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Here we are again at St. Dominic’s feast day, one of my favorite days of the year!  I hope it has been a blessed and joyful one for everybody–especially my fellow Dominicans!

I had the good fortune to attend a very pleasant and educational celebration at the University of Dallas sponsored by the UD Alumni.  Several of my fellow Lay Dominicans were in attendance, and we enjoyed a talk and Q&A with Dr. John Sommerfeldt, Professor Emeritus of History, about St. Dominic and his world and his Order of Preachers.

One thing Dr. Sommerfeldt spoke about was the fact that we really know very little about St. Dominic.  There are some writings and testimonies about him, but they are more hagiographical than biographical.  We have even less that is from and by the saint himself.  It’s rather strange, isn’t it–that the man who founded the Order of Preachers should be such a quiet figure!

And yet, by the fruits of his labor, we know him.  The Order he founded not only outlived the Albigensian heresy it was founded to confront–it has outlived everything since, right up to the present moment.  It is approaching its 800th year!  800 years and an unbroken succession of Christian men and women who joyfully and lovingly call ourselves Dominicans, after our spiritual father.  Many of them have become saints themselves: Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas… Catherine of Siena and Rose of Lima… Martin de Porres and John Macias… Pope Pius V and Louis de Montfort… these are just a small selection of Dominican saints.

Prayer and preaching were the two foundations of St. Dominic’s life.  Contemporaries said that he always spoke with God or of God.  St. Dominic must also have been a very practical man.  He knew that in order to preach effectively, one must be dedicated to study.  In order to study, one must have things like access to books and a roof over one’s head.  And so, he sent his friars into all the cities of Europe and had them establish Dominican houses close to the newly-flourishing universities, where they studied and not long after began teaching.  These intellectual friars also attracted students and teachers to join the fledgling Order.

But of course, the growth and flourishing and survival of the Order was, and is, and ever will be largely a result of its founder’s prayers and sacrifices–all of the great works he did in secret, during the night.  His life and his mission and his Order were never about him.  He cared more about ensuring the future of the Order.  He wanted it to live long after he was gone.

Even in death, he probably would have been content to work behind the scenes, in ways fully known only to God and himself.  He died on 6 August–the Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord.  He would have been content to have his own feast day eclipsed by a feast of the Lord.  But the Church treasures her quiet light, and so we commemorate him on 8 August.

Pope Benedict spoke of St. Dominic and his deep prayer life in his Wednesday Audience today.  Read about it here.

(Photo: statue of St. Dominic at the priory of Santa Sabina, Rome – by Flickr user Lawrence OP)

I have never been one to switch gears with lightning speed, but all in all, I think my personal retreat is off to a good start.

I got up at 6 AM, said my Divine Office and Rosary, ate some breakfast and did some light housework.  Then I did my morning washing and grooming and dressing.  Unfortunately, I was moving rather slowly and drowsily and was not able to fit in Mass before work.  I need to work on that, but considering the great weary malaise I’ve been steeped in for so long, I am fairly pleased with my level of morning activity.

I did my usual work; actually, I worked a bit late.  I was able to fit a little bit of spiritual reading in during lunch.

I came home, ate a bit of supper, did a little more housework, and said the Divine Office.  And now I am doing a bit of writing!

One thing that my mind has been coming back to today was the Epistle from Sunday’s Mass:

That I, Paul, might not become too elated,
because of the abundance of the revelations,
a thorn in the flesh was given to me, an angel of Satan,
to beat me, to keep me from being too elated.
Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me,
but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you,
for power is made perfect in weakness.”
I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses,
in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me.
Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults,
hardships, persecutions, and constraints,
for the sake of Christ;
for when I am weak, then I am strong.

~ 2 Corinthians 12:7-10

 

If there is one thing I know about myself, it’s that I hate weakness.  And there is no weakness I hate more than that which is my own.  And there is so much of it!  When I think of my own weakness, the grace of God is not what tends to come to mind, much less the thought of boasting of my weaknesses.  I tend to brood and loathe and get discouraged and just want to wipe all of it away.  So, St. Paul’s message is one that I need to receive over and over and over… and over.

