Friday of the Sixth Week of Easter

When a woman is in labor, she is in anguish because her hour has arrived; but when she has given birth to a child, she no longer remembers the pain because of her joy that a child has been born into the world. 
So you also are now in anguish. 
But I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you.

I wrote the following poem several years ago, around the feast of the Ascension. 
It's written in the form of a pantoum, a very complicated, difficult and strict form. It begins with verses from today's responsorial psalm. (My poem bends the rules severely.)

You may want to read it outloud, and more than once, to pick up the rhythm and melody, and its joy. 

A pantoum is composed of four-line stanzas, and is of any length. It's rhyming is abab in each stanza. In the second stanza, the first and third lines duplicate the second and fourth lines of the first stanza. The same pattern flows into the third stanza, with the 1st and 3rd lines duplicating the 2nd and 4th lines of the second stanza.
But there should be some kind of meaning or sense in the flow of these lines. It helps if the same words and phrases have different meanings. This can happen when a noun becomes a verb, for instance; or a verb, a noun. Or the word spelt the same might be pronounced differently 
(a heteronym), e.g, produce vs. produce. Homonyms and homophones are legal.  
Finally, the 2nd and 4th lines of the last stanza duplicate the 1st and 3rd lines of the first stanza, but in reverse order. Thus the first line of the poem is also the last line. 

Or the poet might alter the line a bit, as I have done, violating the laws for the sake of making sense. 

I'd like to think this poem evokes, for the poet and the reader, the agony of creative labor and the satisfaction that Saint John evokes in today's gospel:

The Lord ascends to shouts of joy,
A blare of trumpets for the child
Whose coming the powers-that-be annoys;
He’s far too pleasant, far too mild

And trumpets blaring for the child
Will shatter windows, tumble walls
As pleasant springtime airs and mild
Invade our cubicles and stalls

Reopen shuttered airless halls
To free our mind and open eyes
The silly cubicles and stalls
That tried so hard to hide our lies,

To keep our minds and blind our eyes
Evaporate before the boy
Who tries the harshest, hidden lies
And dumps them like discarded toys.

Elaborate before the boy
The nation's proud display their deeds;
He dumps them like discarded toys
He turns instead to find the seeds

The nations' proud despised as weeds
His father planted years ago
He means to find and tend the needs
Of all who suffer lives of woe.

His father planted years ago
A garden rich with all delight
And those who suffer lives of woe
Will never need to take to flight

From gardens rich with all delight.
The powers-that-were no more annoy
And humble folks need not take flight
As God descends to shouts of joy.

Thursday of the Sixth Week of Easter

Lectionary: 294

“A little while and you will no longer see me, and again a little while later and you will see me.”
So some of his disciples said to one another, “What does this mean that he is saying to us, ‘A little while and you will not see me, and again a little while and you will see me,’

In today’s account of the Last Supper, Jesus speaks a riddle to his befuddled disciples and they respond accordingly, “What does this mean?”

Riddles have an ancient respectability in our religion and culture. Often they are used to give sage advice. I sometimes tell elderly Veterans the Riddle of the Sphinx to encourage them to use a cane. That’s not the point of the riddle but it suggests this high-tech device has been around a very long time. The hero Samson flummoxed his Philistine enemies with a riddle in Judges 14.

Riddles intrigue and challenge the mind to consider imponderable mysteries. They remind us of our helplessness because the questioner knows the answer and, try as we will, we cannot answer it. We really have no clue until the answer is given, and then it’s obvious! It is, of course, a perfect tool for Saint John the Divine! 

Jesus predicts his death and resurrection with today’s riddle. To every bible school child after the fact the answer is obvious; but before the fact the disciples are stumped.

We do well to return in imagination to that moment before Jesus was arrested to consider the disciples’ dilemma. Certainly we could not expect to understand Jesus any better than they did. “Had we been there…” our response would have been the same: “What does this mean that he is saying to us? “

In other words, if I think I understand the resurrection and what it means, I am almost certainly a fool. My apparently “superior wisdom” has given me no advantage.
We cannot know God's mind but Faith is willing to stand in the blinding light of revelation and ask, “What does this mean?” 

Sometimes people recite their catechism answers like children caught in the blinding light of the bathroom at midnight. They are holding their hands on their faces against the light, allowing only a sliver to stab through their fingers, and saying, “Okay, now I see what you mean!”

But they don’t see anything. They have only managed to contain a particle of Truth in a tiny jewelry box where it will be treasured and forgotten.

