Here We Are Again

Rick BeckerRichard Becker, RN, MS, MA
Associate Faculty, Bethel College, School of Nursing
Co-Director of Religious Education, St. Matthew Cathedral 

Editors’ note: This post first appeared on God-Haunted Lunatic.

One of my students – a Protestant, like most of my students – told me that she just doesn’t understand Catholic worship and prayer practices. “Like at Mass, when you repeat the same things over and over again,” she remarked. “And like those ladies with the beads who say the same prayers a hundred times. childs-faith-christian-stock-photosIt just doesn’t seem like prayer at all.”

She had a point.

But first things first. I tried to explain that the Rosary, though it seemed like rote recitation, is really a prayer tradition designed to be a biblical gateway to a deeper form of prayer – namely, meditation. By focusing the mind on various scenes from the life of Christ and the life of Mary, the repeated vocal prayers freed up the soul to rise to great spiritual heights. In other words, the object was what the repetitious prayer led to, not the repetitions themselves.

And the liturgy? Sure there’s repetition – just like there was repetition in how Jesus and the Apostles celebrated Passover, following the same rituals Jews had been observing for many generations, and as they still do today. Moreover, it’s not only Catholics who engage in repetition when they worship. For example, the Infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke play a prominent role at Christmas time in every Christian church, regardless of worship style or tradition. And of course the Lord’s Prayer is prayed every Sunday by Christians of all varieties the world over – hardly the stuff of extemporaneous exclamation.

So, repetition of that which is holy and good seems to be a feature common to all Christian spirituality. Oh, sure, there’s plenty room for spontaneity, but only when it is grounded in the solid foundations that liturgy and tradition provide.

Plus there’s this: It’s exhausting to have to make up new prayers all the time, and since liturgy and tradition are rooted in Sacred Scripture, and Sacred Scripture is God’s own Word, it seems sensible to lean heavily on His own source material. Besides, prayers made up on the fly can get pretty tiresome I imagine – very wordy, for example, and, well, repetitive. Jesus Himself seems to confirm this in His preface to the Our Father:

In praying, do not babble like the pagans, who think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them. Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

For me, that last line always calls to mind the frugal prayer style of Grandpa Vanderhof in the Frank Capra classic, you-cant-take-it-with-you-dinner2You Can’t Take It With You. Here’s Grandpa saying grace – a model of prayerful economy:

Well, Sir, here we are again. We’ve been getting along pretty good for quite a while now – we’re certainly much obliged. Remember all we ask is just to go along the way we are, keep our health; as far as anything else is concerned, we leave that up to you. Thank you.

No babbling; no rambling instructions to God regarding what to do, or how to do it; no to-do lists or action plans. Nothing like that. Merely an acknowledgement of Who He is, who we are in relation to Him, and expressions of trust and gratitude.

After all, God is our Father – what more could a father ask for?

Music in Praise of the Real Presence: Pange, lingua, gloriosi corporis mysterium!

A brief remind that the first lecture in our series entitled Wounded by the Gift of Love: A Eucharistic Poetics is coming up this week.

MJenniferBloxamOn Thursday, March 27 at 4:30 PM in Annenberg Auditorium at the Snite Museum of Art, M. Jennifer Bloxam (Professor of Music at Williams College) will be giving her lecture: “Music in Praise of the Real Presence: Pange, lingua, gloriosi corporis mysterium!” This event is made possible by a generous grant from The Institute for Scholarship in the Liberal Arts, Henkels Lecture, as well as Sacred Music at Notre Dame. The University of Notre Dame Chorale will be providing music for this event.

The lecture series is part of a broader course through the Department of Theology taught by Sr. Ann Astell entitled Eucharist and Beauty. The purpose of this joint project between the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy and the Department of Theology is to cultivate in students an interest in the cross-disciplinary dimensions of liturgical studies, especially relative to the arts. Learning in the classroom will spill over into conversations with experts in the field, which will then renew the life of the classroom itself.

Love Lessons in Uptown

Rick BeckerRichard Becker, RN, MS, MA

Associate Faculty, Bethel College, School of Nursing

Co-Director of Religious Education, St. Matthew Cathedral 

Editors’ note: This post first appeared on God-Haunted Lunatic. A version of this story also appeared on The Catholic Exchange.

Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
Gerard Manley Hopkins

The propped up coffee-table book caught my eye as I was leaving the library. uptown_coverThe cover photo of a man raising his gnarled hands in prayer was itself arresting, but what really froze me in my tracks was the title in gold caps: U P T O W N.

I grabbed it, checked it out, and re-entered a world I’d left behind some 30 years ago.

The book, subtitled Portrait of a Chicago Neighborhood in the Mid-1970s, is a collection of black-and-white photographs by Robert Rehak that evokes the raw grittiness of that urban neighborhood with an eerie precision.

Although I arrived in Uptown on Chicago’s northside about a decade after Rehak took his photos, the landscape he depicts and describes was largely the same one I encountered. Uptown was unusual for the wide variety of ethnic and cultural groups represented within its borders. Also, many of the de-institutionalized mentally ill had made their way to Uptown, along with the poor who were pushed out of other neighborhoods experiencing redevelopment. “By the early 1970s, Uptown had the second highest population density in Chicago and high unemployment,” writes Rehak. “It had become skid row.”

A skid row was exactly what I had been looking for.

At the time, I was a wet-behind-the-ears, suburban-raised, angst-ridden and disillusioned Evangelical trying to rediscover Jesus in the inner city. The ‘L’ train deposited me at Wilson and Broadway, and Jesus wasn’t there to greet me – a disappointment, but not really a surprise. What did surprise, however, was the sensory overload that engulfed and enraptured me, and which I came to know intimately after I embraced Uptown as my home.

First, the smells. There was plenty of smoke, because everybody smoked everywhere back then. And the whiff of chili, garlic, and curry, fried meats and broiled cheese, bizarre combinations of spices and foodstuffs representing every manner Uptown Theatre and Green Mill-Bob Rehakof international cuisine hanging in the air outside storefront restaurants and street level apartments – not to mention the accompanying tastes!

But the first smell to hit you was the acrid odor of the city itself. You didn’t quite know what to make of it – where it emanated from, what it was – but you’d never forget it. After moving on, years can go by, even decades, and you still expect that sour scent to envelope you when you visit again, and you’re never disappointed.

The smells hit you first, but the sights went right along with them, and you can get a pretty good idea of what the sights were like back then from Rehak’s book: A bleak and crumbling infrastructure, dirt and trash and broken glass, shuttered businesses and empty lots, and people. Lots and lots of people, and every sort imaginable. Black, white, Hispanic, and Asian. Young, old, men, women, and babies. Poor, very poor, and destitute – so I guess not every sort imaginable, because the rich didn’t come around all that often, at least to stay.

Finally, the sounds. There was the rumble and screech of the ‘L,’ of course, and the constant din punctuated by shouts and crashes and laughter at all hours. And the United Nations of faces and ethnic cuisine was naturally accompanied by a Pentecost of spoken word, from Polish to Portuguese, from Eritrean to Hmong.

Nevertheless, English was still the lingua franca, but with a twist that was startling to my untrained ear: An augmented, earthy vocabulary, and, hence, a challenge as I continue to relate this story. Writing requires words, and the words that I’d like to employ in this regard are, shall we say, an acquired taste.

But, I’ll do my best.

After disembarking from the ‘L’ and wandering through the Uptown streets for a bit, I made my way to the St. Francis Catholic Worker on Kenmore Avenue. After climbing the rickety wooden stairs to the expansive front porch, I got up my courage and knocked on the door – again hoping to run into Jesus.

jimmyNo one answered my knock, so I rang the bell. After a moment, the door was flung open, and a torrent of foul abuse spewed forth. It was a magnificent display, almost like a verbal fireworks finale at an Independence Day picnic. The greeter/verbal artiste’s name was Rosalie, and although we would eventually become pretty good friends, Rosie made it unerringly clear at the time that, in her opinion, I deserved not only death, but damnation as well for making such a racket just to gain entrance to the building.

And that was just the beginning. Jimmy was another Catholic Worker denizen who had a constant mumbling patter that was peppered with spicy phrases and exotic words. And there was old Zeke in the basement, who declared himself God the Father (making the more common claim to be Christ or the Blessed Virgin seem almost trite by comparison), and who accordingly pronounced all manner of colorful denunciations from his smoky corner La-Z-Boy in the St. Francis House basement.

Then there was Love.

