Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Book Review: The Priest as Beloved Son

The stack of books I'm trying to read is much larger than what my calendar allows for. When I do actually finish a book though, I want to use the blog to tell you what I thought about it. I'm happy to lend this or any other book in my library if you live near me and don't look like a hooligan.

The Priest as Beloved Son was given to me by Deacon Andrew Kinstetter as a birthday gift. He said it helped him immensely in his journey through seminary and so he wanted to pass it along to me.

The idea of beloved sonship is something that is gaining a lot of traction in seminary formation. If priests are configured to Christ, then they need to see themselves as beloved just as Christ saw himself as beloved. This is an indispensable aspect of priesthood because it allows the priest to find value and self-worth through who he is rather than what he does. As a priest, I love offering the Sacrifice of the Mass for the sake of my people. I love helping people and I am honored when people entrust their burdens to me. Like any basically good-hearted person, I derive a holy self-satisfaction from getting to help people with their burdens.

But that isn't where I should primarily derive my sense of self-worth. My self-worth, that deep heart-felt knowledge that I am good, shouldn't come from what I do. It should come from who I am. But if it's to come from who I am, then the identity of who I am can't be entirely derived from myself, because I know myself to be a sinner. My identity, who I am, is something I have to receive from God, and that's where the identity of Beloved Son comes in. I am beloved by God, and that love gives me my identity and my self-worth.

A priest identifies as a beloved son in a unique way, but it's something all Christians need to grow into: we all need to see ourselves as beloved sons and daughters of God. In the western world especially, where we derive great value from what we do, we need to understand that our primary value comes from simply being loved by God. If you grow in filial identity, it won't make you more productive or fix all the problems in your life, but it will add a deep and unshakable value to how you perceive yourself because your identity will be fixed in the Father who loves you.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Book Review: Wild at Heart

The stack of books I'm trying to read is much larger than what my calendar allows for. When I do actually finish a book though, I want to use the blog to tell you what I thought about it. I'm happy to lend this or any other book in my library if you live near me and don't look like a hooligan.

*This is one of those book reviews that's also a jumping off point for my own thoughts*

A friend of mine gave me Wild at Heart to read, and the book was so darn good I ended up buying my own copy before I'd even finished it the first time. This is one of those proofs that "many elements of sanctification and of truth" are found outside the visible confines of the Catholic Church" (CCC 819). John Eldredge himself is a Christian, but he seems to have a bit of an anti-religion vibe to him, as gleaned from his website. He is the director of Ransomed Heart Ministries, a "fellowship devoted to helping people discover the heart of God" (from the back of the book).

If you had to categorize the book, it's a book about masculine spirituality, but really it's so much more than that. Much of contemporary Christian material geared towards men is designed to neuter and emasculate them. Modern Christianity tells men that their passion, their drive, and their ambition is bad, and so in order to be a good Christian you need to get rid of those things and pursue virtues like meekness, gentleness, and passivity (Indeed, they are virtues and Jesus used them when he needed to, but they're never an excuse not to act when action is called for). This message is subtly backed up by by emotive music and weak homilies found at most Christian gatherings. In the same vein, we've feminized Jesus himself. To demonstrate how we've feminized Jesus and Christianity, I want to offer a lengthy citation from a different book, one I've never been able to forget, called "Why Men Hate Going to Church":

"Our very definition of a 'good Christian' skews female. To  illustrate, take this pop quiz. Examine these two sets of values, and tell me: Which set better characterizes the value of Jesus Christ and his true disciples?
  • SET A
  • Competence
  • Power
  • Efficiency
  • Achievement
  • Skills
  • Proving oneself
  • Results
  • Accomplishment
  • Objects
  • Goal orientation
  • Self-sufficiency
  • Success
  • Competition
  • SET B
  • Love
  • Communication
  • Beauty
  • Relationships
  • Support
  • Helping
  • Nurturing
  • Feelings
  • Sharing
  • Relating
  • Community
  • Loving cooperation
  • Personal Expression
"Over the years, I have administered this quiz to thousands of people: men and women, Christians and non-Christians. More than 90 percent of the time, people choose Set B as the best representation of Christ and his values. You probably did too.

Now comes the fun part.

