What we’re reading: discourse, raising hell, and all souls

Anthony OleckAnthony Oleck

ND ’14, MTS ’16 (History of Christianity)

Managing Editor

 Contact Author

1) Bishop Robert Barron on argument and censorship:

So in the spirit of Howard Sudberry, I would say to those who signed the letter against Ross Douthat, “Make an argument against him; prove him wrong; marshal your evidence; have a debate with him; take him on. But don’t attempt to censor him.” I understand that the signatories disagree with him, but he’s playing by the rules.

2) Amanda Osheim in Daily Theology on raising hell:

A few years ago, though, a friend inquired into my theological opinion on the Ozark Mountain Daredevils’ lyrics:  “If you wanna to get to Heaven, you got to raise a little hell.”  Such a deep, meaningful, pop culture question is like turning on the bat signal, and I began my response by reflecting again on the Apostles’ Creed.

3) Leonard DeLorenzo writes in America Magazine on the journey from all saints to all souls:

I have struggled to know where that hope begins in my imagination; but over time, the memory that has tended to recur most frequently when I think of my grandfather is of our last moment together in that hospital room. Part of me is still surprised that I had the audacity to trace the sign of the cross on his forehead and pray over him. Perhaps the meaning of who he was to me is mysteriously wrapped up in that memory, even though I am still trying to understand it.

Follow Tony on Twitter: @tonyoleck

The Memory of God

Jenny Martin
Assistant Professor, Program of Liberal Studies; Concurrent Assistant Professor, Department of Theology University of Notre Dame

Editorial Note: This post was originally delivered as a homily during Vespers on Wednesday, October 28, the feast of Sts. Simon and Jude. We are grateful for the author’s permission to publish it here.

For the past several years, I have led a freshman seminar on ancient Greek literature, which includes reading both the Iliad and Odyssey in full. In this context, my students and I talk a great deal about the nature of memory, and these Homeric epics in particular as books of memory. Not only was the oral recitation of these enormously long and detailed poems an impressive feat of memory in itself, but also the explicit themes of memory and forgetting are to the fore in terms of their content. It is most interesting to me in these discussions that for Homer, the relative merits and demerits of remembering or forgetting seem ambiguous.

Tsugumi Ota, Lotus Eaters
Tsugumi Ota, Lotus Eaters

Odysseus and his crew are constantly fighting against natural and supernatural forces that would have them forget themselves. His men eat Lotus Flowers and no longer remember their desire to go home, and the witch Circe detains the crew for a year with feasts and enchantments, moments of forgetting that are obviously problematic. But Helen puts nepenthe in the wine of Menelaus and Telemachus in order to dull the memory of their grief, which seems in some sense to be a mercy. The remembrance of family genealogies is crucial to establishing identity and friendship, yet many of Odysseus’ apparent memories of himself and his personal history turn out to be wholly contrived, works of fiction within a fiction constructed simply for strategy or effect. Furthermore, in a text that may ostensibly be about the virtue of remembering, it is perhaps doubly ironic that the Odyssey ends with Athena blotting out totally the community’s memory of Penelope’s numerous suitors whom Odysseus slays.

In both epics, but especially the Iliad, the heroes are all the time preoccupied with accumulating honor and glory for their heroic deeds, for bravado and courage in war, for acts of loyalty and patriotism, and so on: this drive for fame and personal honor motivates nearly every act, even or especially the most foolhardy, so again, it is difficult to tell if Homer is supporting or critiquing his culture’s preoccupation with being remembered as honorable.

Odysseus blinds the Cyclops
Odysseus blinds the Cyclops

Certainly, Odysseus’ rashest act and greatest mistake was his insistence on revealing his true name to the Cyclops Polyphemus: had he remained nameless, it is arguable that the god Poseidon would not have harried him so relentlessly. On his homeward journey in the Odyssey, Odysseus clings to a rock in the sea after shipwreck and laments that he should have died gloriously at Troy rather than have his deeds be forgotten with such an undistinguished death as drowning. It was not enough for the ancients that honorable deeds be performed; they must be witnessed and acclaimed by others or they could not, so to speak, be credited in the ledger books. In the Iliad, we see Achilles making the choice for an early, violent death in war with great honor and external praise over a long and happy life that is unremarked and unremarkable. And yet, when we come upon the shade of Achilles in the underworld in the Odyssey, he tells Odysseus that it would have been better in life had he been a poor, land-less peasant working in someone else’s fields. Mixed messages, to be sure.

Sts Simon and JudeOn this feast of the Apostles St. Simon and St. Jude, about which very little is known, I would like to praise not their glorious deeds, but rather draw out the virtue of letting oneself go unremarked: how honorable it is to engage in quiet, everyday work that is neither broadcast nor publicized, thanked nor recognized, remembered neither in the annals of history nor the vocalizations of the epic poet. What is recorded in the Scriptures about Simon the Zealot and Jude, also called Thaddeus, is actually rather spare: they are listed by name alongside the other apostles in the synoptic Gospels and in Acts, and Jude is given a single line in the Gospel of John and a short epistle of only 24 verses. Their names are inscribed and recalled, yes, but the many particulars of their daily work on behalf of the kingdom of God are not known to us, or to anyone. Furthermore, even their names can be misremembered if not sometimes outright forgotten, overshadowed in Simon’s case by the far more prominent Simon Peter, and in Jude’s, by the far more infamous Judas Iscariot. Indeed, the tradition of Jude being the patron saint of lost or impossible causes could possibly be traced to this very confusion: because few would pray to Judas called Thaddeus, horrified that they might inadvertently be praying to Judas Iscariot, when he was called upon, Jude would be willing to intervene in even the most desperate of circumstances.

