17 February 2018

Who's Coming to Dinner?

The Readings for the Saturday after Ash Wednesday (B2)
Station at San Augustino
Et fecit ei convivium magnum Levi in domo sua : et erat turba multa publicanorum, et aliorum qui cum illis erant discumbentes.
And Levi made him a great feast in his own house; and there was a great company of publicans, and of others, that were at table with them. 

My grandfather died in 2002. On the first anniversary of his death, I went to my new priest, Fr V, and asked if we could have a Panikhida said for him. This is a memorial service prayed after death and on the anniversary every year. It's not a mass or full-on requiem. It takes about 15-20 mins to sing. But it's a nice memorial. Many ultra-Orthodox do not allow such things to be prayed for Protestants, so I asked Fr V if one would be possible. Of course! Why not? Because he was not Orthodox, Father. His reply, which I can still hear, "Raphael, if we didn't pray for the non-Orthodox, who would we have to pray for?"

Jesus sits and eats with anyone. This table fellowship (which is not the same as communion fellowship - which he shares only with his apostles) is an important hallmark of Jesus' ministry. This eating-with the unclean was a serious thing. It proceeds through the New Testament, marking not that "there is no chosen people" any more, but the realization that we are all sinners.  Jesus is God, communing with us. We find in that not only our salvation, but the will, the desire to eat with others.

But Jesus' actions are not isolated one-offs. We must eat with sinners too, not just nightly at the supper table, but in all parts of our lives. We don't just eat with sinners because we are sinners, we are evangelizing. In fact, since communion fellowship is becoming at-one with Christ in the Holy Mysteries, we can say that Table Fellowship is Christ continuing his work of evangelism. By inviting strangers to eat with me, Christ continues to eat with us sinners. This invitation to fellowship is a covert invitation to come see a Christian up close. Isaiah wants someone who will feed the hungry and keep the Sabbath. We are to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God - ie be generous and easy to all except in the first person. Eating with sinners does not override the universal call to holiness, but it does focus it in the first person. We must each be able to say, "We're all called to sainthood, you're closer than I will ever be."

My friend, T, used to get on the Subway in NYC with a bag of Sandwiches. He would give a sandwich to anyone who needed (or just wanted) food. And he would take money from anyone who would donate to help. There's a model for you. My friend, J, would make piles of pancakes on Saturday Mornings and give them away in a park in San Francisco until he was out. Who's coming to dinner? Or Lunch? Or coffee with you? Don't just give 'em $5, bring them to Taco Bell and ask what's up with their lives. Awkward for everyone, I know. But so good for everyone too.

Of course, it's Lent, so I talked about food.

16 February 2018

Why We Fast

The Readings for the Friday after Ash Wednesday (B2)
Station at Santi Giovanni e Paulo
Ecce ad lites et contentiones jejunatis, et percutitis pugno impie.  
Behold you fast for debates and strife. and strike with the fist wickedly.

I have to be fast. It's far too late for me to be up writing. So, here's a sketch.  On Ash Wednesday, an Atheist tweeted something mildly off-putting to a Catholic Nun. And Catholic Twitter played Dogpile on the Rabbit. Then, for most of yesterday, there was some fight between two groups who shall remain nameless. All in all it's been a good Christian Lent already, here on Day Three.

St John says "let the mouth fast from criticism..."

St Paul says (in I Corinthians 6:1) Audet aliquis vestrum habens negotium adversus alterum, judicari apud iniquos, et non apud sanctos? Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to be judged before the unjust, and not before the saints? 

And yet we expose each other before the Unjust on Twitter and Facebook.

And that's only after one day of fasting for most of us, because the Roman Practice in the USA is Way Lenient.

Food, however, is not the point, as St John says and so does Isaiah. 

Look, I know: it's the internet and everyone does it. I do it, making fun of My Favorite Martin. Forgive me. I don't mention it to scandalize anyone, but to say there's a difference between mature adult discussion of faith and disagreements entre nous and airing our dirty laundry where the media and the nattering nabobs of negativity can get at it.

