Oh Lord, purify me, make me a chalice in which you dwell, offer your sacrifice in me and spread your love through me. Let me shine like gold, adorn me with the jewels of virtue that I may always be open to you. Fill me. Overflow me. Let me be like that most perfect vessel, the Singular Vessel of Devotion, She to whom I cry for protection against the Evil One. I ask this for your glory, for the vessel is nothing without the sustenance inside, the cup nothing unless it is filled. Oh Lord, purify me.

Give me a word, Abba

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Tree is the Church

Every year, thousands of trees are sold around Christmas Time. I believe this is because of the birth of the Saviour of the World, but occasionally it seems like it's not. After the purchase, people generally put it in the corner of their living room or some similar location. Then comes the Decoration. Often people wrap tinsel around the branches, hang identical balls or icicles and put a star or angel on top. Often it is very neat and tidy, well conceived to welcome the coming of a King. Or is it?

I have never been a huge fan of these neat and tidy trees with identical ornaments and well trimmed branches. Instead, my family has always had a thousand different ornaments, all different all unique. Some are kitsch, some are huge and plastic. Some are delicate and glass, some are metal sculptures of angels. Some are paper and some are the more typical balls and icicles. It's a mess of different things all thrown together, united by the green of the tree and the string of lights that threads its way unevenly through the branches. And it's strangely beautiful.

People who know me know that I don't like messy. I don't like kitsch. I don't like trite or sentimental. Somehow I do love this tree we have every year. It might be something that I realized this year: The Tree is the Church.

Hold, on, stay with me. It's not as strange as you think. We're all a mess. We all have those moments when we're not sophisticated, when we don't quite have it together. Sometimes we don't want to be serious or perfect. We, the people of this earth, are a motley crew. And if we're only left to ourselves to throw each other into boxes, the mess will be apparent. We'll lose our purpose and we'll lose our love for humanity, not to mention the love of God.

But 2000 years ago, give or take a couple years or so, God decided to take us out of the boxes we'd been building for the whole of history. He wanted us to be united not by self inflicted categories causing only chaos but rather by the Hope of Salvation and the Light of the world. His birth brought the Kingdom of God into the world so that He might bring His Chosen People, the Church into Heaven. His Birth was the conception of the Church, though it wouldn't celebrate its birth for another 33 years.

The Christmas Tree that we put up, with all its mess, IS the Church. It's all the members, no matter what state of life, no matter how sinful or unenthusiastic. We're all united by the green of hope and the light of salvation. And we must thank God for bringing us together to celebrate His birth and His plan of salvation.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Advent in Brief

One of the sorry situations in which I find myself is College Finals in the Fall Semester. This is not because I don't like Finals. I actually, strangely, like exams. The problem is when is inadvertantly conflicts with my observance of the great season of Advent. Advent is about waiting, about silence and about desire. It's quite hard to wait for something when plumbing and ducts are loudly pushing any thought of the Coming of Christ from your brain. (Yes, that is what I was taking a final about this semester.) It's quite hard to collect your thoughts and store them away so that your brain can rest in the silence of anticipation when the whole University is seething with quiet frustration about That Last Paper. It's quite hard to feel any sort of desire for the source of Peace when your own restless heart is dullened by tension and strife over packing up for the semester.

And yet, I'm almost glad that Finals sort of shuffled its dirty feet all over my Advent because now there's so little time before Christmas and if I don't get my own feet moving, spiritually speaking, I shan't have prepared at all. I really feel the need to buckle down and look to the East for inspiration now that I've almost run out time.

And that's also how I generally feel about finals too. I am able to accomplish much more when pressed for time. I need to have pressure over my head in order to realize what actually needs to get done. Call me lazy and you'll be right.

But all throughout this semester, I could feel that there was something that I was missing, some way that I was failing to look forward to Christ's coming, some way that I was turning from The East. And Advent is the perfect opportunity to figure out what that is. For me, it has so be something concrete that reminds me of the East and of the source of Joy. It has to be some sort of practice that can remind me of the rhythm of the Eternal Song.

And so perhaps my Advent hasn't been the most complete, but there never can be a perfect Advent, and for me, having a sort of abbreviated Advent, while not being ideal, certainly has helped me to discover the season all over again. To experience the desire.