Tradition holds that Simon and Jude suffered a martyr’s death together while preaching as missionaries in Persia, with their bones buried together in the same tomb. Psalm 116:15 tells us that in the sight of the Lord, the death of the faithful is not simply remembered, but is precious, even if anonymous or unremarked. Though the days of mortals may indeed be like grass that withers and fades, “the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting” (Ps 103:15–16). That our lives and our deaths are gathered up, recollected in the deep memory of God the Father, who is all love and all gift, is everything. So Christian believers in the security of the steadfast love of God and the gift of the Church can afford more than the ancient Greeks to be anonymous, can afford to work—even heroically—without always seeking out the praise or recognition of others. As the letter to the Ephesians teaches, our Christian community is a body, and of a body, and works on behalf of the body of Christ, all without insisting that our individual accomplishments, gifts, reputations, or names be recognized and recorded as preeminent.

With God, there is a mysterious calculus at work, an impossible calculus not of the order of this world—whether ancient or modern—in which what is erased from or torn out of the ledger books endures all the same, and is in fact written more indelibly the less we contend for its recognition. The Psalmist also witnesses to this mysterious phenomenon of God’s peculiar book-keeping (what French poet Charles Péguy calls with gorgeous lucidity a “strange arithmetic”) where tears and weeping are sown, but shouts of joy reaped (Ps 126), where what is sown in darkness is gathered up, re-collected, recollected, in a light not weakly contrived or invented by human beings as a measure of worth, but in the true and brilliant light which is the glory of God and its lamp the Lamb (Rev 21:23).

In both our going forth and our coming homeward, let us endeavor to remember that the lives of the saints are luminous not on their own merit and an insistence upon being remembered, but only insofar as they allow themselves to be more and more deeply transparent to Christ, which, perhaps paradoxically, allows them in this surrender of visibility to be more genuinely themselves.

The doxology that ends St. Jude’s brief letter recollects this source of strength we have that is not our own but is all gift, and we will allow him the benediction this evening: “Now to him who is able to keep you from falling, and to make you stand without blemish in the presence of his glory with rejoicing, to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, power, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen” (Jude 24–25).

St. Simon and St. Jude, pray for us.

Christian Hope and the Holy Souls

Laura TaylorLaura Taylor 

House of Brigid

Wexford, Ireland

“Ego sum lux mundi,” read the ancient words of Christ engraved in the weathered, grey stone above the high altar of St. Colman’s church in the quiet country parish of Ballindaggin, County Wexford, Ireland. “I am the light of the world.”

St. Colman's Church, BallindagginI was there to pay my respects for a deceased relative of a nun with whom I had become quite close over the last year. Following traditional Irish funeral observances, it seemed like the inhabitants of the entire village had packed the church for the customary removal service. These traditional Catholic prayers recited at the church in the evenings before funerals are about as ingrained in the Irish consciousness as their love for piping hot tea, spuds, the GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association), and commiserating about the weather. We were there to pray fervently for the commendation of this dearly departed soul to heaven, that she would in turn pray unceasingly for us from there with the eternal communion of saints, in the company of Christ and our Blessed Mother.Removal Pic 2

No instructions were given at any point in the ceremony about when to sit, kneel, or stand; the people around me just knew.

The parish priest sprinkled holy water over the casket, and the moment the prayers were finished, everyone leapt from their seats in a rush to shake the hands of the grieving family members, while the many conversations among the mourners elevated the noise level in the church to a dull roar. Our religious duties accomplished, we spilled out of the mid-19th century church–the men headed straight to the village pub, the women congregated outside for the latest gossip, and I strolled pensively around the small cemetery nestled against the church walls, waiting for my companions to emerge so we could make the hour’s journey home.

As we remember the souls of the faithful departed in this month of November, I find myself increasingly struck by the visceral manner in which the Irish honor, mourn, and think about the dead. Carlingford ChurchFamilies and local communities band together immediately following the death of a loved one: they fill normally-empty church pews to the brim in order to somberly commemorate “anniversary Masses,” and to pray en masse for the deceased at removal services, wakes, and funerals. Conversations about death in Ireland are quite open–almost bruisingly candid–and happen over a cup of tea, in the street, or out at the pub. The famed Irish wakes still happen–albeit less often now, due to the rising popularity of funeral homes–and are completely unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. The open casket lies in state in the family’s living room, mourners sit in chairs around the body and take turns swapping humorous or emotional stories about the deceased, and a seemingly endless supply of scalding hot tea and coffee, and freshly-baked cakes and scones in the adjoining rooms provides much-needed spiritual and bodily nourishment, and still more cathartic conversation.irish_wake_paintingThere is a freshness in the Irish perspective towards death and dying, however unsettling it may be to a young American in her mid-twenties, who, before moving to Ireland, had attended only a couple funerals–all with closed caskets, all conducted as swiftly and discreetly as possible, the reality of death too uncomfortable for the American psyche. In Ireland, though, I see the true embodiment of Christian hope lived out each day; even in the throes of sorrow and grief, death here is no frightening spectre, but an almost-friend–a constant, quiet companion on life’s journey.

