Sunday, October 22, 2017

Of Pericopes, Susanna, and the Long Form of Our Lives


Today’s Gospel is punchy and short – a mere seven verses. It’s Matthew’s version of the Pharisees’ attempt to “entrap Jesus in speech” with a set-up question about the census tax. There’s a beginning, a middle, and a memorable gotcha at the end: “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” The brief passage is neat and tidy, and it lends itself well to exegetical musings. It’s a made-to-order liturgical “pericope” – a fancy word for any chunk of text that is considered in isolation from a larger work.

Compare that to last week’s Gospel pericope from Matthew which was twice as long, but only if you “include the bracketed text for the long form.” You’ll recall that it featured Jesus comparing the kingdom of heaven to a king’s wedding feast. The invited guests begged off, so the king sent out his servants to round up the rabble to fill his table. The optional ending was about one of those substitute guests, inappropriately attired, who was booted out. The last line was cryptic: “Many are invited, but few are chosen.”

Lots of meaty sermon material in both the long and curtailed forms of that Gospel, but why are there two versions to begin with? We’re talking about a difference of a mere seven verses, so it’s not really a time-saver to cut the reading short. Is it mainly a matter of homiletic preference?

It seems so. According to the General Instruction on the Roman Missal, “a pastoral criterion should be kept in mind” when given a choice of reading length. The GIRM continues: “On such an occasion, attention should be paid to the capacity of the faithful to listen with fruit to a reading of greater or lesser length, and to their capacity to hear a more complete text, which is then explained in the Homily” (§360).

That makes sense, I suppose, but I can’t help thinking about so many other, much lengthier lectionary entries that don’t offer truncated alternatives. There must be some reason that they aren’t subjected to liturgical dismemberment whereas others were.

And then there’s the mother of all liturgical readings which comes around every Lent: The story of Susanna and the Elders. Susanna, a pious Hebrew resident in Babylon, goes to bathe in her garden. Two lecherous elders, united in their lust for the woman, break in on Susanna’s solitude and demand that she lay with them. When she refuses and calls out for help, the two men accuse her of impure acts with a stranger of their invention. The elders’ lofty status gives their claim credibility over Susanna’s denial, and the innocent girl is condemned to death. Eventually, the young prophet Daniel comes to her defense, interrogates the “witnesses,” and the truth comes out. Susanna’s virtue is vindicated, and the two lying lechers are executed instead.

The full version of this tale weighs in at 51 (!) verses, and even the shortened form is on the longish side, at least for a weekday Mass. True, it’s not a Gospel, so we get to sit for it, but either version represents a marathon – especially for the reader.

And why? Couldn’t the Church have chosen to break it up into smaller pericopes over a couple days – maybe even three? No, and I’m guessing it’s because there’s no way to further trim down the narrative without destroying its edifying impact. In order to appreciate the moral of the story – that “faithfulness triumphs over adversity,” in the words of Toni Craven – we have to have to know the setting, the characters, both good and bad, and the drama of Daniel’s detective work. In other words, we need to have the big picture. We need the beginning, middle, and end.

The same holds true for our own lives and the lives of all those we encounter. The pericopes of our personal histories – individual acts and choices, particular events and seasons in the course of a lifetime – can never sum up who we are. Instead, we’re each a complicated mess of virtue and vice, aspiration and despair, and it’s impossible to fully understand ourselves from the inside out, let alone our neighbors.

But God knows our big pictures. He knows the grand sweep of our ups and down, and sees us all as works in progress, saints in the making, heirs to the promise of salvation no matter how many times we turn aside and seek after something less. And we do well to adopt that divine vision as much as possible – both of ourselves and those around us. “We can’t hope to know others as we should like to,” writes Hubert van Zeller, “but we should make it our business to know them as well as we can.”

Which is why I always hope to hear the long form of Susanna’s story every Lent. It’s a fine reminder of how God discerns our own complicated stories, and an implicit exhortation to seek the big picture of those around us – bracketed text included.
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A version of this reflection appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Dear #Pro-Choice

Dear pro-choice friend,

I got to my office this morning and discovered your message on my white board. I’m assuming you took the time to read the various postings on my door and drew the conclusion that I’m passionately pro-life – and you were right about that. It would’ve been hard to conclude otherwise, especially given the prominent “#DefundPlannedParenthood” sign right above the message board. So, for what it’s worth, I’m grateful that you did me the honor of standing there, scanning my signage, and giving it all some thought. That’s the beginning of dialogue. That’s what leads to increased mutual understanding and respect.