Advent and Anticipation

Advent is such a wonderful season because it’s all about hoping, anticipating and something most of us don’t like to do: waiting. It would be excessive to list examples of how we must go through periods of waiting in our lives because it happens so often whether it’s for something as trivial as laundry to finish washing or as important as a wedding day. Regardless of the situation, waiting tends to quickly annoy and frustrate us though it shouldn’t and doesn’t have to.

During this season advent calendars are methodically opened each day, there are hymns and antiphons with a tone of restless anticipation urging the savior to come “ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile" and a new candle is lit on the advent wreath as another week goes by. Yes, we are counting down the days because we cannot wait until the big event, the fulfillment of the long wait. But what are we supposed to do during that time besides dream about when we no long have to wait? In current society poor Advent takes a beating because there hardly is this time to properly reflect before Christmas. We’re already thinking about what gifts we’re giving and getting and whether that shirt will turn out to be the wrong size and have to be exchanged, and all the while Christmas music is following us in the background on the radio and getting stuck in our heads. Our culture isn’t very understanding of the idea of having to wait. (Technology certainly doesn’t help this when everyone is glued to a smartphone.) People don’t like being told that they cannot have whatever they want right now and often decide like spoiled children to reach for it anyways.

The reason I like Advent so much is not because I enjoy holding off on the joy of Christmas for as long as possible but because our entire lives are one very long season of Advent. Maybe that’s why every year as much as I love the liturgical season it’s often hard to feel like it is Advent now because it always feels sort of like it. I have not read as much C.S. Lewis as I wish I currently had but he seems to understand this very well. Life is a period of waiting and anticipation as we try to get home to heaven and it would be foolish during that time to try to speed the current situation along or to waste our time. The two extremes are: 1) that you should just start celebrating now because if Christmas is so good what's the reason not to extend the party? and 2) that since you can’t do anything about rushing along time you might as well sulk until you can finally open your presents on December 25th. The third option, like always, is the balance. Advent is a time to prepare. There is so much one can do while waiting and so much one must prepare for. There's something about the journey of the wait that makes us appreciate the final prize that much more. When we deny ourselves of something we realize how we miss it and how much more we want it. And when it's Christmas day and we experience all of the joy and then feel the letdown with shreds of wrapping paper on the floor and trees on the street curb we can look back to the crib and remember that we are still waiting for a fuller happiness and rejoice in the promise of that. Lewis said it in Till We Have Faces, "It was when I was happiest that I longed most...the sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing...to find the place where all the beauty came from."

Monday, December 17, 2012

In which Home is recovered

We're all looking for Home.

Home, n. a place in which Rest, Revelry, Joy, and Peace happen, but most of all, Love.

One of the ideas of Home that I most identify with is the idea of Ithaca. After a long journey of hardship, failure, there's a chance that I might be able to return to my family. But it seems like even those places that are most like Home often fail you. I won't deny that Notre Dame, as close to Home as I've ever felt away from home, constantly disappoints me and the joy and peace and revelry that shines through reflecting off the golden dome seems to elude me so often.

Where to find it then? People look in the strangest places. Young men try to find acceptance and brotherhood in gangs, hippies try the commune approach. Drugs create a false sense of happiness or at least a respite from pain. It's tempting in this world of pain to try to just escape it and in that way find "home." But home isn't just a negation of pain or evil. There must be a positive good to it or else it's just s doldrum nihilist existence.

Home is the stars shining through a cold night and the moon reflecting off frozen dew. Home is light shining on tawny brick and shadows cast on cold stone. Home is green grass and fall leaves. Home is, in other words, Beauty.

Home is where the heart is? My heart longs for Beauty and wherever my heart recovers that, then I am Home.

And I am Home.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Cost of Freedom

Freedom is touted as one of the most important things in existence. Now and again, Bishops will say something about Religious Freedom (or Freedom of Religion). Even more often, Americans will say something about Freedom of Speech, Freedom of the Press, and Freedom to Gyrate on the Dance Floor (or on a pole). It's not easy to dismiss freedom. It's been in the common political mind of the West for centuries now. However, "freedom" is not such an easy thing to define let alone support without proper definition.

For instance, was a medieval serf free?

