Beauty and Truth

At the beginning of Mass at Church of Our Lady of Lourdes yesterday, Bishop Lee Piche blessed a new icon of St. Joan of Arc, written for that church by the iconographer Nicholas Markell. Following Mass, Markell gave a wonderful talk on Art and Beauty in the Catholic Church.

One of the things Markell talked about was the need to appreciate the link between beauty and goodness. He cited Aquinas’ statement that truth, goodness and beauty are transcendentally one, and described beauty as a way we come to know truth and goodness, a way we come to know God. So beauty is not (as we often confuse it to be) glamor or prettiness or opulence or decoration. Rather, beauty is harmonious, radiant, whole and invites contemplation.

I found very illuminating his discussion of the characteristics of icons and how symbolism, anatomy, garments and nature are used to realize those characteristics. I can’t do an effective job of summarizing all the points he made, and I’m hoping there will be a podcast posted of his talk or his slides.

One of the things that stayed with me was the idea that the icon reveals a spiritual beauty linked to the glory of God and how God in his grace glorifies the person imaged in the icon. That is, the icon does not present a perfect, ideal of a person, but a glorified person – a person through whom God’s glory shines through. In that, the icon always points beyond the image, which linked to his brief discussion of praying with icons (something Markell has spoken about at Lourdes at greater length in the past.

Although it doesn’t do it justice, here is a picture of the icon:
2014-06-29 09.36.17

You can see some of Markell’s work on his website here.


Apostle to the Jews and Apostle to the Gentiles

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Sts. Paul. I’ve spoken about each of them in different contexts on many occasions. So for today, I’d like to share with you an excerpt from a reflection on this feast day written by my friend Bill Nolan, Pastoral Associate at St. Thomas Apostle church in Minneapolis.

This reflection appeared in the weekly newsletter Bill sends out reflecting on the Sunday Gospel. Here is what he said about Peter and Paul:

Peter and Paul. Apostle to the Jews and Apostle to the Gentiles. One denied knowing Christ, the other relentlessly persecuted followers of The Way. Each had a tendency to speak first and think second, causing them each some trouble. And while no conclusive statement can be made, there is considerable evidence that they didn’t like each other all that much. Yet there they are, standing watch over the political and spiritual center of Roman Catholicism, some might say all of Christianity. Together.

Each heard God’s call in their life. Each made mistakes in interpreting just how to follow that call. Each lead others, each alienated others. Each had an ego. Each defied labels of conservative or liberal in their own time and continue to defy them today. Each wanted some aspects of tradition protected and each wanted the spreading of the Gospel to progress, unburdened by those elements of tradition which no longer served the message of that Gospel. Each was willing to die for their faith. Each did.

The early Church needed both Peter and Paul in order to survive. It needed the tensions that each brought to the table. It needed their respective visions, warnings, and willingness to forge ahead against considerable odds. It needed their holiness as well as their frailty. It needed their humanity.

And how much more the Church of today needs all of these things. So as we celebrate this weekend the Solemnity of these two proud men, let us look for Peter and Paul in our midst. Let us look for the Peter and Paul in ourselves. And let us be grateful for what each continues to bring to the banquet.

Where do you find Peter or Paul in yourself?

A Mother’s Heart

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. The Gospel passage for today’s feast is Luke’s account of the finding of Jesus in the temple, a selection I initially found strange, but then realized it is actually quite a perfect fit.

Any mother who has ever “lost” her child – i.e., all of us at one point or another – appreciate that Gospel scene. The horror of Mary when she realizes her son is not with the caravan. Her relief when he is found. And her realization (at his cryptic reply that he must be in his Father’s house) that ultimately, her son must leave her and follow his own path.

I sat this morning with that passage and with the image of the heart of Mary – the heart of a mother. I know that heart:

The heart that wants to see you child fly even while fearing her falls.

The heart that wants to hold her close even while knowing she needs to roam.

The heart that knows she will suffer injuries you cannon heal with a kiss and a bandaid.

The heart that knows you will cease to be able to know what is best for her and have to rely on her judgments.