Here, mourning is a public act, and the healing process truly is communal. Churches see their numbers swell dramatically in the month of November in Ireland, as the annual remembrance of the dead draws people from all walks of life–the old, the young, the rich and poor, Travellers and settled, the faithful, and, surprisingly, those who have drifted away from the Church. They are all connected in their grief, and their desire to remember the ones they have lost. The liturgies of this month in particular somehow seem to tap into the deepest recesses of the heart, compelling all of us to congregate, remember, and pray for our loved ones, that they might, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.vigil at maynoothPope Francis’ namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, tenderly refers to death as a sister: “Praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death, from whose embrace no one living can escape.” There is an inexplicable comfort in this Month of the Holy Souls here in Ireland, for alongside the heartache of loss accompanies a lingering sense of peace, and hope.  

The Uncanonized, the Unrecognized Saints

Jim CorcoranJim Corcoran

Undergraduate Fellow, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Contact Author

When I was preparing for Confirmation, I, precocious as I was then, wanted to pick an obscure saint for my name. In my scramble to outdo everyone in the class in originality, I stumbled upon Aelred of Rievaulx. Aelred, a name with which I was not totally clear as regards pronunciation, seemed to be a perfect fit. None of my friends had heard of him. Neither did my teachers. Excellent. Problem solved.

Then I saw the following sentence in an online biography: “St. Aelred was never formally canonized.” I could not in good conscience, I thought, choose the name of a man whom history has masqueraded as a saint, but whose heroic virtues the Church had never officially recognized. For all I knew, he could have been a terrible person. Sufficiently scared away, I chose Francis, along with three other boys in my class. Francis was a good name, safe—most definitely canonized.

Of course, I had an oversimplified view of sanctity. I set Aelred aside and simply forgot about him. Two years ago, I found him again. Aelred of Rievaulx (1110-1167) was the abbot of the Cistercian community at Rievaulx, in what is now Yorkshire in Northern aelredEngland. A gigantic place, Rievaulx had over five-hundred choir monks and something like seven-hundred brothers. After his death, his biographer, a fellow monk named Walter Daniel, wrote that he was much beloved by all the monks. That in itself is a miracle in a community of that size. The biography is very hagiographic, to be sure. But it lacks in many of the things hagiography tends to have. Aelred never raised anyone from the dead. He never came even close to martyrdom. Instead, the overarching theme of the work is that he was loving. He was just a loving man, plagued with arthritis. I know many people like that.

His two best known works, Spiritual Friendship and Mirror of Charity changed my life. I learned in the former that friendship is a gift from God, and an essential element to the Christian life. He writes: “Friendship is that virtue, therefore, through which by a covenant of sweetest love our spirits are united and from many are made one.” Far from the cold, unfeeling medieval hierarch, Aelred touches upon the essence of community and Christian life together. In Mirror of Charity, Aelred writes some of the most stunning words I’ve ever read on imitation of Christ, especially as regards loving one’s enemies. He writes:

Hearing that wondrous voice, full of gentleness and love, saying, ‘Father, forgive them’, who would not immediately embrace his enemies? Father, forgive them; can any greater degree of gentleness and love be added to this prayer? However, he did add something. To pray for them was too little, he wished also to make excuses for them. He said: Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.

Further, Mirror of Charity was written at the request of Bernard of Clairvaux, a Doctor of the Church. Not only was Bernard a man of discerning tastes, but history has proven to us his holiness and aelred-icon
virtue—things he recognized in Aelred. In two quotes from him, we can see for ourselves why he was loved so much by his monks: he loved them. Aelred might have faded away, never to be remembered had he not written so beautifully. He could just as easily have been lost to time.

This is all to say that so many people in our Church past, present, and future are heroically virtuous. Ordinary holiness is not often recognized. Someone once told me that only one parish priest has ever been canonized: St. John Vianney. I don’t know if that’s true, but I wouldn’t doubt it. Ordinary people living ordinarily holy lives come a dime a dozen, thank God. Canonization used to be done by acclaim. Now, we have a formal process; that process does not lessen the holiness of everyday people.

When one flips through Butler’s Lives of the Saints, it is easy to be caught up in the sheer number of saints and blesseds. A great cloud of witnesses. But when we take the complete view of sanctity and holiness, the cloud of witnesses gets larger and larger. It’s a hurricane, a great gust of joy and love and worship. Let yourself get caught up in it.