Love used foul language the way Matisse used color, mixing and playing and pushing the limits. Plus, Love had a very subtle British accent – whether natural or a pretense was hard to guess – and it only added additional, ironic sophistication to her salty rants.

matisse-the-dessert-harmony-in-red-henri-1908-fastAnd here’s the funny thing about Love: She used the same language to express exasperation and kindness, derision and delight. One particular word was her favorite, and by altering her pronunciation and intonation, she could use it in a seemingly endless variety of ways, including the expression of her namesake, love, along with affection and even tenderness. Love was remarkable in that, her speech and unusual behaviors aside, she truly loved her friends, and she helped me begin to really see beyond appearances for the first time in my life.

I went to Uptown to find Jesus, and what do we know of Jesus? “The Word became flesh and lived among us,” St. John tells us. Jesus doesn’t come to us in spirit alone, but in the flesh, to know with our senses, and sometimes it’s not easy to recognize Him.

Dorothy Day alluded to this idea in her essay “Room for Christ” back in 1945:

It would be foolish to pretend that it is easy always to remember this. If everyone were holy and handsome, with “alter Christus” shining in neon lighting from them, it would be easy to see Christ in everyone. But that [is] not Christ’s way for Himself now when He is disguised under every type of humanity that treads the earth.

For those of us who sought God in Uptown, the disguises – and the salty language – were all part of the adventure. Too bad it’s only with hindsight now that we can recognize when He came by then.

That He had come by, however, is not in doubt.

After I leafed through Rehak’s book, I Amazoned a copy to my friend Jim in Chicago. Jim lived in Uptown long before I got there, and he lives there still, so I knew he’d appreciate it.

A week or so later Jim sent a postcard. He had gone through Rehak’s photos and shared them with others – including Paul, a mutual friend from those bygone days. Here’s what Jim wrote:

Thanks for the wonderful treasure of the Uptown picture book. Sure brings back memories and provokes reflection. Paul kept saying, “We were so naive.”

Were we though?

Inklings of a New Evangelization: Wisdom and the Palantir

MiriamMarstonMiriam Marston, a freelance writer and musician, has been based in the Archdiocese of Boston since 2006, serving most recently as the Assistant Director of Theology Programs at the Theological Institute at St. John’s Seminary.  She has released two albums of original music, and is currently working on a third.

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Other columns in series:
The Beacons Are Lit
                              Of Myths and Maps
Inside the Song
                                       A Word on Wonder
A Word on Tooks
                                   Secondary Worlds and Primary Truths
Escape and the Good Catastrophe      Treebeard and the Language of Reality
The Valor of Bilbo                                 Laughter and the Logos
Our Lady and the Elves                        Puddleglum’s Dark Night of the Soul
Francis and the Houses of Healing    Lo, How a Story E’er Blooming
The Quiet Wood of Ordinary Time

“For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”
—Gandalf in The Fellowship of the Ring

There might not have been smart phones in Frodo’s world, but there were the palantíri, the “seeing stones” scattered across Middle Earth, which allowed the user to communicate across distances and to glimpse at events from far away.   Unfortunately, most of these stones have a corresponding ill-fated story: some were lost in battle or destruction.  300px-Palantir_StoneAnd in the case of Denethor, the Steward of Gondor, what began with an earnest desire to grow in wisdom and knowledge via the palantir ended in a tragic descent into despair.

As steward, Denethor was entrusted with the task of preparing his people for “the return of the king”.  Denethor’s responsibilities were already heavy, but the evil seeping out of Mordor only added to this weight.  He lost his favorite son, Boromir, to the battle with Sauron’s forces, leaving the relationship with his younger son, Faramir, even more fractured than before.  And so it was in this spirit that Denethor was turning to the palantir.  But he was not aware of how Sauron had manipulated the seeing-stone in such a way that Denethor was essentially deceived into hopelessness.  He allowed the designs of the enemy to fill him up, leaving no room for hope or courage.  Over time, the prospect of the returning king began to twist into all the wrong shapes of jealousy and resentment, and Denethor’s attitude towards Gondor was slowly approaching the kind of possessiveness that Gollum felt towards the Ring, his “precious”.

Tolkien gives us the scene: the increasingly despondent steward, using the palantir in secret, in the highest tower of the city.  What good could come of this education, conducted in such isolation, in the worst kind of ivory tower?  denethor It is such a pity, since I do not doubt that Denethor was genuinely seeking out ways to lead his people more wisely.  But his many hours of gazing into the palantir had corrupted his noble pursuits, leaving him with images of an everlasting night; a road leading into the shadows, with no end in sight.  Actually, that is not entirely accurate.  He saw only the ugly plans of Sauron and concluded that everything would end in defeat, and that is precisely the problem.  His heart became closed off to the possibility that Providence still had a word to say.  In Tolkien’s story, that providential word is largely represented by the Eagles, who literally swoop in at the last minute to help keep the army of Mordor at bay, just long enough for the One Ring to be destroyed.

