Two Pictures from Different Ages – Compare and Contrast!

I was recently in Burgos, Spain and saw the splendid cathedral there. My first view of it came at night and I took the photo above. What a magnificent building; such proportion and symmetry! It reminds me of tall trees in a forest, majestically reaching up to the heavens. The flying buttresses supporting the soaring walls and towers showcase a great advance in building technique.

These were the skyscrapers of the Middle Ages. Such angular, geometric, and vertical beauty; almost like a forest, a fair flower of the 13th century echoing God’s creation and pointing to Him in a great work of human praise.

Two medieval phrases come to mind in the beauty of this building:

      • Beauty is id quod visum placet – Beauty is that which pleases when seen.
      • Pulchra dicuntur quae visa placent – Things that give pleasure when seen are called beautiful.

A mere thirty yards from this beautiful cathedral in the town square is something that is not beautiful in any traditional sense. I took the photo of it that is on the left. It was not uplifting and seemed to correspond to nothing in creation (unless one were to imagine a dinosaur dropping or a huge stumbling block). Like most modern abstract art, it looks more to me like someone’s nightmare. It seems to have little to say other than “Try to figure me out, you ignoramus.” Indeed, that is what I am usually called by art critics when I express dismay at these sorts of ugly blobs that clutter too many of our public squares and “art” museums.

Some disparagingly refer to the Middle Ages as the “dark ages” while referring to the current age as “enlightened.” Certainly, no age is perfect, but compare and contrast the two items in the photos here: uplifting, soaring, and inspiring; the other is dark and brooding, and its meaning is opaque. One is an uplifting building from the 13th century, the other a dark “who knows what” from the 20th century. Based on representational art, which age seems more inspiring? Which seems more enlightened? Decide for yourself, but I’ll take the 13th century!

Generally speaking, the idea at work in modern art is that it is merely the expression of the artist. We who view it are supposed to respect the artist expressing himself. This is largely a outgrowth of the subjectivism that fills our time.

The ancient idea however was that art is recta ratio factibilium (right reason in regard to things that are made). So the ancient ideal in things to be made, including art that the focus is not me, is not the artist, it is whether the art reflects conformity to the way a reasonable person can perceive the world. This does not mean that every painting must be like a photograph, or that sculpture should be an exact replica of what is. But it does mean that it has some conformity with reality that a reasonable person can perceive. So much modern art (not all) is either meaningless, or has no set meaning, it does not appeal to our reason or speak to our communal understanding of the reality about us.

Hence, St. Thomas Aquinas (also from the 13th century) spoke of beauty as consisting of integritas, consonantia, and claritas.  He writes,

For beauty includes three conditions: “integrity” or “perfection,” since those things which are impaired are by the very fact ugly; due “proportion” or “harmony”; and lastly, “brightness” or “clarity,” whence things are called beautiful which have a bright color [Summa Theologica I, 38, art 8].

In applying these criteria to art and architecture, we might consider the following:

Integritas (Integrity) – This speaks to the manner in which something echoes the beauty of what God has done. Thomas says that every created being is beautiful because God gives beauty to all created beings by a certain participation in the divine beauty. Therefore, human art and architecture are said to have integrity insofar as they participate in and point to the divine beauty of things. This need not mean an exact mimicry, but it does require at least a respectful glance to creation, holding forth some aspect of it so as to edify us with better and higher things. The cathedral pictured above points to a majestic forest as its form, its soaring stone to the mountains. Its colored glass allows the natural light to dazzle the eye and tell the stories of the Gospels. It is a sermon in glass and stone. As such, it has integrity, because it puts forth God’s glory. I’m not sure what the dark metal blob says. To what does it point? I have no idea. Because it is not integrated into the glory of creation (in any way that I can discern, at least) it does not have integrity. Rather, it seems to mock creation. If you think it is beautiful and has integrity, I invite you to explain why and how; I am at a loss to see any meaning at all in it.

Consonantia (Proportion) – This refers to the order and unity within a given thing. What God creates has a unity and purpose in its parts, which work together in an orderly fashion to direct something to its proper function or end. Thus, art and architecture intrinsically bespeak a unity and functionality, or they point to it extrinsically. They make sense of the world and respect what is given, reflecting the beauty of order, purpose, and design that God has set forth. The cathedral is beautiful because its parts act together in an orderly and harmonious way. There is balance, proportion, and symmetry. There is a recta ratio factibilium (something made according to right reason). As such, the building participates in God’s good order, and that is a beautiful thing. As for the dark metal “blob” (I don’t know what else to call it), it doesn’t seem to me to have any proportion. It is roundish, but not really. Does it have parts? Do they work together for some end? If so, what end? I cannot tell. Rather than pointing to order, it makes me think of chaos. I see no beauty echoed or pointed to.

Claritas (Clarity) – It is through clarity that we can answer the question “What is it?” with some degree of precision and understanding. Claritas also refers to the brightness or radiance of a thing. Something of God’s glory shines through; something about it gives light; something teaches us and reminds us of God—and God and light are beautiful. The gorgeous cathedral reflects the light shining on it, even at night. During the day it proclaims the glory of God by its soaring majesty, its sculptures, its windows, its order, its proportionality. It is a bright light showing forth the brightness of God and participating in it. As for the metal thing, it seems more to suck the light out of the room; it broods. I see no clarity, no brightness. I still cannot answer the question that clarity demands: “What is it?” There is no clear message. As such, it lacks beauty.

