St. Monica (27 Aug), Widow and Mother
St. Augustine (28 Aug), Bishop and Doctor
St. Augustine's unruly childish ways advanced into immoral adult ways as he grew into a young man. He pilloryies himself in his autobiography, but to be fair, unless he omitted very important details, he probably would have fit in very much with well-to-do young men today. He was athletic, laidback, very intelligent, and kind-spirited: traits that made him popular his young friends, and beloved as a shepherd of souls.
His mother, Monica, was worried sick for him when he left the Church at 16 years old in favor of a mistress. Newly widowed by her husband Patrick, she was free to follow Augustine and his young family to whatever town they journied for Augustine's next teaching position. The last such stop was at Milan. She must have nagged him a lot. In fact, she must have nagged a lot of people a lot. After she had presumably complained to him about her son, St. Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan, is said to have chided her, "Dear lady, perhaps you will obtain greater success if you speak less to Augustine about God, and more to God about Augustine." She must have spoken to God about her errant son a great deal as well. In fact, Augustine tells us in his Confessions that St. Monica went to Mass and received Communion each day - a rare thing at the time. Most parishes only had Mass on Sundays, a few feast days, and on the occasion of someone's funeral. St. Monica would listen for the town cryer each morning to hear where somebody had died, so that she could hurry off to that parish for Mass. She must have offered many Holy Communions for the conversion of her son. Another time, St. Ambrose, to console her said, "Dear lady, have no fear. A child of so many tears and prayers will not be lost to God."
Sure enough, Augustine was converted with the help of his mother's prayers and communions - and she lived just long enough to see it on this side of heaven. Augustine went on to be ordained within a few years, and resettling in Hippo near his hometown of Thagaste, he was elected bishop there. His physical stamina and intellectual gifts served him well. He slept very little and travelled around his diocese almost constantly, developing a reputation as a powerful and insightful speaker, preacher, and teacher. He wrote an immense collection of letters, sermons, and books. Even the small fragment that remains to us today is an impressive collection. Augustine's gentle temperament brought him great affection, even from people he had the displeasure of having to correct or chastise.
More than a few mothers today have sons who have left the Church. For that matter, all of us have friends and family that have drifted away. As our relationship with Christ has matured, this distance between Him and our loved ones causes us no little suffering. St. Monica is a great role model and intercessor for such people.
St. Augustine's gifts, used so frivolously in his time of sin, became instrumental for grace after his conversion. All the natural gifts that God gives us will be magnified by his grace when we submit them to God's use. Let us look to the Holy Spirit for guidance in putting our gifts to His service.
Ss. Monica and Augustine, pray for us.
St. Monica (27 Aug), Widow and Mother
I wanted to share a thought or two with you about one of my favorite topics.
What occasions this thought is my recent visit to the website of Communion and Liberation, which I have been (slowly) getting involved with. It's an international movement within the Catholic Church that combines a particular method for catechesis with community-based discipleship. Going to the website, and following the link below to reach the site for the US national headquarters of Communion and Liberation (CL), I saw they had a cool 3 min video on. The video is shot like a home movie, and transitions to more modern clips, and even very recent ones, with a nice song. Singing - especially folksy or charismaticky little ditties, sometimes one overladen with meaning - is part of CL gatherings.
Part of CL's charism, it's gift from God to the Church and the world, is "vacation." Anyone who knows how much I like to travel (you all do), and especially anyone who knows the ridiculous amount of traveling I've gotten to do in the last year (I've been a bit more discreet on this point) can see why I might feel I share this charism with CL. But how is VACATION a charism, you might ask? It is connected with leisure, and the difference between leisure and amusement is key.
Leisure is a relaxation of the heart, mind. and body, and of relations, too. It is a release from constraint and pressure and obligation. It frees us to sit where we are and freely to flow between focusing and drifting. Moreover, the things to which we attend while at leisure are things that are voluntary and important to us: family, friends, hobbies, and the great questions of life. The Sabbath is meant to be a day of leisure, of rest, of freedom from the hustle-and-bustle of the obligatory and mundane. Heaven is to be our eternal rest. We will get to simply relax, play cards and drink wine, walk on the beach, laugh with friends, and otherwise do the sort of things that neither cost money nor can be bought - which is why commerce is excluded by levitical law from the Sabbath. The Sabbath is to be a reminder and a foretaste of heaven, heaven penetrating into our day-to-day. In leisure, there is a sort of quiet, gentle, receptive activity.
