Tuesday, April 16, 2019

The Partial Destruction of Notre Dame

Three French temples
On my way to Notre Dame the first time, I got into Paris late and disoriented. I walked a good long time, then gave up and stopped at a hotel. Oops, no – it was a brothel. I figured it out after the fourth or fifth guy came in, met a girl, and went upstairs laughing. I left there, and went on to see Pere Rene Bel, my host, a canon at Notre Dame. He was a very precise thinker, like Germain Grisez; but underneath his brain and brow lurked a warm and hospitable heart (also like Germain Grisez). I don’t remember much of what he said, except my name – with a strong English “J” – followed by a richly intoned French/German/English vowel or three resembling an “O” that no one outside France will ever recapture – and ending with a firm and finite but still musical “N” song.

We were concerned about the destruction of fetuses – tiny sanctuaries of the Lord. How can we learn to be more gentle and respectful of each other? And about chastity: an orphaned notion, a form of love that builds rapidly past physical attraction toward a dozen more durable facets of a relationship.

O Marie, notre dame, in whose body the transformation of the universe began to unfold, can we build (or continue to build, or rebuild) a society in which the bodies of women are respected, and the lives of the unborn are cherished – and maybe even our glass and stones can be re-imagined?

The first time I visited the masjid (mosque) on New Hampshire Avenue alone, a dozen people went out of their way to make me feel welcome. I was deeply moved by the careful questions of one man who wanted to understand what I thought about Mary, or Maryam. Did I think about her? Did I love her? How did she pray? And was this love for her a bond between us? The Quran says more about her than the Bible does. Christians and Muslims disagree about some things we say about her, and perhaps we can fight savagely about it. But why should we? I think she can figure out who is sincere. I think she can take care of herself, and explain herself without my help.

Notre Dame was not a pilgrim site for Muslims, as far as I know. But when it’s re-built, maybe it will be. In our age (nostra aetate), we are learning better how to share the joys and hopes (gaudium et spes) of all mankind.

Catholics are an odd bunch. We treasure bits and pieces of our heroes – not just their crowns or books or homes, but bits of their bones and such. (It’s not just us. I treasure a gift from a Muslim friend, a relic: a small scrap of black cloth that was once part of a cover for the Kaaba in Mecca.) Notre Dame had a collection of relics, and many people were immensely relieved to hear that the relics weren’t in the basilica when it burned.

Cool. But God constructs his own temple, in the hearts of his people. The bodies of his beloved children matter. I think of the children and the mothers and the families of fugitives at our border and in “temporary” refugee camps all over the Middle East. I want the stones and glass in Paris to be rebuilt. But far more, I pray that widows and orphans and strangers will find a welcome and a home among God’s people. And I am certain that this is the Lord’s priority too. Quite certain.

I pray also that a new scourge of a new age will be addressed in the rebuilding – even if it takes a change in canon law to make it happen. When the relics of ages past go back into the rebuilt Notre Dame, I pray that the bodies of some unborn children – rejected neglected dismembered and discarded – will join them in places of grief and honor.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

I admire Pope Benedict's letter

Pope Benedict weighed in on the issue of priests attacking children while bishops looked the other way. Much of the response to his remarks has been vitriolic. My thoughts.

First, when children are under attack, clear thought matters, but it is secondary to effective action. Stop the bleepers, and take care of the child. Get it done.

Pope John Paul II put the matter of abusive priests in Cardinal Ratzinger’s hands. It seemed odd at the time. Why should the theologians be put in charge of the enforcement branch of the personnel section? The blunt answer is, I think, that it didn’t really matter what the office was called; what mattered was putting the right person in charge. Find an excuse, and put Ratzinger in charge. Ratzinger wants desperately to converse with the Lord and his people, with intelligence and love. He’s not temperamentally a cop. But put him in charge anyway! So Ratzinger got the job, and he broke the power and influence of the worst offender, Father Maciel, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ. And he started defrocking the frockers, over 800 of them.

Pope Benedict’s recent letter sketches the excuse for putting personnel enforcement in the doctrine department. I found it unconvincing, but don’t really care. What mattered was, give the problem to Ratzinger. He will make things happen. He will not be stymied by the money and power of his bleeping opponents, and he will take abusers out of circulation.