Unfortunately, your consideration of my evident pro-life position led you to opt for a less than respectful response. You could’ve left me a note asking for more information on why I’m against abortion. You could’ve come back during my posted office hours to introduce yourself and share with me your reasons for supporting abortion rights.

Instead, you snagged my dry-erase marker and wrote “#ProChoice” in big letters. Why? What were you hoping to accomplish? In a sense, what you did amounts to vandalism. Yes, it’s true that I invite folks to leave messages on my door by hanging the white board and marker there, but clearly your intent here was aggressive and so unwelcome. If I came across your door plastered with pro-abortion messages, how would you feel if I left a “#Pro-Life” scrawl there? Wouldn’t it make you mad? Wouldn’t you interpret it as a form of assault?

My initial reaction wasn’t anger, however, but mirth. I saw your message and laughed out loud – how ironic! You were declaring yourself (anonymously) to be on the side of choice, but you totally overrode my choice with regards to the kinds of messages I want to appear on my door.

But my mirth quickly turned into sadness. Here we are, you and me, at an institution of higher learning, and we totally missed an opportunity to expand our minds by learning from someone with whom we disagree. Frankly, I feel ripped off rather than offended. I’m bummed that you deprived us both of the chance to grow as human beings. I doubt I could’ve persuaded you to change your point of view, and I’m absolutely certain that you wouldn’t have changed mine, but I would’ve welcomed the occasion to meet and chat with you. Believe it or not, I would’ve listened, really listened. And, of course, I would’ve expected you to listen to me. Then we could’ve parted in peace – maybe not as friends, but at least as friendly acquaintances. Who knows? We might’ve even agreed to talk some more another time.

Anyway, consider this an invitation. I’m leaving your “#Pro-Choice” message on my door in hopes that you’ll see it, that you’ll be surprised it's still there, and that you’ll approach to discover this letter to you. Won’t you please come talk to me? Like I said, I’ll listen, but I’ll want you to listen to me in return.
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Thursday, August 17, 2017

Pure Joy: An Open Letter to the Chelsea House Orchestra


Where there is sadness, joy.

Dear friends,

A colleague of mine wrote a sermon on joy this summer. In preparation, he perused the theological landscape regarding the topic, and was surprised to find a dearth of relevant contemporary sources. Almost as a punctuation mark to his depressing discovery, his hunt led him to an ongoing study being conducted by Yale Divinity School (and funded by a large Templeton grant) meant to trace and explore the meaning of Christian joy in the modern context. The fact that this study was proposed at all, let alone generously endowed, is an arresting admission that there’s a paucity of hermeneutic source material on something so fundamental to human experience and yearning.

All I can say is: Too bad my friend didn’t have a chance to see you perform at the Indiana State Fair before he gave his sermon. He would have found inspiration aplenty.

My family and I did have the good fortune to see you in action this past Sunday. It was our first time venturing down to Indianapolis for the big Fair. As we wandered about, we made our way to the Pioneer Village to check out the exhibits and displays. That’s where I detected faint strains of Celtic music in the air, and I followed them to their source in the Opry House.

And there you were, some two dozen young musicians, mainly strings along with a handful of woodwinds and percussion, pouring out an irresistible riot of sound and celebration. You were all grinning and flush, perspiring in the heat, but still perpetually moving about on the stage. I was mesmerized, and when my children took seats toward the back of the assembled crowd, I compelled them to move up to the front row.

I wanted to drink in your performance straight up and undiluted by distance, for it was an intoxicating mix of music, motion, and magic that I’ve never encountered before.

There was so much evident happiness, so much exuberance, so much joy. Having performed in musical ensembles in my youth, I was aware that directors frequently instruct their charges to plaster smiles on their faces for the sake of the audience, but that was not the case with you. I know – I looked carefully. Each of you was bouncing and beaming, rows moving from back to front to back again, trading places as different performers were featured. Always there was a palatable sense that your visceral pleasure was authentic – your joy was so real! You were clearly enjoying your music, enjoying each other (director included), and enjoying simply having the opportunity share your collective gifts with an audience.