The presumed trajectory of events can be gloriously interrupted, and the same goes for the trajectory of the human soul.  It’s an excellent thing that God’s mercy doesn’t conform to our own assumptions, since we sometimes behave as though He has simply stopped working in the lives of certain people—generally the people we find most difficult to love or forgive.  True wisdom tells us—even if it is little more than a single whisper in the overwhelming noise or bitterness that engulfs us—that God has not finished His work.  There is still a chance that your worst enemy will come knocking at your door, seeking reconciliation.  And we must welcome that possibility with open arms, even if we think it highly unlikely.  It is no wonder, then, that wisdom has traditionally been understood as the spiritual gift that perfects the virtue of charity.  It keeps us mindful of what should come first in the order of our desires, and of where we need to let go.  denethor_palantirWe can recall how it is said that one could still see the image of Denethor’s hands burned into the palantir; a grim reminder of what happens when we try to hold on too tightly onto visions of what may happen, instead of remaining open to the surprising turns of mercy and divine Providence.

What would Denethor’s palantir show us today?  It would show us the wounds left behind in a culture of death.  It would give us visions of new wars breaking out weekly, somewhere in the world.  It would communicate messages of poisoned politics and moral degradation.   But something will start to happen to us if we keep our eyes fixed exclusively on these realities, and indeed, I’ve already noticed a strange subculture—even among Catholics—which seems to thrive on the reportage of sin and evil in our world today.   I would not suggest avoiding the news, since it’s not a bad thing to remain aware of current events (not least of all because such awareness should prompt us to pray).  jesus-of-divine-mercy-radyBut I’ve been surprised to come across a number of discussions and publications that are nearly dogmatic in their commentary, serving up a litany of rather gloomy predictions.  In particular, it makes me wonder how we are to serve as missionaries of Christian joy if we believe more deeply, for instance, in the erosion of moral norms than in the mercy of Jesus Christ.  Denethor believed in the reality of his dark visions more than he trusted in the courage of the good peoples of Middle Earth.

If we are to resist a Denethorian approach to evangelization, it might help to recall Gandalf’s response to Denethor, who pushed back against the wizard’s counsel, since the “Lord of Gondor is not to be made the tool of other men’s purposes, however worthy. And to him there is no purpose higher in the world…than the good of Gondor.”  Gandalf agreed that ensuring the “good of Gondor” was a virtuous cause, but in his wisdom, he had this to add:

“…I will say this: the rule of no realm is mine, neither of Gondor nor any other, great or small. But all worthy things that are in peril as the world now stands, those are my care. And for my part, I shall not wholly fail of my task, though Gondor should perish, if anything passes through this night that can still grow fair or bear fruit and flower again in days to come. For I also am a steward. Did you not know?”

mstyora-icon-1We, too, are called to serve as stewards until the return of the King.  I believe this requires a readiness to grow in our capacity to be “far-seeing”, to discern the ways of God, which are not our ways.  To do this, we do not need to turn to a palantir: it is enough to gaze upon the Cross and contemplate the empty tomb.
This is all we need to know about the future:  that it is in the hands of the God who has suffered with us and for us, loving us to the end, and beyond, eternally beyond…for there is no end to the life that is lived in Christ.

Lent and the Academic Theologian

TimOMalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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

Editor, Church Life:  A Journal for the New Evangelization

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In previous years, I proposed that it would be a worthy goal to fast from a posture of suspicion, ideology, and demonization during the season of Lent. I still think this is a worthy idea–a fast that I hope would effect real social change in politics, education, and in communal life through the gift of the Church’s Eucharistic imagination.

But this year, I wanted to turn my attention to a fast that seems necessary for my own profession: the academic theologian. The danger of being an academic theologian is two-fold. One, you’re an academic. Two, you’re a theologian.