So rend your hearts (and not the garments of the church). We totally have work to do before we can get to our Easter Joy:
Dissolve colligationes impietatis, solve fasciculos deprimentes, dimitte eos qui confracti sunt liberos, et omne opus dirumpe; frange esurienti panem tuum, et egenos vagosque induc in domum tuam; cum videris nudum, operi eum, et carnem tuam ne despexeris. Loose the bands of wickedness, undo the bundles that oppress, let them that are broken go free, and break asunder every burden. Deal thy bread to the hungry, and bring the needy and the harbourless into thy house: when thou shalt see one naked, cover him, and despise not thy own flesh. 
One reason for giving up actual food during lent (and not chocolate or coffee, etc) is so that there is actually money left in your hands to feed the poor. As the Pope has taught: after you pay your bills, and set aside a small stash for emergencies, the rest of your money is for feeding the poor.

Fr Alexander Schmemann said the same: after paying for a modest apartment and groceries, give your money to the poor; to individuals rather than foundations.

So giving up the food is logical - as would be giving up netflix, or internet etc, as long as it saved you money to give to the poor.


Stop fighting with each other.
Stop fighting in public.
Feed some poor people with your left-over money.

15 February 2018

There's a better choice...

The Readings for the Thursday after Ash Wednesday
Station at San Giorgio 
Qui enim voluerit animam suam salvam facere, perdet illam.
For whosoever will save his life, shall lose it.

There is the most wonderful word play here, in the Greek. Our Lord says, in 3 short verses (from 22-25), that  anyone who wants to follow Jesus must... 

Deny himself  (v. 23) 
Take up the cross 
Trying to save his life he will lose his life (v. 24a)
But losing his life he will save his life (v. 24b) 
Who cares if he gains the whole world
If his self is destroyed (v25) 

See those two couplets? 

Deny self - take up cross : gain world - self destroyed
save life - lose life : lose life - save life

The Greek seems to make the parallels using two Greek words, one for soul (rendered "life" in the English, but as soul in the Latin) and another word for self. The NABRE follows the Douay here, both sticking to "life" even through the Greek and Latin say "soul" 

I could venture that we are to read "soul" (or "life") and "self" as the same thing. But words are chosen for a reason by their writers. What it "self" means a little less than "soul"? I think it's important that the two choices are "Deny self" or "Self is destroyed" Either way the self goes away, right? Whereas the soul can be saved or lost, the self, not so much. You can gain the whole world and yourself is still going to be lost.

What is the difference between "self" and "soul"?

The Fathers speak of a sort of false self constructed when the passions run amok. If you've ever been addicted to nicotine (as I was for a long time) you might be able to relate - especially if you've joined the unhooked generation and kicked the habit. Those first few days/weeks of not smoking, you get lost or angry and eventually realize this is a nicotine fit. The difference between "normal you" and "you in a nicotine fit" is also the difference between "normal you" and "you on cigarettes." You just never noticed it. But your friends did: in Starhawk's Dreaming the Dark (I think... it may have been the next one) she says that if you want to know what is wrong with your presentation, go stand outside with the smokers. Then she comments: "I don't know if cynics become smokers or smokers become cynics." Either way, today I would reply, "Ex-smokers don't have time for that crap, Sister." That cynic is a false self, the "you on cigarettes". 

All the passions from anger to sex to bickering on facebook create a false self that we nurture and defend and risk our lives for. When we stop whatever it is to just "be ourself", the difference between normal you and you stressed out without your favorite self-medication is exactly parallel to the difference between you on your self-med and the real you. 

When we stand up at the cross and nail our false self to it... and let it die... then Christ can live through us: Christ, the Logos of all Creation, is our true self. St Paul says, "I am crucified with Christ and yet I live, not I but Christ who lives within me."

