Mary in the Liturgy by David W. Fagerberg

As the month of May comes to a close, I wanted to make our readers aware of a small booklet, recently published by David Fagerberg (one of the editors of the blog) entitled, Mary in the Liturgy.  Part of the Deeper Christianity Series of the Catholic Truth Society, the booklet provides an entree into a Marian spirituality, which is intrinsic to the liturgical life of the Church.   Quoting Paul VI’s Marialis Cultus:

The Church’s devotion to the Blessed Virgin is an intrinsic element of Christian worship. The honor which the Church has always and everywhere shown to the Mother of the Lord, from the blessing with which Elizabeth greeted Mary (cf. Lk. 1:42-45) right up to the expressions of praise and petition used today, is a very strong witness to the Church’s norm of prayer and an invitation to become more deeply conscious of her norm of faith. And the converse is likewise true. The Church’s norm of faith requires that her norm of prayer should everywhere blossom forth with regard to the Mother of Christ. Such devotion to the Blessed Virgin is firmly rooted in the revealed word and has solid dogmatic foundations. It is based on the singular dignity of Mary, “Mother of the Son of God, and therefore beloved daughter of the Father and Temple of the Holy Spirit—Mary, who, because of this extraordinary grace, is far greater than any other creature on earth or in heaven.”[119] This devotion takes into account the part she played at decisive moments in the history of the salvation which her Son accomplished, and her holiness, already full at her Immaculate Conception yet increasing all the time as she obeyed the will of the Father and accepted the path of suffering (cf. Lk. 2:34-35, 41-52; Jn. 19:25-27), growing constantly in faith, hope and charity. Devotion to Mary recalls too her mission and the special position she holds within the People of God, of which she is the preeminent member, a shining example and the loving Mother; it recalls her unceasing and efficacious intercession which, although she is assumed into heaven, draws her close to those who ask her help, including those who do not realize that they are her children. It recalls Mary’s glory which ennobles the whole of mankind, as the outstanding phrase of Dante recalls: “You have so ennobled human nature that its very Creator did not disdain to share in it.”[120] Mary, in fact, is one of our race, a true daughter of Eve—though free of that mother’s sin—and truly our sister, who as a poor and humble woman fully shared our lot (#56).   

Fagerberg’s contribution to a Marian spirituality consists of five parts, including

  • Where is Mary in the Liturgy?
  • What is Liturgy?
  • Spiritual Attitudes Belonging to Mary and the Church
  • Mary in the Mass
  • The Church As It Dawns In a Single Person

The heart of this booklet is the unfolding of liturgical virtues, discerned through contemplation of the Virgin Mary.  For in Mary, we come to see what happens when a particular human life is taken up into Christ’s own mystery.   Mary is a liturgical figure, because her humanity, was taken up into Christ’s own mystery.  We are liturgical figures insofar as our humanity is taken up into Christ’s own life.   Mary then is an icon of a spirit oriented toward worship.   As Fagerberg note regarding one of these virtues (attention), “The Word took his human nature from Mary, but Mary was also absorbed by the seed.   The Marian mystery in the Church is the ability to be attentive, to remain open and quiet, amid all the noise; to remain a fertile darkness where believers may be overshadowed by the Holy Spirit” (28).

Other virtues that Fagerberg considers include the Virgin at prayer, the Virgin mother, and the Virgin presenting offerings.

This small booklet would be a nice aid to assist parishes in considering how to retrieve a Marian spirituality, which is fundamentally oriented toward and infused by the liturgy.   Rather than treat Mary as an optional aspect of spirituality, the Church must begin to perceive Mary as an icon of the whole Christian life.   Fagerberg’s small book will undoubtedly help the Church in developing a Marian spirituality, which is authentic to the tradition, but also open to the liturgical renewal of the second Vatican Council.

Silence and Seminary Formation: James Keating in Nova et Vetera

In the most recent edition of Nova et Vetera, Church Life columnist Deacon James Keating writes on the role of silence in seminary formation.  Keating notes

Silence, then, cradles the dawning of truth about oneself and God. Most significantly, silence transports truth to that place within us that ignites and sustains conversion. Silence is the essential medium for union with the Trinity, which provokes a change of heart. As noted above, silence is not emptiness but a fullness of anticipated union, a union fostered by the activity of listening and desire. Silence is filled with rapt listening and eager desire.  Silence reaches its crescendo in the act of self-gift, a quiet handing over of oneself in love. Silence is not the absence of words but the fullness of presence, a presence ordered toward gift.  What we gaze at in silence when we pray, beholding the mystery of Christ, is paradoxically an action, His act of free self-donation (310).

Keating’s article, though written in the context of seminary formation, strikes me as, mutatis mutandi, equally true of formation into full, conscious, and active participation in the liturgy.  If in the liturgy, we are to offer the fullness of our existence to the Father through the Son, it seems pivotal that we enter into the interior silence where we discover our authentic “selves”.  That we cease being distracted by the possibility of a new email, a text message, some communication that takes us away from the central liturgical act.  Liturgical mystagogy, in an age of noise, will not simply be concerned with teaching theological truths or the history of the liturgy–it will teach us to abide in the silence of the Triune God.

Those seeking to read further, may click here to subscribe.  Or you may contact the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy directly for a copy of the article.