The criteria of beauty discussed here cannot be used for labeling things “beautiful” with absolute certainty, as if by applying a formula. They are more like guidelines to help us pin down some notion of beauty that is not purely subjective. Not all these criteria must be met for an object to be considered beautiful, and the presence of one does not guarantee beauty.

So again, you decide for yourself. Each of the two structures pictured above is representative of its age. Were the Dark Ages really so dark? Is ours really so enlightened? Compare and contrast!

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Two Pictures from Different Ages – Compare and Contrast!

Test Everything; Hold Fast to What Is Good – A Meditation on the Need to Soberly Assess this World

In today’s Office of Readings from the Liturgy of the Hours (Monday of 7th Week of Easter) we read the following exhortation from St John:

Beloved, do not trust every spirit, but put the spirits to a test to see if they belong to God, because many false prophets have appeared in the world….You are of God, you little ones, and thus you have conquered the false prophets …..[They] belong to the world; that is why theirs is the language of the world and why the world listens to them. We belong to God and anyone who has knowledge of God gives us a hearing, while anyone who is not of God refuses to hear us. Thus do we distinguish the spirit of truth from the spirit of deception. (1 John 4:1-10)

And thus we are warned that we must discern every thought, every idea, trend, philosophy, and fad to see if it is of God or not. We are also warned that there are many pseudo-prophets who, enamored of the world, use its language and views, distort the word of God and seek to mislead us. Yes, tragically, not a few Catholic priests and bishops seek to accommodate the Gospel to the thinking of the world. They have not tested everything to see if it is of God but publicly and often seek to bless and call good what God calls sin. St. John adds, theirs is the language of the world and the world listens to them. But sadly, they mislead the listening world and confirm it in its errors! They have everything backward. It is the world and its views that must be on trial and judged according to the Gospel. But many put the Scriptures and Doctrinal teachings of the Church on trial and judge them lacking because they do not conform to modern thinking.

How do you and I regard this world? How do we perceive its offerings, philosophies, and standards? I pray that we soberly assess the things of this world. Sadly, many Christians pass through their days in this world in a very unreflective manner, accepting, without critique, many ungodly and harmful notions. Almost anything can be spewed forth from the television, the radio, or some celebrity’s mouth and many people will accept it uncritically, even with applause. Many will look at, read, and purchase material that is not only contrary to what our faith teaches, but even ridicules it or presents it in an unfair, unbalanced, or distorted way. Many parents pay far too little attention to what their children are being taught in school, what they are viewing, and to what they are listening. The homebound days of COVID changed some of that, but scrutiny must continue.

Like St. John, St. Paul exhorted, Test everything; hold fast what is good (1 Thess 5:21). Do we?

Note that St. Paul does not say that everything is bad. Rather, he says that we should test everything. And how should that be done? For us who believe, everything should be tested by the revealed Word of God in Sacred Scripture and the Doctrine of the Church.

And yet, just like the false prophets above,  not only do many Catholics fail to do this, they have things precisely backward. Many put the Word of God on trial, judging it by the world and its standards. Many will accept uncritically almost anything that is “popular,” but quickly cop an attitude when the priest in Church says something that does not conform to commonly prevailing opinion.

And it is not just in matters of sexuality, life, and marriage that this happens. Other biblical concepts such as forgiveness, love of one’s enemies, generosity, submission to authority, reverence for elders, tradition, and obedience are too often dismissed as naïve and even foolish. And though we live in a world deeply wounded by greed, violence, the lack of forgiveness, promiscuity, rebellion, and hatred; though we are Christians and should know better; still many of us scoff at God’s wisdom and prefer the world’s folly.

In the Liturgy of the Hours, we also read recently an excerpt from The Imitation of Christ addressing this unfortunate tendency among believers. In the following passage, the author takes up the voice of Jesus:

The Lord says, I have instructed my prophets from the beginning and even to the present time I have not stopped speaking to all men, but many are deaf and obstinate in response. Many hear the world more easily than they hear God; they follow the desires of the flesh more readily than the pleasure of God…. [Yet] who serves and obeys me in all matters with as much care as the world and its princes are served? Blush, then, you lazy, complaining servant, for men are better prepared for the works of death than you are for the works of life. They take more joy in vanity than you in truth ….Write my words in your heart and study them diligently, for they will be absolutely necessary in the time of temptation. Whatever you fail to understand in reading my words will become clear to you on the day of your visitation.
He who possesses my words yet spurns them earns his own judgment on the last day
(The Imitation of Christ, 3.3).

This is a pretty tough assessment to be sure. But, sadly, it is a common problem among believers living in a world that mesmerizes and can offer only fleeting pleasures.

The Lord Jesus once lamented, The sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light (Lk 16:8).

The Greek word translated here as “shrewd” is phrónimos, an adjective referring to how we “size things up.” It is related to the word for wisdom, but refers here not to godly wisdom but rather to worldly thinking. Hence modern translators rightly translate it as “shrewd” or “cunning.” And indeed so many, even among believers, are far more savvy in dealing with the world than with the faith. They can tell you all about the stock market, the local sports team, the current political situation, or the latest movie, but can’t say much about Scripture or the central truths of our faith. Many have PhDs in worldly matters, but barely a 3rd grade knowledge of the faith.

But, thanks be to God, many Catholics today, like a faithful remnant, are waking up and realizing that they cannot go on living with an undiscerning mind. Some fervent groups of Catholics are studying the faith in depth, attending Bible studies and lectures.

