No-Shave November: A Catholic Approach

Image taken from Wikimedia Commons
No-Shave November is a growing campaign to promote awareness in the fight against cancer. It began in 2009 and has since gained momentum from year to year. 

Another similar campaign is the Movember campaign which promotes awareness of men's health issues by encouraging men to sport mustaches. 

No-Shave November predominantly promotes awareness through facial hair as well, although they also encourage more than the pogonotrophic arts. If you lack the capacity for the wild-and-free, virile tuft of mandibular fur, you could always cease shaving other areas for the cause.

Just like Catholics in Lent, No-Shave November forgoes one 'good' for some higher good. The money that you save from not shaving is given as quasi-alms to help those in need. While in your razor-fast the perpetual reminder to pray for the poor souls that battle with this unfortunate disease is right under your nose. Haven't sported facial hair before? The constant itch of a mid-length growth and the order of that garlic sauce stuck in your flavor-saver from lunch is penance enough, as if the end to displays of affection public and otherwise from your significant other wasn't enough.

And if you feel you still need some encouragement to sport your sprouts, here's a wonderful quote from St. Augustine:  "The beard signifies the courageous; the beard distinguishes the grown men, the earnest, the active, the vigorous. So that when we describe such, we say, he is a bearded man" (Exposition of Psalm 133. 6).

So, whether its the full beard, the chops, the handlebar, the goatee, van dyke, or even leg warmers (from the ladies), you have the opportunity to do some good while having fun at the same time. And remember, Jesus had a beard.

Please leave a description of the fanciful fuzz you're displaying in the comments below.

Igniting the World

Sometimes we get fixated on the words in this last Sunday's gospel about division within our households, but there is another verse which is often forgotten, namely "There is a baptism with which I must be baptized."

The ties between the reading from Jeremiah and the Gospel run deep. In order to see these ties we might want to understand Christ's words, "There is a baptism with which I must be baptized." The Catechism of Catholic Church (CCC) tells us in paragraph 1214 "to baptize (Greek baptizein) means to "plunge" or "immerse..." In our Christian understanding of our Sacrament, "the 'plunge' into the water symbolizes the catechumen's burial into Christ's death, from which he rises up by resurrection with him.."

When Christ says, "there is a baptism..." he is foretelling his own death. Denis the Carthusian explains this statement in Christ's own words saying, "there remains for me the duty of receiving a baptism of blood, that is, of being bathed, soaked upon the cross not in water but in my own blood poured out to redeem the whole world." Christ's baptism, the baptism that he offers us, is entrance into his passover, which does not begin on the Cross and does not end on the Cross.

Christ's passover is not a passover into death but into life. Christ was bathed in his own blood, and plunged into the tomb and plunged into the abode of the dead. But his "plunge" was not simply a plunge but also a rising from that plunge. That is to say that Christ's burial is meaningless without his resurrection. "If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain" (1 Cor 15:14).

Now, hearken back to Jeremiah's arrest. And his "plunge" into the muck of the cistern. The early Church would have seen this clearly as a foreshadowing of Christ's passion. The Navarre commentary states:
One ecclesiastical writer, Olympiodorus, interpreted Jeremiah’s imprisonment as a prefigurement of Jesus’ passion and death. Commenting on v. 6, he said: “The prophet becomes a figure of the mystery of Christ, who was handed over by Pilate to the Jews, descended into hell, and was raised from the dead. Jeremiah climbs out of the cistern he was cast into; Scripture often refers to hell as a cistern” (Fragmenta in Jeremiam, 38, 6).
Note also, that "three" men come to lift Jeremiah from the cistern. Christ's resurrection is a divine act of the Trinity. In our baptism we are put to death, but raised up by the Trinity, as "a new creature" (cf. 2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15).

Now let us consider His words, "I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!" Christ sets this fire by His baptism, by the same baptism that we are baptized into. St. John Chrysostom comments on Christ's words saying:
For by the earth He now means not that which we tread under our feet, but that which was fashioned by His hands, namely, man, upon whom the Lord pours out fire for the consuming of sins, and the renewing of souls.
In Latin, we see the relation between human—homo—and the earth—humo—a little more clearly, which is very much the same in Hebrew, the original language of the story of Genesis, which is where this whole story begins.

Now, consider briefly the word "fire." Fire burns, destroys, it purifies gold and burns up impurities. It produces warmth and light. It consumes the sacrificial offering and sends up the smoke of incense and prayer. All the more the Holy Spirit, then, sets man ablaze with love, a love that purifies the heart, produces warmth, enlightens the mind, and consumes the offering of our life producing of it a prayer that rises up to God.

So, what's the point of all this? Why does this lead to division?

1 Peter 4:12-19 answers this for us:
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.
Setting the world on fire is about the Spirit. It is about sharing this Spirit, by taking it into ourselves. Ultimately, it is about Baptism. It is about Christ's baptism and our union with Christ by our baptism, a union of love effected by the Holy Spirit. It is a call to live out our baptismal promises and the life—that is the fire—we received at baptism.

Three Musts of the New Evangelization

If we face up to the facts, we have lost some serious ground in the culture wars. It is not because what we have to say is not true, or right, or loving. It is because the way we say it is unintelligible, unconvincing, and unaffective (I know this isn't really a word). We are using a language that is lost on generations of people who do not speak the philosophico-theological lingo. We, in effect, are preaching in German to the French. It is absurd and laughable.

If we want to take our situation seriously, we need to do things differently. We have to become more intelligible. We have to become more convincing. We have to become more affective.

Becoming more intelligible...

In our daily arguments with 'the World' we seem to think that if we use the same words, we will be understood. The problem is that the same word means different things to different groups. It is like I tell my friend, "Let's go fishing tomorrow; I'll meet you by the bank at five." We both know what fishing means, but when I say bank, I may mean the bank of the river or the financial institution. When I say five, I have not made clear if I mean in the morning or the evening. So, when my friend shows up at the wrong place at the wrong time, I should not be surprised. 

A more concrete example is the matter of "rights." If we look at them, we will notice that we do not even have a functioning definition of what a right is or where it comes from or what distinguishes rights from pseudo-rights. As Catholics we like to think we can take the high ground, but we are using a borrowed word that carries a lot of baggage. Without denying the existence of rights—which we have not even proven—we can talk about all the same issues using the language of duty.  

Sure, I may have the right to do 'this' or 'that,' but I certainly do not have a duty to do 'this' if it conflicts with the duty to do 'that.' And if I do not have the duty, then I most certainly have a clear moral imperative to refrain from 'this' and to do 'that.' 

Becoming more convincing...

In order to be convincing, we have to be credible. Nothing makes us less credible than our failure to practice what we preach. The only way to be more convincing is to be more loving. Our good works preach the gospel, at times, more loudly than our words (and no St. Francis never said, "Preach the Gospel at all times; use words when necessary." Look it up.).

Integrity is essential to our arguments, especially when are arguments are about being a certain kind of person. Our own lives need to reflect better the lives of the saints. We cannot do that if we do not first know Christ. The common denominator in the lives of the saints is Christ and His Church. A love for the Sacraments is essential to living a truly Christian life. If you want to know Christ, you have to meet Him where He is, namely in Scripture, in the Eucharist, and in your bother and sister (cf. Mt 25).  

Becoming more affective...

We have to touch the heart and mind, and we cannot do one without the doing the other. We have to not only be loving, but we have to get others to feel loved. We have to stir up the spirits of those we are preaching to and all the Spirit to move them to conversion. We cannot expect them to change based solely on one or two moving experiences, but without those experiences, we change is difficult if not impossible.

We have to stop thinking of all emotive experiences as superficial. Some of them are consoling. When a sense of peace and joy, that is ordered and reasonable, fills a person we can be sure that that is the work of the Holy Ghost. When someone is stirred with a joy that is muddled by the overwhelming desire to do too much too soon, we have to question the source of that experience. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Wisdom and will never lead us imprudently. We can be sure, however, that peace is from God.

