOUD OF WITNESSES!

 

Something Strange is Happening ( or the Descent into Hell)

Last year I think Daniel posted this. It is one of my favorite readings in the whole year for the liturgy of the hours. Christ will soon come in glory.

From an ancient homily on Holy Saturday

The Lord descends into hell

Something strange is happening—there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.

He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve, he who is both God and the son of Eve. The Lord approached them bearing the cross, the weapon that had won him the victory. At the sight of him Adam, the first man he had created, struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone: “My Lord be with you all.” Christ answered him: “And with your spirit.” He took him by the hand and raised him up, saying: “Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.”

I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. Out of love for you and for your descendants I now by my own authority command all who are held in bondage to come forth, all who are in darkness to be enlightened, all who are sleeping to arise. I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead. Rise up, work of my hands, you who were created in my image. Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in me and I am in you; together we form only one person and we cannot be separated.

For your sake I, your God, became your son; I, the Lord, took the form of a slave; I, whose home is above the heavens, descended to the earth and beneath the earth. For your sake, for the sake of man, I became like a man without help, free among the dead. For the sake of you, who left a garden, I was betrayed to the Jews in a garden, and I was crucified in a garden.

See on my face the spittle I received in order to restore to you the life I once breathed into you. See there the marks of the blows I received in order to refashion your warped nature in my image. On my back see the marks of the scourging I endured to remove the burden of sin that weighs upon your back. See my hands, nailed firmly to a tree, for you who once wickedly stretched out your hand to a tree.

I slept on the cross and a sword pierced my side for you who slept in paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side has healed the pain in yours. My sleep will rouse you from your sleep in hell. The sword that pierced me has sheathed the sword that was turned against you.

Rise, let us leave this place. The enemy led you out of the earthly paradise. I will not restore you to that paradise, but I will enthrone you in heaven. I forbade you the tree that was only a symbol of life, but see, I who am life itself am now one with you. I appointed cherubim to guard you as slaves are guarded, but now I make them worship you as God. The throne formed by cherubim awaits you, its bearers swift and eager. The bridal chamber is adorned, the banquet is ready, the eternal dwelling places are prepared, the treasure houses of all good things lie open. The kingdom of heaven has been prepared for you from all eternity.

The image at the top is the The Descent in Hell by the Master of the Osservansa

Top Ten Books Read in 2013 – 1

Sorry for the wait. I have no excuse. (sad puppy dog face) Anyway, the best book I read last year is by an author who has On Hopealready been top of my list before and has already appeared on the list this year. Josef Pieper’s On Hope is one of those life changing mind blowing books. I was introduced to Hope as a life changing awesome thing through Pope Benedict XVI’s Spe Salvi, but unfortunately, I found that I had trouble internalizing it (looking at my life, not much changed after I had read it).

Pieper started from our natural perspective as human persons: we are pilgrims. We are not where we are in fulfillment. We live a mortal not-there-yet life. “The state of being on the way .. refers rather to the innermost structure of created nature. It is the inherent ‘not yet’ of the finite being.” Which, as an editorial note, is why ‘getting there,’ the dream job, the dream house, the dream net worth, is an ontological contradiction. It is in our nature to never get there. I that’s why we take solace in stories with ‘happily ever after.’

This state is inherently uncomfortable. “The only answer that corresponds to man’s actual existential situation is hope. The virtue of the status viatoris (state on the way); it is the proper virtue of the ‘not yet.’ In the virtue of hope more than in any other, man understands and affirms that he is creature, that he has been created by God.”

This is hope the book starts, and it only goes deeper and more theologically, philosophically, and spiritually mind lowing. It change the way I understand the virtue of hope and how I practice this virtue. His thoughts of ‘the fear of the Lord’ provide the most cogent explanation of that misunderstand gift of the Holy Spirit.

I have recommended this to spiritual directees, but will tell you, this book, to be understood well, requires some greater than average comprehension skills because of his references to foreign languages and philosophical concepts that don’t appear on a state college curriculum. That being said it’s short (92 pages) and well worth the time to mull through.