Follow Jim on Twitter: @JimCorc

Liturgical Participation and the Apocalyptic

Tim O'MalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Contact Author

As anyone who has taught Sacred Scriptures knows, dealing with apocalyptic literature is a perilous affair. Students expect to read in such literature historical prophecies about the end of the world. Does the Blood Moon of late September portend the end of the cosmos? (No). What about the rise of Temple University’s football program? (Perhaps). Are the number of presidential debates evidence that God’s judgment has come upon humanity? (Likely). Because they’re looking for apocalyptic literature that predicts the precise details of the end of the world, students are often unprepared to see the surprising telos of literature like the Book of Revelation: that the wedding feast of the slain and resurrected Lamb is God’s definitive judgment upon history.

The loss of this sense of the apocalyptic, of God’s coming to judge the world in the wedding feast of the Lamb, has been detrimental to our capacity to participate fully, consciously, and actively in the liturgical prayer of the Church. As Annie Dillard has written in an oft-quoted text:

On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of the conditions. Does any-one have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return (Teaching a Stone to Talk).

EucharisticPrayingWe gather in our parish churches, seemingly unaware that the Eucharistic liturgy we celebrate on a weekly basis is the foretaste of this wedding feast of the Lamb. That the Scriptures we hear forms us to see the world from God’s own viewpoint. That the Eucharistic Prayer we offer to the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit manifests to us that God is:

…the Master of reality, Lord, God of truth, who exist before the ages and govern throughout the ages; who dwell in the heights of heaven throughout the ages, gazing down on lowly things; you who have made heaven and earth and sea and everything that is in them. The Father of our Lord and God and Savior, Jesus Christ, through whom you made all things, those visible and those invisible. Who sit upon the throne of your holy glory in your kingdom; who are adorned by every holy power (Alexandrian Anaphora of Basil).

Our celebration of the liturgy is a sacrament of God’s definitive judgment upon the world, in which the Christian is formed over the course of a lifetime to participate in the sanctified wisdom of the Holy God, Holy Mighty One, Holy Immortal One. This participation will involve understanding the various ways that the life of the Church, our family life, our understanding of human dignity as a nation-state–all of these fail to measure up to the terribly festive judgment of the wedding feast of the Lamb.

The loss of this apocalyptic (and thus eschatological) disposition in our prayer is a real problem that the Church must face. Our participation in liturgical rites are not simply a celebration of our identity as Christians (although, they are indeed this). They are not the redeemed of the city, gathering together for self-praise. Instead, our prayer is participation in the sacrament of God’s eschatological judgment of the world in which sin (including the sin of particular parish communities, of nation states) is revealed for what it is: a paltry imitation of God’s power and might.

The renewal of this apocalyptic imagination in the Church need not involve a turning back from the liturgical renewal that took place as a result of the Second Vatican Council. Instead, it requires a remembering by those who practice liturgical ministry that our celebration of the liturgy is not first and foremost about our speaking of a word to God. Rather, it is a response to God’s call, the triune God’s glorious judgment of the gift of the world in the first place. It is because of God’s voice as other, as interruptive of ours, that prayer can take place in the first place. As Jean-Luc Chretien writes:

The space of response is opened only by the difference between speaking of oneself and speaking oneself. There can only be a call and a response if the two are no longer conceived as identical and if the fact that we do not speak of ourselves, out of ourselves, actually gives us a voice rather than condemn us to silence or to a simulation of speech (The Call and the Response, 27).

Therefore, to re-foster liturgical participation today will not (in the end) involve just changing the rites around. It will, instead, involve learning to see the Church’s prayer as actually speaking to, communing with a God who is not us. A God who comes to judge us, the world, not as the inaccessible judge. But as the Lamb slain, who announced that the world’s approach to violence, to destruction, is over. Maranatha. Come Lord Jesus. 

Follow Tim on Twitter: @NDLiturgyCenter

What We’re Reading: tours of the afterlife, canonization, and loving our enemies

Anthony OleckAnthony Oleck

ND ’14, MTS ’16 (History of Christianity)

Managing Editor

 Contact Author

1) From Dappled Things, Jonathan McDonald ponders the artists who turned mystical visions of heaven and hell into a literary genre:

If anything, this is a genre waiting to be revived in its original Medieval spirit. We still have mystics in the Church who are given visions of the blessed and damned, but few poets who care to make those visions aesthetically pleasing.

2) Over at First ThingsGeorge Weigel comments on the “happy addition of ‘spouses‘ to the “pantheon of vocations to sanctity.”

The Church doesn’t canonize saints for their sake. God takes quite good care of his holy ones […] No, the Church canonizes saints for our sake, so that we might have models who inspire us to be the holy ones we must be, if we’re to fulfill our Christian and human destiny.

That’s why the Church sings the Litany of the Saints at its most solemn liturgical celebrations: the Litany of the Saints is the Church’s family album, the roster of those who form that “great cloud of witnesses” of which the author of the Letter to the Hebrews speaks so eloquently.

3) And in Aleteia, Center for Liturgy director Timothy P. O’Malley weighs in on the atmosphere of hostility in contemporary debates that turns our interlocutor into our enemy:

Christ’s words, addressed to the Israel of his day, now echo in the Church. Our “enemies” are no longer Romans but German bishops, the Pope, The New York Times columnists, conservative and liberal theologians, bloggers on the left and the right, and anyone who we see as a threat to the Church’s flourishing in the modern world.