If we touch the heart without touching the mind, our desired effect will be short lived. If we touch the mind without touching the heart, we will have an army of self-referential pietists who may know the faith but do not practice it or who practice only that aspect which is most comfortable to them, most likely study.  

We should not be afraid to use means that move people as long as those means are accompanied by sound reasoning. A logical argument can be quite moving if presented in the right way. And a more affective, intelligible argument will ultimately be more effective and convincing especially if one presenting it is a person of real integrity.

Treading Lightly on the Sacred Ground

"Do not come nearer; rather take the shoes from thy feet,
thou art standing on holy ground." (Ex 3:5)
The spiritual life is sacred ground, but often times we tread clumsily and heavily as if it were not. My own experience is that those of us who spend their time studying religion, history, philosophy, literature, theology, etc... sometimes fail to manifest the same sensitivity and subtlety that they have in their own fields of study when it comes to talking about an individual's spiritual experiences.

For each of us the spiritual life differs vastly. I should not expect my life and my experiences to answer the questions of your life. The way I resolve my issues is not going to be the way that you resolve your issues and for all the right reasons. What is amazing, however,  is how similar our experiences are when we can uncover them. If we can boil them down to just their essence, we see great similarities between what is happening in each of our lives.

What is most difficult is developing the subtlety to distinguish between non-spiritual and spiritual events in our lives. For example, the feeling of hunger is a non-spiritual thing. My stomach is empty, it pangs for want of food, and I can hear a growling. On a spiritual level, I can move beyond my body's natural appetite to be fed. In a negative way, I can begin to despise the causes of my hunger and curse God for not providing for me. In a positive way, I can sublimate that hunger into a hunger for justice or grace. I can offer this temporal suffering out of love in atonement for my own sins. Whatever I do at that level, it is no longer a matter a my corporeal body.

Too often, though, we confuse non-spiritual affects with spiritual ones. Beethoven once said, "Music is the mediator between the spiritual and sensual life." Because of music's power to influence us on a physiological level, the place where the affect becomes spiritual is difficult to distinguish, and let us not forget that non-spiritual experiences really do influence our spiritual experiences.

This is why silence—real, true silence—is so necessary for us. We need to make time to sit with God in peace and quiet, listening to Him or listening for Him. Every outside influence can confuse us about what is spiritual and what is non-spiritual. So, in order to hear God we need to stop and draw clear lines of distinction between God's voice and everyone else's.

To do this we need to reflect on our day. We need to stop and reflect on the moments throughout the day where we made decisions and what things influenced the decisions we made. Were those influencers spiritual or non-spiritual? Were they ordered, reasoned, and directed toward God, or directed toward me and my own desires?

You can say, "who has time for that?" But that is already the wrong question. Just like every other relationship in you life, you make the time for the ones you believe are most important. If you cannot make five minutes for God, you have no business having any friends.

The prayer of the Church is a great place to start. In particular, I would encourage praying Night Prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours. It specifically sets aside time for an examination of conscience, and is a good place to start for thoughtful reflective prayer that incorporates scripture. It will help you develop a habit of setting aside time to stop and spend in conversation with the most important relationship in your life.

So, before you start giving out spiritual advice to friends and family, develop a deep prayer life. If you develop a prayer life that incorporates silence and the written word of God, you will start to see more clearly those lines of distinction. When you can see those, you will not be able to do anything but tread lightly.

The History of Henry VIII: an opportunity taken...

"To be deep in history is to 
cease to be a Protestant."
~ Bl. John Henry Cardinal Newman
Last week I wrote about an opportunity missed. This week, I seized an opportunity.

Yesterday, for the first time in months, I paid for a haircut. I am a fan of traditional barbershops, and the only traditional barbershop I know of in the area is about 45 minutes away. It is the same barber shop where I got my hair cut the day before my wedding.

The gentlemen there are always professional and personable. This time, as I was sitting in the barber chair, when I was asked what I do for a living. It is usually a conversation I do not enjoy having. When I say I do theology, I usually get one of two responses. The first is something to the effect of, "I don't see how anyone couldn't believe in God." The second is usually, "Oh..." and then silence.

This time the conversation was quite different. I was asked where I work. I told him that I do not currently have a job, and that finding a job in this area is difficult. I said that as a Catholic it is not like I can just go out and start my own church. To this, he replied, "Maybe God's telling you that it's time to join a different church."

Ah! Yes! An opportunity to evangelize!

He continued saying, "Maybe if you were Episcopal you could be a priest and have a wife, I know it's difficult to do something like that if you're Catholic."

I asked him how much he knew about the history of the Episcopal church. He admitted that he didn't know much. I explained to him that the Episcopal church was an extension of the Anglican church in America. It maintained the liturgy of the Church of England and its structure. I then asked how much he knew about the Church of England. He acknowledged that he did not know anything.

King Henry VIII
I explained to him that the Church of England was part of the Catholic Church until the rule of Henry VIII. Henry ultimately decided to proclaim himself the head of the Church in England, because the Church refused to annul his marriage. I asked him if he thought that was a good enough reason to leave the Church.

He admitted it was not and we continued to talk. I expressed as subtlely as possible the idea that the more you know the history of Christianity the more certain you are that the Catholic Church is the only true Church. I did this from my own perspective, saying, "I can't imagine being any Christian denomination. The more I've learned the history of any denomination of Christianity, the more certain I am that their reasons for separation are unfounded and it leads to error. So, naturally I wouldn't consider leaving the Church myself just so I could get a job."

We continued talking but at this point he seemed to concede that my decision was well formed and he asked if there were other ways that I could help the Catholic Church. He made several suggestions, but nothing that I have not already thought of and tried. I expressed my own desire to work in college campus ministry again, and my love for working with that age group. He seemed interested in what I had to say and I thanked him for the opportunity to talk and for the wonderful haircut.

It was a great opportunity, and I am glad I took it. Now, it is up to the workings of the Holy Spirit.

Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love.
Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created.
And You shall renew the face of the earth.

 O, God, who by the light of the Holy Spirit, did instruct the hearts of the faithful, grant that by the same Holy Spirit we may be truly wise and ever enjoy His consolations, Through Christ Our Lord, Amen.

Wedding Feast: An opportunity missed

I slept in recently on a Sunday, not too late, but late enough to have to go to a parish other than my own. My wife and I arrived a few minutes late, and to make matters worse, there wasn't a parking spot in sight.

The parking dilemma has happened before (not having been late), and it was because that Sunday was the "Children's Mass." So naturally I was cursing the concept of a "so-called-Children's Mass" on my way in asking, "Why isn't every Mass a Children's Mass? Why isn't every Mass an 'Everybody Mass'!?"

This is one of those moments when you feel like slapping yourself in the face: I walked in at the start of the Gloria and could not find a single seat open. I was not too worried about finding a seat since I had brought my pregnant wife with me, and I knew there had to be at least one gentleman in the place who would make some room for us. But as we were scanning for seats, I noticed two things. First, everyone was wearing there Sunday's best, which is sadly unusual. Secondly, there were a lot of children in the first set of pews wearing little suits and white dresses. *Slap* First Communions! "I'm sorry, Lord, I take it all back."

My frustration turned to joy almost immediately; there are few things as beautiful as witnessing a First Communion. The Collect was said, and the readings were read. We sat knowing what the homily would be about, namely, First Communion.

Fr. Bob (not his real name), is one of those priests who sincerely loves God and His Church, but is not the most 'liturgically' or 'theologically minded.' After finishing the Gospel, he kissed it set it down, and walked down into the nave. Pacing back and forth he asked the children, "Why are you all dressed up?"

To which one replied, "We're getting married."