Top Ten Books Read in 2013 – 5

For the past eight years or so, the popular theological buzz has been around Bl. John Paul II Wednesday audiences collected as his pinnacle work, the Theology of the Body. Everyone seems to talk about how revolutionary his insights into the human person are in this tome. However, for the brave soul who picks it up to read, realizes how possibly foolhardy an undertaking can be because John Paul’s style and depth makes it seem like swimming through seaweed. For the armchair theologian it can find itself collecting dust on the shelf.

Christopher West has been able to communicate its basic ideas in common language, but for all the good he has done as a TOB apologist, there are presuppositions in John Paul’s writings that help form his thought which West doesn’t (in my reading of him at least) communicate.

Men, Women, and the Mystery of LoveEnter Dr. Edward Sri. He is primarily a Scripture scholar, but because of the nature of Catholic intellectual life in the US, scholars branch out due to small, solid faculties at good universities. Curriculums call them to broaden themselves. Sir takes Karol Wojtyla’s presuppositions in Love and Responsibility and communicates them to someone without philosophical and/or theological training, in his book Men, Women, and the Mystery of Love. He writes clearly and directly. He gives life examples but doesn’t water down Wojtyla’s depth. It is a great book and I would suggest it as the introduction to TOB before West’s Theology of the Body for Beginners.

I found the book also good for marriage preparation.

#popefrancislife

My students have gotten me in the habit of putting #life at the end of any description or tale that involves irony, paradox, awkwardness or humility (ie: those things that the world considers to be mere inconveniences, but in which are contained the meaning of existence). #life, unlike its distant cousin #yolo, is something a of real philosophical sentiment. It alludes to the fact that life is almost predictable. Just when you think you have life figured out and under control, your tire pops on the way to a job interview, you trip and fall in front of that attractive new co-worker, you sleep in late thinking its Sunday…only to remember it is actually Monday. Life is intelligible, but that intelligibility makes it none-the-less unpredictable. In fact, #life is nothing more than expressing that most shared of human experiences: that the only real rule in reality is to expect the unexpected.

As usual, GKC put it better than I;
The real trouble with this world of ours is not that it is an unreasonable world, nor even that it is a reasonable one. The commonest kind of trouble is that it is nearly reasonable, but not quite. Life is not an illogicality; yet it is a trap for logicians. It looks just a little more mathematical and regular than it is;its exactitude is obvious, but its inexactitude is hidden; its wildness lies in wait. (Orthodoxy)

Indeed, what could be more Orthodox than to wake up and realize that a God more rational and loving than you made the universe? What could be more #life? Reality should make perfect sense, but when we try to explain it, we always miss some critical step, trip, fall and end up upside-down. #life

The real misunderstanding, though, is not with the universe. #life, by its very nature, implies that there is something wrong with those that have life. And those that have life are not the objective rules of reality, but us. Pope Francis, with all his talk on sin, healing, Satan and holiness, seems keenly aware of this. In his interview last Thursday, his allusion to the Church as a ‘field hospital’ can only be interpreted in this way. Whether its due to his American upbringing, his Jesuit formation, his contact with contemporary issues or sheer grace of the Holy Spirit, Pope Francis understands #life better than many of the young people who have popularized this slogan.

And he’s up to something. It was not without calculation that he released an interview about finding a new balance in the Church’s theology on abortion but two days before addressing a group of Catholic gynecologists in Rome. On Thursday he surprises the world by saying our Prolife stance can be over-emphasized…and then on Saturday he says that the unborn “bear the face of Jesus Christ,” a strongly emphatic Prolife statement! Is the Pope pastorally self-contradictory? Or is he driving at something deeper.