Follow Tony on Twitter: @tonyoleck

Pieces of God’s Mosaic

BrianBrian Florin
Notre Dame Vision Mentor-in-Faith (2014 & 2015)
University of Notre Dame,
Class of 2016

When I was in high school, I had a lot going for me. I was well-known by my peers, found much success in the classroom, was involved in my Church, was a varsity athlete, had a girlfriend, was prom king. I even starred in the school play while helping my basketball team win the state championship on the same day. I felt like Troy Bolton. I wasTroy Bolton soaring. And I was flying. Except for the fact that I didn’t win the state championship. And I didn’t star in any school play…ever. Despite not having a voice as smooth as Troy’s, I still knew what I was better at in comparison to my peers, and I liked that.

Things suddenly changed when I set foot on Notre Dame’s campus freshman year. By the end of first semester, I lacked all the confidence that I had in high school. I felt outmatched and out of my league in every aspect. Everywhere I turned there was someone who did better than me on an exam. There was a better athlete. Someone who told jokes better. A better friend. People were even better than me at praying. I quickly fell into a habit of comparing myself to other people. I gained and lost my self-worth with every failure and success of another. No longer was I top in my class or the best on the basketball court. I found myself overwhelmed by the talent of those around me; with that, I lost sight of my own gifts and abilities. I remember thinking time and time again, “I’m not smart enough, not funny enough, not sociable enough, not even holy enough to be here or anywhere.”

In the summer of 2014, I helped at Notre Dame Vision for the first time as a rising Junior. I joined a group of some of the most faith-filled and talented students at Notre Dame, St. Mary’s, and Holy Cross. For the first week and half, I constantly looked around me and found myself jealous of other mentors. I felt inadequate, and this impacted just about every aspect of the week; I would say to myself, “Why can’t you lead a small group like him or make your group laugh like her?” It even got to a point where my victory waffle wasn’t good enough anymore. The phrase “I’m not good enough” soon became one that I turned over and over in my head day after day.

VisitationOn a Tuesday night, during the Reconciliation service, I gazed at the paintings that lined the ceiling and walls of the Basilica. Just above a group that awaited their turn for reconciliation was the painting of the Visitation that I had seen many times, but never quite from this angle. While I would normally glance over this, I was struck by the way that Elizabeth greeted Mary with such joy and happiness. A sense of peace washed over me as I looked in awe at the depiction of this beautiful exchange. Elizabeth wasn’t jealous of Mary for being chosen as the Mother of God. Rather, she rejoiced in the faith and belief of Mary that allowed for such a miracle to take place. Elizabeth’s joy was so incredible that John the Baptist even leapt in her womb!

In this moment, I began to realize that we too are called to leap for joy at the beauty of one another’s gifts and successes. The jealousy that I’d had of those around me blinded me from being able to recognize their gifts. Not only that, but I had lost sight of what I was good at too. I had become so focused on “not being good enough” according to my comparisons that I rejected the idea that in God’s eyes, I was enough.

Each Sunday at my parish during the collection, the priest invites the children to come forward and place their offerings in a basket at the front of the altar. Some kids immediately sprint up to the front of the altar while others tentatively make their way to the front, looking back at their parents for reassurance. There are always some kids though that stand on the altar and watch in amazement as another child places their envelope in the basket and runs back to their seat. In this moment, these children are content with themselves, yet completely awestruck at the sight of another child. Jesus tells his disciples to be like the children. I began to realize how beautiful it is to have a childlike recognition of others.  “Lord, give me the eyes to see as they do” became my silent prayer.

Now, if you’ve ever seen
Mosaic making a mosaic,
from far away you see a beautiful picture or image. But as you move closer to the image, you begin to see that the mosaic is made up of many tiny pieces that contribute to the larger picture. Without one of the pieces, the image would be distorted in some way. Through our own unique gifts and talents, quirks and idiosyncrasies, you and I are the many tiny pieces that make up God’s grand mosaic; His beautiful picture of creation. Comparing myself to others was in fact distorting my perception of this beautiful image. I didn’t realize that I didn’t have to be, nor was I supposed to be exactly like the person next to me, and they weren’t supposed to be exactly like me. We each contributed something unique to God’s Mosaic.

I have definitely realized that comparing myself to others is a lifelong struggle. But, when I find myself falling back into this cycle of jealousy and comparison, I recall the joy with which Elizabeth greeted Mary; I pray to see as the children do when they look with amazement upon one another, and I am reminded of my own giftedness and worthiness in the eyes of the Creator. I am reminded that He calls each of us by our own name, and claims us as His own. I am a piece of God’s grand design. We are all pieces of His beautiful picture.

 

Baseball and Discipleship

Carolyn Pirtle

Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Contact Author

Oh hey, ball, I'm just gonna slide across the ground and catch you now. No big deal.
Oh hey, ball, I’m just gonna slide across the ground and catch you now. No big deal.