A roar of laughter erupted and Father said, "I hope there's an equal number of boys and girls." He then proceeded to correct the child and explain that they were receiving the Eucharist for the first time. And what he said was very encouraging and good.

I feel, however, that missed an opportunity. That whole parish was rocking with laughter to the embarrassment of one child. Here was the perfect opportunity to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. In the midst of the laughter he could have said, "In a way, that's true."

Certainly not every child was preparing to marry another child, but in that moment, they were preparing to enter into a union of one body with Christ, which is itself very much like the union of a husband and wife.

Stop and think for a bit, if you do not already know what I am talking about. In the Mass the priest repeats the words of St. John the Baptist saying, "Behold Him, who takes away the sins of the world" followed by "Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb." This second text is an allusion to Rev. 19:9 which says, "Blessed are those who are called to the marriage supper of the Lamb."

There is a marriage taking place between the Lamb and His bride, the Church, who we traditionally call the Bride of Christ. We tend to forget this aspect of Communion, because we no longer follow the traditional order of the Sacraments of Initiation—Baptism first, Confirmation second, then Eucharist last—with children who have received infant Baptism.

The difficulty is that Communion is not the marriage itself, but rather the consummation of the marriage that takes place in Confirmation. The analogy is that we enter into a solemn relationship, much like betrothal, in our Baptism. We swear our fidelity to our beloved. In Confirmation, we perfect that promise made in our Baptism and receive the necessary graces to carry out the duties of our perfected relationship. In this way, Confirmation is more like the rite of Matrimony. Furthermore, Communion is the full expression of that love between us and Christ. It is an expression of fecund self-giving. It is deeply intimate and is more like the consummation of marriage. It can and should be repeated as an expression of love that is life-giving. Baptism and Confirmation, much like betrothal and the marriage rite, cannot be repeated because they carry with them a permanence, a solemn promise.

Now, obviously not all of this can be explained in depth to a seven-year-old, who would lack the comprehension of the full sense of the analogy, but nevertheless, it ought to be explained in part that we unite ourselves to Christ by this Sacrament and in doing so we express our mutual love for each other.

I should note that the reception of Confirmation is not restricted to those who have received their First Communion. Archbishop Aquila, while serving as the Bishop of Fargo, re-established the order in that diocese.

St. Thomas Aquinas Answers the Question: Do We Worship Christ's Cross on Good Friday?

God love us, this issue seems to remain unanswered in most parishes. The more practical question that pops up is whether we use a bare cross or the crucifix for veneration of Good Friday.  Some, like Fr. Z, seem to think that "the point of Good Friday is to venerate Christ Crucified: Christus Crucifixus," and that excludes and mere veneration of the the Holy Cross of our salvation. Others, who care for the rubrics as much as Fr. Z, read the texts and say, "It says cross not crucifix."

One question that needs to be asked is what kind of veneration are we offering to the cross during the Good Friday service? Another is whether that kind of veneration can belong to the cross simply or if it necessitates the image of Christ Crucified?

The Church has long tradition of very clear language that only God is to be worshipped with the latria." In fact, the Catholic Church distinguishes between three forms of veneration: latria, hyperdulia, and dulia. St. Thomas says:
adoration of "
Reverence is due to God on account of His excellence, which is communicated to certain creatures not in equal measure, but according to a measure of proportion; and so the reverence which we pay to God, and which belongs to latria, differs from the reverence which we pay to certain excellent creatures; this belongs to dulia, and we shall speak of it further on (103).
In Q. 103, St. Thomas continues:
Wherefore dulia, which pays due service to a human lord, is a distinct virtue from latria, which pays due service to the lordship of God. It is, moreover, a species of observance, because by observance we honor all those who excel in dignity, while dulia properly speaking is the reverence of servants for their master, dulia being the Greek for servitude.
Now, hyperdulia is reserved for Mary Mother of God. It is nothing more than the highest reverence to any creature. Nevertheless, even hyperdulia falls short of the homage paid to God. Naturally, the question arises in the Summa Theologica, whether we ought to worship Christ's humanity with the adoration of latria, for Christ's body is a created thing. The entirety of his humanity is creaturely. And yet His humanity is united to the Divine Nature by His Person. The cause of the honor due to Christ, in His humanity, is the dignity of His Person, and therefore, it follows that Christ's humanity is worshipped with the adoration of latria (III, Q. 25, a. 1-2).

The veneration of Christ's humanity can, however, be thought of in more than one way. In as much as it is His humanity, it is adored with latria. If his humanity is venerated on account of its perfection by the gifts of grace, it is not the Person, and therefore not the Godhead, that is being paid homage, but the perfection of humanity, which is nevertheless praiseworthy. On this veneration of His perfect humanity, St. Thomas says:
And then thus understood as distinct from the Word of God, it should be adored with the adoration of "dulia"; not any kind of "dulia," such as is given to other creatures, but with a certain higher adoration, which is called "hyperdulia"... Because the adoration of "latria" is not given to Christ's humanity in respect of itself; but in respect of the Godhead to which it is united, by reason of which Christ is not less than the Father (III, Q. 25, a. 2).
Now, if Christ's humanity is worshipped with the adoration of latria by virtue of its unity with the Godhead, then what about an image of Christ? Certainly the image is not united to the Godhead, and therefore, in itself is not deserving of latria. There is, however, as St. Thomas puts it, a twofold movement of the mind towards and image. There first, of course, toward the image as a thing. If a statue, the mind moves toward it first as a thing of plaster or stone. There is another movement that the mind makes towards and image, namely insofar as it is the image of something else. According to this second movement of the mind, the movement does not terminate in the stone and plaster of the statue, but rather, it terminates in the thing imaged.

In as much as it is an image, reverence is due to it. The reverence shown to it as image terminates not in it as a thing of plaster or stone, but rather in the person imaged. St. Thomas says:
It follow [sic] therefore that reverence should be shown to it, in so far only as it is an image. Consequently the same reverence should be shown to Christ's image as to Christ Himself. Since, therefore, Christ is adored with the adoration of "latria," it follows that His image should be adored with the adoration of "latria" (III, Q. 25, a. 3).
This then, brings us to the matter of the Cross of Christ, which we venerate on Good Friday.  St. Thomas is clear that reverence of any kind is due to persons and not to things. The cross is simply not a person, and so it would seem that no reverence whatsoever is due to it. This, however, is not the conclusion to which St. Thomas comes. By the subtlety of his intellect St. Thomas is able to find the distinction that we seem to fail to grasp on our own. Things are reverenced by reason a rational nature in two ways (emphasis mine):
First, inasmuch as it represents a rational nature: secondly, inasmuch as it is united to it in any way whatsoever. In the first way men are wont to venerate the king's image; in the second way, his robe. And both are venerated by men with the same veneration as they show to the king.
In an age where monarchs are few and far between, let alone our chance encounters with them, it becomes difficult to grasp this. If we look at our own personal relations maybe we can come to a similar conclusion. The person who carries a picture of his family or spouse and kisses it from time to time, is no different than the person who venerates the kings image. The young man who has received his dead father's pocket watch and carries it with him everywhere, is no different than the one who reverences the king's robe. The same care that he shows to that watch is a love that terminates in his father who he associates so closely with it.

So, as concerns any relic of the True Cross, St. Thomas says:
If, therefore, we speak of the cross itself on which Christ was crucified, it is to be venerated by us in both ways--namely, in one way in so far as it represents to us the figure of Christ extended thereon; in the other way, from its contact with the limbs of Christ, and from its being saturated with His blood. Wherefore in each way it is worshiped with the same adoration as Christ, viz. the adoration of "latria." And for this reason also we speak to the cross and pray to it, as to the Crucified Himself.
This is why Fr. Z can say, "If there is no relic of the True Cross available for veneration, then the Crucifix should be used." There is a greater tradition of veneration of the True Cross and to the Crucifix as a substitute, but St. Thomas does not leave it at that. He continues:
But if we speak of the effigy of Christ's cross in any other material whatever--for instance, in stone or wood, silver or gold--thus we venerate the cross merely as Christ's image, which we worship with the adoration of "latria," as stated above (Article 3).
So, whether it be a relic of the True Cross, a crucifix, or a bare cross, the adoration of latria is offered. To the True Cross latria is offered in a twofold way, by representation and by way of it being united to Christ by contact. Both the crucifix and the bare cross are only worshipped with the adoration of latria in as much as they are images of Christ.

