Divine Mercy Sunday (April 23, 2017)

Happy Easter! Today we celebrate the final day in the octave (eight days) of Easter. Unlike other octaves in our liturgical calendar, Easter is particularly special – every day is elevated to the highest level of celebration, a solemnity. In this way, we celebrate each day of the octave as if it were Easter Sunday again. And on this final day of the octave, we celebrate both Christ’s resurrection, and also His Divine Mercy.

Some years ago, in my last months of seminary preparation at Mundelein seminary in Illinois, my trusty car gave up the ghost. There was something involving fire & wiring, and well, I didn’t have the money or skill to get it fixed. Going to a friend, I asked if I could borrow his car to run some errands. As he handed me the keys, he offered his only caveat: don’t get into an accident.

With that caution in mind, I set off and went about the various things I needed done. On the way home, at a stop light, I made to change lanes – driving around the car in front of me…..and sure enough I hit the taillight, having miscalculated the distance between us. It was clearly my fault and I felt terrible. To make matters worse, the driver was a clearly frightened young mother whose baby was wailing from the sudden scare. Not a great moment for any of us.

In Illinois it was the law that you had to show up in court, even if you were planning on pleading guilty – which I absolutely was! So I came at the appointed time and waited my turn to admit my fault. Finally my name was called and I approached the respondant’s post. “How do you plead?”, asked the judge. “Guilty, your honor”.

The judge paused. “Mr. Maurer, would you please approach the bench?”.

Already nervous, I did while wondering what more he could want from me. As I drew near, he covered his microphone. “Mr. Maurer, I am not your lawyer and I can not give you legal advice. However, I notice that you are from Washington state and you may not know Illinois state law. Here, if you plead ‘not guilty’ and the petitioner does not show up to charge you, the case is dismissed.  …  Do you understand what I am telling you?”

Confused, but also a little more hopeful, I stammered out my ‘yes’, and he sent me back to my post. “Mr. Maurer, how do you plead?”

“Not guilty, your honor!”

Happily, my friend’s insurance paid for the damage to this poor mother’s car, I paid the deductible for my friend, and when the day for the trial came, she indeed did not show up and the case was dismissed! All because the judge was also, to my surprise and joy, an advocate for me.

How often do we approach our Heavenly Father with the same fear and anxiety, expecting that this will be the moment when the hammer comes down? We know our guilt, are intimately aware of our sin & shame. If nothing else, in the depths of our heart we only know one response to the question of our plea: “guilty, your honor”.

And then Christ appointed by His Heavenly Father as the just judge steps in also as our advocate. These very mysteries we have celebrated – Jesus’ Passion, His Death, and His Resurrection – are presented on our behalf, to declare the innocence won for us.

In the opening prayer at Mass today, we prayed that “all may grasp and rightly understand in what font they have been washed, by whose Spirit they have been reborn, by whose Blood they have been redeemed”. We have been washed in the font of Baptism, reborn by the Holy Spirit, redeemed by the Blood Christ freely offered for our salvation!

Today at Mass, you’ll notice that we will be celebrating the liturgy of the Eucharistic ad orientem. An option given to us and indeed given preference in the liturgical documents of Vatican II, this way of offering the Pascual sacrifice visibly and naturally demonstrates what is invisibly and supernaturally happening at Mass. Rather than humanity & divinity standing opposed, Christ our judge and advocate stands with us – represented in the person of the priest – offering His very Body & Blood as the proof of our innocence to the Heavenly Father. This is the mystery of faith!

On this Divine Mercy Sunday, there are two invitations given to us. The first is the one we perhaps dare not hope for: to receive God’s mercy! How often do we question God’s forgiveness – while it is surely offered for others, could it really be offered for me? Could Christ truly accept my past, my shame, and wash it clean? To this we have a simple but resounding ‘yes’, offered by Christ Himself.

You’ve heard me say so before and will again: come receive God’s forgiveness – most especially in the sacrament of Confession! Perhaps it’s been a long time, maybe there are secret sins you are afraid to name, and the whole sacrament is frightening or alien. Nonetheless this is the Lord’s invitation to you: be not afraid! Come and be relieved of the sin and shame that burdens you. You will be received with great joy by your priests, guided as you might need, and together we will celebrate the graciousness of our Heavenly Father.

The second invitation follows from the first: to be witnesses of God’s mercy to the world. How simple it is to hear and receive God’s mercy within these four walls – yet Christ also commissions us to go and proclaim His Divine Mercy to the world. And make no mistake, the challenge comes almost immediately: perhaps behind that slow parishioner who cuts you off as you’re leaving the parking lot today, at dinner with the family member who drives you crazy, in the office tomorrow seeing that lazy-good-for-nothing co-worker, or dealing with the neighbor that is just difficult. God’s mercy to the world, to these and all the people you meet, begins with you. He entrusts His mercy to you.

Today we celebrate Easter, and the mystery of the mercy that our Father has given to us through His Son. Let us receive it! Let us proclaim it! May we share this message with the world: “Look what God has done for me – and as He has done for us, so He can do for you too.”

 

2017 Tenebrae service of shadows

Last night we began the Triduum with a tradition introduced to me at my first pastorship and made possible by the enthusiasm and volunteerism of a few parishioners.

For those who might not be familiar (as I was not!), the Tenebrae service – Latin for ‘shadow’ – is a traditional way of entering into the Sacred Triduum. The church is minimally lit, with a ‘hearse’ of 15 candles placed in front of the altar in the sanctuary. There are fifteen psalms that are chanted, and after each one concludes one of the candles is extinguished. Between sets of the psalms, readings taken from the Scriptures and Church Fathers are read.