Before they get the riddle, the disciples will be blinded by the revelation of Easter. They will assume the women who report his resurrection are hysterical; they will think his appearance is a ghost; they will insist upon touching his wounded hands and side before they believe. They will gather in the Upper Room after his Ascension, still pondering what does this mean.

Only the Holy Spirit can reveal its meaning to us as we permit ourselves to be blind with joy.

Wednesday of the Sixth Week of Easter

Lectionary: 293


“I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now.
But when he comes, the Spirit of truth,
he will guide you to all truth.

To know the truth one must love the truth. No amount of schooling or scholarship can replace love of the truth. It begins with the realization that I cannot own or contain the truth. Although I turn with my sincere curiosity to the world around me, asking profound and beautiful questions, there is an impenetrable darkness within me. So when I ask questions and seek knowledge, my motives are always suspect.

The world may respond to my questioning, “Who are you? What right do you have to ask? Why are you asking? Why should we answer you?” It might even reply with Colonel Jessup’s taunt, “You can’t handle the truth!” (from the movie, A Few Good Men)

Jesus has warned us about the truth, “You cannot bear it now.” It will expose more than you want to know about your prejudices and privileges.

It might also reveal God’s love as more brilliant and beautiful than you can bear. You might flee from him with the same impulse that forced Peter to his knees when he said, “Go away from me Lord, I am a sinful man.”

The Holy Spirit “will guide you to all truth.” Jesus assures us. Very likely, as we take those steps, we will have to ask, “Precious Lord, take my hand.”  

We live in a dazzling age of data explosion and information technology. We have scanners of every sort amassing data from the sea bed to outer space. Remote sensors measure snow pack and wind velocity on mountain tops and the temperature of mud in river bottoms. We are collecting medical information about millions – soon to be billions – of human beings. With powerful computers and sophisticated algorithms we can predict systemic reactions with astonishing accuracy. What’s the weather next Tuesday? How will this medicine perform in this patient? When will Flight #123 arrive? We might not know the future but we can predict with great confidence. And if they ever figure out how to quantum compute today’s advances will look like Stone Age!

But -- will all this knowledge drive us to reconcile with climate change? Will it persuade us to share the earth and it resources with billions of persons just as worthy as ourselves?

All that amassing of facts knows little of Truth; it only leaves us more vulnerable to catastrophe. It is no more reassuring than the Tower of Babel. We are still clueless in the face of mysteries like Justice, Mercy and Communion. The heart of darkness still hides its deceptions in plain sight where we cannot see them. I might ask, “How can we use all these algorithms for the promotion of peace?” but my real agenda is, “How can I guarantee my present and future security?”

From the secure “chair” of his agony, Jesus teaches us the value of human knowledge. Because he is nailed securely to a cross he cannot ascend to the heavens or rest on the earth, and yet he governs both. His wisdom, as Saint Paul said, is foolishness to the wise; his holiness is scandalous to the pious.

If we can "handle the truth" of our utter helplessness under mountains of data, we might hope to bring justice to earth.

Feast of Saints Philip and James, Apostles

Lectionary: 561

Jesus said to Thomas, “I am the way and the truth and the life.
No one comes to the Father except through me.
If you know me, then you will also know my Father.
From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

High school and college classmates share a special camaraderie as they experience important formational years together. If they have shared all those years together, as we did in the seminary, their affection and knowledge of one another is especially intense. They have been family to each other, shaping and molding one another as they worked, played, argued, fought and reconciled.  

Despite all that, I never really knew my friend until I met his family. Seeing him in his own milieu with his own kin -- bonded by their very genes, looking, emoting, thinking and acting alike -- opened my eyes to facets of his personality I had only wondered about. Mannerisms, attitudes and habits that had bugged me, appearing as typical of his family, made perfect sense.

If you want to know God you must know the Son of God. Not knowing Jesus, you cannot possibly know his Father. As he said, “No one comes to the Father except through me.” Likewise, you cannot know Jesus if you do not know his Father. Whatever you may know about Mary’s son, born in Bethlehem and died in Jerusalem, if you ignore his divine paternity you know nothing.

He is “the way and the truth and the life.” That way that leads to God also leads us back into ourselves, for we are made in the image and likeness of God. To know myself I invite the knowledge of God.

There is a scientific language of knowledge that speaks of facts and data. It wants to amass knowledge and then draw up hypotheses and theories about what it knows.

Probably, at some point in our foolish youth, we discussed theories about our friends. I shudder at the memory today. Whatever I thought I knew, I realize I knew nothing; or at least that kind of knowledge is nothing.

