Wednesday, December 11, 2002

Always something new

Ever since I stopped commuting to the Bay Area I have been able to spend more time on some of the small country roads out here in the San Joaquin Valley -- generally trying to find an alternate way to work. I love these roads and the strange and wacky things you find.

Growing up in Louisiana and Oklahoma (among other places) I saw a lot of cattle growing up. Passing by dairies around here is no surprise -- this is where much of the milk in California is now produced. But I was surprised to see a number of goat farms in the area until I saw a good sized goat milk facility in a nearby town.

On the way to work today I passed a field that I see everyday. But looming through the fog this morning was ostriches. Yeah I know that the market for ostrich meat is growing, and the skins can be worth a lot, but the those long necks stretched to peer through the fence made me think I was in a science fiction movie.

It's always something.

Approved by the Kringler Rav

The Internet is a big place, and I'm always bumping into interesting or entertaining things that have been around a while, but that are new to me. The Jewish laws of Xmas (Hilchos Xmas) have been around for at least four years, but I just followed a link to them yesterday. What a hoot!

Akiva and Ilene Miller (he's a programer, naturally) put these together both to demonstrate some aspects of Jewish law while creating a lovely parody of the cultural side of Christmas in America. The Millers explicitly avoid the religious side (hence Xmas) but wonderfully skewer so much about the season. To wit:

1 This contrasts sharply with Shabbos, for the mitzva of honoring Shabbos applies all week long. For example, if one finds a particularly good food during the week, one should save it for Shabbos even though it is now only Sunday and Shabbos is a week away. However, Xmas preparations may not begin too far in advance, in order to fulfill the dictum, "It's beginning to look a lot like Xmas."
2 This is because of the principle that two festive occasions should not be mixed into each other. Note the decree of the great R.H. Macy, who established that Santa Claus may not appear in the Thanksgiving Day parade until after all the other floats have passed.
3 There are some who begin preparing for Xmas as early as Halloween. This is wrong, and they will be called upon to account for their evil ways.
4 Such as setting up the Xmas tree (some say even buying one,) or playing holiday music on the Muzak.
5 Such as buying gifts or buying the Xmas dinner turkey. Cooking the turkey may not be done before Thanksgiving because it will appear to be a Thanksgiving turkey.
This is wonderful, gentle, perceptive, and dead on. Go read this and recognize an family argument you've had over "the right way of doing it."

Monday, November 18, 2002

Well, maybe this year

I moved to California just over thirty years ago, when the Air Force transferred my father from Germany to what was then Castle AFB. At the time I was an Episcopalian, but I started reading stories about a Christmas tradition here that I had never heard of before: La Posadas (a place of shelter or inn). I have loved the descriptions, but have never made it to a celebration, even after becoming a Catholic. Well, this year, Fr. Oneyma is conspiring with the Spanish Mass community in out parish to surprise the rest of us with something for Christimas, and I hear that some version of La Posadas is it. Maybe this year.

For nine days (December 16 to 24) in many Mexican communities, a group of families will gather each evening to form a candlelit procession that can include a boy and girl dressed as Mary and Joseph. The group will reenact the travels of the holy couple by going from home to home, singing or praying the Rosary. At each home they stop and sing a request for a place to stay the night:

En el nombre del Cieloos pido posada,
pues no puede andar
mi esposa amada.

In the name of Heaven
I ask you for lodging,
because She cannot walk,
my beloved wife.
At all but the last house, the homeowner refuses, singing:
Aquí no es mesón;
sigan adelante.
Yo no puedo abrir,
no sea algún tunante.

This is no inn,
keep on going.
I won't open the door,
in case you are a truant.
There are more verses to be sung at each house, until you get to the final destination where the door is opened and the group wating inside (which usually includes those who were at the earlier houses) sing:
Entren, Santos Peregrinos,
reciban este rincón;
no de esta pobre morada,
si no de mi corazón.

