Consider a five year old child who, though physically the size of a five year old, had not yet learned to talk or walk, who could only lay in his crib and who ate no solid food, only mother’s milk. Most of us would consider this a great tragedy. It would be a case of arrested development. And surely, as he failed to pass expected milestones and make the usual progress in maturity, his parents would consult doctors and experts in an anxious search for the cause of the problem and a cure. No one would fail to see the problem or shrug it off.

Now, compare the response above to the usual response to arrested development in the spiritual order.

Consider a young adult, say 25, who had gone on to physical maturity, and even earned a college degree. Perhaps he has just landed a job in a cutting edge field and is both technically smart and talented. But, despite being a highly trained expert in his secular field, his spiritual development is arrested and he has progressed little since second grade. In some ways he has even gone backward since, in second grade, he still knew his Act of Contrition and the Hail Mary.

Now, though thank God, he still goes to Mass, he is incapable of expressing much of anything about his faith. He knows there is a God and has heard about Jesus but does not know for sure if Jesus is God, he thinks so but he’s not sure. He is aware of the Bible’s existence but cannot name all four Gospels and would not even be sure exactly where to find them in the book. He’d eventually find them but it would take a lot of time. Names like Adam, Eve, Noah, Abraham, Joseph, David, Peter, Judas, et al., sound familiar to him, but he cannot tell you much about them, except that they are in the Bible. He has heard the word sacrament but cannot give an example of one and is not sure he’s received them or if that is just something priests and nuns get. Every now and then he thinks to pray but he really does not know what to say or how to do it. Sometimes he remembers a prayer from Mass, but when he tries to say it, he gets stuck since there aren’t other people around him saying it and helping him along. He DOES know the Our Father though! We have to give him that.

Now, mind you, this is a smart guy, he has a lot of knowledge in his field which is highly technical. A lot of people seek him for technical advice and he is a real problem solver in the corporation, keeping the computers and other critical peripherals updated and in good functioning order. But spiritually he is an infant.

The interesting question is, why did his parents and parishioners not experience alarm as they noted arrested spiritual development in him? As he began to go from second grade to third and forth, not only did NOT progress, but he actually got worse. Why did his parents not sound an alarm? Why did the pastor and catechists not experience shock that he seemed to show no progress in the Spiritual life? As his age drew him into high school, not only did his knowledge of the faith not increase but his moral life now began to slide. Soon his language grew bad, he resented authority, was looking at porn on the Internet. His parents were irritated by this, but not really alarmed enough to intensify his recourse to the sacraments or augment his spiritual training. Spiritually he was frozen in time. But no one seemed to notice or care.

But, by God, when almost failed a math course his parents went into action and hired a tutor! After all, this might threaten his getting into a good college! But his failure to grow spiritually never much fazed them. When he went to college they drove up with him, looked at the dorms, met a few of his teachers and attended orientation sessions for new students. But they never thought to meet the College Chaplain or ever to ask who would be spiritually teaching or pastoring their son. You know, that sort of stuff doesn’t really occur to you to ask about.

Well, you get the picture:

  1. It starts, really, with low expectations. Most people don’t really expect that they should grow much in their faith. Advanced knowledge and deep prayer are for priests and nuns. Too many lay people just don’t expect much, and thus are not alarmed when they and their kids know next to nothing about the faith.
  2. Further, the faith is sort of a side issue to many. What really matters is that you study hard to get a career that will unlike the American Dream. Never mind that worldly things don’t last, or that it’s pointless and harmful to climb the ladder of success when it is leaning up against the wrong wall. We’ll think about all that tomorrow. For now just keep pursuing your dreams.
  3. Finally the sense that faith really matters at all is muted today when many have an unbiblical view that almost everyone goes to heaven. This removes any motivation to grow in the faith or be serious about living it in a counter-cultural way. To put it in a worldly way: why work hard or seek to develop yourself when the paycheck has already been deposited, and you’ll get paid no matter what, and can never lose your job?

Scripture – So here we are with a lot Christians who have a very bad case of arrested development. Scripture says:

  1. We have much to say….but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil (Hebrews 5:11-14)
  2. Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. (1 Cor 3:1-2)
  3. Brothers, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults. (1 Cor 14:20)
  4. My people are fools; they do not know me. They are senseless children; they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil; they know not how to do good.” (Jer 4:22)
  5. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. (1 Cor 13:11)
  6. It was [the Lord] who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. (Eph 4:11-15)

So then, Scripture is clear that the normal Christian life is

  • To be constantly growing in our faith.
  • To go from mother’s milk (of elementary doctrines) to the solid food of more advanced understanding.
  • To go from being young students to mature teachers.
  • To exhibit mature knowledge of the faith and also a behavior that bespeaks mature Christianity.
  • To go from being worldly in our priorities to being spiritual.
  • To be able to aptly distinguish false doctrine from true doctrine.
  • To show forth a stability of life and not be easily carried away by all the latest trends and ephemeral fads.

Yes, this is the normal Christian life. Maturity pertains to the human person in general and it certainly ought to pertain to men and women of faith. I pray you who read this blog are well along this path and are seeking to grow. I presume it, in fact.

But many are not Maturing. And I wonder if enough of us in the Church today see this as the horrifically strange and tragic phenomenon that it is. It is really far stranger and far more tragic than a five year old still lying in a crib, speechless and on mother’s milk. It is vastly more serious than the high schooler who is failing math and needs a tutor. To fail math may impact college and a career, but these are passing consequences. To fail in faith impacts eternity, not just for me but others.

Why are we so serious about passing worldly threats and not so about threats that have eternal consequences? In the end arrested spiritual development is by far the most serious of all developmental issues. A parent may give their child every good thing, but if they do not ensure the gift of strong and mature faith, they have given their children nothing but sand slipping thorough their fingers.

Only what you do for Christ will last. Pray God we get our priorities straight and make sure we ourselves and everyone grows up in the Lord. It is true that we must accept the Kingdom of God like a little child in order to enter it. But this text refers to our dependance not our ignorance. God made us to know him and to fail in this way is to miss the whole point and dignity of our life.

 

In daily Mass for the past number of days we’ve been reading from the books of Nehemiah and Ezra. These books deal with the return of the Jewish people from the Babylonian captivity.

Most modern-day Christians have only a passing knowledge of these aspects of ancient Jewish history and these events may seem to have little to say to us. But in fact, they speak quite powerfully of very important human struggles today. Thus, a review of these historical events seems in order, as well as an application of them to our life and struggles today.

To begin, the Jewish people, as descendants of Abraham, received the promise of a Land to call their own. This Holy and Promised Land, in the region of Palestine, was shown to Abraham, and his descendants dwelt there briefly.

However, due to famine, Abraham’s grandson Jacob, and his 12 sons moved to Egypt. Thankfully, one of Jacob’s sons, Joseph, going on ahead to Egypt had become the Prime Minister of Pharaoh. So Jacob and his sons were warmly welcomed there, even if Joseph’s presence there had been due to the devilish means of his brothers.

And yet, sadly, there was a Pharaoh that arose who knew not Joseph (Ex 1:8), and in short order, the people of Israel were enslaved for over 400 years in Egypt! The Holy and Promised Land now seemed a distant, even a cruel memory.

But God, with strong hand and outstretched arm, through Moses and Joshua did finally lead them into the land of promise. And, as they entered there, God warned them sternly as detailed in the book of Deuteronomy, that the blessings would be theirs in abundance, but if they did not keep the Law, many curses would come upon them.

Sadly, as we know, the Law was not kept. It is the human condition, we rebel even when we are warned. And though prophet after prophet warned Israel and Judah to repent, the repentance was not forthcoming.

Thus, in 721 BC the Assyrians laid waste the whole of the northern Kingdom of Israel and ten of the Tribes were swept away, the so-called “Ten lost Tribes of Israel.” Judah in the south along with the Levites alone remained.

And in Judah too, after a brief period of reform, the people descended into sinful disregard of God’s Law again. After many warnings from the prophets, the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem in 587 BC, along with the Temple. They carried off the survivors of that war to live in exile in Babylon.

As they were led there, they sang this song, and swore a kind of vow: If I ever forget you Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! (Psalm 137).

While in Babylon (modern-day Iraq) Prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah instructed the people that they would tarry there for about 80 years, but they should not forget the Lord! They should still live according to his ways and remember that he would one day lead them back to their land.

In an almost miraculous turn of events, within eighty years, the Persians defeated the Babylonians, and God inspired Cyrus, the King of the Persians, not only to allow the Jewish people to return to their Land, but he even offered a sum of money to help them in rebuilding!

But many of the Jewish people had begun to set down roots in Babylon. Some became successful there, indeed many. And thus, many of the people who heard this news that they could return to the Land of blessing and promise, were not all that thrilled by it.

The Holy Land, was, for most of them, either a distant memory, or a place they had never been to in the first place. Many had become very accustomed to Babylon thinking, “Sure, it’s a little hot here in the summer, but I own a nice little jewelry shop on the corner Tigris and Euphrates Avenues…My kid is the captain of the basketball team at Babylon U. Why should I go to all the trouble of journeying some 500 miles across the desert, to go to a ruined land, no matter how promised or holy?… I’ve got it pretty good here.”

