Monday, July 26, 2010

Feast of Joachim and Anne

I've always been rather circumspect concerning purported relics from the Holy Land, given the long period of time between the time of Jesus and when they were "found" by European pilgrims hundreds of years later. Of course, it is entirely possible that the faithful in the Holy Land did maintain the authentic relics and the ones brought to Europe are genuine.

Of interest, and one that causes one to stop and give serious reflection to, is the purported relic of St. Anne that is at the Basilica of St. Paul's Outside the Walls. This is a picture I took the last time I was in Rome, in 2006. The caption says "Ossa di S. Anna" (bone of St. Anne).

Is it authentic? Is it really the arm of the mother of the Blessed Virgin?

I don't know. Although at the Basilica built over the grave of St. Paul, the relic is kept in a relic room that has no special signs or indication of the solemnity of these precious relics. Many people walk past, or merely pop their heads in for a moment before moving on, without ever realizing what it is they are looking at. Certainly it is not a room that is befitting the grandmother of our Lord. Still . . .

On Vacation

Pope Benedict takes time out from his
book-writing "vacation" to read the newspaper

Sunday, July 18, 2010

God Before All Else

In these times, when some would complain to God and tell Him what to do, as if they knew better than He, we do well to consider today's Gospel reading:

Jesus entered a village where a woman whose name was Martha welcomed Him. She had a sister named Mary who sat beside the Lord at His feet listening to Him speak.
Martha, burdened with much serving, came to Him and said, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me."
The Lord said to her in reply, "Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her."

-- Luke 10:38-42

Catechesis of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI
Castel Gandolfo
Sunday Angelus, July 18, 2010

Dear Brothers and Sisters!

We are already in the heart of the summer, at least in the northern hemisphere. This is the time in which the schools are closed and in which most vacations are concentrated. Even the pastoral activities of the parishes are reduced, and I myself have suspended audiences for a period. It is therefore a favorable moment to give first place to what is effectively the most important thing in life, that is to say, listening to the Word of God.

This Sunday's Gospel always reminds us of this with the celebrated episode of Jesus' visit to the house of Martha and Mary narrated by St. Luke (10:38-42).

Martha and Mary are two sisters; they also have a brother, Lazarus, who, however, does not appear in this case. Jesus passes through their village and -- the text says -- Martha welcomes Him (10:38). This detail gives one to understand that, of the two sisters, Martha is the oldest, the one who rules the house. In fact, after Jesus is accommodated, Mary sits at His feet and listens to Him, while Martha is completely absorbed with much serving, which is certainly due to the exceptional guest. We seem to see the scene: One sister is very busy and the other is enraptured by the presence of the Master and His words.

After a while Martha, evidently resentful, no longer resists and protests, also feeling that she has the right to criticize Jesus: "Lord, does it not matter to you that my sister has left me to do all the serving? Tell her, therefore, to help me." Indeed, Martha would like to teach the Master!

But Jesus, with great calm, answers: "Martha, Martha" -- and this name repeated expresses affection -- "you are anxious and worried about many things, but there is only one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her" (10:41-42).

Christ's word is quite clear: no scorn for the active life, nor much less for the generous hospitality; but a plain reminder of the fact that the one thing that is truly necessary is something else: listening to the Word of the Lord; and the Lord is there in that moment, present in the person of Jesus! Everything else will pass and will be taken away from us, but the Word of God is eternal and gives meaning to our daily activity.

Dear Friends, as I said, this Gospel passage is very important at vacation time, because it recalls the fact that the human person must work, must involve himself in domestic and professional concerns, to be sure, but he has need of God before all else, who is the interior light of Love and Truth. Without love, even the most important activities lose value and do not bring joy. Without a profound meaning, everything we do is reduced to sterile and disordered activism.

And who gives us love and truth if not Jesus Christ? So let us learn, brothers, to help each other, to cooperate, but first of all to choose together the better part, which is and will always be our greater good.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Love Your Enemy, Pray for Those Who Persecute You
Part Three

Interview with Christopher Hitchens
Hugh Hewitt Show

July 13, 2010

Hugh Hewitt: Now Christopher, since we last spoke, your illness you disclosed on the web, and people will want to know off the bat how you are doing, and how your treatment is going.