Enter, Holy Pilgrims,
accept this dwelling;
not of this humble house,
but of my heart.
Everybody then enters in for celebrations, especially for the children. On the last evening, the celebration ends with Midnight Mass.
Father Gilberto Cavazos-González, O.F.M. (in the article, Whom will you welcome this Christmas in the December 2002 U.S.Catholic) remebers La Posadas and the building of the naciamento (the creche) growing up as an immigrant in the U.S. La Posadas have largely been a lay practice, with little invovement fron the Church, which mystifies Fr. Gilberto:
For better or for worse, the institutional church in the United States has all but ignored the Posadas and nacimientos, calling them superstitious wastes of time and money. For us, this ecclesial ignorance of our Christmas practices is disconcerting, given the fact that it was the church itself, under the direction of Franciscans and Augustinians, that taught us the Posadas and showed us how to build nacimientos.
While a parish priest in Texas, Fr. Gilbert worked with his parishioners to, in his words, evangelize the Posadas. Keeping them lay lead and family based, they added a stronger emphasis on proclaiming the Gospel story, lay preaching, and prayer.

For nine nights, the people of the barrio were treated to tamales and the gospel in hopes that those who never came to church would feel the call to do so. Throughout the rest of the year I would occasionally meet people after Mass who would introduce themselves as having been touched by the Posadas enough to at least occasionally come to Mass. Some went on to become active members of the parish.

I like it -- this is what Catholicism does better than any other Christian tradition in the West. Tamales and the Gospel -- you need both.

For some additional information:

Friday, November 15, 2002

How to do it better

This post started life with the title Better Bead Wrangling, but I thought better of it. This is the fourth of what will probably be five posts on the new apostolic letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae :

After I get the last post done, I plan to combine these into one piece accessible from the navigation menu.

In the third chapter of this letter, John Paul II turns to "The Rosary, a way of assimilating the mystery" -- to the method of the Rosary itself. This method uses repetitive prayers which in pattern and content can bring us into a proper psychological state for contemplation:

We should not be surprised that our relationship with Christ makes use of a method. God communicates himself to us respecting our human nature and its vital rhythms. Hence, while Christian spirituality is familiar with the most sublime forms of mystical silence in which images, words and gestures are all, so to
speak, superseded by an intense and ineffable union with God, it normally engages the whole person in all his complex psychological, physical and relational reality.

This is seen in both liturgical and non-liturgical prayer, where all the dimensions of a person are involved by various means. In the case of the Rosary, a variety of means can be combined with repetition to assist with spiritual concentration, similar to a number of popular methods known in orther religions. The difference is that the Rosary is structured to fulfill uniquely Christian requirements:
In effect, the Rosary is simply a method of contemplation. As a method, it serves as a means to an end and cannot become an end in itself. All the same, as the fruit of centuries of experience, this method should not be undervalued. In its favour one could cite the experience of countless Saints. This is not to say, however, that the method cannot be improved. Such is the intent of the addition of the new series of mysteria lucis to the overall cycle of mysteries and of the few suggestions which I am proposing in this Letter regarding its manner of recitation. These suggestions, while respecting the well-established structure of this prayer, are intended to help the faithful to understand it in the richness of its symbolism and in harmony with the demands of daily life. Otherwise there is a risk that the Rosary would not only fail to produce the intended spiritual effects, but even that the beads, with which it is usually said, could come to be regarded as some kind of amulet or magic object, thereby radically distorting their meaning and function.
Suggestions on method

The Holy Father has concrete suggestions on a more conteplative praying of the Rosary -- methods that may not be new to you.

Each mystery should be announced, as a way of making that episode in salvation history more concrete, to provide a focus for attention to assist contemplation. This could include meditating on an icon appropriate to the particular mystery, or using methods similar to those suggested by St. Ignatius in the Spiritual Exercises.
To deepen this meditation, and to give it a proper foundation, the announcement should be followed by the proclamation of an appropriate biblical passage. In certain situations, this can include a brief commentary. In letting God speak to us in this way, we also break up the reperition in a way that can prevent boredom.
Finally, after announcement and proclamation of the work, is silence. In my experience this is the one suggestion least followed currently -- we are all in too much of a hurry to "get it done". This pause gives us time to concentrate on the mystery, and to enter into meditation on it.