Amusement is almost the exact contrary of leisure. It replaces quietness with distraction, gentleness with exhileration, receptivity with absorption overload, and activity with passivity. Think of the immense difference between a walk on the beach with a brother or sister or lover, and going on a rollercoaster with one. On the rollercoaster, the shared experience is primarily in thinking back about the experience after it has happened, but during the experience itself, during the ride, the loud noise, the rush of adreniline, the gravity - they all conspire to absorb one's attention completely. Also, a rollercoaster is not something you do, but something you experience, something that is done to you, in a sense.
Amusement absorbs us and so distracts us from the reality of our lives, whereas leisure lifts us out of our life into a place where we can observe the reality of our lives (among other things) but without the pressure. Amusement spends our energy and scatters our focus, whereas leisure regroups our energy and recollects our focus. Amusement amplifies our experience of the day-to-day world, but only the entertaining parts. Amusement is a good thing though limited. Leisure lifts us up out of our day-to-day world in such a way that it can allow us to reflect and regroup and reenter it refreshed. Leisure does not amplify our day-to-day world, but introduces into it a little bit of heaven. Leisure is a good thing, and much less limited because it more closely reflects the unlimited joy of heaven.
When we speak here of vacation, we mean a vacation in which leisure, rather than amusement, predominates. People without any interior piece cannot really appreciate leisure, genuine relaxation, a vacation in this sense, the sense intended by Communion and Liberation. When they sit and become still, everything churning inside them rushes up. So they have to get up and DO something. DOING protects them from stopping and attending to things they would rather not address: the inner activity of their heart, the incoherence of their mind, the fragmentation of their relationships. When such people go 'on vacation' they fill up their time with incessant rush and activities, lest they actually begin to see their lives clearly.
That's not what a vacation is meant to be like, though. CL Vacations are taken as a group. Ten, twenty, even a hundred or more CL families, singles, priests, old people, young people will all go to a resort in the mountains or some other quiet place together. A priest will offer Mass and preach each day, someone will lead a rosary, maybe someone will give a talk on a spiritual topic each day. The rest of the day is filled with a gentle pace of horseback riding, rock climbing, hiking, walking, nature watching, camp fires, idle time, swimming, and laughing. It is meant to be a little piece of heaven.
When we think of heaven, really imagine and daydream about it, a little piece of heaven slips from our mind into our heart. When we experience little bits and pieces of heaven, something of it slips into our heart. When we experience and taste little bits of heaven, like when a kid licks the cake batter off an eggbeater, we begin to yearn for it. I am confident that the more we yearn for heaven, the more eagerly, happily, we will change our lives so as to be suitable for life there. We will reprioritize: God over the world, family over work, maturation over possessions. We will become more like God wants us to be - not because he is mean and pushy, but because he loves us and knows what we were made for: heaven.
A pilgrimage is something like a vacation in the sense meant by Communion and Liberation. In a pilgrimage the journey is not to relaxation but to a particular place, usually a holy site like a shrine or a tomb for the purpose of growing in faith, hope, and charity. The journey - especially to the extent that its provisions are left to Divine Providence - is an chance to grow in faith, and to the extent that one travels in faith one does not worry about details and can relax and let go. Spiritual in nature, the pilgrimage is marked by prayer, the action that most exercises hope. One may or may not chose one's travelling companions, but they are as important as the destination because they provide the most frequent occasions for charity. Pilgrimages are icons of the Church as She makes Her way from earth to heaven, to Her final rest, Her eternal vacation with Her Lord and Savior.
A conspiracy of unlikely collaborators have made it possible for me to go on a ridiculous number of overseas trips this year. A couple pals from the seminary, the IRS, my boss, my family, and the Church have all made it possible for me to go to Europe twice, and to Canada and Mexico - all in the span of the last 8 months. Each trip has been both vacation and pilgrimage. Each vacation-pilgrimage has enabled me to step out of the hustle-and-bustle of the mundane in order to relax and reflect. Each has had as its climactic destination a place of great holiness. Each has been in the company of loved ones - sometimes very close company! Not only have they been in the company of brothers and sisters in Christ, they have been in the company of the saints - especially the Blessed Virgin Mother, her chaste spouse, and her own mother, whose shrines we visited. All of the trips were exercises in self-abandonment to Divine Providence. For the most part, the itineraries were not planned out more than 12 or 24 hours in advance, nor was there any (or at least much) rushing, and we did all that we received more blessings than could have been imagined. Each journey been marked with prayer and joy and has helped me to refocus on the task assigned to me by God.