The Cross is our model, our protection. Letting go the "self": ideas of who "I am" and "what defines me", letting go of all the things that make me prideful and unloving, taking up, finally, the only sign of hope we have: the Cross of Christ on which he - like all men - must die in order to bring salvation and on which we - united with our God - will live forever.

It's a curious interchange: giving up self for soul. The soul may be weak when this process starts. What passed for living before is now not part of the deal. Seen for a crutch, though, we toss it aside and now without it we limp. But Christ the eternal healer can work with us on that: whatever the "soul" version of "rehabilitation therapist" is, Christ is that. He gives us stretches to do, people to love, mercy to perform, and gradually our soul gets stronger until we rest in him for all our strength.

We need no "self" other than Christ. And we have no self other than this thing that will die. Better to go with the ever-living one!

14 February 2018

This week was next week last week.

The Readings for Ash Wednesday (B2)
Station at Santa Sabina
Ecce nunc tempus acceptabile, ecce nunc dies salutis.
Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.

What is your life worth today?
What if I told you it is worth an infinity of love and light.
That all the death you have ever eaten and all the light you have ever snuffed out.
Is ready to be turned to Life and Light by he who is Life and Light himself.

All the doors you've ever slammed shut.
All the escape hatches you've sealed.
All the bridges you've burnt.
To lock yourself away.
To hide yourself.
To close yourself off.
Can be blown open, repaired, and repurposed.

All the hate you've received.
All the lies you've been told.
All the pain that has been inflicted on you.
Can be healed and given to you as Strength for the Journey.

There is nothing that cannot be done today, not because it is Ash Wednesday, but because it is Today.

Today is the only day of all eternity on which any of these are possible.

Today. Tomorrow is the stuff of pride - even "I will see you tomorrow" is hella prideful. Yesterday is not a day on which action is possible. Today.

So NOW is the day of salvation. Paul said that at at time when a letter might take weeks or months to get to where it was going. When is now? It is always now.

Sorry for all the Timey Wimey stuff. But it is now Ash Wednesday again, as it has been in the Liturgical West since the 8th Century, at least, back before the Schism. It's a way to make holy the passage of time between now and Easter. 

What is salvation? Today is the day, but what is it? In short it is the Human Being, restoring the Icon of God (which we all bear) and doing the work of God, which is Love, yes, but a very special kind of Love. In customer service (where I've been for 25 years, give or take) we use a special sort of skill called Unconditional Positive Regard.  It's defined as "Unconditional positive regard, a concept developed by the humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers, is the basic acceptance and support of a person regardless of what the person says or does." This way you can deal with customers, assuming their best intentions, and always leading them to the best choices made in their relationship with your company. Some agents do this better than others, to be honest, but most of us do it, also, as a means of self defense: I can interact with you on a professional level without having to emotionally get involved.

It is to be noted that this is not love. It is also to be noted that this is, basically, the attitude of most of our culture. This is why crying on the subway is, basically, a breaking of the rules. Nearly all of us want to help someone who is hurting... or in danger... but we can't let anyone else see our involvement. We play the Unconditional Positive Regard card and we benignly pass by. We do this for homeless families on the street. We do this for elderly folks who need a seat on the subway (when no kids will get up). We do this when people are rude to one another. We just smile and decide not to judge and benignly pass by.

Love would leap to the defense of the injured.
Love would sacrifice itself for the good of the other (even if the good wasn't willed by the other).
Love would rather die than see someone else do so.

Love is not Unconditional Positive Regard and this is life, not a call center phone call. Life and death hang in the balance when most of us wake up. And for many of us, by the end of the day, death has won and there is no tomorrow ever. 

Love then, is the benchmark. God is love, but specifically, God is this this self-emptying love as the Father pours out everything on the Son and the Son pours it back to the Father and on us in the person of the Holy Spirit. God empties himself and models for us the same resources. Love dares for us to pour ourselves out in a constant stream of giving!

This constant loving, self giving, pour out of all our self for the good of another: this is love and this is salvation.