More and more, I meet large groups of people who are hungry for the faith and are willing to test everything by it. Catholic television, Catholic radio, and Catholic presence on the Internet are all growing. It is my privilege to encounter many of you through this blog and my columns at Our Sunday Visitor and The National Catholic Register. I have been honored to be able to do a lot of work with Catholic Radio and with the Institute of Catholic Culture. I have also been privileged to travel around the country from time to time giving retreats for priests and leading parish missions. Yes, I can testify that many Catholics have become more earnest in knowing their faith and testing everything by it. And many of these are young adults.

So please help us, Lord! For too long, many of us (your flock) have been compromised by this world; we have become enamored of it even to the point of scorning your beautiful teachings. But many of us are finally waking up. Keep us sober and alert. Help us to test everything by your glorious truth. Increase the number of strong and dedicated believers. Equip us not only to test this world, but to transform others by touching them and drawing them more deeply to your truth. Help us. Save us. Have mercy on us and keep us by your grace!

In Times of Harsh Political Discourse, What Do the Scriptures Say?

We are in times of strident political protest that includes a lot of harsh language, personal attacks, name calling, and even debased and profane terms. There are tweets, and angry monologues, harsh commentary on news networks, and interruptive press conferences and news interviews that sound more like a brawl than a debate. To put it all more pleasantly, these are times of “colorful” discourse.

What is the overall teaching of Scripture when it comes to this sort of colorful language? Are there some limits and ground rules? Let’s take a look.

The word “civility”dates back to the mid-16th century and has an older meaning that referred to one who possessed the quality of having been schooled in the humanities. In academic settings, debate (at least historically) was governed by a tendency to be nuanced, careful, cautious, formal, and trained in rhetoric. Its rules often included referring to one’s opponents with honorary titles (Doctor, Professor, etc.) and euphemisms such as “my worthy opponent.” Hence as the word entered common usage, it has come to mean speech or behavior that is polite, courteous, gentle, and measured.

As one might guess, there are a lot of cultural variancesin what is civil. And this insight is very important when we look at the biblical data on what constituted civil discourse. Frankly, the biblical world was far less dainty about discourse than we have become in 21st-century America. The Scriptures, including the New Testament, are filled with vigorous discourse. Jesus, for example, really mixes it up with His opponents—even calling them names. We shall see more of this in a moment. But the Scriptures also counsel charity and warn of unnecessarily angry speech. In the end, a balance of the scriptural witness to civility must be sought along with an appreciation of the cultural variables at work.

Let’s examine a few of the texts that counsel charityas well as a modern and American notion of civility:

  1. Anyone who says to his brother, “Raqa” is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, “You fool!” will be in danger of the fire of hell(Matt 5:22).
  2. Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen(Eph 4:29).
  3. Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged(Col 3:21).
  4. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be (James 3:9-10).
  5. Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry(James 1:19).
  6. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt(Col 4:6).
  7. Therefore encourage one another and build each other up(1 Thess 5:11).
  8. But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips(Col 3:8).
  9. Words from a wise man’s mouth are gracious, but a fool is consumed by his own lips(Eccl 10:12).
  10. The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouts of a ruler of fools(Eccles 9:17).
  11. Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification(Rom 14:19).
  12. Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother(Gal 6:1).
  13. Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort [the repentant sinner], so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow(2 Cor 2:7).

All these texts counsel a measured, charitable, and edifying discourse. Name-calling and hateful or unnecessary expressions of anger are out of place. And this is a strong biblical tradition, especially in the New Testament.

But there are also strong contrasts to this instruction evident in the Bible. And a lot of it comes from an unlikely source: Jesus. Paul too, who wrote many of the counsels above, often engages in strident denunciations of his opponents and even members of the early Church. Consider some of the passages below, first by Jesus, then by Paul and other Apostles:

  1. Jesus said, “You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good?”(Matthew 12:34)
  2. And Jesus turned on them and said, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are. “Woe to you, blind guides! … You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. … You hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. … And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your forefathers! “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?”(Matt 23 varia)
  3. Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now am here. I have not come on my own; but he sent me. … You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire. … He who belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God” (John 8:42-47).
  4. Jesus said, Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me”(Mark 7:6).
  5. And Jesus answered them, O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long must I tolerate you?(Mark 9:19)
  6. Jesus said to the disciples, “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matt 7:11)
  7. Jesus said to the crowd, “I do not acceptpraise from men, but I know you. I know that you do not have the love of God in your hearts”(Jn 5:41-42).
  8. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables(John 2:15).
  9. Then Jesus replied, “Have I not chosen you, the Twelve? Yet one of you is a devil!”(John 6:70)
  10. Paul: O senseless Galatians, who hath bewitched you that you should not obey the truth … As for those circumcisers, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!(Galatians 3, 5)
  11. Paul against the false apostles:And I will keep on doing what I am doing in order to cut the ground from under those who want an opportunity to be considered equal with us in the things they boast about. For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve (2 Cor 11:11-14).
  12. Paul on the Cretans:Even one of their own prophets has said, “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.” This testimony is true. Therefore, rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith(Titus 1:12-13).
  13. Peter against dissenters:Bold and arrogant, these men are not afraid to slander celestial beings…these men blaspheme in matters they do not understand. They are like brute beasts, creatures of instinct, born only to be caught and destroyed, and like beasts they too will perish. … They will be paid back with harm for the harm they have done. … They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their pleasures while they feast with you. With eyes full of adultery, they never stop sinning; they seduce the unstable; they are experts in greed—an accursed brood! … Of them the proverbs are true: “A dog returns to its vomit,” and, “A sow that is washed goes back to her wallowing in the mud”(2 Peter 2, varia).
  14. Jude against dissenters:These dreamers pollute their own bodies, reject authority and slander celestial beings….these men speak abusively against whatever they do not understand; and what things they do understand by instinct, like unreasoning animals—these are the very things that destroy them. Woe to them! They have taken the way of Cain; … These men are blemishes at your love feasts, eating with you without the slightest qualm—shepherds who feed only themselves. They are clouds without rain, blown along by the wind; autumn trees, without fruit and uprooted—twice dead. They are wild waves of the sea, foaming up their shame; wandering stars, for whom blackest darkness has been reserved forever. … These men are grumblers and fault finders; they follow their own evil desires; they boast about themselves and flatter others for their own advantage(Jude 1:varia).