Christians probably intuit these ideas - I am only trying to help articulate what Christians making their way toward heaven already sense. Let's put away worldly (and expensive!) ideas about vacation: being waited on in nice restaurants and treated like a king, being constantly entertained, having everything exactly the way we want it, and having to make no effort. It is amazing how much less expensive Tulum is than Cancun, and how much more pleasant. We can allow Christ into even our vacation and allow Him to transform even our time away from timeliness. Isn't that what heaven is, after all - eternity with Christ, living outside of the constraints of time with the one who sets us free to be at perfect peace? It is amazing to think that our vacation can be a practice for heaven, and even help us get there.
We can put this basic principle into action more frequently and more regularly in a very simple way. Honor the Sabbath. Once a week, take a day off from hustle-and-bustle. Don't catch up on errands, go shopping, or eat at a restaurant - then others have to work. Play frisbee with your kids, or with your friends. Read a book. Notice that the world doesn't depend on your doing something. Barbaque. Go to church. Lay in a hammock and note the clear blue color of heaven. Stare long enough so that the image impresses itself on the inside of your eyelids, so that you see the shadow of heaven even when you have to go back to the things of earth.
Peggy Noonan's Wall Street Journal aticle of 27 July is interesting. I have been thinking a lot about the effect of wealth on our national character. Philosophical materialism (the denial of non-material reality), practical materialism (the trivialization of non-material reality), and material wealth all go hand in hand. Here's a link to her article about the connection wealth and boorishness.
Queenship of Mary (22 Aug)
In the first reading for today's Mass (Wed after XX Sun in Ord: Jgs 9:6-15; Ps 21; Mt 20:1-16) chose Abimelech to be their king. That was a great idea, they thought. But there was a problem - wasn't the LORD supposed to be their King? Jotham, a judge and prophet of Israel, went up into their country and spoke to them a parable of sorts on behalf of the LORD. He pled with them not to take a King aside from the LORD. He seems to have known our modern addage but with a different spin. We say, "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach," and thus ignore much wisdom. He said to them, "Those who have something useful to do, do; those who don't, rule." A bit later in her history, as the clamour rose up across Israel for a King over all of Israel, the LORD consented to give them one, but saw it as a punishment and tragedy, much as a parent might view his child's choice to drop out of high school. Human rulers lord their rule over their subjects. Our Lord noted as much hundreds of years later, though by then Jews living under Roman oppression needed no such advertisement. But yet, the tendency is not just in Romans, but in all of us. As Christians, we must fight tooth and nail to keep it from being so among us (Mt 20:25).
We Christians have a King in Heaven, and He has chosen for us a Queen. "You are the glory of Jerusalem, the joy of Israel; you are the fairest honor of our race," (Jdt 15:9). Those words were spoken by Israel to the widow Judith, but have ever been applied by the Church to another Widow of Israel, to her own Virgin Queen. The mighty lord Abimelech may have ruled a little patch of Gaza, but the meek peasant Mary has inherited the Earth. The Kingdom inherited by the Virgin of Nazareth is not the sort of Kingdom for which the strongmen of the world fight. Today's reading of a parable from the Gospel of Matthew tells us what it is like. "The Kingdom of Heaven is like," someone who owns a field and brings men into it to work, and is fair and just to all of them, and to some pours out an abundance of mercy and grace - especially to those meek who know how little they have that they can contribute to it. To those who think they can earn a share of the Kingdom, even to those who have worked long and hard to do so, strongmen who have bowed their heads to the Lord of Heaven and Earth, to such men there is a rebuke and a question,
"Are you envious because I am generous?"(Mt 20:15). Our Lord and Our Lady do not rule such a Kingdom. Their pecking order isn't tallest first, strongest first, smartest first, richest first - Lord Jesus and Lady Mary aren't like us and don't give two figs for such things. They pour out abundance grace and blessings upon the little, the weak, the dull, the poor of the Earth, and among those especially the ones who know it and are happy just to be loved by God.
We ought to be careful of powerful people who want to govern us. Better to trust those who care about and are generous with even people who have little or nothing to contribute. If we would enter the Kingdom of Heaven, we must become like little, weak, dull, poor children (Mt 18:3); if we become meek, we will inherit the Earth (Mt 5:5).
Oh Mary, Queen of Heaven and Earth, pray we become meek and faithful servants of your Son, so that He may at last bring us to share the glory He has shared with you, through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.