Professional baseball players make the sport look easy. It’s not. Everything happens in fractions of a second: a batter decides to swing at a smallish ball traveling toward him at a speed faster than most cars are allowed to drive on a highway; a fielder decides how far to run in a particular direction for a catch, or at what trajectory he needs to throw the ball to his teammate; a pitcher suddenly hurls the ball to a baseman instead of the catcher in an attempt to throw a runner out. Watch the World Series game tonight if you don’t believe me. This game is hard. And yet, again, the pros make it look easy; or, more accurately, they make it look possible. When kids watch their heroes step up to the plate and knock a homerun out of the park, they often think to themselves, “I can do that.”

What those kids rarely realize is that the effortlessness they’re watching onscreen or in the ballpark is the result of years spent cultivating God-given athletic talent through training, hard work, discipline, and sacrifice. They’re watching the hours spent in the gym, the innumerable practices, the strict diet (in most cases), the intense spring training, the grueling travel schedule. They’re watching a lifetime of choosing one way over another for the sake of a desired goal. In other words, they’re watching a pretty good model for the life of Christian discipleship (you know, if you give the players the benefit of the doubt as far as performance-enhancing drugs and other illicit activities are concerned—it’s a good model, not a perfect one).

Where the model breaks down is precisely where it also breaks open. Whereas professional athletes, or musicians, or dancers, or actors, or teachers, or doctors all have specific God-given talents or capacities that they’ve chosen to cultivate through work and study, in the Christian life, God has capacitated everyone to become a disciple. Indeed, God has not only capacitated but called everyone to become a disciple, and not just any run-of-the-mill disciple, but a Major League Disciple—a saint. “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48).

We read in Lumen Gentium of this “universal call to holiness,” that “all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status are called to the fullness of the Christian life and the perfection of charity” (§40). Yet this sanctity is not something we can attain on our own through sheer capacity of will (sorry, Pelagius); that would be like someone with no athletic ability whatsoever dreaming that a career in Major League Baseball is possible if he simply eats enough Wheaties and works out enough. Rather, the capacity for sanctity is derived from the grace received in Baptism, from being grafted like a branch onto Christ the true vine. Just like the athlete or musician does not “earn” his or her natural capacities like height or a particular physical build, this grace—this capacity for discipleship and holiness and sainthood—is also a gift the Christian has not earned; yet, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer notes, the fact that the Christian has not earned this grace in no way reduces its value. Quite the opposite. This is a “costly grace” (The Cost of Discipleship, ch.1), and the price is nothing less than the life of the beloved Son, Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh.

Léon Bonnat, Christ on the Cross
Léon Bonnat, Christ on the Cross

Accepting this gift of costly grace costs us something, too. Just as imparting the gift of grace cost the Son of God his life on the Cross, so too does our receiving his gift of grace cost us our very lives: “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (Lk 9:23–24; see also Mt 16:24–25 and Mk 8:34–35). The professional athlete knows that growing in his or her ability means saying no to some things in order to say yes to others. To grow in holiness, we must follow Christ, and to follow Christ means we say yes to one way of life and no to all others; we must say yes to him who is The Way (cf. Jn 14:6). Grace costs, both in the giving and in the receiving, but, as any professional athlete will tell you, the price of pain is worth the prize of glory on the field, and how much more so for the Christian, whose prize is the glory of eternal life with God in heaven.

Just as the pros make baseball look easy, in the Christian life, too, we find outstanding examples of holiness who almost make following Jesus look easy. Some of these men and women have been canonized as saints, and as we prepare to celebrate the Solemnity of All Saints this Sunday, we have to be aware of the reality that, in recalling the lives of these canonized saints, or even in thinking back on the lives of those holy loved ones who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith, it can be easy to look at them with the eyes of children watching their favorite baseball players at bat—to see only the seeming effortlessness of the saints and to forget that their faith only radiates the life of Christ because it has been tried and tested and purified by fire (cf. 1 Pet 1:6). The effortlessness we see when we look at the saints attests to the mystery that they have attained what T.S. Eliot describes as “A condition of complete simplicity / (Costing nothing less than everything)” (“Little Gidding,” Four Quartets). Every day of the Christian life is a day in the crucible, but for those who persevere, for those who gaze at their Savior on the Cross and say, “I can do that” or better yet, “I can do all things in him who strengthens me” (Phil 4:13), the glory of eternal life awaits.

Baseball is hard, but this is a good thing, for as Coach Jimmy Dugan reminds us in A League of Their Own, “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.” The reality is that, no matter how hard a person may try, not everyone has the physical, God-given capacities to play this sport well. The life of discipleship is infinitely harder, but it’s supposed to be hard, because Christ’s gift of self on the Cross that made this life possible was the hardest and greatest gift of all, and our only possible response to the gift of “costly grace” we receive in the waters of Baptism (where, as St. Paul reminds us, we are baptized into Christ’s death (cf. Rom 6:3)) is to offer in return a life of “costly discipleship”—a life that costs “nothing less than everything,” a life poured forth in love that gives unto the end. The hard is what makes it great. The hard is what makes us saints.

What We’re Reading: baseball, family and synods

Anthony OleckAnthony Oleck

ND ’14, MTS ’16 (History of Christianity)

Managing Editor

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1) First Things’ David Bentley Hart on the metaphysics of baseball:

My hope, when all is said and done, is that we will be remembered chiefly as the people who invented—who devised and thereby also, for the first time, discovered—the perfect game, the very Platonic ideal of organized sport, the “moving image of eternity” in athleticis. I think that would be a grand posterity.