The Gift of a Pilgrim Church: A Reflection on Pentecost

Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Editor, Oblation:  Catechesis, Liturgy, and the New Evangelization

Editor, Church Life:  A Journal for the New Evangelization

Contact Author

God is not an efficiency expert.  Case in point:  the existence of the Church.  See, if I was to enact a program for the salvation of the world (presuming, of course that I am God), I wouldn’t use human beings at all.  They tend to mess things up (see the history of the world including wars, death, destruction, junior high classrooms, etc.).  This is not to say that human beings cannot be excellent–after all, God made us in the image and likeness of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit.  But when large groups of human beings get together, things don’t always go so well.  If God was an efficiency expert, or at least willing to hire a consulting firm to assist in the economy of salvation, then I assume that the Church would have to go.  How much easier to “zap” human beings directly with salvation, to avoid all mediation of grace!

Forget bishops, God might say, you can directly report to me.  Forget the sacraments and liturgical prayer, just let me know send you directly what you need.  Forget gathering together with other people (who tend to be annoying, precisely because they have ideas about how the world should be, that are not like yours).  Shut yourself up in a room somewhere alone, and you’ll get what you need.  If you want to gather together, I guess you can.  But, gather with people who think like you, look like you, act like you.  For that’s the only way that you’ll ever come to any agreement on anything.  And also to always get your way.

Happily, God is not an efficiency expert, precisely because the Triune God has chosen to save the world through what appears visibly to be the very fallible institution of the Church.  I’ve been in the Church long enough (30 some years) to have encountered this fallibility.  The bishop who confirmed me, removed from active ministry.  Priests, who have lied and cheated and been less than shining examples of the sacrificial love of Christ.  Fellow lay members of the Body of Christ, who schemed against one another.  Perhaps, we should all follow the advice of that theologian laureate of the state of New York, Mario Cuomo, and say:

If the church were my religion, I would have given it up a long time ago…All the mad and crazy popes we’ve had through history, decapitating the husbands of women they’d taken. All the terrible things the church has done. Christ is my religion, the church is not (Maureen Dowd, “Here Comes Nobody,” The New York Times, May 20, 2012).

Of course, the problem with Cuomo’s remarks (and their explicit endorsement in each column by Maureen Dowd) is that God has chosen to save the world through the Church.  A fact of revelation, requiring faith.  Not because human beings are excellent.  Because the institutions of the Church are intrinsically pure, a fact no one who has studied history could argue.  Rather, as Pentecost reminds us, the Church is the new family of God–called into existence, not because of human effort, but the power of the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit of self-giving love manifested in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ animates the institutions, the sacraments, the whole life of the Church.  This is the invisible reality at the heart of ecclesial life.  As the Catechism notes, “The Church is both visible and spiritual, a hierarchical society and the Mystical Body of Christ.  She is one, yet formed of two components, human and divine.   That is her mystery, which only faith can accept” (CCC 779).  The Church is Jesus Christ’s self-giving love, bestowed for the life of the world.

This, of course, does not mean that the visible institutions may simply continue to delight in scandal.  Rather, as we learn each Pentecost, the invisible reality of the Church, the Church as the body of Christ, should inform and infuse the visible institutions.  We should become our truest identity, the self-giving love of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit.  At Pentecost, the bishop is reminded to bestow himself even more fully to his flock.  The priest is exhorted to become more fully the person of Christ, who he represents in the Eucharistic sacrifice.  The lay faithful are called to their vocation of transfiguring creation through their own self-gift.  Pentecost is not the feast of the triumphal Church.  It is the feast of our pilgrimage, our movement toward a holiness, a love that we have not yet fully expressed, though one day will through the grace of God.

The gift of the Church is precisely that God has not bypassed humanity in our salvation.  Rather, it is our concrete life in this community, in this place, in this time, through which God saves us.  Makes present the sacrificial love of Christ.

  • When the young couple encounters the elderly woman, who has just lost her husband, and promise to pray for her, they express the truest identity of the Church as self-giving love.
  • When the Creed is proclaimed with delight at Mass, when the people of God express their will that I believe is the reality at the heart of existence (a reality they have received, not made up on their own), they acknowledge that the truest identity of the Church is the self-giving love of Christ.
  • When the sign of peace is exchanged before Eucharistic communion, the body of Christ proclaims that God’s intention of gathering together this sometimes scandalous flock is to become his peace, to become the self-giving love of Christ.

The Church is a gift, not because of human ingenuity.  Because it is an efficient way to save the world, a kind of Christ-centered democracy.  Instead, the Church is the school of love, of unity, of holiness, of a true catholicity constantly bestowed by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, who is love.  Only through these human beings, through these sacraments, can I become self-giving love.  It is a mystery.  It is an act of faith.  But for this reason, even in the midst of scandals, of sorrows, it is still God’s own love shared among us.  The existence of the Church is a sacrament, a visible sign that God has more in store for us.  Our imaginations are too limited, too small.  We can become true, self-giving love.  Come Holy Spirit and renew the face of the earth.   O most blessed light, fill Thou the inmost recesses of the hearts of Thy faithful.

