Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity

Today is what we sometimes call “Trinity Sunday,” – the celebration of the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity.

The Trinity is one of the doctrines of Christianity it is not very easy to explain. What does it mean to say that “there are three Persons in one God”?  When I memorized that line in Catholic grade school, they showed up a picture of a shamrock.  I confess that in my head, what I heard when I thought of the Trinity was I “Rub-a-dub-dub, three men in a tub.” (OK – my theology was not all that sophisticated in first and second grade.)

Michael Himes, who has a way of explaining difficult ideas very simply, suggests that the best way to understand the Trinity is by the statement in the First Letter of John that God is love. The love in John’s Letter is the Greek agape (as opposed to the other forms of the word love sometimes used in the Gospel – the Greek eros or phileo. Himes writes:

We say that God is the peculiar kind of love known as agape, perfect self-gift. To put this in other words, the First Letter of John claims that if one wants to know how to think about God, God is least wrongly thought of as a particular kind of relationship among persons, specifically the relationship of perfect self-gift. Now, that is a remakable claim: God is least wrongly to be thought of as a relationship, as what happens between and among persons.

St. Augustine speaks of the Trinity in similar terms, speaking of the Trinity in terms of God as Love, Beloved and the Love between them. The Trinity thus conveys the truth that God exists in a relationship of love.

Thus, when God the Trinity says in Genesis, “Let us make man in our image,” the image in which we are created is one of a community of love. We know God most fully, we are most fully who we were created to be, when we live in loving communion. And that, I think, helps explain why Michael Himes suggests that the Trinity “not one doctrine among others,” but “the whole of Christian doctrine.”

Blessings on this Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity.


The Anchoress

While in the bookstore shopping for a gift for a friend, I noticed a novel by Robyn Cadwallader titled The Anchoress.  Drawn to the title by my love for Julian of Norwich, who was an anchoress, and feeling the need for a break from my work, I added it to my purchases.

Cadwallader’s novel (her first) was inspired by medieval women who lived their lives as anchoresses.  The term “anchoress” comes from a Greek word that means “withdrawn from the world.”   An anchoress was a person who, with the permission of the local bishop, completely withdrew from society and committed herself to Christ, living a life of prayer and contemplation. Often the anchoress’ living quarters (called an “anchorhold”) was a small room built right into a wall of a church. Although these anchoresses lived a generally removed and secluded life, it was not a life completely divorced from contact with others (who would come to seek advice from the anchoress, speaking to her through a small window).

The novel opens in the year 1255 in England (a century before the time of Julian), with the decision of a seventeen year-old girl named Sarah who has just chosen to become an anchoress.  Her reasons are a mixture of her natural piety and religious devotion and uneasiness about her body. The interest of a local lord in marrying her, her sister’s dying in childbirth, church teaching about the sinfulness of the female body all play a role.

While the book is clearly a novel and makes no claim to historical accuracy in its description of the life of women like the protagonist, it does give a picture of what such a life much have been like.  It conveys effectively that withdrawing from the world means more than building a physical wall around oneself.  It addresses issues of isolation, the human need for connection and touch.  It touches on difficult issues of attitudes toward the body and acceptance of the self.  And it gives a real sense of the physical experience (I could feel the smallness of the space).

The author also paints a vivid picture of the time period in which the novel takes place takes place. I read an interview with the author in which she said that “the thirteenth-century was both deeply ordinary and, to us, profoundly strange. In writing, I was trying to keep this balance, mindful of giving the reader enough information to understand all that was needed for the narrative (though always without using clunky exposition of the term).”

While this is not a book I would imagine re-reading, I did find it an enjoyable (and quick) and worthwhile read.


Why Saints Matter

I’ve written here, and given talks, about the meaning of the saints in our lives.  My dear friend Maria Scaperlanda wrote a lovely post yesterday on this subject.  She came up with several thoughts on the question what difference the saints make for her.  She writes

  • I need saints because they intercede with God on my behalf. Theirs is the sort of passionate pleading akin to the mother I met years ago in Austin whose son was on death row in Huntsville. When the Governor of Texas refused to see her in person to hear her plead for a stay of his execution, the determined mother set up a tent to live in across the street from the Governor’s mansion, and she invited the local press, the local bishop, and anyone else who would listen and join her in prayer and in peaceful demonstration.  Who doesn’t need this sort of passionate intercession?
  • I need saints because they connect me to others—across time and geography—and that constantly reminds me that my faith is little “c” catholic. And I am not alone in my quest and desire to live for God. No matter how much I screw that up, there are saints whose lives are worthy of being a spicy HBO movie—and they get just how hard that desire can be.
  • I need saints like Archbishop Romero and Father Stanley Rother (whose 52nd anniversary of ordination was this week!) because being holy –and at the very least, learning to live holy lives –is possible for everyone, no matter how ordinary. Romero and Rother, who died a year apart, became martyrs for the faith. But they did so by desiring to respond in and through their faithto every person, every circumstance, every moment in their ordinary lives.