Imagine if every Christian could work in one act of love a day from to Lent's end in Holy Week. Imagine that, trickling out across the culture, across the world. Today. Now. Here.

Now is the day of salvation.

There is a custom among the Byzantines that the vespers on the night before Lent begins, all the congregation gathers round the church and begs forgiveness each of the other. And each, prostrating, says, "Forgive me, a sinner." and the other says the same, and they embrace saying, "God forgives, and I forgive." This custom is, it seems to me, worthy of all men to be received: that we should start Lent asking forgiveness. We don't just skip over someone who is a good friend and "I know I've done nothing to hurt them..." for all sins hurt all of us. Every sin I commit draws the venom of evil just a bit deeper into our common life. So even the sins I commit and take to confession so that the only folks who know are me and the priest... they hurt us all. 

So forgive me. All of it. I know bunches. And some of you know me well enough to be affected by it. I beg your prayers.

13 February 2018

The Hunger Games

Westin St Francis Hotel in SF, 1904
The Readings for the 6th Tuesday of Ordinary Time (B2)
Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras

Nemo cum tentatur, dicat quoniam a Deo tentatur : Deus enim intentator malorum est : ipse autem neminem tentat.
Let no man, when he is tempted, say that he is tempted by God. For God is not a tempter of evils, and he tempteth no man. 

The Apostle, St James, points out here the oldest bugaboo: Original Sin or, as the Byzantines call it, Ancestral Sin. It's a weakness - not a "mark" on the soul, but more like that shopping cart that has one wheel that's wonky and always pulls to the right as you make the first left  at the end of the bakery aisle in Ingles. The cart just will not drive the way you want it. God does not tempt us, nor did God make the wheel go wobbly wobbly to the right at the end of the aisle.  

12 February 2018

I've got the joy joy joy joy....

The Readings for the 6th Monday of Ordinary Time (B2)
Omne gaudium existimate fratres mei, cum in tentationes varias incideritis : scientes quod probatio fidei vestrae patientiam operatur. Patientia autem opus perfectum habet : ut sitis perfecti et integri in nullo deficientes.
My brethren, count it all joy, when you shall fall into divers temptations; Knowing that the trying of your faith worketh patience. And patience hath a perfect work; that you may be perfect and entire, failing in nothing. 

In short, the Apostle is saying here, "Remember how Jesus just submitted to all the bad stuff done to him? That's your job too. Bear it up in patience and that patience works on you and it will make you perfect."

There is this traditional morning prayer in the Liturgical West. It's found in the 1962 Missal, in the St Ambrose Prayerbook, in the Key of Heaven (my copy comes from the 1920s) and I can find online versions of it back into the early 1800s. It says, 
Adorable Jesus! Divine Pattern of that perfection to which we should all aspire, I will endeavor this day to follow Thine example: to be mild, humble, chaste, zealous, patient, charitable and resigned. Incline my heart to keep Thy commandments. I am resolved to watch over myself with the greatest diligence, and to live soberly, justly and piously, for the time to come. I will take care of my words, that I may not offend with my tongue. I will turn away my eyes, that they may not see vanity; and I will be particularly attentive not to relapse this day into my accustomed failings, but to struggle against them with Thy gracious assistance. Enlighten my mind, purify my heart, and guide my steps, that I may pass all my life in Thy divine service. Amen. 
It pairs well with the morning use of the Litany of the Holy Name of Jesus which refers to Jesus a "meek and humble of heart" and also "most obedient" and "most patient".  Obedience to God's will means realizing that nothing can happen to you without God's allowing it and he must be allowing it for your salvation, so your job is to wait, patiently, until the tides change.

And all of it is joy.