Could it be that he knows that the root of the Church’s stagnation is a certain spiritual pride, a certain evangelical laxity? Is it that, for too long, Catholics and Christians have spouted their favorite doctrines without applying them in charity? Could it be that the Pope is saying and doing these things, not so much to surprise the media, as to unsettle complacent Christians? After all, he certainly has got our attention. When was the last time we listened this much to the Pope? The world, for its part, can’t seem to figure him out. But it seems to me that he’s got the world figured out. And he’s got us figured out to. And I think he aims to do something about it. So, if you were happy being a back-pew Catholic and coasting along not having to explain or explore your faith, get ready: this Pope is pulling the pew right out from under you. #life #popefrancislife

Wandering About God

I have long maintained that it is not a high level of intelligence, but a high level of interest, that makes for good scholarship. One indeed needs to be a good thinker, but as Socrates demonstrated in the Theaetetus , anyone can exhibit even the most basic signs of intelligence. As a teacher, I can also testify that none of my students are unintelligent. But many of them are lazy and disinterested. If you want to know which ones, just looks at the names that correspond to the F’s in my gradebook.

Having a sustained and mature interest in a subject is far more valuable than being able to wax eloquent on it. At least, such is my hope, because I know that there are far better speakers & writers than I, yet I do trust that I have been called to a life of scholarship. This weekend, I had a strong moment of affirmation that accentuated this paradox: the fact that I love studying theology but am hardly qualified to articulate. My realization of this irony came as the result of an even more stunning revelation that I will attempt to relate here. Once more, I must ask that you trust to my interest in the matter more than you trust my ability to do justice in communicating it.

I spent this weekend looking into the historical hypotheses surrounding the Exodus story. While many scholars consider it a fruitless venture to attempt to corroborate archeological evidence with the Biblical account, most laymen hardly understand the difficulty entailed. From their use of the word ‘fruitless,’ we might suspect that the uselessness of the search is due to a lack of evidence. In fact, it would be more true to vouch for the opposite stance. There is simply too much evidence buried in the sands of Egypt to use any one article of it to trace the Exodus story. Below I list a few of the general facts that Archeology has yielded:

—It is well attested that a large group of Semitic people were dwelling in northern Egypt in the area of Goshen from the years 1800 BC to 1500 BC. The native Egyptians called them the ‘Hyksos,’ meaning ‘foreign rulers’ (sometimes mistranslated ‘Shepherd Rulers.’) and they left several graves and monuments in Egypt with Hebrew names and writing.

—These people worshiped a single deity that the natives identified as ‘Yahu’ or ‘Yahwe.’ Some scholars say that the 14th century BC Egyptian references to Yahu are the oldest written accounts of Yahweh. For some reason, he later became associated with the Egyptian storm god Seth.

—There was a massive exodus of the Hyksos under Pharaoh Ahmose I of the Upper Kingdom, whose monuments attributed their leaving to a relentless military campaign. According to his account, they were victoriously driven back to the land of Canaan where they became distant Egyptian vassals.

—Later Egyptian sources, however, complained that the Hyksos had caused an upheaval in the social order by usurping the weaker Lower Kingdom of it power. There are literary & poetic sources that associated unwanted upward mobility of resident aliens with the Hyksos Ascendency, attributing to them all sorts of natural and economic disasters.

—Greek historians also made references to the Hyksos, but they seemed to be dubious about whether the Hyksos were forced out by a military campaign or left peacefully. Though many of the Greek accounts are given a millennium later and might have been subject to redaction, the very fact that they mentioned the Hyksos is interesting.

—Finally, there are murals in the city of Pi-Ramesses depicting Hebrew slaves building bricks. Although these slaves are identified as POWs, and are pictured along side Nubian slaves, this art makes it clear that these cities were indeed built under Semitic slave labor, just as the Bible attests.

None of this evidence is conclusive, of course. Nor can we draw any further evidence from it than the fact that some sort of “exodus” or “exiting” of Hebrews took place during the 2nd millennium BC. It is futile to use this kind of scant evidence to ‘prove’ the Biblical account beyond stating that its historical roots can be traced deeply back into the history of Hebrew Yahweh worship. Still, all of this was not nearly as telling as what happened to me on Sunday evening.