You can read the entirety of Maria’s post here.  And I encourage you to follow her blog, Day by Day.  I always find something there that challenges me, makes me think, and sometimes just makes me smile.

Are We Like Bartimaeus?

Today’s Gospel from St. Mark is one I love to pray with: Jesus’ encounter with the blind man Bartimaeus. Hearing Bartimaeus calling to him from the roadside, Jesus asks his followers to bring Bartimaeus to him. When they do, the first thing Jesus says to him is “What do you want me to do for you?”

What do you want? This is the first thing Jesus so often asked people when he met them. And He asks the same question of us. What do you want? What do you desire from me?

We are often uncomfortable talking about desires. We’ve been conditioned to be suspicious of our desires, to think that living a faithful Christian life means overcoming desires.

But to live vital and passionate lives requires that we pay serious attention to our desires when we discern how we are intended to live and love in this world. Our desires reflect the longings of our heart and point to an incompleteness in us that longs for fulfillment.

If, as Saint Iranaeus said, the glory of God is the human person fully alive, then desires are an incredibly important part of our discernment; getting in touch with our desires helps us discover what is lifegiving to us. Failing to take our desires seriously ignores (in the words of E. Edward Kinerk) “the greatest source of human vitality and passion which God has given us.”

Bartimaeus is able to name his desire.  Can you name yours when Jesus asks what you want?

But there is something else about Bartimaeus:  Look at his insistence in wanting to encounter Jesus! People are “sternly order[ing] him to be quiet,” trying to push him out of the way – saying essentially, you are not important enough to bother Jesus.  But Bartimaeus’ desire is so great he responds by crying out all the more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me.”

Do we display the same persistence in our desire to be close to God? Are we easily dissuaded when things are difficult? When others try to distract us?  Or do we show the same insistence as Bartimaeus that nothing will stand in the way of his encountering Jesus?

Some questions to sit with as you reflect on this passage.

Praying for Peace While Waging War

Today is Memorial Day, a day of remembrance for those who have died in military service.  It is also a day on which we pray for peace, for an end to all armed conflict.

My friends at ReligiousLeftLaw ask an uncomfortable question: “is it possible to honestly pray for peace while our country is far and away number one in the world in waging war, military presence, military spending and the sale of weapons around the world?”  The statistics they cite are sobering and the post is worth reading in its entirety.

I do not minimize the value of praying for peace.  I think we should pray and pray hard.

But perhaps we also need to do more – to lift our voices as people of peace to criticize the actions of our government in allowing the United States to become (in Martin Luther King’s words in 1967) “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”

I also do not minimizing the sacrifice and heroism of so many members of the United States armed forces.  But we ought to be troubled by the fact that “US military spending is about the same as the total of military spending by the next eight largest countries combined, that is more than China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, France, UK, India and Germany combined” and that more than half of our national discretionary spending goes to the US military.

Pray for peace; I do so every day.  But let’s also think about our government’s policies and the extent to which they do or don’t make peace a realistic possibility.

Pentecost Astonishment

Today is Pentecost Sunday, the day on which Christians celebrate the descent of the Holy Spirit on the disciples of Christ, and the day that ends our celebration of the Easter season.

In his book Walking With Jesus: A Way Forward for the Church, Pope Francis writes that a “fundamental element” of Pentecost is astonishment.  He writes

Our God is a God of astonishment; this we know. No one expected anything more from the disciples: after Jesus’ death they were a small, insignificant group of defeated orphans of their Master. There occurred instead an unexpected event that astounded: the people were astonished because each of them heard the disciples speaking in their own tongues, telling of the great works of God (cf. Acts 2:6–7, 11). The Church born at Pentecost is an astounding community because, with the force of her arrival from God, a new message is proclaimed—the resurrection of Christ—with a new language, the universal one of love. A new proclamation: Christ lives, he is risen. A new language: the language of love. The disciples are adorned with power from above and speak with courage. Only minutes before, they all were cowardly, but now they speak with courage and candor, with the freedom of the Holy Spirit.

