Second Sunday of Advent

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief,
and then the heavens will pass away with a mighty roar
and the elements will be dissolved by fire,
and the earth and everything done on it will be found out.
2 Peter 3:10

I think these days about making offerings. Catholic piety can appear to be something of a haggle or a mercenary sacrifice. I see your litany of humility and raise you one heart’s desire, to be dispensed at next paycheck. This isn’t exactly “works righteousness” in the way my evangelical self would have defined it. In some ways, it helps. The degree to which it is externalized in beads, novenas, and the calendar of obligation helps me recognize the depths of this tendency to make deals with God. As a teenager, I sang, “Lord, I give you my heart, I give you my soul; I live for you alone” — which I clearly didn’t — but I wanted to mean it perhaps as sincerely as I want it today when “making a pure intention” at Mass. When it comes to offering up particular desires, it is very hard to cut off all the strings. The Biblical language of reward and recompense reminds me that God condescends to speak to my heart in its own terms. I think it’s safe to say God deals with us, although it’s beyond our scope to deal with (let alone cheat) him. Exchange is at the core of human relationships, and the economy of mercy borrows and transcends this language, rather than abolishing it. The Mass, like the Incarnation and Paschal Mystery, is the very embodiment of this holy exchange where we harvest indescribably more than we ever sowed. And, on a practical level, when some deep root has to be dug out and handed over, I appreciate the dignity of surrender in front of an altar, with incense and a motet to model my heart on. I would like to surrender every moment like I do at Mass. The danger is walking out back into my life having mistaken the rehearsals for the final performance.

The day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night, and all the deeds of earth will be found out. And when they are found out, when I am found out for the thief that I am, I will wish that I’d taken all these times to empty my pockets.

If I were to give over my stored up treasures, the little honors and praises I keep to warm myself against the cold exposure of reality — how would I do it? It’s one thing to be aware of them, and another to pry them out of my own hands. The heart’s grasp is reflexive as that of an infant: where no loving hand is found, any other object will do. I talk myself into compromise. I know it’s wrong, but it’s provisional. If I really want to quit, I could. I would like to be the thief who, side by side with Him, repents at the acceptable time, but to wait sober and vigilant is to seek that death in every minute.

“Can I have that, please?” he says quietly, teacher-like, into my ear, as I pull that thought again out of my pocket to turn it over and over in my hands. I relish the security of making and controlling my own comfort, my own little patch of honor, even if the extent of my reign is only inside my own head. But the acceptable time is here to imagine that secret suddenly wrenched open, found out. Against that day, have mercy on me.

Today at Mass a woman behind me was crying audibly all through the communion prayers. There is an incredible vulnerability at Mass, protected by the tendency of Catholics not to “pry” or rush to offer comfort during this moment of His intimate self-offering, when He suffers to come close to us, even into our bodies. Hearing her, I couldn’t help but be moved to tears, humbled by her humility, and uniting in my heart our suffering in the Presence of him who keeps account of every tear. At least the liturgy was there to speak. “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word…”

When the old world drew on toward night,
Thou camest, not in splendor bright
as monarch, but the humble child of Mary,
blameless mother mild.
At thy great name, O Jesu, now all knees must bend
all hearts must bow; and things celestial Thee shall own,
and things terrestrial, Lord alone.
Come in thy holy might, we pray;
redeem us for eternal day
from every power of darkness,
when Thou judgest all the sons of men.


To battle! And was it not I who won?

He set out, with a gun, and he pointed it, and marched, and he fired. And he may have killed, he may been killed, but all the while, he thought

“here I go, to save”

And no, he was a soldier. Is this an acceptable soteriological analogy? That God is the general, and without him victory is not secured, but we must fight? And if we do not fight, we die. But, if we fight, it is not us who saved us, but God? But did we not fight? No then, this cannot be an acceptable analogy.

What do we believe?

I must know that I am His.