And, so many of the descendants of those who sang, “If I ever forget you Jerusalem, let my right hand wither…” did indeed forget Jerusalem! And note this, the Land that was now available to them was not just any land, it was Holy Land! It was a place of promise and a place of God’s blessings.

For most of us modern Westerners, Land is simply something own, perhaps for a time. And when it is no longer useful, we sell it. But in the ancient world land was sacred, and the Holy Land for the Jewish people, was the most sacred of all. The refusal to return to the Sacred and Promised Land is spiritually very significant.

Nevertheless, most preferred to stay in Babylon. Only a small remnant, with Ezra & Nehemiah made the journey and began the work of rebuilding.

And in all of this, is a kind of paradigm, a kind of moral lesson for us. For, it is too easy for us to prefer the “Babylon” of this world to the Holy and Promised Land of Heaven. Somehow, we perceive, (and rightly so) that the journey to Heaven is not an easy one, requiring some sacrifices and the forsaking of the things of this world.

For many of us the journey can seem too hard, just too much trouble, and so we give way to sloth. Instead of being joyful at what God offers, we are sorrowful, even averse to it; thinking it all too much trouble.

Just as most of the people in Babylon had never really seen the promised land, only heard of it, so too for us. For many, heaven seems theoretical and distant, and instead of trusting that it is a glorious goal, the place of our greatest blessings, we choose rather to throw in our lot with this world, and its current blessings.

So instead of joyfully setting out on a journey, however arduous, we wonder what is on TV tonight, and we continue to set our roots in the “Babylon” of this world.

Here’s a moral tale about sloth, which is sorrow, sadness or aversion at the good things that God is offering because we think of them as simply “too much trouble.”

Only a small remnant of the ancient Jews returned to the Holy Land. And maybe this is what the Lord was thinking when he said that the road to destruction was wide and many followed it, and the road to salvation was narrow, difficult and a way that few found.

There is a beautiful song that says “I want to make heaven my home.” And in this, there is a kind of prayer that we ought to say, wherein we ask the Lord to make firm our decision and conviction to set out for heaven and not look back.

The Babylon of this world will continue to entice us, and we need to be sober at the remnant theology evident in the fact that most never returned to the Holy Land. And we must be sober at the sad remark of the Lord that only a few really want heaven.

So pray every day for the joy and zeal that are the virtues opposed to sloth.

Indeed, these ancient historical events, seemingly up obscure too many moderns, do in fact have a lot to teach us.

What will it be? The Babylon of this world, or the Holy Land of heaven? you decide.

Catholics have often endured the charge that we are an unbiblical Church. Strange accusation, really, for the Church that collected the Scriptures, determined the canon of Scripture and preached it for 1,500 years before there ever was a Protestant denomination. The fact is we are quite biblical and often in ways that are stunningly powerful.

For the Church, the Scriptures are more than merely ink spots on a page. The Scriptures are manifest and proclaimed in how we live, how we are organized hierarchically, our sacraments, our liturgy and even in our buildings.

Long before most people could read, the Church was preaching the Gospel. And to do so, she used the very structure of her buildings to preach. Many of our older builds are a sermon in stone and stained glass.

The Scriptures come alive in our art, statues, paintings, and majestic stained glass windows that soar along the walls of our Churches like jewels of light. Even the height and shape of our older churches preach the word. The height draws our sights up to heaven as if to say, Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, seek the things that are above where Christ is seated at God’s right hand (Col 3:1). And the shape of most of our older churches is the shape of a cross. As if to say, May I never glory in anything, save the Cross of my Lord Jesus Christ (Gal 6:14).

My own Parish Church is a sermon in stone and wood and glass. It is designed around the Book of Revelation, Chapters 4 and 5 in which John is caught up into heaven and describes it in detail. The fundamental design of the sanctuary drawn from Revelation 4 and 5 includes the throne-like altar (Rev 4:2), seven tall candles around the throne (Rev 4:5), the four living creatures in the clerestory windows above the altar (Rev 4:6-8). At the center of the altar is the tabernacle wherein dwells the Lamb once slain who lives forever, Jesus (Rev 5:6). Around the throne (altar) are seated the twenty-four elders (Rev. 4:4) symbolized by the 12 wooden pillars on the back sanctuary wall and the 12 stained glass windows of the Apostles in the transept windows. The multitude of angels who surround the throne (Rev 5:11) are symbolized by the blue and gold diamonds on the apse wall.

I have assembled pictures of these details along with the scripture texts from Revelation in the following PDF document: Holy Comforter Church in Washington DC and the Book of Revelation

In effect the builders of my Church (built in 1939) were saying, when you walk into this church, you have entered heaven. Indeed, it is a replica of the heavenly vision of John. And when we celebrate the liturgy it is more than a replica for we are taken up to heaven in every Mass where we join countless angels and saints around the heavenly altar. There we worship God with them. We don’t have to wait for some rapture, we go there in every Mass.

But there is more! For what John saw in heaven is none other than what God had prescribed to Moses. Moses was told quite explicitly by God how to construct the ancient sanctuary, the tent of Meeting in the desert. The layout, materials and elements are all carefully described.

And, having given these details God says, Now have them make a sanctuary for me, and I will dwell among them. Make this tabernacle and all its furnishings exactly like the pattern I will show you. (Exodus 25:8-9) And again God later says, See that you make them according to the pattern shown you on the mountain (Ex 25:40). And yet again God repeats: “Set up the tabernacle according to the plan shown you on the mountain (Ex 26:40).

The Book of Hebrews, commenting on this pattern says why God insists on the following of the pattern so exactly: They serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven. (Heb 8:5). In other words, the Ancient Temple was a replica, or a pattern really of the heavenly sanctuary.

Most older Catholic Churches maintain the basic pattern of what Moses was shown. Note this diagram, comparing the layout of the sanctuary in my parish church, Holy Comforter St Cyprian (HCSC) with the layout temple:

In the photo just below, you can see the remarkable similarity more visually. The pattern is even etched on the floor of my church which echoes a detail about the layout of the temple that Ezekiel described:

So there were four tables on one side of the gateway [of the sanctuary] and four on the other–eight tables in all–on which the sacrifices were slaughtered. (Ez 40:41)

Here below (on the left) is a depiction of the setup of the Tent of Meeting as it was when the people were still in the desert, next to a picture of my parish church sanctuary showing the remarkable similarity:

Note the way the scroll work on the floor of my parish (right) matches the four tables on either side in the sanctuary where the animals were slaughtered. The fiery square and horned altar in the photo of the temple (left) is represented by the horned square on the floor of my church (right). In the photo on the left of the ancient sanctuary, the holy place, and the holy of holies towers in the back, as does the high altar and tabernacle in my parish church on the right.

Simply put, the builders of my parish church remarkably depict the ancient temple and also the vision of heaven in the book of Revelation. This is what Church building should do: exemplify the heavenly sanctuary, a plan which God himself gave. Sadly, modern architecture has departed from the plan significantly. But in recent years, there has been something of a return, a trend for which we can only be grateful.

The Catholic Church is surely a biblical Church. My very building shouts the Word! We Catholics preach the word not only with ink and speech, but also in stone, wood, glass, liturgy and the arts, all to the glory of God.

Here is a video of some of the details of my parish.

One of the more frequent concerns expressed by many Catholics is level of talking and other noise in churches in recent decades. Many of us who are a bit older remember a time when to walk even into a rather full Church was to walk into a realm of great silence. People just didn’t talk in church. One would enter, find their pew, genuflect, and then kneel for private prayer before Mass began. When Mass concluded, one might kneel for a brief while for prayer, but then leave quietly, not talking until in the vestibule or outside the church.  Even most masses were all but whispered by the priest. I even remember as a child that in the examination of conscience we used, “talking in church” was listed among the sins to be confessed.

Obviously, in most parishes, the days of strict silence are all but gone. The change is not just in churches, but to some extent is in the wider culture as well. I remember also as a child, rather strict ushers going up and down the aisles of movie houses enforcing silence. When one entered the courtroom, one was expected to maintain silence. And even in more formal concert settings, like at the Kennedy Center, one would often see signs as you entered the concert hall: “Silence.”

Most  of this is gone now both in the Church, and in our modern culture, so dominated by informality at almost every level. Americans are almost never formal, almost never dress-up, nor do we observe most other formalities we used to, like silence. So our loud churches, bespeak both cultural and ecclesial trends.

Legitimately, many Catholics ask if there are to be no limits. As sound levels after Mass reach “cafeteria- like” proportions, many ask their pastors to please make announcements, and somehow enforce silence before and after mass.

Generally, most requests go unheeded,  leading many Catholics to bemoan the lack of clerical leadership or the enforcement of any discipline within the Church. Such complaints are not wholly out of line, and these are in fact the days when clerical leadership is often lacking in many areas.