The fifteenth candle, after the final psalm is chanted, is taken out of the sacristy. The Christus Factus Est is chanted by the leader or a cantor, followed by all quietly reciting the Our Father together. The closing prayer is offered and the strepitus – a loud noise – marks the closing of the tomb of Christ, the close of Lent, and our entrance into the Triduum.

Tenebrae captures the imagination and heart – as one works their way through the chanting of each psalm, the prayer works its way into those present. This year was our parish cluster’s introduction to the tradition and despite ordering 50 books, many of us ended up sharing with the person next to us (including the priest & altar server!).

After the service no small number of parishioners expressed how touched they were to be part of this prayer. I daresay we will be making this a staple of our Triduum celebrations!

 

Some books I’d recommend (ages 13+)

I recently received an e-mail from a parent asking about book recommendations for their teenager. Never one to use a few words when hundreds are possible, I spent not one, not two, but three e-mails laying out some of my favorites, sharing my critiques of some of the more popular dross, and generally creating walls of enthusiastic text about some of my childhood favorites.

Not content to keep such treasures hidden and to avoid the risk of disappointing my faithful reader(s?), I thought I’d share that list here.

Unlisted because they’re a class above all others are The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis and The Hobbit & The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien

I mean really, what kind of list would this be if these weren’t the first book series that every man, woman, and child weren’t offered? But let’s be clear, the only order that the Narnia series should be read is the original publication order (A Horse and His Boy comes after The Silver Chair). Anyone who proposes otherwise is just wrong, so there.

The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy should be required reading for any high school student who wants to read the best fantasy literature out there. Despite being mostly wonderful, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies are no replacement for the full four books.

We do not speak of Jackson’s The Hobbit movies. Ever.

5. The Giver by Lois Lowry

This is one of my favorite dystopian morality tales from early high school. A coming-of-age story, a cautionary tale, an expression of hope, mixed with a sense of wonder at the beauty of the diversity of individual gifts, it captured my imagination nearly from the onset and held it until the very end. Apparently they made a movie out of it recently, but everyone I’ve talked to (admittedly a biased sample) agrees that the movie didn’t do it justice. Skip the film and go straight to your local library.

4. Number the Stars by Lois Lowry

A historical fiction of Jewish children in World War II. While it’s been a long time since I’ve read it personally, I remember it being both a very good yarn and quite affection – though perhaps the wise parent should review it personally before passing it on. As with any WWII story, the harsh realities of human sin and suffering are present, as well as the heroism that every person – especially teenagers – desires to embody.

3. Hatchet by Gary Paulson and My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George

Why list these together? Because it’s my list, that’s why! And while these are two very different stories, they both hold to a theme of survivalism in the wild that so many (young and old) find fascinating. Whether it is being stranded after a plane crash (Hatchet) or striking out on one’s own (My Side of the Mountain), the survivalism is a means to an end: the growth of a boy into a young man.

2. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

A set of puns and witticisms loosely tied together into a story! This fits neatly into the library of anyone who likes to play with words but doesn’t want to admit that yes, they do in fact like all of those lame dad jokes. Light-hearted fun, though it does have some heartfelt messages. Perhaps not as broad appeal as other stories, but good nonetheless.

1. The Time Quintet (A Wrinkle in Time being the first) by Madelein L’Engle

Rooted in Biblical references but built in a fantasy world (aliens, technology, et cetera), it is a sort of Narnia for older children. A bit of wonder, a bit of responsibility, and lots of character growth. It deals with some suffering & loss, as well as consequences of a bad decision (much like Edmund in the first book of the Narnia series), but easily one of my favorites. Well worth reading as an adult before passing onto your child.

There are a great many wonderful stories out there – perhaps I’ll put together another list (or ten!) in the future. If you’ve got a great story that you’d like to recommend, by all means post it in the comments! I’m always looking for another story to dive into myself.

Blessed friends of Christ (homily – Jan. 29, 2017)

Some time ago I was coming home from visiting some friends of mine – guys that I look up to, that I admire, and that I enjoy spending time with.  I couldn’t tell you what prompted it, but I started to question our friendship. The question that suddenly began to plague me was “why are they friends with me?” – these good guys, these amazing men….were they just putting up with me or tolerating my presence?

After a little bit of that, I realized I just needed to call one of them up and talk it out. So I did, and rather unexpectedly he responded rather simply “here’s why” – and then began listing a few things that he thought were good traits or qualities of mine. I remember thinking that while I wasn’t necessarily seeking that out, it was rather nice! It really made a difference.

The experience, both the brief struggle and the unexpected affirmation, stuck with me. So much so, in fact, that I began to see how it was something that I was being called to do for others – for people to whom I minister, my family, and my friends. Especially when they were down, it became important to tell them some of the blessings of their person: “you’re smart, you’re kind, you’re beautiful, you’re generous, you’re funny, you’re self-sacrificing”. What a difference it makes, and a blessing to me too, to see someone who perhaps feels badly about themselves stand a little taller.

I wonder if Jesus Himself wasn’t motivated in part by this same impulse, with the Beatitudes that we hear today. We often hear that Jesus’ heart was moved – upon seeing someone suffering, those who are shunned or outcasts, and even towards those who are pursuing Him as He was trying to take time for Himself. The phrase that often captures my imagination is when Christ looks upon one of these little ones and His heart is ‘moved with pity for them’.

I wonder if that fed into His proclamation of the Beatitudes. While there may have been some who were important in society, I’d guess that a large number of the people who came to Christ were those who couldn’t go anywhere else: maybe they weren’t welcome in the Temple, the poor, the suffering, and so on.