Every bone, and sinew, all of my flesh and soul
pours forth from His creative activity
so that if I do anything good
…if I win that battle
It is because he allowed it
He created me, and this a child can understand. How can creation take the glory of the Creator?
And there is not “but”… only,

my struggle, the pain I endure, I endure it, is endured because of his Grace, and I only endure it because of what sin hath wrought on the flesh and soul of man, and so this pain does not render me glory, but my glory is in Christ who bore this pain on our behalf, so that our bearing is not futile. Because, the bearing of all pain is a natural consequence of first action in pride. O that God would have died for the angels? But did he? Could he? For angels cannot die. A fate sealed outside of time.

And so we fight and bear pain knowing it is meaningful, because Christ gives it meaning, because our suffering his, and his ours, and our God has saved us.

But… what of the will? Is it not our will that bears? Is it not our will that resists? Our will? Must we not will the good? And if we will it and overcome that which wars against our will, are we not due glory?

And indeed, we are rewarded! Treasure in heaven. And so our will does matter. But our wills were not sufficient to save us, and now, through Christ, our wills may be redeemed.


A marquee passes by my window

Red, initial letters for each word, the rest all black.

“I wonder if the artist who depicts these things, in video, in music, in painting… I wonder if those who…”

…Consume? What is the right verb for how we interact with art? I’m uneasy with the word “consume” in conjunction with our interaction with art. It seems grotesque and barbaric. As if art were a slab of meat that we greedily seize with our bare hands and stuff down our throats. I suppose it’s possible there are those who are indeed gluttons with more than just food. So then the problem isn’t the thing itself, but our disposition to the thing.

So what is the good way to ______ with art? Commune… no, it is not subject (though it depicts subject and beckons a shadow of the artist). It has to be nondescript. We approach art. Perhaps it then approaches us, if we let it. The spirit in the thing (for the spirit of the artist never leaves the thing, it is bound, like the soul). Art is a shadow of the soul. Through art we see the shape of the soul, an outline of a thing invisible.

And so we approach art and might…

Contemplate (it must have started with a “c”!)

“I wonder if those who contemplate art… Ah, and that completes my thought. I was troubled because I didn’t know what was art, and what was not, and I was troubled as I thought that if I did begin to contemplate God, and such contemplation overflowed into that which others could contemplate, it would merely be consumed.”

I have neglected contemplation because of a devil, to be sure. But I have been dissuaded to contemplate for lack of contemplation, a vicious cycle to be sure.

“Vicious cycle” a modern idiom that is perfectly Christian! Dante, the whirlwind of lust, the viciousness of such a whirlwind. Cyclones, lust… and vicious coming from “vice!”

But I have neglected being by science, a kind of exactitude that is endemic to the modern attitude. I lack the fortitude of the medieval mind. (that which is endemic to modernity is anemic.)

Well it is true that we are barbaric. And we are barbaric because we are anemic. But what is that myth where the more we eat the more famished we become? There must be one, but it does seem rather unnatural. O, I’m so ashamed at my lack of knowledge, even in my senses are right (and I’m not assured of that, or hardly anything).

And perhaps then it’s simply that we are consuming something like sweetmeats, the shape and taste of which are so alluring, but as we consume it we are filled with nothing nourishing.

(And now that I think of it, consumption of course is linked with communion, is it so barbaric after all?) Yes, yes, because we are not as animals as we partake of the Body and Blood of our Lord. “This is my…” there has always been reverence, for… “this is me.”

And that is the key to understanding what lies behind this door: Art cannot be, “this is me” but surely, “this is a sketch” or “this is an outline” or “this is shadow” of me. Look at my body! You see me, but only from one vantage. Art gives a vantage impossible to those with mere sight of the body. (the depiction of the body is how one body can depict another, giving insight into a communion of bodies)

EDM: Math, science, automation has given us a way to present ourselves with greatness of form. Like a construction worker might use better building materials for withstanding the elements, we can present that which may be consumed and contemplated with great precision. This is a good, but are we not consuming mere lines and angles? Are we not living beside strong and impermeable walls, with no roof over our head, and no foundation below our feet? What a strange sight to behold.