Second, his letter includes a proposition that sounds stupid. He says the abuse is rooted in an omission – the abusers did not know God, and their time in seminaries did not lead them to a knowledge of God. I don’t care how it sounds; St. Paul said the same thing.

I don’t think it’s possible to make the point briefly and effectively; you have to choose one or the other. He chose brevity. But his point was, morality can’t be separated from love. And love of the people around you can’t be separated from a love of God. Emphatically, that doesn’t mean that atheists can’t love people; I think that Pope Benedict would say that a person who sincerely seeks truth or goodness is stumbling toward God, moved by love. So although the point needs prompt clarification, I don’t think it’s controversial. If you have no idea what makes a human truly human – that is, if you don’t see and admire the love of truth and goodness that animates a human being – then you can’t love that person properly.

Brevity and clarity: how to balance them? Read Pope Benedict’s book “Church Fathers.” I’ve been looking at his chapters on St. Gregory of Nazianzus. Gregory was a theologian – in fact he was a capital letter THE theologian. With a bulging forehead and a droopy beard, leaking Greek. But if you just relax a bit, set aside prejudices, and just read his stuff, it becomes clear that Gregory knew God, and loved God. His ideas and his love can’t be separated. And when you sense the depth and power of the love that moved Gregory, you can understand the real power of Pope Benedict’s apparently stupid remark that loving God and screwing minors don’t fit together. How to avoid evil? Start with love – with Love.

Third, Pope Benedict’s ideas about the devastation of the 1960s left some people completely disgusted. But let me return to Gregory of Nazianzus.

Gregory’s greatest work was helping to understand and articulate the Trinity. He’s not doing stupid shamrock games; he believes that the mind of man is designed to know God, and that God invites us to knowledge. And so he untangles immensities. Sixteen centuries later, I’m trying to persuade Catholics and other Christians to join other people of good will to welcome and protect immigrants and refugees. The key idea that I want to convey, if I have to put it in a sentence or two, is:
+++ Hospitality is a ray of light straight from the heart of the Trinity. The stranger who comes into our lives brings an invitation to know God. +++
I’m not trying to do theology. I’m trying to figure out how to stir people into loving action on behalf of our suffering brothers and sisters. But as I stumble forward, I find myself more and more reliant on the work of great men and women like Gregory. I want to say that the host/guest relationship is a clear image of the life of the Trinity, and invitation into that life. But saying that assumes that we can talk about the Trinity. And indeed we can, because God invites us and teaches us – largely through the work of men and women like Gregory and Benedict (and Macrina and Theresa).

Benedict’s remark about the 1960s was similar, it seemed to me. Marriage, like hospitality, is a revelation of the life of the Trinity, and an invitation into that life. And just as Trumpism is a devastating assault on hospitality, just so Planned Parenthood assaulted marriage. Hospitality and marriage should be understood as simple things, part of daily life – but also as multi-layered realities, touching every part of human life. Reducing marriage to sex and reducing sex to a four-letter word rips the guts out of humanity. The four-letter word has a fairly precise meaning, I think: it means sex without meaning.

What teaches people to explore levels of meaning? Desert solitude can help. Reading can help. But for most people, there are three overlapping ways into depths of understanding: prayer, suffering and death, and love and sex. Closing off one route to meaning is a colossal social loss.

I accept Pope Benedict’s remarks about the vast and devastating changes in social attitudes towards sex in a single generation. Of course there has always been uni-dimensional sexual activity: round peg, round hole, fun. But this willful blindness was not embraced as normal before my generation.

I was shocked over and over when I started to understand the depth and wealth of the teaching about hospitality in the Bible. One shock: the story of Mamre includes a connection that isn’t familiar, that the reward for hospitality is fertility. Abraham welcomed three Strangers, and so he is the father of many nations. AND SO. That’s almost completely incomprehensible in a society that does not practice hospitality and does not value fertility.

I accept the ideas in Benedict’s letter. Wholeheartedly.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Lent, 5th Sunday: hospitality isn't in today's reading

I am convinced that hospitality is fundamental in Scripture and in Christian life. We almost always overlook the rich teaching about it that's all over Scripture!

"All over" doesn't mean every single passage.

I don't see any teaching about hospitality in the Gospel for today.

Next Sunday, Palm Sunday -- that's a different story! That Gospel has hospitality in every tree, in every stone, in every breath.

Lent, 4th Sunday: prodigal son and hospitality

Fourth Sunday of Lent: March 31, 2019

Just a quick note about the Gospel today. It’s the story of the Prodigal Son.

The story is about forgiveness and salvation, most obviously.

Salvation: The Prodigal Son wastes everything, and the Father is joyful about his return. The older son, the “good” son, is disturbed about the Father’s soft heart, but the Father coaxes him to be forgiving also.

Hospitality: The story is also about hospitality. The Father’s love is made visible in a banquet.

Throughout Scripture, salvation and hospitality are tied together. Moses’ sons were named “God saves” and “Be hospitable.” The names of the Lord are “Savior” and “God visits us.” The hospitality of the Last Supper can’t be separated from the saving action of the crucifixion. Hospitality is not a decoration; it is fundamental in a spiritual life.

Christianity without hospitality is a hole in the bucket in the desert.

Lent, Sunday #3 alternative: woman at well and hospitality

Third Sunday of Lent, alternative reading: March 24, 2019 (but use Year A reading)

There are two Gospels for the third Sunday in Lent – the readings from Year C (this year) or alternatively the readings from Year A, used with people who are preparing for baptism at Easter. The latter is extraordinarily packed, worth reading alongside the Lord’s words about the Last Judgment in Matthew 25:31-46.

Matthew 25 has the six precepts: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome strangers, clothe the naked, visit the sick, and visit the imprisoned. It seems to me that this passage must be read on at least four levels: (1) literal, (2) metaphorical, (3) moral and/or social, and (4) anagogical. (Anagogical: that’s about taking the way up, or spiritual life, or heaven.) It seems to me that all six precepts show up in today’s reading, and all four levels are pertinent, although not all six show up on all four levels.

woman at the well and Matthew 25











The reading is about Jesus meeting the woman at the well.

The reading includes the second precept, obviously. On a literal level, Jesus wants some water, and she can get him some. But, also obvious, he offers her “living” water; water here is a metaphor for a spiritual life, and indeed for life eternal. (Thirsty: levels 1, 2, and 4.)

The first precept also shows up. When the disciples find Jesus at the well, they ask if he wants something to eat. That’s literal. He says that he has food that they don’t know about: “My food is to do the will of the one who sent me and to finish his work.” (That’s metaphorical.) Then Jesus talks about harvesting, about gathering crops for eternal life. That is, they have a mission. They are called to feed God’s people. (Moral, social.) The fields are ripe for the harvest. (That’s anagogical.)

The fourth precept is also in the story, although it’s not obvious. In Scripture, clothing the naked is rarely literal; it’s almost always metaphorical. The first nakedness in Scripture is right at the beginning of Genesis: Adam and Eve sin, experience shame, and then discover that they are naked. Their nakedness is about shame, not about skirts and pants. When Jesus is stripped, the soldiers are not trying to make him feel the cold; they intend to make him feel shame. In Scripture, clothes don’t hide nakedness; they reveal the person: people are clothed in white, or in royal garments, or in majesty and splendor. In this story, the woman has apparently been stripped naked by at least five men – literally, but outside the boundary of this story. Jesus helps her to bare her soul, and then he clothes her in his dignity (metaphorical, anagogical).

It seems to me that in Scripture, we find Jesus visiting the sick – literally – quite often, but almost never visiting the imprisoned – literally. But on a metaphorical level, Jesus does both all the time. The woman at the well is ashamed but also weak – sick. He gives her the strength to come alive and start talking about the things in her heart. When she talks about her hope for the coming of the Messiah, she is healed. Clothed in the Lord’s dignity, and healed of her broken-ness, she sets off to town to announce the good news. This joyful proclamation comes from a heart that has been freed.