However, the lack of enforced silence may not be in fact simply a lack of leadership. Many pastors seek to balance competing and legitimate goods when it comes to the matter of silence in churches. Perhaps it is good to review a few of the competing issues, all good in themselves, that seem to hang in the balance when it comes to this question. Let’s look at them one by one.

1. Koinonia - In Acts 2:42 are described the four pillars of the Catholic life: They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. And hence we note a very Catholic vision of the life of the early Christians. There is devotion (not a mere dabbling) in the Apostolic teaching which includes both Scripture and Tradition. There is the “breaking of the bread” i.e. the Eucharist and, by extension, the whole of the sacramental life. There is prayer, both private and public, devotional and liturgical. Finally there is “fellowship.” The Greek word here is κοινωνίᾳ (koinonia), a word that is a noun referring literally to “what is shared in.” By extension it means: contributory help, participation, communion, or spiritual fellowship.

While the expression and experience of koinonia has varied over the centuries, it remains one of the four pillars of the Christian life as denoted in Acts 2:42. And while it is true, as we have commented here before, that there are many excessive flourishes justified in the the name of “community,” the solution to the modern problem of a self enclosed, self-referential, and anthropocentric expression of “community” is not to banish the concept, but to balance it.

And while strict silence in churches may have its appeal, there are legitimate concerns raised by enforcing it today as we shall see, since it may be in tension with legitimate concerns for the communal nature of Sunday Mass. Hence, point two.

2. The church as a place of prayer. Other things being equal, one of the first things one associates the church building with is prayer! And thus, one rightly expects the church building to be a place that in fact does encourage and foster prayer.

However, there are different types of prayer. There is public, liturgical prayer, and there is private devotional prayer.

As a general rule, especially on Sunday and other designated Mass times, the parish church is not a private chapel, but rather, is first and foremost a place of public prayer where the faithful gather as a group. The church is usually large, to accommodate numerous people, and it has pews or benches (not usually personal chairs and kneelers), where people, sitting in groups, with their clergy orient ;-) themselves in such a way as to foster the communal worship of God.

And while there are often separate shrines and chapel areas, the main purpose of the church is together a large number of people together, so that they may worship and praise God together. Sunday morning, especially, is it time for communal, rather than private prayer. And though private devotional prayer is essential and required for every Catholic, that is not the main focus of Sunday morning or of the main nave of the church.

To be avoided is an attitude which might say something like, “I go to church on Sunday to pray to God, not to be bothered by other people.” No, Sunday morning is a day of communal prayer to God. Even in relatively quiet parishes, there are going to be crying babies, the sound of shuffling feet, coughs and sneezes, and any number of things.

One of the concerns therefore the pastors face in fielding request to enforce stricter silence is that the concept of community as we saw in point one, and communal prayer is an important value to inculcate and balance with which the concept of strict silence. Frankly koinonia, is in some tension with strict silence among the faithful. People who are together tend to talk, at least at certain moments, such as greeting one another.

Keeping the church with an atmosphere conducive to private prayer, while a good value, is not the first and most essential focus of Sunday morning in the Catholic Parish. Rather, it is to provide an atmosphere conducive to the gathering of God’s people, so that they may together turn their worship and praise to Him. This will necessarily involve noise, setting up, some announcements, directions, the singing of  hymns and prayers etc.

3. The presence of the Most Blessed Sacrament - It is a frequently given reason that the presence of the Lord in the Tabernacle should command a silent reverence from us. And historically this response was widespread.

However, some also argue that Jesus enjoyed company, and attended many parties, sometimes with a rather rough and unrefined crowd. And hence, we can also exhibit some interaction in church and that this would not necessarily displease him.

There is a humorous story told to me once on retreat wherein:

A young Italian couple went to their parish priest and said that they were poor and could not afford to rent a hall. Might they use the parish courtyard for a brief reception after the wedding? The Pastor graciously agreed.

But on the day of the wedding heavy rains made the use of the courtyard impossible. So the request was made if perchance they could use the back of the church, just for a “brief” reception. They promised to keep the noise down and only drink “a little” wine. The pastor reluctantly agreed.

But, as is often the case, the wine flowed in abundance and the volume increased. The wine flowed some more, and the volume went up some more! 

The pastor was now fuming in the sacristy and about to go and thrown them out went his neighboring priest and friend came by. He inquired as to the anger of the pastor who replied,  “Listen to all the noise they are making, and in the house of God, Don Camillo! And they are drinking much wine!” “Ah, but Father, they are a poor couple and it is raining. They had to use your church. Besides, Jesus went to loud weddings and made wine in abundance. Surely he understands!”

The pastor responded, “I know that! You don’t need to quote the bible to me! I know Jesus went to loud weddings and I know they drank wine! You don’t need to tell me all that! But there, they did not have the Blessed Sacrament present!

:-) Lots of Christological layers going on in that parable!

And though we ought to avoid behaving in the Church of God in ways that take no notice of the Lord’s presence in the tabernacle, it does not follow that Jesus is offended that the members of his body enjoy the company of one another.

Here again, balance is required between koinoina and devotional prayer that recognizes the presence of the Lord in the Tabernacle in a posture of silent adoration.

4. The nature of human dynamics. When it comes to the level of noise, it is a common experience that noise levels gradually increase, in large human gatherings. As background noise begins to increase, people talk louder in order to be heard. This further increases the overall noise level, and the volume continues to go up and up.

Some years ago in elementary school I remember that the teachers would sometimes put the lights out in the lunch room to call us to silence. We would then asked to be more quiet, and the volume levels the “reset” to a lower level. But gradually, for the reasons stated, they began to go back up again. Off the lights would go again. The rebukes from the teachers were issued, “Talk more quietly!” And things quieted down, but them went back up, the cycle repeated.

Alas, it seems to be the human condition. And, the acoustics of many churches don’t help. Even subdued talking in the back, as ushers greet and instruct the faithful, echoes and create a lot of background volume, causing other people to talk louder etc.

Hence without very strict rules, forbidding all talking, volume levels are going to tend to increase when some modest conversation is allowed. Perhaps in such a settings, the best a pastor can do is to give gentle reminders to the people to speak quieter and less. But even with momentary moderation in the volume of noise in churches, the volume will go up over time for the reasons stated.

5. General cultural shifts and expectations. If, the only real solution is the strict enforcement of silence, this sort of solution tends to run afoul of cultural expectations, when it comes to parish life today. Like it or not, there is an expectation that parish communities should be places where people are welcomed, and where there is a “warm, friendly and courteous” atmosphere.

We’ve already discussed that there are cultural shifts in America involved here. And while many of us who are older may remember a time when things were more disciplined or orderly, from our perspective, those days are now largely gone.

Most pastors do not want their parish church to be identified as a place where people are harshly rebuked, and warned to avoid any conversation or human interaction that might make noise. And while some might praise a certain parish church for its quiet reverence, most pastors are aware that the current culture tends to favor a more casual, open, “warm and friendly” setting.

And while some who read this may lament this fact, it is  hard to deny that this is the kind of culture we largely have today.

However, it seems very legitimate to suggest that things are currently out of balance in this regard. But to ask one pastor, or parish to take on the whole culture in this regard may not always be realistic, and pastors do legitimately struggle how to find ways to keep the noise levels lower, without offending against notions of community today.

5. The role of certain specific cultural settings. Many of us, who come from a Northern European cultural stock, often identify silence with reverence, and reverence with silence. For us, it is a no-brainer.

But for people from many other cultures, the identification of silence with reverence is not so obvious. In the African-American community, (to include also Africans of Caribbean and Continental origin), warmth and hospitality are very important and intertwine with reverence. Lively praise and worship are also considered a high form of reverence.

The idea of sitting silently in the church, with a rather serious look on one’s face, seems somewhat irreverent in such settings. God is to be praised joyfully. My neighbor is to be greeted. To be reverent is to celebrate, to be overtly joyful. In settings like this, the European expression of reverence often seems to be “sour-faced Saints” or perhaps the expression of one who has recently suffered the death of a loved one.

The general understanding of reverence in these settings is that God is worthy of our highest and most joyful praise.

Further, in the Black churches the thought of entering and not greeting your fellow parishioners seems strange. As a general rule African American culture is more extroverted and has thus embraced the current cultural trends to be more effusive in the house of the Lord.

I know less of Latino culture, but there seem to be similar experiences there.

Say what you will about which approach might be best, but the fact is there are very different cultural experiences at work in what we call reverence. This is not just another form of relativism, for relativism regards matters of truth. That God is to be revered cannot be set aside. But how this is expressed does vary. Some do so by quiet solemnity. Others by joyful exuberance.

Both sorts of reverence are spoken of in the Bible. At times, Jewish and early Christian worship are described there as rather noisy affairs. At other times there are references to bent knees and bowed heads.

Thus, when there are requests that “Father do something about all the talking and noise” many pastors are conflicted. There IS a value to preserving greater quiet in our parish churches, especially before Mass, and encouraging prayer. But cultural trends and differences do exist and they are not all bad.