Christopher Hitchens: Oh well, I have, in case people are just tuning in, I have cancer in my esophagus, which has I think spread a little to my lymph nodes as well. And I’m two weeks into the chemotherapy course. So I feel pretty weak, and my voice isn’t what it was, but that’s supposed to be a good sign in that the amount of poison I’m taking is presumably working on the bad stuff as well as the good stuff. And this morning, I found that my hair was beginning to come out in the shower, which is a bit demoralizing, I have to say, even though it’s the least of it.

HH: Well, I know you’ve received many well wishes, and I know my audience has been among them, and I’m very glad you could make the time today to talk about this book.

CH: No, everyone’s been extremely generous, and including, well, preeminently, yourself. Thank you.

. . .

HH: The number of people I’m sure who are praying for you, including people who come up to me and ask me to tell you that, people like Joseph Timothy Cook, how are you responding to them, given your famous atheism?

CH: Well look, I mean, I think that prayer and holy water, and things like that are all fine. They don’t do any good, but they don’t necessarily do any harm. It’s touching to be thought of in that way. It makes up for those who tell me that I’ve got my just desserts. It’s, I’m afraid to say it’s almost as well-founded an idea. I mean, I don’t, they don’t know whether prayer will work, and they don’t know whether I’ve come by this because I’m a sinner.

HH: Oh, I...has anyone actually said that to you?

CH: Yeah, oh yes.

HH: Oh, my gosh. Forgive them. Well…

CH: Well, I mean, I don’t mind. It doesn’t hurt me. But for the same reason, I wish it was more consoling. But I have to say there’s some extremely nice people, including people known to you, have said that I’m in their prayers, and I can only say that I’m touched by the thought.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

God's Justice

"The mercy of Christ is not a cheap grace; it does not presume a trivialization of evil. Christ carries in His body and on His soul all the weight of evil, and all its destructive force. He burns and transforms evil through suffering, in the fire of His suffering love.
"The day of vindication and the year of favor meet in the paschal mystery, in Christ died and risen. This is the vindication of God: He Himself, in the person of the Son, suffers for us.
"The more we are touched by the mercy of the Lord, the more we draw closer in solidarity with His suffering and become willing to bear in our flesh 'what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ' (Col 1, 24)."
--Joseph Card. Ratzinger, April 18, 2005

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Love Your Enemy, Pray for Those Who Persecute You
Part Two

Some questions and objections have arisen with respect to the prior post Love Your Enemy, Pray for Those Who Persecute You.

You're confusing me. How do you pray for someone like Hitchens?

That's what I mean, it's not as easy a question as it first looks.

Love means respecting the other person as a person, as one with free will, and not as an object, a thing that we can manipulate or ask God to manipulate.

Hitchens is a person, not a puppet, and we should not treat him like a puppet. And God is Love, and we should not pray that God act contrary to Himself.

The same Jesus that said “pray for your persecutors” also said “shake the dust from your feet.”

To pray for a gross violation of another person’s free will is NOT an act of love. It is an act of violence.

Love cannot be forced upon another and still be love. And we are called to love, not to force ourselves on others. That means respecting their free will.

God gave them free will. We should respect His will to give them their will.

By no means am I saying “screw him, I’m not praying for him, period.” No, we should pray. But what I am suggesting is that we should actually think about what we pray for. That we make our prayer an act of love, and not an act contrary to love.

Of course, EVERY prayer of ours should include the proviso — “if it be thy will.” Maybe that in itself solves the dillema?

I respectfully disagree that it is not an easy moral question. On the contrary, it is quite simple to pray for Christopher’s mercy and forgiveness. We should even pray that God forgive against Hitchens’ will. After all, Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”

Jesus did not simply say, “forgive them,” and stop. He added “they know not what they do.” This additional aspect is important.

He previously taught on blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. The Church has understood this to mean that forgiveness is something that must be accepted in order to be accomplished, and consistent with the understanding that God is Love, and love cannot be forced upon someone, and that God gave us free will precisely for that reason, to freely choose to love Him or not to love Him, the Church has consistently taught that God will not, indeed, cannot forgive such person (Mt. 12:31-32).

Sure, pray that God forgive Hitchens — but NOT against his will. That is not love, that is the theological equivilent of rape. It is contrary to Love, it is contrary to Truth, the truth of God.

Rather, pray that God forgive Hitchens, but adding the proviso, if and when Hitchens accept it. Pray that God offer forgiveness, but do not pray that God act contrary to Himself and impose that love upon Hitchens. God cannot do so, being Love, He cannot act contrary to love, and it is important that we understand that.