Pondering over these facts as I walked to Mass, I found myself thinking over and over again of the wandering history of the Hebrews, who carried their strange Monotheism with them across the globe. Never seeming to have a home, yet promised one by their God, I thought of all the names they gave Him to emphasize His singularity to foreign peoples. Yahweh: I AM. Elohim: The Divine. El Shaddai: God on High (Mountains). Adonai: The LORD. And for some reason I started saying to myself that phrase from Tolkien, “Not all who wander are lost.” And here is where things become difficult to describe, so I will try to relate them just as they happened.

—At Mass, the priest addressed us on the awkwardness of a God who reaches out to us where we are. He said it was odd to think of a Deity chasing after His own people where-ever they went, and then concluded with this words: “Just because Jesus wanders after us doesn’t mean he is lost.” My heart skipped a beat.

—On the way home, I thought of God following after me like some kind of benevolent stalker, seeking to steal my soul unto himself.

—Feeling myself not yet drowsy, I read a series of articles from a journal before going to sleep. None of them were on the subject of Sacred Scripture.

—I did not sleep for hours. My mind went in and out of a dream-like state, yet I was always aware of the noises in my room: the AC and the hum of the hot water heater. Though I could barely keep my eyes open, I never once dropped off.

—The whole time, my mind was filled with these names: El Shaddai, Yahweh, Elohim, Adonai, and behind them all I heard the voice of One like a Son of Man acknowledging Himself in all these names. He said he had allowed Himself to be praised under these titles until the time came when He would show Himself fully. Each name was a stepping stone closer to this ultimate Revelation.

—I feel asleep sometime in the late morning. My dream was about snuggling with a warm, soft pillow. It had nothing to do with God or theology.

None of this evidence is conclusive, of course. Nor can we draw any further evidence from it than the fact that some sort of concurrent thought process took hold of me last night. But perhaps it does means something, after all…

OMG! St. Paul Endorsed Slavery! (Or, Why Hasty Political Exegesis Shouldn’t Alarm Us)

Recently, many highly public Christians have endorsed gay marriage by citing the concept of the ‘development’ of Christian theology since the time of Scripture’s authorship. Kevin Rudd, an Australian politician, gave the most recent example when asked by a pastor why he didn’t believe the words of Scripture on this topic; “Well mate, if I was going to have that view, the Bible also says that slavery is a natural condition…because St. Paul said in the New Testament, slaves should be obedient to (their) masters. And therefore we should have all fought for the Confederacy in the US Civil War.” (BBC News, Sept 3, 2013). I cannot in so small a place do justice to so wide a topic as the Christian theology on human sexuality. However, since there is some precedence for blogs being used for Bible Study, I can quickly address the strange ignorance of Scriptural theology that the above statement represents.

To do justice to Mr. Rudd’s position (a position he shares with our very own Barack Obama and Chris Christie), the logic seems to follow this path: St. Paul, as a man of his day, presented Christianity in a world where both slavery and homosexuality fell into certain social categories, the former acceptable and the latter unacceptable. In order to present the Gospel in such a way so as to be palatable to the people of his time (and perhaps to be presentable to his own conscience), St. Paul merely presumed upon the necessity of these social mores and neglected to fully challenge their legitimacy in the light of the gospel. Therefore, it has taken millennia for the Christian people to ‘progress’ beyond the original inhibitions of St. Paul and the Apostles in order to fully realize their gospel of love. With the aid of contemporary psychological science and liberal democracy, we are now able to overcome these prejudices of the first Christians.

First off, this bland version of ‘progressive theology’ hardly does justice to the story of Scripture itself. Did St. Paul, as a devout Jew, look approvingly on the social institution of slavery? Most certainly not! The whole story of the Jewish faith is of a God who saves the Children of Israel from the “cruel slavery” of Egypt.(Ex 1:13, 6:5, 20:2; Dt 6:12, 7:8) The Jewish law, whom Paul was an expert in, is composed in light of a mercy toward slaves “for you were once slaves in the land of Egypt.” (See Lv 25:39-42, Dt 5:15; 15:15, 23:16, 24:18-22) And while it is true that the Old Testament fails to challenge slavery as a social institution, it would be incorrect to assume that it thusly taught to embrace slavery as such. St Paul knew that the the Old Testament theology, speaking “in partial and varied ways,” (Hb 1:1) could not in-and-of-itself end all injustices. Remember: it is not until the New Testament that God’s people are ordered to spread the morality of Monotheism beyond the borders of Israel. Until the coming of Christ, the assumption was the Polytheists experience “conflicting thoughts in their hearts” yet failed to repent were to be judged accordingly. (See Rm 14-16) Therefore, if St. Paul did indeed endorse a “theology of slavery,” then, Scripturally speaking, it indicated that a retrogression and NOT a progression had occurred from Old to New Testament!