Koinonia is a pillar of Church life. Helping Catholics to meet and forge relationships in Christ is to be encouraged. One might wish that this took place outside the church building, but practically, inside is when most of the people are together and seek each other out.

And the conversation isn’t all frivolous. There are concerns expressed, and significant news shared. There are prayer requests and invitations made to important gatherings and meetings in the parish etc. And yes, there is also banter of a less edifying sort.

Perhaps the best that Pastors can do to remind the faithful occasionally to balance the virtue of fellowship with the respect for the fact that there is also a place for private prayer after, and especially before Mass. Silence is more reasonably expected when entering the Mass. After Mass it is just going to be more difficult to expect it in most places, given culture and the legitimate need for communal fellowship.

I suspect there will be strong opinions in the combox. I will largely refrain from interjecting much to give you all the chance. I DO ask for you to consider mutual charity, whatever your preference. There are legitimate concerns for the volume of noise in most parishes. But there are also other things in the balance. This is what I mean by the title “Pastoral perspectives” At least consider this much, that Pastors have a lot on their minds when it comes to taking a stand on this issue.  There are many legitimate things they must balance. Please avoid vitriol, ridicule and adding more heat than light. Amor suprema lex.

The Lord Jesus gives a penetrating analysis of the state of the sinner and some very sobering advice to we would-be saints in today’s Gospel. Let’s look at the Gospel in two stages: The Analysis of the Sinner and the Advice to the Saints.

I. ANALYSIS OF THE SINNER - The Lord Jesus describes a sinful steward in the opening lines of this gospel. Let’s look at the description:

A. DELUSION (of the sinner)- Jesus said to his disciples, “A rich man had a steward – Notice he is called a steward not an owner. God is the owner of everything, we are but stewards. A steward must deal with the goods of another according to the will of the owner. This is our state. We may have private ownership in relation to one another. But before God we own nothing, absolutely nothing.

Part of the essence of sin is to behave as though we were the owner. We develop an arrogant attitude that what I have is really mine to do with as I please. We think, “It’s mine, I can do what I want with it…..I call the shots…..I can do as I please with my own body….” and so forth. But the fact is everything belongs to God.

Scripture affirms, The earth is the LORD’S, and the fullness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein (Ps. 24:1). Even of our bodies which we like to think of as ours, Scripture says: You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body (1 Cor 6:19). And old song says, “God and God alone created all these things we call our own. From the mighty to the small, the glory in them all is God’s and God’s alone….” So the Lord defines the sinner as a steward, though the steward acts as if he were an owner.

B. DISSIPATION (of the sinner) - who was reported to him for squandering his property. The Lord here describes the essence of many of our sins: that we dissipate, we squander the gifts of God. We waste the gifts we have received and using them for sinful ends.

For example in greed we hoard the gifts he given us to help others. Instead of helping, we store them up only for ourselves. Yet all the goods of the world belong to all the people of the world and they ought to shared to the extent that we have excess.

Other examples of squandering the things of God are in gossip, lying and cursing wherein we misuse the gift of speech; in laziness wherein we misuse the gift of time; in all sin wherein we abuse and squander our freedom. This is dissipation, this is the squandering of God’s goods.

God has given us many good things, and instead of using them to build the Kingdom, we squander them and dissipate the kingdom.

C. DEATH (of the sinner) He summoned him and said, ‘What is this I hear about you? Prepare a full account of your stewardship, because you can no longer be my steward.’ – Here the Lord teaches and reminds us that someday we will all be called to account and our stewardship will end. Elsewhere scripture reminds us So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body (2 Cor 5:9 ).

We have an appointed time to exercise our stewardship but our stewardship will end and the books will be opened. Here too Scripture reminds: And books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. (Rev 20:11)

While it is true that many pay little heed to the fact of judgement Scripture warns Say not, “I have sinned, yet what has befallen me? For the Lord bids his time. Of forgiveness be not over-confident, adding sin upon sin. Say not, “Great is his mercy, my many sins he will forgive.” For mercy and anger are alike with him; upon the wicked alights his wrath. Delay not your conversion to the Lord, put it not off from day to day. For suddenly his wrath flames forth; at the time of vengeance you will be destroyed (Sirach 5:4).

Every steward (us) will die, our stewardship will end, and we will be called to render an account. It thus follows that we ought to listen to the advice which the Lord next gives.

II. ADVICE TO THE SAINTS- After analyzing the sinner the Lord has some advice for those of us sinners who want to be saints. He gives Four principles we ought to follow:

A. Principle of INTENSITY - The text says,  The steward said to himself, ‘What shall I do, now that my master is taking the position of steward away from me? I am not strong enough to dig and I am ashamed to beg. I know what I shall do so that, when I am removed from the stewardship, they may welcome me into their homes.’ He called in his master’s debtors one by one. To the first he said, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He replied, ‘One hundred measures of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Here is your promissory note. Sit down and quickly write one for fifty.’ Then to another the steward said, ‘And you, how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘One hundred kors of wheat.’ The steward said to him, ‘Here is your promissory note; write one for eighty.’And the master commended that dishonest steward for acting shrewdly. For the children of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. –

The Lord is telling us here many of the worldly are more crafty in what matters to them than the Spiritually minded in what (supposedly) matters to them. The fact is many of us are very intense and organized when it comes to worldly matters. We spend years of preparation in college training for careers. We work hard and are dedicated to climbing the company ladder.

In worldly expertise many are dedicated to developing skills, and becoming incredibly knowledgeable. In earning money and holding a job many display great discipline, getting up early to go to work, working late and hard to please the boss.

But when it comes to faith many of the same people display a third grade knowledge of things spiritual and show little interest in advancing in the faith or of praying. They will please the boss, please man, but not God. Parents will fight for scholarships for their children to get into the best schools. Students will compete for scholarships. But when it comes to saving truth, the pews are empty, Sunday School is badly attended.

To all this, the Lord says to us here that the spiritually minded ought to show the same intensity, organization, dedication and craftiness that the worldly show in their pursuits. We ought to be zealous for the truth, for prayer, for opportunities to sharpen our spiritual skills and increase our holiness. We ought to be as zealous to be rich in grace as we are to be rich in money. So the first principle the Lord gives us is intensity.

B. Principle of INVESTMENT - I tell you, make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings. -

As to what the Lord means by “dishonest wealth”, read here: What does the Lord mean by “Unrighteous Mammon”

The Lord tells of how the dishonest steward made use of the money at his disposal to make friends who would help him in the next stage of his life. How about us? Are we willing to use our money and resources to bless others, especially the poor, who can bless us in the next stage of our life?

On the day of your judgment will the poor and needy be able to speak up on your behalf? Will they be among the angels and saints who welcome you to eternal dwellings? I don’t know about you, but I am going to want the poor to pray and speak to God on my behalf the Day I am judged. Scripture says that the Lord hears the cry of the poor and needy.

In this world the poor need us, but in the next world we are going to need them. In this world those with money and power get heard, in the Kingdom it is the poor and suffering who get heard. It is a wise investment to bless the poor and needy.

In effect the Lord Jesus tells us to be wise in our use of worldly wealth.  Just as the world tells us to take our wealth and invest it wisely so that it will reap future rewards, so the Lord says the same thing. He says, “Use your money wisely. Invest it well.” How? By storing it up it up in up in heaven. How do we do that? By giving it away! Then it will really be yours.

You can’t take it with you but you can send it on ahead. Scripture elaborates this elsewhere: Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life. (1 Tim 6:17) Notice how the passage says that through their generosity here the rich lay up treasure in heaven.

This is the scriptural principle and the great paradox in the Kingdom of God: that we keep something eternally by giving it away. We save our find our life by losing it, we keep out treasure and store it in heaven by giving it away.

So invest my friends, invest wisely! Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. (Matt 6:20)

C. Principle of INCREASEThe person who is trustworthy in very small matters is also trustworthy in great ones; and the person who is dishonest in very small matters is also dishonest in great ones. If, therefore, you are not trustworthy with dishonest wealth, who will trust you with true wealth? If you are not trustworthy with what belongs to another, who will give you what is yours?

What is the “small matter” of which the Lord talks and in which we can prove trustworthy? The small matter is money. We make money the most important thing in life. But Spiritual matters are more important.

Scripture attests to this clearly: The Book of 1st Peter says our faith is more precious than fire-tried gold. The Book of Psalms (19:10) says The words of the Lord are more precious than gold, than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the comb.

So God says let’s see how you are in the small but significant matter of money, then I’ll see if you are able to able to handle bigger blessings. Do you think you can handle heaven and the spiritual blessings of holiness? Well let’s see, if you are trustworthy with worldly wealth, God will give you true wealth. If you’re trustworthy is what belongs to God, he’ll give one day what is yours.

You want more even here? Use well what you’ve already received. Then God will know he can trust you with more. You want increase? A gospel song says: You must faithful over a few things to be ruler over many things. Be faithful unto death, and God will give you a crown of life.