And then Christ gets up and says ‘blessed are the poor, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek, blessed are those who hunger and thirst, blessed are the merciful, blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are those who are persecuted, who are insulted’. I have to imagine that within that crowd, people were not a little bit in awe – ‘really? Blessed…..me?’ What a great thing to hear, to be declared blessed by the Lord!

How important it is for us to receive this reminder. We’re not simply seeking or fishing for compliments. But we need affirmation that we are beloved, that we are amazing – that we are a miracle. That physically we are wonder, head to toe. Even more, our person – body & soul – is a collection of talents, gifts, skills, ideas and desires. That we are a gift to those around us, friends & strangers alike. That we are loved, a child of God. This is something that Christ wants for each of us.

This message is one that we need ourselves – before we can proclaim it to the world we must first receive this gift. How important it is to go to this wellspring of blessing and allow the Lord to bestow it upon us.

In our times, we seem to be in a moment where we are called to be very deliberate in proclaiming others’ blessedness – to be able to go to others and remind them that they, too, are blessed.

This week you may have seen or heard about the renewed discussion of refugees. First the executive order that bans people from entering the United States if they are from some seven countries and then a court in Texas that put a stay on the order – the topic is a hot one, spurring a lot of debate.

As I was reading the news about this, I was reminded of a conversation I with someone I was having dinner with, long before the elections. They were a family of immigrants and the immigration was the discussion of the time. As we were sitting at the table, one of the family looked me in the eye and asked me “Father Maurer, why do Americans hate us so much?”

It floored me. What a terrible feeling to have settled in one’s heart – that I am not welcome, that I am feared, that others wish I was anywhere except near them.

How important it is for us to be able to respond to that – to be able to say ‘you are welcome, you are a blessing – perhaps you look different, speak differently, come from a different place – but you are a son, a daughter of God’.

Especially in this political climate, in this division, when we are so tempted to speak of anyone as ‘they’ – whoever ‘they’ are – we need to acknowledge and proclaim that we are all brothers and sisters. I must accept them, I need to accept them – because I know what it is to need to be accepted, to hear the affirmation of my goodness from others. They need this no less than I. Blessed are they who do such things, and we who proclaim these truths.

In a few moments we will celebrate the Eucharist, we will be given the opportunity to receive the Body and Blood of Christ. And Christ doesn’t begrudgingly give, but willingly and freely. He looks on us and where we see sin and shame, He sees His brothers & sisters – “I no longer call you servants, but My friends”, He told us. And immediately after, “Go and do this in memory of Me” – go and do likewise. Go and give this gift to all, particularly to those who most need it.

As we come before this altar, may we first ask the Lord for what we need. Maybe we need to hear our good qualities, why we are His: “why do You hang out with me, Jesus? What do you like about me? . . . why are You friends with me? …. will You tell me what you like about me, why You love me so much?”

Receiving that gift, may we ask Him for the courage – especially if we have fears to overcome and hurts to be healed – to go out and offer that same gift to others. That we might claim them as our brothers, our sisters, our friends, to be able to tell them the good things about themselves, to enjoy together the blessings we have been granted.

Today we are reminded that we are indeed blessed. We are blessed so abundantly, both in our very person and the many gifts God showers on us. May we receive them, may we share them with every person around us – and that we may discover with great joy that the Lord means it when He calls us friends! And that we may proclaim that His generosity is not something held back, but that is given to us – and that we are invited to share with all.

 

A meal beyond imagining (homily – Jan. 22, 2017)

Today is my mother’s birthday, and in honor of that, I’d like to share one of our favorite family stories about one of her many gifts – cooking.

It was one of the first meals between her and my dad, as husband and wife. Now you need to know that her family was just made up of the four of them, Italians all. Food was plentiful and varying.

In his family, there were eleven of them and though his father (my granddad) worked hard, money and food was tight. Meals were simple and when grandma made the occasional pie for dessert it was split into ten – and someone often went without.

So, Mom prepared a spaghetti and dessert. Thick pasta noodles, tomato sauce spiced with oregano, Italian seasoning, and other flavors, meatballs generously spread throughout and Parmesan cheese on the side to be sprinkled on top.

Putting the dish in front of my father, she had every reason to be proud of her efforts.

So, imagine her surprise when dad asked “what is that?” And when she explained that it was her family’s spaghetti dish he blurted out in reply “That’s not spaghetti”

See, he was used to simple noodles, with tomato paste on top – that was what he grew up with.

Dinner continued and mom brought out a pie, homemade. Setting it on the table, she cut in into four and gave him a piece. Again he asked “what’s this?”. And to his great surprise she replied “that’s your piece!”. Unlike him, she had grown up receiving a quarter of the pie every time dessert was served. Even more than the spaghetti, this was a surprise he could get behind!

I have an idea of what my mom experienced, if only for a moment, at that first meal together. For one of the most disappointing things in caring for those you love is to have labored to provide a rich meal, a generous helping, a gift that will meets the needs of the one you love…. and have it spurned, in favor of a lesser good. As a pastor, I feel this keenly, here in our communities.

I hear it often, and in varying ways “this isn’t faith…church…parish life”. The way we celebrate Mass, the implementation of faith formation, the model for our youth program, how we do music, and so on and so forth. We want our own things, our own space, our own time. We want our old practices, our previous groups, the things of yesteryear.

And if not receiving what we expect, we complain. Against the priests, against the archbishop, the Church, against each other – anonymously or openly, privately or publicly – “why don’t you give me faith? Why can’t I have what I am used to, what I like?”