Yet, St. Paul (and St. Peter, for that matter) happily and repeatedly called himself a “slave of Christ Jesus.” (Rm 1:1, Gal 1:10, Phil 1:7; Titus 1:1) This would be a radical thing for a Jew to say, and not the least because 1st century Pharisees were fond of pointing out that they had “never been enslaved to anyone.”(See John 8:33). Even a cursory glance at St. Paul’s writing reveals his strange affinity for the state of slavery. Beyond begging slaves to be “subject to their masters” (Eph 6:5; the phrase ‘subject to’ is difficult to translate from the Greek. It seems to indicate “a loving acceptance of” or a “filial obedience to”), St. Paul also asks for children and wives to act the same way towards the head of the family (Eph 5:22, 6:1; Col 3:20), for Christians to be “subject to one another out of reverence for Christ”(Eph 5:21) while always remaining respectful of the presbyters, bishops and leaders. (See Rm 13:7; 1 Thess 5:12; 1 Tim 5:19 Heb 13:17[not written by St. Paul, but in his tradition]) In fact, it seems that, according to this reading, St. Paul wanted everybody to be slaves to everybody else!

One could argue, however, that the above examples simply represent St. Paul’s pastoral zeal. Accordingly, he didn’t envision the Church entering into an official state of mutual slavery so much as a Christian love that takes the form of interdependent servitude. Such a pastoral exhortation only reveals that Paul, like Christ, was willing to use profane metaphors to make spiritual points. (See Matt 12:29, Luke 14:31) That line of thought may be true. However, the most glaring exception to that rule would be the short but terribly important letter to Philemon, in which Paul explicitly sends Onesimus, an escaped slave, back to his master. Both Onesimus and Philemon are Christians, and therefore equal in the eyes of the Church. Nonetheless, St. Paul orders Onesimus to return to his master rather than asking for his release. This must be taken as, in the very least, a passive acceptance of the social institution of slavery itself. However, when we look beyond the action itself and read the words of St. Paul, something strange appears. St. Paul begs for mercy from Philemon, seeming to place the blame on himself as a “prisoner of Jesus Christ.” (Phm 1:8-10) Next, he states that his ‘usefulness’ is now characterized by the relationship of love in Christ (v 11) and that Onesimus is Paul’s very heart (v. 12). Finally in verse 17, St. Paul entirely self-identifies with Onesimus, asking Philemon to accept him not as a slave but as a ‘partner’ in Christ. One could call this the first example of a theology of ‘solidarity,’ a very progressive stance indeed!

So is St. Paul’s theology ‘progressive’ or ‘traditional?’ Was it open to further development? And as it regards ‘social ethics,’ does it represent the final word of Christian theology?

Such questions, though popular, hardly seem as important in the light of the questions we could now raise: What is mutual subjection? What is ‘slavery in Christ?’ How am I to live so as to be ‘the heart’ of my fellow Christians? Such speculation represents a very brief look at St. Paul’s theological perspective on slavery. It is by no mean exhaustive, but it should at least be unsettling. I leave you with no direct answers, but only with a warning: it is a terrible mistake to assume that the ancient Christian Saints knew less about love than we do. To try to read Scripture in light of contemporary morals and cultural change is to become guilty of the very thing you accuse the Scriptural author of being: namely, a close-minded child of the current age. In contrast, wouldn’t it be better for a Christian to assent to the truth our teaching on human rights has remained solidly on the side of charity since the time of St. Paul? From that perspective, we take his words and actions as an example. We are called to ‘self-identify’ with all people without ever using political or social powers as a means to override the Gospel.