D. Principle of INDIVISIBILITYNo servant can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and mammon.

Pay attention. To serve, means to obey. Most people obey money, affluence and worship the American standard of living before they obey God. They meet their world obligations first and then give God what is left over.

But we are called to obey God alone, to have an undivided heart. The wording here is strong You CANNOT obey the world (money) and think you’re also going to obey God. You have to choose what will be more important.

Now don’t tell me we don’t need a lot of grace and mercy here! Money and the lure of the world is very powerful. It’s to get on our knees and pray for a miracle to prefer God to the world.

This song says, You must faithful in a few things to be ruler over many things. Be faithful unto death, and God will give you a crown of life…. The sung builds to wonderful refrain: Well done good and faithful servant, Well done!

The commercial in the video below has a surprise ending. We are led through a very traditional story line about a child who can’t wait for Christmas. But then comes the twist at the end. You may wish to view it before you read any further commentary by me, lest my comments, give the surprise away.

As I saw the video I was first reminded of the Scripture which saysIt is more blessed to give than to receive. ( Acts 20:34)  And also the scripture that says, God loves a cheerful giver. (2 Cor 9:7)

But there is something more than a cheerful giver illustrated in this video. Indeed, the young boy in the commercial is an urgent giver, a giver who cannot wait to give the gift he has to offer. The days and moments creep by. When will he finally be able to give the gift! And finally the day comes. Finally!

I knew this rang strangely familiar to me. Somehow it spoke of a Biblical theme. And then it hit to me. Yes! This was Jesus on his final journey to Jerusalem, urgent and eager to give us the gift of our salvation, earnest to snatch us from the kingdom of darkness and translate us to the Kingdom of light. Of this almost impatient desire in Him Scripture says:

  • As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. (Luke 9:51)
  • Jesus exclaimed, “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! (Luke 12:49)
  • Jesus said, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified!…“Now my soul is troubled, yet what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour! Father, glorify your name!”….Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (John 12 28-31)

Scripture says that as his Apostles followed him up the road to Jerusalem for his final journey they were “amazed and afraid.” (cf Mk 10:32). Along the way, seeing his determination to go to Jerusalem and fearful of his own predictions he would die, the disciples protested: But Rabbi, a short while ago the Jews there tried to stone you, and yet you are going there? (John 11:8). Finally seeing his determination Thomas, likely in exasperation, said, Let us also go, that we may die with him! (John 11:16).

Yes, Jesus set his face like flint to Jerusalem, eager to give the gift of salvation. What distress, what impatience until he could give the gift! Resolutely he went forth with eagerness.

Think on these things as you watch this video.

The Lord tells a familiar parable and how a certain rich man had a harvest too big for his barns, do built bigger barns. But he dies surrounded by his riches, and the Lord calls him a fool since he thought somehow that his wealth could sustain him for years and did not consider his judgment.

There comes the memorable line that concludes the parable:

Thus will it be for the one who stores up treasure for himself but is not rich in what matters to God.

While this line may invite a post describing at length a list of what matters most to God, I’d like to limit the reflection more on how we are usually most anxious and concerned about what matters far less to God.

The well known passage begins with a man is concerned about money and that he should get some share of the family estate which his brother is withholding. Surely Jesus who cares about justice will side with him!

But the reaction of Jesus indicates a kind of irritation with the nature of the request. In effect he says, “Look, this sort of stuff is small potatoes. You’re all concerned about the wrong thing. You have far bigger issues in your life you ought to be thinking about (like greed, and a host of other sinful drives that will destroy you). These ought to concern you more than money and fair share. I have not come to be a banker, a real estate attorney, a probate judge, or a financial adviser. You need to get your focus and priorities right.”

Here of course is a kind of paradigm (or example) of a common human problem, and that is, that we often get all worked up about the wrong things and pay little attention to things that matter far more. Consider a few examples:

I. In listening to people pray at public gatherings, including myself, it is interesting how most of the prayers (almost 100%) deal with worldly matters. “O Lord, fix my finances, fix my health, fix my spouse, fix this or that situation so I am more comfortable and better situated, help me get a promotion at work.” None of these things are wrong to pray about, but notice the worldly and passing quality of most of it. It is almost as if we were saying to God, “Just make this world a better and comfortable place for me. Give me enough health, friends, money and creature comforts, and that’s all I need, I’ll just stay here forever!” In a way it’s a terrible thing to say to God and surely there are things for which we should ask that matter more to God.

I am sure God waits for the day when we will finally say from our heart, “Lord give me a closer walk with you….help me hunger for your justice, righteousness, truth and holiness. Help me repent of my sins and desire greater holiness. Help me yearn for the day when I can come and live with you and grant me the grace to be prepared to enter your presence. Take away my sinful attachments to this world and make my heart’s truest desire to be You and the joys waiting for me in heaven with you.” I am sure God’s waits for the day, for these are things that matter to God.

In the end, nothing matters more to God than you, yourself, and that you be made ready to be with him forever. Money, who cares? Health? That passes anyway, as does the body, and worldly glories. But the soul? Now here is something that matters particularly to God. But we go one praying for money, health, greater comforts, etc. Not wrong per se, but not the true priority, a priority which is often wholly neglected by us.

II. What then is our greatest problem? Lack of money, health or resources? No! Our greatest problem is our sin. Jesus says, If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better to loose part of your body than to have it all cast into hell (Matt 5:30).

What is Jesus saying? He is saying that it is more serious to sin than to lose your hand, or your eye, or your foot.

Now we don’t think like this. If I were to lose my hand in some terrible accident, I would hate this day for the rest of my life. Indeed, it would be terrible. But why don’t I think this way about my sin? To God my sin is a far greater problem than a financial shortfall, or even bodily loss.

My sin matters to God, because he sees what it does to me, and that it is a far greater danger for me than any other worldly danger or problem. And yet, most of us pay little heed to this and are un-alarmed by it. But we sure know how to hit the panic button if we lose our job or get a diagnosis of cancer.

Our priorities are wrong and we are not rich in what matters to God. That is, we are not rich in repentance, cries for mercy, and a sober understanding of our truest and deepest problem, our sin.

III. And look how we too often raise our children. Almost all the focus is on worldly success. Johnny might know little or nothing about God, the Mass, Scripture or Sacraments, but let Johnny bring home a bad report card, and the reaction is quick. Here is a problem to get to the bottom of, because if Johnny doesn’t get better grades, he might not get into the premier local High School, and then, might not get into the best college, so he can make a killing, (oops, I mean a living).

So, the parents go into action. Perhaps a tutor is hired to help with math etc. Meanwhile Johnny barely knows the Our Father, doesn’t have a clue at Mass, his moral life is heading south, and all he knows about Adam and Eve is that they were “in the Bible or something.” Finally Johnny’s scores are better and he proceeds apace to the finest local High School.

One day his father proudly says to the Catholic pastor,Great news! John has gotten a full scholarship to Princeton.” And the pastor says “Great!” When what he should say to the father is “OK fine. Now let’s find out who is going to preach the gospel to him up there. You know that it will be, (like most college campuses), a moral cesspool of fornication and drinking. So, if we’re not serious about John’s spiritual life, he may go in there, come out a big-wig lawyer, and yet be heading straight for Hell. So what’s the plan for his spiritual welfare and growth?”

But do the pastor or parents really give any thought to this? Usually not.

And so John climbs the ladder of success but it’s leaning up against the the wrong wall.

Too often parents, pastors, families and parishes are not rich in what matters to God. Our children hear that they should study hard, get good grades etc., to make it in this world. Of itself this is not wrong. But their souls are more important, and matter more to God. How well do we teach and equip them to care for the vineyard of their own soul? How does this compare to worldly preparations? And do we conform to what matters more to God?

Well, perhaps this is enough. But the point here is that too often, too many of us are not rich in what matters to God. We too easily resemble the man in the crowd who was asking Jesus, the Savior of the world from sin and hell, about money. A sad demotion of Jesus to be sure, but also highly disclosing of a basic human tendency of caring more about passing worldly things, than eternal lasting things or God himself. Too easily we store up riches for ourselves but are not rich in what matters to God.

Help Lord! We need a new mind, but even more, a new heart.

 

Impatience is a human problem, but we moderns must surely suffer from it more acutely. This is because many of our modern conveniences create the illusion, and to some extent the reality, of instant results. Flip a switch and the lights come on. Instant downloads supply our computers with music, games, software, and almost instant information.

Any delay in this process almost certainly infuriates us. The journey from east to the west coast used to take many months in a wagon train. And now it is accomplished in four to five hours. Despite this marvel, even a 20 minute flight delay infuriates us.

I remember as a child that we would be enticed to buy a certain product, say cereal, by being able to cut off the box tops. And, having saved four of them, I could mail them in to the address, to get a certain die cast or plastic toy, or other promotional product offered by the cereal company. Instructions always said, “Allow 3 to 4 weeks for delivery.” This is almost unthinkable today. What child would spend months eating cereal, clipping boxtops, and then wait 3 to 4 weeks for delivery?!