So then, as we celebrate the feast of Pentecost, let this second reading from the Office of Readings on the Saturday of the Seventh Week of Easter be the refrain that echoes in our minds and hearts:

Keep this feast, then, as members of the body of Christ.  It will be no empty festival for you if you really live what you are celebrating.  For you are the members of that Church which the Lord acknowledges as his own, being himself acknowledged by her, that same Church which he fills with the Holy Spirit as she spreads throughout the world.   He is like a bridegroom who never loses sight of his own bride…This Church is the house of God, built up of living stones, whose master is almighty God.  It is his delight to dwell here.  Take care, then, that he never has the sorrow of seeing it undermined by schism and collapsing in ruins.

Happy, Happy Friday: Or, Interrupt-ability (May 25, 2012)

Laura McCarty

Notre Dame Alumna, Class of 2011

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PRELUDIO: So in case you need a dose of classy-ness in the glory of FRIDAY (and can’t get ahold of any quiche, pink polo shirts, or Frank Sinatra CDs):

OK, so it’s more important that it’s beautiful (which it is J), but anyhoo, people, HAPPY FRIDAY!!!  HOLA, PEOPLES!!!,

So this week, it’s important to recognize those citizens who contribute the most to the quality of our society as a whole. I am, of course, talking about the people you’re stuck behind at traffic lights who have at least five really quirky, hilarious bumper stickers. When you’re hating the present moment because you’re stuck at the one light that takes 8 minutes to change to the left-turn signal, Conscientious Bumper Sticker Citizen is here to MAKE YOUR DAY. Some of the gems:

-Cover Me: I’m Changing Lanes.

-What if the Hokey Pokey IS What It’s All About?

-Never Do Anything You Wouldn’t Want to Explain to the Paramedics

-I Could Do So Much More If I Only Had Minions

-The Only Solution For Our Economic Recovery Is Chuck Norris Merchandise

-If This Sticker Is Getting Smaller, the Light is Probably Green

-Alcohol and Calculus Don’t Mix. Never Drink and Derive.

-All Those Who Believe in Psychokinesis, Raise My Hand.

-Caution: I Brake For No Apparent Reason.

-Does the Name Pavlov Ring a Bell?

-(And Finally): Enjoy Life: It’s Not a Dress Rehearsal

(I could go on forever, but yall have lives to be getting along with, so we’ll keep moving along ;))

THE HEART OF THE EMAIL: Or, Interrupt-ability

YouTube clip of the week:

(The title of this Heart isn’t about having the ability to interrupt: it’s about how to BE interrupt-able.)

I remember one of my friends telling me about a dentist she met down in Guatemala. This dentist, unless she was in the middle of operating on someone (a pretty good reason to keep going, honestly), would welcome the local children who dropped by to say ‘Hi’ rather than send them away. Children loved her, and they loved her willingness to focus on them and be interrupted for their sake.

C.S. Lewis said that almost every person in the world feels benevolent when nothing in particular is bothering them. And then someone else’s needs barge into our carefully planned day…and that person might not be our best friend or our family. It might be the person who gets on our nerves, who doesn’t treat us well, or who rambles on and on for hours and only stops talking to take a breath.

GRANTED, there are some times where we really DO need to focus on what we’re doing and ask the person if we can talk to them later. And there are also people who really wound us, people with whom a great deal of distance on our part is the healthiest possible response. But it’s more often the case that interruptions annoy us, whether they be from other people or even from God. It’s like someone has intruded onto our SPACE, like we’ve drawn a line down the middle of a room and our little sibling still insists on crossing over into our territory.

We can treat our lives like we have an exclusive right to their ordering, like it is ultimately we who have the utmost claim on our lives. It’s like receiving a loan out of the pure generosity of God’s heart and assuming it as our possession. We all know in our heads that we are not the owner/proprietors of our lives, but that doesn’t always stop us from getting miffed when we’re interrupted or thrown off schedule.

It doesn’t matter if the other person has a legitimate excuse to interrupt us or if they’re just being frivolous or annoying. We still have to choose how we will respond. Our attitude is our responsibility, and even when circumstances are pressing in on us, are we experiencing our world so passively that we’re blown about like a feather by the ups and downs of each day?

When a group of people is well-fed, well-rested, and healthy, it’s reasonable to expect that none of them will be really grumpy. But what happens when they’re bothered, inconvenienced, stressed, or thrown off-balance? We can’t know exactly how a given situation will present itself any more than we know the future, but we can ask God (should that moment arise) for the grace to be gracious. We can ask, as Lewis puts it, for “the daily grace to meet the daily need.” Perhaps other people are not so difficult to get along with in our imagination, but it’s the reality of those other people in our daily lives that ultimately matters.

If we know that we hate being interrupted, it might be a good time to reflect on why we hate that particular offense so deeply. Does God thereby send us reminders that our lives are not our possession? Does He allow inconveniences so that we can know our weakness and His strength? In “The Little Princess”, rich and talented Sara Crewe loses all of her money when her father passes away, and she is forced to become a servant in her boarding school. She says to her friend Ermengarde, “You see, now that trials have come, they have shown that I am not a nice child. I was afraid they would. Perhaps – that is what they were sent for.”

Perhaps that is why God allows us to be interrupted and inconvenienced: so that we can remember Who is the Creator and who is the broken creature He loves.