Okay then – specifically – tell me how you would offer a prayer to God for him. And how does that differ from, say, someone who has left the church but maybe not left God?

One could simply pray that God be who He is — Love and Truth — and that He act accordingly. One could pray that God be there for him, that God, who is Divine Mercy, be merciful and loving and compassionate.

I would suppose He can be compassionate (from the Latin “to suffer with”) with or without Hitchens’ consent, but implicit in that prayer is our understanding that love and mercy, from the Latin miserere, meaning to allievate misery, cannot be imposed. Those who have chosen Hell over Him must be respected in that choice. Of course, it is still not yet a definitive choice for Hitchens, but it is his choice to make, not ours.

Or I suppose one could pray for whatever one wants to pray for, so long as there is the added provisos of “if it be Thy will Lord” and “if he is willing to accept it Lord . . .” That might accomplish the requisite need to respect the other’s free will.

I disagree that the other person’s feelings should be considered. Hitchens’ free will is not involved in this matter. Nobody is pointing a gun at him or conning him into anything.

If someone tells a non-believer that they don’t care what he thinks or wants, that they are going to “pray” for him even against his wishes and consent — does that sentiment cause him to want to draw closer to God? Or does it cause resentment and drive him away?

Respect for the other person -- which is a part of love -- requires that one consider his wishes. To be sure, "love" means seeking the good of the other, and not necessarily what makes him happy, but if going against his wishes leads him away from the good, then it obviously needs to be taken into account.

Consider the younger son who asked his father for his inheritence and then left home. What did the father do? He gave the son his interitence and let him go. He did not bind the son in chains, he did not lock him in his room. And the father did not go after him and drag him back home. Rather, the father respected his son's decision.

Had the older son implored their father to go after his brother and forcibly try to bring him home, it may have only served to set the younger son permanently against their father.

Sorry, I think you are over-thinking this one. We should not have to think twice about this one: pray for Hitchens, and trust God’s wisdom.

Ours is not an unthinking Faith. Rather, ours is a Faith that seeks understanding, that seeks to know the Logos.

Believer #1: “I’ll pray for you.”
Nonbeliever: “What does that mean?”
Believer #2: “Yeah, I’m curious too. What does that mean?”
Believer #1: "It means . . . um . . ."

“Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope.” 1 Pet. 3:15. Furthermore, we should be ready to give ourselves a reason for our hope, for our faith.

It is not enough to simply hear Jesus say, “love your enemy, pray for those who persecute you.”

We should ask “What does that mean?” Before praying, we should actually think about what it is we are praying for and why. We should think about what “love” is, what it means.

As set out in the prior post and above, I submit that “love” is not self-centered; it is not merely a matter of what we do. We MUST consider the other person. We cannot simply stop at (1) ourselves, we must also take into account (2) the other, in this case, the non-believing if not anti-believing Hitchens. But that brings into our consideration (3) as well — what to pray for and how and why.

Maybe the first prayer of petition we offer should be for ourselves, to ask for the grace to understand how best to love, how best to simultaneously offer up prayers on behalf of another and still respect them as a person, that is, respecting their freedom to reject us and our love expressed in prayer.

But we cannot, I further submit, not even bother to think about such things.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Love Your Enemy, Pray for Those Who Persecute You

Today, the Anchoress raises again The Hitchens/Prayer Debate. Recently, Christopher Hitchens has learned that he has cancer of the esophagus. Now, Hitchens is a writer who is not so much an atheist as he is an antitheist, he does not simply not believe, he attacks the belief and believers, and often disingenuously so. Nevertheless, we are called to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors. On that issue of whether to pray for Hitchens or not, the Anchoress writes:

It seems the New York Times has noticed the debate as to whether people of faith should pray for Christopher Hitchens. I like this; it reflects my feelings, exactly:

    Jeffrey Goldberg, a colleague of Hitchens’s at The Atlantic Monthly, consulted the rabbinical authorities and decided that prayer was O.K. On his blog, Goldberg quoted the advice of David Wolpe, a Los Angeles rabbi who has publicly debated Hitchens on a number of occasions: “I would say it is appropriate and even mandatory to do what one can for another who is sick; and if you believe that praying helps, to pray. It is in any case an expression of one’s deep hopes. So yes, I will pray for him, but I will not insult him by asking or implying that he should be grateful for my prayers.”

The Anchoress wrote on this earlier, Hitchens' Challenge, where she said that she had been called to pray for him, and her post generated a lot of comments, including some opposition.

So, to pray or not to pray? What should one do?

The New York Times story notes, "While Hitchens himself doesn’t seem to have issued any official directives, prayers have rolled in from [the Anchoress] Elizabeth Scalia (no relation to the Supreme Court justice) at First Things, Greg Kandra at The Deacon’s Bench and Pat Archbold at The National Catholic Register."

“While Hitchens himself doesn’t seem to have issued any official directives . . .”

This is the real sticking point.

There are at least three points or perspectives, all of which need to be considered, in answering this question –
(1) Us, the one potentially offering the prayer. That is, do we have a moral obligation or permission to pray (or to not pray)?
(2) Hitchens (or any other person for whom it is to be offered). Is the prayer welcome or unwelcome? Is he receptive or at least neutral, or is he adamately opposed?
(3) The content of the prayer. Just exactly what does one pray for? His physical health, his spiritual health, his conversion?
We are obligated in faith to be charitable toward Hitchens, i.e. to love him, as we love ourselves and as Jesus loves us. BUT, part of love is respecting the free will of the other person. Love, even when expressed by prayer, cannot be forced upon the other against his will. The Samaritan dragging the wounded man out of the ditch when the man demands to be left alone is not “good”; what he does is an act of violence, not charity. Not even God forces His love upon people.

Hence the dillema. Does our prayer end up being a true act of love or an act of unlove against the will of the person? It depends.

Of course, the Samaritan can both love the man in the ditch and still respect his will by doing something else, call 911 perhaps, and let the EMTs come and offer their assistance. Perhaps the man will accept it then.

So, we have an obligation to love Hitchens. The question is how? For many people, we might in good faith and conscience simply assume that our prayers are welcomed. And since Hitchens has not publicly said “no,” perhaps we might assume the same for him, but we might be presuming too much. Which get us to (3) the content of the prayer.

Just exactly what do we or should we pray for in the case of Hitchens? If he welcomes prayer, then we have no problem, we can pray all out for whatever good thing we might want.

But if he does not welcome prayer, what then? We can still be charitable, and still pray, but we would seem to be limited in what we pray for, or at the very least, would need to make the petition conditional (e.g. “if he is willing to accept it Lord . . .”). We cannot go so far as to drag him out of the ditch and pour oil on him against his wishes, but we can call 911. We can stand by, ready to assist if he later wants it. We can tell him that lodging is available to him when and if he is willing to accept it.

It is not as easy a moral question as it might seem. It would be a lot easier if all we had to consider was (1) us. But (2) and (3) are factors we must consider as well.

The one thing that we CANNOT do is reflexively and arbitrarily say, “to hell with Hitchens, he’s only getting what he deserves.”

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Psalm 137 and the Victory of Christ

Dr. Mark D. Roberts recently wrote about Psalm 137:9, a verse which he said makes us most uncomfortable:

The verse is “He shall seize and shall dash your children on the rock!” and of it, Robert’s writes:

    "How can any part of Scripture seem to celebrate the killing of babies? How in the world are we to make sense of this verse? How can we read it, not to mention pray it, as Christians? Didn’t Jesus call us to love our enemies and forgive them, not smash their babies against the rocks? How are we supposed to answer the opponent of Christianity who throws Psalm 137:9 in our faces?"

In his devotional, Roberts lists five ways for the verse to be looked, covering the realities of the Babylonian exile and what may have been experienced at their hands, the human sense for revenge-as-justice and the applicable lessons of grace, and Christ working through us.

Maybe it’s because I am a Catholic with an abundance of rowdy ethnic residue, I have never once been made uncomfortable about that verse. Quite the opposite, the entire psalm brings me enormous consolation, each time I read it, because–as with the entire psalter–this psalm affirms both the brokenness of the human condition, and our commonality with our ancient kin, who reach out to us through centuries to communicate to us (and for us) the deepest longings and darkest instincts of the human heart. . . .

The post by Dr. Roberts that the Anchoress reflects upon is entitled --
"The Verse in Scripture that Makes Us Most Uncomfortable"

And, of course, here in the title, we encounter a fundamental and overwhelming error from the outset, that is, the idea that we should ever read any verse in isolation. To be sure, that is often the quickest way to misread, misinterpret, and misunderstand scripture, to take out one verse and read it undetached from the rest.