Yes, patience is a human problem, but it has a certain modern intensity about it. Expectations are premeditated resentments, and we have a lot of expectations about instant results. Thus resentments are always near at hand.

In the spiritual life especially and in personal growth we must learn to slow down to a more human pace, and also the pace of God. To many of us moderns, God is infuriatingly patient and slow. He, and the Church seem to think in terms of centuries, not a 24 hour news cycle.

And He leaves many things unresolved for quite a long time. Where was he when Hitler and Stalin and Mao and any number of unjust rulers were plying their wares? Why does he not thunder from heaven more often, as we sometimes read in the Old Testament?! Why does He not send jagged lightning bolts to destroy sinners from the face of the earth? (are you so sure you would escape?) And when will the Church he founded “get with the program” and start denouncing and excommunicating those who sinfully dissent?

Of course, while there is a place for discipline, even excommunication,  the Lord warned of acting too hastily in the parable of the weeds and the wheat. The impatient field hand zealously wanted to rip out all the weeds, but the owner warned that the wheat might be harmed as well.

Many of us may well wonder what harm could come from wiping out a few sinners from the face of the Earth or expelling a few more heretics. The Lord does not explain why, but simply warns that hasty and severe actions may cause harm even to the wheat.

Yes, we are an impatient lot, no only with others, but also with ourselves. Why, we wonder can we not simply overcome certain sins by sheer force of will? Why are we not instantly more chaste, more generous, more kind, more zealous, simply by deciding to be so!? Why do prayers of deliverance and exorcism not have instant effects? Why does confession not solve sin at once by its grace?

In an instant result society, discouragement is right at hand. And even when we do make progress, suddenly setbacks are at hand. “I was doing so well!” We think.

Most confessors know by experience that perseverance is good and holy, but impatience is devilish. It is especially devilish because it tries to masquerade as piety, saying “You ought to be a saint by now!” But it is really pride. Yes it is pride to think you can go from 0 to 100 and skip all the steps the rest of us poor slobs need to make. Who am I to think I can simply lay hold of holiness by a few decisions? Holiness is far higher than I imagine in my reductive insistence that I ought to be able to lay hold of it in a moment. No, this is a journey, a journey with setbacks, and progress in fits and starts. Frankly even a lifetime may not be enough and purgatory is a likely pit stop for most of us after death.

Why so slow? Because grace builds on nature. And it is our nature to change slowly, almost imperceptibly. When I was an infant I looked nothing like I do today. Frankly my mother was grateful that I did not come forth from the womb at six feet tall and 200 lbs. No, I came forth at six pounds, sickly and dying. I was baptized immediately since I was not expected to survive. But having recovered, I have progressed today to what and who I am. But at no point could my growth be perceived. It was slow, steady, and also marked by setbacks, injury, and also growth spurts.

If this is the case with our bodies, it is also with our soul, which is the form of our body. I have made remarkable spiritual progress in the last thirty years of my life. But day by day, I noticed little change. Yet, by the grace of God I am what I am.

Sudden a rapid growth seldom lasts an is usually called cancer, a deadly disease. Healthy growth is organic, steady, slow, and almost imperceptible.

Impatience is a form of pride and it is not in wisdom that we indulge it. Scripture says,

Write down the revelation and make it plain on tablets so that a herald may run with it. For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay. See, the rash have no integrity; but the just one who is righteous because of faith shall live. (Habakkuk 2:2-4).

Finally some words of reminder and comfort. I am not going to say who wrote these words because I have sometimes discovered that we care more who said something, than what is said. You can Google a phrase and find easily enough who wrote this. But for now let the words themselves have the necessary impact. I have little doubt these words will bless you as they have often blessed me.

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.

We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.

And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability,
and that it may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you;

your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances
acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.

Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.

This video pokes fun at our impatience in modern culture and how it breeds resentment:

In the parlor of my rectory where I meet with most of my spiritual directees, and others who come to me for counseling or instruction, there is a crucifixion scene, (see photo at right).

Among the many things means, it is for me something of a paradigm of the Church at her darkest moment. How tiny the Church had suddenly become. Gone were the crowds of Galilee which followed the Lord. Gone were the crowds of Palm Sunday shouting Hosanna. Gone were all but one of her first bishops, St. John. One of them (St. Peter) had followed at a distance, and then three times denied he knew the Lord, the rest of those first bishops fled to God knows where.

And now the tiny infant Church was gathered around her Lord at the foot of the cross. Yes, there is the Church, so tiny; only St. John, Mother Mary, Mary Magdalene, Mary Clopas, and perhaps one other. So tiny now, so few.

Yet here was one of her greatest moments. The bride of Christ, the Church mystically united to her groom.

And strange,  though even in this reduced and horribly suffering condition of the Church, Satan’s back was being broken, his power undermined. It is almost a Trojan Horse incident. For, even as Satan gloats over his apparent gift, a surprise waits within, a hidden power that will send him reeling.

And small though the Church has become, she will gain two surprising converts that Good Friday: the good thief, and the centurion. Perhaps not a bad day for a Church reduced to five or six: two converts, plus the breaking of the back of Satan’s power.

I often point to the statute in my parlor. For many come to me at times with great struggles, perhaps feeling defeated, or at least discouraged. I point and remind them that, for those with faith, there is something about being in the crucible, something about the cross that is pregnant with victory. Satan still has his incursions, and his apparent victories. But they are only temporary, they cannot stand. His back was broken Good Friday, and not by a large and triumphant Church, but by a tiny and suffering Church, the Church in the crucible, The Church at the foot of the cross with Christ her groom and head.

Many of us who share this blog together, are often dismayed at the condition of the Church today, and even more, the condition of culture. For those of us who are little older, our discouragement is deepened by the fact that many of us can remember a time when things at least seemed to be greater repair. Our families were largely intact, our churches filled, people seemed generally more able to make commitments and keep them…

The list could go on, but you get the point. Things were far from perfect, but things did seem to be more orderly, and the basic fundamentals necessary for culture, civilization and for the Church were more in place.

Yet, our mind should never stray far from that Good Friday afternoon, the Church so reduced, betrayed by most of her members, even her leaders; yet never more powerful.

There have been days of triumph of the Church, only to see collapse! And then, Victory again! The early days were so marked by suffering and martyrdom, and then suddenly the Edict of Constantine and the Church emerged victorious. Resurrection!

And yet, finally set free, Arianism reared its ugly presence and so many other endless fights ensued, perhaps necessary, over basic doctrines of Christology and the Trinity.

And then the sudden loss of the western flank, as the Roman Empire collapsed and moved to the east, as so-called barbarian tribes swept in to what we call Europe today. St. Augustine was so troubled that he wrote the City of God trying to explain how his beloved Roman Empire, finally having embraced the faith would now fall. St. Jerome, depressed, went to live in a cave. The Cross again.

But the Church struck up a conversation with those barbarians, and began to convert them, first in small numbers, then in waves. Resurrection!

And then, just as things seemed to be improving, all of North Africa, the great cradle of the Church, was lost, almost overnight, laid waste and mowed down by the edge of the Muslim sword. There were once 500 bishops in North Africa, some of the greatest Fathers of the Church had lived there: Augustine, Cyprian, Tertullian, Athanasius, and so many others. And now the great North African part of the Church lay beneath the sand. The Muslims made it across Gibraltar and into the Portugal and Spain before they were turned back. All of Asia Minor so beautifully evangelized by St. Paul, was also lost, lost to the Church! The Muslim invaders made it all the way to the gates of modern Vienna before they were turned back. The Cross again.

But now that North Africa was tragically lost, Europe began to flourish as a kind of Christian civilization was built there: Universities were founded, hospitals too, and the great cathedrals rose. Something called the great “Medieval synthesis” took hold. Resurrection!

And then, all of this to begin to erode with the rise of Nominalism and the Cartesian revolution it would eventually usher in. With intellectual confusion, came an epistemological revolution that severed the connection of the mind to reality, ushered in radical doubt, decadence, the rise of the individual autonomous self, and the rejection of any lawful authority within the Church. The revolution that some called the “Reformation” led to a break of unity, and the Church was once again firmly cast to the foot of the cross to search her own soul and begin a counter reformation. Ecclesia semper reformanda (The Church is always being reformed). The cross again.

Yet even as a million people left the Church in Germany in the Lutheran revolt, our Lady ushered in nine million Mexicans at Guadalupe. Resurrection!

Back in Europe, as wars, rebellion and confusion raged the Church was wracked by division, more Protestant revolts, and the hundred years war. A great darkness was gathering there that would lead to the bloodbath known as the 20th Century: two World Wars, bloody ideological revolutions, an iron curtain and an almost complete loss of faith. The lights were going out in Europe.  The Cross!

Yet, even so, faith began to take hold in the New World, And, though early persecuted, waves of immigrants escaping Europe brought the Catholic faith to the United States in numbers too big to ignore. Even though Europe was racked with confusion and doubt, many fled from there and found in America a remarkable synthesis of faith and culture held in tight knot ethic communities built around parish churches….(With healthy persecution besides!)  Resurrection!