The prayers

Focusing on the mystery, we raise our minds up to God in the Our Father as Jesus in each mystery leads us to the Father. He makes us his brothers and sisters, as we are of each other, making the Rosary a communal, an ecclesial experience, even when one prays by oneself. This prayer lays the foundation for the meditation that will unfold.

The ten Hail Marys are the main part of the Rosary, a prayer both supremely Marian and but also Christ centered. We start each prayer joining in praise and wonder over the great miracle of the Incarnation, in God's tremendous intervention. After acknowledging Mary's unique position, the Theotokos, we appeal to her and ask her intercession both in our lives and in the hour of our deaths.

The "hinge" of this prayer is the name of Jesus. That name provides the "center of gravity" for meditation:
Sometimes, in hurried recitation, this centre of gravity can be overlooked, and with it the connection to the mystery of Christ being contemplated. Yet it is precisely the emphasis given to the name of Jesus and to his mystery that is the sign of a meaningful and fruitful recitation of the Rosary.
John Paul II points out (as Paul IV did) that the custom in some places to addition of a clause referring to the mystery being contemplated (especially in public recitation) reinforces the Christological nature of this prayer and aids concentration of meditation.
The meditation on each mystery is summed up in the "Gloria", where we end up in praise, worship and thanksgiving to the Trinity, the proper end of all contemplation. This should not be a perfunctory conclusion, and can be sung, especially in public recitation.


Much of the rest of the form of the Rosary does vary from place to place. The opening and closing prayers for the entire Rosary, as well as any concluding prayer after each Gloria can take on a legitimate variety of forms. What makes any of these practices legitimate is that they properly prepare the mind for and sustain the mind in contemplation. This includes starting with either the Apostles Creed or the opening of Psalm 70, and ending with the Salve Regiina or the Litany of Loreto. It can include prayers specific to each mystery after the Gloria. Once again, John Paul is making suggestions not commands.

A suggestion that has received a lot of attention is the scheme for distributing the sets mysteries over the week.
day of weekexistingsuggested
ThursdayJoyfulMysteries of Light
Sundaydepends on seasonGlorious
I wonder if this is going to turn out to be a work in progress -- I have not talked with anyone who is wildly happy with this schedule, but we will see.
Overall, the aim is to make the Rosary a more contemplative form of prayer. None of the practices is new by itself, but the stress on aquieter and more meditative approach is welcome

Wednesday, November 06, 2002

Resting Signs

You've seen these I'm sure -- a cross with flowers or ribbons and somebody's name set at the side of the road, marking the place where someone died in a car accident. More recently, I have been seeing makeshift shrines with pictures, candles, flowers, stuffed animals, and whatever springing up at or near death sites -- usually tragic or violent deaths such as shootings. There is a memorial at the curb where a woman died last year, hit in a crosswalk while crossing a busy street, just five minutes walk from my house. More than a year later, fresh flowers and balloons continue to appear at the foot high painted cross there. I remember seeing things like this from time to time when growing up in the South.

This evening I ran across an online discussion on these (on Mefi), with respondents bringing in examples from all over the world. One term for these apparently is descansos, reportedly from the Spanish term for rest, after a traditional practice in places like New Mexico of marking with a cross the places where the pallbearers would pause and set down the coffin for a rest, on the long walk from the town to the cemetery.

Well the word may be Spanish, but the custom seems to be worldwide. Photograpic documentaries of descansos, generally in America, have been put online by Bill Sampson and Dave Nance, along with a discussion of them in the Southwest and Mexico by the Tombstone Traveller ChrisTina Leiner. She links to this fascinating site that shows over 400 roadside memorials in Ireland, many of them elaborate stone or metal plaques. (Interesting links on this site too.) The practice is even showing up in New Zealand. There are those who think these should be preserved, and those who do not.

The online discussion followed in interesting ways some of the points made by Thomas Lynch in the U.S. Catholic article I discussed last week. One point in the discussion was that these were sudden deaths, that there was no time beforehand for those who survived to prepare emotionally, no process of gradual adjustment, of letting go, of saying goodby. Maybe in these cases people simply need more time to come to terms with the reality of death.