A mother’s heart. Something worth celebrating.

Invitation and Love

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus. Why do we have a day devoted to celebration of the Heart of Jesus? In the words of Pope Benedict,

The essential nucleus of Christianity is expressed in the Heart of Jesus; in Christ the whole of the revolutionary newness of the Gospel was revealed and given to us: the Love that saves us and already makes us live in God’s eternity. Even our shortcomings, our limitations, and our weaknesses must lead us back to the Heart of Jesus. His divine Heart calls to our hearts, inviting us to come out of ourselves, to abandon our human certainties to trust in him.”

I have never been moved by traditional depictions of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Jesus standing there pointing to his heart or holding a heart in His hand is not something that touches me. I actually find some of the depictions I’ve seen over the years a little creepy.

But there are two images that come to my mind when I think of the Sacred Heart of Jesus that do have meaning to me.

The first is the statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus that stood at the top of the long driveway that led to St. Ignatius Retreat House in New York, my spiritual home for so many years. The statue was a large, almost life-sized, white statue of Jesus with his arms outstretched in welcome, looking almost as though he is about to embrace whoever is approaching him.

The first time I went to St. Ignatius my heart was filled with grief – it was the Monday after 9/11. I can still remember seeing that statute for the first time. As it came into view, I felt the tension in my body begin to dissipate. The anxiety drained and I felt invited, welcomed. I knew it was right to have come there.

Each time I drove to the retreat house I had the same experience. (Alas, the house is not closed and sold; I have no idea where the statue is now.) Whatever I happened to be feeling at the time – fatigue, irritation, anxiety, I would pull into the driveway, see that statute, and smile broadly as I felt something release in my body. I could feel each time, the love and the invitation Jesus extended to his disciples in today’s Gospel: “Come away to a quiet place and rest a while.”

That is the invitation extended to all of us by the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

The second image is in the Shrine of the Sacred Heart on the grounds of the Jesuit Retreat House in Oshkosh, which presents a very different image from the traditional depictions.

The statue in the Shrine depicts Jesus sitting with a small boy standing at his side. Jesus’ right arm is around the boy, whose eyes are closed and whose head leans in, resting on Jesus. The boy’s right hand is holding Jesus’ left hand resting on Jesus’ knee and the boy’s other hand rests gently on Jesus’ forearm. Jesus’ gazes intently at the boy, as though there is no one else in the world. Total love and compassion pouring out of Jesus. And the child there in total trust and comfort. When I saw that statue, my first thought was: this is truly the Sacred Heart of Jesus!

The Sacred Heart of Jesus invites us to an intimate relationship of love and trust in Jesus. A relationship that changes everything about who we are in the world.

Sometimes Things Don’t Work

Yesterday I worked at home, which I sometimes do (although less frequently these days, as our home is “staged” for prospective purchasers). Twice during the day, the electricity went out – once for several minutes and once for a couple of hours.

My first reaction was irritation. I rely heavily on my computer for my writing, and its battery life is not the longest. And I had been working on something relatively time-sensitive. (“Relatively” because the world was not going to stop spinning on its axis if this was delayed by a day.)

Then I realized how spoiled we are, living with the expectation that everything is always supposed to “work” right. And I remember my time living in Buddhist monasteries in Nepal and India, where it was hit or miss whether flipping a light switch would result in electricity or turning on a tap would yield water. (The former happened more frequently than the latter.) We managed.

We live with with some amazing things we take for granted – in fact we don’t even think of them as amazing because they seem so normal to us. Last night I even sat in a theater here in the Twin Cities watching a life performance of a play performed by the Shakespeare Royal Company in England!

The thing is, occasionally, the internet will not work, the electricity may go out, or some other inconvenience may arise. Things will not always work, and sometimes their not working will be inconvenient.

We can let ourselves be irritated or just get up and do something else.

My solution to the loss of electricity yesterday afternoon was to get out for an extended walk. In the long run, that was probably a lot better for my body and my soul than an extra hour at my computer.