Of course, the music was superb on its own, but that was almost secondary to the elevated mood and transports of delight that your overall performance transmitted to your toe-tapping audience. We had to leave your Opry House appearance early, but later we stumbled across a group of you busking for change elsewhere at the Fair. “Thanks,” I muttered, dropping a buck in your open instrument case. It was all I could spare at that moment, but no matter. You responded with abundant smiles and nods, and your musical hilarity proceeded apace.

As I said, too bad my friend didn’t get a chance to see you before he preached. Indeed, I’d argue that your Fair performance itself constituted a kind of ersatz sermon – a lively musical explication of what it looks like to be fully given over to one's natural gifts which then leads to a gratuitous sharing of those gifts with others. 

Our world is rent by pain and confusion, but you seem to have located a deep-rooted vein of pure joy. Thank you for tapping it and passing it along. Please keep it up.
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For more information about the Chelsea House Orchestra, follow this link to their website.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Blessed Luke Belludi (1200-1285)

Around my house, we joke about “salvation by association” – our facetious hope that we might ride on the eternal coattails of the holy men and women we’ve rubbed shoulders with over the years. Of course, salvific grace doesn’t work that way, but hanging around saints is certainly a prudent measure when it comes to pursuing sanctity for ourselves.

Biographer of saints Father Alban Butler certainly thought so when it comes to Luke Belludi, a disciple and dedicated companion of Anthony of Padua. “The devotion to St. Anthony of Padua is so widespread and of such an early date,” wrote Butler, “that we cannot be surprised if those more intimately associated with him have been irradiated with his glory.”

In truth, we know little of Blessed Luke aside from his connections with his more famous mentor and friend. What we do know is that Belludi grew up in a wealthy family near Padua, Italy, and that he received the habit of the Friars Minor from St. Francis himself in 1220 – the same year, it turns out, that St. Anthony entered the order. Not long after, Bl. Luke is said to have implored St. Anthony’s miraculous intervention on behalf of a mortally ill child.

Later, St. Francis directed the rhetorically gifted Anthony to preach missions among the heretics of northern Italy and southern France. Bl. Luke accompanied Anthony on these journeys, and returned with him to Padua in 1231. That year, Anthony’s relentless pace caught up with his sickly constitution, and he succumbed to an early death. Luke Belludi was among the friars who attended Anthony in his last agony, and afterwards he became the saint’s stalwart champion.
The Pontifical Basilica of Saint Anthony of Padua

Among other legacies, Belludi saw to the completion of the magnificent Paduan basilica in honor of St. Anthony, and it is there that Bl. Luke’s remains were put to rest in 1285 – in close proximity to the earthly remains of his saintly role model.

Luke Belludi’s own sanctity was confirmed by Pius XI in 1927, and his feast is celebrated among Franciscans on February 17.
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A version of this story originally appeared in Franciscan Way, Franciscan University of Steubenville.

Friday, May 26, 2017

We're All Special Needs Children

“It’s not special or different or extraordinary needs that make the difference. Aren’t we all ‘special-needs children,’ after all? Addressing Nick’s particular needs took on urgency and required a steeper learning curve than some of our other kids. But the joys are the same. The gift is the same.”
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Excerpted from
Jeannie Ewing's "Overcoming Tragedy: The joy of having special-needs children," which was originally published in
Catholic Digest (February 2017).

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Of ‘Zen,’ Gumption, and Conversion

 
"His name was Mu-nan, the man who never turned back."

Somewhere in the diffuse literary swamp that is our home library there’s my beat-up purple paperback of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – or not. Who knows? The chances are pretty good that I passed it on to somebody long ago, but I went searching for it in the stacks anyway.

I was hoping to track it down because I’d heard on NPR that the author, Robert Pirsig, was dead, and I had had a vivid flashback: There I was, in the student union at Seattle Pacific, sitting in a booth by myself, captivated by this exotic, exhilarating novel/travelogue/testament. Consequently, I wanted to find my copy of Zen to maybe conjure up a bit more of what’d been on my mind back there in Seattle. Not to re-read it, mind you, but just to hold it in my hands again. To see if I’d scrawled anything in the margins, perhaps, or underlined anything.