Friends, I hope each of you have a GLORIOUS day J and I send along, as ever, my



Waiting for Gabriel: Learning to Pray through Infertility

Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Editor, Oblation:  Catechesis, Liturgy, and the New Evangelization

Editor, Church Life:  A Journal for the New Evangelization

Contact Author

“Do you have children?”  For most thirty-somethings, this seemingly harmless question is the opening volley of a round of socially acceptable chit-chat.  Colleagues around the office fill silences with a discussion of recent pregnancies, first communions, and the athletic milestones of their children’s lives.   At the salon or barber shop, the shearing of hair is accompanied by regaling the barber with mundane details of one’s progeny.  “Sally is six, just lost her first tooth, and has begun to wonder about the origins of daisies.”  College reunions become an occasion not simply to reminisce about chemistry class or the bizarre rituals of freshman orientation but to meet the miniature version(s) of the guy down the hall, who used to set up a slip-and-slide on South Quad when the temperature climbed above fifty degrees.

For my wife and I, the question about the quantity and ages of our brood is never an escape valve from awkward social interactions.  It is the primary reactant that produces uncomfortable conversations with strangers and confidants alike.  “No children,” we say, our voices hopefully revealing our discomfort with the question.  Responses generally range from, “Oh, I thought you had a couple,” to “What are you waiting for?”, and an occasional “Oh.”  We smile.  We laugh a bit.  We say, “Maybe, one day.”   But, how can you tell a complete stranger, a trusted teacher, a friendly cleric, a college classmate:  “We’re infertile.”

The Diagnosis and Aftermath

When I was younger, I always wondered why the Scriptures were so concerned with the childless wife.  In the Old Testament, Hannah gives birth to Samuel after years of infertility, and sings, “The barren wife bears seven sons, while the mother of many languishes” (1 Sam. 2:5).  As a theologian, I’m well aware of the function of infertility in the Scriptures.  When the aged Sarah, the elderly Hannah, and the mature Elizabeth gives birth to a child, the reader is invited to remember that God is the major actor in salvation, not human beings.  The surprising reversal of infertility in the Bible is thus a sign of new life coming from death; an action made possible by God, who is the creator and sustainer of human life.  But that part of me, who has spent the last six years, praying for a child each day, cannot help but read Hannah’s song as a cry of relief.  After years of barrenness, loneliness, and tears, finally a child!

Of course, when my wife and I were first married, we did not even imagine the possibility of joining the ranks of Abraham and Sarah, of Elkanah and Hannah, of Elizabeth and Zechariah.  We happened upon each other before our senior year at Notre Dame and fell madly in love.   At the time, I was preparing to enter Moreau Seminary.  After meeting Kara while serving as a mentor-in-faith at Notre Dame Vision (a summer retreat program for high school students on the theme of vocation), I suddenly became aware that I was to spend the rest of my life with this woman.  Our first date was a frenzied session of discernment, asking whether or not I should give up my previously planned life for a girl I met five weeks earlier.  By the end of the date, I came to the conclusion that not only should I date Kara, but before me sat the woman who I would marry.  Happily, she came to a similar conclusion (mutatis mutandi), albeit just a bit later than me.  I chose not to enter the seminary, and a little over a year removed from one of the most angst-ridden first dates of all time, we were engaged to be married.   Like so many couples before us, our nuptials took place at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, and the priest prayed over us, “Bless them with children and help them to be good parents.  May they live to see their children’s children.”  And at our wedding, jokes surfaced about when the first child would be born to this Catholic couple.  We, of course, hoped not long.

In our first year of marriage in Boston, where Kara was a youth minister and I was a doctoral student, we decided it was time to begin a family.   Looking back, we seemed to perceive that having a child would simply happen, once we desired it (of course, we knew the physiology of how such desire would need to be expressed).  So, the desiring commenced.

Month one passed.   Month two passed.  Month three passed.  Six months later, our home became the anti-Nazareth, as we awaited an annunciation that never came.  The hope-filled decision to conceive a child became a bitter task of disheartened waiting.  After a year, we began to see a barrage of infertility specialists, who based upon test results, concluded that we should be able to have a child.  No low sperm counts.  No problem with reproductive systems.  All in working order.  The verdict:  inexplicable infertility.

Unexplained infertility is a surprisingly miserable diagnosis.   Something about my psyche was prepared for a scientific explanation.  One in which the very fine doctors with advanced degrees from Ivy League institutions acknowledged that unless an act of God intervened, no human life would emerge from intercourse between Kara and me.   Indeed, a fair number of tears would have been shed on both of our parts.  But with the diagnosis of unexplained infertility, conception is scientifically possible.  With every slight change in Kara’s monthly cycle, a glimmer of hope rises in our hearts, only to be dashed with the arrival of menstruation.  Kind-hearted family, friends, and colleagues, who learn about our infertility, share stories about a mother or sister, who finally became pregnant.  They recommend “doctors”, who have a proven track record of curing infertility.  But unfortunate for us, we have no way of knowing if we will one day join the ranks of the middle-aged first-time parent.  And every trip to a doctor is a risk, because once again, we start to hope.  Aware now, of course, that hope alone does not fill one’s home with children.