Patience has never been a strong suit for me. By patience I don't mean waiting for the Senex and Anucella in front of me at the store or the smiling while the family of four folds their clothes, one piece at a time coming from the dryer. Totally some good things to practice on, but not the sort of patience we are talking about here. A good and saintly (and humorous) example of patience comes from St Laurence who, whilst being roasted on a gridiron, rather famously said, "I'm done on this side. Turn me over." Or all the Martyrs of England who so elegantly prayed for their Sovereign Lady, Queen Elizabeth I, even as she sent them to the hurdles and gallows.

Count it all joy when crap happens to you.

In the Gospel today Jesus says this generation demands a sign but no sign shall be given to it. We want what we want when we want it. When we don't get it we huff away sad. Jesus said, "Not my will, but thy will be done." And then he was brutally tortured and killed. And silent the whole way down his path. It's a sign: but it's not the sign we want to see, so we can't see it.  But it is our salvation.

In our world today we are more likely to seethe with rage, or rant online, to complain, to whine, to binge drink, or to go postal. Passive aggression is not patience. Finding out an employee has plotted for a long time to quit "suddenly" just before the Holiday Insane Season is not the sort of thing that makes one give good references. 

Work can be that way, but we'll do it for anything: avoiding conflict in the face to face, but convinced we're being oppressed in the worst way. We function in what you could call the bite or bide reflexes, sit here and bide my time until it's time to bite. 

This is not patience. It is, however, madness. How do we get the spirit of Patience that St James is talking about? How do we find the time to bear as in joy all the things that come to us?

There's this other prayer, written by Pope St Pius X, that is filled with ideas about work but is equally applicable to the line at the grocery store, the laundromat, the freeway. Anything in our life that seems to be sucking the life blood out... if we treat it as a joy... will be for our salvation.

O Glorious St. Joseph, model of all those who are devoted to labor, obtain for me the grace to work conscientiously, putting the call of duty above my natural inclinations, to work with gratitude and joy, in a spirit of penance for the remission of my sins, considering it an honor to employ and develop by means of labor the gifts received from God, to work with order, peace, moderation and patience, without ever shrinking from weariness and difficulties, to work above all with purity of intention and detachment from self, having always death before my eyes and the account that I must render of time lost, of talents wasted, of good omitted, of vain complacency in success, so fatal to the work of God. All for Jesus, all through Mary, all after thine example, O Patriarch, St. Joseph. Such shall be my watch-word in life and in death. Amen.

That's the key to joy: to move forward (in whatever process we're talking about here) mindful of the call of duty above my natural inclinations.  No one wants to be roasted on a gridiron. But it can be joyful.

11 February 2018

Soft hands are important...

The Readings for the 6th Sunday of Ordinary Time (B2)
...et tangens eum...
...and touching him...

Lepers in ancient Israel were untouchable. We are told in Leviticus that they had to not only avoid other people, but also they had to scare other people away. It's a sad story. But it is not the last time that this story could be told. By the time of Jesus lepers were still untouchable. The leper in today's Gospel comes to find Jesus, and asks only to be made clean. But Jesus touches him and this is a revolution as well as a revelation.

In May of 1983 my friend, Fr Mills, an Episcopal Priest, was diagnosed with AIDS and, in those days, that was a death sentence. We didn't know anything about the disease itself, and we didn't know anything about where it came from, how you got it, or how to help. All we knew, or thought we knew, was that most men who had it died quickly. 

During his first stay in the hospital, back in the days when they sealed off these rooms with plastic, and nurses would not go in them, visitors had to wear gloves and masks and suit up in plastic things. My friend, a hospital chaplain and seminary professor, took me to see Fr Mills. We suited up outside in the hallway, and parted the plastic sheets, and walked inside. Then my friend did something revolutionary and revelatory, she took off her plastic gloves and her hat and her mask and told me to do the same thing. I, unquestioning, did so. Then we kissed Father Mills on the cheeks.

Later, as the Bishop of New York was on television saying we cannot ostracize people with AIDS he was also - almost at the same moment - removing Fr Mills from his parish. So great was the panic. If we only knew then what we knew even a few years later, that Mills  had the HIV virus for some time long before his first illness. He had been just has "dangerous" to us his entire time with us.

