instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Monday, May 25, 2015

Sometimes "I" means "I"

What I wanted to say about parrhesia wasn't that it's essential to the Christian mission and to the Christian's prayer life. Those posts were just the introductory paragraph of this post getting away from me.

I recently noticed one particularly gracious aspect of our gift of parrhesia, the freedom to speak freely to God: We are free to pray the words of Scripture, in particular the Psalms and especially the Canticles of Mary, Zechariah, and Simeon.

Yes, I know, not exactly a news flash. But take a look at this:
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord.
My spirit rejoices in God, my Savior,
For He has looked with favor on His lowly servant.
When we pray these words of the Magnificat, as the Church invites us to do every day as part of Evening Prayer, we aren't just praying the same words Mary happened to pray once. We are praying along with Mary, in the sense that we are joining in her proclamation of the greatness of the Lord and recollecting His look of favor upon her. We are also, so to speak, praying in Mary's footsteps. I am not only saying, "God looked with favor on Mary," I am saying, "As He did with Mary, God my Savior has looked with favor on me."

Even more: "As Mary said about herself, so I can say about myself: all generations will call me blessed."

Now that is some bold talk.

But it's true, isn't it? At least, it can be and is meant to be true; I personally, am supposed to be among the blessed in heaven. If (God forbid) it turns out I'm not, it won't be for want of God looking with favor on me, but because I didn't live up to my lowly servant (or friend, or child) side of the covenant.

All of the first person pronouns that we pray from the Scriptures can bind us to the original "I" who prayed it, as well as the Christ Who fulfills it. It's not just Zechariah's son who shall be called a prophet of the Most High; it's our own children -- and our parents' children, too -- as long as they go before the Lord to prepare His way. If the Lord lets me go now, then I ought to go in peace, because my own eyes have seen the salvation He has prepared in the sight of every people; I see it on the altar at every Mass. I do cry out of the depths, my sin is always before me, I do hear it said all the day long, "Where is your God?"

Our freedom to join in the prayers of David, Zechariah, Simeon, and especially our Mother Mary manifests our freedom to join in the hymn of glory they offer the Father, in the Son, through the Holy Spirit for all eternity. We aren't duplicates or copies; there is, after all, only one Mother of God. But then, there is only one of you, too. Freely claim your inheritance alongside your Mother, and the others who have spoken the revealed word of God.

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Sunday, May 24, 2015

Farewell to the sacrament of farewell

Archbishop Aquila has announced that Denver will restore Confirmation to its proper place -- prior to First Communion -- by 2020.

Good for him.

Among the challenges are teaching parents that Confirmation isn't a "sacrament of maturity" (or a "sacrament of farewell," as Pope Francis lamented), working out the catechesis necessary and appropriate to prepare seven-year-olds for the sacrament, and figuring out what on earth to do with youth ministry without Confirmation to provide a structure and a draw. It's a lot easier to make teenagers have to go on a retreat than to make them want to go.

As a matter of sacramental theology, the restoration is unassailable. I hadn't realized the inversion was so recent, having grown out of St. Pius X's lowering of the minimum age for First Communion to seven in 1910.

Pastorally -- not that I know anything about pastorality -- I like the restoration because it should force both youth ministers and youth to ask, "Why am I here?"

The answer often is, and never should be, "To prepare for Confirmation." As understandable, prit near unavoidable, as that thought is, it fosters the half-baked idea that Catholic kids are somehow "done" once they receive Confirmation -- you know, like Jewish kids are considered men and women once they've had their bar or bat mitzvahs.

No one will think a child of seven, having received all three Sacraments of Initiation, is a fully formed Catholic. Sure, plenty of parents will still think, "Whew! I got them their sacraments. My job is done," but at least they'll have to work hard to think the Church agrees with them. The idea that seven- and eight-year-olds should continue their religious education is a much easier sell than for thirteen-year-olds, particularly if their parents stopped their own religious ed after Confirmation at thirteen.