Adding to this problem is the distance that modern funeral practices creates between the survivor and death. The graveyard is no longer the patch of land next to the parish church that we walk past each day. Now it is (under well justified and proper modern planning guidelines) off at some distance from our homes, well kept, clean and remote Thomas Lynch speaks of this:

For the past couple generations, we've begun to think the major purpose of funerals is to be a warm, fuzzy event. So very often the dead are disposed of quickly and conveniently. We don't witness our burnings the same way we witness our burials, and what a shame that is.

We have farmed out the corporeal business of dealing with the dead to people like me, to professionals. And in its place put these tastefully upmarket, well-organized, beautiful commemorative events that have really fine finger-food and plenty of mixed media and music and video and, needless to say, uplifting, life-affirming talk. But the dead are not there. And in that sense it's a little bit like going to a Baptism without the baby there.
We seem to need to respond in specific ways to death.  This response is:
  • personal -- it is something we need to do personally, an offering of something unique to ourselves, even if it is only grafitti;
  • physical -- somthing real, something we can touch and see and come back to;
  • social -- death and grief are isolating and seeing others sharing our grief reassures us that we are not alone or abnormal either in grieving, or in valuing the person who has died
  • specific to the person -- we feel that each person is owed some rememberance that is theirs, something that shows that they once lived and mattered;
  • specific to the place -- something we often ignore concerning many spiritual issues, but something that is extremely important
  • repeated over time -- whether on the anniversary of a death or Memorial Day or whatever, we need to find some way of taking this event that has left so much that is ragged and unfinished and weaving it into the rythms of our lives going forward.
And this need appears to be common to all -- not just a matter of a specific cultural or religious tradition, although the particular examples here are Christian in content or influence.

I'm running out of time tonight -- I want to come back to this later, to look at one of the most impressive recent examples of this kind of informal or unconventional memorial, the Temple of Joy at this year's Burning Man. I think all of this should be a strong set of signs to Christians of what needs are driving many who have no definite or developed faith today -- needs that are a tremedous pastoral challenge and evangelical opportunity to us, if we can understand them.

Wednesday, October 30, 2002

Strange experience

A few days ago, I started to recieve referrals from one of the most interesting Catholic blogs, Flos Carmeli (Flower of Carmel -- for those of you that might not be familiar, it is the title of a Carmelite anthem to Our Lady). Steve Riddle, a third order Carmelite (I assume O. Carm. as in the case of O.C.D. the term one generally uses is Secular Carmelite) shares wonderful insights and poetry, both his own and delightfully unpredictable but appropriate works by almost anyone else (the latest are from Sylvia Plath and T.S. Eliot along with his own Wadi Cherith). Steven's site is a gentle and thoughtful place, a bit unlike some of the more active and rambunctious places on the web that are more popular. Well worth spending regular time with.

Well, Steve recently added this address to his blogroll -- for which I am honored and grateful, especially as Marilee and I have been T.O.Carm ourselves, but are now inactive for reasons having nothing to do with the order itself. Tonight, having a little blogging time I started to post some thanks when I noticed that the link was now gone. Now it's back again.

Was it something I said? Actually it is not important -- this site really is not for crowds, just for a few friends like you. I don't expect attention and I still feel quite honored and grateful for the link, because Steve's site is that good (probably a better place to spend time at than here) and I think you should go visit it, now.
The Web is a strange and wonderful place and there are new experiences all the time . . .

What makes a good funeral?

While I cannot say that I have been to a lot of funerals (well, more all the time -- one does get to that age), they do take up a lot of important space in my memories. Some of the important ones that I think about from time to time are the funerals for:

  • My aunt in Lake Charles, LA that my family traveled to, but my sister and were not allowed to attend as we were "too young" (drat!);
  • John Kennedy, on television at my grandmother's house in Oklahoma;
  • My father (a small memorial service) that I was a reader at;
  • Ron, one of my most important friends, who sat up with me the night my father died (it ended up as a wonderful reunion of friends who had not seen each other for years);
  • Fr. Ed Murphy, the Episcopal priest that first lead me to really knowing Christ;
  • Two this last year in our parish, for groups of 4 and 5 murdered young siblings each (one of these every decade or so is enough, two in a year . . .).