….

“This isn’t spaghetti”

Not true – we simply don’t know what true food, true drink is anymore.

There was no menu at the Last Supper, only what Christ had prepared: “Take This, all of you and eat It. This is My Body, given up for You. Take This, all of you and drink of It. This is my Blood, poured out for you.”

There is a joke in Catholic circles, perhaps you’ve heard it. It starts “You know who left Mass early the first time, right? …Judas.”

That stings, right? Who wants to be compared to the betrayer of the Messiah?

But why did he leave? What disheartened Judas to the point that he gave up the one food that would bring him salvation? It was that he could not have the meal he wanted. He wanted a conqueror, a warrior-priest. Judas wanted that dish best served cold: vengeance on the enemies of God’s chosen people Israel. He couldn’t accept the meal Christ had prepared for him, and for us.

What we have in our archdiocese, in our parishes is not simply a priest crisis but a crisis of all the faithful. The Lord is offering us richer fare than we’re accustomed to. It is spiced with sacrifice of old customs, it is a mix of communities to which we are not yet accustomed, it is flavored with surrender to a Will not our own.

But it is filling, and we are offered such generous portions as to have all our needs met.

Not content with the generosity of “Take and eat”, Christ has gone even further: “Do this in memory of Me”, He said. Prepare this meal for all who hunger, for all those who have been fed with lesser far. But how can we carry this invitation to others if we refuse to sit at the table, to receive the gift?

In coming days, weeks, and years, it’s reasonable to assume that our archdiocese and its parishes will continue to change, to adapt. But the meal, the meal stays the same. If we are to do more than survive, of we are to thrive as the chosen people of God, we must first open ourselves to what has been set before us.

If Judas is our cautionary example, the remaining Apostles – especially Peter & Thomas, are witnesses to hope. Though they first ran away, renounced and doubted the Lord, His patient care and invitation eventually brought them to celebrate His feast with fervor even to the point of death.

Perhaps we have also renounced, rejected or run away from what God is presenting us. But it is not yet too late! The Lord is still patiently inviting you and I, offering us more than just a quarter of a pie – but an extraordinary meal, a banquet. While we are still with the Lord, even with our doubts and anxieties, there is the opportunity to yet receive the great feast He offers us. Having tasted, seen how good it is, we might still with Thomas proclaim “My Lord and My God”.

Una comida sin medida (22 de Enero, 2017)

Hoy es el cumpleaños de mi madre, y en honor a eso, me gustaría compartir una de nuestras historias favoritas de familia sobre uno de sus talentos: su capacidad a cocinar.

Fue una de las primeras comidas entre ella y mi papá, como marido y mujer. Ahora usted necesita saber que la familia de mi madre estaba compuesta por los cuatro, todos italianos. La comida era abundante y variada.

En la familia de mi padre, había once de ellos y aunque su padre (mi abuelo) trabajaba duro, no era mucho dinero y la comida era sencilla. Las comidas eran simples y cuando mi abuela hizo el pastel para el postre se dividió en diez – y uno de ellos no recibieron una pieza.

Mamá preparó un espagueti y un postre. Tallarines gruesos de pasta, salsa de tomate condimentada con orégano, condimentos italianos, y otros sabores, albóndigas generosamente repartidas y queso parmesano en el lado para ser rociado en la parte superior.

Poniendo el plato delante de mi padre, ella tenía todas las razones para estar orgullosa de sus esfuerzos.

Así que imagine su sorpresa cuando papá preguntó “¿qué es eso?” Y cuando ella explicó que era el plato de espagueti de su familia él dijo en respuesta “Eso no es spaghetti”

Recuerda que él estaba acostumbrado a fideos simples, con pasta de tomate en la parte superior.

La cena continuó y mamá sacó un pastel, hecho en casa. Colocándola sobre la mesa, ella cortó en cuatro y le dio un pedazo. Una vez más preguntó “¿qué es esto?”. Y para su gran sorpresa, ella respondió “¡esa es tu pieza!”. A diferencia de él, había crecido recibiendo un cuarto de la tarta cada vez que se servía el postre. ¡Incluso más que los espaguetis, esto fue una sorpresa que él podía aceptar!

Tengo una idea de lo que mi madre experimentó, aunque sólo sea por un momento, en esa primera comida juntos. Para una de las cosas más decepcionantes en el cuidado de los que amas es haber trabajado para proporcionar una comida rica, una porción generosa, un regalo que satisfaga las necesidades de la persona que amas … y que lo desprecien, a favor de un bien menor. Como pastor, lo siento profundamente, aun aquí en nuestras comunidades.

Lo escucho a menudo, y de diversas maneras “esto no es fe … iglesia … vida parroquial”. La manera en que celebramos la Misa, la implementación de la formación de la fe, el modelo para nuestro programa de la juventud, cómo hacemos la música, y así sucesivamente. Queremos nuestras propias cosas, nuestro propio espacio, nuestro propio tiempo. Queremos que nuestras viejas prácticas, nuestros grupos anteriores, las cosas de antaño.

Y si no recibimos lo que esperamos, nos quejamos. Contra los sacerdotes, contra el arzobispo, contra la Iglesia, unos contra otros – anónima o abiertamente, privada o públicamente, ¿por qué no me dan fe ?, ¿por qué no puedo tener lo que estoy acostumbrado, lo que me gusta?

Como mi padre dijo: “Esto no es spaghetti”

Pero no es cierto – simplemente no sabemos lo qué es verdadera comida, verdadera bebida.