Moreover, just as one cannot read a given passage in isolation if one wishes to understand, one also cannot arbitrarily adopt the plain meaning of the text. Rather, one must read it:

    (a) in context, including in the context of the whole passage, the whole Bible, especially the New Testament, and that Divine Revelation handed down to us by Sacred Tradition, as well as the context of human history and literary and pedagogical methods, and
    (b) in a manner consistent with the truth of God, in the light of the fullness of Revelation, the Logos, Jesus Christ, who is Love and Truth Incarnate, and consistent with the purposes of revelation.

Scripture is intended to lead us toward truth, but it can sometimes actually be an obstacle to understanding of truth and can mislead if an overly-literal and fundamentalist approach is taken. This is especially a concern with respect to reading certain portions of the Old Testament, where the text seems to be inconsistent with Love and Truth.

So what of Psalm 137 and the verse at issue? Verse 9 itself is actually a continuation of Verse 8,

"O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us. Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!"

As is pointed out by the Anchoress and commenters at her site, the speaker here is not God, but is supposed to be one of those being held during the Babylonian Captivity.

What did the Psalmist, the human author, wish to convey here? And what does the Holy Spirit, who inspired the writing, wish to reveal here? Is there only one meaning, or multiple meanings on multiple levels? Is it merely a historical report of a captive voicing his frustrations? Is that what the Holy Spirit wants us to take away from this, a mere historical curiosity? Or is there something more, something bigger, something that might apply to each of us, and not merely some guy crying on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers 2500 years ago?

To get at the big and essential question of what was intended (which is the primary question, see Dei Verbum 12), we have to consider just exactly how literally we are supposed to take the passage. Did the writer intend for us to understand that the speaker actually wants to smash babies?

Well, let's consider what is said a few verses earlier --

"5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! 6 Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy!"

Should we read that passage as the speaker desiring that his hand actually wither if he forgets his homeland? Or that his tongue be literally glued to the roof of his mouth?

Maybe. But much more likely, the speaker is engaging in hyperbole and metaphor.

And having used fairly obvious hyperbole and metaphor here, is it likely that the speaker suddenly switched to a totally literal meaning in the immediately following verses, or is it more likely that it is a continuation of the same literary devices of hyperbole and metaphor? If we consider that verses 8-9 are, on their face, harsh and violent and contrary to the Love and Truth of Jesus Christ, and remembering that we must read scripture in the light of Christ, the better interpretation and understanding of verses 8-9 is that the speaker is not speaking literally, but figuratively.

This is especially true when we further remember that, although the Psalmist has put the words in the mouth of a Babylonian captive, being Revelation, it is actually God who is communicating to us here. That same God who, beyond Jesus Christ, repeatedly says in the Old Testament that He does not delight in death.

OK, so if we seek to find a deeper meaning that the superficial plain text, what might we find? Is the speaker engaging in only hyperbole and metaphor with respect to his immediate situation, the Babylonian Captivity, or is there a broader meaning here, something that might be relevant for the entirety of Salvation History? Perhaps even something eschatological?

One thing jumps out fairly quickly, and that is the word "rock." In Christian understanding, what does "rock" mean? Well, it has a few meanings, but each related to the other. The "rock" is Christ, and it is the Church (represented by Peter, the Rock), and it is Truth (which is Christ again).

So, what might we wish to see smashed against the Rock that is Christ/Truth/the Church?

Evil and sin. And it has long been understood that references to "Babylon" are references to the greatest enemy of man, i.e. evil and sin, which have indeed done horrible things to us, in this our worldly exile. And the word "child" is often used to refer to the future. Thus, smashing a child of Babylon might refer to the eschatological smashing of evil and sin.

Seen in this way, verses 8-9 show themselves to be about being happy at the ultimate destruction of evil by Christ and His Church. Thus, we see that Psalm 137 is more than a mere report of an expression of frustration and rage. Much more. Although veiled, Jesus Christ is revealed again and again in the Old Testament. Here too is a revelation of Christ, and His victory over sin and evil and death.

(In his Exposition on Psalm 137, St. Augustine expands on this understanding. See also St. Ambrose, On Repentence, Book II, Chap. XI.)


Monday, July 05, 2010

Choice, Children, and Happiness

"A few generations ago, people weren’t stopping to contemplate whether having a child would make them happy."

A confused mother, who is infected with a utilitarian mind-set, struggles to understand.

By freezing embryos, couples try to utilize fertility while delaying parenthood

Another confused women wandering in the moral abyss. But as disheartening as is her brave new world, the comments condemning it are quite encouraging.