Since there is no difference in the worship offered, it would seem that the best way to answer this question would be to ask whether in the rite of the Veneration of the Cross, we are called to venerate Christ or His Cross. It seems clear in the rite, that the veneration is of the cross itself, as the means by which our salvation is effected, is what we venerate in as much as it is associated with Christ. Therefore, since there is no image of Christ Crucified without a cross, it would seem appropriate to venerate either the a crucifix or, out of necessity, a bare cross will suffice. By kissing the cross or the feet of Christ, the worship offered is the same—latria—and to terminates in the same Person imaged—the Word of God, Christ.

When God speaks we need to respond with proper spiritual grammar...

Every good sentence is made up of a subject and a predicate. In two words, God summed up who He is: I am. His own words express to us the unfathomable depth of His being, He is. Subject = God. Predicate = is. It is a full sentence, and yet in English it is as short as sentences get. It is ironic that the eternal, the infinite, the all in all, can express His existence with such brevity, and yet, it seems, in our finitude our attempts at expressing ourselves is limitless.

Many of the problems we face today arise from our inability to recognize who we are and express that identity properly. Our tendency is to try and define ourselves according to what we do. Our self-perspective is most often a description of what we do. Our identity, as we see it, is primarily based on those actions we do most often. For example, "I am a runner"or "I am a photographer." There is no doubt, that what you do has an impact on who you are, but I do not think that we would ever answer, "Who are you?," with, "I am a runner."

When confronted with the question, "Who are you?" our tendency is to give our name. "Who," you see, is not only an interrogative pronoun, but also personal, like "whom." Unlike "whom," "who" is subjective, and when asked, "who" is searching for a personal subject. I become the subject, and my name designates me among any number of persons.

What's in a name?

Names are interesting, because they work in a similar way no matter what culture you call your own. In some cultures, family names comes first and an individual's last, which may seem strange until you consider the way we scientifically name species. Some cultures have generational names, which every family member of a specific generation has in their name. Sometimes within Western culture, the only part of the name which distinguishes one individual from another is the suffix Jr. or some number. Whatever the tradition, the name always implies some relationship.

My name for instance, is made up of a first, middle, and last name. Starting from the generic and moving to the specific, my last name is 'hyphenated': Córdova y Muenzberg. Already my ethnicity is presenting itself. Like many Americans today, I am of mixed heritage. I am half-Hispanic and half-German. The Spanish word "y" means "and." So, if I translated my name it would be Córdova "and" Muenzberg. My last name refers to both my mother's family line and my father's. In this way, I have already situated myself within the context of a family from whom I have received these names. Both of my last names refer to the specific region from which my families hail, namely Münzenberg, Germany and Córdoba, Spain. These names then place me within the greater context of my origins.

My first name and middle name specify me further. There are at least two other "Córdova y Muenzbergs" out there that I know of (my brothers), and to keep others from confusing us, we were given first and middle names. Our first names distinguish us enough, and it seems that our middle names are excessive. But as Christians, we find more value in names than simply designation. The "Christian name" was the name given to invoke the patronage of some Christian saint, which only further implies more relationships. Some names, first and middle, are one combined patronage. Others imply a patronage taken at Baptism and another at Confirmation. Some folks incorporate a confirmation name into their middle name later on. Whatever the tradition, names are more than practical distinctions.

Wisdom is good spiritual grammar.

Wisdom is a science of judgment. It is the ability to apprehend the truth or goodness in relationships. For example, the wise man knows what would be the most suitable path to follow. He does not need to have experienced both paths, but he does need sufficient information about the paths. Wisdom requires the ability to recognize things for what they are and how they compare. There is no wisdom in taking the only path that lies in front of you. Is one path narrow and difficult while the other is wide and easy? If so, it would seem wise to take the wide and easy road. Wisdom, however, looks at the path with relation to its end, and not just in relation to the other path. If you want to get to paradise, you would not take the wide and easy road, for it leads in the opposite direction. 

The wise man not only knows what to do, but also knows himself. Socrates, for example, lived his life recognizing that he only knew what he did not know. His great realization was that he was actually wise in his ignorance, and that a failure to acknowledge our ignorance and act accordingly leads to folly. Acting according to the realization of what we do not know, however, leads to wisdom. 

This wisdom starts with that same self-knowledge of our ignorance, but in relation to something higher. It was not that Socrates believed that there was no truth, the self-contradiction of that statement was obvious to him. But like a wise man, he knew that in order to get to paradise he had to travel down a narrow and difficult path. In all his encounters, he seems not to be able to find anyone who knows anything. Until, that is, he met Diotima, whose philosophy he recalls. Diotima knows love, and her philosophy of love parallels Socrates' pursuit of truth. 

Both Diotima and Socrates seem to recognize that there is some end for which they are striving that does not exist in material things. For Socrates, it is Truth itself, and for Diotima, it is Beauty itself. Ultimately, both exist in the Divine as their source. 

If we are going to make any wise decision, we need to be able to compare things to our last end and to their origin, which both, as Catholics, we call "God." 

Concluding thoughts:

Going back to the original topic, God reveals Himself in His creation. Creation is itself a sort of scripture. It is like a handwritten copy of what He first spoke that we seem to have dropped into a puddle, and now the ink is running. It is difficult to read but it is our own fault not His. Nevertheless, God's grammar is not illogical. There is a right way to speak and a wrong way. For God, every living thing has its proper place in His eternal sentence. 

In order to understand His revelation, we have to grasp His grammar. We cannot confuse subjects and objects; "who" and "whom" are used properly in the Spiritual Grammar that God speaks. It is up to us to understand which is which. We have to look at everything in the proper perspective and realize that things have particular relationships with each other and with God. 

Knowing a things name, helps us to recognize its relations. Christian names often times give us a way to relate to God. My name, "Abram," means exalted father. In one way, I can strive to fulfill my name, and in another way, I can strive to relate to God as my exalted Father. By aligning myself with my end in such a way allows my name to become more than practical. It allows me to identify my relation to God more easily. 

I find that my name fits well with my perceived relation to God. I find it quite providential that my name reflects a spiritual dynamic that exists between me and my Creator. No matter what our name is, we should identify ourselves primarily as an individual in a relationship with God. When God has the priority in all our relationships we start to put together grammatically correct spiritual sentences. We start viewing the world according to the manner in which God intended it be revealed.

In the end, we can read God's love letter to us all we want and praise ourselves for being loved, or we can respond to that word with words of our own. In our actions, external and internal, we can express to God, using His language, our own affection and desire to be one with Him.

As practice for the spiritual grammar, maybe we should practice our English grammar. It can only help. 

What Is Missing From Our Conversation About the Morning After Pill

On February 21 it was reported that the German Bishops of Trier released a statement announcing that emergency contraception known as the "Morning-after Pill" (MAP) can be used in cases of rape if it does not induce abortion. Politically progressive readers heard this news and rallied around these bishops for conceding to the use of artificial contraceptives. Critics of the bishops jumped at the chance to attack these bishops for the same thing or allowing a pill that does not exist, since the current MAPs on the market are all known abortifacients (abortion-causing). The problem is that hardly anyone is using clear language in this discussion. It seems at times like no one is making necessary distinctions. So, for the sake of shedding light on the matter, educating the masses about authentic Church teaching, and explaining the ethics behind the bishops' decision, I want to explain the components involved.