Imagine, religious education that isn't geared toward getting something. No more teaching to the test of checking boxes of mandatory activities. Imagine teaching to the real test, the one with questions like, "Who do you say that I am?" and "When did you see Me a stranger and welcome Me, or naked and clothe Me? When did you see Me ill or in prison, and visit Me?" A mystagogical program that doesn't work up to any particular moment of achievement might be able to teach children -- and parents -- that Catholics don't learn about the Faith in order to get sacraments but in order to know God, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him for ever in heaven.

It won't be easy, and I don't envy the youth ministers who will have to deal with immature catechetical materials and immature parents. Prayers for immature pastors might be in order as well. For that matter, a youth catechist won't necessarily have the gifts or interest to become a youth mystagogist; the emotional dimension of "Why am I here?" can be more significant than the intellectual.

Still, if the challenges are faced rather than ignored, I think this will make for a healthier local Church. It might even help with the demographic collapse of cultural Catholicism. If we stop signalling that there's a point at which the Church is done with you, maybe fewer people will reach the point of being done with the Church.

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Thursday, May 21, 2015

Risk free speech

It's been a long time since I read The New Man, but as I recall Thomas Merton's exploration of parrhesia in that book wasn't so much about speaking boldly to the world despite the attendant risks. He was more interested in God's gift to man of being able to speak freely to God. This essay reminds me that Merton wrote how, before the Fall, Adam and Eve were "in constant and unimpeded contact with the Spirit of God." Their speech was free, not because they were unafraid of the consequences (they no more considered whether they should be afraid than they considered whether they were naked), but because it manifested their direct, unfettered, and total communion with their Creator.

You and I don't have that paradisaical constant and unimpeded contact with the Spirit of God. We sin, then we run and hide. We go to Confession (we do go to Confession, right?), and even if we don't sin again right away, we still have imperfections and distractions and possibly attachment to at least venial sin, all of which get between us and God.

But we do still have the gift of parrhesia. We can speak freely to God, about everything in our lives and our hearts. The more we make use of this gift, the more obvious will be those things in our lives and our hearts that get between us and God (like father, like son, humans are still trying to hide things from God).

There are some evils in our lives through no fault of our own, and we should speak of them to God just as freely as we speak of the good things in our lives through no merit of our own. Whatever is brought into God's presence becomes blessed. It may be consumed or transformed, but even if it is simply returned it has changed under the act of the Divine gaze -- or better, perhaps, to say that we have changed by holding it up while under the Divine gaze.

Anti-sentimentalist that I am, I roll my eyes when I hear people (even saints) say things like, "Tell God about everything that happens during your day! He wants to hear all about it! Nothing is unimportant to Him!," as though God were your chatty grandmother who likes to sit down with you for half an hour when you get home from school and sympathize with you about the shortage of grape JELL-O cups in the cafeteria.

But my eye rolls don't make it any less true that you should talk to God about everything. The Divine gaze transforms the trivial along with the momentous. The grass that withers and fades by evening is part of His creation, as are the two sparrows sold for a coin. Something minor may be a way for you to give God glory in some small but still meaningful measure, or it may be the first step to something great. It may turn to ash, and you'll learn to give it up for something better.

What about our sins? We usually think of bringing our sins to God in the manner of the Prodigal Son -- whose rehearsed speech, come to think of it, was pretty bold given the circumstances of his last conversation with his father. It was a boldness born of... you know what, I was going to write despair, but I think it may have been born of hope. You can only hope for something that is both possible and difficult to attain; if it's impossible you can at most wish for it, and if it's easy to attain you can at most expect it. In all the world, his father was that rotten son's only hope. When you have exactly one hope, you go all in. The son didn't hesitate to ask to become his father's servant, he didn't finish with, "Or I can just go away again." He said his piece freely and boldly, and waited for his father's response.

[Note to self: Try confessing in hope rather than expectation next time.]

After the father responded boldly to his younger son's bold speech, the older son was moved to bold speech himself. Finally. If he had boldly asked his father for a kid goat years earlier, he would have been sure of his father's love for him and less jealous when his brother returned. Instead, he kept silent, feeling neither son enough nor hopeful/otherwise-desperate enough to speak freely.

At the end of the parable, though, he does speak freely. At long last he speaks, of his anger and resentment and pride and confusion and pain and alienation. He speaks, as it were, within and from his sinful attitude toward his father and brother.

