The Church Is Holy

Ever so often you come across a great book that speaks powerfully and succinctly and challenges you in your spiritual life. For me one such book is Theology for Beginners by Frank Sheed. The book was selected for our monthly book club. We are actually reading it across two months.

This morning I was reading a chapter entitled “The Visible Church.” In this chapter Sheed takes the four marks of the Church that we find in the Nicene Creed that we recite every Sunday: “I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.” Allow me to share with you what Sheed says about the fact that the Church is holy.

“Three characteristics of the mark of Holiness are, as has been said, the teaching, the means, the saints. It may have been noticed that, in treating the first two, the teaching and the means, we brought in the saints; it may be wondered what is left to say of them in the third. But in all three characteristics they are used differently. In the teaching we saw them as the unchanging standard the Church sets; in the means, we saw them as witness to the our weakness that holiness is possible even to us.

“Now, at last, we come to them as evidence to the whole world that the teaching is true teaching and the means are effective means. For the saints are the people who have accepted wholeheartedly all that Christ, through His Church, offers them.

“In other words, it is by the saints, and not by the mediocre, still less by the great sinners, that the Church is to be judged. It may seem a loading of the dice to demand that any institution be judged solely by its best members, but in this instance it is not. A medicine must be judged not by those who buy it but by those who actually take it. A Church must be judged by those who hear and obey, not by those who half-hear and disobey when obedience is difficult.

“No Catholic is compelled—not by the Church, not by Christ—to be holy. His will is solicited, aided, not forced.

“Every man must make his own response. The saints have responded totally, the rest of us respond partially, timorously (afraid to lose some sin in which we especially delight), or not at all. The saints in their thousands upon thousands stand as proof that, in the Church, holiness is to be had for the willing. Every saint is certain evidence that, if you and I are not saints, the choice is wholly our own.

The Church Is Holy

The Name of God

During this Lenten season I have been reading a book by Romano Guardini first published in 1911. The book is called Sacred Signs. With his Italian-sounding name (he was born in Italy in 1885) he was German priest, author and academic, having moved to Germany with his family when he was one. He lived in Germany his whole life until his death in 1968.

The last article in the book that deals with things like “The Sign of the Cross,” “Holy Water,” “Incense,” “The Altar,” and “The Chalice,” is entitled “The Name of God.” I want to share it here with you for your Lenten consideration. Remember it was first published in 1911. It is relevant to the present!

Human perception has been dulled. We have lost our awareness of some deep and subtle things. Among them the zest for words. Words have for us now only a surface existence. They have lost their power to shock and startle. They have been reduced to a fleeting image, to a thin tinkle of sound.

Actually a word is the subtle body of a spirit. Two things meet and find expression in a word: the substance of the object that makes the impact, and that portion of our spirit that responds to that particular object. At least these two ought to go into the making of words, and did when the first man made them.

In one of the early chapters of the Bible we are told that “God brought the animals to Adam to see what he would call them…” Man, who has an ability to see an a mind open to impressions, looked through the outward form into the inner essence and spoke the name. The name was the response made by the human soul to the soul of the creature. Something in man, that particular part of himself that corresponded to the nature of that particular creature, stirred in answer, since man is the epitome  and point of union of creation. These two things (or rather this double thing), the nature of things outside and man’s interior correspondence with them, being brought into lively contact, found utterance in the name.

In a name a particle of the universe is locked with a particle of human consciousness. So when the man spoke the name, the image of the actual object appeared in his mind together with the sound he had made in response to it. The name was the secret sign which opened to him the world without and the world within himself.

Words are names. Speech is the noble art of giving things the names that fit them. The thing as it is in its nature and the soul as it is in its nature were divinely intended to sound in unison.

But this inward connection between man and the rest of creation was interrupted. Man sinned, and the bond was torn apart. Things became alien, even hostile to him. His eyes lost the clearness of their vision. He looked at nature with greed, with the desire to master her and with the shifty glance of the guilty. Things shut their real natures from him. He asserted himself so successfully that his own nature eluded him. When he lost his child-like vision, his soul fell away from him, and with it his wisdom and his strength.