Now most of the passages above would violate modern norms about civil discourse.Are they sinful? They are God’s word! And yet they seem rather shocking to modern ears. Imagine getting into your time machine and going to hear Jesus denounce the crowds and calling them children of the devil. It really blows a 21st-century mind!

I want to suggest to you that these sorts of quotes go a long way toward illustrating the cultural dimension of what it means to be civil.The bottom line is that there is a great deal of variability in what people consider civil discourse. In some cultures there is a greater tolerance for anger. In New York and Boston, edgy comments and passionate interruptive debate are common. But in the upper-Midwest and parts of the Deep South, conversation is more gentle and reserved.

At the time of Jesus, angry discourse was apparently more “normal,”for as we see, Jesus Himself engages in a lot of it, even calling people names like “hypocrites,” “brood of vipers,” “liars,” and “wicked.” Yet the same Scriptures that record these facts about Jesus also teach that He never sinned. Hence at that time, the utterance of such terms was not considered sinful.

Careful, now—be careful here. This does not mean it is simply OK for us to talk like this because Jesus did. We do not live then; we live now; and in our culture such dialogue is seldom acceptable and often backfires. There ARE cultural norms we have to respect to remain in the realm of Charity. Exactly how to define civility in every instance is not always clear. An old answer to these hard-to-define things is “I know it when I see it.” So perhaps it is more art than science to define civility. But clearly we tend to prefer gentler discourse in this day and age.

On the other hand, we also tend to be a little thin-skinnedand hyper-sensitive. And the paradoxical result of insisting on greater civility is that we are too easily “outraged” (one of the more overused words in English today). We take offense where none is intended and we presume that the mere act of disagreeing is somehow arrogant, intentionally hurtful, or even hateful. We seem so easily provoked and so quick to be offended. All of this escalates anger further, and charges of hate and intolerance are launched back and forth when there is merely sincere disagreement.

Balance– The Scriptures give us two balanced reminders. First, that we should speak the truth in love, and with compassion and understanding. But it also portrays to us a time when people had thicker skin and were less sensitive and anxious in the presence of disagreement. We can learn from both biblical traditions. The biblical formula seems to be “clarity” with “charity,” the truth with a balance of toughness and tenderness. An old saying comes to mind: “Say what you mean, mean what you say, but don’t say it mean.”

Here is a video that depicts the zeal of Jesus and a bit of his anger.

A Memorial Day Meditation on Honor

Back in 2014, I celebrated one of the most remarkable funerals of my 30+ years as a priest. With the body present, I sang a Requiem Mass for a man who died ten years before I was born. And his story speaks to the fallen soldiers we honor on this Memorial Day.

On January 1, 1951, Private First Class Arthur Richardson of A Company, 1st Battalion, 19th Infantry Regiment, 24th Infantry Division went north with his platoon into what is now North Korea. The platoon was overtaken by a much larger group of North Korean soldiers and he was taken prisoner. This was the last that was heard of Pfc. Arthur Richardson. It was reported to his wife later that month that he was missing in action. In 1954, he was declared Killed in Action, though his body was not recovered and no definitive word had been received about him. He was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star.

It now seems certain that he died in or near a Prisoner of War camp in Suan since his remains were returned by North Korea in 1994, along with those of as many as 800 other American soldiers from that region. After years of painstaking work, the U.S. Army was recently able to definitively identify his remains using DNA evidence, and informed his family.

The family asked me if I would offer the old Latin Requiem Mass for him since this was the only form of the Mass he had ever known. And so on September 18, 2014, I had the great privilege of celebrating a Missa Cantata Requiem Mass. (See photo above).

091814-BThe burial that followed at Arlington was with full military honors. (See left – click to enlarge)  Horses pulled the caisson that bore the body of Pfc Richardson and all were saddled, but the horses on the left had riders while those on the right did not. Also in the procession was a marching band, a group of about a dozen riflemen, a bugler, and the honor guard. It was a very moving sight. The band played “Soul of My Savior,” “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name,” “God of Our Fathers,” and “America.”

What is honor? The full etymology of the word is debated. But what seems most likely is that it comes from the Latin word honos, which, though translated as “honor,” also points to the word “onus,” which means “weight” or refers to something that is heavy. Hence, to “honor” someone is to appreciate the weight, significance, or burden of something he has done. It is to acknowledge that he carried a great burden well, that he withstood a heavy load, that what he did was weighty, significant.
Our soldiers, police officers, and first responders are deserving of our honor, for they put their lives on the line so that others can live, be more free, and experience abundance. None of us can fail to appreciate the burdensome weight that many carry so that we can live well, freely, and comfortably. Freedom is not free; it is costly. Jesus says, Greater love has no man than he would lay down his life for his friends (Jn 15:13).
War remains controversial (as it should). But soldiers do not create the politics or injustice they are sent to address. They are simply told that there is a danger to be addressed, an injustice to be ended, and so they go. Private First Class Arthur Richardson went north during the Korean War. He did not return to us. But he carried well the great weight of being a solider. He also carried the weight of our collective human sinfulness (which is what brings war) and felt its burden keenly. He gave his life.
It was a privilege for me to render honor and prayers for his sacrifice. I did so not only as a priest, but also as a citizen of the United States. That day in 2014, both Church and State gave due honor to our brother. We recognized the honos, the onus, the weightiness of his sacrifice and the burden he carried. We rendered thanks to him and buried him at last in a place of great honor, where the weight of human struggle and honor is visible in the 400,000 white tombstones standing like silent sentinels whispering, “Honor, honor to those who have carried the burden of our struggles.”
Honorable Private First Class Arthur Richardson (Bronze Star and Purple Heart awardee), rest in peace.
And to all soldiers who gave the ultimate sacrifice we render due thanks, reverence and honor this Memorial Day of 2020