Church teaching:

Rape is never acceptable.
It does injury to justice and charity. Rape deeply wounds the respect, freedom, and physical and moral integrity to which every person has a right. It causes grave damage that can mark the victim for life. It is always an intrinsically evil act. Graver still is the rape of children committed by parents (incest) or those responsible for the education of the children entrusted to them. (CCC 2356)
Steven Mosher, explains:
In the strictest sense, rape is not a sexual act at all, but is rather a violent assault where the victim has the right to self-defense. To put it bluntly, the rapist has no right to have his sperm fertilize the eggs of the woman he has raped. It is therefore permissible to prevent his sperm from doing so by removing them from the body of a woman who has been thus violated.
Mosher goes on to qualify this statement by saying, "If there were a pill that acted only to prevent conception in cases of rape, then it would be licit to use it." The assumption he is making is that because of certain effects of MAP it prevents use in every case. What the bishops have said is that MAP is acceptable in order to prevent conception without causing abortion. So, breaking it down scientifically, MAP is an abortifacient in as much as it could possibly prevent the implantation of an already conceived embryo, thereby preventing "pregnancy" by medical standards. This would amount to "abortion" by the Church's standards. The Church teaches that life begins at the moment of conception, in other words, at fertilization of the ovum by the sperm. What is present after this moment is a human person and is due all the rights and dignity of a human person. The prevention of the implantation of the embryo is not the only effect of MAP. MAPs can also prevent the ovulation of the ovum so that conception cannot take place. So, MAPs work in two ways, by either preventing ovulation or by preventing implantation. Only one method of contraception out of these two is morally illicit in the case of rape. As Mosher accurately pointed out, the rapist has no right to have his sperm fertilize the eggs. To use the language of Bl. John Paul II's Theology of the Body and Pope Paul VI's Humanae Vitae, the marital act has already been negated by the removal of any unitive meaning in the case of rape and does not require, for that reason, an openness to procreation. Therefore, contracepting by preventing ovulation is not a sin against purity or the Sacrament of Matrimony. MAPs are never acceptable once a woman has ovulated, because of its abortifacient effects. If we can establish that a rape victim has not yet ovulated, an MAP can be acceptably and licitly used to prevent conception.

The proper procedure:

There are a couple different methods by which we can establish whether or not a woman has ovulated. First, practitioners of Natural Family Planning (NFP) keep and monitor certain aspects of a woman's cycle and can, with great accuracy, know when a woman has or is going to ovulate. So, NFPers out there are in a better position to request MAP if the very unfortunate and heinous crime of rape should ever occur. Secondly, knowing the exact date of the start of a woman's last cycle can also help establish the approximate date of ovulation. Ovulation usually occurs within a certain period of time after the start of a woman's cycle. This sort of dating is not as accurate as NFP and the next method I am going to mention is also more accurate and should be preferred over this method. Finally, when a woman ovulates, her body has an accompanying fluctuation in lute inizing hormone (LH). A simple urine test can determine the presence of LH. If LH levels are elevated then it can be established that the victim has ovulated, and it cannot be established whether or not the ovum has yet been fertilized. The National Catholic Bioethics Center (NCBC) has outlined four essential conditions that must be met before administering an MAP. They are:
  1. The woman is not already pregnant from prior, freely-chosen sexual activity.
  2. The woman has been sexually assaulted.
  3. The woman has not yet ovulated (i.e. has not released an egg from her ovary into the fallopian tube where it could be fertilized by the attacker’s sperm).
  4. The morning-after pill can reasonably be expected to prevent her from ovulating.
It should also be noted that spermicidal washes are not abortifacient and also permissible in cases of rape. Within just hours of the incident, sperm may have already traveled into the fallopian tubes, and spermicidal washes are limited in their efficacy, further complicated by the duration of time that sperm can survive in the body. Spermicidal washes may prevent further sperm from moving past the cervix. However, even in cases where ovulation has occurred, physicians may deem it appropriate to minimize the chances for conception by administering spermicides. It may even be beneficial to administer a spermicide as early as possible even before determining ovulation, if rape has been established. Therefore, the only condition that must be met for spermicide to be administered is sexual assault.

Concluding thoughts:

The majority of articles on the bishops' statement have not sufficiently made clear the distinction between preventing conception, preventing ovulation, and preventing implantation. The bishops were not wrong in issuing their statement and enforcing Church teaching in response to the unfortunate event that occurred where a rape victim was turned away. Any hospital that refuses to help a victim of such an abominable crime should be ashamed and does not deserve the title of Catholic. Beyond medical procedures, a variety of assistance ought to be offered including counseling and legal advice. The physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual trauma suffered by sexual assault victims far exceeds anything imaginable. Caring for them is essential to our Catholic identity. So also, however, is caring for the most defenseless person involved, the child conceived through rape. Protecting their rights and dignity is as essential to our Catholic identity as assisting the rape victim. A child conceived be rape is an innocent bystander, and he should never become a “second victim” through abortion. Providing women who conceive a child by rape with full and loving support during and after their pregnancy is also part of our Catholic identity, and the only proper and sensible response to such insensible acts. For more on MAP in cases of rape, click here.

Reading the Gospel of the Third Sunday of Lent with the Church Fathers...

This coming Sunday, the Third Sunday of Lent, we hear what is a somewhat enigmatic parable concerning yet another tree. The passage from Luke 13, is perfused with a sense repentance. It can be and is a troubling passage. It stirs in us a fear of our end and unsettles anyone who is not yet prepared to meet God, or who has otherwise failed to do enough to consider his life a pleasing sacrifice.

In the end, we ultimately need to be aware of what it is that God is asking of us, so that we are not caught ignorant of the task at hand. To that end, I cracked open the Cantena Aurea (Caput 13, Lectio 1-2), of St. Thomas and drew on the knowledge of some of the earlier interpretations of Scripture.

Gospel Lk 13:1-9 

Some people told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with the blood of their sacrifices. Jesus said to them in reply, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were greater sinners than all other Galileans? By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did! Or those eighteen people who were killed when the tower at Siloam fell on them— do you think they were more guilty than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem? By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!” 

And he told them this parable: “There once was a person who had a fig tree planted in his orchard, and when he came in search of fruit on it but found none, he said to the gardener, ‘For three years now I have come in search of fruit on this fig tree but have found none. So cut it down. Why should it exhaust the soil?’ He said to him in reply, ‘Sir, leave it for this year also, and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it; it may bear fruit in the future. If not you can cut it down.’”

We would have to be pretty dense to fail to recognize the theme of repentance found in this Gospel reading. For, Christ says most explicitly, "I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!"Following this most astounding of statements, He tells a parable.

The person who had a fig tree: 

The Church Fathers unanimously agree that the owner of the fig tree is God Himself. It was the Lord who first established a covenant with His creation, and told it to be fruitful and multiply. It was the Lord who first promised to Abraham that he would be a "Father of a Multitude," like a fruitful tree in the midst of a great vineyard. It was God Himself who through Moses set the people of Israel apart and dwelt in their midst, establishing for them a law by which they were to be spiritually and politically fruitful. It was God Himself who allowed Israel to be taken into exile for the sake of recognizing the primacy of a holy life as the source of true sacrifice (cf. Ps 51), and from that experience the synagogue became a type of this fig tree.

The fig tree in his orchard: 

The Church Fathers give different readings of the fig tree. Some see it as Israel. Others as the synagogue. What is clear is the relation between God and His fig tree. God has established something for the sake of bearing fruit, but, whatever it is, for one reason or another, it has failed to do so. In retrospect it is clear that God's intervention in salvation history has ultimately failed to produce fruit to no fault of His own. In this story, it is ultimately because of the weakness of humanity that we have failed to produce fruit. 