No such luck – oh, well. 

When I read Zen in Seattle, I was an unsettled student of theology wrestling with doubt and anxiety – about my faith, about my direction in life, about my transition to adulthood, oh, and lots of things. I was searching for something – something…different, I suppose, different than what I was accustomed to. I’m not sure how I came upon Pirsig’s book, but I latched onto it because it was plenty different – bizarre even, a “metaphysical meditation on everything from East Asian philosophy to the author's own struggles with mental illness,” as NPR’s David Greene put it. I couldn’t make heads or tails of it, but there’s no question that it shook me up but good.

For one thing, there was the Zen stuff – which was in itself a huge departure for me, and even a bit risqué for an evangelical. Was it OK to be delving into Pirsig’s Buddhist-inspired constructs, despite my ability to comprehend it all? Was it dangerous? Allowed?

Like I said, I didn’t understand it much, but at some level I could grasp the book’s fundamental juxtaposition of the Western, classic approach to life (objectivity and rationality, mechanics) and the Eastern, more experiential approach (romantic orientation, subjectivity, Zen). Pirsig drew on something he called the Metaphysics of Quality to reconcile the two, but that was way beyond me. Instead, what I remember appreciating was simply the opportunity to consider reality and the human condition from an entirely foreign vantage point. That was pretty new to me, and I found it provocative and totally rejuvenating.

Another dimension of Pirsig’s book that I relished was its implicit rejection of navel-gazing. I wasn’t very good at philosophizing anyway, and Pirsig in a sense gave me permission to let it go. Instead, as James Hagerty pointed out in his WSJ obituary, Pirsig “proposed a revival of ‘gumption,’” which, in the book, is represented by he and his son taking to the road. Here’s how Pirsig himself summed up the word in Zen:

A person filled with gumption doesn't sit around dissipating and stewing about things. He's at the front of the train of his own awareness, watching to see what's up the track and meeting it when it comes. That's gumption.

Two things can derail us from a gumptious trajectory according to Pirsig. Either exogenous, outside set-backs, or endogenous, interior hang-ups. Both are essentially obstacles that get in the way of momentum, and it’s momentum that keeps us on fire for what matters.

And what matters? Here again, I’d have to say that Pirsig lost me. I was ill equipped as an undergraduate religion major to comprehend the author’s philosophical abstractions. What I was able to glean from Pirsig was a passion for searching, along with a determination to push aside obstacles that might dissuade or discourage.

It wasn’t long after I read Pirsig’s Zen that I began toying with the idea of becoming a Catholic. That took a willingness to consider a radically different worldview on its own terms, and the gumption to stick with it even when external and internal voices were advising otherwise. Although I read Pirsig’s masterpiece with an eye toward flirtation with Eastern religion, it ended up being a subtle preparation for my subsequent Catholic conversion. Zen wasn't a major influence, but it surely played a role. That might sound strange, especially given Pirsig's rejection of organized religion as "delusion." Even so, we know from Scripture that God is the master jury-rigger, and there are virtually no limits to what (or whom) he will draw on in the order of grace. Whatever it takes.

Thanks for the eye-opener, Mr. Pirsig. Rest in peace.
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Friday, March 31, 2017

The Night I Read ‘Catcher in the Rye’


Not teens, but twenties, well out of high school,
Well out of college, on my own, more or less,
Alone and restive, I picked it up –
What’s the big deal?

Sleepless, I sought distraction. Anything
Would do: Words on page, descriptions and
Dialogue, characters and action, the
Weariness would win and I'd
Succumb to slumber.

Leaning, tilting, the
Momentum pulled me on – no
Sleep that night, no rest. Like a
Rock in my shoe, each page was a step that
Stirred my attention, jolting and jostling me
Awake! To arms! To arms! The fight
Must be joined – awake!

A scramble for jeans and jacket, and
Out to the street in the cool early morning.
Dark, desolate – didn’t matter. Nothing
Open, nowhere to go – didn’t matter. Just get
Outside, move, walk The Hill for hours,
Watch the dawn, sniff the pine in the
Thin air, hope for release.

Glinting, the Flatirons caught the sunrise as I
Headed home to recline and recover, to
Await the ride.
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