Beware of False Prophets

The opening admonition of today’s Gospel from Matthew – “Beware of false prophets” – is a great follow-up to the discussion we had during the last session of the book group at Our Lady of Lourdes, the focus of which has been Jack Levison’s Fresh Air: The Holy Spirit for an Inspired Life.

We had been talking last evening about Levison’s discussion of the Christian community at Antioch, which he described as characterized by a love of learning, an ear for prophesy, and right practices. In that context we talked about what it means for us to have receptivity to the word of prophets – not always easy since prophets don’t always tell us what we want to hear. And, let’s face it, sometimes true prophets seem downright crazy. They are often pushed aside (or worse) by those in power.

But, as Levison also observes, “Where there is prophesy, there must be a discernment process to know if the prophetic word is true.” He quotes Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians: “Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything.” The approach of the community in Antioch to discernment included prayer as well as “a good dose of common sense.” We talked a little about what that discernment entails for us.

“Beware of false prophets” is a reminder of the need to discernment. But it is equally important that the fear of false prophets not cause us to close our ears to the voices of the true prophets in our midst. We need to be as receptive as the community at Antioch, standing ready to hear the words of God through the prophets.

My gratitude to all those who participated in our book discussion. I will be looking forward to gathering with folks at Lourdes for another book discussion group in the fall; our plan is James Martin’s Jesus: A Pilgrimage.

What, Then, Will This Child Be?

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Nativity of John the Baptist.

John was born of a woman too old to bear children. The news of Elizabeth’s pregnancy was so unbelievable to Zechariah that he was struck dumb. We hear in today’s Gospel from Luke that only at John’s birth, when Zechariah writes that the baby will be named John was his mouth opened. All who were present were deeply affected, wondering “What, then, will this child be?”

The Gospel of the Evangelist John answers their question:

A man named John was sent from God. He came for testimony, to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. (1:6-9)

When the Jews from Jerusalem sent priests and Levites [to him] to ask him, “Who are you?” he admitted and did not deny it, but admitted, “I am not the Messiah.” So they asked him, “What are you then? Are you Elijah?” And he said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” He answered, “No.” So they said to him, “Who are you, so we can give an answer to those who sent us? What do you have to say for yourself?” He said: “I am ‘the voice of one crying out in the desert,“Make straight the way of the Lord,”’ as Isaiah the prophet said.” (1:19-23)

John has always been one of my heroes, a great model for us, and I often pray to be like him. No, not the dress in camel hair and eat locusts for my meals as Mattew’s Gospel suggested John did. I confess that does not much appeal to me. But to remember that my job always is to testify to the light. To remember that what I do is never about me, but about God. And to have John’s boldness in testifying to the truth. He is a good model for all of us who claim discipleship in Christ.

Blessings on this feast of the Nativity of John.

Eucharist: What Is Your Opening Line

Yesterday was the Feast of Corpus Christi – the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. At the Mass I attended, the priest gave what he called the “5 W’s and 1 H” – the Who, What, Why, When, Where and How of the Eucharist.

The priest led off with the Who. This is not an exact quote, since I was not recording the sermon, but what he said essentially was: “First who can received communion? Only Catholics in a state of grace may receive communion. So if you have a mortal sin on your soul, you cannot receive communion. Those of you who have been divorced, but not annulled, and remarried: know that God loves you, the Church loves you, we love you and you are welcome here but you may not receive communion. Those of you who are not Catholic: know that God loves you, the Church loves you, we love you and you are welcome here, but you may not receive communion. We in the parish office will be happy to talk with you about the annulment process or about RCIA.”

After this, he then went on to talk about why we receive Eucharist, what the Eucharist is, when and where we receive it, etc.

I don’t necessarily agree with everything the priest said about the Why and the How, but what I really reacted to was the Who – more precisely the placement of the Who.

To be very clear: I recognize everything the priest said about who can receive Eucharist is in accord with Church teaching and the point of this post is not to argue the merits of the Church’s teachings about divorced and remarried Catholics or about non-Catholics not being invited to participate in Eucharist. (We can find plenty of other opportunities to engage in those debates.)