The father responds with mercy and healing words. We aren't told how what happens next, but the opportunity is very much there for the elder son to go in and party as joyfully as his brother.

We don't really have a reason not to make full use of the gift of parrhesia God has given us. Not humility, not shame, not scruples. We can't purify our speech first, and not speaking of it doesn't make what's in our heart any less known to Him. Speak openly to God, and He will make your words into a hymn worthy of an immortal creature to sing to its eternal Creator.

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Sunday, May 17, 2015

Permission to speak freely

I first came across the word "parrhesia" when reading Thomas Merton's The New Man. Parrhesia (pah-ray-SEE-ah) means speech that is free, candid, even bold.

Strong's Greek dictionary tells me variations on "parrhesia" appear throughout the New Testament. In Acts 9:27-28, for example, the newly-converted Saul came to Jerusalem "and spoke out boldly in the name of the Lord." There are also examples that aren't as obvious in English, such as Acts 4:13's "the boldness of Peter and John." It may even be subtler in 1 John 2:28:
And now, children, remain in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not be put to shame by him at his coming.
Here "confidence" isn't just an inward disposition, it's "free and fearless confidence, cheerful courage, boldness, assurance" that takes the initiative to express itself in word and in deed.

St. Mark's Gospel uses the word once, when Jesus "spoke... openly" about His coming passion and death. Peter rebuked him, which might be the least consequential blowback from parrhesia on record, and some sort of blowback is par for the course. To speak openly, freely, boldly -- especially about the things of God -- is to invite attack and persecution. St. John writes that "no one spoke openly about [Jesus] because they were afraid of the Jews." St. Paul's parrhesia got him violently ejected from every respectable synagogue on the Mediterranean.

Sometimes, as in John 7:26 and John 18:20, Jesus' open speech confounded His opponents; rather than answer Him directly, with words or rocks, they went off and plotted against Him in secret -- the opposite of speaking openly, and no less deadly a response for being delayed.

We're a week away from celebrating Pentecost, commemorating the Holy Spirit lighting the hearts of Jesus' disciples on fire and sending them out into Jerusalem, then Judea and Samaria, and eventually to the ends of the earth, to speak freely, candidly, and even boldly about the good news of salvation. While the words we need to speak to a world that thinks it's heard the Gospel aren't identical to the words of those first evangelists, we still need to speak with the freedom, candor, boldness, and confidence of those whose hearts are on fire with the Holy Spirit.

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Saturday, May 16, 2015

{Ironic Title}

I was just about to fraternally correct a brother in the Lord into next week. But then he's miss Assumption Sunday, so I decided to refrain.

No, actually I took a closer look at the ammunition I was going to use, and decided a bloodless blog post might be safer.

In putting together some material on the Eighth Commandment for a recent RCIA class, I noticed that the Catechism of the Catholic Church, while largely aligning with St. Thomas, broke with him on the concept of irony. They both agree that irony is an offense against the truth, but while St. Thomas calls it an act of irony when

a person belittles himself by forsaking the truth, for instance by ascribing to himself something mean the existence of which in himself he does not perceive, or by denying something great of himself, which nevertheless he perceives himself to possess,
the Catechism deplores
irony aimed at disparaging someone by maliciously caricaturing some aspect of his behavior.
I thought it was odd that two of my standard references would use the same term to describe two nearly inverse acts, but what are you gonna do. What I didn't think was, "As long as I'm reading up on offenses against the truth, I should ask myself whether I ever commit any of them."

It wasn't until my son was ten or twelve that I realized just how compulsively ironic I am. Between always meaning the opposite of what I said and saying it with a deadpan delivery that still confuses my wife a few times a week, it's no wonder I had such a hard time getting the kid to realize I really did mean he should take out the recycling the night before collection.

But that, for the most part, is rhetorical irony; a vice, arguably, but not a matter of belittling myself or someone else. Granted, when I do choose to disparage someone (I don't ever seem to choose to disparage myself), irony is a tool close to hand.

Do I maliciously caricature some aspect of another person's behavior in order to disparage him? Um... sometimes."Stupid" is a behavior, right?