One final word on St. Paul’s theology. Far from being a personal reflection of a learned Christian, it is an essential part of the Deposit of Faith and, along with the words of Peter, John, James and Jude, represents an inexhaustible treasure of Christian truth. To dismiss or defend it with mere soundbites is to do an injustice to Divine Revelation, and to Jesus Christ himself. If this blog represents the briefest of reflections that can occur in good conscience, we should neither be inspired or upset about the off hand comments of an upset politician. Their ‘theology’ is as nothing compared to the vast Revelation that is offered us in the Gospel of Christ. It would be wise to look to Him before looking anywhere else.

Divine Pedagogy (Or, Church Lingo…Made Fun!)

I love those phrases you find in Church documents that just can’t be found anywhere else. Phrases like ‘actual participation,’ ‘consubstancial,’ ‘distinct but not separate,’ ‘the Analogy of Being,’ or ‘Invincible Ignorance.’ Perhaps those outside the Church would see all this creative vocabulary as, at best, bureaucratic myth-making or, at worst, an example of ecclesiastical Double-Speak. In actuality the Church’s unique shop-talk is neither of these: its hard to be intimidated by such vocabulary when you realize that it has been expounded by a group of sincere old men groping for words to describe the ineffable.

My favorite recent discovery in magisterial documents is the phrase ‘divine pedagogy,’ roughly translated, ‘God’s teaching style.’ The phrase appears in Dei Verbum 15 as an attempt to articulate why it was God used “partial and various ways” (Heb 1:1) in the Old Covenant to prefigure Christ;

These books, though they also contain some things which are incomplete and temporary, nevertheless show us true divine pedagogy. (DV 15)

Now that I am a teacher myself, I know how difficult it can be to reveal a big idea to your students. And your own excitement is not the least of your worries. Today I got so pumped about the 4th cup at the Passover that I almost spilled grape juice all over one of my students. We were doing a living re-enactment of the last Supper, and as I intensely explained the most intimate moments of the meal, my students were daring each other to chug the bitter herbs. Clearly I needed to have better recourse to a Divine Pedagogy. That’s not to say that I despair of their having taken anything away from the experience. Rather, I now realize that more time could have been given to a proper balancing between the content and the style of the presentation.

That last sentence is a bit confusing. Let’s try it this way: Sometimes (most of the time) God’s revelation is so astounding that it results in too many words, too many images, and too many lessons. Outsiders may think that a theology teacher has to struggle to find content for his lessons. This is certainly not the case: a theology teacher is burdened with too much content and is further burdened by the prospect of having to shelve much of it for later instruction.

But what to reveal and what to conceal? How am I to be like the good scribe “who brings from his storeroom both the old and the new” when I can carry so little in my arms? It is in facing problems such as these that the thought of a Divine Pedagogy becomes miraculously attractive. Wouldn’t it be nice to know what to show to the students today, and then what to show tomorrow so that, years from now, when their all grown up and nothing makes sense, they will remember the Word and believe? According to the Council Fathers, that is exactly what the Old Testament is: a gradual reveal that establishes plot, setting and characters in so perfect a way that, when the hero arrives, we all know what’s up and who’s down.

In and of itself, the Old Testament is very unsettling. The violence, the philandering and the obscurities are problematic. Worse, however, is the lingering promises of God, who keeps saying that things will get better, only to turn around and allow things to get worse. As a great theologian recently said to me; “The most tragic real thing that can be thought of is an Old Testament without any hope of a New Testament.” Yet, it is in the Old Testament that we first witness the Divine Pedagogy. God allows his students to fail the first semester! He anticipates the fact that they will mess up, misunderstand and manipulate his plan. He’s ready for it. He knows that the story is too big to be told all at once, though, so he saves the best for last. His faith in us is that, when that last age has come, we will be ready to receive Him for real. His patience works for our salvation. That is the Divine Pedagogy. And if I am to have any hope for patience of my own for tomorrow, I should get to sleep soon…

St. Chesterton, Pray for Us!?