With the loss of the true name was broken that vital union between the two parts of creation, the human and the non-human, which in God’s intention were to be indissolubly joined in the bonds of peace. Only some fragmentary image, some obscure, confused echo, still reaches us; and if on occasion we do hear a word that is really a name, we stop short and try but cannot quite catch its import, and are left puzzled and troubled with the painful sensation that paradise is lost.

But in our day even the sense that paradise is lost is lost. We are too superficial to be distressed by the loss of meaning, though we are more and more glib about the surface sense. We pass words from mouth to mouth as we do money from hand to hand and with no more attention to what they were meant to convey than to the inscription on the coins. The value-mark is all we notice. They signify something, but reveal nothing. So far from promoting the intercourse between man and nature they clatter out of us like coins from a cash register and with much the same consciousness as the machine has of their value.

Once in a great while we are shocked into attention. A word, perhaps in a book, may strike us with all its original force. The black and white signs grow luminous. We hear the voice of the thing named. There is the same astonished impact, the same intellectual insight, as in the primitive encounter. We are carried out of ourselves into the far depths of time when God summoned man to his first work of word-marking. But too soon we are back where we were and the cash register goes clicking on.

It may have been the name of God that we thus met face to face. Remembering how words came to be, it is plain enough to us why the faithful under the Old Law never uttered the word, and substituted for it the word Lord. What made the Jews the peculiar and elect nation is that they with more immediacy than any other people perceived the reality and the nearness of God, and had a stronger sense of his greatness, his transcendence and his fecundity. His name had been revealed to them by Moses. He that is, that is my name. He that is being in itself, needing nothing, self-subsistent, the essence of being and of power.

To the Jews the name of God was the image of his being. God’s nature shone in his name. They trembled before it as they had trembled before the Lord himself in Sinai. God speaks of his name as of himself. When he says of the Temple, “My name shall be there,” he means by his name, himself. In the mysterious book of the Apocalypse he promises that those that come through tribulation shall be as pillars in the temple of God, and that he will write his name upon them; that is, that he will sanctify them and give them himself.

This is the sense in which we are to understand the commandment, “Thou shalt not take the Name of the Lord thy God in vain.” This is how we are to understand the word in the prayer our Savior taught us, “Hallowed by thy name,” and in the precept to begin whatever we undertake in God’s name.

God’s name is full of hidden power. It shadows forth the nature of infinitude, and the nature of him who is measureless plenitude and limitless sublimity.

In that name is present also what is deepest in man. There is a correspondence between God and man’s inmost being, for to God man inseparably belongs. Created by God, for God, man is restless until he is wholly one with God. Our personalities have no other meaning or purpose than union with God in mutual love. Whatever of nobility man possesses, his soul’s soul, is contained in the word ‘God.’ He is my God, my source, my goal, the beginning and the end of my being, him I worship, him I long for, him to whom with sorrow I confess my sins.

Strictly, all that exists is the name of God. Let us therefore beseech him not to let us take it in vain, but to hallow it. Let us ask him to make his name our light in glory. Let us not bandy it about meaninglessly. It is beyond price, thrice holy.

Let us honor God’s name as we honor God himself. In reverencing God’s name we reverence also the holiness of our own souls.

The Name of God

A Gentleman Saint

saint-francis-de-salesYou would assume that all saints would be bona fide ladies and gentlemen, at least by the time they were officially declared saints through the canonization process. Yet saints, even in heaven, are usually remembered for their dominant or besetting personalities and characteristics. Some are fiery, some are gentle, some are reserved, some are bold. What they have in common we find in paragraph 828 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

By canonizing some of the faithful, i.e., by solemnly proclaiming that they practice heroic virtue and lived in fidelity to God’s grace, the Church recognizes the power of the Spirit of holiness within her and sustains the hope of believers by proposing the saints to them as models and intercessors (Lumen Gentium 40; 48–51). “The saints have always been the source and origin of renewal in the most difficult moments in the Church’s history” (John Paul II, Christifideles laici 16, 3). Indeed, “holiness is the hidden source and infallible measure of her apostolic activity and missionary zeal” (Christifideles laici 17, 3).