Weakness is part of what defines humanity.  There is no human person who lacks weakness.  And so, we have to humbly and honestly admit our weakness, simply and truthfully, and with a certain degree of acceptance.  If we do this, then our minds and hearts will be lifted toward God, toward Him who is power, strength, glory, majesty, perfection and so many other things that we humans are not.  To accept weakness is simply to acknowledge what we humans are and where we stand in relation to God.

To scorn human weakness is an act of arrogance, as if we ourselves are somehow entitled to and capable of divine perfection.  Such arrogance turned Lucifer into a demon–and he, by nature, was closer to divine perfection than any of us.  But what we lack in nature is more than made up for by divine love and providence.  By nature, the angels are far greater, but we have the singular honor of adoption as God’s own children!  And how can we fully appreciate and enjoy and live out this incredible state as God’s children, if we are consumed with hatred of our own nature?  If it weren’t for the weakness of human nature, we would have no need or desire for God, no need for redemption, no need for salvation, and no need for Heaven.

And so, weakness, when rightly regarded by us, can open us up to God and His countless graces.  Knowledge of our own weakness disposes us to be drawn ever closer to God out of humility and desire and need.  And the closer we are drawn to Him, and the more open we are to Him, the stronger, healthier, and more alive we become.

I have been studying the story of the prophet Elijah for a term paper in my Hebrew Bible class.  It is a fascinating story for many reasons, and one that remains quite actively debated among Bible scholars.

What speaks to me most on a personal level is the theophany on Mount Horeb.

And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake;
and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.
And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.
1 Kings 19:11-13 (RSV)

To briefly put this passage in context, Elijah had recently obtained a spectacular miracle by calling upon God to send down fire to consume an offering (you really must read the whole story in 1 Kings 18:20-40). He had hoped to re-convert the people of Israel to faithful and exclusive worship of God via this spectacular display of power, and at first it seemed that he had succeeded. But it was a very short-lived victory and brought a death-threat from the infuriated Queen Jezebel, who had brought Baal-worship to Israel. When he realized his failure, Elijah went out into the desert, disillusioned and even suicidal.

Eventually, he came to Mount Horeb (aka Sinai), and like Moses before him, received the rare gift of a theophany–a manifestation of God’s presence. Phenomena such as tempest, earthquake, and fire were characteristic of a theophany–and exactly what one would expect. But to Elijah, God presented Himself in a very different and unexpected way: in “a still small voice.” It was in that tiny sound that the prophet perceived God’s presence.

It’s important to note that Elijah was not a person who much appreciated silence and stillness. He was a gutsy, intrepid, self-assured man of action. When he called upon God, God listened and acted. And Elijah expected God to act with power, as He did when He sent down fire to consume Elijah’s offering. Elijah wanted to shock and stun the people of Israel into straightening up their act, and he expected God to cooperate. But ultimately, that plan had failed, and Elijah wasn’t sure what to do.

In this scene, we see the prophet at his weakest and most human.  Can we not see ourselves in him?  I know I can see myself.  I often expect God to act according to my expectations and my timing.  Occasionally, He deigns to do so, at least on the surface.  In fact, it rarely turns out the way I would like it to.  And that doesn’t make me very happy!

What God teaches Elijah–and what He teaches to us all at times–is that His true essence and His true way are not found in earth-shattering power.  Oh, He is mighty, very mighty!  But true might is much more than mere brute force.  We honor God’s true power when we fall silent and still and allow His still small voice to permeate our souls, our innermost beings.  The truth is, that is a far more humbling, stunning, and awe-inspiring experience than any external tour de force we could ever imagine!  The realization that God wants first and foremost to be Master of our souls is enough to make these souls of ours shiver and prostrate themselves!