No había menú en la Última Cena, sino lo que Cristo había preparado: “Tomad y comed todos de él, porque esto es mi cuerpo, que será entregado por vosotros. Tomad y bebed todos de él, porque este es el cáliz de mi sangre, sangre de la alianza nueva y eterna…”

Hay una broma entre católicos, tal vez lo has oído. Comienza “¿Sabes quién salió temprano de la misa la primera vez?   … Judas.”

Eso pica, ¿verdad? ¿Quién quiere ser comparado con el traidor del Mesías?

Pero, ¿por qué se fue? ¿Qué desalentó a Judas hasta el punto de que renunció al único alimento que le traería salvación? Era que no podía comer lo que quería. Quería un conquistador, un sacerdote guerrero. Judas quería ese plato mejor servido frío: la venganza sobre los enemigos del pueblo elegido de Dios Israel. No podía aceptar la comida que Cristo había preparado para él, y para nosotros.

Lo que tenemos en nuestra Arquidiócesis, en nuestras parroquias no es simplemente una crisis sacerdotal sino una crisis de todos los fieles. El Señor nos está ofreciendo una comida más rica de la que estamos acostumbrados. Es condimentado con el sacrificio de viejas costumbres, es una mezcla de comunidades a las que todavía no estamos acostumbrados, tiene la especia del sacrificio a una voluntad no nuestra.

Pero es abundante, y se nos ofrecen porciones tan generosas que tienen todas nuestras necesidades satisfechas.

No contento con la generosidad de “Tomad y comed”, Cristo ha ido aún más lejos: “Hagan esto en memoria de Mi”, Él dijo. Prepara esta comida para todos los que tienen hambre, para todos aquellos que se han alimentado con comida inferior. Pero ¿cómo podemos llevar esta invitación a otros si nos negamos a sentarnos a la mesa, a recibir el regalo?

En los próximos días, semanas y años, es razonable suponer que nuestra arquidiócesis y sus parroquias seguirán cambiando para adaptarse. Pero la comida, la comida sigue igual. Si hemos de hacer más que sobrevivir, de que debemos prosperar como el pueblo elegido de Dios, primero debemos abrirnos a lo que se ha puesto delante de nosotros.

Si Judas es nuestro ejemplo cautelar, los otros Apóstoles – especialmente Pedro y Tomás, son testigos de la esperanza. Aunque primero huyeron, renunciaron y dudaron del Señor, Su cuidado paciente e invitación finalmente los llevó a celebrar su fiesta con fervor hasta el punto de la muerte.

Quizás también hemos renunciado, rechazado o huido de lo que Dios nos está presentando. ¡Pero aún no es demasiado tarde! El Señor todavía te invita pacientemente a ti ya mí, ofreciéndonos más que un cuarto de pastel, pero una comida extraordinaria, un banquete. Mientras aún estamos con el Señor, aun con nuestras dudas y ansiedades, tenemos la oportunidad de recibir la gran fiesta que Él nos ofrece. Habiendo probado, visto lo bueno que es, todavía podríamos con Tomás proclamar “Mi Señor y Mi Dios”.

 

 

Music to elevate the soul

Courtesy of an iTunes gift card won at a Christmas white elephant gift exchange, I recently purchased the soundtrack to the Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim video game. With 53 tracks, it clocks in at about 3 1/3 hours of music, only one track of which is actual singing. That song alone (covered wonderfully by Peter Hollens) is simply amazing.

The story behind the creation of the soundtrack for the game is fascinating. Jeremy Soule, the composer, put together a choir of 30 people and recorded it three times to create a 90 voice song. The lyrics were written to convey an epic story, the sound designed around a mythos built over several generations of the series, and style built to invoke the common aspiration to be heroic. The result is a song that captures the imagination – evidenced by the many covers of the song (do a Google video search for Dragonborn Skyrim theme).

Movies have been investing heavily in music since the advent of synchronized recorded sound in the mid-1930s. Music didn’t have to be provided on-site – a limitation that kept movies from having the grand sound tracks to which we’ve become accustomed.

There are a great many movies that have music worth revisiting, but none from recent history stands out in my mind more than the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The scores for all three movies were composed by Howard Shore, for which he won three Academy Awards, two Oscars, two Golden Globes, and four Grammys. There are other awards too, but after 10 pages of scrolling down I decided to stick with the ones most of us will recognize!

What is extraordinary about the Lord of the Rings music is how expertly Shore took the text of a 3-volume work and crafted music to match the characters, races, scenes, and stories throughout. No one who hears ‘Concerning Hobbits‘ would confuse the theme therein with the elven theme present in ‘Lothlorien‘. And who can forget the heart-rending scene of Denethor sending Faramir on a suicide run, closely followed up by Faramir’s sacrifice, intercut with Pippin’s song.

Whether it is the instruments (that soulful pipe!) or the voice of Billy Boyd (yes, the actor really sang that song), the music serves well it’s purpose of pointing the viewer back to the story being conveyed.

Television too has taken advantage of the power of music, though not always with the scale (or budget!) of a AAA video game or epic movie. But one doesn’t have to look far to find amazing music, and one of my favorites comes out of an anime inspired by the popular manga Fullmetal Alchemist. All of the music (including that from the movie), is striking – but the theme song, ‘Bratja’ or ‘Brothers’.

Though the anime and the manga it is based on are both based on Japanese culture and values, the theme song is written in Russian and performed by the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir. Other music in the soundtrack – each track tailored to various characters, locations, or themes – includes varied instruments, voices, and styles. The Warsaw Philharmonic makes at least one appearance!