"For three years now I have come in search of fruit... and found none":

It is clear that God has come in search of fruit three times, as represented by the the three years the landowner has come to check his tree. On this St. Ambrose says:
Behold, these three years I come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and find none. He came to Abraham, He came to Moses, He came to Mary, that is, He came in the seal of the covenant, He came in the law, He came in the body. We recognize His coming by His gifts; at one time purification, at another sanctification, at another justification. Circumcision purified, the law sanctified, grace justified. The Jewish people then could not be purified because they had not the circumcision of the heart, but of the body; nor be sanctified, because ignorant of the meaning of the law, they followed carnal things rather than spiritual; nor justified, because not working repentance for the their offenses, they knew nothing of grace.
...and St. Gregory Nazianzus says:
But our Lord came three times to the fig tree, because He sought after man’s nature before the law, under the law, and under grace, by waiting, admonishing, visiting; but yet He complains that for three years he found no fruit, for there are some wicked men whose hearts are neither corrected by the law of nature breathed into them, nor instructed by precepts, nor converted by the miracles of His incarnation.

The Gardener:

The gardener can be thought of in three ways. First, according to the interpretation of St. Gregory Nazianzus who says, "By the cultivator of the vineyard is expressed the order of those placed in charge [the Bishops], who, by leading the Church, take care of our Lord’s vineyard."He attributes the cultivation of the fig tree to the work of those leading the Church. St. Augustine, however,  extends this work, to the whole Church:
Or, the farmer who intercedes is every holy man who within the Church prays for them that are outside the Church, saying, O Lord, forgive it this year, that is, a grace period, until I shall dig all the way about it. To dig about it, is to teach humility and patience, for the ground which has been dug is lowly (De Verb. Dom.).
In St. Thomas' Cantena Aurea, he quotes Theophylactus as interpreting the gardener with Christ, "cultor vero Christus." And maybe, that is the glue that bonds the whole of it together. For, the Bishops  and all holy men and women within the Church make up the Body of Christ. So, it can be properly said that the work of cultivation, that is a work of humility, patience, and repentance, belongs to the Church, with the ordained as its head and the lay faithful filling out its body.

Our call to repent and the constant conversion of each of us and the entire world to God is the necessary work of His vineyard if we want to see it bear fruit.

You're a Bad Person and God Will Never Change His Mind About You...

In case you have not been to Mass lately and/or failed to notice the change of liturgical colors, we are now in the season of Lent. For the pious, that may be a good thing. It may be a time to inwardly rejoice that a time to purify your heart is here. But I think that for most of us (at least those who take it seriously) it is a time of pain, suffering, repeated failure, and so on.

Job as portrayed by Bonnat
Lent brings great things. It brings spiritual growth, purification, and strengthening. For me, at least, it also means that I have to crack down on myself and really put things into perspective. And when we put things into perspective we recognize the pain we have to go through in order to win our crown. I get frustrated with anyone who 'enjoys' Lent. I feel like saying, "If you enjoy Lent, you're not trying hard enough." The fact of the matter is we are all flawed, and we all need grace.

I, for one, know that I need grace. I need a lot of it. I know my own flaws and my own need for Divine Assistance. I also know that in order to receive more grace I have to open myself to receive it. I need to expose the dark parts of my soul to light. I need to empty out myself so that God can fill the spaces. How could I expect anything less than suffering when even Job, who was righteous, suffered greatly. I do not pretend to know God's mind, but find it difficult to presume that it will be easy.

The problem is, I have lived so many years of my life for myself that it is particularly difficult to live for anyone else: God, wife, neighbor, etc... So, little acts of self-denial always find their way into my Lenten practice. For example, if I think I should eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, maybe this time I will forego the jelly. Should I eat it with a glass of milk? I think this time I will just have water.

Does it work? I have no idea. I do not feel it working. It hurts. I do not enjoy it. I feel like it is pointless most of the time, but I have to tell myself that that sort of thinking is the exact temptation I am trying to extinguish. In all honesty, I do not succeed every time. I fail a lot. I cannot overcome many of the temptations I face in these little things. And in my failures I recognize that I really am a bad person. If I cannot avoid this small temptation, how will I ever be able to overcome the big ones?

Will I ever succeed? Does it really work? It is hard to say, but I know that I am different person than I was five years ago and for the better. That gives me comfort.

Amidst it all I have the certainty that God will not change His mind about me. I believe in an immutable God. A God who is truly perfect cannot change. If He could it would imply that what He could become He is not now, but I believe in a God who is perfection itself, lacking in nothing. Furthermore, change implies time, and I believe in an eternal God. God is not restricted to our universe, to our time. He created our universe and is not subject to it.

The same God who has given me life continues to hold me in being. The same God who gives me being expects nothing in return. So my life is a free-gift, and my God is a loving God. All I can offer in return is my love, and the sacrifice of myself, as unworthy an offering it may be.

It gives me comfort to know that God does not change, and "His anger" is my relation to Him and not His relation to me. I means that with His grace I can change. As painful as it may be, I can offer myself to Him. And though I fail time and time again, I know that His gift of grace will always be there offered to me waiting for me to cooperate.

Fasting with St. Thomas Aquinas...

Unfortunately, St. Thomas was limited by the science of his time, and so much of his reasoning, though logical is founded on bad science. That being the case, I have chosen to leave out sections from his thought that, though relevant and not without real relations to experience, are not wholly 'digestible.'

I would encourage you to read the entirety of his Question on Fasting (ST IIa.IIae, Q.147). All the following excerpts are taken from this one question, and no further citations will be given. Minor spacing changes have been made to the text to make it easier to read and understand. My own thoughts and emphasis.

St. Thomas on Fasting:

Fasting is practiced for a threefold purpose.
First, in order to bridle the lusts of the flesh, wherefore the Apostle says (2 Corinthians 6:5-6): "In fasting, in chastity," since fasting is the guardian of chastity. For, according to Jerome [Contra Jov. ii.] "Venus is cold when Ceres and Bacchus are not there," that is to say, lust is cooled by abstinence in meat and drink.
Secondly, we have recourse to fasting in order that the mind may arise more freely to the contemplation of heavenly things: hence it is related (Daniel 10) of Daniel that he received a revelation from God after fasting for three weeks.
Thirdly, in order to satisfy for sins: wherefore it is written (Joel 2:12): "Be converted to Me with all your heart, in fasting and in weeping and in mourning."
Immediately upon reflecting on the order in which these purposes are given it seems confusing that the first and the third purposes are separated by the second. Upon closer examination, however, we can recognize in this logic that these three purposes can be boiled down to two ends. In 'bridling the lusts of the flesh' we avoid sin so as to 'order the mind to heavenly things.' So, even though the first and third share the same object, namely sin, the first actually shares the same end with the second purpose, namely turning the mind away from earthly things and toward heavenly.
The same is declared by Augustine in a sermon (De orat. et Jejun. [Serm. lxxii (ccxxx, de Tempore)]): "Fasting cleanses the soul, raises the mind, subjects one's flesh to the spirit, renders the heart contrite and humble, scatters the clouds of concupiscence, quenches the fire of lust, kindles the true light of chastity."
The relationship between fasting and chastity may not be immediately obvious. When we consider the two ends of fasting, the relationship seems a bit clearer
Fasting is directed to two things, the deletion of sin, and the raising of the mind to heavenly things.
For St. Thomas there are two acts of virtue that pertain to purity, namely chastity and continence. By chastity one withdraws from unlawful desires, continence from lawful desires which are lesser goods for the sake of giving full attention to higher goods. So, the abstinence and fasting of these good things is a practice in continence, for the sake of refraining from and standing firm against unlawful things including but not limited to lust. Since, however, lust is the strongest of our concupiscent passions, curbing it is difficult. Only by smaller acts of temperance can we strengthen our mind and body to turn toward God for the strength to avoid temptation and stand firm in the face of it. 