Knowing a person is not like knowing a fact; they are so different there should be different words. I know my friend in that I would recognize him anywhere on the face of the earth; even if he appeared in disguise I would discover him. I know my friend because there are mysterious “layers” or “levels” of his being that neither he nor I can explain but we apprehend them and honor them.

I know him because he knows and recognizes me. If we were both disguised we would discover each other. A word, a gesture, a facial expression, perhaps even an odor might give us away.

That knowledge is infinitely more important than any facts we might amass. That knowledge is open to facts, it might be intensely curious about the other’s facts, but it transcends all facts because it is love.

Jesus insists that he is the way to the Father. He is also the way to our own deeper selves, and the way to communion with one another. His is the road that leads in all directions simultaneously! We have only to take his hand.

Memorial of Saint Athanasius, Bishop and Doctor of the Church

Lectionary: 291

When the Advocate comes whom I will send you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, he will testify to me. And you also testify, because you have been with me from the beginning.

"It's easier to tell the truth all the time. That way, you don't have to remember everything you tell people."

I first heard that statement by an alcoholic in recovery as he witnessed to fellow AA members. I was astonished at its simple, homespun wisdom. As one who had nothing particular to hide, I did not realize how difficult life is for alcoholics and other addicts.

Liars -- of the chemical type or otherwise -- continually disseminate misinformation and then have to maintain with enormous effort the tangled web they weave. Years later, in recovery -- if they survive -- it makes for wonderful storytelling!

But it's not easy to speak the truth. First of all, without the Holy Spirit, we cannot know the Truth. She must be revealed by the Mercy of God and not everyone wants to know her. The liar tells lies because he has never encountered truth. He wouldn't know it if it bit him on the leg!

Saint Augustine said, "It always takes courage to tell the truth." Facts can be recited, often with no particular effort, but all the facts in the world don't add up to truth. In fact, they are often used to hide the truth -- as every alcoholic knows. "I'm running down to the grocery store for milk, bread and eggs" doesn't happen to mention a side trip to the liquor store.

Truth is a relationship; it is a safe place where you and I speak honestly and fearlessly to one another and know we don't have to worry that some things are not said. If it's important it will be said.

Truth is an unseen third party who gives substance to a relationship. The friendship, the "we," becomes more important than "you" or "me;" and I would not violate that substantial "us" for all the tea in China. If I have violated it -- even in the smallest degree -- I regret it profoundly and would gladly surrender every advantage I gained by my sin in exchange for your renewed trust.

Truth is the Advocate who speaks for us before God the Father because we love the truth and make every effort to love, honor and serve her. Truth testifies to us the mission and purpose of Jesus. Hers is a safe house where we can rest, relax, recoup and be healed.

Today we honor Saint Athanasius. Among his many exploits he dared to speak truth to the Emperor Constantine, and suffered for it. Athanasius condemned the Arian heresy despite its backing by the state. For his courage he was sent into exile from his family and loved ones several times, and the controversy was still unsettled when he died. His earthly reward was the gratitude of a Church a thousand years later. We can only imagine his heavenly reward. 

Sixth Sunday of Easter

Lectionary: 57

The angel took me in spirit to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.
It gleamed with the splendor of God.
Its radiance was like that of a precious stone, like jasper, clear as crystal....

I saw no temple in the city
for its temple is the Lord God almighty and the Lamb.
The city had no need of sun or moon to shine on it,
for the glory of God gave it light,
and its lamp was the Lamb.

R.G. Collingwood, an early 20th century Protestant theologian in his book Speculum Mentis, wrote, 
...religion reached its climax in Christ and in doing so it ceased to be religion.
Perhaps he was reflecting on Saint John's apocalyptic vision of the new Jerusalem, which has "no temple in the city for its temple is the Lord God almighty and the Lamb." 

I can't quote it but I think even the Baltimore Catechism said there would be no need for sacraments or the Church in heaven. Those things will have passed away. 

Certainly there will be no need for religion to evoke the presence of God; the Shekinah will be manifest in everyone there, in our communion with the saints and angels, Mary and Jesus; and in our at-home-ness with created matter. As Isaiah the prophet said, "the lamb will lie down with the lion, and the child will play by the cobra's den." Eating and drinking, song and dance and all the arts of celebration will express our gratitude in God's presence. 

In the meanwhile we thank God for the religion that leads us to Christ although we are painfully aware of its limits. Christians have killed one another in the name of Christ. It has been used to prop governments with patriotic slogans like pro deo et patria ("for God and country.") 