Today is not a feast of Our Lord's Guardian, but I couldn't wait to post this little prayer I found carved on the wall of a parish in Omaha.
Blessed St. Joseph, Chaste Guardian of Virgins, grant that like you we may be pure and at our end die in the arms of Jesus and Mary. Amen.
His most notable reform initiatives came after being elected Pope Pius X. He promoted an earlier reception of Holy Communion - as soon after the age of reason (7 years of age) as possible. He continued his work to ensure that not only the philosophy and theology taught in seminaries be sound, but also that the men graduating for ordination had received adequate pastoral formation to start ministry as parish priests. A series of encyclicals and motu proprios enumerated errors under the category of Modernism, and noting their increasing presence among clergy, insisted that all clergy take an oath forswearing them. He established the Pontifical Biblical Institute to encourage and oversee study of Sacred Scripture that would be both historically sound and theologically orthodox. He intitiated the reform of Canon Law into a succint single, coherent volume - a work completed after his death.
Charity was chief on his list of concerns, and when natural disasters struck, he would rally the support of the worldwide Church to send funds for victims' relief. Socially engaged in works such as rural not-for-profit banks to help farmers, Pius X was very careful to avoid commitment to any particular political party; he insisted that his clergy refrain from such involvement. He was also eager to see faithful lay Christians taking the reigns on social activities, prefering that clergy refrain from such activities so that they could focus on ministering to their flocks. At the same time, he did a great deal to prevent the government of France from harming the Church there, and to stabilize and improve relations with the government of Italy.
In all this, Pope St. Pius X was known throughout his life as an increasingly diligent, gentle, and prayerful man dedicated to the wellbeing of others and the worship of God.
Pope St. Pius X was a man of great foresight. Our times witness great need for clarity in Church-State relations; need for clarity in Clergy-Laity roles within the Church and the world; need for genuine liturgical renewal; need for improved formation of priests and the lay faithful and expanded outreach to the unevangelized world; immense need for useful social engagement by Christians; and a real need for wealthy Christians to support the needs of the worldwide Church. In all these needs, Pope St. Pius X was not only diligent, but a frontrunner.
Pope St. Pius X, help us, like you, to restore all things in Christ.
My vacation in Southern Mexico from St. John Vianney Day (August 4) until Assumption Day (August 15) with my friend, Fr. Bob Lacey, was immensely fun and generally pretty relaxing. Going with Fr. Lacey was great for a variety of reasons including his perceptive insight. Here are a few things that we saw in Mexico.
St. Maximilian Kolbe, Priest and Martyr (August 14)
Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (August 15)
One of St. Maximilian Kolbe's greatest virtues was his complete and total obedience to the will of God, and in particular, as God's will was made manifest to him through the directions of his superiors. His obedience calls to mind the saying of St. Teresa of Avila, El que obedezca nunca se equivoca, "He who obeys never makes a mistake."
The obedience of the saints undoes the disobedience of Adam and Eve to the only injunction God gave in the Garden of Eden. The one thing forbidden was the fruit of that one tree. Everything else was fair game, carte blanche, do as you like. Living in history since the Fall in the Garden, we find ourselves with all sorts of unruly desires that make us want all sorts of things that are not good for us, or even want good things, but in all sorts of bad ways. Before the Fall, it was easy to be good. Since the Fall, it has been very hard. Being good often feels like following a bunch of rules. Being good requires frequent self-sacrifice, and the most difficult self-sacrifice of all is the sacrifice of our free will. We are not speaking here of brainwashing or other techniques to rob somebody of his free will by force. We are speaking of a person voluntarily saying, "Not my will, but thine be done, Father," as Jesus did in another Garden the night he was betrayed (Mt 26:39).
The Blessed Virgin Mary, preserved from the moment of her Immaculate Conception from every taint of sin, was in the perfect position to be perfectly, easily obedient to God. Her sinlessness did not hamper her perfect freedom, but made it possible. She was still free at every moment to reject sin or to reject God. Yet she always obeyed. What drug addict is so free, free to either do drugs or not? Sin makes slaves of us, our Lord teaches (John 8:34). St. Paul explains how this enslavement, like the drugee's addiction, works toward death (Rom 6). Mary, who was free of from sin, was also free from its wages (Rom 6:23). Her uncorrupted soul found expression in her uncorrupted body.