All of this points to the great talent and skill that goes into telling a story, drawing us into the narrative, and helping us to participate in adventure – even though we have perhaps the most passive of all roles: simply watching and listening!

Regretfully, I find myself irritated in the face of all of this – because it is entirely possible for me to be driving to Mass and listen to one of these amazing pieces, this music that has been thoughtfully composed, is textually relevant to its setting, and performed with care…..and then to re-present the sacrifice of Christ on the cross while being serenaded by ‘King of Glory‘ or ‘Rain Down‘.

Surely this is not the height of music after 2000 years of tradition! How can the greatest story ever told, the epic tale of salvation beginning from the creation of mankind and culminating in the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ our Saviour, have been reduced to such camp?

The reality is that amazing music in fact exists – one of my favorites being the Exsultet, the Easter Proclamation. Sung only on the Easter Vigil Mass, proclaimed by a deacon, the priest, or a cantor, the work of God from Genesis to today is proclaimed in a chant that has been passed down for hundreds of years. Like so many, I only fairly recently discovered the existence of this chant. As a newly ordained deacon the local pastor asked me to chant this thing called the ‘Exsultet’ – to which I responded ‘the what?’. What a glorious discovery, and a delight to sing!

Despite the fact that very few, if any of us, would put up with it in our entertainment, so many of us have settled for mediocre and even insultingly poor music in the moment where heaven and earth come together.

We’re long overdue for a renaissance of music in our parishes. The tradition is there! There are beautiful, complicated, soaring chants like the Exsultet. There are simple psalm tones that people of any skill level can learn and apply to prayer & worship. The ICEL Mass parts are available for any priest to learn & sing, as well as the ICEL Chant Mass parts for the faithful (the Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus, Memorial Acclamation, Amen, the Our Father and Agnus Dei, to name a few).

What does it take to elevate our music? Willing hearts, for one. There are very few priests who would assert that they are satisfied with music at their parishes. But of the three untouchable m’s of parish life (that’s music, Mass times, and money), change in music always elicits a swift and powerful response – the loudest voices often being those against any movement from the banal and boring.

Never underestimate the power of a few supportive voices, of even a small group of parishioners who are willing not only to say the kind word that a priest needs to hear, but who are willing to dedicate time and effort to bring about change. Who of us wouldn’t like to have our hearts stirred at the sound of Mass, to hear the voices of not 30 or 90, but hundreds of parishioners joining to sing the story of Christ?

It starts with you and me, learning the music of our faith and introducing it to our fellow Catholics. Now is the time to embrace anew sacred music, so that we may be lifted up – and honor Him who was lifted up for us.

A worthy gift for our newborn King (homily – Dec. 25, 2016)

Merry Christmas! After passing through the four weeks of Advent, we’ve finally arrived. How good it is to finally celebrate Christ’s birthday.

As you can see, we’ve got all the trimmings of a grand celebration – Christmas music, poinsettias (80 of them!), a manger scene, Christmas trees, lights, and incense. But is that enough? One wonders.

A couple weeks ago I had an interesting conversation online about car repairs. Now I want you to appreciate just how unusual this is, and my history with cars starts with my first. It was a 1988 Chevy S-10 and I bought it from my grandfather shortly after my fifteenth birthday. It was a V6, 2.8 liter engine – which sounds impressive but truth to tell Bessie couldn’t move quickly, carry much, or tow. The hint is in the name ‘Bessie’ – like your prize cow, she was oversized, underpowered, and moody.

But she was mine, and I loved her!

My father is an engineer and my brother takes after him – both of them have an aptitude for fixing things, and they did their best to make sure I was comfortable in some basics. I learned enough to do simple maintenance – minor repairs and changing the oil. (And if you’re wincing at that second one, you should!)

Fortunately, your average car – even an older one – has sensors and warning lights when things start to go wrong. For example, say you change the oil in your beloved old truck and upon installing the new oil filter, you mis-thread it so that the seal isn’t quite right. You’ll start leaking oil slowly and eventually a little red light will light up on your dash to let you know. No problem, right?

In theory, this system will get your attention and you’ll consult someone to get things fixed. …or you can just keep driving. And you know what, it’ll drive pretty well. Ah, eventually you’ll lose enough oil that the engine will start ticking – that’s the sound of things grinding because there’s not enough lubricant. No problem! Just add more oil until the ticking stops. Hey – if you overfill, the excess will get pushed out of the engine and burn off from the heat!

I’d like to pause here to point out to anyone who is taking notes on car repair…well, don’t. This worked for all of 300 miles of driving – and then my truck wouldn’t start. Something in the engine cracked, the heads fused, and Bessie wouldn’t start. It cost me $2,000 to replace the engine – and no small amount of flack from those same family members who had done their best to warn me about the dangers of driving with this problem.

Nowadays, I have no problem taking my car into a shop and having a professional change my oil – or any other maintenance and repair work that needs to be done. I learned my lesson: if there’s a warning light, don’t be afraid to find someone who can help.

But we are afraid, aren’t we, and not just in matters related to vehicles. We’ve been given a vehicle of sorts – the very life we were born into, our body & soul, meant to take us from here to eternity. In the gift of the Scriptures and the Church, we’ve got an instruction manual of sorts – and plenty of people who are there to help guide us. Between the saints, our family & friends, our parish community, and God Himself, we’re all set!

No problem, right?

And then a warning light comes on. Something’s not quite right – we need to stop in for service. And maybe we even know it! ….but we’re afraid. We know that odds are good that even though it wasn’t entirely intentional, we’ve contributed to the problems in our lives. Something got mis-threaded and the consequences sort of spiraled beyond our control. What if we get blamed? How will other’s respond to my mistakes? Will God really help me, or will I be condemned for my part in the mess I find myself in?