These two value-sets are plucked from the best-selling book Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus...Set A represents the values common among men, while Set B represents the values common among women. This little quiz reveals a startling truth: most people think of Christ as having the values that come naturally to a woman."
So with contemporary Christianity having feminized our understanding of Christ and our understanding of a good Christian, John Eldredge realized we have a problem. Even in the Catholic Church, which is commonly accused of being male-dominated and hierarchical, the problem is the same. So Eldredge proposes something new, he proposes that how God made men is good, because the natural values and inclinations of men correspond to the values of God himself. Early on in Wild at Heart, Eldredge says, "We need permission. Permission to be what we are-men made in God's image. Permission to live from the heart and not from the list of 'should' and 'ought to' that has left so many of us tired and bored" (emphasis original).

Speaking directly to men, every one of us has a question that needs to be answered. "Am I really a man? Do I have what it takes?" Because of Adam's original failure and the wounds we receive throughout our lives, this question often goes unanswered or is answered in the negative. The sort of masculinity I'm talking about here isn't the kind of manliness that drinks beer, watches football, and hunts. That overly-macho man is usually just compensating for the wounds he's received elsewhere in his life. No, I'm talking about the manliness that knows what makes him come alive, that is driven to pursue a goal, whether that goal is to be star quarterback or first chair in the orchestra. Either one is true masculinity because it's what makes you come alive.

But through the trials of life, we often pick up the message that we're not really a man. We don't have what it takes. You're not good enough to be the QB. Playing an instrument is for wimps. Or to Christianize the failure: The desire to succeed, the desire to excel, those are bad. Meekness and passivity are what you should pursue.

But something about this doesn't sit right, because men were made to fight. Look at little boys on the playground, they'll turn anything into a pretend weapon. We are made to compete, to conquer, to vanquish the enemy. It's what Jesus did. He fought the enemy and he won. For us, the enemy is often our own weakness. We have to recognize the battle that is at hand, and we have to recognize what is at stake. The leader is Jesus Christ, the battle is against the Devil himself, who has infiltrated even to our own hearts, and what is at stake is all the souls entrusted to our care as fathers of families, in whatever form.

God didn't give us men wild hearts to be stumbling blocks for us. He didn't give us wild hearts so that we could suppress them. He gave us wild hearts so that we could fight for him and live like Him.

Monday, October 26, 2015

On The Flesh

In today's readings Paul seems to be speaking badly about the flesh while Jesus heals someone's flesh. Here are my thoughts on the dichotomy. It's the audio version of today's short homily.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Bartimaeus's Sight

In today's gospel, Jesus has been on a journey for quite some time now. He's been working his way from Galilee to Jerusalem, and now he's getting close. He's reached Jericho, a town about fifteen miles from Jerusalem. And has he leaves Jericho to get the last leg of the journey done, he gets waylaid by this blind beggar. Now, at the beginning of this journey, Jesus healed another blind man, so this journey has been framed by Jesus healing blind men at the beginning and end of it.

Jesus is passing by, and Bartimaeus has probably heard about this Jesus guy already, and he knows that this is the man he needs. He has one shot and so he can't miss Jesus as he passes by. He starts shouting, he's actually the only person healed in Mark's gospel who calls Jesus by name, but the crowd tries to shush him, but that just makes him shout even more. He calls Jesus "Son of David," which recognizes his royal and powerful heritage.

So Jesus stops, but he doesn't call Bartimaeus or go to him. He makes the crowds, the very ones who were trying to silence Bartimaeus, be the ones who call him forward. So they call him, and the crowds who were trying to silence Bartimaeus have the audacity to tell him to take courage. All along, Bartimaeus has been the one acting courageously in calling out for Jesus. It's the disciples who are afraid of Jesus's mission to go to all the people.

And when Bartimaeus goes to Jesus, Jesus doesn't need to touch him or say anything special to him. Jesus just asks Bartimaeus what he wants. Bartimaeus asks for sight. He knew the one thing he needed and he knew the one person who could give it to him. That's faith. So Jesus says to him, "Go your way; your faith has saved you."