Instead of wishing to exert power over others or over our circumstances, we should strive to submit ourselves to God’s power, lest our own hearts grow hard and turn away from Him. When we do so, we receive the greatest miracles of all: the life and love and grace that come only from our Lord and Master.

This past Sunday was the feast of Christ the King, the last Sunday in the Church’s year. The Gospel reading gave me a mental and spiritual shaking:

The rulers sneered at Jesus and said,
“He saved others, let him save himself
if he is the chosen one, the Christ of God.”
Even the soldiers jeered at him.
As they approached to offer him wine they called out,
“If you are King of the Jews, save yourself.”
Above him there was an inscription that read,
“This is the King of the Jews.”

Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying,
“Are you not the Christ?
Save yourself and us.”
The other, however, rebuking him, said in reply,
“Have you no fear of God,
for you are subject to the same condemnation?
And indeed, we have been condemned justly,
for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes,
but this man has done nothing criminal.”
Then he said,
“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
He replied to him,
“Amen, I say to you,
today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Luke 23:35-43

Hearing this story from Good Friday proclaimed at a time when our secular lives are occupied with preparing Thanksgiving dinners and buying Christmas gifts, among other things, makes quite an impact doesn’t it?  It forces us to pause and re-consider this time of year.  It can be easy to get swept up in worldly activities and busyness.  It is also easy to regard this time of year as a sort of pleasant countdown to Christmas and lose sight of the fact that the Advent season is meant to make us mindful of Christ’s second coming.  Likewise, this end of the Church year is meant to make us mindful our the end of our own lives, when we will present ourselves to Christ the King face-to-face.

Of course, the story itself is extremely striking, no matter when we read or hear it.

What strikes me first is always the tragic irony. Christ the King–not only of the Jews, but of all Creation–is sneered at and mocked as a false king. And yet even as He hangs crucified, bearing the enormous indignity and the excruciating pain with infinite patience, He acts as a King, issuing pardon to the repentant criminal. He rules even from the Cross.

What strikes me almost as much as the graciousness of Christ, however, are the humble words of the repentant criminal. He recognizes that he has earned crucifixion by his own deeds. He, unlike Christ, is being punished justly. He does not ask Christ to save him or release him from his torments. He simply asks, “Remember me.” And Christ does so much more than that–Christ indeed saves him, far beyond any worldly means.

When I read this story and the repentant criminal’s words, I often think to myself, “I wish I were that humble and that radically converted!” It inevitably leads me to examine my life and how I have lived in relation to God and to my fellow man and my fellow creatures. I ask myself who or what has ruled over me, to whom or what I have subjected myself. I ask myself how humble and obedient I have been before God.

When I am really honest and forthright with myself, when I make a real effort of humility–recognizing myself for who and what I am–I realize how very far I have to go to truly be a subject of Christ the King. I realize how profoundly self-serving and self-centered I am, how very stingy and stubborn and prideful. I realize how many boundaries I have established and built up between Christ and myself and between other people and myself. I realize how many limits I have placed upon how far I am willing to follow Christ.  Instead of freely and generously offering a simple fiat, I have tended to add lots of fine-print restrictions to my offering of self to God.

Is that really what I want to offer God when I stand before Him at the end of my life? What an absurd notion!

But the story of the repentant crucified criminal gives hope that it is never too late to change, never too late to turn to the Lord. There is no more merciful and magnanimous King than He who rules from the Cross! Let us kneel before Him, and let us thank, praise, adore, and worship Him! And let us thank Him and His Church for giving us this particular time each year–the Solemnity of Christ the King and the following week that leads up to Advent–to help us to examine ourselves and to consider endings.  It is also a time to perhaps make some Church New Year’s resolutions!

Obviously, I have plenty to think about. 

Many blessings to you all–and a very happy and blessed Thanksgiving to my fellow Americans!