My point is the effect of making the exclusionary claims the opening lines to a sermon about the Eucharist. If I’m sitting there as a non-Catholic or as a divorcee, once I’m told I’m not one of the “who” can receive, am I likely to hear anything more of the sermon? Even if one doesn’t fall into those two categories, it seems to me the focus has already been drawn away from the Eucharist itself.

Wouldn’t a stronger lead-off hitter be the “What” of the priest’s 5 W’s? Perhaps involve something of the beauty of the portion of the Bread of Life discourse that was today’s Gospel? Isn’t that really what we celebrate on this feast day?

Why start with who is not invited to the feast, rather than focus on what it is we are celebrating?

And maybe a sermon on today’s feast day was not the place to talk about the exclusionary rules at all.

This is perhaps a long way of saying: it is not just the teaching itself that matters. It is also the tone and how the message is conveyed.

Risking Growth

Yesterday evening Dave and I attended the wedding of the daughter of friends of ours. It was lovely ceremony and celebration.

The officiant was a Presbyterian minister, whose address to the couple spoke beautifully of some of the gifts these two young people bring to their marriage, and the challenges they would face. But the line she spoke that kept coming back to me was a very simple one: She spoke of marriage as requiring a willingness to risk who you are for the sake of who you could become.

Isn’t that the risk we face in all change, in all opportunities for growth? Invitations to change, opportunities to grow, by definition, always require us to risk who we are for the sake of who we might become.

And that makes change and growth a bit frightening. Who we are is comfortable. Even when we are not fully satisfied with our situation, our environment, ourselves – we become accustomed to the situation we are in. Changing that seems unsettling. Even more so when things seem to be going well. Why upset the apple cart? Why fix something that doesn’t seem to be broken?

But to fail to grow is to fail to thrive. It is to accept being less than our true selves. (To quote St. Irenaeus, “the glory of God is a human person fully alive.”)

To thrive, become fully alive, we need to step out of our comfort zone. We need to risk who we are for the sake of who we might become. Time and time again.

Seek First the Kingdom

Today’s Gospel from St. Matthew is one that is capable of being misread in a dangerous way.

“Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink,” Jesus tells his disciples. Among others, he gives the famous example of the wild flowers that grow without working and spinning, yet “not even Solomon in all his splendor was clothed like one of them.” God will provide it the message. And he adds, “seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides.”

My concern is that this language that can easily be misused to promote a Prosperity Gospel: Follow God and you will be rewarded with earthly. And the more dangerous flip side: One’s material wealth is a sign of God’s favor.

The related concern is that the message not to worry about what you eat and drink becomes mistranslated into the idea that we need not worry about meeting the needs of our less fortunate brothers and sisters. God will feed them, God will clothe them, not my problem.

I don’t think one can read Jesus to suggest either of these, yet, I know there are people who hold these views based on language such as this.

There is no question Jesus wants us to trust in God, to know that we are more important to God than the birds of the air and the flowers in the field. And it is equally clear that the admonition to not be a worrywort is one many of us need. We get anxious about all sorts of things – little and big – and none of that anxiety “add[s] a single moment to your life-span.”

But one cannot read the life and teachings of Jesus as a whole and come to the conclusion either that we are not obligated to take care of the needs of our brothers and sisters (go and re-read the judgment passage in Matthew 25 and remind yourselves of how the sheep and goats are separated) or that following God means riches (take a look at the material state of many of Jesus’ followers.

The words must be read in the context of the opening line of today’s Gospel: “No one can serve two masters…You cannot serve God and mammon.” The message here is clear: God comes first, which requires that we develop a proper relationship with the things of this world. They are here to help us in our growth toward God, but can never replace God as the center of our attention.

God comes first. And we can trust in God. But we are also called, as a manifestation of our love, to help the marginalized and those otherwise deprived of the means to live fully human lives. And while some of us may materially prosper, that prosperity is of value only if we use it in service of God and one another.