To sum it up all saints lived in heroic virtue and in fidelity to God’s grace. We know that many others who have not been officially canonized have also lived in this virtue and grace. Yet those who are canonized do serve as models and intercessors.

When I converted to the Catholic Church I was asked to chose a patron saint at the time of my confirmation. I took this very seriously. I wanted to chose someone who modeled for me not only heroic virtue and fidelity to God’s grace, but someone who because of what he or she lived and endured and overcame could be a model for the life ahead of me. That saint for me became Bishop Francis de Sales (1567–1622). Not only is Francis de Sales the patron saint of writers (something I aspire to), he was greatly used by God to bring many lapsed Catholics back to the faith after the Protestant revolt (again something my heart burns to see happen!).

I was first introduced to Francis de Sales through a novena I learned of from the Coming Home Network, specifically to pray for those who had abandoned or were not practicing their faith. I prayed this novena before I was even a Catholic, longing to see lapsed Catholics come back to the fullness of the faith. The more I researched I discovered that de Sales had received training as a lawyer, but could not ignore what seemed a persistent call from God to the priesthood.

Today, one of the writers I greatly admire, David Warren, devoted his blog to St. Francis de Sales. He describes the refocusing of his life from law to theology:

“Thrice in a single day, according to the legend, this scion of a noble family, that was grooming him for high station in law and public life, fell off his horse. Each time his sword and scabbard came off — how embarrassing! — and each time they came to rest in the pattern of a Christian Cross. I mention this as if it were important, because it is. We portray saints and mystics today as if they were Triumphs of the Will, heroes overcoming all adversities to win the main prize, each a spiritual Hercules. This tends to leave God out of the account, and thus the Will by which each was actually not only motivated, but directed.”

Sam Guzman, of the Catholic Gentleman, comments on Francis’s vocation of evangelization in a blog six years ago:

“While St. Francis was full of zeal, he didn’t meet with much success. In fact, he got chased out of towns and had many doors slammed in his face. But he didn’t quit. Instead, he began copying out pamphlets containing Catholic teaching and apologetics and slipping them under the doors of the Calvinists. This is the first known example of someone using tracts for religious evangelization (tracts weren’t invented by Baptists!). We can only imagine what he would think of social media. Eventually, through perseverance and creativity, St. Francis was successful in converting thousands back to the Catholic faith.

“At the age of 35, St. Francis was promoted to the Bishop of his diocese. His kind and patient teaching style won him a huge following among the faithful, and he had a special interest in encouraging lay people to live holy lives. He said, “It is an error, or rather a heresy, to say devotion is incompatible with the life of a soldier, a tradesman, a prince, or a married woman…. It has happened that many have lost perfection in the desert who had preserved it in the world.” He is remembered for his many writings, especially Introduction to the Devout Life—a guide to the spiritual life for laypeople.”

“St. Francis de Sales is the gentleman saint extraordinaire. He lived a holy life in a very difficult time for the Church—the Reformation. His patience, humility, and above all, gentleness, were his trademarks” (Sam Guzman).

A Gentleman Saint

Nothing Ordinary About It!

Christmastide came to an end with the Solemnity of the Baptism of the Lord which was celebrated this past Sunday. As of yesterday we entered into what is known as Ordinary Time. I once thought that the period of Ordinary Time meant that it was a lull in the liturgical season until we get to Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent leading into Easter. Then we have Eastertide until we get to Pentecost Sunday and once again we enter Ordinary Time, and things get ordinary until Advent begins four weeks before Christmas.

The truth of the matter is, there is nothing ordinary about Ordinary Time. Its designation doesn’t even mean that it is ordinary or common or boring or whatever. The word “ordinary” comes from the Latin ordinalis which refers to numbers in a series. The Latin root word is ordo from which we get our word “order.” We call it Ordinary Time because the Sundays are numbered. The Solemnity of the Baptism of the Lord, though never referred to as such, is technically the First Sunday of Ordinary Time. From there we have the Second, Third, Fourth, etc. Sundays of Ordinary Time until we reach Ash Wednesday and the period of Lent. This year we will have eight Sundays in Ordinary Time before we observe the First Sunday of Lent.

