The Pinions of the Most High and the “He” of the Psalms

In the accounts of the temptation of Jesus in both Matthew and Luke’s gospels, Satan quotes Psalm 91 to convince Jesus to throw Himself down. It’s okay. Don’t worry. God has promised that his angels will bear you up lest you dash your foot against a stone.

A lot of the Bible, taken out of context, can give a false sense of comfort. Don’t be afraid. Everything will be all right. And down the gentle anodyne slippery slope we go.

The Church reads the Scriptures as a unified whole, and in the context of the hard-won doctrine of Tradition. The verses quoted by Satan, in contrast, are not taken in context even with their Psalm as a whole. Rightly read, the promises of Psalm 91 are conditional: He who dwells in the shelter of the most High and abides in the shade of the Almighty–to him be the promises.

I believe this is why the entire set of propers for the First Sunday of Lent is taken, almost ironically, from Psalm 91. The Church takes the tempter’s words, removes their sting, and turns them against him in an attitude of faith. Yes, it is the one who dwells in the shelter of the Most High and abides in the shade of the Almighty who will not strike his foot against a stone.

Who is this one? The new Adam, Who does not believe the tempter’s suave words. Who does not tempt God. Who is God Who rebukes the tempter, with the Law–He Who is the Word and the Law. Who does not know sin and has power to take sin away. Who does not strike a stone but strikes the head of the serpent with His heel. Who dwells ever in the bosom of the Father.



Church Music Association of America on EWTN

In a two-part series on EWTN’s Church Universal program, CMAA officers Professor William Mahrt, Fr. Robert Pasley and Dr. Horst Buchholz discuss the work of the Church Music Association of America.

The first part may be viewed online or on television at 6:30 pm Eastern Time tomorrow, Ash Wednesday, and part 2 will be presented this coming Sunday at 5 pm ET, with repeat broadcasts on Tuesday morning and Wednesday evening.

Among its many contributions to music in the Liturgy, the CMAA has contributed greatly to a resurgence in the use of the proper texts of the Mass, compiling and making public vast resources so that the propers may be used in every context.


Victimized again

In an unconscionable power play, today’s Vatican shenanigans have revealed the meaning of the much-bandied-about watchword “synodality.”

It is decidedly not subsidiarity. Rather it is centralization: an attempt to impose controlling structures upon most bishops by increasing the power of archbishops.

As a reporter at the news conference following this astonishing proposal pointed out, McCarrick was an archbishop. Law was an archbishop. One could go on and on.

There is a callous disregard for the victims of abuse here. Abuse is a weaponization of sexuality. Weaponizing a synod on abuse to achieve irrelevant and predetermined ends redoubles the injury.

St. Peter, pray for us!

St. Peter Damian, pray for us

The cardinal-monk and Church reformer St. Peter Damian had a hobby. He wrote hymns.

It’s lovely, I think. that this zealous and gifted leader who wrote against the sins of Gomorrah among the clerics of his day, and revived the use of physical discipline as a help to the soul, also showed himself to be truly a simple monk at heart.

Before they were rewritten in the 17th century, many of the hymns of our vast treasury were characterized by a candor and simplicity that would seem to belong peculiarly to the monastery. And yet their devotional tone also shares with us profound theological truths.

Among the objects of St. Peter’s devotions was the Blessed Virgin Mary, whom we acknowledge in our day as the Mother of the Church.

Today would be a good day to offer our prayers with his for the Church’s purification in trial, perseverance in truth, and the blessings of endless multitudes of new Catholics devoted to, and trusting in, Jesus Christ, whose graces come to us through the “yes” of our Blessed Mother.

O Theotokos, Mary blest,
Our human nature’s shining crest,
Through you we have our liberty,
Free children of the light to be.

O Virgin, Queen of heav’n and earth,
Though of King David’s stock by birth,
Your royal dignity has come
Not from your fathers, but your Son.

Remove us from the ancient root.
Graft us in Him, the newborn shoot.
Through you may we become by grace,
A royal, priestly, human race.

O offer holy prayers to win
Release from all our bonds of sin.
We praise your merits to the skies:
May we in heaven share your prize.

Exemplar of virginity,
Give glory to the Trinity,
Whose endless treasure-store of gifts
Through you our human nature lifts.

St. Peter Damian. My trans.

The realism of inflated expectations

 On one occasion Abba Moses of Patara was engaged in a war against fornication, and he could not endure being in ‎his cell, and he went and informed Abba Isidore of it; and the elder entreated him to return to his cell, but he would ‎not agree to this. And having said, “Fr., I cannot bear it,” the elder took him up to the roof of his cell, and said ‎unto him, “Look to the west,” and when he looked he saw multitudes of devils with troubled and terrified aspects, ‎and they showed themselves in the forms of phantoms which were in fighting attitudes. Abba Isidore said unto him, ‎‎”Look to the east,” and when he looked he saw innumerable holy angels standing there, and they were in a state of ‎great glory. Then Abba Isidore said unto him, “Behold, those who are in the west are those who are fighting with the ‎holy ones, and those whom you have seen in the east are they who are sent by God to the help of the saints, for those ‎who are with us are many.” And having seen this Abba Moses took courage and returned to his cell without fear.

For two thousand years, in season and out of season–mostly out of season–the Catholic Church has been fighting a war against principality and powers.

Our collective wisdom on battle tactics, if used in cooperation with the grace of God, which we enjoy in full sacramental measure, should be more than enough to overcome any malevolence, including the spirit of fornication.

Let’s face the fact that the 20th century was a century of total war on every level, and that wise fathers were hard to find even in the Church. Some were not fathers at all but perverse and perverting uncles.

Sexual abuse is not a Catholic problem. It is a human problem. But the Catholic Church is unique.

Because we have the solution.

We are called to be a city on a hill, attracting others to Christ by the authenticity of our re-creation by the water and the Blood. We have the call, and the means, to be a singular oasis of goodness and freedom. We have hard-won solutions to problems of loneliness, shame, compulsion, bad friendships, gluttony, sloth, curiositas–all of the handmaids of fornication. And we have a superabundance of grace if only we avail ourselves of it. If only we ask for it.

If only we put our faith in God.

Is “Listening” Enough?

Leonard J. DeLorenzo of Notre Dame’s McGrath Institute for Church Life believes there is more to working with young people than meeting them as equals, or teachers.

The scriptural validation for the approach to “walking with” that the Synod has heralded is the action of Jesus in his encounter with the two travelers on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13–35). As stated in the final document, “the Risen Lord wants to walk alongside all young people, hearing their expectations, even those that are unmet, and their hopes, even those that are paltry. Jesus walks, listens and shares” (§5). This is not wrong. What it is, though, is a partial reading of this narrative that functions more like eisegesis than as a faithful contemplation of Scripture.

Yes, Jesus draws near and, yes, he does ask the travelers what they are discussing (twice) and he does indeed listen to everything they have to say (through verse 24). But then Jesus takes control of the action. He starts off by calling those two chatty, downcast, disoriented travelers “foolish” (v. 25).

The impression that the final document gives—along with the preparatory document before it—is that this conversation on the road is an exercise in mutuality, in paired sharing, and in equality. Since Jesus drew near and listened to the travelers, the Church must do what Jesus did and listen to young people. But that leaves out the truly decisive thing: Jesus does not stop at listening to them; Jesus leads them because they really do not know where they are going. His business is to communicate a gift to them. After silencing and teaching them how to listen (not unlike Zechariah who had to learn how to listen at the beginning of this same Gospel), he reforms their imaginations according to the scriptures. He illuminates for them the meaning of his suffering, and then he feeds them with his sacrifice, filling them with a mission on the basis of this intentional formation. Hope hangs in the balance, and so does salvation.

Might this complete action of Jesus actually reveal what a true, genuine encounter with young people should be? Jesus forms them, educates them, preaches to them, nourishes them, and frees them so that they may become witnesses of his Gospel. The point was not in Jesus listening for its own sake; the point was listening to them in order to skillfully heal, liberate, and empower them. The Church should do what Jesus did—all of what he did. That is how we form mature disciples.

The guiding vision for this Synod could and should have been about what mature Christian discipleship looks like. The critical issue is not first of all that young people are lost but rather that the Church has become all too vague in what we hope for young people to become. And when I say “the Church,” I mean the gross majority of those of us called upon to form young people, including parents, ministers, mentors, teachers, religious, priests, and bishops. I also mean our institutions of formation in which young people—from their earliest years to their ripe old years—are supposed to be culturally formed: parishes, religious education programs, schools, lay associations, ecclesial movements, and the family home. Because we have lost touch with what mature discipleship looks like, what constitutes true life, and what holiness means, our ways of forming young people in the faith have become dysfunctional. This Synod should have asked and clearly answered the question “What are we forming young people for?” and considered everything else—including what young people themselves say—in view of that.

Much more here.

Duc in Altum

Yesterday I found myself at a local megachurch for a convention that was being held there. As a music lover and an introvert, I studiously tried to avoid two things: the astonishingly loud and repetitive praise and worship music, and small-group discussions.

There was an older man sitting not far from me during a breakout talk, and I didn’t want him to think I was dismissing him by avoiding the discussions, so as the session ended I said hello. Turns out this was his home church, and since I am Catholic, he wanted to know two things: what books he could read on contemplative prayer, and how to pray the rosary.

He made it clear that he did not want to become Catholic but said they don’t hear anything about contemplative prayer at his church, and wanted to know more about it. I told him about a lot of different authors from the Catholic mystical tradition. He settled on St. Teresa of Avila, and asked if there were a Catholic bookstore in the area where he could buy her books and a rosary. I gave a brief tutorial on the rosary, and we talked about asking for Mary’s and the other saints’ intercession, which he used to think idolatrous but now feels it is similar to asking a fellow believer for their prayers. We spoke until his wife called his cell, and said goodbye.

I have often felt that our efforts at Catholic evangelization aim too low. There has to be a “low door” for the unchurched seeker to enter, and thankfully we have good programs for that. But that simply cannot be where we stay. We have a journey to make, and that journey is serious and demanding, unchartable and rich beyond measure.  We are all called to the mystical life. (A good book to read on this point is Fr. Thomas Dubay’s Fire Within.)

I learned a few things from the megachurch. They had excellent coffee and cookies. Their church members are dedicated to service, to the point of meeting very basic needs such as keeping restroom supplies stocked. Attention to these practical details makes for a very warm welcome. The music, while problematic on many levels, was very well produced. Our liturgical music, on the other hand, is often played and sung without a “reality check” such as a recording. Organists and singers in Catholic churches definitely benefit from hearing their own sound, correcting and polishing.

However, we as Catholics have much more important things to teach than to learn–if we haven’t forgotten them. And it sometimes seems as though we have forgotten. In some parishes, preaching rarely changes, and rarely has much content beyond the vaguely therapeutic message that God overcomes fear. This is inadequate. In a world hungry for spirituality, we offer a very weak tea, instead of the riches within our grasp and online for free: the Fathers, the Councils, the Rhineland mystics, the liturgical riches of the ancient hymns, St. Catherine and St. Therese, the lives of the saints, and ever so much more.

This morning, on the Feast of the Presentation, one of the giants of our mystical memory passed into eternal life. Fr. Kieran Kavanaugh, OCD, co-translated and annotated the Collected Works of both St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. Fr. Kavanaugh labored to make the writings of these Mystical Doctors accessible, in all their richness, in flowing English of the present day. Here is an example from St. John’s Spiritual Canticle.

My Beloved, the mountains,
and lonely wooded valleys,
strange islands,
and resounding rivers,
the whistling of love-stirring breezes,

the tranquil night
at the time of the rising dawn,
silent music,
sounding solitude,
the supper that refreshes, and deepens love.

May Fr. Kavanaugh, and all who guide others along the paths of contemplative prayer, be blessed themselves with the beatific vision, and union with God. May he rest in peace.

Conflict and Communion: It’s later than you think

There’s a story about the Council of Ephesus that I doubt is true. What they say is that the assembled bishops were preparing to call the Mother of God “Christotokos,” and an angry mob of Ephesian laity heard about it and stormed the assembly, and the frightened bishops declared the Blessed Virgin to be Theotokos instead.

Another story has to do with the 2nd Council of Lyons, to which St. Thomas Aquinas was traveling, carrying his treatise On the Errors of the Greeks , when he died. The Greek bishops were required to sing the Creed with a triple filioque, thus restoring unity between East and West–a unity that did not last.

The days of schism, if we are not very careful, are upon us. The question at hand is the perennial one: to whom does this Church belong? If we are not to be clericalist, or Gallican, or neo-Protestants, I think we have to be careful how we answer that question.

There was a time, in the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s, when to differentiate themselves from more lukewarm institutions with Catholic heritages, young fervent institutions would announce that they were “faithful to the magisterium.” This was a statement of two things: continuity with the Holy Spirit’s revelation through the Church’s life and teaching, and trust in the Holy Father and the bishops of the Church. Renegade theologians and pagan religious were wreaking a great deal of havoc, but the teaching of the Church remained true to itself and to Jesus, as the Holy Spirit reminded us of all He had told us.

Where, one sometimes wonders, is that magisterium now? Who among the ordinary magisterium is determined to teach the faith in apostolic continuity?

That is one side of the problem, and one of two reasons why some bishops, such as Cardinal Dolan at the moment, are probably feeling like the laity will not give them the benefit of the doubt. The first reason, which continues to go unaddressed, seven months now after the McCarrick scandal became public, is the astonishing unaccountability of bishops for even the most condemnable of crimes. The injustice is absolutely wrenching. The second reason has to do with truth. Where exactly is the magisterium? Are there pastors for whom the care of souls is uppermost in mind? Is perseverance in the perennial teaching a priority for most?

In the absence of apostolic teaching, people will run to those who at least hold the truth. And that is the other side of this very dangerous time: the growing electronic industry that relies on intimidation, “outing,” and scandal for its fame and fortune.

I’m afraid these two parties are at an impasse. Bishops cannot condone scandalmongering. They should not. Faithful, educated Catholics cannot abide predatory shepherds or erroneous teaching. They should not. And so here we are.

It seems to me that the ball is in the bishops’ court. Not about Archbishop McCarrick; the Holy See has reserved that judgment to itself.  But about the rest, there is plenty to do. At this historical moment, bishops can become holy and bold, sheep-concerned, and forgetful of ambition. Many are; for those who are not, this is the hour for true greatness and heroism.

For the Catholic tabloids and those who skirt along the edges of that industry, it is worthwhile to examine one’s conscience frequently. Am I helping or hurting? Will I be happy when the crisis is over?

There is not a “side” in schism that is without fault. The Catholic Church will always hold and teach the truth. But historically, time and time again, things might not have gone so badly if we had acted with better judgment.


Some dangers of Girardian mimetic theory and its application to Scripture

Recently a number of respectable Catholic sources have lauded the work of René Girard, a philosopher who, turning his attention to Christian revelation, applied his theory of the “scapegoat mechanism” to interpret Scripture and in particular the sacrifice of Jesus.

I find the use of Girard’s theory unsettling and believe it to be dangerous, or even “another Gospel,” in the warning words of St. Paul, and I would like to mention a few reasons for caution.

Girard’s theory

To put Girardian theory in a nutshell for those unacquainted with it, Girard begins with two readily observable facts about society. First, people often copy each other in their desires. A man who has a beautiful watch or wife or house will inspire his neighbor to want the same.

Secondly, society has great tensions, to a great degree based on the clashing of desires. A limited edition watch cannot be owned by everyone, and it is the same with most things. Thus there will be many tensions because people cannot realize their desires. When tensions increase to a certain point, society has to regain its equilibrium, and does so by choosing “scapegoats” which they agree to sacrifice. A scapegoat, as a common enemy, disperses tensions and makes for a kind of peace.

According to Girard, this “scapegoat mechanism” was “unlocked” by the sacrifice of Jesus. By making Himself a scapegoat, though innocent, Jesus showed us the way out of our error of scapegoating. Over time, according to Girard, we are learning to ostracize others less and less, gradually learning to put this teaching of the Gospel into practice.

As a societal commentary I find Girard interesting, though not entirely convincing. For example, it does not seem to me that widespread scapegoating occurs easily except in times of unusual distress or change, such as economic distress or war. This seems to me to be distinct from the sort of gradual increase in unaddressed tensions that Girard describes.

More importantly, when his gaze turns to Scriptural revelation, the Girardian lens is inadequate for many reasons. I will briefly mention three of them.

Problem #1: Mimesis and the transcendental of Goodness

For thinkers in the neoplatonic tradition such as Pseudo Dionysius and Thomas Aquinas in his treatment of the transcendentals, good things are inherently attractive. That is what is meant by goodness: being that attracts. This goodness is the way that God, ultimate Being or I AM, draws human beings into virtue. We want to be like Him, to have as much being as possible by participating in a goodness that conforms us to His likeness.

For Girard, attraction works in a much more scattered and random manner. Instead of being attracted to things for their inherent beauty, for good that shines through them, we are attracted only by imitating the attraction of others.

Setting aside the problem of infinite regress that the theory of mimetic desire cannot escape–who was the first person to desire, and if he was the first, whom did he imitate?–losing the Dionysian/Thomistic value for the inherently good is to lose the deepest resonance of human longing for God.  Jesus said that He came that we might have life, and have it to the full. When the smoke clears, and nothing matters but life and being–what can a man give in exchange for his very soul?–we want goodness for ourselves and everyone. This goal is only realizable if goodness has an actual, rather than a mimetically manufactured, existence.

Problem #2: Horizontal reduction of Scripture

When Girard reads Scripture, he reduces it to conform to his theory. For example, the story of Cain and Abel as we read it in Genesis is unfathomably rich. It deals with freedom and judgment and mercy, as well as with Girardian themes of envy and violence. But even more so, it deals with human beings in relationship with God. In Girard’s reading of the Cain and Abel story, the interactive God disappears. There is no vertical dimension, no acceptable sacrifice. The unaccepted sacrifice simply means that Cain is a murderer.

While the Scriptures thoroughly examine the Girardian vices, from the selling of Joseph to Saul’s pursuit of David to “let us beset the just one, because he is obnoxious to us,” that is hardly all there is, and furthermore, there is a revelation of acceptable sacrifice. While this revelation is by no means straightforward, sweeping it away is deeply problematic, making the revealed history of Israel no more than a sociological study.

Girard is reductive, and reductive readings of Scripture are dangerous. They tend towards gnosticism, a heresy that Girard approaches in another important way, by proposing a secret Gospel teaching.

Problem #3: Misapplication to moral problems

One of the most popular current uses of Girard’s work is providing a theological framework for approving of immoral behavior. There are two “moments” in this argument. First, for Girard, there are no objectively ordered desires. All desire–see Problem #1 above–is mimetic, according to Girard. All desire leads to societal tension, and thus violence and scapegoating. No desire is for the good in itself.

Secondly, any disapproval, any natural law or moral argument against any behaviors, can be simply attributed to the scapegoating mechanism. Rather than making any meaningful claims about right and wrong, society is merely scapegoating persons for its own purposes of equilibrium.

In contrast, Scripture, most explicitly in Romans chapter 1, again brings the vertical dimension into play regarding immoral actions. In Romans 1, evil happens in a different sequence. The first movement is atheism; the second is immoral action; the third is violence.

The deep healing of worship

Instead of presenting the notion of sacrifice as the source of evil, I believe the Church calls upon us to embrace the notion of sacrifice and live it. Pre-eminently, sacrifice is the death of Jesus on the cross, re-presented daily in every Mass: His kindness is new every morning, so great is His faithfulness. It is the one sacrifice, unlike the repeated sacrifices of the high priests, and all true sacrifices led up to it in foreshadowing, like the rescue of the brothers of Joseph, or participate in it, like the sacrifices brought by the priest and the faithful to the altar in our own days.

For 20 or more of our brothers and sisters in the Philippines this morning, their participation in the cross of Christ was usque ad mortem, a true martyrdom. For countless others, there are hidden sacrifices of longer endurance: the divorced woman who lives like the “true widow” of 1 Timothy 5, unilaterally faithful to her vows, the truly scapegoated Religious who is faithful to his vows and community, the good bishop, the honest businessman, the truthful and fair journalist, the diligent employee.

“Sacrifice” is not a word to be argued away. It is the cost of setting aside the flesh, with its desires, and putting on Christ. Through the celebration of the sacraments, we are raised to a dignity higher than any teaching could make us. It is a body-soul experience of salvation that begins with the acceptance of the Cross. To us who are being saved, it is the power of God.