Thus the Church is called into being forever, capable of astounding while proclaiming to all that Jesus Christ has conquered death, that God’s arms are always open, that his patience is always there awaiting us in order to heal us, to forgive us. The risen Jesus bestowed his Spirit on the Church for this very mission.

Take note: if the Church is alive, she must always surprise. It is incumbent upon the living Church to astound. A Church that is unable to astound is a Church that is weak, sick, dying, and that needs admission to the intensive care unit as soon as possible!

Happy Feast of Pentecost!

Blessed Oscar Romero

Today is a day many people have been waiting for a very long time: the beatification of Oscar Romero, one of my great heroes.

Romero’s path to sainthood, however, has not been without controversy.  There are some who during his life viewed him (and some who continue to view him) as a Marxist or, in one commentator’s words “a poster boy for the left-wing cause.”

I think there is no better answer to the charge of Marxism than the words Romero spoke during his homily on the feast of the Ascension in 1977, three years before his assassination.  The message of the bishops in the Documents of the Second Vatican Council, he preached

condemns this false understanding of tradition that wants to present the Church as simply spiritual – a Church of sacraments and prayers but with no social commitment or commitment to history.  We would betray our mission as pastors, if we were to reduce evangelization to mere practices of individual piety and the participation in non-incarnated sacraments.  The Pope says: Evangelization would not be complete if it did not take account of the unceasing interplay of the Gospel and of man’s concrete life, both personal and social (Evangelii Nuntiandi, 29).  My bothers and sisters, let us not place our faith in some corner and reduce it to some private place and then live in public as though we had no faith.  The Council said that this divorce between faith and our private life is one of the great errors of our time (cf. Gaudium et Spes, 43).  So great is this error that in the name of this error, the Church is called subversive because she wants to lead Christians to a faith commitment in their concrete life.  My dear Catholics, let us study this right doctrine and wisdom of the Church.  Then we will understand that priests and Christians who live their Christian commitment in the world are far from being communists or Marxists or subversives.

Blessed Oscar Romero, pray for us!



Tikkun Olam

Although articles discussing it are several  days old, I just came across  a link to the Baccalaureate Address given to graduating Yale students by Yale President Peter Salovey.

Salovey’s address was titled Repair the World.  He began with the question “If a graduating senior asked me to capture the purpose of life after graduating from Yale in just a few words, what would I say? What would that purpose be? Could I articulate your life’s mission as you leave Yale — on Commencement weekend, no less — while ‘standing on one foot’?  (As many may recognize, the phrase “standing on one foot” is a reference first century rabbi Hillel, who was asked to summarize the meaning of the entire Torah while standing on one foot.)  He suggested that there are many answers to the question of the students’ commitment after Yale – finding a good job, nurturing a family, etc.

Salovey had this suggestion as to the purpose of the lives of these new graduates: to improve the world, or as it would be expressed in the Jewish tradition: Tikkun Olam, literally to repair the world.  He elaborated

What I like about this proposal for life’s purpose is that improving the world can be accomplished from within nearly any political framework. Repairing, healing, or improving the world — often captured in the idea of alleviating suffering — can be pursued from a liberal perspective (develop social programs that encourage self-sufficiency but provide a safety net), from a conservative point of view (teach fundamental values in order to cultivate individuals of good character who make the world a better place), and even from a libertarian agenda (enable free market forces to reinforce good ideas and good behavior; in the meantime, live and let live).

I also favor improving the world as the life purpose of a newly minted Yalie because it is possible to embrace this life mission in so many ways:

When you start a new business that employs people and contributes something new, you improve the world.

When you serve others with great distinction in one of the professions, you improve the world.

When you pursue an academic career in order to light fires in the bellies of the next generation of college or high school students, you improve the world.

When you inspire others by creating a beautiful work of art, you improve the world.

When you build a service organization and you listen to and collaborate with those who you would like to help, you improve the world….

Improving the world is a difficult project to take on because – unlike so many aspects of your education at Yale or of life itself – there really is no beginning, middle, or end here. There is no “bottom line.” What may be most challenging is that even after a lifetime of work, further repair may be necessary. Maybe even more than when you started. My predecessor, President Richard Levin (whom I like to refer to as “Twenty-Two”), often quoted Rabbi Tarfon, “It is not your responsibility to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it. ….

Tikkun Olam is a task for all of us.  We may debate what it means to repair the world, but it is a task as to which we each have a part.

You can read the entirety of President Salovey’s address here.