Contemplate, then! And your contemplation may be like a bubbling brook, rising up in the heart and out through your mouth, giving shape to words, and those words carrying the river of life that bubbles up within you, or those words –food–carried by the stream of contemplation that rises up within you may be consumed, but not as the barbarian who eats the sweetmeats!

God does not consume himself, but rather gives himself, and is he eaten? By us yes. We eat God. When we become Him, we cease to eat.

“Food for the stomach, and stomach for food, and ”
“The body for the Lord, and Lord for the Body”





There is a demon, acedia, and it will exert its power to weaken yours. The relationship is directly inverse. As it flexes, you dystrophy. As you flex, it weakens.

Exert yourself then unto that which is meaningful. For there is idle activity, and there is fruitful inactivity. Think of Martha, who runs about the house, who does not do what is better. She collapses at the end of the day and has little peace for her effort. Likewise there is the man who spends his time doing this or that activity, mindlessly applying his body to that which does not require real effort or pain. For it is often more painful to be still than it is to remain busy.

Exertion unto a purpose. Was it a feat of strength for Mary to sit at the feet of Jesus? Yes, it must have been. For there was work to be done, and the desire to impress her Lord burned within her. But she chose that which is better.

Desire burns within us, but we must choose what is better.


In the prairie, find the root

“Keeping a woman around is hard work. Keeping a woman pleased is the hardest work you can imagine.” He set the cup of water down on the table lightly, pulling it back up slightly right after it had hit the wood. The dust in this old wood house moved slowly over everything, illuminated by beams of sunlight from cracks in the walls. He swirled the water around for a moment. His eyes were fixed somewhere on the center of the surface-water as he continued:

“See a woman really does want a strong man. They want the strongest man. That’s why they want you surrounded with all these pleasures.”

Adam furled his eyebrows, cocked his head slightly to the left.

“It’s not that they don’t want their pleasures—women—they do. They love all the things money can buy. From booze to cars to all the television in the world, they want it all, they really do. But that’s not the main reason they want all these things around. They want to test your strength. That’s the one thing a woman can’t stand: A man without temptation. Women want their men to be tempted all the time, because they want to see how strong they are.”

Both men were silent. Adam now fixed his eyes on the swirling water in the cup.

“You see that’s why I believe they really are a test from God. A woman can make you a holy man, but it’s the hardest way to be holy. It’s better to just move out there, get rid of all those evils that tempt your everlasting soul, and serve God. But a woman is going to keep you steeped in the world. Even when she says otherwise, there’ll always be a world that she wants. There’ll always be a world she tests you with. Now does that sound like something you want?” He paused for a moment.

“I’m sorry for talking so much.”

“No, no, that’s good. That’s…good.” Adam placed his hand up to his chin. “That’s interesting to think about, that’s for sure.”

The old man let a sharp breath through his nostrils, harder than usual. “Yeah, it’s interesting alright. God, I’m almost done here. You know?”

Adam’s nervous laughter.

“Oh come-on.”

“Don’t do that to me. I know what you’re saying but you’re not listening to me. God, how bleak. This life almost over, and I have nothing to show for it, no one to share it with save for a kid who hardly knows anything about me. It’s not your fault, it’s not your fault. You’re fine. I’m sorry.”

Adam shook his head, trying to empathize with his eyes. “You’re a good man. I know that much.”

Adam wanted to say something more, to continue. Maybe even lecture. But he knew in the back of this mind he really didn’t care that much. He wanted to get out of this hot, dry cabin. He wanted to get back on the tarmac. He wanted to feel the air conditioning on his skin and fill his ears with voices. He didn’t want to hear himself think tonight, he just wanted to go home.

“So what’s all this, on the wall up here?” Adam tried to prove to himself he wasn’t as disinterested as knew himself to be.

“It’s like Delilah, in the Bible.” The old man was still staring at his cup.

“You know that story? About that strong-man, Samson, and his love interest?”

“Eh, yeah, I know about that one. That’s a classic.”

The old man scoffed again, this time through his mouth.