We must pray daily for the grace, the life of God in us, to live obedient to God's will, seeking first the kingdom (Mt 6:33), and casting aside every encumbrance that holds us back from persevering in obedience (Heb 12:1). Having cast off the dead wait of sin, especially with the help of the prayers of the Great Mother of God, we will have nothing to prevent us from also being assumed into heaven.
St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, Religious (9 August) and
St. Lawrence, Deacon (10 August)
On August 10, 258, a deacon of Rome named Lawrence was set upon a grill and roasted to death in front of a cheering, screaming mob. His bishop, Pope St. Sixtus II, had been apprehended while celebrating Mass and executed on the spot just days before. Lawrence fully expected to follow his bishop, and perhaps even yearned to do so. As he submitted to the fire that consumed the last of his sinful nature, St. Lawrence is said to have joked with his executioners, "Turn me over, I'm done on this side." So it was that he passed from this life into the New Creation.
St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, a Carmelite sister, found martyrdom almost 1700 years later. Born Edith Stein and a Jew, she was reborn in Christ on the feast of Mary, the Mother of God, at the start of the year 1922. Later, her sister Rosa was also baptized. Her order transfered her to the Netherlands to avoid the growing Nazi threat. Her sister joined her there. After the Dutch bishops published a document condemning Nazi racism and the deportation of Jews, the Nazi occupying forces in the Netherlands revoked its exemption for converts from Judaism to Christianity. Her order was able to secure a visa to send Teresa Benedicta to Switzerland, but could not procure one for Rosa, who was only a guest of the house, and not a member of the order. St. Teresa Benedicta asked for, and received from her superiors, permission to stay in the Netherlands with her sister. They were thus deported together to Auschwitz, where on August 9, 1942, they were gassed and passed through the crematoria fires.
On the feasts of these great saints, tried by fire, it seems fitting to meditate on these verses from the Book of the Wisdom of Solomon:
"But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died,and their departure was thought to be an affliction, and their going from us to be their destruction;but they are at peace. For though in the sight of men they were punished,their hope is full of immortality. Having been disciplined a little, they will receive great good,because God tested them and found them worthy of himself; like gold in the furnace he tried them,and like a sacrificial burnt offering he accepted them. In the time of their visitation they will shine forth,and will run like sparks through the stubble. They will govern nations and rule over peoples,and the Lord will reign over them for ever. Those who trust in him will understand truth,and the faithful will abide with him in love, because grace and mercy are upon his elect,and he watches over his holy ones."
- Wisdom 3:1-9
St. Teresa Benedicta and St. Lawrence, burning with zeal for God's House,
pray for us.
Today's Gospel reading is disturbing (Fri after XVII Sun of O.T., cycle C1; Lv 23:1-37 al. ex.; Ps 81; Mt 13:54-58) because it ends on an empty note: "And he did not work many mighty deeds there because of their lack of faith," (Mt 13:58). The Son of the Living God, by whom the universe was created, entered into someplace and yet had little effect on it. It makes one think of the parable of the sower that Jesus had just told (Mt 13:1-8), and specifically of the seeds scattered on the hard path and carried off by birds before they could ever take root (Mt 13:4). Though Jesus preached to his people, it did not change their lives. It is only if we are willing to let the Gospel message concretely change the way that we do things that Jesus will be able to change our lives. That much only makes sense. Is that how people view faith, though?
How many of us think that having great faith is something like "believing really hard," or "believing really firmly?" Faith is the beginning of the life of God in us. It is a seed that gets in, sinks roots, grows, and in the process undermines and overthrows everything else in us that opposes it, like an acorn planted under a house might eventually uproot the very foundations of that place. If faith does not uproot the worldliness in our lives, it is not faith but only a bunch of ideas about God. For faith to uproot the worldliness in our lives we must be willing to let go of worldly things. We have to get rid of any ideas, attitudes, posessions, relationships, aspirations, or whatever else in us that conflicts with God's will. If we are unwilling to let go of them, trusting that God will provide better replacements in abundance, do we really have faith in Him? If we are not willing to let go of those things what room do we leave Him to put something new into our life? Those things might not even be bad in themselves (as alcohol is not), but if they are not good for us (as alcohol is not good for an alcoholic), clinging to them prevents God from replacing them with something better (like sobreity). If we are not willing to be changed, he will not change us. The difficulty is that most of us are, deep down inside, convinced that we are more or less OK, though on another level we know that we do have things about us that need fixing. So we must ask God even to change, to increase, our willingness to change. Our lack of faith in God is the only thing that prevents him from "doing many mighty deeds."