Notes on Grace

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Contemplating the Hudson River the other day helped me realize that the Church Fathers were right to say the work of grace within each of us is greater than the whole work of creation. The justification of sinners transformed into loving Children of God is the greatest gift of all, and we are called to cherish and understand it the best we can. For some days in New York City I have been giving a course in Theological Anthropology, focusing on the workings of grace within us. If you have any interest in my class notes, click here on… GraceStudyNotes

Pastoral Days in the City

IMG_20170527_075050 (2)During the past few days I have been giving a Pastoral Theology class in the middle of Manhattan. It seems like just the right place take on such a project, as the “flock” of New York City needs attention and care just as much as those in the Midwest countryside, where I usually serve. So far, I have been struck by the amount of people “moving around, like sheep without a shepherd” (Mt 9:36) but I am also moved by the fact that in city or in the country, we are all pretty much the same, and urgently in need of God’s mercy and a sense of community. The above picture of the Empire State Building was taken as I was on my way to celebrate Mass at an Opus Dei center near where I am staying. Although I like to be with all the people on the streets, still I enjoy the quiet and seeming emptiness of the streets in the morning. And speaking of buildings, I love how this panorama shot of the 9/11 Memorial seems to show the buildings around the memorial humbled and reverent.

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Into the Triduum

jesus-washes-his-disciples-feet_ethiopiaI love the Pascal Triduum (“three days” that are actually four days: Holy Thursday; Good Friday; Holy Saturday; and Easter Sunday) for many reasons. Of course, for Catholics, it is the holiest time of the liturgical year, when the ceremonies last long into the night, and special choirs and processions make their marks. This is really beautiful stuff. But it’s not only the ceremonies and celebrations that attract me. Rather, it’s some of the abrupt changes in my schedule and routines that I have come to appreciate. As a priest, this is expected; we need to be present at all the special ceremonies (on time!). But also, we priests need to be connected to the ‘ecclesial feeling’ that one should not be doing much else very distant from the holy Triduum. For example, Good Friday is not a good night for a popular comedy movie or maybe even watching a sporting event. It’s simply not a night for laughing and yelling, because the laughing and yelling remembered on Good Friday condemned Jesus to death. Likewise, Holy Saturday (sometimes referred to as “Black Saturday” commemorating Jesus’ burial) has always felt to me like a day to stay inside, or at least to not travel far.

It’s a good thing to be abruptly reminded that there are more important schedules out there than my own. Do yourself a favor in faith: consider cancelling some routine things in order to attend the Triduum ceremonies of the Lord’s Last Supper, his Passion and Death; and, of course the Vigil Mass of  his Glorious Resurrection. Help your friends and relatives get to these celebrations as well. Good Friday, for example, is often an excellent opportunity for many to receive God’s Mercy in the Sacrament of Confession. May we all celebrate these holy days in the spirit of the earliest Christians, the ones whose routine lives were forever upended by Our Lord’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection.

 

Some suggested Lenten sacrifices (guest blog)

This week, SheepTrick welcomes to the fields, Rev. Rene Schatteman, a priest of Opus Dei, who offers some practical suggestions for a Lenten strategy in ordinary life. Don’t choose them all, but hopefully you can find a number of sacrifices that will help you carry the Cross with Jesus this Lent…

crossOur Lord has said: “If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.” (Lk 9:23). And St. Paul has written: “With Christ I am nailed to the cross. It is no longer I that live, but Christ lives in me. And the life that I now live in the flesh, I live in the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself up for me.”(Gal 2: 19-20)

In his Message for Lent 2015, Pope Francis has said: “Lent is a time of renewal for the whole Church, for each community and every believer. Above all it is a “time of grace” (2 Cor 6:2). God does not ask of us anything that he himself has not first given us. “We love because he first has loved us” (1 Jn 4:19). He is not aloof from us. Each one of us has a place in his heart. He knows us by name, he cares for us and he seeks us out whenever we turn away from him. He is interested in each of us; his love does not allow him to be indifferent to what happens to us….” And after giving a number of suggestions on how to combat what he terms “a globalization of indifference” he concludes: “During this Lent, then, brothers and sisters, let us all ask the Lord: ‘Fac cor nostrum secundum cor tuum’: Make our hearts like yours(Litany of the Sacred Heart of Jesus). In this way we will receive a heart which is firm and merciful, attentive and generous, a heart which is not closed, indifferent or prey to the globalization of indifference. It is my prayerful hope that this Lent will prove spiritually fruitful for each believer and every ecclesial community. I ask all of you to pray for me. May the Lord bless you and Our Lady keep you.”

Our mother the Church gives us great freedom in selecting the ways in which we will deny ourselves, pray and show charity towards others. Here are some possible sacrifices; each person could freely choose to follow some of these points or formulate other resolutions in keeping with his/her age and circumstances.

Sacrifices in food: Fast; eat less; eat less of what I like most; eat more of what I like least; skip some condiment such as salt, sugar, ketchup, cream. Not eat in between meals. Hold off a few minutes before eating or drinking what is in front of me. Not take ice in drinks.

Sacrifices in rest: Go to bed on time; get up on time; skip naps.

Sacrifices in posture: Sit up straight; do not cross my legs; do not use the backrest.