And then this is really interesting. Jesus tells Bartimaeus to, "Go your way," and then after Bartimaeus can see it says he followed Jesus, "on the way." Bartimaeus was so moved by Jesus that he made his way, that is, his life and everything he was about, Jesus's way. He decided to spend his life following Jesus. And indeed, scholars often think that the only reason Bartimaeus would be identified by name was if he had become a part of the Christian movement and would have been someone that the original readers of the gospel would have recognized.

 But Mark, the gospel writer, wants us to draw a connection. He wants us to see that the physical blindness of Bartimaeus is only meant to illustrate the spiritual blindness of the apostles and disciples who are accompanying him. Jesus has been demonstrating time and time again that he has come to save the lost, and yet here again there's a lost person seeking Jesus and the crowd tells him to keep quiet. Even still, the crowd is blind to Jesus's mission and purpose while Bartimaeus understands it quite well.

Faith, Bartimaeus teaches us, consists in recognizing what you need and who can give it to you. What you and I need is forgiveness of our sins, and the one who can give it to us is Jesus. Our sins leave us broken, our sins leave us blind to the good things that God wants to give us. Remember, Bartimaeus's physical blindness should help us recognize our spiritual blindness. We fall into the danger of thinking that we can't bother Jesus with this or that problem, but the truth is that he wants to be bothered!

Or the greater danger that we fall into is thinking that our spiritual blindness isn't that bad. So many of us avoid Confession because we think that we don't have anything we need to apologize for, or we think that Confession just doesn't do any good. My friends, if we want to be healed of our spiritual blindness, if we want to experience the good things that God wants to give us, we need the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Bartimaeus has to be our guide. Bartimaeus wasn't healed by just sitting on the roadside hoping something would happen. He had to get up and go to Jesus. Same for us, we have to go to Jesus if we expect him to heal us, and that happens in Reconciliation.

Jesus wants to be the one who heals you of the sin that blinds you.  Pursue him relentlessly. The world will tell you that it's not worth the fight, or that you're fine the way you are. Don't listen to the world. Cry out for Jesus, chase after him. Once Jesus heals your blindness, then you are free to follow him just as Bartimaeus did. Call out for Jesus, let him heal your blindness.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

True Greatness

Whenever you make a mistake in life, do you like to tell people about it? If you stick your foot in your mouth, do you tell others about it so they can stick it all over Facebook? Certainly not! It humiliates you when your mistakes and embarrassments are made public. So when we understand how the gospels came to exist, we should be impressed when we read about the mistakes of the apostles. We just heard from Mark's gospel, and Mark wasn't one of the original followers of Jesus. Mark didn't follow Jesus around the Holy Land and just write things down as they happened. Mark was a follower of Peter well after Jesus's Ascension into heaven, so everything Mark wrote about came through Peter and others.

So when Mark tells us about some of the apostles like James and John doing something embarrassing like we saw them do today, we should hear Peter's voice telling us how he and the other apostles messed up constantly, and yet were loved anyway. So even just from understanding how the various stories of the gospels come down to us through the ages, we start to see a lesson in humility. On a human level, it didn't do the apostles any favors to tell Mark about all of their mistakes as Mark was starting to write his gospel, unless they knew that Jesus could transform their mistakes to be opportunities to experience his love. The very fact that Peter and the other apostles told these embarrassing stories to Mark shows that they were starting to understand humility, at least by the time the gospel was being written down.

So today, James and John know that what they want to ask Jesus is a little inappropriate, so they ask Jesus to agree to it before they even ask. But Jesus is not so easily tricked, so he gets their request from them and and sees that they are seeking power. To sit on the right and the left of Jesus, whatever their vision of his kingdom, would be positions of immense power. And they're ambitious, these guys are known as the Sons of Thunder. When Jesus explains what this will entail, the cup that he will drink and the baptism with which he will be baptized, they insist they can handle it. These were indications of his coming suffering, but they were not deterred. And then other disciples become indignant, because they want power too. So Jesus needs to teach them about true power and true greatness in the kingdom he's setting up.

And power in Jesus's kingdom is going to be a reversal of power in any other kingdom in the world. "Whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all." Jesus doesn't tell us that to be great or to desire to be great is a bad thing. No, we were made for greatness. And Jesus doesn't say this as a sort of threat or a warning. It's not like he's telling us that if you try to be great you'll be punished by being a servant, or if you try to be first you'll be punished by being the slave of all, that's not what he's saying. What he's trying to explain is that if you want to be great or if you want to be first, this is what you do. Greatness to Jesus isn't the same thing as greatness to the world. To Jesus, to be great is to be humble.