So we push on. We substitute anything we can – that extra oil – to avoid putting ourselves in front of the Divine Mechanic.

I mentioned a couple of mechanics at the beginning – my dad and my brother. Especially when it comes to cars, my brother is a genius. Since he discovered tools and vehicles, he’s had a car that he’s working on. His favorite is a 1970-something VW Rabbit – he’s restored three of them and they’re each lovely stripped to the frame and then brought to a point where you’d think they had just rolled off of the lot. Admittedly, a VW Rabbit is not exactly a luxury ride – but to hear him talk about it, you’d never know the difference.

What if the Divine Mechanic looks at us similarly? We have this fear that if we go before Him, if we show him the mess we’ve made, if He sees the sins we’ve committed along the way, that’ll be it! He’ll chastise us, rebuke us, send us away for having destroyed this amazing life He’s given us.

But what if that’s exactly wrong? I submit that it is – I imagine it a little differently. Our heavenly Father – that Divine Fixer – delights in us. And when we roll into His garage, ticking, dripping oil, barely moving at all, that’s when He starts to get excited. I have this image of God popping the hood, rubbing His hands happily together saying “let’s get in here and fix this thing!”. And maybe He’ll have to strip things down to the frame – but He’ll lovely restore us as we were meant to be.

The sad thing is, most of us – myself included – we struggle to really trust the Lord. Could it be possible that He really wants to do this for me? And the Father saw that doubt, that fear – He looked down on us pouring the garbage of the world into our souls to try to make it another mile, and He decided that this was the time to put our hearts at ease. So He sent His Son – trained in the healing of souls, but in the most un-intimidating way possible: as a baby. The infant who would make us whole.

Maybe you come here every Sunday, maybe you’re here only because grandma asked you to be – but you’re here! And this baby, Jesus, He wants you to know that you are beloved, you are the Father’s delight. Nothing in your past, not one of your sins, none of your mistakes will ever undo that love.

All of this – all these trimmings & trappings, all the food & gifts, the music, even our Mass here today – it’s all geared towards one thing: giving the Divine Mechanic permission to heal our souls. How do we celebrate? How do we welcome him? This is the key: taking this opportunity, on the birthday of Jesus, to offer Him the one gift – the only gift – that He desires: ourselves. And with great joy, the One who loves us receives us, welcomes us as His brothers & sisters, and will make us whole.

Merry Christmas to us all.

 

Letting our desires be our prayers (homily – Dec. 18, 2016)

Happy Advent! Though it doesn’t quite roll of the tongue as well as other greetings, we are indeed joyful as we enter this final week of preparation for Christ’s Nativity. We’ve now entered into the octave before Christmas, with special prayers as well as antiphons (the “Oh antiphons” to Mary), as we get ready.

One of the joys of priestly and religious life is the celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours, a set of daily prayers offered at different hours of the day (thus the name) every day. One of the hours, the Office of Readings, not only includes the psalms and other selections from Sacred Scripture but also selections from the Church fathers. Last Thursday’s text was from Saint Augustine and I’d like to share it in it’s entirety:

From a discourse on the Psalms by Saint Augustine, Bishop
The desire of your heart constitutes your prayer

In the anguish of my heart I groaned aloud. There is a hidden anguish which is inaudible to men. Yet when a man’s heart is so taken up with some particular concern that the hurt inside finds vocal expression, one looks for the reason. And one will say to oneself: perhaps this is what causes his anguish, or perhaps such and such had happened to him. But who can be certain of the cause except God, who hears and sees his anguish? Therefore the psalmist says: In the anguish of my heart I groaned aloud. For if men hear at all, they usually hear only bodily groaning and know nothing of the anguish of the heart from which it issues.

Who then knows the cause of man’s groaning? All my desire is before you. No, it is not open before other men, for they cannot understand the heart; but before you is all my desire. If your desire lies open to him who is your Father and who sees in secret, he will answer you.

For the desire of your heart is itself your prayer. And if the desire is constant, so is your prayer. The Apostle Paul had a purpose in saying: Pray without ceasing. Are we then ceaselessly to bend our knees, to lie prostrate, or to lift up our hands? Is this what is meant in saying: Pray without ceasing? Even if we admit that we pray in this fashion, I do not believe that we can do so all the time.

Yet there is another, interior kind of prayer without ceasing, namely, the desire of the heart. Whatever else you may be doing, if you but fix your desire on God’s Sabbath rest, your prayer will be ceaseless. therefore, if you wish to pray without ceasing, do not cease to desire.

The constancy of your desire will itself be the ceaseless voice of your prayer. And that voice of your prayer will be silent only when your love ceases. For who are silent? Those of whom it is said: Because evil has abounded, the love of many will grow cold.

The chilling of love means that the heart is silent; while burning love is the outcry of the heart. If your love is without ceasing, you are crying out always; if you always cry out, you are always desiring; and if you desire, you are calling to mind your eternal rest in the Lord.

And all my desire is before you. What if the desire of our heart is before him, but not our groaning? But how is that possible, since the groaning is the voice of our desire? And therefore it is said: My groaning is not concealed from you. It may be concealed from men, but it is not concealed from you. Sometimes God’s servant seems to be saying in his humility: My anguish is not concealed from you. At other times he seems to be laughing. Does that mean that the desire of his heart has died within him? If the desire is there, then the groaning is there as well. Even if men fail to hear it. it never ceases to sound in the hearing of God.