Ordinary Time in 2019 picks up again the day after Pentecost (in the Tenth Week of Ordinary Time). Because we celebrate the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity the Sunday after Pentecost and the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ the following Sunday, we don’t return to Sundays of Ordinary Time until the Thirteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time. Are you confused? Check out this site for the correct designations.

The liturgical color for Ordinary Time is green both after Christmastide and Eastertide. We generally associate green with life and growth. During this particular section of Ordinary Time we focus on the earthly ministry of Jesus: his teachings and his miracles. After Pentecost we focus on the work and ministry of the Holy Spirit through the Church that continues to the present. Even in times of persecution, trial, scandal or corruption in some parts of the Church, she remains ever green. She is indeed the Bride of Christ and Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:25–27 RSVCE).

This is no time to let up or take a nap or be discouraged. Christ loves us and he is sanctifying us so that we might be holy without blemish! Thanks be to God!

Nothing Ordinary About It!

Overhead in the Office, Part 2

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cbs

I was sitting in the common space of my company enjoying my lunch when I realized that one of the other departments was going to have a potluck. Before they began to eat, the leader of the department stood and, this being a Christian company, announced that he would say a “quick prayer” before they ate. That’s not the first time I have heard prayer preceded by the adjective “quick.” I’ve even heard pastors and priests qualify the kind of prayer they would pray as “quick” and it’s almost always before eating.

What does that say about prayer, about us, and about how we view prayer before we eat? It reminds of those days when I was in public school and knew I should pray before I ate my lunch, but felt embarrassed, so I would feign dropping something and would pray on the way down and back up. Even now, working in a largely other-Christian than Catholic company, I am hesitant to make the sign of the Cross before I return thanks for my food.

Many years ago I was part of a newish church plant that had just merged with another church and we were learning the “older” church’s ways of doing things. That particular Sunday I was asked to read Scripture. Before the service the worship planner was walking us through the order and he announced that after I read the Scripture, he would pray a “quick” prayer so I could get off the stage and the preacher could take his place. That day prayer served as a scenery change!

So, when it comes down to it, the quick prayer could be for several reasons: 1) we’re really hungry, but we know that it wouldn’t be right to dig in without at least mouthing some gratitude; 2) It’s a carry over from those days of embarrassment of returning thanks in public, so we’ll get it done as quickly as possible; or 3) It’s nothing more than a perfunctory ritual that we do in order to stay in God’s good graces; and maybe most likely 4) We have so much to eat that we have lost the deep sense of gratefulness for what we have been given.

I love to see what our spiritual forebears have said about prayer in these situations. I found a good source of their wisdom in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. I highly recommend it to you. In the section entitled “Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread” in paragraph 2828 we read:

“Give us”: The trust of children who look to their Father for everything is beautiful. “He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Matthew 5:45). He gives to all the living “their food in due season.” (Psalm 104:27). Jesus teaches us this petition, because it glorifies our Father by acknowledging how good he is, beyond all goodness.

Paragraph 2829 continues:

“Give us” also expresses the covenant. We are his and he is ours, for our sake. But this “us” also recognizes him as the Father of all men and we pray to him for them all, in solidarity with their needs and sufferings.

And finally in paragraph 2830 we read:

“Our bread”: The Father who gives us life cannot but give us the nourishment life requires—all appropriate goods and blessings, both material and spiritual. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus insists on the filial trust that cooperates with our Father’s providence (cf. Matthew 6:25–34). He is not inviting us to idleness (Cf. 2 Thessalonians 3:6–13), but wants to relieve us from nagging worry and preoccupation. Such is the filial surrender of the children of God:

To those who seek the kingdom of God and his righteousness, he has promised to give all else besides. Since everything indeed belongs to God, he who possesses God wants for nothing, if he himself is not found wanting before God (St. Cyprian).

Mealtime Prayer:

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Bless us Oh Lord, and these thy gifts, which we are about to receive, from thy bounty, through Christ, Our Lord. Amen.

We give thanks for all your benefits, almighty God, who lives and reigns forever.

May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

 

Overhead in the Office, Part 2

Happy Epiphany!