Now, Jesus doesn't preach humility just because he likes it when we all walk around and talk about how awful we are and how great everybody else is. Rather, he's teaching us that greatness comes in living for others. Sometimes we think it's only our modern world that's especially selfish, and certainly we have our own problems with self-centeredness, but apparently Jesus needed to correct the same error 2,000 years ago. But when we think about who we know, we realize that we don't consider great those who are truly selfish, those who work their way to the top by stealing from others and then can't be bothered to help others. We don't think of that as greatness, no matter how easy they have it. Rather, we realize that to be truly great means you lay down your life for someone else. The apostles were great men because they laid down their lives for others. Mother Teresa was a great woman because she laid down her life for others. Every parent that gets up day after day even though they don't always feel like it to care for the children God has given them are great people.

Greatness comes from service, from living for others, because this conforms your life to Christ. So here's your job this week: look around you at all the people you know and all the problems you know they have and say, "What can I do to help?" If you can find a way to relieve the sufferings of another, that will make you great. If you can find a way to help others where no one will know and no one will thank you, that's even better. That makes you great because it's how you live for others. Jesus lived and died for others, and to the extent that we can imitate that, we can be great like Jesus is great.

Friday, October 16, 2015

My Monastic Retreat

Chapel exterior
Last week and over the weekend, I took a private silent retreat at the Monastery of the Holy Name of Jesus in Denmark, Wisconsin. I haven't had a silent retreat in nearly a year and a half, so it was well overdue. Holy Name Carmel has thirteen nuns in it, most of whom are younger, and their charism is just to pray for priests. To that end, they've purchased a farmhouse near their monastery for priests to take private retreats at. I spent several nights there with my phone turned blessedly off, I got to rest and do a lot of reading. I reread St. Therese's Story of a Soul. And I joined the nuns every day for Mass.

Sanctuary and the grille of the cloister
These nuns preserve a strict cloister, even their chapel is designed such that the laity who attended Mass there couldn't see the nuns, and the nuns couldn't see the laity. Any place where they might interact with the world, specifically the chapel and the parlor, there's a metal grille separating them from the world. They leave for necessary things like doctor and dentist visits, but I don't think they even leave for vacation. In order to see their families, the family comes to them rather than them leaving the monastery to go visit their families. They have dedicated themselves completely to a life of prayer and sacrifice, holding absolutely nothing back.

The Parlor with the grille
I think sometimes we mischaracterize cloistered religious life. These nuns have very intentionally withdrawn from the world, but not because they're naive about the world or because is a big scary place that they couldn't handle. These nuns have seen the world for what it is, they've probably seen it better and more honestly than most of us have because they recognized that nothing the world has to offer will satisfy them. They recognized that their hearts are satisfied only by Jesus, and so they're spending their lives in pursuit of the one who loves them.

On my last day there, I had a chance to talk with their Mother Superior for a little bit; we used the parlor with the grille in it. I asked her what she would tell the world, based on her unique perspective, if she were given the opportunity or the platform. She said, "Jesus." After being a professed nun for nearly thirty years, she's learned that everything revolves around that very powerful name. Whatever is good in your life, whatever is bad in your life, it all comes back to Him. There is nothing in your life he doesn't want to be involved in. Every knee in heaven and on earth bends at the most holy name of Jesus. Trust in the name of Jesus. Live in the name of Jesus.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Manliness and Porn

The Catholic Gentleman just published an article entitled "How Porn Turns Men Into Little Boys" by the ever-clever Matt Fradd. The article highlighted the science behind addiction as it relates to pornography. Do yourself a favor and read the whole article, but my highlights are below:

Porn has been promoted as a socially respectable thing for some time now, as something that mature men partake in. What does it mean to be mature?
Ask any neuroscientist what a “mature” human brain looks like, and he or she will likely talk to you about a region of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex. It’s located directly behind the forehead and serves as the managerial center of the brain. It is responsible for our willpower, regulating our behavior, and making decisions based on wisdom and principles. When emotions, impulses, and urges surge from the midbrain, the lobes in the prefrontal cortex are there to exercise “executive control” over them. By the age of 25, this region of the brain reaches maturity, meaning that our thinking becomes more sophisticated and we can regulate our emotions more easily.
What does neuroscience have to do with porn?
The brain is designed in such a way to respond to sexual stimulation. Surges of dopamine are released during a sexual encounter—and yes, also pornographic encounters—giving the person a sharp sense of focus and an awareness of sexual craving. Dopamine helps to lay down memories in the brain, so the next time a man or woman is in the mood, the brain remembers where to return to experience the same pleasure: whether that be a loving spouse or the laptop in the den.

However, scientists are now seeing that continued exposed to porn gives the brain an unnatural high—something it literally isn’t wired to handle—and the brain eventually fatigues.
This neurological pathway to pleasure, where the brain becomes hardwired to make itself happy, is the same thing that research has found with chemical addictions like cocaine and natural addictions like overeating. All of these studies have found that "addictions physically affect the prefrontal lobes of the brain," and remember, the human brain is judged to be mature when the prefontal lobes, the lobes that control impulses and urges, are fully developed. So the kicker of the article is this:
The very thing in the brain that is the mark of adulthood and maturity is the thing that is eroded as we view more porn. It is as if the brain is reverting, becoming more childlike. “Adult” entertainment is actually making us more juvenile.
Then he goes on to explain how porn has been marketed as "mature" by weak men in order to excuse their weak behavior and inability to control their impulses. A real man doesn't use porn. A real man controls his impulses.

Monday, October 5, 2015

The Man in the Ditch

Here is an audio version of today's short homily about the man in the ditch who was helped by the Good Samaritan, as found in today's gospel reading. Please do tell me in the comments if the link works, if the audio is clear enough, and if you appreciate audio of my groggy 7 am voice. This link to Google Drive is the best way I could find to share audio clips.

The Great Call

Sorry for the delayed post. This is the homily I delivered two weeks ago for the diocese's television mass for the 27th Sunday:

Today Jesus gives one of the hardest lessons in all of the gospels when he teaches us about marriage. The discussion starts with the Pharisees trying to trap Jesus. They think they understand the Scripture's and God's will, so they're not actually turning to Jesus for information, they're just trying to trap him. So they ask Jesus this question, "Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife?", and Jesus, like a good rabbi, answers this question with a question. He puts the matter back in their court by saying, "What did Moses command you?" Now, answering a question with a questions isn't simply avoiding the topic, this was actually a common way for rabbis to engage in discussions about their religion. So Jesus gave them an easy question, basically he asked them to cite the Old Testament, and they know their scriptures really well, so they open up their bibles to Deuteronomy 24:1-4 and show him right where it says that divorce is perfectly cool according to Moses.

In Jesus' time, divorce was pretty commonly accepted based off this short passage from Deuteronomy. Rabbis weren't so much debating whether or not divorce was permissible so much as they were discussing under what circumstances it was permissible. It was patriarchal society, so divorce was always the man's decision, and some rabbis thought divorce was permissible only if the wife was unfaithful, while some rabbis thought divorce was permissible even if she made a meal that he didn't like. Opinions covered the whole range of possibilities. But Jesus isn't interested in any of that. He dismisses all the opinions about the reason for divorce by explaining the fundamental reason Moses permitted it in the first place: "Because of the hardness of your heart he wrote you this commandment."

Now, if the Pharisees want to quote scripture to justify their position, Jesus can play that game. He actually quotes two different scripture passages to explain his radical teaching. He quotes Genesis 1:27, "God made them male and female," and he quotes Genesis 2:24 that we heard in our first reading, "This is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one flesh." Now, the two passages he quotes are important, because they both take place before the Fall, before Adam's first sin that destroyed the union man had with God. So really, Jesus's teaching is radical, but it's not new. It's actually the most ancient and original intention God has for marriage.

It's also interesting to note that in the Pharisee's patriarchal understanding of marriage, divorce, and adultery, it was up to the man whether or not he wanted to divorce his wife, and in most circumstances it was only the wife who could commit adultery. But Jesus clarifies that either the man or the woman is capable of the sin of adultery by divorcing and marrying another, so now both spouses have equal responsibility in making the marriage work.

So what Jesus proposes, that man and woman should remain married their whole lives, it was possible before the Fall, and then when sin was introduced into the world it became so difficult that even the Israelites, God's chosen people, debated when it was ok not to do it. But through Jesus, through his Incarnation and then through his Resurrection, all things have been restored to God, so that we humans, who used to be stuck in our sin and our weakness, now have access to a new grace and a new strength that wasn't available before Jesus came.

So Jesus restored marriage to its former dignity. What was possible before the Fall and before sin is made possible again by God's grace, through Jesus Christ. But it's important to note that Jesus never intended any of us to live the married vocation on our own. This married life is only possible with the help of Jesus Christ. Jesus calls us to perfection, and he gives us the grace to make it possible.

But I would be remiss if I didn't say a word to those who are divorced, to those who have experienced this tragic and awful effect of the Fall: you still belong in the Church. There is no sin or failing so great that you are excluded from the Church. If you are remarried outside the Church then it is true that you cannot receive the sacrament of the Eucharist, but you still belong in the Church. I want to strongly encourage you to have a conversation with your pastor and he can help you understand your role in the Church.

And so for all of us, Jesus calls us to live like we are new creatures in Christ. If we are baptized Christians, then the life of holiness he calls us to is made possible by his grace. It is only possible by his grace. So it is also a call to trust. Trust that his grace is sufficient for you, trust that he has a great big beautiful plan for your life. If you are married, God is calling you to experience his love through your marriage, and he is calling your marriage to be the presence of his love in the world. His grace is real, it's present, and it's available. He is calling you to greatness, trust that it's possible.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Book Review: Hidden Mountain, Secret Garden

The stack of books I'm trying to read is much larger than what my calendar allows for. When I do actually finish a book though, I want to use the blog to tell you what I thought about it. I'm happy to lend this or any other book in my library if you live near me and don't look like a hooligan.

I had been working at Hidden Mountain, Secret Garden for a long time and only recently finished it. It was written by Dr. Anthony Lilles, a former professor who taught my spiritual direction and spiritual theology courses. Dr. Lilles's lessons opened me to the depths that are possible in the spiritual life so anything he publishes is sure to find it's way onto my shelf.

I took a while to finish the book not because the book is especially big or difficult, but rather because I wanted to savor it. Dr. Lilles has spent his life studying prayer, but more importantly, he's spent his life growing in love and friendship with the Lord. He explains the title on page one:
"Prayer seeks out a hidden mountain; it searches out a secret garden. The mountain is the presence of the Lord. The garden is friendship with Him. The prize is priceless. In this quest, no sacrifice is too costly. The make this journey is the reason we were made."
With this introduction, Dr. Lilles takes you on a journey describing what is possible in prayer. I worry that many of us think that prayer is simply closing our eyes really tight and thinking pious thoughts. But prayer can and should be much more than that. Prayer should be friendship with the One who desperately longs to have a friendship with us, with the one who is so desperate for our friendship that He died to have it.

Dr. Lilles explains that prayer isn't easy, but it's worth the fight. His sixth chapter, Prayer as Spiritual Combat, explains that there are forces both internal and external that oppose you in your battle for friendship with God. If you commit to the battle, the devil will definitely, not probably, lay snares to discourage you. He doesn't want you to have this friendship. And if you commit to the battle, the weakness of our own human flesh soon interferes. We become bored or jaded because we don't see "results" like we think we should. But prayer isn't like that. Prayer is a relationship. Prayer changes our lives, but usually in imperceptible ways.

Towards the end of the book, Dr. Lilles teaches that our prayer is not superfluous, but rather a crucial part of God's plan. He doesn't act until we ask, even though he knows what we need even before we ask. This is because he wants us to participate in his creation and in his redemption of this creation. He wants us involved! So we pray.

After being in three of Dr. Lilles's classes and now having read his book, my suspicion that he is brilliant is confirmed yet again. His thought isn't always easy to follow, but it's worth the work. Dr. Lilles knows God and he knows the human soul, and his work on prayer, that secret meeting between the two, is well worth reading.