To fallen soldiers let us sing,
Where no rockets fly nor bullets wing,
Our broken brothers let us bring
To the Mansions of the Lord

No more weeping,
No more fight,
No prayers pleading through the night,
Just Divine embrace,
Eternal light,
In the Mansions of the Lord

Where no mothers cry
And no children weep,
We shall stand and guard
Though the angels sleep,
Oh, through the ages safely keep
The Mansions of the Lord

Do You Fear the Right Thing? A Meditation on the Story of Chicken Little

In the wake of the COVID-19 explosion of fear, we do well to begin reflecting on fear. Fear is a complex passion. On the one hand, there are things that we ought to fear such as grave physical and spiritual dangers. The fear of being near the edge of a cliff might well save our life. The fear of serious sin and the punishment we might experience or the offense to God (who loves us) is both appropriate and holy. Sadly, more people lack this holy fear rooted in the possible loss of what is most precious to us: our eternal life with God.

There are also things we fear that we should not, and things that we fear more than we should. These sorts of fears are usually rooted in our disordered and inordinate affections.

A disordered affection is a love for something that is sinful. We ought not to love it at all, but we do; this causes us to fear anyone or anything that interferes with accessing and enjoying what is fundamentally sinful.

An inordinate affection is a love for something that is good in itself, but the love we have for it is too great. Loving it too much causes us to fear the loss of it more than we should. Many things in this world are lawful pleasures, but we come to love them too much. We love things more than people, and both things and people more than God. This is all out of order. We are to use things, love people, and worship God. Too often, though, we use people, love things, and forget about God.

There is also the great struggle that many have called the “sin of human respect,” wherein we fear people more than we fear God and seek to please people more than to please God. When we fall prey to this, we are willing to do sinful things in order to ingratiate ourselves to other human beings, fearing and revering them more than we do God.

Fear is a necessary passion for us, but too often our fears are misplaced and inordinate. Our fears are easily manipulated by Satan and the world.

A major area for spiritual growth is knowing what and whom to fear. Apart from God we will seldom get this answer right. We are easy prey for the devil and the world to draw us into all sorts of inordinate and even foolish fears.

Because a story can often have an impact that mere discourse cannot, I would like to illustrate this teaching with a well-known children’s story.

The story is the basis for two phrases in common use. Most are familiar with them, but some have never read (or have forgotten) the story from which they come. The first is “The sky is falling!” and the second is “Chicken Little” (used as a description of a person).

Both these phrases come from the children’s story Chicken Little. It is a story that speaks to the need to be careful about what we fear and what we do not fear. For indeed, one of the traps of Satan is to get us to focus on what we ought not to fear, or on what is secondary, so that we do not focus on what we should fear, or on what is more important. Aristotle, citing Socrates, said that courage is the virtue of knowing what to fear and what not to fear.

Please take the time to read this story completely. It may seem tedious to us modern folks with limited attention spans, but its conclusion is made more powerful by the litany of details. Please share it with your children as well.

Chicken Little was in the woods one day when an acorn fell on her head.
It scared her so much she trembled all over.
She shook so hard, half her feathers fell out.
“Help! Help!” she cried. “The sky is falling! I must go tell the king!”
So she ran in great fright to tell the king.

Along the way she met Henny Penny.
“Where are you going, Chicken Little?” Henny Penny asked.

“Oh, help!” Chicken Little cried. “The sky is falling!”
“How do you know?” asked Henny Penny.
“Oh! I saw it with my own eyes, and heard it with my own ears,
and part of it fell on my head!”
“This is terrible, just terrible!” Henny Penny clucked. “We’d better run.”

So they both ran away as fast as they could. Soon they met Ducky Lucky. “Where are you going, Chicken Little and Henny Penny?” he asked.
“The sky is falling! The sky is falling! We’re going to tell the king!” they cried. “How do you know?” asked Ducky Lucky.
“I saw it with my own eyes, and heard it with my own ears, and part of it fell on my head,” Chicken Little said.
“Oh dear, oh dear!” Ducky Lucky quacked. “We’d better run!” So they all ran down the road as fast as they could.

Soon they met Goosey Loosey waddling along the roadside.
“Hello there, Chicken Little, Henny Penny, and Ducky Lucky,” called Goosey Loosey. “Where are you all going in such a hurry?”
“We’re running for our lives!” cried Chicken Little. “The sky is falling!” clucked Henny Penny. “And we’re running to tell the king!” quacked Ducky Lucky.
“How do you know the sky is falling?” asked Goosey Loosey.
“I saw it with my own eyes, and heard it with my own ears, and part of it fell on my head,” Chicken Little said. “Goodness!” squawked Goosey Loosey. “Then I’d better run with you.”