“Classic. Well yeah, Delilah is just like any other woman. She’s what woman looks like, unless the woman is a saint. Delilah wants to find your strength, and take it from you. But not because she wants to see you weak, she wants to see how strong you really are. She wants to see you overcome all she lays upon you. They love that. It’s perverse. It’s a fetish.”

Adam’s countenance changed, inspired.

“Then what’s a man?”

The old man turned his eyes up from the cup to catch Adam’s eager face.

“What’s a man?”

“Yeah, what’s a man? If Delilah is a woman, what’s a man? What’s his fetish? Because I doubt there are many man-saints out there either, you know? If the woman loves to see her man be strong, what’s that man want to see?”

“Well, what do you think, kid?”

Adam stretched his arms out, turning his palms up in the air. He smiled a weak and condescending smile.

“Well it’s just what you think it’d be. Men want to see their women weak. It’s just the opposite, how hard is that to figure out? They want to see their women cry. They want their women to feel bad for them and for themselves all the time. They love that. They think a woman crying is one of the sexiest things alive. It’s perverse.”

Adam took a few steps towards the shelves filled with dust-laden boxes on the wall. “So, it sounds like we’re not great for each other. Sounds like we should all run for the hills.”

There was a longer pause than usual as Adam thumbed some of the dust off what looked like an old book. Both men found the word “power” on their lips at the same time.

That’s what they both found that day, in that old wood building, dry and hot, quiet and alone. They saw Power gripping at their throats, turning their heads one way or another. It was ironic, or perhaps just surprising. They were surprised to find that Power was powerful. And it didn’t take a poet to show them that Power and Pride were the same person.

“So you never got married, because of that?” Adam’s palms were starting to sweat.

“Never did. Never could. Never really fell in love. Every girl that I could’ve had wasn’t beautiful enough. Every beautiful girl was taken, whaddy’a think that means?”

“You wanted what you couldn’t have? Seems simple enough.”

“Power.” Adam’s rumination satisfied him.

“Maybe. But I always thought I was cursed. I did something wrong, God paid me back for it. And now I’m out here all alone in some damn shack, out here with nothing but a conversation. That’s all I have.”

The old man was begging for pity, and Adam wanted to give it, but he didn’t have any to give. The kid knew he was just the same.

“The Church Is Still Admitting Sinners”

Yesterday, for Reformation Day, I wrote a post in homage to the good memory of Protestantism. Yet I failed to address that the Protestant Reformation is all but over. Even noteworthy Presbyterian Peter J. Leithart agrees (much to the anxiety of R.C. Sproul and Southern Baptists. It probably comes as no surprise that I enjoy reading Leithart on First Things). Anyone who can read the sign of the times will notice that the prevalent philosophies of Western culture have no room for the Protestant Reformation. There is only room for the church that acquiesces to the philosophical culture of the time—most notably, to the Western priority of personal preference as the supreme inalienable right and the publicly unanswered question of relativism and the nasty combo these two ideas have in their marriage. Ultimately, the church will either be popular, or it will be persecuted. Calvin, Luther, Wesley, Wycliffe, Melanchthon, and Cranmer would all be remorseful to see the state of Protestant ideology engaging in American culture today. American culture itself, almost entirely devoid of anything remotely Catholic, gives proper Protestant Reformation little to find itself defined in (since Protestantism finds its definition in what it is against). There aren’t enough Catholics in America to upset Reformation Protestants, so Protestantism proper is without definition; in being so, it winds up with a legion of definitions (As Sproul has said, “everyone is a theologian”). There is little today left that resembles the original Reformers’ ideologies.