I don’t know how that strikes you, but I imagine I’m not alone in finding Advent to be a mixed blessing. Oh it’s wonderful, to be sure – I delight in the Christmas music (year-round, in fact!), the festive decorations, and the little traditions that our family has for the season.

But Advent is also a pressure cooker, pretty much starting from Thanksgiving and running through Christmas. We’re making preparations, setting up those festive decorations, hosting other people, cooking, preparing rooms, buying presents (and there’s always that one hard-to-please relative!), and…. the list goes.

Dear God, please let it be done!

Of course it’s all blessing, and we are joyful & grateful for both the Advent season and Christ’s Nativity. But I know that for myself, this extra tension allows to surface the problems that during the rest of the year, I can convince myself are under control. Worries, anxieties, frustrations, sins – they’re suddenly much harder to deal with.  “Pray always”? How am I supposed to do that in the middle of all of this?!?

And then along comes St. Augustine with this assertion – that our desires are prayers.

As if to confirm this, the reading given to us for today from Isaiah has this amazing conversation between Ahaz and God. The Lord says “Ask for a sign from the LORD, your God; let it be deep as the netherworld, or high as the sky!”. And Ahaz answers in a way that resonates deeply with me:

‘Yeah….I’m not gonna trust that. No way – not doing it.’

Even God’s response is relateable, as exasperated, He basically throws His grace and gift not only to Ahaz, but to all of mankind:

Listen, O house of David!
Is it not enough for you to weary people,
must you also weary my God?
Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign:
the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son,
and shall name him Emmanuel.

How much the Lord wants to hear and answer the desires of our hearts, the longings that we hold within! And while we struggle to keep them hidden, to avoid putting them to words, we meanwhile wonder how to pray, what is the ‘right’ way to present ourselves to God, and question if we’re worthily presenting ourselves to Him.

And this is what the prophet Isaiah and Saint Augustine are addressing – and what the Nativity of the Lord is all about: that God wants to speak to the desires of our heart.

The word ‘desire’ has been twisted in modern times, given the a salacious tenor, and associated with sin – most often tied to sex and commercialism. But every desire, every longing, is rooted in God, starts with the knowledge that I am lacking something and need to be filled from the Source of goodness.

How has Advent been for you? Maybe it’s been good, maybe it’s been a struggle – perhaps you find yourself echoing the doubt of Ahaz amid the invitations of the season: ‘I’m not so sure….this feels selfish, unworthy, unacceptable to God.’

Again and again, the Lord gently offers the invitation to trust Him, to place ourselves unabashedly in His presence, to open our hearts to Him – and to receive the wonders He has prepared for us, wonders beyond our imagining.

This Sunday marks the second day of the octave before Christmas. What are your longings, your desires? How can the Lord answer your prayers? Maybe they’re specific, maybe inarticulate – but that unsettledness is the very prayer the Lord hopes to hear.

Come, let rest in God. Let us we ask Him to speak to our desires, to give us the confidence to present them without fear trusting that even if they are imperfect He will transform them and make them fruitful, and that we may receive Christ, Emmanuel, the answer to prayerful desires.

Holy Desire, holy prayer

This was something I needed to read recently. Perhaps it will be consoling to you as well. Blessings as we enter the octave before Christmas.


From a discourse on the Psalms by Saint Augustine, Bishop
The desire of your heart constitutes your prayer

In the anguish of my heart I groaned aloud. There is a hidden anguish which is inaudible to men. Yet when a man’s heart is so taken up with some particular concern that the hurt inside finds vocal expression, one looks for the reason. And one will say to oneself: perhaps this is what causes his anguish, or perhaps such and such had happened to him. But who can be certain of the cause except God, who hears and sees his anguish? Therefore the psalmist says: In the anguish of my heart I groaned aloud. For if men hear at all, they usually hear only bodily groaning and know nothing of the anguish of the heart from which it issues.

Who then knows the cause of man’s groaning? All my desire is before you. No, it is not open before other men, for they cannot understand the heart; but before you is all my desire. If your desire lies open to him who is your Father and who sees in secret, he will answer you.

For the desire of your heart is itself your prayer. And if the desire is constant, so is your prayer. The Apostle Paul had a purpose in saying: Pray without ceasing. Are we then ceaselessly to bend our knees, to lie prostrate, or to lift up our hands? Is this what is meant in saying: Pray without ceasing? Even if we admit that we pray in this fashion, I do not believe that we can do so all the time.

Yet there is another, interior kind of prayer without ceasing, namely, the desire of the heart. Whatever else you may be doing, if you but fix your desire on God’s Sabbath rest, your prayer will be ceaseless. therefore, if you wish to pray without ceasing, do not cease to desire.

The constancy of your desire will itself be the ceaseless voice of your prayer. And that voice of your prayer will be silent only when your love ceases. For who are silent? Those of whom it is said: Because evil has abounded, the love of many will grow cold.

The chilling of love means that the heart is silent; while burning love is the outcry of the heart. If your love is without ceasing, you are crying out always; if you always cry out, you are always desiring; and if you desire, you are calling to mind your eternal rest in the Lord.

And all my desire is before you. What if the desire of our heart is before him, but not our groaning? But how is that possible, since the groaning is the voice of our desire? And therefore it is said: My groaning is not concealed from you. It may be concealed from men, but it is not concealed from you. Sometimes God’s servant seems to be saying in his humility: My anguish is not concealed from you. At other times he seems to be laughing. Does that mean that the desire of his heart has died within him? If the desire is there, then the groaning is there as well. Even if men fail to hear it. it never ceases to sound in the hearing of God.