A fool or idiot (blogger's conception).
I would hope to never maliciously caricature the physical behavior of someone with poor eyesight or bad knees, or of someone with well below average intelligence. But someone whose intelligence or wisdom doesn't keep pace with his mouth or keyboard? Let me at them. But don't let me justify it as fraternal correction, as though Internet mockery ever corrected anyone. I do it for sport (I'm also referee and scorekeeper).

Beyond the pleasure of getting off a good zinger, though, I sometimes find myself using verbal attacks out of envy. As galling as the thought of envying fools and idiots is, more galling is the thought of them earning respect and praise despite, or even because of, their foolishness and idiocy. I could try to dress it up as a thirst for justice -- they don't deserve respect and praise -- or for truth -- once they're laughed off the stage, we can continue our quest. That may sometimes even be the case, but there have certainly been times when my chief if not only intent was to take someone down a peg or two, and any opportunity for genuine good that might follow was mere gravy.

I am a firm proponent of acting with mixed motives -- that is, if you do have mixed motives, the fact that you're acting in part out of a bad motive does not necessarily make it wrong to act.

Mixed motives do not necessarily prohibit action.

Still, figuring out the motives themselves, much less evaluating them to assess the overall morality of an act, can be a lot of error-prone work, particularly in matters of speech that directly impacts social relationships. There are times -- most times? nearly always? -- when the better part of virtue is to avoid the gray areas of rhetoric altogether, even when they might offer a shortcut to justice and truth.

As a practical matter, mixed motives are often a bear.

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Friday, May 15, 2015

Gnonsense

If you ever come across the term "the Benedict Option," there's really only one thing you need to know about: It's nonsense.

More precisely, it's a meaningless term, a cypher. The thing it refers to is a non-thing. As such, it can mean anything. And a term that can mean anything isn't worth talking about.

"The Benedict Option" was a cypher when Rod Dreher coined the term nine or ten years ago, a contentless label generated as a placeholder for the idea he hoped would follow from his feelings on reading the last paragraph of Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue.

Since then, Rod has written a lot about "the Benedict Option" without managing to define it in a way anyone who doesn't find what he writes convincing can comprehend. These days, although he still can't say what it is, he does insist it's hugely important to every Christian in America:

Again and again: these are not normal times. We can’t be about business as usual. The future of Christianity in America will be Benedictine — as in Benedict Option — or it won’t be at all.
That might give one pause.

And yet, a lot of people -- those, I suppose, who feel a similar harmonic resonance of fear when contemplating the future of Christianity in America-- want "the Benedict Option" to mean something. And a lot of people who don't feel the resonance assume it nevertheless must mean something, because those other people are talking so much about it.

But it remains meaningless. It has to, or it will cease to function as the label on the blueprint marked "<Plan to Save Christianity in America Goes Here>."

Whatever the future of Christianity in America might be, it won't be improved by time wasted talking about nothing.

UPDATE: I'd forgotten how far into "the St. Benedict Option" the Crunchy Con-versation of Ought Six went, and how evident it was even then that the whole thing was, not a philosophical response to the signs of the times, but an emotional response to the fears of the times.

My advice to anyone who might be interested in "new forms of community within which the moral life [can] be sustained" is to think about them without reference to Rod Dreher or "the Benedict Option." Rod has spent the last decade searching for something that can save him from his anxieties, once he realized neither the Catholic Church nor the Republican Party could. Crunchy Conservativism, the Orthodox Church in America, small town life, reading Dante have all been tried and found wanting. He'll write his book about "the Benedict Option," with the willing assistance of devotees and fellow travelers, and when that doesn't do the trick he'll move on to something else, marooning those same devotees and fellow travelers. Don't sail with a captain who's never yet reached port.

For that matter, think about those "new forms of community" without reference to Alasdair MacIntyre. Sure, it's his words I quote, but if all you're working with is that one paragraph, you're building up a cargo cult that can't distinguish which parts of Western Monasticism are essential, which are analogical, which are suggestive, and which are irrelevant. (If, on the other hand, you're well versed in MacIntyre's thought, then you'll ignore me rather than him.)

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Thursday, May 14, 2015

The only real sadness

When I think about all the time and effort put into distracting from the fact that I'm not becoming holier, it almost seems like it would be easier to become holier.

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