The aftermath of our diagnosis was extraordinarily painful for both of us.  The diagnosis affected not simply our friendships, our own relationship, but particularly our spiritual lives.  If you speak to an infertile couple, committed to the Christian life, you’ll notice a pattern:  the sexual infertility gradually seeps into the life of prayer.  Each morning, I rise and ask God that we might finally have a child.  I encounter only the chilly silence of a seemingly absent God.  Early in the process, I found particular consolation in the language of the psalms:  “My God, my God why have you abandoned me?  Why so far from my call for help, from my cries of anguish?  My God, I call by day, but you do not answer; by night, but I have no relief” (Ps. 22:2-3).  Like the psalmist, I had my enemies.  The well-intentioned barber who stated that the future grandparents must be anxious to get a grandchild out of us.  The friendly priest, who upon learning that my wife and I in fact do not have children, made it a point to say each time he saw me, “No children, right?”  The Facebook feed filled with announcements of pregnancies and births, a constant sign of our own empty nest.  God himself became my nemesis:  why have you duped me O Lord?  Why us?  We have bestowed some aspect of our lives to you, more than many in the world, and our only reward is pain and suffering.

Such self-pity, while pleasant enough for a time, is both exhausting and a sure way to end up not only infertile but a narcissist.  You begin to imagine that yours is the only life full of disappointmentYours the only existence defined by sorrow.  You close off from relationships with other people, particularly those with children, as a way of protecting yourself from debilitating sorrow.  You cease praying, because the words you utter grow vapid, insipid, uninspiring.  In this way, I entered into Sheol, hell itself, cut off from the land of the living.  Something had to change.

Infertility as School of Prayer

How did I find myself out of this hell?  First, I had to learn to give myself over to a reality beyond my own control.  Human life is filled with any number of things that happen to us, despite our desires.  We apply to the college of our dreams, only to receive a rejection letter, not because we are inadmissible; but because a fellow student is brilliant and receives what might have been “our” spot.  We are diagnosed with illnesses, to which we are genetically predisposed.   Our family, despite how much we love them, falls apart because of fighting among siblings over how to handle the remaining years of a parent’s life.  We die.  In some sense, the beginning of true Christian faith is trusting that even in such moments, God abides with us.  And the God who continues to bring life out of death invites us to offer our sorrow, our woundedness as an act of love.  As Teilhard de Chardin writes in his The Divine Milieu:

Christ has conquered death, not only by suppressing its evil effects, but by reversing its sting.   By virtue of Christ’s rising again, nothing any longer kills inevitably but everything is capable of becoming the blessed touch of the divine hands, the blessed influence of the will of God upon our lives.  However marred by our faults, or however desperate in its circumstances, our position may be, we can, by a total re-ordering, completely correct the world that surrounds us, and resume our lives in a favorable sense.   For those loving God, all things are converted into good.

For me, praying the psalms was the beginning of this conversion toward the good.  In slowly returning to the psalms in the Liturgy of the Hours, I learned that in uttering these mutilated words from a wounded heart, my voice became Christ’s.  My suffering, my sorrow, has been whispered into the ear of the Father for all time.  The echo of my words in an empty room called my heart back to authentic prayer.  I used short phrases from psalms throughout the day, whenever I was tempted to enter into self-pity, to call myself back toward openness to the Father.  The psalms became for me the grammar of my broken speech to God, a way to express a sorrow where words failed to suffice.

Second, I also began to meditate upon the crucifix in silence whenever I entered a church.  Such silent meditation became essential to prayer, for by gazing at the crucifix for long periods, I discovered how God’s very silence in prayer was stretching me out toward a more authentic love.  Meditation, as the Catechism notes, is a quest whereby “the mind seeks to understand the why and how of the Christian life, in order to adhere and respond to what the Lord is asking” (2705).  Has God caused our infertility?  No?  But, have we been called to it?  Based upon the six years of infertility, perhaps that is indeed our calling.  In contemplating the silence of the cross, the image of Christ stretched out in love, I could feel my own will stretched out gradually to exist in harmony with the Father’s.  To accept the cup that we have been given.  And as my will was stretched out, I found new capacities for love available to me.  A new awareness that the “calling” of infertility has made me aware of the lonely, the vulnerable, the needy, and allowed me to perceive the true gift of a human life.  My meditation upon the image of the cross gave me the strength to go forward with the process of adoption; it sustains me as we continue to wait for a child; a child, who may need more love than we can ever give, more care than we can imagine; to enter into the suffering of the widow, the immigrant, the lonely, who also comes to Mass with a heart deeply wounded.

Third, in my formation into prayer through the sorrow of infertility, I have grown in appreciation for the silence and half-sentences of God.  The Catechism comments regarding contemplation or silence, “It is a gaze of faith fixed on Jesus, an attentiveness to the Word of God, a silent love.  It achieves real union with Christ to the extent that it makes us share in his mystery” (2724).  In fact, words often still hurt too much to utter; I at times have no energy to utter in prayer; all I have left is an imitation of the very silence I hear in response to my petitions.  Through entering into God’s own silence, I find my own bitter silence transformed into one of trust, of hope, of a kind of “infused knowledge” of God’s love that I have come to savor, to taste, to experience during this growth in prayer.  At times, this silence results in a gift of exhilarating bliss, as if for a moment I have totally united to God.  Sometimes, it is a restful silence in which I hear no speech.  I savor such moments–because only here, do I receive the balm for the sorrow, which so often floods my soul throughout the day.

Lastly, our infertility has slowly led me to a deeper appreciation of the Eucharistic quality of the Christian life.  For years, I talked with far too much ease about the “sacrifice of the Mass.”  Of the Eucharistic vocation of the Christian.  How all of our lives must become an offering, a gift to the Father through the Son in the unity of the Holy Spirit.  Until I came to know the sorrow of infertility, these words were mere straw, to reference Thomas Aquinas, the Eucharistic poetic par excellence.

True self-gift is hard.   It’s hard to give yourself away to a God, who doesn’t seem to listen to your prayers.  It’s hard to wait for a child that may never come, to prepare your home with the proper furniture for what seems at times as a pipe dream.  It’s hard to love your spouse, as deeply as you desire to, when you’re distracted by the phantasms of sorrow that have become your dearest friend.  It’s hard to muster a smile when your friends announce that they will be having another child.  It’s just hard.

At these moments, I don’t know what else to do but to seek union with Christ himself.  To enter more deeply into the Eucharistic logic of the Church, where self-preservation is transformed into self-gift.  And the Eucharist continues to teach me that I can’t do it myself.  I can’t climb out of the sorrow, the sadness, the misery.  I can’t fix it all.  But, I can give it away.  I can offer it up.  I can slowly enter into the Eucharistic life of the Church, learning to become what I receive.   To become vulnerable, self-giving love even in the midst of sorrow.  Knowing, of course, that in the Resurrection such love has conquered death.  Where senses fail, faith alone suffices.  

For, it turns out we weren’t married that we could experience the joy of having children.  We were married that our lives might become an offering of love for the world.   To our nieces.  To our nephews.  To our friends.   To a child, yet to be born, but who we hope to one day welcome.  To a child, who has suffered more from neglect, whether accidental or purposeful, than we do from the absence of a child.  Our infertility isn’t about us.  It’s about what how God can transform even our sorrow into joy; how even in the shadow of this very real cross, the light shines in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it.

This then is the drama of a life of prayer.  I have come to know God’s grace even in the midst of this misery, this vale of tears.  It has not healed the sorrow, washed it away.  Indeed, there remain moments in which we are awakened to the extraordinary pain caused by this infertility.  Christmas is a dreadful holiday, a reminder of the dearth of stockings hanging from our hearth.   Infant baptism in the parish, of which Kara coordinates, can release a flood of sadness seemingly inappropriate to the festive occasion of a parish celebrating new life in Christ.  The images of ultrasounds on Facebook announcing child two and three among our friends remind us again that the only images we have to share is a picture of a new wood floor we might install in our home (of course, the wood flooring will be exceptional!).  The wound remains and can be opened at a moment’s notice.  But prayer has given it a shape, a reason, a participation in God’s very life.  That even through this suffering, the Word desires to become flesh in my life through a prayerful obedience to the will of a God, who I can’t quite comprehend.


Sometimes, I allow myself to daydream either about one day getting a phone call from our adoption agency or receiving news that Kara is pregnant.  This moment would undoubtedly be the happiest of my life, full of a grace that human words would express only in a stutter at best.  Marilynne Robinson gets close in her novel Gilead.  The protagonist of the novel, John Ames, finds himself married and with a child in the latter years of his life.   His death close at hand, he writes to his child:

I’d never have believed I’d see a wife of mine doting on a child of mine.  It still amazes me every time I think of it.  I’m writing this in part to tell you that if you ever wonder what you’ve done in your life, and everyone does wonder sooner or later, you have been God’s grace to me, a miracle, something more than a miracle (Gilead, 52).

Of course, such a moment may never come.   Nothing in a human life is promised.   It’s why learning to pray through infertility has been akin to learning to see the possibility of grace, never the guarantee.  Otherwise, would such moments be grace, a total gift, in the first place?  So we stand waiting for Gabriel.  Learning to hear the angel’s voice in new ways.   In time spent with our nephew and niece.  In time spent with one another.   In marveling at the wonder of children not our own.  In learning to give ourselves away, not because we want to join the community of parents, but because there are those who desperately need our love, perhaps for but a month.

And the more I enter into prayer, the more I see that in these grace-filled moments, Gabriel has already come.

Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum—Let it be done to me according to your word.  


Upcoming Series: The Liturgical Theology of Benedict XVI


Sorry about the delay in publishing as of late.  The end of the semester proved to be more monstrous than we could imagine.  That being said, school is over, so now Oblation will be publishing again far more regularly.  We’ll begin later this week with a series on the liturgical theology of Benedict XVI, designed to lead us up to the feast of Corpus Christi on June 7 (in the United States).

Thanks for your patience.  Looking forward to a summer of publishing.

Inklings of a New Evangelization: The Beacons Are Lit

Miriam Marston

Assistant Director of Theology Programs, Theological Institute for the New Evangelization

St. John’s Seminary, Boston, MA

Contact Author

“If you are who God intended you to be, you will set the world on fire.”

I have never been able to watch the above clip without thinking of this powerful quote from St. Catherine of Siena.  And I cannot think of any better way to start discussing the New Evangelization than with the image of these solitary bonfires, announcing, one after the other, the urgent appeal from a city in desperate need of aid.  For what is evangelization if it is not one long, magnificent succession of hearts being set ablaze with the love of Christ?  What is evangelization if it does not reach out to the darkest and most remote places of the world, where twinkling stars afford the only friendly company, in order to testify to the brilliant light of the Gospel as a glorious reality and a remedy against all of our ills?

Because Peter Jackson’s cinematic interpretation was so masterfully done, I would like to reflect on a few relevant points from this clip: first, we watch Pippin carefully scaling a stone tower.  The young hobbit has been entrusted with the critical task of lighting the city’s beacon, to call for help against the advancing armies of the enemy.  Without Pippin’s actions, the city of Minas Tirith would be left to stand alone against the great evil proceeding from Mordor.  He takes a risk, and the danger he confronts, which include the possible repercussions from a few angry tower guards, is a reminder that evangelization can have rather perilous – and unpopular – beginnings.

For not everyone is a fan of Pippin’s bravery.  Denethor, the ruler of Gondor, has already given himself over to despair, and is determined to see that the entire ship go down with him, in his piteous desolation.  His sense of bitter hopelessness contrasts sharply with the words that Gandalf utters, as Pippin completes his task:

Hope is kindled.

These three words make up most of the dialogue in this short clip.  Now, in the original text, Tolkien actually gives Gandalf the line “war is kindled”, but the script writers must have thought that referring to hope might keep things a little more on the cheerful side (after all, the film has plenty of darker moments which remain faithful to Tolkien’s manuscript…the author might forgive this modest transgression).  And indeed, hope will be all that is left to cling to.  Minas Tirith is a city of men that has fallen into ruin, and its days of glory are consigned to memory and song.   Are we so far removed from this depiction of bleakness?  Do we not sometimes look around us and wonder if our culture is not, in fact, suffering from a similar kind of disrepair?   Yet out of this muddled state of affairs, a call comes forth – a call to new evangelization.  Jesus told the first disciples that it was no good hiding under a bushel basket, and it’s no different today; we must stand as beacons of light before the walls of our world, and do our best to announce the Good News.  It will not do to elude the perilous paths that very likely await us; Tolkien was quite clear that the road to Resurrection can only pass through Calvary.  As I just mentioned above, even Pippin’s little adventure in lighting the beacon shows us that much.  But hope has been kindled!  We are invited to stand at the ready, like the guardians of each beacon, who devote their lives to waiting for a sign from their fellow sentinels (seriously, what else would they be doing in such remote locations, if it were not for decisive moments such as these?)

Still, in the end, we mustn’t forget what fire really is.  Pippin shows us as much when he fails to hide his surprise and anxiety at the sudden burst of flame that he has just started.  Fire is not to be trifled with.  It gives off light, yes, but it is terrifically hot and dangerous.  It will gut a building, if it’s not properly contained.  And the fire of the Holy Spirit will raze a human soul if it is allowed.  In the best possible sense, of course; the Spirit will find all the old, heavy assumptions and habits that clutch at our hearts, and set fire to them, creating something – and someone – New.

And what of the expression on Aragorn’s face at the end of the scene?  He sits in wait, wondering what news will come from afar.  He probably expects the worst, if the journey so far has been any indication.  No doubt, from time to time, we have experienced an outlook akin to his.  But then, he sees the fire!  And something like disbelief mixed with relief is etched upon his weary visage.  Word has come from over the mountains, and, even in the midst of uncertainty, he knows that he is not alone, and will not fight this battle on his own.  One of the most common (and successful) strategies of the enemy is to prod us with gloomy feelings which convince us of our own isolation.  “Yes, yes,” we might ponder, “it’s all very well that I possess these impressive convictions, but what use does it all serve anyway?  Not very much, not when I am so outnumbered…”  And then the temptation to retreat into a self-imposed exile or an ivory tower looms before us.  But even the smallest flicker of the Gospel’s light, which we can recognize from afar – in a true word, in a beautiful musical note, in a genuine smile — can bring our hope leaping back to life.

Although I will include videos and photos, I will not be offering a running commentary on the films.  Rather, these brief excursions into the works of Tolkien and Lewis will explore the landscape of thought and imagery that they present, and will propose means of connecting the vitality of their works – their sub-creation — and the dynamism of the evangelical mission of the Church.  This series will not follow any strict chronology (e.g. a methodical assessment and theological treatment of each consecutive book in either the Lord of the Rings or Narnia).  In fact, I will include some of their lesser known works and personal correspondence in order to arrive at an even clearer sense of the ideas driving their popular stories.  By examining their work more closely in this manner, I hope (with their help) to offer intelligent, creative and faithful responses to a number of ideologies and philosophies which are currently “in the market” as competitive alternatives to Christianity.  While it is true that both Tolkien and Lewis lived long before Pope John Paul II proclaimed the need for a revitalized sense of Catholic mission and formation, I would venture to say that the two Oxford authors already had distinct inklings of a new evangelization on the horizon.

For more on C.S. Lewis and the new evangelization, see David Fagerberg’s article in Church Life:  A Journal for the New Evangelization (Spring 2012).