The present life of the academy does not operate according to the virtues of Eucharistic self-gift. Rather, positions within the academy often cultivate the vice of pride, superbia. Pride is the disorder of desire in which one sees oneself as above others, above God. In the academy, this is embodied in the assumption that because of the credentials that follow my name, the publications that I have written, my humanity is better than your own. I am the expert and “you” (the student, the novice, the lay person) should learn to follow me toward enlightenment.Pride

The academic, in this way, becomes the savior of humanity. He or she composes publications that offer the definitive interpretation of texts or events (publications which only the enlightened will read). In this world, one is more concerned about one’s name being attached to articles appearing in the most august journals even if the reward of publication is predicated upon the use of those “buzz words” that are popular within one’s field rather than the search for truth. The academic in the classroom delights in the act of deconstructing the student’s assumptions, violently awakening him/her from the dogmatic somnolence that the academic despises. In such a context, there is an implicit temptation to hate the student, to hate the intellectual vacuity of the student’s writing and conversation. Likewise, the academic is one who refuses (because of this pride) to admit that his or her thought may have been wrong all along. Instead, the academic entrenches oneself in a position, fighting to the bitter end.

The academic also is constantly tempted to believe that his or her degree has bestowed an uncommon competence in all areas of life. He or she is more politically aware than the non-academic. My vision of education, of health care, of the relationship between the Church and the university–well, it’s obvious it should be accepted once you recognize my pedigree. After all, I graduated from “X.” Others are more than welcome to participate in my vision of the world, as long as you agree to apprentice under my intellect. And call me Dr.

Unto itself, belonging to the academy is a temptation for those who seek to practice the art of self-giving love. Yet, at the Catholic university, these temptations take on a particular danger for the theologian. The theologian is not simply a student of texts, of ideas, of intellectual propositions. Rather, he or she devotes the intellect to an inquiry into the mystery of Christian faith.FidesQuaerens Intellectum

For this reason, the temptations of the academy are risky for the theologian. The theologian may begin to falsely imagine that his or her work is the definitive interpretation of such divine mysteries. That only I have penetrated into the mind of God. Other visions of reality, as viewed through theological categories different from my own, must be deconstructed. My ideas will not simply give a renewed vigor to the political or economic order but will save the Church, her hierarchs, and the unsophisticated who are members of this body. Anything practical or personal or spiritual or catechetical might be fine for the simple. But for those of us with a Ph.D., we have moved beyond such basics.

The classroom is a perilous place for those of us belonging to this guild. We may grow angry that our students do not awaken to the vision that we present. We may learn to forget that the texts that we employ, the ideas that we present, are not part of some intellectual game alone. Rather, they point toward a narrative of divine love, one in which the entirety of humanity is to be saved through the love of God poured out over the cosmos. We may forget to awaken our students to the beauty of this narrative, allowing our own intellectual and spiritual wounds, to manifest themselves in bitter teaching. We may fail to remember that in the classroom the very lives of our students are at stake not simply their grade.

I present these visions not to condemn those other theologians. Rather, these are my temptations. I am tempted to view my own intellect, my acumen, as evidence of my own salvation. I am tempted on a daily basis to hate my students, to make the sort of arguments that paralyze their reason, to force them along the path of my own enlightenment. I am tempted to publish not because I have anything particular that I want to say but because I want a CV that extends into pages six and seven and then eight and nine. I forget the original love that brought me to this study, entering into the classroom as a burden to be borne rather than a gift to be received. I want to tell the Church as a whole how to function, for them to turn to me for expertise. In other words, I want to become a theological god. I want power and control and prestige and privilege and recognition and chair named after meAshWednesday

Lent for the academic theologian is thus not simply an occasion to participate a bit in the practices of the Church. Rather, it is an time for us to realize the fullness of our vocation as those who seek to perceive the world according to the logic of divine love revealed in Christ. It is a moment in the liturgical year in which we are invited to give up our desire to control discourse at all costs, to succeed through fame. Instead, we must learn that the theologian is one who prays, who has undertaken that ascetic practice that enables him or her to perceive the world as a divine gift. The formation of the theologian is not complete with the reception of a degree. Instead, it commences until we begin to mirror that divine love which we study.

Thus, Ash Wednesday and the subsequent season of Lent is a salutary gift to the entire academic community. During this season, we are invited to turn away from the violence of intellectual grasping and seizing, from power plays and critical discourse (without subsequent constructive claims), to join the entire Christian world in the art of self-gift. Such practice, such conversion of every theologian (and every academic) might lead to a renewal of our universities as places in which truth is sought in the fullness of love. In which knowledge is sought as gift, as wisdom itself.