All Saints Day (unlike yesterday, a holiday according to the strictest sense of the word) represents the antithesis to the joyous divorce proper to Reformation. In Heaven, where division is metaphysically impossible and personal interest is entirely disinterested, the saints unanimously model what our hearts long for most of all: separation from sin and union with that very Love that dreamt us into existence and still dreams of our coming home. Today, the Catholic Church and only a handful of traditional churches remember those who were once admitted as sinners, but departed as Saints. Think Augustine, Ignatius of Loyola, Angela of Foligno, Mary of Egypt, Mary Magdalen, and Paul. And the definition of their sainthood hardly considers their theological contributions or their contribution to the Church militant. We long first for our own relationship with God—which the saints addressed first. St. Ignatius of Loyola first reformed his heart before he developed a system for spiritual warfare—a system that firstly begins with the individual relationship with God. St. Augustine repented from his rowdy and playboyish lifestyle—and, finding his restless heart resting in God, drew up the Church’s vision for social justice and the New Jerusalem. It took St. Angela until she was 40 before she realized how empty was the quest for wealth and social prominence, and giving herself entirely to Christ, she would become the “Teacher of Theologians” and a Doctor of the Church. Saints are not Reformers—not even St. Francis of Assisi, St. Charles Borromeo, or St. Catherine of Siena. They first sought personal holiness, and then out of the overflowing of their love for God, they (almost incidentally) brought healing and understanding to the Church. It was only after selfish ambition and personal gain were lost that they found God’s love and plan for the Church. Their disinterest gave room for God’s interest.

But the massive ship of the Church militant isn’t manned by saints. They’re in our Church triumphant. We’re steered by the bishops of the church and the contemporary Catholic voices of theology and preaching—living bishops who probably aren’t saintly in their personal lives as, say, St. John Vianney or St. Robert Bellarmine. But the Curia and the various synods and councils aren’t without the wisdom of the saints. The democracy of the bishops is in no small way driven by what G.K. Chesterton calls the “democracy of the dead,”—the teaching of the saints on matters of morals, ethics, and theology. The ship takes no big turns away from what our holy saints have taught. Why reinvent the wheel?

I was wooed into the Church when I heard that the Church was still admitting sinners. Only four years ago, at the rock-bottom spiritual and emotional point in my life, and a myriad of Protestant teachings pulling me in mutually-exclusive directions toward God (I’m looking at you, ongoing Calvinism vs. Arminianism debate), I had to return to the only thing that I knew: that I was the worst of sinners, and that Jesus was the best of saviors. I couldn’t believe that anything in Scripure could be self-evident—and I think the existence of the Protestant “theological anarchy” (according to Henri de Lubac) proves that.

All I wanted was Jesus, and all I found in Protestant America was worldly entertainment and intellectual runarounds—a justifiable clause for every belief-action that presupposed “at least I’m not a Catholic,” without ever knowing what a Catholic actually is.

In ontological actuality, a Catholic is a developing saint.

St. Augustine purportedly said, “There is no saint without a past; there is no sinner without a future.”

I was drawn into the Catholic Church through hope. The worst of sinners, I wanted to have the hope that I could be close to God and abandon everything that pulled me away from God. To be close to God is to carry one’s cross—a bloody, skin-torn, humiliating affair. I didn’t want to have Jesus and to also have popular entertainment, intellectual indulgences, societal acceptance, even the love of friends. All of these things are merely temporary (Matthew 5:47 and 6:31). What I have always longed for, during my whole life and most evidently in my pseudo-Assemblies-of-God-but-still-nondenominationalism, was to abandon my life in its entirety—and then to find it only in God. (Where is the Sola Domine?)

On All Saints Day, we Catholics are shown the hope of our faith and the longing of our hearts as it has been revealed to our ancestor brothers and sisters: the Resurrection of Christ is presented to us in contemporary terms we can more tangibly feel. And we see that the Catholic Church is not steered by the sway of culture, but by the holiness of the saints, who, being finally close to God, pray for us out of the outpouring of their hearts. Modernity meets the Resurrection today. In no uncertain terms we see that not everyone is a theologian and no one gets into Heaven on their own terms (Matthew 10:39 and 16:25—27 and 7:13–14 and 7:21–23 and John 14:23–14 in light of that last verse).