The Scripture readings for yesterday wonderfully communicate God’s abundant grace to us.  They also teach us an important lesson about who we are and who God is–a lesson in pride and humility, doubt and trust.

I can so empathize with the prophet Isaiah:

“Woe is me, I am doomed!
For I am a man of unclean lips,
living among a people of unclean lips;
yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”

And with St. Paul:

For I am the least of the apostles,
not fit to be called an apostle,
because I persecuted the church of God.

And with St. Peter:

“Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”

Even after nearly five years of being back in the Church, I occasionally look at my life and say, “Oh Lord, after all I’ve done, I am not worthy to be part of Your Church!” But then God says, “You are part of My Church for one reason only: because I created you to be.” Or in other words, “It’s not all about you and what you’re worthy of. It’s much more about Me and what My will for you is.”

Sometimes our egos are our worst enemies. What folly to suppose that we could ever be worthy of what God gives us! And what folly to second-guess His freely-given love and blessings! What a cleverly-disguised pride! A pride that preys upon our trust in God and in His providence.

Fortunately, Isaiah, Paul, and Peter also provide examples of true purity and trust that we can follow. Reassured by God, Isaiah and Peter put themselves at His service. And Paul says so beautifully:

But by the grace of God I am what I am,
and his grace to me has not been ineffective.

When I look at my life with genuine humility, I too can see that God’s grace has been abundant and extremely effective. It has never failed me. I may fail myself in not being open and receptive to it. But He does not fail me. On Him we can depend completely.

I can’t believe that tomorrow is the last Sunday of the Church year!  Next Sunday it begins anew with the First Sunday of Advent.

The Solemnity of Christ the King can’t help but be tremendously powerful.  One can’t help but be moved to humility and awe before the King of Heaven.  On this day, of all other days, I always feel as though a veil has been lifted from my eyes.  I see Christ as my King, God, and Creator, and I see myself as His creature, created out of nothing, entirely dependent upon Him.  And although I feel like a speck of dust before Him, I rest secure in His love, His goodness, His graciousness, His generosity, and His peace.  I know that it is by and for Him that I exist at all.

Today in Mariology class, we spent most of our class talking about the dogma of the Immaculate Conception.  Going into the class this morning, I was completely unaware of what riches were there to be mined from this single dogma.  Of course, it is about Mary and God’s singular extraordinary grace upon her, but beyond what it tells us about Mary is what it tells us about God and His very special love for every single one of us!  He wants to be in a special, intimate relationship with each of us just as He did with Mary.  Like Mary, we are each unique persons, with our very own role in God’s creation.  He loves each of us as completely and particularly as if we were the only person in the universe.  What He did for Mary is a sign of the tremendous love and power he offers to each of us.

And our professor pointed out something very important: human beings don’t come into the world on their own, and then God looks down and says, “Oh, here’s another one… Hm, am I going to love it or not? Maybe I’ll decide once I see what kind of creature it is and how well it behaves.”  That’s not how it is.  We come into being because of His love.  His love brings us to life, and it sustains us in life.  His love is a given, and it is a completely free given.  How we respond to it is up to us (because love must be freely given on our part as well).

This Solemnity of Christ the King is a wonderful opportunity for us to recognize and respond to His love.  To reaffirm that He is indeed our King–our King who loves us and gives us our being.  To reaffirm that we choose to be His subjects–subjects full of dignity and freedom and love given in return.  There is no humiliation, no degradation, no oppression, in being subject to the King of Heaven.

And yet so many people in our world reject and despise Him because they hate the idea of being subject to a King.  That’s almost as true of this country as of all of the more blatantly secularist nations of the west.  For all of the United States’ famous (or infamous) religiosity, we Americans tend to be intensely independent, individualistic, and self-autonomous.  You don’t have too search too deeply to realize that much of the religion in this country is really about being prosperous in this world.  At best, it is often confined to Sundays, holidays, and church walls.  Over 230 years after obtaining our independence as a nation, “King” is still a four-letter word in this country.