Church Life: A Journal for the New Evangelization (Spring 2012)–Theological Imagination and Evangelization


Here is the most recent edition of Church Life:  A Journal for the New Evangelization.  The theme for this issue is the theological imagination and evangelization.  Columns by Larry Cunningham, Christian Smith, Fr. Virgil Elizondo, and more!  Also, articles by John Cavadini, Msgr. Michael Heintz, Colleen Moore, David Fagerberg, and Lenny DeLorenzo.   Enjoy!

Church Life:  A Journal for the New Evangelization (Spring 2012)

Memorial Service for Cody Unterseher: Rev. Maxwell Johnson’s Homily

Maxwell Johnson, Ph.D.

University of Notre Dame

Professor of Liturgical Studies

Contact Author

On May 2, 2012, the University of Notre Dame Department of Theology held a memorial service for Cody Unterseher, a doctoral candidate in liturgical studies and a frequent contributor to Liturgical Press’ blog PrayTell .  The homily was given by Maxwell Johnson, who would have been Cody’s dissertation director.  Fr. Michael Driscoll presided.   

We all thought, hoped, and prayed that Cody would be coming back to us; perhaps with limited peripheral vision but coming back, indeed.  But it was not to be.  Cody’s tragic, untimely, and unexpected death at age 36, makes concrete for us in a particular way that what we, as a community of scholars, study, teach, and learn, truly matters.  A former teacher of mine – Gabriele Winkler – once said: “We must become fully permeated with Liturgy in the very depths of our beings.” No one I know has better exemplified this permeation with Liturgy than Cody.  As contributors to the Blog, Pray Tell, where Cody had some 74 entries, wrote in recent tribute to him:  He had “scholarly insight, pastoral sensitivity, humor in the face of the ridiculous, and sheer joy for the liturgy.“  “ He showed us the value of ecumenism and that we aren’t as far apart as we sometimes think.   He loved the liturgy and brought joy to his work, always.”  And liturgical scholar Rita Ferrone said of him, “The knowledge and expertise he had he also shared gladly, performing prodigies of labor for friends and mentors and for his beloved parish.  Cody felt himself to have a mission–a mission of reconciliation. Not only did he encourage mutual appreciation as our “resident Episcopalian” (as he once termed himself here), but he also rejoiced whenever he could be an instrument of peace between factions in the so-called ‘liturgy wars.”

Cody was indeed permeated with the Liturgy, its history, its ritual diversity, its theology,
texts, contexts, and spirit.  In the hospital over the days before his death, his mother read to him from the Gospel of John, the Didache, and the modern Eucharistic prayers of the Roman (from the 1998 translation I’m sure) and other Rites, during which he indicated his recognition and approval by a squeeze of the hand.  Because he was permeated with Liturgy, Cody had been rehearsing for the moment of his death since the day of his baptism into Christ’s Paschal Mystery many years ago.  For, indeed, as St. Paul tells us, “we have been buried with Christ by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.  For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”

This Paschal pattern of life, this living out of our plunge into the dying and rising of Christ becomes the daily rhythm of life, the heart beat, the daily memento mori that Cody also knew as a Benedictine Oblate of Assumption Abbey in Richardton, North Dakota.   And because of this Cody knew that his death was not the end but a stage in the journey of his life.

For, as Mark Searle (+1992) reminded many of us years ago in words written in his own funeral worship folder:  If…we were to learn from the celebration of the paschal mystery to surrender our lives totally to God in Christ, the death of the Christian would be but the further and final rehearsal of a pattern learnt in life and practiced over and over again in a lifetime of liturgical participation….[F]or those who have learnt from the prayers and rituals of the Christian liturgy how to let go of all that we cling to to save ourselves from the void, the final surrender of death will be a familiar and joyous sacrifice.[1]

To be permeated with Liturgy as Cody was, is also to be filled with a decidedly Eucharistic vision of the future of the Church when all would be one and, indeed, of the reign of God itself.  Our first reading captures that vision so well:  “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.”  A liturgiologist’s view of heaven if there ever was one, where the Good Shepherd prepares the banquet table and the cups of wine are overflowing and abundant; the wedding at Cana with the good wines served last.”  No heavenly harps played on floating clouds, but a banquet, a celebration, a feast “where the LORD God will wipe away tears from all faces,” that feast fore-tasted at every Eucharist and now enjoyed by Cody at the banquet table in heaven.

Like parents and children, teachers are not supposed to have their students die before them.  Young friends and colleagues are not supposed to have their friends die, especially when they are together preparing for bright and promising futures in which death seems so far away, so distant, especially when candidacy exams had been passed and a dissertation proposal already approved.  Cody’s death at age 36, makes concrete for us in a particular way that what we do, as a community of scholars truly matters.  “I am the resurrection and the life,” says Jesus, “those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”  Yes, what we do as a community of scholars truly matters.  But more than this, as Sister Mary Catherine Hilkert said to me when we learned the news of Cody’s death, “all this stuff we do, is also true.”  And it is especially true for Cody!  May his memory be eternal.


[1]Mark Searle, “Editorial,” Assembly 5:5 (March 1979), as printed in the worship folder for his Funeral Mass, August, 1992.