But panic is real. And I asked Fr Mills once for a sip of his coffee and he reminded me that was forbidden. Never again to say Mass with others. Never again to hug and bless... June of 84, he was dead.

Today though, in another matter,  we have pills, although I never hear about getting the homeless druggies on PrEP: just giving them free needless. The homeless don't look like you want them to. They are scary and smelly. In our oddly anti-humanist social justice world, it's not abnormal to hear even political activists wish the homeless were less visible. It's, sadly, always been this way: even in the 80s, we didn't want to know that the Homeless had AIDS and other issues. We didn't want to know what high percentages of them were kicked out of their homes for reaching different conclusions about sexual morality than their parents.

We wanted nice, liberal San Francisco to be clean.

One night in 1987, running down Second Ave, late for a lecture by Matthew Fox and Brian Swimme, a man asked me for money, which I hadn't. He began to jog beside me! He asked me if I could buy him some food. This was in the days before ATMs were everywhere, so I still couldn't. Then he offered to buy me a beer if I would only stop and chat with him. I couldn't do that because I was late for this lecture. He engaged me on the political angle of the lecture and we came quickly to an agreement. He hugged me (he smelled so very clean) and using a name I was only called by kids in my cabin at summer camp in Connecticut, he said, "Way to go, Mongo". And as I walked away and realized what he said, I turned around to look again, and he was gone...

Who are these homeless folks asking for money? I gave an old woman on a stoop all my change one night (she reminded me so much of my late grandmother, sitting there) and it might have been $8 or $9 of quarters and such... and as I walked away she called after me, "Never forget that tonight you touched the Virgin Mary."  (150 years ago today Mary appeared in a garbage dump in France and overturned the New Secular Order that was ruining that country.)

And I met the Archangel Michael once as well. The world is filled with mysteries of revolution and revelation.

Giving money, or anything else, to a friend or family memeber we always make it a point to touch. Hug. But not when giving alms. Yes, some people can be smelly. Some people can be unwashed.  But that, right there, is Jesus. He's deranged. (He can give you scabies, as my friend Kelley shared on Good Friday last year.) He's in need, he's lost, and he really wants human contact. He is the Body of Christ placed in your hand as you give away your worldly goods, entrusting them all into the hands of the poor. In their safekeeping those goods will become your stairway to heaven. 

In short, redistributing your own wealth is a revolution against the kingdoms of this world and a revelation of the Kingdom of God.

Oddly, although we learned about people with AIDS and how to deal with HIV and all the medical choices we could find, we still have not learned, in several millennia, how to deal with the poor. Jesus shows us, over and over, that it is touch, the restoration of communion, the return of that person to the community, that is important.

Paul says we are to do everything we do as unto the Lord. In the case of the poor we are literally doing it to Jesus. No: I don't want to give you money, you'll probably just do drugs with it, Jesus.  Just add his name to your judgements and see how it goes... Jesus doesn't need my help. Jesus chose to live like that. The Government will give Jesus housing, why should I care?  

Or... in the case of one flyer recently posted up around a local Trump Tent Town, "We will pound you, burn you, beat you, Jesus…if you are within a 100 yards of this park starting after sundown tonight, we are coming for you, Jesus."

Yes, this takes an act of God, because we are all lepers of one sort or another. We are all in need. Some of us are more acceptable because we have ideas about bathing more in sync with our neighbors, but that is NOT what this is about. Every homeless family ignored on the street, even if they are only goldbrickers, will pass into heaven long before I do. They've had purgatory enough. Asking them to pray for me when I give them the money is probably a good idea.

They are not there to be judged any more than the people with AIDS: say nothing about where or how one gets sick. The servant of Christ is obligated to serve the sick, the weak, the lost. And not to judge. Take off your hat, your mask, your gloves, your creepy plastic suit, and kiss Fr Mills Jesus on the cheek.

That's Jesus in action.