2) From the Vatican press office website, Pope Francis’ address to the Synod on the Family at the conclusion of the synod:

As I followed the labours of the Synod, I asked myself: What will it mean for the Church to conclude this Synod devoted to the family?

Certainly, the Synod was not about settling all the issues having to do with the family, but rather attempting to see them in the light of the Gospel and the Church’s tradition and two-thousand-year history, bringing the joy of hope without falling into a facile repetition of what is obvious or has already been said.

Surely it was not about finding exhaustive solutions for all the difficulties and uncertainties which challenge and threaten the family, but rather about seeing these difficulties and uncertainties in the light of the Faith, carefully studying them and confronting them fearlessly, without burying our heads in the sand.

3) Over at America, renowned historian and theologian John W. O’Malley, SJ offers insight into the synodal process, as well as historical context for the recently concluded synod in Rome:

In 1965, just as the fourth period of Vatican II was about to begin, Pope Paul VI created the Synod of Bishops. He introduced a new definition of synod in that he stipulated that it was a strictly consultative body for the pope, whereas previously synods were councils, which are not consultative assemblies but decision-making bodies. The many synods/councils over which Saint Charles Borromeo presided in the 16th century are, for instance, a striking example of how synods traditionally functioned.

Follow Tony on Twitter: @tonyoleck

Setting the Table for All

GraceGrace Mariette Agolia

Undergraduate Fellow

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I love sharing meals with other people, especially around the dinner table with my family.  In this sense, family, while including the biological, extends beyond that to a spiritual communion of persons, who express vulnerability by welcoming each other to the table, preparing a place for each person, serving each person, and embracing each other as he or she is in God.  You behold the body before you, you receive it, and you give of yourself in return.  It is both a physical and spiritual act.  I learned this experience of family in a special way during my time this past summer at a L’Arche home.

L’Arche is an international organization founded by Jean Vanier through which people with and without intellectual disabilities share life in community, build mutually transforming relationships, celebrate the dignity of each human person, and make known each other’s gifts by working together to build a better world. [1]

At tvince4he beginning and end of each dinner meal at L’Arche, we pray together.  We thank God for the gifts of family, friends, and food before we eat, and afterwards, we light a candle and pass it around to each person at the table as they express gratitude for certain experiences of the day and name their prayer intentions.  We conclude by joining hands to say the “Our Father.”  In gathering together around the table, we share our joys and sorrows, and we acknowledge each other’s dignity as persons created in the image of God.  The meal is not only about the food shared but also about the humanity shared with each other in kinship, where those at the margins are brought to the center.

Especially in a world where many are afraid to confront Lazarus begging for scraps at the table of plenty, this understanding of family where all, especially those on the margins of society, are welcomed at the table is essential for us to encounter God in human relationships.  We are to come to the feast of heaven and earth exactly as we are in God, and we are to embrace the dignity of all persons at the table, regardless of condition or ability.  For people with disabilities, this can be difficult because much of the non-acceptance that they face in society happens because others are not willing to incur a cost to themselves in trying to go beyond their fear in an attempt to understand.  Much of the disabling part is actually a social construction – the terrible feeling of isolation that results when other people, who do not understand because they are afraid, treat people with disabilities in a different way that can be demeaning.

Persons with disabilities are human beings.  Their experience of disability is a very particular type of challenge that they face in their daily lives.  It informs their experience as human beings, but it no way defines who they are.  Like every other human being, they seek love, they seek acceptance, they seek friendship, they seek communion.  Like all people, they must be offered a place at the table, where the human heart is called to relationship, to “a communion of hearts, which is the to-and-fro of love.” [2]

According to theologian Henri Nouwen:

[H]aving a meal is more than eating and drinking [to stay alive]. It is celebrating the gifts of life we share. A meal together is one of the most intimate and sacred human events. Around the table we become vulnerable, filling one another’s plates and cups and encouraging one another to eat and drink. Much more happens at a meal than satisfying hunger and quenching thirst. Around the table we become family, friends, community, yes, a body. That is why it is so important to ‘set’ the table. Flowers, candles, colorful napkins all help us to say to one another, “This is a very special time for us, let’s enjoy it!”  [3]

At L’Arche, we take great care in preparing and setting the table for each meal, ensuring that we have the right lastsuppernumber of places for all the people coming to dinner and that we can accommodate specific dietary needs.  Likewise, at Mass, it is so important to set a place for each person at the table, to invite them, to welcome them because that is true meaning of community.  We are to enjoy the beautiful presence of each other, of God coming into our midst.

This is part of the reason why I enjoyed attending Mass with the L’Arche core members.  They sat right in front at church, participating as fully and joyfully as they could using their gifts, and the whole parish community was so accepting of them as persons, which is a recognition that goes beyond merely accommodating a physical disability.  The accommodation needs to become a spiritual one for both persons in the relationship in order to bring them together, not just as one simply helping the other but as both mutually benefiting and being transformed by the interaction.