I just this evening ran across the web version of the Fall Book Section of US Catholic. It features an interview with Thomas Lynch, a writer and poet who is also, in his own words, an undertaker. The only problem with this interview is Lynch's gift for graceful and economical expression makes amost every bit something you would like to quote.

The interview starts out with his commenting on what a good funeral does -- it gets the "dead where they need to be and the living where they need to be." He was then asked Do you think the rituals of the Catholic funeral rite are feeding people?

I do. I'm impressed that Catholics have always insisted on having the body there, on hauling the bad news into church and saying: "And yet I tell you a mystery." It gives us whatever the consolations of our faith may be.

All ritual behavior is an effort to act out things that are hard to put in words. But now everybody wants to overexplain the metaphors. Why have them if you're going to explain them? The beauty of a metaphor is you don't have to say anything! We don't have to know exactly why it is we're putting this pall on the casket; just do the thing. We are constantly trying to say, "Now this incense means this." Just sprinkle some around, and let people use their imaginations. That is the beauty of Catholic funeral liturgy: symbol and ritual and metaphor. The meaning overwhelms the sense. You don't have to get it; it will get you.

Another bit, that echoes some of the experience we have had lately in detention ministry, the importantce of simple presence:

You've said that as a funeral director you care for the living by caring for their dead. Do you look at what you do as a vocation?

I don't confuse what I do with ministry in a religious sense. I think of it more as an exercise in humanity. When the phone rings at 3 o'clock in the morning, that does feel like a calling, because someone's calling you at odd hours to say the worst thing that could happen has happened. What do we do about it? We answer the phone. The priest in my town often asks me, "Why do they call you first?" I tell him, "I answer the phone." That's how you get people's trust. We forget how powerful our presence is.

The clergy do not know the power—the huge, magic medicine, the voice of God—that is brought when they walk into the room where a death has occurred and stand upright. This says to the person who is buckled over with this hurt, "You could give this to God." I see this happen all the time.

When parents are burying their dead children, the fact that they can walk upright is to me a sign that God is—otherwise they'd be in the dirt. They would not walk; they could not speak. I've seen people absolutely incapacitated with heartbreak. The fact that they get up is a statement of faith and of God's care.

Strong stuff that I will be returning to in meditation and prayer.
On Amazon you can find these books and poetry by Thomas Lynch:

Sunday, October 27, 2002

The Rosary, History, and Change

Thinking about history can be strange -- it is like looking down a long tunnel, with the only source of light behind you, at the tunnel's mouth. Things close to the mouth are easy to see and we will notice all the differences and changes easily. As we peer farther down the tunnel, farther into the past, we will see less as the light will be dimmer, and things will blend together a bit. All we will be able to make out are the big bright items -- there will be lots of variety close by, but farther in change will be harder to make out. This is often how we see history -- centuries of relative stability with the cream of a century or so of frothy change on top. It really isn't that way -- a lot more was going on back then, and much of the apparent change now isn't that significant. Much of it is a matter of perspective.

A lot of the discussion about the new apostolic letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae reminds me of that. Some news writers, and some Catholics, have seemed to think that the Rosary somehow dropped complete from the hands first of St. Dominc then Pope Pius V and that no development or change took place before or since. As the letter itself points out, the Rosary is a technique of meditative and contemplative prayer of a type found in many religions. The idea of counting prayers using stones, a knotted cord, or beads on a string or chain is ancient. The history of the Christian Rosary goes as far back before its official approval in 1569 as 1569 is remote from us. (It was the attachment of indugences at that time, which required a prescribed form for the Rosary, which slowed, but did not entirely stop change.)
For some of you, this stuff is old hat -- the 1912 Catholic Encyclopedia article on the Rosary, for instance, makes no bones about comprehensively debunking the idea of St Dominc as author of the Rosary (althogh there is no doubt of the Dominican sponsorship of the Rosary, and it's importance.) In fact, there is also an article on the Franciscan Crown, or Seraphic Rosary, which is dated back to the 15th century itself. But I thought at this point in sharing some reactions that I have to the new apostolic letter, that some additional perspective might be useful. The Rosary developed over time -- here is an outline of some highlights:

  • St. Benedict prescribed in the sixth century that monks and nuns in the West should recite the 150 Psalms once a week. Memorizing all of them was too difficult for some (I doubt that I could do it) so a "psalter" of 150 repetitions of "Our Father" was substituted. A parallel "psalter of Our Lady" developed with 150 repetitions of "Hail Mary" (This prayer only consisted of its first section from the Gospel of Luke, with it's second section from Luke appearing in the 12th century -- more development later.) A simple string of beads was often used to count the prayers.
  • By around the time Thomas of Contimpre cointed the term Rosary for this prayer in 1250, the 150 repetitions had been broken up into three sets of 50 for morning, afternoon, and evening, and the beads were divided up in to groups of ten using larger beads to allow for the insertion of the Doxology at the end of each decade.
  • Within another century or so, the Carthusian Henry Egher of Kolkar is recorded as setting forth a Rosary of 15 decades with a scriptural antiphon for each Hail Mary -- this developed into the 15 mysteries.
  • In 1483, Our Dear Lady's Psalter was published by Dominicans, which started the long and strong association of that order with the Rosary. It was only in the Sixteenth century that the final form of the Hail Mary emerged, and the official acceptance for the Rosary given.
There have been further changes since Pope Pius V set forth the "official" Rosary. For example, following the lead of the Fatima visionaries, an additional prayer was added by many to the end of each decade. There are still differences in custom from place to place in the use of this technique, as Catholics have made the prayer their own. The idea of additional sets of mysteries, in particular concerning the public life and teachings of Jesus, has been proposed by many groups and authors from Blessed George Preca of Malta (who came up with the term mysteries of light in the 1950's) to the American bishops in the 1970's in the document Behold Your Mother (which I have not found on line yet).

Father M. Basil Pennington (better known for his relationship to Thomas Merton and centering prayer) has written an excellent book on the Rosary, Praying by Hand. In it he discusses the history of the Rosary, his own experience with it, and sets of meditations on the fifteen traditional mysteries, one based on a pilgrimage he made to the Holy Land. He does briefly explore some of the "alternative" rosaries such as the Franciscan Crown, the Servite Rosary based on the seven sorrows of Mary, and the Divine Mercy Chaplet. He also goes into alternative sets of mysteries such as:

The Mysteries of Christ - sets of mysteries based on the person, life and minisry of Jesus
  • The Hidden Life
  • Jesus' Encounters with Mary
  • Jesus' Ministry to Other Women
  • Table Talk
  • The Healing Mysteries
  • "I am": Jesus' Self Identity
  • The Foretypes of the Resurrection
  • Jesus' Resurrection
  • Our Sacramental Life
The Sacraments
  • The Eucharist
  • Reconciliation
  • Annointing of the Sick
On the Journey
  • Vocation
  • Contenplative Mysteries
  • Pregnancy
  • When We are in Mourning
One of my favorites is his last one, Mysteries of Social Justice:
  • Jesus Feeds the Hungry (John 6:1-15)
  • Jesus Heals the Sick (Mark 1:32-34)
  • Jesus Respects Women (John 8:3-11)
  • Jesus Reaches Out and Touches Outcasts (Mark 1:40-45)
  • Jesus Honors the Despised (Luke 10:29-37)
And there is no reason to stop there. The Holy Father has been very careful to say that the changes put forth in is letter are suggestions, as are these other ideas listed above. You don't have to pray the Rosary if you don't want to, and you don't have to pray it a different way than you do now, just because of this letter. But these notes may help some see that the Rosary is something that has developed over time, I believe with Divine guidance, and it continues to develop. There are great Christians and Catholics that have not cared for the Rosary. But, as I pointed out in my previous notes, if you are looking for a deeper, more meditative prayer life, the Rosary may just be what you want.

Tuesday, October 22, 2002

Why bother with the Rosary anyway?

A lot has been going on in and around the Church in America lately, a lot of it depressing. Many Catholic websurfers seem to be searching for a change from further news about the Situation, or just for some novelty. Well, last week the Holy Father fed some red meat to those wanting something else to discuss, the apostolic letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae. No more errant priests -- lets argue over the Rosary! Some already think some of John Paul's suggestions are great, some think they are misguided (or worse), and many don't care.

Well, why should we care? That's the issue I would like to tackle here.