Now, since fasting is directed to the deletion of sin, and the raising of the mind to heavenly things, St Thomas continues: 
...fasting ought to be appointed specially for those times, when it behooves man to be cleansed from sin, and the minds of the faithful to be raised to God by devotion: and these things are particularly requisite before the feast of Easter, when sins are loosed by baptism, which is solemnly conferred on Easter-eve, on which day our Lord's burial is commemorated, because "we are buried together with Christ by baptism unto death" (Romans 6:4). Moreover at the Easter festival the mind of man ought to be devoutly raised to the glory of eternity, which Christ restored by rising from the dead, and so the Church ordered a fast to be observed immediately before the Paschal feast.
That being the case, we should be particularly sensitive to our own needs. We should reflect on our own failures and need for fasting. The Church requires, as a bare minimum, us to forego full meals. We can have two smaller meals, and one full meal, on days of fasting. The two smaller meals combined should not equal that of the larger meal. 

If we look at the purpose of fasting as being a means to practice virtue through the denial of our bodily appetites so as to strengthen ourselves against sin, we should be striving to do the most that we can for the sake of our salvation. Let us face it, we have grown spiritually lazy when we are satisfied with the minimum. 

Imagine for a moment an person who wants to build muscle that only lifts two-pound weights three times for five sets all because it is the bare minimum that a person in physical therapy should be doing to maintain muscle mass. Now, we may not be olympic weightlifters, but surely we can try to lift what we can. 

We need to be realistic about what we can handle. If we cannot handle more than the bare minimum at the beginning of Lent, maybe we should incorporate smaller fasts into our lives for more days per week for the entirety of Lent. Now that I have said my piece about fasting, here is what St. Thomas says about not fasting: 
The "fasting of joy" proceeds from the instigation of the Holy Ghost Who is the Spirit of liberty, wherefore this fasting should not be a matter of precept. Accordingly the fasts appointed by the commandment of the Church are rather "fasts of sorrow" which are inconsistent with days of joy. For this reason fasting is not ordered by the Church during the whole of the Paschal season, nor on Sundays: and if anyone were to fast at these times in contradiction to the custom of Christian people, which as Augustine declares (Ep. xxxvi) "is to be considered as law," or even through some erroneous opinion... he would not be free from sin. Nevertheless fasting considered in itself is commendable at all times; thus Jerome wrote (Ad Lucin., Ep. lxxi): "Would that we might fast always."
In short, fasting for the right reason is always profitable. Make the most of your Lent. Do not let this one go by without growing in virtue. And enjoy Sundays... temperately.   

The Witness of Fasting

  • Last Sunday, a good priest friend of mine mentioned something in his homily which made me think, particularly with Lent coming up. To paraphrase, he noted that many people in the secular world are often impressed by acts of piety and asceticism on the part of religious believers, especially if they seem exotic. Thus, the Lenten disciplines of fasting and prayer can serve both as a witness, as well as a way to reform the imago Dei in us that has become deformed through sin.
    A Catholic myself, I cannot help but be impressed by the piety of many Muslims who fast during Ramadan, and I know I am not alone. Many in our secularized culture understandably look upon the discipline of Ramadan with a kind of awe, as it reminds them of a religious culture which has been lost to a very large degree here in the West. In this regard, our culture seems to have an almost schizoid attitude in regard to religion, on the one hand parroting the oft-repeated mantra of its intolerance, while on the other drawn to it in a way that demonstrates just how much our society really hungers for God. This fascination, I believe, is a poignant reminder of the Christendom that the modern West thought it had "evolved" beyond and left behind forever. As I was reminded on Sunday, it also signals to us as believing Catholics that the disciplines, rituals, and practices of the Church, particularly fasting and fixed times of prayer, serve as a quiet yet powerful witness to the world around us. In many ways, our faith has been and is still very much outside the mainstream culture, particularly in America and the England. We have a unique opportunity, then, to witness this Lent to our faith through the traditional disciplines of prayer and fasting.
    As the Church has always taught, any fasting or ascetical discipline must by necessity be a natural accompaniment of genuine repentance, as well as an increase of prayer. Indeed, true sincerity and contrition of heart must be the root from which the tree of penance springs, if it is to bear fruit. But this does not mean that fasting and abstinence can be summarily dismissed as of a sort of false righteousness either. On the contrary, in a world and a culture which has lost its sense of the true good of bodily existence, it is even more vital that we allow God to use us as examples of a life lived in communion with Him.
    And so, as a witness for Christ, let us consider doing more this Lent than just giving up television or Facebook (although these are certainly laudable things to do). The Church requires us to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, as well as abstain from meat on those days in addition to the Fridays of Lent. Perhaps one may consider fasting on the Lenten Fridays as well, in addition to the already required abstinence, or in some way prayerfully discerning a personal rule of fasting and abstinence above and beyond the established minimum (it is most wise to consult a priest, of course, before adopting any kind of ascetical regimen).
    In addition to this, the Church Fathers stress the importance of prayer. This is in order to avoid the "fast of the demons", as even the demons fast (being incorporeal), but they do not pray, and they certainly do not perform works of charity. Increasing time spent in daily prayer, then, is a necessity in addition to even the required fasting during Lent. A daily Rosary, praying the Liturgy of the Hours or the Angelus every day, attending daily Mass, all are ways that we can draw closer to Christ during this season of grace. In drawing closer to Him, we are conformed to Him, and in being conformed to Him, we become living icons of Him.
    Ultimately, fasting and prayer, when done in a spirit of genuine repentance, is meant to restore the image of Christ that has been marred in us by sin. By living a life in increased attentiveness to Him and in conformity to His will and in cooperation with His grace, our Lenten disciplines serve as a powerful witness to Christ and His Church, in the midst of a world which is in such desperate need of Divine guidance.

    Four suggestions for praying better at Mass...

    Have you ever fallen into the routine of worship? What I mean is, the recitation of prayers and the adoption of certain postures and gestures without any thought of what you are doing. If you are anything like me, than it happens almost every Sunday.

    It is difficult to put your full mind and heart, at times, into the prayer your reciting when you know it by heart, especially when the kid in front of you is staring at you like he has telekinetic powers that will make your head explode. It is hard not to get distracted by the woman shuffling through her handbag in search of the pair of glasses on top of her head or the teenager who is about to give himself whiplash from his inability to support the weight of his head as he falls asleep. And while you are busy contemplating what these folks are doing or predicting what is about to happen to them, you are reciting your prayers without stumbling, right? Except for maybe that new one that says, "right and just..." instead of "right to give Him thanks and praise..." 

    Then, after the fifteen or so times that you were busy fixing your cuticles while reciting the words like a boss, you have the audacity to say, "I'm sufficiently prepared to receive Communion!" and in good order, you stand up and waddle toward the Eucharistic Minister wondering if you are too close to the person in front of you and if it looks awkward to others around you. Or maybe I am the only person who goes through all this.

    I do what I can to stay focused, and I have found a few things that have helped me limit the distractions I suffer during prayer. So, I wanted to share a few of them with you.

    Pray with your heart, and not just with your mouth:

    Every so often, I go to Mass and I make a point of not saying the prayers out loud. It is a sort of systems check that I have. I can gauge how successfully I engage the words of the prayers if, by accident and reflex, I say a few of them aloud. It also helps to pinpoint the parts of the Mass that I am most distracted during. I have found that my tendency is to vocalize certain prayers at particular parts of the Mass reflexively. 

    When I catch myself doing this, it helps me to recognize that I am distracted and to focus on the words I am saying. The next time I go to Mass I can preempt my distraction by battening down the hatches and increasing my focus ahead of my "zoning" zone. In the quiet moments leading up to those parts I like to say a quick prayer that I might fully unite my prayer with that of the Mass.