The idea of St. Chesterton, recently reported on by the Daily Mail and encouraged by words of both Pope Francis and the bishop of Northampton, has left me in a fit of giggles. Not that I doubt the validity of the claim. It appears that Pope Francis is a long time Chesterton fan, blessing book groups of the British journalist in his native Argentina. Bishop Peter Doyle’s simultaneous investigation of Chesterton’s life is the first of many steps toward canonization. (In Chesterton’s case, the longest step might be the thorough examination of his writings for intentional heresy, a process that could take decades given the sheer amount of ink he spilt. Still, I think you will find no shortage of scholars willing to volunteer for the task).

Nonetheless, the idea of Chesterton holy cards, Chesterton icons, St. Gilbert Keith Parishes, GKC novenas and (not so) mini-statuettes is enough to make one giddy with delight. Perhaps the only person besides who would find these things more comical than GKC fans do would be GKC himself. Can you imagine the jokes he would crack on the occasion of the dedication of a St. Chesterton Shrine (They’ll have to have a very large sanctuary to fit a statue of me in it! Accuracy would require there be a pub next door! The holy medals ought to be chocolate, like those fake chocolate coins that children use! What will they do, sell penny dreadfuls instead of devotional in the vestibule after Mass!?). It is simply outrageous that GKC should be made a saint. And yet, it seems he has friends in high places who would like to see it happen. It is a good thing, too, that Chesterton became Roman Catholic: he joined the only church crass and crazy enough to canonize the likes of him!

In all seriousness, though (a phrase Chesterton seems to have hated), the cause for Chesterton’s canonization may be outrageous, but it is not offensive. However, from reading the comments on the Daily Mail article, one gets the sense that the good people of London are scandalized that a newspaper man from their own city should be up for sainthood. Perhaps it is with good reason. GKC was the first to admit that he belonged to a profession that attracted the slothful and the spineless alike. He would join their voices of dissent at the idea of a London journalist joining the canon of Saints, save for the strange fact that he is most assuredly no longer alive in London. I cannot suppose his current location, seeing as Pope Francis thinks it possible that he is far better off than any of us thought possible.

Possible is the key word in all this. All this news means is that the leaders of our Church think it possible that GKC is in heaven. The smiles and the scandal surrounding such a statement tell us more about ourselves than they do about Chesterton. Is it so terribly silly that so great a theologian be admitted to heaven, even if he was nothing more than a journalist? Why are we put off by the idea of his sanctity, when it would be a comforting thought that a man as full of life as GKC might have made it through the pearly gates? Perhaps it is because we like gritty, challenging saints, not jolly orthodox ones. Maybe it is because we like controversialists with new ideas, not contrite coots with old ones. Chesterton self-identified as a liberal who fought for the poor. At the same time, he defeated heresy and converted CS Lewis (and countless others). He argued against communism, capitalism and fascism all while they were still popular. He perfectly met all the demands of the era and did it all with his unique brand of optimism and common sense. Optimism, common sense and sanctity: how many of us can claim such a trinity? So, why not a St. Chesterton?

GKC, ora pro nobis.

Sensuum Defectui (Or, the Diet Coke Adventure)

“The most incredible thing about miracles is that they happen.”-GKC

Twice today I had experiences of the surreal nature of reality that can only be called miraculous. Every once in a while, the true colors of our Divinely created universe shift into focus and blind us with their intensity. Science, when taken as merely a form of study, often numbs us to these colors, yet reason itself confirms that numbness is a sign of a distortion from reality. A numbed mind, like a numb finger or blurry eye-sight, may indeed come in contact with reality, but because it fails to connect with reality in its full spectrum, rendering our experience false before it can even try to be true. And perhaps no one knows this truth better than the person who’s numbness is taken away from them to be replaced by a sudden and vivid sensitivity. Such was my experience today.

It is dreadfully hot in New Orleans. Cruising from one side of the river to the other, my mind began to fall into that perilous lethargy that Southerners associate with the month of August. I was leaving the school where I hold classes to pay a bill at another school where I take classes. I walked through the cool halls on my way to the financial office, walked through the door, and was shocked into a state of consciousness beyond hot or cold. When I had come to this office three years ago, I could distinctly remember a diet coke sitting on the desk next to the computer. Certainly there was a new financial aid person behind the desk. It was clear from the boxes and bags littering the office that she had recently moved in. There was a new computer, new decorations, new paint, but the same diet coke sat in the same place I remembered it being before. After all, one does not forget the petty details of so oppressive a place as an financial aid office. Rarely does a student find themselves in such a place without fear. On my visit three years prior, I had sat nervously trying to finalize my information before the semester deadline. In the midst of my turmoil, I remember contemplating the cool perspiration on the diet coke. And here it was again, gloating like the face of fate. I could see the fresh carbonation rising from its sneering mouth, laughing at me.

And my mind, awoken with a strange suddenness to the vexing twists of reality, grappled to make sense of it all. Had, for three years, the world spun dizzily around this one can of coke? Did paint dry, people pack, papers fly, all the while this coke remaining unmoved? Was this round metal the true axis of the universe, on which we all spun. I imagined a time-lapse in which the desk was emptied, the room cleaned, furniture replaced, and all the time this on can of diet coke remained fixed in the center of it all. If the desk rotted into ruin, I wondered, would the coke remain hovering in midair?

I am not a superstitious man. Some might argue the point, however, when they read what I did next: I ran to the chapel. Once inside the stillness of that room, I approached the Tabernacle, but once more awoke with a new horror. This was the same Tabernacle I had seen early today when on the other side of the river! Inside was the same host, the same True Presence, that I had felt early today but in a totally different location. Now two uncanny thoughts swirled in my mind: that of an ever-fixed can of coke that waited for me in the other room and of an ever-loving God who relentlessly chased me across rivers and bridges.

I said I am not a superstitious man, but for a moment I felt on the verge of becoming one. Lightheaded, I prayed to God, then saw these mysteries in their true light. Superstition, a wise man once told me, is not when man thinks too much of God’s place in universe (a logical impossibility) but when he thinks too little of his own place here. The superstitious man forgets in whose image he is made and thus lets the trivialities of nature make sport of him. Made in the image of God, it is totally possible, nay even likely, that two totally different people might take different can’s of coke and place them in the same place. Human beings like regularity and order. We make all cans of coke the same for the same reason that God makes all trees different: creative efficiency. Taking into account the fact that we willfully choose to drink coke at our desks, it would only make sense that I might see two such objects in the same place. Coffee stalls at airports, benches on street corners, Walmarts at Interstate Exits: these things indicate not a mythic quality in the universe but the material mysticism of man. Man, whether praying or building, always likes to be regular.

God made us so. The image of His order and goodness haunts even our sin. Therefore, when He became man (and then became bread) that we might be saved, he left us evidence of His own will by placing himself in all the places we might want to be with Him. Yet He knew that we could not handle the strange solidity of idol worship. Had he become a statue, His Presence would have haunted us like the Immovable Can of Diet Coke, perched ominously in a single Temple like the pagans of old had envisioned. Yet, had he merely given us a symbolic representation of Himself, then how could our hearts recover from the bitingly real enigmas and separations of the material world? That is to say, lovers are never satisfied with representation. We like regularity.We need to be close. We like our coke in the afternoon on the middle of our desk. We like our spouses in our arms at night. A simple “symbol” of His love would never “do the trick.” Only a True Presence would satisfy us. To paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, if the Eucharist is only a True Symbol, then to Hell with it.

“The incredible thing about miracles is that they happen.” In a universe where the food and drinks we desire appear with such regularity, shouldn’t our miraculous God be willing to appear with an even more regularity. The Almighty could not have His show stolen by cans of coke! So, in ways never foreseen and never guessed at, He made His Presence among us known in flesh and blood and bread and wine. According to Aquinas, the power by which He did this was greater than any of the mysteries of creation. Still, the greater mystery is why His love would go through such trouble, why He would bother to leap over a river and mount a cross, just to be with you and me.