And because we are all part of this world, it can be very tempting to just go along with that.  But we mustn’t.  The truth is, there is no such thing as life without a king.  Rejecting the true King does not free us.  It only makes us subject to other “kings”–be they rulers of nations, heads of corporations, media moguls, pastors of feel-good mega-churches, or our own flaws.  “Kings” are a dime a dozen in this world, and they all play right into the hands of the “king” of Hell.

Make no mistake: the devil is the only one who benefits from us not serving Christ the King.

So, on this holy solemn feast day, let us make a radical declaration, not of independence, but of dependence.  Let us declare with all our hearts, “I am a subject of Christ the King, the Source of all life, love, and freedom–and of no other!”

And then–here’s the really challenging part–let us pledge to live every day of the upcoming new year as if we really meant it.

I loved this Sunday’s Gospel reading so much.

[Jesus and His disciples] came to Capernaum and, once inside the house, He began to ask them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they remained silent. They had been discussing among themselves on the way who was the greatest. Then He sat down, called the Twelve, and said to them, “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.” Taking a child, He placed it in their midst, and putting His arms around it, He said to them, “Whoever receives one child such as this in My name, receives Me; and whoever receives Me, receives not Me but the One who sent Me.”

Mark 9:30-37

What struck me most was that Christ didn’t just pull in the poor child to stand before Him and the Apostles, but rather, He brought the child to Himself, “putting His arms around it.” The RSV translation expresses it as an even more personal and intimate action, thus:

And He took a child, and put him in the midst of them; and taking him in His arms, He said to them …

(For one thing, it refers to the child as a “him” and not an “it”!)

Today the image of Christ embracing and holding a child in His arms is sweet and often very sentimental.  But as our priest taught us today, it was a very significant gesture and a very significant message. In the society in which Jesus and the disciples lived, children were essentially nobodies. They had no rights and no inherent worth. They were completely dependent on others, and their care was generally left to women and/or slaves. For a man to take a random child, not even his own child, and embrace and hold the child, and to do so in the company of other men, would have been quite out of the ordinary.

The portrait that paints in my mind is not sweet and sentimental, but rather, compelling and challenging.  I see Christ holding the child lovingly and protectively, but looking out at us with a keen gaze and a gleam in His eyes that says, “This child is precious to Me… how are you going to treat him?”  (I tried in vain to find an image that matches the one in my head.)

Christ was doing something no other man would do. He was showing the Apostles a new way. A way of loving service even to the smallest, the poorest, and the weakest. Loving service, not power.  That is what He was demanding of them.  It’s what He demands of His disciples today as well, and especially of the successors of the Apostles, our bishops and priests.

Doesn’t this passage have so much to say to us today? I look around at our society and at the Church, and I see lots of people who really need to hear Christ’s message and see His example. There are plenty of people who regard the priesthood in terms of power that should be up for grabs for everybody. There are also lots of people who regard children as objects, as commodities, to be used or disposed of as desired. There is a belief that getting stuck with a child is one of the worst things that can happen to a person. Conception of a child is considered a highly disruptive and undesirable side-effect of sexual pleasure. Pregnancy and childbirth are considered crises–pregnancy as an illness, childbirth as a medical procedure. There are plenty of wealthy, healthy, young married couples who would rather have dogs than children. Or, at their most generous, will only have one or maybe two children.  In short, we regard the natural blessings of sexuality, fertility, and family-rearing as things over which we can, and must, exert our own power.

This is the world we live in.  It’s all about power and putting oneself first.  These attitudes are found within the Church as well as in society at large.  Basically it’s as if Christ never walked the earth, or never taught us how to live.  I don’t know about you, but I find it hard not to be depressed and discouraged by that!  For all the claims that we are so much better and more enlightened than our ancestors, we certainly haven’t lived up to it.  I say “we” because I’ve done my fair share of upholding those common attitudes.  I decided a few years ago that I can no longer support them.  I pray that I can make amends for them in this life (otherwise, I feel I shall have a long and severe season in Purgatory).