Our ship has set sail for the faraway land, to pull those overboard out of the roaring ocean and to rescue castaways from their lonely islands. There is no self-interest in getting there—God will have us arrive when we are ready—and until we arrive, we must pull more men out of the raging foam. We sail toward the Star of the Sea, guided by the uncountable lights above.

“But what manner of use would it be ploughing through that blackness?”
“Use? Use, Captain? If by use you mean filling our bellies or our purses, I confess it will be no use at all. So far as I know we did not set sail to look for things useful but to seek honor and adventure. And here is as great an adventure as ever I heard of, and here, if we turn back, no little impeachment of all our honours.”—C.S. Lewis, The Dawn Treader

James KA Smith and Liturgical Animals

On Friday I was able to attend a special Eucharist service at Christ Church Anglican here in Phoenix. There was a guest homilist, James KA Smith, who is well known for his writings on Christian worship, secularism, and other topics, and the service itself seemed to be conceived of as a kind of “liturgy workshop” for visitors from non-liturgical backgrounds.

Dr. Smith’s sermon was very good, I thought, but I’ll get to that in a minute. First I want to explain what exactly was going on at the service.

The reason I call it a “workshop” is that the presider took a minute or two before each part of the liturgy to explain its name, origin, and purpose within the service. Of course, the result of explaining what ritual action you are going to take before you take it is that what you are doing (almost) ceases to be a ritual action at all. I suppose it’s more precise to say that, the more discursive padding you provide, the lesser the power of the ritual to do its work in surely and silently forming you.*

* I’m speaking here about the natural power of ritual action and how it corresponds to our embodied experience, not necessarily about the supernatural effects of the Mass. I’m not sure yet about how to understand the way these things are connected — because they clearly are, yet a worship service without the special grace that comes through the Real Presence still has real formative power.

For evangelical churchgoers, this Pausing For Explanation will be such a familiar, rote part of experiencing church that it might take on a kind of ritual feel all its own. Scene: a pastor extemporaneously explains communion before the bread is passed around, or pauses to remind his congregation that infant dedication does not affect the baby’s salvation. A worship pastor discourses on the appropriate emotional response to the song he is about to play, as he provides mood music on the piano. But I’ve experienced this at Mass from time to time, too. It’s usually an older priest, and I want to say this was part of the generational problem of the 60s and 70s — priests genuinely came to think that the way to bring the liturgy to the people was to pause in the middle of performing it and explain the “real” meaning of every phrase and gesture. It was the heydey of what some ritual theorists refer to as “sincerity.”

But actually, because this is all about breaking down and analyzing the intrinsic but nondiscursive intentionality of the act, and bracketing it with more comfortable explanation, it transforms an experience of ritual action into merely learning about ritual action.

I can see why introducing things this way, on such an occasion, was seen as a helpful and welcoming thing to do for the visiting Christians from various backgrounds. I think I would have found it enlightening and inspiring when I was at the stage where I had read about and liked the idea of ritual, but had never experienced it as a fully intentional act. But as it was, I kept thinking — this is like explaining a joke before you tell it, or stopping in the middle of playing pretend to establish, “remember, right now I’m just PRETENDING to be a pirate.” The most disappointing words you can hear at a moment of your vicarious imaginative experience of piracy on the high seas are: “I don’t want to play anymore.” In my house as a kid, that would get you kicked in the shins. What do you mean, you don’t want to play?! We weren’t playing. You just ruined it!

Now, I rush to say, I didn’t exactly want to kick the good rector in the shins, but it did notably disrupt the momentum of what we were doing (as I’m sure he was also aware), and it also reminded me of what “we,” liturgical Christians, are up against when it comes to sharing traditional forms of worship with our evangelical brethren. Overall, the experience really highlighted for me how deeply entrenched this culture of discomfort-with-ritual is in huge swathes of Protestant or evangelical Christianity. I’ve read some books on ritual in the framework of modernity that have helped me see the wider intellectual and social trends behind anti-ritualism, but I couldn’t help but wonder about why this discomfort manifests itself so potently in this specific subculture.

Incense. An essential.

In the evangelical communities where I grew up, we did everything we could to stave off the suspicion of ritual — chiefly by pausing to explain and explain away the “inessentials” of what we were doing. These “inessentials,” I now see, were in large part the forms and patterns and actions that are actually the backbone of what it means to do or mean anything. I personally responded very well to ritual in all areas of my life, and actually look back at my childhood and laugh when I realize all the ways I was acting out (so to speak) my liturgical deprivation. I won’t go into the ways I filled the void, but suffice it to say that it involved pretended reenactments of “pagan” rituals and a continual longing to be Jewish, since they at least got all the fun stuff, before the Gospel made it obsolete.

Learning that the Christian dispensation did not make ritual obsolete, but actually built on it, drawing Christian worship toward some even more transcendent and immanent reality, was and is a continual joy. I learned what ritual actually was through ennacting it together with a community that was carrying on the practice of the Church throughout generations. I put my back up against it and slowly soaked in what was happening and what I was.

When I miss being evangelical, what I miss is the world, the kind of living, that I experienced through what we did. I sometimes miss the praise and worship “mode” of singing (though not often, to be honest) — or, more frequently, I miss the very earnest, very self-effacing position of prayer that I’ve dubbed the Evangelical Slump. (You know what I mean: elbows on knees, forehead propped on fists.) I miss carrying a huge Bible to church, or summer camp, or the cadence of extemporaneous prayer (which, I realize after seven years away from it, requires continual practice and formation to keep up). It might sound shallow to focus on these “externals,” which I was always taught were essentially meaningless. But they weren’t meaningless. They taught and formed me – not just my intellect, not just my beliefs, but my very self, the desires of my heart.

It’s these experiences that make our human lives what they are, and form us as members of the Body.

The Evangelical Slump.

So I come around at last to Dr. Smith’s homily, which meditated on this point: that ritual practice is an apprenticeship of repetition that forms our habits and our hearts, in allowing us to continually enact who we are called to be. As he repeats often in his books, Dr. Smith describes human beings as “liturgical animals.” Liturgical action, or ritual, is not something “man-made” that threatens our authentic experience of relationship with God — it is actually God-made, in that he is the one who created us to respond and live through the experience of ritual, as part of our human nature. As Christian worshippers (described in Colossians 3), we “put on love” through our enacting of liturgical worship, becoming more and more aware of what our hearts should love (and aware of what they love instead), both learning and becoming in this “school of love.” (I underlined this quote in my notes — the “school of love” is the way that Benedict describes the monastic life in his preface to the Rule.) Dr. Smith delivers some great lines that pack a punch and sent a ripple through the congregation. I jotted down:

On the Eucharist: “The way to our hearts is through our bodies – we absorb God’s story at a gut level.”
“We become what we worship because we worship what we love.”
Punning on SAD: “Lent is a season of affective order.”

He quoted Augustine (“he who sings prays twice”) and the congregation almost groaned, they were so moved with recognition — another note in my file for the essay I will someday write about how singing is the evangelical sacrament.

I appreciate Dr. Smith’s obvious familiarity with the medieval philosophical tradition on habits (internal dispositions of character) and his indebtedness to Augustine and Thomas in certain aspects, and wish I could comment more on his incorporation of quotes from Luther and Calvin. As both of these confessional traditions preserved liturgical worship, but in a markedly different form than before, I have much to learn about the way that liturgy has been conceived of and practiced in these “lower” traditions. My jump from evangelicalism to Catholicism leads me to assume that any liturgical tradition is as “high” as my own, since it is high compared to where I started — but the more I experience worship in liturgical Protestant communities, the more holes I find in this assumption.

It was a very auspicious time to hear Dr. Smith’s thoughts on the essential role of liturgical ritual action, as I’m heading in to Lent, and I have not always been a very successful observer of liturgical seasons. It’s a challenge in our life, which teems with so many rival liturgies, many of which exist to tear us away from forming solid habits and sane dispositions in the first place. I think modern Westerners suffer from a real lack of ritual formation in all areas of our life, which can make it difficult to actually benefit from ritual practices unless we approach them in the right way. It certainly has been difficult for me in the past — fasting is a particular hurdle. But Dr. Smith urged that we remember Lent as a time to submit to the story we are told in worship, letting it govern our imaginations and affections at a visceral level, the “tangible teaching of our hearts.”

I’ll be praying that he and all of you have a blessed Lenten season.

Easter Fire in the Holy Sepulchre.

Three poems on the Death of Mary

Not quite liturgically apropos — but close enough, I think, since the Immaculate Conception is on Monday:

Three poems from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Marienleben (Life of Mary cycle). Translated by Knut W. Barde:

The Death of Mary I

The same tall Angel who once brought the news
Of the birth to her,
Stood there, waiting for her to notice him,
And spoke: Now is the time for you to appear.
And she was frightened as then and proved herself
Again as the maid servant, deeply affirming his command.
But he was radiant and coming infinitely closer,
vanished, yet shone from her face, and called
The widely dispersed proselytizers
To gather at the house on the hill,
The house of the last supper. They arrived more heavily
And entered with fear: There she lay, stretched out
In the narrow bedstead, mysteriously bathed in
Ruin and in being chosen,
Wholly unharmed, like one who had not been used,
And listened to angelic song.
Then, when she saw them all waiting behind their candles,
she tore herself away from the surfeit of
Of the voices and with an overflowing heart yet gave away
the two dresses that she possessed,
And lifted her face to this one and that one…
(Oh origin of nameless brooks of tears).

But she settled into her weakness
And pulled the heavens down to Jerusalem
So closely, that her soul,
As it left her, only had to stretch a little:
Already he, who knew everything about her,
Lifted her into her divine nature.

The Death of Mary II

Who had realized that until her arrival
the crowded heavens had been incomplete?
The risen one had taken his seat,
but next to him, for twenty-four years,
there was an empty space. And they began already
to get used to the pure gap,
which seemed to have healed, because with his beautiful
spreading radiance the son was filling it.

Thus, when she entered the heavens,
she did not go towards him, despite her strong longing;
there was no room, only He was there and shone
with a radiance that hurt her.
But just now as her moving figure joined
with the new blessed ones
and stood discreetly, as light with light, next to them,
there erupted from her being such an assault of
glowing light, that the blinded angel who was illuminated by her
cried out: Who is this one?
A wonderment arose. Then they all saw
how God-Father above shielded our Lord,
so that in the mild gloaming
the empty spot could now be seen
like a small pain, a sense of loneliness,
as something he was still bearing, a remnant from
his time on earth, a dried up injury-.
They watched her; she looked ahead with fear,
bent far forward, as if she felt: I am
His most enduring pain-; and suddenly broke forth.
But the angels took her in their fold
and steadied her and sang with blessed voices
and carried her up the final steps.

The Death of Mary III

However, sooner than the apostle Thomas, who
Came after it was too late, the quick angel, who had
long been prepared for this, stepped in
and ordered at the burial place:

Push the stone aside. If you want to know
Where she is, who moves your heart:
Look: just as a lavender-pillow
She had been laid in there for a while,

That in the future the earth would smell of her
In its folds like a fine cloth.
Everything dead (do you feel), everything sick
Is stunned by her fragrance.

Look at the linen: where is it white,
Where becomes blinding and does not shrink?
This light out of this pure corpse
Was more clarifying to him than sunshine

Aren’t you amazed, how gently she escaped him?
It is almost as if she were still here, nothing has moved.
But the Heavens are shaking above:
Man, kneel down and see me go and sing.



The congregation clambers to its feet
At the first slow stirrings of song.
Numbered notes spill from stringed voices
Stirring simultaneous nostalgia and anticipation.

Drums and hearts beat, bonded,
As the worshipers wake to their surroundings.
The leader lifts his arms, sensing the spirit
And the audience accedes, hands raised to a familiar God.

Evoking empathy and ecstasy,
A flame is fanned in every follower
And the crowd cries in one accord:
Hold the Heathen Hammer High!