And they all ran in a great fright across a meadow. Before long they met Turkey Lurkey strutting back and forth. “Hello there, Chicken Little, Henny Penny, Ducky Lucky, and Goosey Loosey,” he called. “Where are you all going in such a hurry?” “Help! Help!” cried Chicken Little. “We’re running for our lives!” clucked Henny Penny. “The sky is falling!” quacked Ducky Lucky. “And we’re running to tell the king!” squawked Goosey Loosey.
“How do you know the sky is falling?” asked Turkey Lurkey.
“I saw it with my own eyes, and heard it with my own ears, and part of it fell on my head,” Chicken Little said. “Oh dear! I always suspected the sky would fall someday,” Turkey Lurkey gobbled. “I’d better run with you.”

So they all ran with all their might, until they met the fox, Foxy Loxy. “Well, well,” said Foxy Loxy. “Where are you rushing on such a fine day?”
“Help! Help!” cried Chicken Little, Henny Penny, Ducky Lucky, Goosey Loosey, and Turkey Lurkey. “It’s not a fine day at all. The sky is falling, and we’re running to tell the king!” “How do you know the sky is falling?” said Foxy Loxy.
“I saw it with my own eyes, and heard it with my own ears, and part of it fell on my head,” Chicken Little said. “I see,” said Foxy Loxy. “Well then, follow me, and I’ll show you the way to the king.”

So Foxy Loxy led Chicken Little, Henny Penny, Ducky Lucky, Goosey Loosey, and Turkey Lurkey across a field and through the woods. He led them straight to his den, and they never saw the king to tell him the sky was falling.

Notice how fearing the wrong thing, and fearing it to excess, blinded them to what was more truly to be feared, what was more truly a threat. Here lies a doorway for the devil. He incites us to fear lesser things like unpopularity, loss of money, poor health, the loss of worldly trinkets, the next election, global warming, persecution, and worldly setbacks, so that we do not fear Judgment Day and the possibility of Hell.

The day of destiny is closing in, but never mind that! The sky is falling: the wrong political party is in power; the planet is overheating; the economy is about to collapse COVID-19 everywhere! You might lose your home to a storm; people might not think you are pretty enough, tall enough, or thin enough. Be afraid; be very afraid! You don’t have time to pray and ask God to get you ready for Judgment Day because you are too busy being afraid that eating food X may cause cancer, or that people may be laughing at you because of the five or ten pounds you gained last Christmas, or that the Yellowstone Caldera may blow at any time.

I will not tell you that the aforementioned concerns have no merit, only that they have less merit than what most people never think about or fear: where they are going to spend eternity. Chicken Little and her friends were easy prey for Foxy Loxy because they were obsessed with lesser things and ignored more dangerous (and obvious in this case) things like a fox!

Yes, “Foxy Loxy” has you worried about smaller and passing things. Now you are easy prey. It will take but a moment for him to lead you astray and have you for dinner!

Make sure you fear the right thing. God has a plan to simplify our lives. We are to fear Him and be sober about getting ready, with His help, for the certain-to-come Day of Judgment. If we fear Him, we don’t need to fear anyone or anything else.

Bishop Robert Barron has observed that the three tallest buildings in Chicago are insurance buildings. Fear “looms large” in our culture, but no insurance company can insure you against the only certain threat you face: Judgment Day. Only God can do that.

The sky may or may not be falling. (Personally, I doubt 80% of the media’s fearmongering.) But Judgment Day surely is looming. Foxy Loxy (Satan) is waiting for you. Will he get you? Will your fear of the Lord help you to avoid falling prey to his deceptions?

 

Five Advent Reflections

I am away in Florida preaching a retreat at Ave Maria University Parish. Below is a text that served as an outline for my first talk. I promised them I would post these notes for reference. I apologize if you may have read this just last year.

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The Following are “Five Advent Reflections”  I have prepared. If these interest you I have prepared them also in PDF format which you can get by clicking here: The Season of Advent

1. Advent is Witnessed by Creation  – Autumn and early winter are times of great seasonal change. The leaves turn brilliant colors then fade and fall. The shadows lengthen as the days grow shorter and colder. The warmth of summer and vacations seem distant memories and we are reminded once again that the things of this world last but a moment and pass away. Even so, we look forward as well. Christmas can be a wonderful time of year. Likewise, the winter ahead has delights. Few can deny the mesmerizing beauty of falling snow and the child-like excitement a winter storm can cause. Advent draws us spiritually into this season of change, of longing and of expectation. As the days grow shorter and the darkness increases we light candles on our Advent wreathes and remember that Jesus is the true light of the world, the light that shines in the darkness. These lit candles also symbolize our on-going commitment to come out of darkness into God’s own marvelous light. (cf 1 Peter 2:9). A Gospel Song says:  Walk in the light, beautiful light, come where the dew-drops of mercy shine bright.

2. Longing for Salvation – Advent also draws us back to our Old Testament roots. Israel was taught by God through the prophets to expect a Messiah from God who would set them free from sin and injustice. Across many centuries there arose a longing and a yearning for this messiah. Sin and injustice had taken a terrible toll and so the cry from Israel went up:

O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at thy presence–as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil…We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one that calls upon thy name, that bestirs himself to take hold of thee; for thou hast hid thy face from us, and hast delivered us into the hand of our iniquities. Yet, O LORD, thou art our Father; we are the clay, and thou art our potter; we are all the work of thy hand. Be not exceedingly angry, O LORD, and remember not iniquity for ever. Behold, consider, we are all thy people. (Is 64:1-7)

In Advent we recall these cries of ancient Israel and make them our own. Surely Christ has already come yet we know that sin and injustice still have their terrible effects in our lives and in our communities. We very much need Jesus to be our Savior and to daily set us free. Advent is a time to acknowledge our need for the saving work of God and to long for the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that God has already begun this saving work in us, now we long for him to bring it to completion. We also await the full manifestation of his glory and this brings us to the second important meaning of Advent. .