The Samaritans started to listen to Jesus because of her testimony. But then they make their own decisions, and offer hospitality.

It’s worth noting that the discussion of thirst is personal, between Jesus and the woman; and when Jesus heals her and frees her and clothes her in dignity, that too is between the two of them. But the discussion of food is communal: Jesus talks with his disciples about it. And the offer of hospitality is also communal: the people of the town invite Jesus to stay.

The offer of hospitality is evidence of a healing. The relationship between the Samaritans and the Jews – at least in this town, with these Jewish strangers – is healed.

Was this Gospel (John 4, most of the chapter) written to explain Matthew 25? Or vice versa? No! A thousand times no! The two passages have so much in common because these are the things that matter to the Lord. In this story, the six precepts overlap and intertwine and reinforce each other, because this is the life that the Lord asks us to live.

Lent (Sunday #3): the fig tree and hospitality

Third Sunday of Lent: March 24, 2019

The Gospel at Mass today is wonderful. It’s the story about Jesus cursing a fig tree, coupled with the story of his reaction to news that Pilate had desecrated the bodies of some Galileans after their executions.

I am convinced that hospitality is as significant in the Gospel as truth and salvation and sacrifice. It’s not a decorative side issue; it’s fundamental. And there’s an insight into hospitality in this Gospel. It’s not central, but it’s noteworthy.

Who deserves punishment? When Jesus hears about some executions, he says promptly that what happened to these men does not in any way indicate that they must have done something awful to earn such a fate. He recalls another recent incident of violence and death, and says about each incident that there is no reason to think they were guiltier than anyone else nearby. But he adds that “unless you repent you will all die as they did.” The deaths should not encourage us to be self-righteous and judgmental; rather, we should make sure that we ourselves are ready for sudden death.

The second reading half of the reading is quirky, but it’s plausible that it continues the theme of death and judgment with a bit more insight. It’s a parable about a fig tree that doesn’t produce fruit for three years. The owner is ready to cut it down, but the gardener asks for another year of mercy.

The parable seems to be about sins of omission. We really are supposed to produce fruit. We deserve punishment not only if we do wrong but also if we fail to do right. In fact, the parable suggests that a failure to do right may be even more serious.

And what, specifically, is a fig tree supposed to do? Feed the hungry. Figs are supposed to be a delightful part of hospitality. To be sure, the parable can point to all our obligations: the “fruit” is obviously a metaphor for many different kinds of production. But the simplest and most direct application of the parable is hospitality.

Both parts of this reading are about repentance. The first part says we shouldn’t try to judge someone else’s life; we too are likely guilty. The second part is about a severe punishment for a sin of omission – for inhospitality. It’s possible that these two parts of the reading are unconnected, but it’s also plausible that they belong together. Death is real although mysterious, and judgment is real although we should leave it to God – and while we’re talking about severe judgments, how are you doing about hospitality?

The Gospel today is an excerpt from the Sermon on the Plain, which addresses many topics, hospitality among them. Jesus does not curse and threaten very much; it’s worthwhile trying to understand it when he does.

Lent (Sunday #2): Transfiguration and hospitality

Second Sunday of Lent: March 17, 2019

The Gospel at Mass today is wonderful. It’s the story about the Transfiguration. Jesus goes up a mountain with Peter and James and John; Jesus is transfigured, and the apostles see him as he is in heaven, conversing with Moses and Elijah.

I am convinced that hospitality is as significant in the Gospel as truth and salvation and sacrifice. It’s not a decorative side issue; it’s fundamental. And I think it’s worthwhile looking at this Gospel with an eye on hospitality. This reading is multi-faceted, but one facet is about hospitality.

First, the three people whom the apostles see are all figures associated with hospitality, because they were rejected. Moses was a survivor from a pogrom, a genocidal effort to get rid of Jewish kids, because they were strangers in a strange land that no longer welcomed strangers. Elijah was a sojourner Tishbe, who spent a significant time as a fugitive; he lived for a period of time with a widow and an orphan, the desperate Biblical trio – widow & orphan & stranger. And when Jesus was born, his parents took him and fled to Egypt to escape the slaughter ordered by Herod; John’s description of his birth is that “he come to his own and his own knew him not.” The Law-giver, The Prophet, and the Messiah: three rejected strangers, conversing in heaven.