But even America could not ultimately withstand the decadence of Europe and its decline in the post Cartesian centuries. America was eventually drawn into two European World Wars, and the poison of modernism reached our shores. And now there seems to be bewildering, almost demonic decline. The cross again!

And, suddenly, Africa is abloom again. There is a 7,000% increase in the number of Catholics in Africa in the last fifty years. Resurrection!

Yes, it would seem that the Church must often find herself back at the cross. Yet even as we are there now in the West, we must never forget that the Cross is pregnant with victory.

Many look to the Church now with ridicule and declare that we are done and defeated. But they have not studied history, nor do they know the power of God, and that the Cross is pregnant with victory.

Even within the Church there are naysayers who point to glory days and, in fear, announce great woe, and seek to assign blame for the current decline. “Things have never been worse,” they declare. But they too have not studied history (things have been far worse) nor do they seem to remember the power of God.

That the Church is at the foot of the Cross in many ways, at least in the West, in hard to deny, but the Cross is pregnant with victory. Just you wait and see!

Ecclessia semper reformanda! Sed Christus Resurrexit tertia die! Semper! Ubique!

These are times when many of the clergy have (properly) insisted on returning to a strict following of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM).These instructions are found in two essential places: the instructions at the beginning of the Sacramentary and the red instructions interspersed within the prayers of the Mass. These last instructions are called the rubrics. Fr. Zuhlsdorf is famous for the simple instruction, “Say the black and do the red.” That is to say, the prayers, written in black ought to be said, just as written, and the red instructions are to be followed exactly. To this I say a hearty “Amen.”

However, I would like to point to a step beyond in the celebration of the Mass wherein we celebrants might also re-learn some old habits that lent grace to the Mass, particularly in terms of the movements of the celebrant. While such suggestions are not strictly required, they can lend a real grace to the actions of the celebrant and to the Mass in general.

Helpful norms – I have learned these things largely by saying the Traditional Latin Mass which described the motions of the celebrant in great detail. However, I have also tired to observe what I can in the Ordinary Form of the Mass as well. If matters such as these are observed, though not in a robotic fashion, there can be a greater grace of movement and a deliberateness that lends to the solemnity of the Mass. Here are a few suggestions from the “old days” that can help:

1. When making the sign of the cross upon himself at the beginning of mass the Celebrant uses his right hand. But his left hand should not be left suspended in the air or dangling. He ought to place it on on his chest, just at the bottom of the breast bone as he makes the sign of the cross with his right hand. When finished his hands should be rejoined in the center.

2. The same is true when blessing the people at the end. The celebrant places his left hand at the bottom of his chest and he blesses the people with his right hand: fingers joined and straight. His right and left motions should reach far enough, to his left and right shoulders. Again, when finished, his hands should join in the center.

3. The hands – In general when the celebrant is standing and his hands are not in use they are joined, fingers straight and thumbs crossed at his breast. When the celebrant is seated, his hands should rest, separated, palms down, one on each thigh, near the knee.

4. When the celebrant moves somewhere in the sanctuary, he ought to turn in that direction, hands joined at the chest, prior to moving in that direction. In general simply stepping laterally to the left or right should be avoided.

5. The bowing of the head – It is appropriate at Mass to bow the head at certain times, such as after the priest says, “Let us pray,” or at the name of Jesus. The simple bow of the head is accomplished entirely by the neck. The shoulders do not lunge and the torso does not move at all. The neck is like a hinge and the bow of the head is accomplished entirely at the neck and above.

6. Turning pages – When the priest is at the altar and turns the page of the missal, he does so (usually) with his left hand, while his right hand rests on the altar, not suspended in the air or dangling.

7. Epiclesis – Likewise when the priest makes the sign of the cross over the bread and wine just prior to the consecration he does so with his right hand, while his left hand rests on the altar, just outside the corporal. The left hand is not dangling in the air etc.

Well this is enough, since most of you are not priests. However, it is always good for the laity to encourage those of us who are priests when you observe reverence. We are human and can become forgetful of things in the Mass. Sometimes too we are not aware of how we come across. So, encourage us when you observe devotion and piety. Some years ago it was called to my attention that I tended to fiddle with my glasses a good bit when at the altar and that sometimes my fingers moved a lot when I was praying the Eucharistic prayer. I was unaware of these things and was (kindly) informed by the deacon.

In the end I have found some of the old “rules” helpful. They need to be done with manner that is not robotic or contrived, otherwise they may come across as affectations.

Perhaps you would like to add to the list or raise some concerns of things you have noticed at Mass. Please remember, be kind and constructive in the observations you make. Also, this need not become a post wherein we battle about forms of the Liturgy either. I am trying to emphasize matters that pertain to both forms of the liturgy.

The following video shows a priest making use of some of what we have discussed here. Notice that he places his left hand on his chest while he confers the blessing with his right hand. Though it is not required in the newer liturgy to do the circular action of “gathering” the blessing, it is not forbidden either and, if done well can add solemnity. Note too how he turns fully before he moves to his right. This is more elegant than simply pealing off to his right.

There is an interesting, albeit at times concerning, article over at Marketwatch.com that reports the simple fact that being a member of a believing community “costs” you something. And while the article is directed to a Jewish context, its implications reach all of us who believe and belong to the Church.

Underlying the article and those it interviews is a not so subtle premise that it is somehow wrong for faith to “cost” much. Never mind that just about anything in life costs something, involves tradeoffs and that the things we value are often where we chose to spend more. Somehow the implication of the article is that faith should be free, or less demanding financially.

Here are few excerpts from the article by Charles Passay with commentary from me in red and more substantial comments. The full article is here: The Financial Cost of Religious Faith

With the onset of Yom Kippur this evening, Jews will begin a day of fasting, prayer and reflection — all key parts of this holiest of holy days on the religion’s calendar. But this Day of Atonement often comes with another ritual of sorts — namely, a pitch from synagogue leaders for contributions….[It] may strike some as distasteful, but it underscores the reality that faith of any kind — Judaism, Christianity, Islam — often has a literal price. Houses of worship solicit donations in order to pay the bills…..

True enough, there are real costs to maintaining buildings and staffs related to houses of worship. But why should it be any more “distasteful” that a house of worship has costs and bills than say, a public school, a local recreation facility or city stadium, such that we are taxed to pay for their upkeep? The simple fact is that things we value have costs that need to be covered, churches are no different except that we are not forced to pay for them like the government does with taxes.

Beyond such fees, various religious practices, from adhering to certain dietary laws to avoiding certain types of investments, also have costs associated with them….The Jewish practice of keeping kosher — that is, adhering to a way of eating in which meats have been butchered and prepared a certain way, among other dietary matters — can translate into a 20% increase in a family’s food costs, according to one study….Some of the faithful say the financial burden has become harder to bear, especially in light of the slumping economy of late.

But again, it also costs money to go to a football game (often a LOT of money). And that money could be spent elsewhere too. But for people who value football, it is (apparently) a price they are willing to pay, along the the “privileges” of standing in long lines, sitting out in the cold rain on some game days, and paying 15 dollars for a tiny beer and hotdog. But people line up for it.

It’s about what people value. If I value my faith I accept that there are going to be some costs and inconveniences associated with it. If I want to keep my beautiful church open and in good repair, I accept that I will be asked to contribute to that, and will not have that money to spend on a movie or something else. If I want to be a true Christian, I am going to be generous to the poor and needy, and that means I can’t spend my money of some other things.

But If I love God, I value what he values and I want to do it. It’s called tradeoffs, and most people make them everyday for things they value. For Jewish people Kosher is important, and like anything important, it has some costs and tradeoffs associated with it. Welcome to life, filled with tradeoffs and with the need to decide what you value most. You can’t have it all, and almost none of it is free.

“I wish it wasn’t so expensive,” says Judy Safern, a Jewish resident of Dallas who runs a strategic consulting firm. In the past couple of years, Safern has cut back on what might be dubbed her “religion budget,” pulling her two children out of a Jewish day school in favor of a public one (a savings of $16,000) and foregoing membership to her local synagogue (a savings of $1,800). Safern’s hope is that she can maintain her faith without emptying her pocketbook. “I refuse to continue to be squeezed,” she adds.

While it is true that all of us might “wish” that things weren’t expensive, insisting on such wishes is not really a sign of maturity. A football fan might wish that the tickets in the nosebleed section behind the pillar weren’t $450 a piece, but (mysteriously) that is what the market will bear and he has to decide to pay it or not, whatever he wishes were not the case.

It is a worthy consideration, as Ms. Safern implies, to ponder if every expense is necessary. But at the end of the day faith does have costs in time, treasure, and tradeoffs. Does she value her faith so as to bear this cost…or not? From her remarks it seems doubtful that she values her faith much, since the “cost” is not worth it.