Was a medieval Lord free?

Is a porn star free?

Are Hollywood actors free?

Are members of Democracies free?

Freedom in many cases seems to mean either "license" or "self-rule." Is this really a proper ideal though? In my experience, it is when I have someone with authority directing me and showing me the proper way to go that I am able to more freely move toward my goals. I positively flounder when left to my own devices. If a child is not taught to swim, then as an adult, he will not be free to move around the water as he wishes. In this way, it is essential that we have someone to push us toward our goals and even to have an authority over us in order that we might reach them. This is, after all, the purpose of parents.

But it seems as if Authority is the worst reality and Discipline is the work of the devil. No, we must be allowed to squander our talents and abilities in an orgy of drinking and sexual encounters. This is what college is about. That is true freedom.

However, that only leads to painfully broken hearts, addictions (the opposite of freedom), and failure. A broken heart forces you into a spiral of feelings and thoughts which when dwelt on only make the pain greater. When these emotions rule, you are not free. Addictions, not surprisingly, are really common. So many people ruled by a substance or an experience, not able to resist, to say no. The Status Quo becomes God and that Status Quo is harmful. eventually, the experience of the addiction becomes the regular life and the other experiences become the few and far between glimpses of light. Failure itself can be an addiction. Being so used to failure, one can almost seek it out, just to make sure that things stay the same. Scared of success, we huddle in the cramped house of failure.

Is it really worth it then to be "free?" Can we rule ourselves? Can we do what we like without consequence? As for me (and hopefully my house), I will reject this understanding of freedom and serve the Lord.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Briefest of Discussions on Guilt, Justice and Mercy

The other day a misunderstanding of the term “negative theology” in my studio brought up a conversation about how some people assert that you must do or not do certain things solely with the incentive of fear of punishment directed forcefully from a wrathful God . The discussion didn’t last long because all of us (a handful of Catholics and an atheist) immediately agreed that it’s quite a bit silly to guilt someone into something with the motivation of fear, most especially when the desired end is the heavenly reward. I opened my mouth to remark that people who take such approaches are fixated on God as an angry judge but before a word could leave my mouth I shook my head and said, “No, it’s not even a matter of considering God as only a judge. This type of thought doesn’t leave room for mercy let alone justice”. If God is a judge He is a just one and justice never leaves room for unreasonable and unfair decisions. He must judge with both the firmness of unhappy consequences and the mercy of love. Yes, it is true that if you disregard the commandments you will pay a severe and heavy price, yet we are not supposed to be driven to heaven by fear and shameful guilt. We’re called first and foremost to love God and love leaves no room for fear. As my atheist friend followed up, the misguided approach doesn’t require you to even do good for the sake of doing good but rather for the more selfish motive of assuring first and foremost you are spared from the pains of eternal damnation.

"Christ in Majesty". A mosaic from the National Shrine in D.C. that I am well acquainted with but is oft criticized for "too much sternness". Bah. Doesn't anyone care about portraying justice anymore?

Now all of this reminds me that there is a lot of misunderstanding with the term “Catholic guilt” that gets thrown around and creeps its way into culture and the occasional conversation. For example, Death Cab for Cutie’s hit “I Will Follow You into the Dark” states: “In Catholic school as vicious as Roman rule/I got my knuckles bruised by a lady in black/And I held my tongue as she told me "Son, fear is the heart of love.”/So I never went back”. First of all, this is simply an untrue statement misconstruing anything about the teaching of the Church. Now would be a good time to mention that one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is Fear of the Lord but it is only the fear which doesn't cause us to fear the goodness of God but the evil of sin. It is the sort of "fear" that is caused by immense respect for someone and since there is no one greater than God we should have no greater respect for Him and thus fear no one more than Himself. Yet we Catholics have the inexpressibly wonderful sacrament of confession where God Himself working through the priest alleviates us of our guilt and we are merely given infinitesimal penances after confessing. How could God be so willing to punish us if He allows second chances and third chances and fourth chances, etc. to forgive us and offer us His grace through the sacraments? It comes down to a choice of free will whether or not we want to accept His overpowering love or shy away from it completely. Either way it is guaranteed that He expresses true justice and that the surest way to secure salvation is through love and not by way of the provocation of fear.