Second, the setting switches from a mountaintop to heaven and back. Heaven is home. Here on earth, we are all pilgrims, we are all strangers and sojourners, we are all guests. But home is where the Lord is, where he invites us, where he welcomes us – after we have relinquished our complaints about “trespassers.”

Third, Peter’s response to the event is to offer hospitality as well as he knows how. He wants to erect three tents – for Jesus, for Moses, and for Elijah. A tent: this is what his fore-father Abraham – another wanderer, living in a tent – first offered to his celestial visitors at Mamre. It’s shade, and it’s a good first step; if Jesus had accepted the offer, the rest of the customs would have followed: shade, then water for their feet, then food, etc. Further, in Scripture, a tent is always more than a tent. The Ark of the Covenant traveled with the Hebrews for decades across the desert, in a tent. “Tent” can be translated “sanctuary.”

Fourth, the reading overlaps with the insights into hospitality from the story of Jesus visiting Martha and Mary. Martha buzzed around doing hospitable things; Mary sat at the feet of Jesus and listened. Martha asked Jesus to tell Mary to get to work. Jesus declined, and explained that Mary had chosen “the better part.” This was not a criticism of Martha; Martha was doing good, but Mary was doing better. So here too: Peter wants to buzz around, but the Father intervenes to encourage a deeper hospitality: “Peter! Just listen! This is beloved Son! Listen!”

The Gospel today is about many things, hospitality among them. Jesus is revealed as host in heaven, inviting us into unity with him, where the hosts and guests dwell together as one, in open-hearted and open-eared hospitality.

Lent (Sunday 1): temptations in desert and hospitality

First Sunday of Lent: March 10, 2019

The Gospel at Mass today is wonderful. It’s the story about Jesus being tempted in the desert – the devil urging him to change stones to bread, or jump off a cliff and let the angels catch him, or rule the world. He says no to each.

I am convinced that hospitality is as significant in the Gospel as truth and salvation and sacrifice. It’s not a decorative side issue; it’s fundamental. And I think it’s worthwhile looking at this Gospel with an eye on hospitality. This reading is multi-faceted, but one facet is about hospitality.

The prototype of hospitality – the First Feast in Scripture – is Abraham at Mamre. That story includes welcoming strangers, bowing to them, offering shade and rest, washing their feet, providing a meal, serving them, and talking about fascinating things after dinner. At the Last Supper, Jesus follows the pattern set by Abraham: welcoming his disciples regardless of whether they were friends or enemies, bowing, reclining, washing their feet, providing a meal, serving, and talking about fascinating things after dinner.

The temptation in the desert includes three key details from Mamre, distorted: it’s about food, feet, and bowing.

The devil suggests turning stones to bread. Jesus isn’t interested, and in retrospect it’s easy to see why. He’s got his eye on the Eucharist: he is planning to turn bread into himself, and planning to turn stony hearts into hearts of flesh instead. Why turn a plastic ring into brass, when you’re planning to turn a mountain into gold?

The devil suggests that he protect his feet miraculously. Jesus isn’t interested, and in retrospect it’s easy to see why. He’s got his eye on the Eucharist, and he’s planning to embrace and cherish bruised and dirty feet. Dirty feet are natural; bruises are the common fate of humanity. He embraces this, and plunges into the dirt and bruises. How else can we understand what he’s doing (sort of) when he asks us to cherish each other, in all our dirt and sin and bruises and weariness?

The devil suggests that he set up a power structure, with himself near the top. Jesus isn’t interested, and in retrospect it’s easy to see why. He’s got his eye on the Eucharist, and he’s planning to upend the whole power structure. The priest and the victim are one; the host is the servant of all; the One at the top of the power structure chooses to go to the bottom; the Alpha is the Omega. A king who plans to be a slave really isn’t tempted by a guaranteed slot as viceroy.

The Gospel today is about many things, hospitality among them. The devil has no understanding of hospitality, and can only offer a foolish caricature.