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It was a cold winter day forty-five years ago today in Jonesboro, Indiana. I donned a white robe and headed to the baptistry located behind the choir loft just below the stained-glass window at Westview Wesleyan Church. I was 17 years old and I was finally going to be baptized!

Reverend Carlos Fletcher became my pastor during those critical high school years and asked me if I had ever been baptized. I told him that I hadn’t and true to his conviction and nature said, “We have to take care of that!” So at the beginning of the second semester of my senior year in high school I was baptized into the Christian faith.

Looking back I recognize that this was not just a ceremony, but an true incorporation into the life of Christ. A few months later I responded to a definite call on my life to pursue a missionary vocation. I shared this recently when my wife and I were interviewed on “The Journey Home” and I consider this a turning point in my spiritual life. You can see that interview here.

Historically, Epiphany celebrated four things: Jesus’ nativity, the visit of the Magi to the Holy Family, Jesus’ baptism, and Jesus’ first miracle at the wedding feast of Cana. Each of these events is a special manifestation of Jesus Christ to humanity. In the Latin Church we typically focus on the visit of the Three Kings which symbolizes the revelation of Jesus Christ as a light to the Gentile nations and as the Savior born for all of mankind.

Glorious now behold Him arise,
King and God and Sacrifice.
Alleluia, alleluia!
Sounds through the earth and skies.

O star of wonder, star of night,
Star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to thy perfect Light

We Three Kings, verse 5, written by John Henry Hopkins, Jr., 1857.

Collect for the Epiphany of the Lord
O God, who on this day
revealed your Only Begotten Son to the nations
by the guidance of a star,
grant in your mercy
that we, who know you already by faith,
may be brought to behold the beauty of your sublime glory.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
Amen.

 

Happy Epiphany!

And Yes! It’s Still Christmas!

Merry Christmas! Yes! It’s still Christmas—the sixth day of Christmas! There has been Christmas chatter since before Halloween if you think commercially, or since the day after Thanksgiving if you think musically on secular and pop Christian radio stations. But for me and my house (Charlotte and I), Christmas began at midnight going from December 24 to 25 with the procession of the midnight Mass. And we continue to celebrate especially during the Christmas Octave that goes from December 25 through January 1.

What a liturgical lineup the Church has given us in this Christmas season!

December 25: The Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord
December 26: The Feast of Saint Stephen, the first martyr
December 27: The Feast of Saint John, apostle and evangelist
December 28: The Feast of the Holy Innocents, martyrs
December 29: The Feast of Saint Thomas Becket, bishop and martyr
December 30: The Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph
December 31: The Feast of Saint Sylvester I, pope (314–335)
January 1: The Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God

All of this came together for me as I was reading the final entries in A Year with the Church Fathers: Patristic Wisdom for Daily Living, compiled by Mike Aquilina. (If you were given any Amazon gift cards this would be a great addition to your library, especially if you’ve only dabbled in the Church Fathers.) The reading I refer to came from Day 359 and is entitled “Honoring the saints goes back to the Apostles.” It is written by Saint Basil and is taken from Letter 360.

According to the blameless Christian faith which comes to us from God, I confess and hold that I believe in one God, the Father almighty: God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit. I adore and worship one God, the Trinity.

I confess the incarnation of the Son in the flesh, and that St. Mary, who gave birth of him according to the flesh, was Mother of God.

I also acknowledge the holy Apostles, prophets, and martyrs, and I invoke them to pray to God, so that through them—that is, through their mediation—God who is merciful may show me favor, and a ransom may be made and given to me for my sins.

For that reason I also honor and kiss the faces of their images, since they have been handed down from the holy Apostles, and are not forbidden, but are in all our churches.—St. Basil, Letter 360, (A.D. 329–379).

St. Basil is honored as a saint by all expressions of Christianity and he is considered a doctor of the Church. He was writing his letters at the same time that the New Testament canon was being determined by the Catholic Church.

In this Christmastide, give thanks for the Incarnation, give thanks for the Apostles, prophets and martyrs and join with the historic Church and St. Basil in invoking them to pray to God for us.

Merry Christmas!

 

 

And Yes! It’s Still Christmas!