This is addressed to all of us post Vatican II Catholics who just never developed a "rosary habit". We may (or may not) have a prayer life worth mentioning and we get to Mass once a week (or more), but the Rosary has never "caught fire" for us. We who find the rosary boring, or too complicated, or too old fashioned, or irrelevant, or just to "Catholic", and therefore uncool. We who can't remember where our rosary beads are, unless they are draped over the rear view mirror of our car.

Well, this is a letter to us. A letter about why we need the Rosary, and suggestions from the senior bead wrangler himself on how best to get what we need from it. It is the latest letter to us of several laying out the needs of ourselves and others, and God's plan for the Church to meet them.

Also, one important point is that the Holy Father goes out of his way throughout this letter to us to say that these are suggestions, not commands. We are not ordered to say the Rosary, it is something that the Church offers to us, freely.

The new millennium

While many of us in the West are more than adequately provided with food, clothing and shelter (and much more) we still go to bed hungry each night -- spiritually. Last year John Paul wrote of just this need:

Is it not one of the "signs of the times" that in today's world, despite widespread secularization, there is a widespread demand for spirituality, a demand which expresses itself in large part as a renewed need for prayer? Other religions, which are now widely present in ancient Christian lands, offer their own responses to this need, and sometimes they do so in appealing ways. But we who have received the grace of believing in Christ, the revealer of the Father and the Saviour of the world, have a duty to show to what depths the relationship with Christ can lead.
This is from the apostolic letter Novo Millenio Ineunte -- At the Beginning of the New Millennium -- a reflection by John Paul II on the Church's experience during the Jubiliee and what that means for the new millennium. In summing up that experience, he put meeting this need for prayer at the center of the Church's program, as it always has been:
It is important however that what we propose, with the help of God, should be profoundly rooted in contemplation and prayer. Ours is a time of continual movement which often leads to restlessness, with the risk of "doing for the sake of doing". We must resist this temptation by trying "to be" before trying "to do".
So how are we to do that? By prayerful contemplation of the Face of the Lord:
... the men and women of our own day — often perhaps unconsciously — ask believers not only to "speak" of Christ, but in a certain sense to "show" him to them. And is it not the Church's task to reflect the light of Christ in every historical period, to make his face shine also before the generations of the new millennium?

Our witness, however, would be hopelessly inadequate if we ourselves had not first contemplated his face. The Great Jubilee has certainly helped us to do this more deeply. At the end of the Jubilee, as we go back to our ordinary routine, storing in our hearts the treasures of this very special time, our gaze is more than ever firmly set on the face of the Lord.
We are to plunge deep into the Gospels, to conteplate the mystery of both his human and divine natures, to see both the Face of sorrow and the Face of the Risen Lord. This makes it possible, it prepares us, to do the work set out for us, to start on the adventure we have been called to. As John Paul put it, Duc in altum: set out into the deep!

The Rosary

So, weren't we talking about the Rosary, and the letter sent out last week?

Just a few pages into this new letter on the Rosary, the Holy Father starts referring to the earlier letter:
I have felt drawn to offer a reflection on the Rosary, as a kind of Marian complement to that Letter and an exhortation to contemplate the face of Christ in union with, and at the school of, his Most Holy Mother. To recite the Rosary is nothing other than to contemplate with Mary the face of Christ.
He then discusses the timeliness of a revival in the Rosary, first to counter "a certain crisis of the Rosary" that may be resulting in the Rosary not being taught. (I can attest to that -- in my work as a CCD teacher and in youth ministry, I have encountered many kids who have never even heard of the Rosary.) He states that, properly understood, the Rosary is not in conflict with either the centrality of the Eucharist or with ecumenical activity.
But the most important reason for strongly encouraging the practice of the Rosary is that it represents a most effective means of fostering among the faithful that commitment to the contemplation of the Christian mystery which I have proposed in the Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio Ineunte as a genuine “training in holiness”: “What is needed is a Christian life distinguished above all in the art of prayer”. Inasmuch as contemporary culture, even amid so many indications to the contrary, has witnessed the flowering of a new call for spirituality, due also to the influence of other religions, it is more urgent than ever that our Christian communities should become “genuine schools of prayer”.

