children of light


Today’s Gospel:

And this is the judgement:
the light has come into the world,
and men loved darkness rather than light,
because their works were evil.
For everyone who does wicked things hates the light
and does not come to the light,
lest his works should be exposed.
But whoever lives the truth comes to the light,
so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.

John 3:19-21

This is an off-putting passage for night owls and melancholics — or admirers of Caravaggio.

Darkness may only be the absence of light, but in our experience, and in our language, it bodies forth its own presence. It lends beauty to things that might otherwise seem banal. Like fresh snowfall, the dark lets us see the world in a different guise, and helps us escape our natural tendency to treat our daytime mode — its calculations and demands, its bright surfaces — as absolute.

What are the dangers of the dark?

On a literal level: what are the habits of mind and attitude I nurture when I spend time in the dark?

Darkness brings emotion closer to the surface. To have habitual recourse to this by staying up late or lying around with the lights off is to train myself to be motivated and even controlled by my emotional states. I wait to get into the right mood to do my work, to pray, to call a friend, to go out on a walk — and the right mood may never come.

In the dark, no one can see me. From here it is a short jump to: in the dark, not even I can see me. Our ability to live as divided selves, which is an inescapable and often fruitful part of human life, can become an acute vulnerability. Whatever mature integration we have achieved in the light, surrounded by the eyes of others, is not so solid here.

Part of what is so enchanting about the night is its unfamiliarity: the house, the neighborhood by day is not the same place where we are now. One of the (many) affective states understood, at different points in history, as characteristic of melancholia is a kind of dislocation of self, from which we can’t feel the right things for the world in its ordinary goodness. If the familiar has lost its affective power over us, we seek the strange. So we might cultivate a kind of aesthetic habit, seeking out those viewpoints from which familiar things seem strange: a mixed longing to reenter the familiar and a desire to linger there on the outside, seeing something, beautiful or sad, as if for the first time. The world in strangeness, at night, is at least a world we can fully enter.

The flip side of this world-translation is that you can no longer even imagine the world of light. This is really why nighttime fears are so impossible to shake off, once they find you. Nothing, nothing except turning on a light, can convince you that the room is safe. You can’t even remember what safe looks like.

Darkness is blindness: blind to who we are in reality, whether good or bad. While they say blindness sharpens all our other senses, in our spiritual darknesses this is rarely the case. Our eyes may adjust, but, really, this is more like pulling the light down to our level. Whether the version of myself I conjure up in the darkness is my own ideal or my worst nightmare, I won’t easily get traction on the reality of myself, the way I can in the light of day, or through another person’s gaze.

In the daytime, dark is hard to believe in, too. It’s incredible that we can be so subject to a change in surroundings that happens every twelve hours, and has happened since we were born. Yet no amount of logic can touch that middle of the night terror when our daylight criteria for reality fall away. Being temporal makes us fragile.

The thing about the dark is that it doesn’t really exist. Certainly night doesn’t exist. Pull out your planner and tell me where you record something that happened in the middle of the night. Were you still awake? Did you wake up early? Where has the night gone if you stay up until sunrise? The most basic marker for our experience of time as static and measurable can disappear. Whether this registers as disorienting or liberating might depend on the day.

When I was in high school and college, I stayed up late for the release of being in liminal time. The “second wind,” the endorphin rush, that stayed-home-sick snow-day feeling: free time! What I had procrastinated on all afternoon I was sometimes able to finish — or rather, that work I had spent all afternoon hoping I would be able to do in the dark, I sometimes did — simply because the day was over. The day’s obligation was transferred to the next day, and, by that logic, whatever I did at night was voluntary, and much easier.

Sometimes. Other times, with the yoke of daily work at an end, my mind rediscovered its joy in every book or idea or project around the corner, and I spun happily from each to the next, leaving everything barely begun. It’s night — who cares? I shied away from tasks in the daytime because the excitement wasn’t there, yet waiting for night meant that I often wasn’t able to complete anything at all.

The freedom of the dark can make us slaves to avoidance. The loosening of the daily grind is so good we might always want it, and try to live there all the time. After a while of this kind of life, the darkness loses its power to refresh and its other sweetnesses: silence, solitude, safety.

And finally, flung back on ourselves by the unfamiliar, we particularly seek out something other than solitude in darkness. It is the place of intimacy, where we might be most ourselves and most connected with another. Sight is less important: in fact, gets in the way. How many conversations in the dark that you can’t have in daylight? And if the opportunity doesn’t present itself, the dark is easily as fertile a ground for counter-realities that keep loneliness at bay. How much more room for reliving some past warmth? How many times might you check your texts? The dark is when we go to sleep, and that is somewhere we can only ever go alone. Together with someone else, maybe it will happen and you won’t even notice. Maybe you can be seen all the way down, and never have to face yourself by yourself, in the flickering light of whatever love you can offer.

I haven’t mentioned death: but it is darkness, too. How are we supposed to stand it, seeing that real blackness under the door? And what if death poisoned life from the beginning, and you have to one day see it: wouldn’t you rather know now? If being too comfortable with darkness is really a symptom of bitterness or despair, imagine how that could eat away at you, as you sit late into the evening, dreading the coming day. When grief, which is the hatred of death, comes for you in the dark, what last defense will you have against the emptiness of the world?

I confessed my loneliness once in college — not really something to confess, I admit, but not unrelated, either — and I’ve always remembered what the priest said. “Loneliness is part of every human life. It comes and goes. Try to take it as a gift, for now; a gift that you can be alone with Jesus.” I didn’t know then how to make solitude that kind of a gift.

I just hit about the year-mark on one of the most light-filled times of my life so far. It came after a time of darkness deeper than I’d had since I was much younger. This, the light, is a version of myself I didn’t even imagine could exist; I’d lived so long in one shade of evening or another. So I hate to feel I’m giving advice, especially if it’s advice I received from others, and repeated to myself, for a long time, without seeing any lasting difference. But I don’t ultimately attribute the change to anything I did, at least in terms of a daylight obligation met and handled: in fact, I think of it as something I literally did in the dark. I found some silence more silent than my own, and a solitude nourished by someone not myself.

I leave it to Augustine, from today’s Office of Readings:

Those who have been freed and raised up follow the light. The light they follow speaks to them: I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness. The Lord gives light to the blind. … We are of Adam’s stock, blind from our birth; we need him to give us light.

We shall be in possession of the truth when we see face to face. This is his promise to us. Who would dare to hope for something that God in his goodness did not choose to promise or bestow? We shall see face to face. The Apostle says: Now I know in part, now obscurely through a mirror, but then face to face.

John the Apostle says in one of his letters: Dearly beloved, we are now children of God, and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be. We know that when he is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. This is a great promise.

Cavedone Christ Mocked


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.

“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!

The Fourth Mark

As Catholics, we oftentimes talk about the four “marks” of the Church: one, holy, catholic, and apostolic (CCC 811). These marks are deeply rooted both in Sacred Scripture, as well as the Church’s rich Tradition. They’re so crucial to the Christian faith, in fact, that we profess them each and every Sunday in the Nicene Creed:

…I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church…

Sadly, many Catholics (including myself) fail to profess these truths with their words and their lives. And although all of these “marks” are essential, one in particular is easy to ignore: apostolic.

As I’ve met more and more Catholics, I’m reminded of the fact that the Church is made up of billions of people, each one with their own unique thoughts and opinions. And, more often than not, many of these thoughts and opinions don’t quite line up with the teachings of the Church. Don’t get me wrong—faith is a journey, and not everyone winds up at the same place at the same time. But when we openly oppose the teaching of our priests, our bishops, and our Holy Father, we are denying the apostolicity (among other things) of the Church.


In this light, it’s important for us to understand what it means for the Church to be apostolic:

1) The Church’s teachings find their authority in Christ

In St. Mark’s Gospel, we read that Jesus “appointed twelve [whom he also named apostles] that they might be with him and he might send them forth to preach and to have authority to drive out demons” (Mark 3:14 NABRE). Later, Jesus says to Peter: “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt 16:19). Again, after his resurrection, Christ appears to the apostles and says to them: “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained” (John 20:23). Clearly, Christ has given his apostles great authority—not just over preaching and teaching, but also over the forgiveness of our sins.

2) These teachings are passed from one generation to the next

After Jesus’ ascension into heaven, the apostles meet to select a successor to Judas. St. Peter stands and prays: “You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have  chosen to take the place in this apostolic ministry from which Judas turned away to go to his own place” (Acts 1:24-25). The apostles, by the will of God, pass their authority to a new apostle—St. Matthias. Similarly, we see St. Paul exhorting St. Timothy to continue this chain of apostolic succession: “what you have heard from me through many witnesses entrust to faithful people who will have the ability to teach others as well” (2 Tim 2:2). St. Irenaus, writing in the second century, summarizes this well:

It is possible, then, for everyone in every church, who may wish to know the truth, to contemplate the tradition of the apostles which has been made known to us throughout the whole world. And we are in a position to enumerate those who were instituted bishops by the apostles and their successors down to our own times. . . (Against Heresies, Book 3, Chapter 3)

When we read from Scripture and our Church Fathers, it’s plain to see that Christ intended for his authority to be consistently passed from one generation of apostles to the next—all the way up to the present day.


3) The authority of the bishops = the authority of Christ

This sentiment has been repeated countless times by our earliest bishops and Church Fathers. Here are but a few examples:

Obey your leaders and defer to them, for they keep watch over you and will have to give an account… (Hebrews 13:17)

Let all follow the bishop as Jesus Christ did the Father, and the priests, as you would the Apostles. (St. Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Smyrneans, Chapter 8)

Therefore it is necessary to obey the presbyters who are in the Church,—those who, as I have shown, possess the succession from the apostles. (St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Bk. 4, Ch. 26)

It’s important to note here that the Church doesn’t teach the infallibility of individual bishops (apart from the entire College). As Christ’s chosen apostles, however, each bishop ought to be awarded the deference and obedience that accompanies his station.

With all these exhortations from Scripture and Tradition, we ought to re-examine our views on the Church’s apostolicity. Do we believe that the Church’s teachings come from Christ? Do we believe that our modern-day bishops are teaching with apostolic authority? Are we thinking or acting in rebellion to Christ’s apostles?

Perhaps you or I discover that we aren’t quite in accordance with our bishop. What are we to do? The Church, in her infinite wisdom, offers us this simple guidance in Lumen Gentium:

Bishops, teaching in communion with the Roman Pontiff, are to be respected by all as witnesses to divine and Catholic truth. In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. (25)

Holy Mother Church doesn’t disparage our legitimate fears and feelings. She merely asks for our trust. If we trust her to administer the medicine of immortality each week in the Eucharist, perhaps we ought to trust the teaching of her apostles.

Next Sunday, and every Sunday thereafter, may we faithfully and fervently pronounce:

I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.


I’ve been addicted to this game for the past three weeks. It’s the perfect addiction: deceptively easy to play (most of the game can be played with 2 keys, sometimes a third, and the first half can even be mostly keysmash) and seemingly impossible to win. You learn your strategy and try to perfect it and just launch it over and over, because each failure was only one number tile away from a win, and it’ll have to happen next time…

Actually, I’ve been addicted to my own game for a long time, the game where I try to get my life to fit together in the way I want so that I can merge those pairs and bask in the endorphine rush of a new glowing tile. I want the sense that things are going somewhere, that I am taking the right steps, that I can win. Losing is the fear at my elbow, waiting to take over when I can’t force the gratifying situation in the moment that I want it.

What I’m saying is, I might have control issues. Whether it’s fear or pride, or just the hope that I could escape the pressure of preparing for what’s next and relax enough to focus on the actual business of being alive, it has sent me into innumerable slumps over the past year. This must be the real end of childhood: no longer passively submitting to whatever is supposed to happen next, and no longer passively freaking out about the challenges of “real life” and then pushing the hard decisions forward a few years. I have matured into ACTIVELY freaking out.

So, back to this game. Because it’s struck me, over the past few weeks, that the only way to win the game is to stop obsessing over lining everything up neatly every time. You’ll have two fours that have to go in opposite directions, or two eights stranded in opposite corners with only twos and 16s checkerboarded in between, and that’s okay — because the larger pattern requires your largest tile in a corner, and you cannot let it get out of place. At first it seems like you’ll be hopelessly gridlocked and that you are blindly sacrificing the smaller tiles just to box your biggest tile in. What you eventually realize is that, to win, you have to trust that the game will keep offering up these smaller tiles, over and over, and out of this slightly unpredictable, chaotic generosity, there will always be another chance to merge your tiles, if you just focus on matching up what you see and keeping the biggest in the corner. You have to practice a kind of half-blindness and trust that the part you can’t see yet will work in your favor.

What is the reason for elaborating on this fairly obvious metaphor? Well, not to brag or anything, but I totally beat the game last night (and even kept going past the 2048 tile, SUCKAS). So I feel that my ponderous moralizing now has some street cred.

Trusting God and trusting others with my happiness is definitely a harder project (and, I suspect, may take longer than three weeks).

a thing happened at Mass and I wrote a poem about it

At the Feast of the Annunciation
I heard him again:
the man with the voice
like unto a bellow in the furnace,
an unquiet, incorporeal reverberation
rising to the rafters.

At least a lag behind everyone else
his Amens resound into eternity,
a terrible trumpet blat
up from the rolling out belly of the earth,
a roar of horror, or an angel’s shout
shattering the vaults of dressed stone
we have considerately built to observe our worship.

The cantor is a professional;
she doesn’t miss a beat.
But others of us twitch toward the disrupt
after every antiphonal abuse
and I have thought to myself: I wonder
if he knows what he is doing, wonder
if he can hear himself at all
amidst the beauty of the choir, the obedient
lumbering from the pews,
the polyphonic pirouettes of Catholic artifice.

Before I’d only heard him, but today I saw
a man deaf, all numb to his noise, knuckled
hands gripping the pew in front.
A quiver in the angle of his head
made me imagine him an aged virtuoso
finding himself no longer the master of his
voice unrecognizable and uncontrolled,
Gabriel on a warped tape,
his tongue meeting his thoughts with nothing
hemming him, transparent as Mary’s mouth.

Hail, utterer of the word
I do not strain to hear you
but in heaven you cry in exquisite time
first, not last. Our songs there are delayed,
the rest of us, well habituated
to march in ancient notation,
but you groan the Spirit’s meter,
the voice of an old man or a ghost
dead as a monk to the world of sound,
in contemplation of the Virgin’s silence.

Speak, Lord, your servant is
a wind rending the mountains, a waxing fire,
a still small voice.