I pray that this Gospel passage got through to even a few people this Sunday, that it may prompt some serious examination of themselves and the world in which we live, and indeed that it may prompt some true and deep conversions.  And I pray that we who have heard it will do our best to carry it out into the world through our words, our actions, and our lifestyles.  We mustn’t let Christ’s life and message be in vain!

You wouldn’t think I would need to be reminded of this so often, but…  Yeah. I do.  It’s been the theme of this entire year for me.  I just thank God that He never grows impatient.

This morning, around 4 AM, He got to witness a huge temper tantrum from me.  That’s how it always starts.  I break under stress, which has built up and been compounded by my trying to handle everything myself, without leaning on God.  So naturally, I cry and complain and curse and blame Him for not doing my will.

Shameful, I know.  And yet it plays out time and time again.  At least until I get too tired to shake my fist, and I crumple into a little broken heap.

And that’s when God comes and picks me up and puts me back together.  And that’s when I finally realize who I am and who He is.  I the little one, He the great one.  I the weak one, He the strong one.  I the dependent one, He the reliable one.  I wish I had the humility to always realize it, without having to go through all the hysterics.

I don’t know why He puts up with me.  But every time, I find His goodness and power surrounding me like a cocoon.  I never cease to be amazed by His magnanimity and tenderness.

So… after all my talk yesterday, I didn’t get to go to Mass at all.  Part of it was my fault: I didn’t get up early enough to make it to the TLM in the morning.  I was going to go in the evening, but something else was taking place at the church and it was closed for the day.

As I stood crestfallen outside the church, unable to go inside, I got that feeling.  You probably know the feeling when something happens and you know in all honesty that you had it coming.  You look back on things you’ve done earlier and you realize that you were perched up on a pretty high horse.  My little Ascension Thursday rant struck me, among a variety of other less-than-obedient, less-than-charitable thoughts from the day.

I realized that I’ve  been stewing in discontent for a few days.  And I wasn’t seeing it.  I was getting comfortable with it.  I was even starting to enjoy it.

And the question came to me, “What have I been discontent about?”  And I really didn’t have a good answer.  As I walked back to my car, I thought about fellow Catholics whose churches have been permanently closed.  Catholics who don’t have easy access to churches and priests.  Catholics too ill or otherwise prevented from attending Mass.

And I am discontent?  I’ve got a wonderful parish with a wonderful priest.  I can attend Mass every day.  We have a good bishop.  We have the TLM.

I’m more ashamed now.  And even now my first, knee-jerk reaction is to rebel against it.  But that would only be giving into discontent, and would be more shameful.  Much more shameful than writing all this here for the world to read.

These little moments of humiliation and realization are a gift from God.  Sometimes we need our perspective adjusted.  Sometimes we need to be knocked off our high horses. Sometimes we need to put ourselves in other people’s shoes.  Sometimes we need to appreciate how grateful we should be.

As always, the important question is:  So what will I do now?  How will I make reparation?  I think I’ll keep my mouth shut and obey the bishop and pray the same Divine Office as everybody else in my diocese… and censure my idiot pride when it rails against it all.

This sort of keeps up the theme of concentrating on God:

“Brothers, I do not think of myself as having reached the finish line. I give no thought to what lies behind but push on to what is ahead. My entire attention is on the finish line as I run toward the prize to which God calls me–life on high in Christ Jesus. All of us who are spiritually mature must have this attitude.”
~ Philippians 3: 13- 15

I have such a bad habit sometimes of thinking that I am already at the finish line… or even across it.  That makes me prey to all sorts of nonsense… like worrying over the past.  Or worrying period.

Sometimes I need to be taken down a peg or two or ten.  I need to see things as they really are–that is the real meaning of humility.  I need to be reminded that I still have plenty of spiritual growing up to do.

Who better than St. Paul to do that?  :)

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