The Rosary belongs among the finest and most praiseworthy traditions of Christian contemplation. Developed in the West, it is a typically meditative prayer, corresponding in some way to the “prayer of the heart” or “Jesus prayer” which took root in the soil of the Christian East.
The one thing that we are not being called to, is some sort of limp pietism. The Holy Father is placing the Rosary, properly understood and practiced, on the level with the other meditative traditions that have become popular recently:
... the West is now experiencing a renewed demand for meditation, which at times leads to a keen interest in aspects of other religions. Some Christians, limited in their knowledge of the Christian contemplative tradition, are attracted by those forms of prayer. While the latter contain many elements which are positive and at times compatible with Christian experience, they are often based on ultimately unacceptable premises. Much in vogue among these approaches are methods aimed at attaining a high level of spiritual concentration by using techniques of a psychophysical, repetitive and symbolic nature. The Rosary is situated within this broad gamut of religious phenomena, but it is distinguished by characteristics of its own which correspond to specifically Christian requirements.
Why care about the Rosary? Because we feel the need for a deepness in prayer that goes beyond chatter and we don't seem to know what to do about that need. The Rosary is simple, but it is theologically sound and suited for deep contemplation. It is time for many of us to just get over our hangups about the Rosary (just part of getting over ourselves in general) and get to it.

Sunday, October 20, 2002

The Little Flower, or how I climbed down and caught on

When I entered the Catholic Church in the mid 80's, I found a lot to love, especially what I would call the roominess of it. It's a much bigger place than the Episcopal Church is, in a lot of surprising ways. There were things though that bothered a deep Evangelical strain in me -- certain Marian feasts and doctrines, and certain saints, in particular St Therese. I don't know really what it was, maybe just the name "The Little Flower" that just came off a bit twee. Some of the statuary and artwork didn't help either, and I stalled (as many do) in the childhood section of her autobiography.

To be honest, there have always been certain things, for example the more mindless happy-clappy (what a wonderful British phrase that is) worship sing alongs that I have found distasteful and sometimes a bit embarassing And being a rather emotional person, I have always been cautious about the more emotional expressions of faith -- perhaps I feared the vulnerablility, the lack of control. But taste can get in the way of love, and it is holy humility that is the remedy for that.

It was later, reading Bishop Gaucher's biography, then Dorothy Day's book on Therese that helped me to start getting past that. I have found in her writtings the spiritual advantages of being little

To be little is not attributing to oneself the virtues that one practices, believing oneself capable of anything, but to recognize that God places this treasure in the hands of His little child to be used when necessary, but it remains always God's treasure. Finally, it is not to become discouraged over one's faults, for children fall often, but they are too little to hurt themselves very much.
Thank you St. Therese -- a few roses today would be welcome . . .

Thursday, October 17, 2002

Detention Ministry Notes

We spent Saturday at the diocesan detention ministry training held at the pastoral center in Fresno. The cool weather (fall finally getting into gear) let Marilee and I have lunch outside in a lovely courtyard, to the lovely accompaniament of the freeway on the other side of the building. There was no shortage of good material presented -- the new diocesan coordinator for detention ministry, Elaine Lopes, did a very good job, especially considering that this was the first session. The Diocese of Fresno has more than 50 detention facilities within its (rather large) boundaries ranging from county jails to every kind of state penal facility to a federal maximun security prison. This includes the world's largest women's prison at Chowchilla, just a half hour south of us (visible from Highway 99 when the lights are on). While there are nearly a dozen professional chaplains working in these various places, and some of the parish clergy help out, much of the work is being done by lay volunteers.

One of the best presenters was a woman who has quite successfully worked with juvenile detainees for 15 years. She told us that (and I am paraphrasing as I did not write this down at the time) when you minister in a jail or prison you are not trying to persuade or present Christian doctrine, you are there to share the love of Jesus Christ. It makes things very simple and very complicated at the same time (given all the restrictions involved in being in such a place) and some people never quite catch on. If someone wants to know more about the Faith, super. But they have to want that first -- and for that they need an example. In the words of St. Francis:

Preach the Gospel at all times -- if necessary use words