3. Waiting  for His Second Coming – Advent is also a time to prepare for the second coming of the Lord. We say in the Creed, He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. This truth flows directly from Scripture which teaches clearly two things on which we must reflect. First, He will come again in glory. Second we cannot know the day or the hour that he will return. In fact, though some signs will precede his coming, the emphasis of Scripture falls upon the suddenness of the event:

  1. He will appear like lightning (Mt 24:27),
  2. with the suddenness of the pangs of child birth (1 Th. 5:3)
  3. in the twinkling of an eye and the sound of a trumpet (1 Cor 15:52).
  4. It will take place when we least expect (Mt 24:44),
  5. Just when everyone is saying, “There is peace and security!” (1 Th. 5:3).

Since this is to be the case we must live lives of readiness for that day. Advent is a time when we especially reflect of the necessity of our readiness. Here too an Old Gospel Song sasy, Ready!? Are you ready? For the coming of the Lord? Likewise, a spiritual counsels, Keep your lamps trimmed and burning. The time is drawing nigh!

4. The Fire Next Time! – Some of the images of the last day, images of judgement and destruction, can seem very frightening indeed. Consider for example this passage from the Second Letter of Peter:

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up. Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of persons ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be kindled and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire! But according to his promise we wait for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Therefore, beloved, since you wait for these, be zealous to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace (2 Pt. 3:10-14).

Some of the imagery used here reminds us of the even more fearsome images of the Book of Revelation! But notice the complete message of this passage and others like it. The heavens and the earth as we know it will pass away but we who are ready look forward with joy to a “new heavens and a new earth” where the justice of God will reside in all its fullness. An African-American Spiritual summarized the teachings of the Second Letter of Peter by these classic lines, God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time. Here too, our first reaction to such phrases might be fear. But in the tradition of the spirituals, this fire was a fire of justice and truth that destroyed the power of injustice and oppression. Another spiritual expresses this, God’s gonna set this world on fire, one of these days Alleluia! [and] I’m gonna sit at the welcome table one of these days Alleluia! For the slaves, the Day of God’s visitation could only be a day of jubilee, a day of vindication and deliverance. And so it will be for us if we are ready. But what does it mean to be ready? To be ready is be living faithfully, holding to God’s unchanging hand in the obedience of faith and trust. To be ready is to be living a holy life and a life of repentance. If we do this we have not only have nothing to fear about the Last Day, we eagerly anticipate it and cry out, “Amen, Come Lord Jesus!” (Rev 22:20).

5. Remember, Repent, Rehearse – All these reflections help to place Advent in proper perspective for us. We are called to remember, repent and rehearse. We remember that Christ has already come and that he has called us to the obedience of faith and promised he will return in glory. We repent of whatever hinders our readiness for that day. And we rehearse for his second coming in glory by anticipating its demands and celebrating the glory that comes to those whom he finds watchful and ready. In a sense every Mass is a dress rehearsal for the glory of the kingdom. At every mass the following prayer is said, Deliver us Lord from every evil and grant us peace in our day. In your mercy, keep us free from sin and protect us from all anxiety, as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our savior, Jesus Christ. This beautiful prayer recalls that it is entirely God’s work that we be ready for his glorious return. Only he can deliver us, free us from our sin and remove anxiety about that day. Only he can give us joy and make us holy. We have but to yield to his saving work.

And this brings us back to where we started, longing and yearning for our savior. To yearn for him is to know how much we need him. To long for him is to constantly seek his face and call upon his name.  Therefore cry out with the Church, “Come Lord Jesus!” For it is written, The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let him who hears say, “Come.” And let him who is thirsty come, let him who desires take the water of life without price… He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! (Rev 22:17, 20)

While Earth Rolls Onward into Light – A Beautiful Meditation on Time from an Old Hymn

My blog is usually posted in the evening at about 21:00 (9:00 PM) U.S. Eastern Time. But in Sydney, Australia, it is 1:00 in the afternoon of the following day. As I prepare for bed, they are eating lunch on a day that has not even begun for me. And proceeding farther west from there, in the Philippines and Japan the afternoon is winding down and the workday is coming to an end!

Time. What could be simpler than for me to look at the clock and say that it is 9:00 PM on Wednesday, February 17th? But on the other hand, what could be more mysterious? Time is a human reckoning of a mysterious passage.

And yet the mystery is also beautiful. At any given time, some people are asleep in the night, while others are at midday. There is a wonderful verse in an old English hymn that says,

The sun that bids us rest is waking
Our brethren ‘neath the western sky,
And hour by hour fresh lips are making
Thy wondrous doings heard on high.

Here are two other beautiful verses from the same hymn:

We thank Thee that thy Church unsleeping,
While earth rolls onward into light,
Through all the world her watch is keeping,
And rests not now by day or night
.

As o’er each continent and island,
The dawn leads on another day,
The voice of prayer is never silent,
nor dies the strain of praise away
.

Magnificent lines! The hymn contains a beautiful and poetic description of the Church: always praising, always sighing, always at worship. Although some are asleep, the praises continue. One of the Psalms says, Let the name of the Lord be praised, both now and forevermore. From the rising of the sun to the going down of the same, the name of the Lord is to be praised. The Lord is exalted over all the nations (Psalm 113:2-4). The praises never end, for the sun is always rising somewhere even as it is setting somewhere else.