As Hauerwas and Vanier wrote,

“The Word became flesh to bring people together, to break down the walls of fear and hatred that separate people.  That’s the vision of the incarnation – to bring people together.  In his prayer for unity Jesus prayed that we might all become one.  We have this incredible vision of peacemaking, two thousand years in the making.” [4]

We are called to break down barriers of misunderstanding that separate us by giving and receiving the kiss of peace each day, and especially so during a family meal by taking, blessing, breaking, and sharing the bread that sustains all.

Sometimes, we have experiences of disruptive meals because of hostility and unreconciled differences among persons.  Those meals often go unfinished, with one person leaving in anger, the food wasted, the other sinking at the table, either no longer hungry, or eating in a futile attempt to fill the emotional emptiness.  Or there is an awkward silence as we cover ourselves by focusing on our food, anxious to get the meal over with so that we can escape the embarrassing situation.  There is no giving or receiving; only fear, and the walls go up.  We are left alone in isolation, in a division that threatens community.  This happens all too often in family life.  Some of us grow up not being able to be vulnerable, and it affects our relationships with other people.

When we are unable to accept the limitations of others, it is often because we are unable to accept our own.  For many of us, it is difficult “to accept our limits and our handicaps as well as our gifts and capacities.  We feel that if others see us as we really are they might reject us.  So we cover our weaknesses.” [5] Each of us has a strong desire to be valued and regarded as a person of worth, and when we discover those things which inhibit us from aspiring to our full potential or those things that are looked down upon by others, we want to hide them so that we may be accepted.  It is hard to expose our true selves because we run the risk of being rejected and hurt.  To give of oneself freely and to be accepting of another comes at a cost, but the rewards reaped can be great when love is returned.

When we accept each other as we are with all our weaknesses and strengths, and continuously come together to partake of the same meal, we grow together on our journey to God. When one gives to another, he or she allows the gift to be received, creating areas of inner spiritual growth.

For Jean Vanier, accompaniment is very much a part of life at L’Arche, but it is ultimately at the heart of all human growth. [6] We are to assume dispositions of humility and mercy for each other, so that we may walk together on this journey, encouraging the other to grow in loving relationship.  This mutual trust and belonging in communion is the “to-and-fro” movement of love between two people where each one gives and each one receives.  Communion is not a stagnant reality; it is continuously growing and deepening but “can turn sour if one person tries to possess the other, thus preventing growth.” [7] Both are enabled in freedom because they are allowed to be themselves.  As we partake of the meal together, we accompany each other in our spiritual journeys to union with God, which involves forgiveness and growth in understanding of each other.

In acknowledging and accepting each other’s vulnerability, we participate in this “to-and-fro of love,” a communion of hearts, where vulnerability and tenderness abounds.  By sharing the same meal and being incorporated into Christ’s loving act of self-gift, we are called to do the same in our lives when we are sent forth into the world after Mass.  We become a living body, unified in love through vulnerability in relationships.

By emphasizing relationships as brothers and sisters in Christ, L’Arche identifies itself as not just a service provider but also as a Christian community.  It is not just assistants caring for persons with disabilities; it is persons with disabilities caring for assistants as well.  The relationship is mutually beneficial and transforming, where both are called to vulnerability and to an ever-deeper love.  This is the nature of self-giving love that is intrinsic to family life.  There must be a selfless desire to give, and a humility to receive, both of which require vulnerability.  The love of husband and wife, the love of mother and father for their children, the love of siblings, the love of children for their parents, especially as they grow older and in turn, now need their children’s care.  We are formed in this love at Mass, at the Eucharistic table, and leaving, our lives become “Eucharistized,” as we share meals at our own family tables in our homes, welcoming all and preparing a place for all, especially those on the margins.

Gratitude is a fruit of this vulnerability of persons gathered together around the table.  Just as one core member at L’Arche expressed that his vision of heaven would be like the “First Thanksgiving,” pointing to a depiction of the Last Supper on the wall above the dining room table, we are called to enact each meal as a sacrifice of thanksgiving, honoring God and those human beings around us with sacred dignity.  We are called to give of ourselves in relationships of humble service and gratitude, as an offering of self-gift modeled on that of Jesus’ own gift on the cross.  Our hospitality to each other is a genuine example of how we should emulate Christ’s vulnerability in our lives.  In coming to the table, we do run the risk of allowing ourselves to be changed.  But unless we are transformed in love, how will we ever be able to kiss the crosses of others?  Our hearts become both the table and the altar where we encounter others and experience the person of Christ, who implores us to do this in his memory.

______

Notes:

[1] I participated in the Summer Service Learning Program offered through the University of Notre Dame’s Center for Social Concerns.  The theme of this year’s immersion experience was “Kinship at the Margins.”

[2] Jean Vanier, Becoming Human, p. 63

[3] Henri Nouwen, Life of the Beloved

[4] Stanley Hauerwas and Jean Vanier, Living Gently in a Violent World:  The Prophetic Witness of Weakness

[5] Jean Vanier, Becoming Human, p. 100

[6] Jean Vanier, Becoming Human, p. 130

[7] Jean Vanier, Becoming Human, p. 28