But religion makes a difference when Jesus and the Holy Spirit lead us through our rituals and reflections.  He reminds us of this in today's gospel: 
Whoever loves me will keep my word,and my Father will love him,and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him.
Come and Meet the Friars weekend
at Mount Saint Francis. 
Without religion there is no hope of keeping Jesus' word. This is the "institution" -- despised as it might be -- that remembers his birth in Bethlehem and death on Calvary and appearances in Jerusalem. Under the impulse of his Spirit we remember his words. 

Religion gives shape and form to our relationships as our communion of friends and families and neighbors transcends its narrow limits. No two people agree on every religious notion -- he likes the rosary; she likes Bible study -- but their mutual regard leaps over that boundary easily. As Joseph and Lois Bird taught in the 1970's, "All marriages are mixed." 

Our affection for one another, disciplined by penance and self-renunciation, opens a room for the Father and the Son and the Spirit to make a dwelling within us. 

Saturday of the Fifth Week of Easter

On account of the Jews of that region, Paul had him [Timothy] circumcised, for they all knew that his father was a Greek.
As they traveled from city to city, they handed on to the people for observance the decisions reached by the Apostles and presbyters in Jerusalem.

It is ironic that Paul had his new disciple Timothy circumcised although he had just finished a lively discussion in Jerusalem over that very question. He had opposed requiring gentiles like Timothy to undergo the ordeal upon being baptized. He had faced down much opposition from more conservative leaders of the church. In fact, in the very next breath, Saint Luke tells us they were announcing as they went "the decisions reached by the Apostles and presbyters in Jerusalem."

Although the apostles had agreed to relax the old rules during that “First Council of Jerusalem” -- it was the will of the Holy Spirit -- the controversy did not go away. Years later Saint Paul would display some anger about it in his Letter to the Galatians. In fact he had some distinctly unsaintlike opinions of certain "so-called super apostles” and their "other gospel."
Apparently young Timothy didn’t mind the imposition and could honor his new brothers and sisters in the Church despite their reservations about him.

The story reminds us of how reluctantly religious people are to alter their religious practices. Beliefs and opinions can change but they don't really matter until we get to the actions -- the rituals, gestures, songs and words of the religion.

After the Second Vatican Council Pope Paul VI promulgated a revised way of celebrating the Mass. The priests should face the people across the altar of our worship; we should read the Eucharistic Prayer aloud for all the people to hear and participate. In fact the best historians and liturgists could not tell us why that cardinal prayer of all the people had become the whispered prayer of a solitary individual. After the Council every syllable should be articulated clearly and audibly so that everyone might meet in one voice, one prayer and one heart.

But there were some old priests -- old guys in their sixties (like me) -- who could not make the adjustment. Many were retired and "said" their daily Mass without a congregation. So the Holy Father compassionately allowed them to continue in the old ways. The Tridentine Mass, it could not be denied, was a legitimate way to "say" the Mass.

However, that compassionate gesture proved to be the camel's nose under the edge of tent. The rest of him was coming in!

So a few old people wanted to watch the old priest say his solitary Mass while they prayed their rosaries. And then some young people, disenchanted with the determined (deterministic?) enthusiasm of their parents for the "New Mass" wanted to observe the "old Mass."

Then Pope Saint John Paul II permitted the Tridentine Mass to be celebrated with congregations with the local bishop's permission. One canonist I knew grumbled that he split our religion into two religions by permitting two different rites. The Saint was not a canonist; he had a compassionate heart.

Pope Benedict XVI went further, giving all priests permission to use the old rite.

Personally, I can understand a lay person wanting to be left alone and undisturbed while she prays -- even if she does it while people are joining as a congregation around her. I've had my days when I wanted no one around me. 

But I cannot support a priest who would not permit the congregation to understand the words he prays in their name. How can they say "Amen" when they don't know what he said? He might be simply mumbling, as I did when I was an altar boy and still hadn't nailed down the Suscipiat.

They tell the story of the old Byzantine priest who was instructing a younger Roman priest in the particulars of that rite. As the two incensed the altar the old man muttered, "Learn these prayers now because if you don't get them now you never will!" Meaning, he had never learned them in his eighty years of ministry. Who would know?

But if it doesn't matter -- as some might say -- then words don't matter and nothing that happens in our church matters. It's just sentimentality for the masses. 

Dear Saint Paul and the compliant Saint Timothy went along with the old folks in Derbe and Lystra, allowing them to have their old ways for the time being. These dear hearts would not have to pray with a gentile, not even a Christian gentile. Paul could let God's plan work itself out in God's own time. Perhaps I can learn from him.