Malachi, prophesying the glory of the Mass celebrated worldwide says, My name will be great among the nations, from the rising to the setting of the sun. In every place incense and pure offerings will be brought to my name, because my name will be great among the nations,” says the LORD Almighty (Mal 1:11). At any given time, Mass is surely being offered somewhere on this earth. The Liturgy of the Hours, too, always uttering forth from the lips of the faithful somewhere. Yes, in the mystery of time, this planet of ours is a place of perpetual praise. And our praises join the perpetual praises of Heaven, for as the Liturgy proclaims (in the words of the new translation), And so, Angels and Archangels, with Thrones and Dominions, and with all the host and Powers of heaven, as we sing the hymn of your glory, without end we acclaim: Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of hosts

Yes, the mystery of time and our praises caught up in the ever moving sweep of time. What St. Paul says to us as individuals is fulfilled by the worldwide Church. His advice is so simple and yet so profound. St. Paul says, Pray always (1 Thess 5:17).

Here is a rendition of the entirety of the hymn (The Day Thou Gavest, Lord, is Ended) that was quoted above. The complete lyrics are available here: The Day Thou Gavest.

 

 

Why Children Singing Lennon’s “Imagine” At the Olympics Should Trouble You.

In the Tokyo Olympics opening ceremonies, there was the sad spectacle of a children’s choir singing the John Lennon song, “Imagine.” While some just think of the song as “pretty” the radical atheist/globalist words are a direct attack on things central to the existence of any civilization. Lennon imagines, with approval, a world without God, religion, or country. In effect no piety, no loyalties, and nothing worth dying for. He also dismissed the idea of heaven, hell, and more than implies that religion, faith and God are the source of violence, greed and disunity.

As you will see below, there is strong evidence that John Lennon himself later distanced himself from many of the notions celebrated in the song lyrics.

I wonder if the kids knew how truly empty, dark, unrealistic, and dystopian the world they sang of was. I wonder too, if the organizers of the opening ceremonies understood the irony of singing of world without countries, even as athletes marched in under different flags from different countries prepared to compete.

Here are some of the lyrics of Lennon’s song:

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people living for today

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace

You, you may say
I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one
I hope some day you’ll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions ….etc.

So there it is, a world without faith, religion, Church, Country, piety, patriotism and the free market economy. The song implicitly endorsed atheistic Communism, or at least Socialism in its dream of “no possessions.” Imagine, was perhaps the most secular and radical of popular songs ever written, dripping with contempt, deconstructionist, revolutionary, and reductionist, a Magna Carta for secular humanism, and Communism.

And yet, it would seem John Lennon either disavowed much of the song, or never meant it in the first place. In a 1980 interview given shortly before his death, perhaps his last, he says some remarkable things that indicate a very different John Lennon than the song portrays. The interview (quoted below in a secondary source) seems largely forgotten since Lennon’s murder wholly changed the conversation and froze his image as the “60s radical.” It would seem he was far from that when he died. I am only here quoting a small part of the article, which you can read in its entirety here: Stop Imagining

Here are the pertinent excerpts:

In his definitive song, “Imagine”….[Lennon]  famously dreams of a world with “no possessions.” The mature Lennon explicitly disavowed such naïve sentiments:

I worked for money and I wanted to be rich….What I used to be is guilty about money. … Because I thought money was equated with sin. I don’t know. I think I got over it, because I either have to put up or shut up, you know. If I’m going to be a monk with nothing, do it. Otherwise, if I am going to try and make money, make it. Money itself isn’t the root of all evil.

The man who famously called for imagining a world with “No religion” also jettisoned his anti-theism.

“People got the image I was anti-Christ or anti-religion,” he said. “I’m not at all. I’m a most religious fellow. I’m religious in the sense of admitting there is more to it than meets the eye. I’m certainly not an atheist.”

Even more shocking to the idea of Lennon as a secular leftist, or a deep thinker, the man rejected evolution.

“Nor do I think we came from monkeys, by the way,” he insisted. “That’s another piece of garbage. What the hell’s it based on? We couldn’t’ve come from anything—fish, maybe, but not monkeys. I don’t believe in the evolution of fish to monkeys to men. Why aren’t monkeys changing into men now? It’s absolute garbage.”

……His final interviews make clear he was above all concerned with his family.

“I’m not here for you,” he said, speaking to his fans. “I’m here for me and [Yoko] and the baby.” He revered the institution of marriage, explaining how much it meant to get the state approving his union with Ono. “[R]ituals are important, no matter what we thought as kids. … So nowadays it’s hip not to be married. But I’m not interested in being hip.” [1]

So there it is, the revolutionary, it would seem, either reconsidered, or never fully embraced the radicalism of the song “Imagine.” Elsewhere in the article he is quoted as saying,

“It’s easier to shout ‘Revolution’ and ‘Power to the people’ than it is to look at yourself and try to find out what’s real inside you and what isn’t, when you’re pulling the wool over your own eyes. That’s the hardest one.

I do not hold John Lennon up as anything other than he was, a singer and composer, and quite a good one at that. I personally cannot stand it when we elevate movie stars, and entertainers to the status of cultural and political experts. But given the fact that others do, it is worth noting that one of the icons of the secular humanist movement and the radical left, made something of a journey back to traditional values, family, faith, and personal accountability.

I do not sanction everything Lennon says in the article, I only note the journey he made and claim the hope that Lennon did not die the radical atheist some thought him to be. I pray too others will and are making the journey he apparently did.