Heretic: A Call for Reformation

I am reading Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s book Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now. A prominent activist for victims of Islamic violence, Ali is a fellow at the Harvard’s John f. Kennedy School of Government.  Although I have not read any of her other books and have not followed her career I know she is considered controversial by many people.  (Brandeis invited her to receive an honorary degree in 2014 and subsequently revoked the invitation.)

Calls for reform of Islam are not new.  What Ali claims as original are her precise suggestions of what needs to be reformed.  She argues five things must be “recognized as inherently harmful” and “repudiated and nullified.”  The five are

1.  Muhammad’s semi-divine and infallible status along with the literalist reading of the Qu-an, particularly those parts that were revealed in Medina;

2. The investment in life after death instead of life before death;

3.  Sharia, the body of legislation derived from the Qu’an, the hadith, and the rest of Islamic jurisprudence;

4. The practice of empowering individuals to enforce Islamic law by commanding right and forbidding wrong;

5.  The imperative to wage jihad, or holy war.

I was struck as I read her chapter on the second of those of how much difference in practice a small difference in emphasis can make.

Christianity is certainly concerned with life after this human existence.  Measured against eternity, our human lives (even for those who live to 90 or 100) is a very small blip.  Our goal, as Ignatian put it in his Principle and Foundation, is to live with God forever and Jesus told his disciples to have no fear of those who could harm the body, only those who could destroy the soul.   Life is not less transitory for Christians than it is for Muslims.

Yet, the fact that our ultimate goal is union with God does not make this life unimportant.  We are called to be God’s love in the world and to work to secure a just society and work on behalf of the least of our brothers and sisters.

As described by Ali, Islam’s focus on the afterlife leads to a different view.  Many of the words are the same as ones we might hear preached to Christians: Our life on this earth is short and temporary…everything in this world is transitory; only Allah is permanent.  But the conclusion they lead to, she argues is a cult of martyrdom and fatalism.  She relates stories of parents raising their children to be martyrs because it more quickly leads them to “eternal bliss.”   And while “islam is not unusual in having a tradition of martyrs [what] is unique to Islam is the tradition of murderous-martyrdom, in which the individual martyr simultaneously commits suicide and kills others for religious reasons.

Ali argues that “[u]ntil Islam stops fixating on the afterlife, until it is liberated from the seductive story of life after death, until it actively chooses life on earth and stops valuing death, Muslims themselves cannot go on with the business of living in this world.”

I am in no position to judge the merits of Ali’s reform suggestions.  But from what I’ve read thus far, there is a lot here worth discussing as we seek to discover how to live in peace with those who do not share our faith and may not share our values.


Contemplation on the Love of God

Last night was the final session of the monthly program Christine Luna Munger and I have been offering through St. Catherine’s University this year, Now What? Deepening Your Ignatian Retreat Experiences.  The program was aimed at people who have had some experience with the Spiritual Exercise of St. Ignatius through a weekend preached retreat, a retreat in daily living or some other format and designed to – as the title suggests – help them deepen the insights and experiences of those retreats.  Over the year, we’ve reflected on desire, individual and social sin, discernment and some of the core meditations of the Exercises.

Our topic last night was the Contemplation on the Love of God that ends the Spiritual Exercises. The Contemplatio provides what one author called “ in highly condensed form the very kernel of the Exercises,” a “kind of coherent synthesis with, simplified and in a concise form, may be used in daily life as an ideal containing various elements scattered here and there in a hundred and one particular truths.” One author called it not only a summary of the Spiritual Exercises, “but of perfection itself.”

The idea of the Contemplatio is that the culmination of all the divine actions is gift. The culmination of the divine actions lies in the love they draw from humans. Importantly, love cannot be forced. It is not that we can simply tell ourselves to love like God. (We’ve said this before: this is not just a question of will. “Tomorrow I will love like God all day long.” It doesn’t work that way.) Yes, we can work to overcome the challenges that make it hard for us to love like God. But the Contemplatio wants us to realize that love emerges spontaneously from consciousness – one realizes what God is doing to love him or her and that realization itself enables us to do what otherwise would be impossible – to be so caught up in God, to be so attracted and drawn by what God does, that we love. Love is not forced, it is evoked.

I was reminded as I spoke last night of something Archbishop Flynn said at the racism panel at Lourdes on Sunday.  When someone asked what steps one can take to remove racist attitudes, the Archbishop said that the key was more deeply internalizing God’s love for us.  If we truly understand to the depth of our hearts how much God loves us, we will more naturally love others – regardless of their race or other circumstances.  That is precisely what Ignatius is trying to help us understand in this meditation.

You can find an online version of the Contemplation on the Love of God here.