Regardless of the religion, Safern is far from alone in expressing such sentiments….A 2012 study by the Barna Group, a market research firm, found that 33% of Protestants and 41% of Catholics had reduced their contributions to churches or religious centers because of the economy….. Actually, Barna Group Vice President Clint Jenkin says it may be more than just the economy at play. He argues that a new generation of the faithful sees religion in an entirely different — and decidedly isolationist — way. “Faith is becoming much more something you do privately rather than something at an institution,” he says.

Exactly. Money and other resources are ultimately about what we value and what we do not value. The complaint about cost is not really all that much about money, it is about faith, it is about what we value. Many have devalued faith and decided that it isn’t “worth” much.

And, as the article suggests,  one can try and reinvent the faith into a “private” matter. But at the end of the day it is clear that the driving force behind most theological syncretism and designer religion is not deep faith at all. It is about making faith less demanding, less costly, more convenient, more about “me” and what pleases me.

A few concluding thoughts. At one level, faith need not cost much at all. We could just meet in a local park on Sundays, expect that clergy be volunteer, and that very few implements such as books, bread and wine, candles, etc be used. But of course such an attitude seems foreign to people who value their faith more than that.

Traditionally it has been the instinct of the faithful to honor their belief with substantial buildings, and dignified implements. Further, since the faith is something weighty, the faithful do not simply depend on rookies or volunteer clergy for the most central matters of teaching the faith and leading the faithful in worship and governance. Rather, given the respect due to Holy Faith, clergy are expected by the faithful to be well trained. (I spent five years of post graduate and attained to two Master’s Degrees, then spent almost ten years in the internship of being a vicar rather than a pastor). This is par for the course and, yes, its costs money. But this is the instinct of the faithful.

So, faith, just like everything else we value does cost. And while there are legitimate discussions to be had about whether every cost is necessary, at the end of the day it is going to cost. If you want to find out what people value, find out what they spend their money and time on. In our increasingly secular and faithless world, many (including some believers) lament what faith “costs” even as we spend exorbitantly on many other things.

As I write this, it is a Sunday afternoon and quite literally billions of dollars and millions of hours have been spent today in an obsession known as “football,” a game having to do with the movement of  a bag full of air on a field. Some fans (short for fanatic) spend as much as four to eight hours glued to the screen, or in loud uncomfortable stadiums. Hundreds of dollars are spent on tickets or parties. And yet many of these same people scoff at the “cost” of a Mass that lasts more than an hour, and would, if they went at all, consider themselves generous contributors if they put five or ten dollars in the basket.

Yes, Sunday is a day of great contrast.

What should faith cost? It is clear that the answer to this is for us to decide.

In the end however, the “lament” of the cost of faith reported in the article above is not about the money. It is about faith and what we really value. Everything “costs” it’s just what you decide to spend your money on that reveals what you most value. Do you value the faith? You decide, and you show it by what you are willing to pay. Where a person’s money and time is, there is their heart.

Video: the immigrants to this country were poor. But they combined nickels and dimes to build beautiful churches. Why? I suspect because they valued their faith and thought the cost to be worth it. Here are a couple of videos I put together of their gifts to us:

Crazy! – The three parables of today’s lengthy Gospel challenge our conventional thinking. All three of them are quirky and describe people doing things that we most likely would NOT do. In fact all three of them, especially the first two, seem crazy. Who would ever do what the shepherd of the lost sheep and the woman of the lost coin do? No one, really. Likewise the Father in the Story of the Prodigal Son breaks all the rules of “tough love.” His forgiveness has an almost reckless quality. No father of Jesus’ time would ever tolerate such insolence from his sons. It just wasn’t accepted. So all three of these parables, at one level, are just plain crazy.

But that is one of the most fundamental points Jesus seems to be making here. The Heavenly Father’s love for us is just plain “crazy.” I do not mean it is irrational by using this word, but it does stretch the limits of our human thinking. Neither do I intend irreverence by using the word “crazy.” Permit a preacher’s hyperbole so that we can enter into the astonishing quality of God’s love and mercy. It cannot be understood or really explained in human terms. Who really understands unlimited and unconditional love? Who can really grasp the depths of God’s mercy? His grace is “amazing” in that it goes completely beyond my ability to comprehend. It transcends merely human concepts. Thank God! If God were like us we’d all be in trouble, frankly, we’d all be in Hell.

Let’s look at each Parable. The Gospel texts are too lengthy to reproduce here. But you can read the whole of it here: Luke 15

I. The Parable of the Lost Sheep- The Lord speaks of a shepherd who leaves ninety-nine sheep to search for one who is lost. Would a shepherd likely do this? Probably not! The passage drips with irony, even absurdity. Perhaps if the lost sheep was near at hand he might venture over the next hill. But the average human shepherd would cut his losses and stay with the ninety-nine. Many of us might even consider it irresponsible to leave ninety-nine to search for one.

Some people try and make sense of this parable by appealing to possible shepherding practices of the First Century. And while theories abound, this seems to miss the point that God’s love is extravagant, personal, and puzzling. In the end, it would seem that God loves us for “no good reason.” He seems to love us even “more” when we stray. He intensifies his focus on the one who strays. To us this is not only crazy, it is dangerous, possibly enabling. But don’t try to figure it out. Don’t analyze it too much. Just be astonished, be amazed. Yes, this is crazy. That God loves me is crazy, unexplainable.

II. The Woman and the Lost coin- A woman loses a drachma. It is a small coin. Not worth that much really, perhaps one day’s wages for an agricultural worker. In modern terms less than $100. Not insignificant, but not really huge amount either. She sweeps diligently for it. So far, this seems reasonable. I’d probably look around a while for a missing “Benjamin” ($100 bill).

But then it gets crazy. She finds it and rejoices to such an extent that she spends most, if not all of it, on a party celebrating the found coin! Crazy!

But that is exactly the point. God doesn’t count the cost. He doesn’t weigh his love for us in terms of if it is “worth it.” Some commentators try to explain the craziness away by suggesting that perhaps the coin had sentimental value as part of her dowry or ceremonial head-dress of ten coins. But here too, over analyzing and trying to explain or make sense of it may well miss the point.

This woman is crazy because God is “crazy.” His love for us is extravagant beyond what is humanly reasonable or explainable. Don’t try to figure it out. Don’t analyze too much. Just be astonished, be amazed. Yes, this is crazy. That God loves me is crazy, unexplainable.

III. The Prodigal Son- A young son, entitled by law to a third of the Estate (since he was the younger son) tells his Father to drop dead. He wants his inheritance now and the old man isn’t dying fast enough. Incredibly the father gives it to him!

Crazy! No father in the ancient world would ever tolerate such irreverence and insolence from a son. The Father is a nobleman (land owner) and could hand his son over to serious retribution for such dishonor. The son leaves his father and goes off to “a distant land” where he sinks so low, he ends up looking up to pigs. He comes to his senses, rehearses a speech and returns to his father, hoping only to be a hired worker.

But here’s where it gets even crazier! The Father sees him a long way off (meaning he was looking for him). He does something a nobleman would not do: he runs. Running was considered beneath the dignity of a nobleman since it would imply he was either a slave on an errand or a fugitive running. Further, in order for a person to run in the ancient world, they had first to gird the loins of their garments. Since the garments were long flowing robes they had to be “hiked up.” Otherwise, the legs would get tangled in the garment and the person would trip. But for a nobleman to show his legs was considered an indignity.

Get the picture? This nobleman, this father, is debasing himself, humbling himself. He is running and his legs are showing. This is crazy. Do you know what this son has done? Does he deserve this humble love? No! This father is crazy! -

Exactly! The heavenly Father is “crazy” too. He actually loves me and humbles himself for me. He even sent his own Son for me. Do you and I know what we have done? Do we deserve this? No! It’s crazy.

The second son is also a handful. When he hears of the party for the wayward brother he refuses to enter. Again this is unthinkable in the ancient world for a son to refuse to report when summoned by a father. What does the father do? He comes out and pleads with him!

Again, crazy! Unthinkable. No father in the ancient world would ever permit a son to speak to him in the way this second son spoke. The son basically calls him a slave-driver who issues orders and refuses to enter the party that his father is hosting. He says he’d rather celebrate with his friends than with his father. But (pay attention here), the goal in life is not celebrate with your friends. The goal in life is to celebrate with the Father in heaven.

This father is crazy. He is crazy because God the Father is crazy. Do you know what it is to refuse to do what God says? And yet we do it every time we sin! The heavenly Father should not have to tolerate this. He is God and we are creatures. If he wanted, he could squash us like a bug. But he does not. The father in this parable is almost “dangerously” merciful. Shouldn’t his sons learn a lesson here? Shouldn’t he punish them both for their insolence? Yes, all our human thinking kicks in.

But God is God, not man. There are other scriptures that speak of his punishments. But in the end, none of us get what we really deserve. The point of Jesus here is that God is merciful and his love is crazy. It makes no human sense. His love for us is extravagant beyond what is humanly reasonable or explainable. Don’t try to figure it out. Don’t analyze too much. Just be astonished, be amazed. Yes, this is crazy. That God loves me is crazy, unexplainable.

Crazy!

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And here is a video just because I couldn’t resist: