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