    Pray with your mind, and not just with your heart:

    St. Thérèse of Lisieux says, "prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven..." and while I do not intend to disagree with her, I would like to suggest a practice that helps to orient the surges of our hearts toward heaven. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that prayer is gift, it is not something of our own creation (CCC 2559-2561). In as much as it is a gift, we have to be open to receiving it. In humility we have to acknowledge that "we do not know how to pray as we ought" (Rom 8:26).

    It is therefore a good practice to rely on the missal from time to time. Sometimes we forget that all the prayers, postures, and gestures are written down for us. Nearly every church has some form of the missal in the pews. Most of those missals are also hymnals (or maybe the hymnals are also missals) and contain the parts of the Mass in the first few pages. 

    Furthermore, when was the last time you prayed the words of the Eucharistic Prayer along with the priest? I am not suggesting that we all start saying those words aloud. But at that part of the Mass we can orient the prayers of our heart better by listening more intently to the words the priest says by reading (in your head) along simultaneously. 

    Relying on the missal from time to time has helped me to better understand who and what we are praying for, why we are praying for them, and by what means we offer our prayers. This knowledge and understanding has deepened the prayers of my heart, so that it surges quite effectively. We should not forget that love is predicated on knowledge, and the more we know and understand, the better we can orient the desires of our hearts. True love depends on a properly ordered will, and it belongs to the mind to order the will properly. This begins with the humility to pray the Mass, not according to our own desires, but according to the desires of our Mother the Church.

    Pray with your soul, and not just with your body:

    The soul is the act and form of the body. What the soul does the body does. Furthermore, the intellect and will are the powers of the soul. In order for full and active participation in the Mass, we must first engage both powers of the soul. I have already mentioned two practices to help focus those powers. Now, I would like to suggest a third. 

    Not participating in the Mass by assuming the proper postures would be both distracting and irreverent. There are reasons for the postures that we adopt, e.g. kneeling is posture of humility and adoration. So, make a habit of prayer during the changes of postures that by that posture you may adopt a similar spiritual disposition. 

    I have found that I can engage the prayers more easily when I know that be kneeling or standing or sitting, I am supposed to be doing something with my heart. Asking for God to do that thing with my heart has fruitfully opened my heart to many insights in prayer.

    Pray fully with your body:

    There are all degrees to which we can use our bodies in prayer, and many of us have to adapt to our own physical limitations.  When capable, however, there is no reason to put forth anything less than a full effort. Here are three postures and gestures to avoid whenever possible:

    1. the Pious Curtsey - A genuflection, made by bending the right knee to the ground, signifies adoration, and therefore it is reserved for the Most Blessed Sacrament, as well as for the Holy Cross from the solemn adoration during the liturgical celebration on Good Friday until the beginning of the Easter Vigil (GIRM 274).

    2. the Sign of the [fanning myself] Cross - When we cross ourselves, let it be with a real sign of the cross. Instead of a small, cramped gesture that gives no notion of its meaning, let us make a large, unhurried sign, from forehead to breast, from shoulder to shoulder, consciously feeling how it includes the whole of us, our thoughts, our attitudes, our body and soul, every part of us all at once, how it consecrates and sanctifies us ... (Romano Guardini, Sacred Signs, 1927).

    3. The Sit/Kneel - What once was a posture of penance, kneeling has come to signify adoration by assuming a posture of humility and submission. Kneeling signifies the submission of our wills to the will of God and a lack of self-reliance. Recognizing our need for penance and reliance on God is in itself an act of adoration. Whenever possible, we should make this sign of adoration without recourse to the pew for the sake of our own comfort.

    My experience of the Catholic Migration...

    Taylor Marshall, over at the Canterbury Tales, recently wrote about the "Great Catholic Migration" that is taking place in our time. The title may sound a bit exaggerated, as he goes on to point out that the number of people that he is talking about are really in the minority, but nevertheless, it does seem in many ways that this Catholic Migration is taking place, great or not.

    Maybe my experience is limited by region, but the migration that I have seen much of the time is somewhat in the opposite direction. I have seen many young newly ordained priests, who love the Church in all Her teachings, traditions, and service, placed in new parishes amidst the turmoil of division. Often times, these young priests are what holds these parishes together and prevents migration.

    In larger cities, it may be easier to favor a parish with a more reverent liturgy, sound teaching, and active parish life, but in rural areas it is much more difficult. For example, where I live there are about seven parishes, all about 20-30 minutes away. Very few of the parishes have activities for young people/families, and the parish community is dominated by older folks 50+ years of age.

    The parishes with the greatest ratio of younger people to older people are the parishes with the soundest most challenging homilies every week and more traditional liturgies. There could be several reasons for this. Maybe young people are being drawn to the reverence and challenging homilies. Or maybe the way that the liturgy is done and the challenge of the homily prevents them from ever leaving. I do not know how so many parishes have managed to stay young.

    All I can do is share my own experience. I was raised in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. I attended a Catholic School, which was also my home parish. I can look back on my experience with liturgy and restrict it to two very different perspectives. As an altar server, Mass was very structured, ordered, reverent, traditional, etc... As a student/parishioner Mass was about me.

    I learned how to serve Mass from a man named Tom. That is about all I remember of him. I remember he was not a bold man, or intimidating in any way. We would show up to Mass 15 minutes early and put on our albs in the sacristy. Once vested, we would prepare the credence table. We would make sure that everything that we needed for Mass was ready to go.

    We knew our prayers, our gestures, our postures, and all our cues. The Mass was given to us to do as it was done before. Older servers would instruct the younger ones, and any deviation from the rule was frowned upon by all. Tom always sat nearby to prompt us if we were forgetting something, and if something was wrong, he might sneak away to take care of it from the sacristy.

    As a student, however, it was all about us. It was about what we wanted. We had a youth choir and we incorporated as much of the music that we enjoyed as possible. As students, we'd put together banners to wave during the entrance procession. We would contrive hand movements to cheesy songs. We would clap if we felt like it. Everything was done for us, by us, and we were praised at the end of every Mass with applause.

    Nothing we did was handed down to us. Everything we did we created. It was all about what we wanted to do within some nebulous structure called "Mass."

    Serving the Mass was boring. So, naturally I wanted to sing and clap. I moved away from L.A. and back to the parish I was baptized at in Colorado. I was there throughout high school, and during those years, I served the Mass and I played guitar and sang in the Choir, which was made up of family. I personally grew tired of singing the same songs over and over, and eventually left the choir. I was hired by the parish as Sacristan and part of my duties was to co-ordinate the liturgy.

    Every Friday, I would sit down with the Pastor and Music Director and we would look at the readings, find a theme, and base music and homily on it. I would inform them if there was a baptism or some other event that might present a them that we could use in the homily or music. And we would look at the Missal and the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) and try to think of ways to incorporate many of the things that we were not doing.

    It was during this period of time, that I began to realize the depth of the Mass in its significance and majesty. I began to read more and more about the Mass and its beauty and meaning. There further I would educate myself the more cheated I felt. I wanted the Mass I read about. I am convinced that the Mass that most of us know is not the Mass of Vatican II. Vatican II wanted full and active participation in the Mass, which does not mean more singing and clapping. In the terminology of Pope St. Pius X, we are called to 'pray the Mass' ourselves. Vatican II wanted full and active participation in our prayer, but the problem is that just about no one in our parishes knows what we are supposed to do, what it means, and why it is there. How are we supposed to pray what we do not understand?

    For one, I love going to a Mass done that is done according to rubrics and tradition. The Mass is like a great novel. It can be read time and time again, and each time it is read, you pick up something new. I am drawn to particular Masses at particular parishes, not because of the 'reverence,' but because of the meaning. The rubrics contain more meaning than any innovation that we could come up with.

    I am not a part of any migration, but maybe that is only because I am blessed enough to have parishes and pastors in this area that tend to do things by the book. More than anything, the migration has taken place within me. In the right circumstances and given the option, I would probably migrate too.