Sacrifices in personal grooming: Take a cold shower; take a shorter shower; floss; keep use of the mirror to a minimum; offer use of the bathroom to others before taking my turn; clean up afterwards.

Sacrifices in entertainment: Limit TV watching or skip it for the duration of Lent; listen less to music; read more and better works; less use of video games or skip entirely. Avoid using the Internet without a clear, useful purpose; eliminate Internet surfing; cut back on texting, the use of social media and the need to respond to others instantly; refrain from constantly checking emails and news on line. Read only certain parts of the newspaper. Resolve not to look at billboards. Avoid shopping without a definite purpose. Try not to spend money.

Sacrifices in social settings and conversations: Think ahead and bring up good topics for conversations so as to avoid gossip and backbiting. Give others a chance to speak and listen to them attentively. Be courteous to other drivers. Don’t complain. Don’t blame others.

Consult your spouse; offer to do him/her one favor each day. Try to see the good in your spouse and compliment her/him more often; do the same for your children and for brothers and sisters. Use a cheerful tone of voice. Drop what you are doing to greet others in a friendly fashion. Have a great and blessed Lent!

Fr. Rene can be reached by email at rene@warwickhouse.org

Be crafty this Lent

 

img_20170209_133519As Lent begins we consider what sacrifices will help us grow best in our love for the Cross of Jesus. Most people choose something to give up in the area of food and drink. This is natural and good because we eat frequently, and because personal likes and tastes are intense areas of potential self-indulgence. This doesn’t mean that all enjoyments have to go by the wayside during Lent. In fact, our mortifications (“self-death” practices) should be somewhat hidden, and our dispositions cheerful. On Ash Wednesday we hear The Lord’s admonition: “And when you fast, be not as the hypocrites, sad. For they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast” (Mt. 6:16).

So in addition to generous self-denial of personal comforts and tastes, an interesting sacrifice to consider is trying new things, and in particular new foods and drinks that aren’t part of our regular gastrological regimen. All the better if these new products please others around us and make them happy. For example, I recently discovered “craft” (specialty) sodas. There used to be many small soda companies, but most of these got pushed aside or ingested by the big companies. This is the way of business, of course. But now it is encouraging to see the rise of the “craft” products again, mainly beers and wines, but also sodas. So far, one of my favorites is an Akron, Ohio based company called “Norka” (Akron spelled backwards). There is also “Natrona” (a small town near Pittsburgh, not spelled backwards). Like all “craft” products, these sodas are more expensive than the popular name brand ones, but they also often taste better, and make great conversation starters as well, like local history and small business philosophies.

So whether you might be giving up the pleasures of alcoholic beverages or just want to try something different as a way of breaking from routine fasting practices, try something new this Lent, like craft sodas (in moderation!) which will bring a smile to your face, as well as those faces around you. Happy fasting!

Since first posting this article, a friend pointed me to Fitz’s pop products in St. Louis (yes, they say “pop” there). Enjoy this cool video of it’s root beer production and distribution. Sorry you can’t taste it here!

 

 

We’re all wayfarers

The initial shock and following outrage over the Trump Administration’s recent hold on travel into the US for selected countries are understandable and perhaps even merited reactions. Since we have always prided ourselves as an inviting welcoming nation, the idea and practice that some people should not be invited or welcomed into the USA smacks “Un-American”. Of course, like every country in the history of the world, the practice of border protection and immigration vigilance is nothing new to the United States, or anyone else for that matter. A country is like a home that needs safeguards of protection. (As I write this I’m preaching a retreat in Florida, and I’m amazed at all the manifestations of home protection: gated communities, fences and electronic surveillance to community watch groups. In fact, I’ve never felt so protected). 

We need to be realistic, reflective and patient in the Brave New World. With the rise of technology a timeless, spaceless, borderless community has risen. With applications like Facebook Live, Periscope, Google Maps (and now with Google Cardboard) we can virtually travel the world in real time in ways that were unimaginable even a few years ago. In fact we’re still digesting these new technologies. As a big fan of participating in public events I’m coming to the personally unthinkable realization that it really doesn’t matter if one actually attends events or not; video feeds are better (and much cheaper) than actually being there (Mass is a clear exception) . One challenge with this new immediate access to everything is that it be transferred to everything: “I can go wherever I want virtually, so I can go wherever I want actually”. Of course this isn’t, and cannot be true. The right of mobility isn’t absolute, and communities have a duty to carefully consider right of access to their goods and activities. The recent policy to temporarily restrict immediate entry into the US is a sudden (albeit rude) reminder of this reality. A priest friend of mine experienced this when he decided to take a two-day trip to Canada. He was detained at the border for a long time, and after two lengthy interviews became exasperated. When asked yet again “Now sir, why did you come into Canada?” he couldn’t hold it in: “Because I THOUGHT it would be fun!”. 

The bigger reality at issue, I think, comes into focus. We’re all wayfarers, strangers, pilgrims, and none of us are really at home in this life. My hope and prayer is that all the confusion and frustration over border controls and immigration vigilance will help us realize this truth more clearly with the eyes of faith, and that community policies compassionately reflect it. 

The “Golden Age” of Jesus’ birth

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Often as I drive through the streets of Cleveland, I imagine what this great city was like in its “Golden Age”, which, like many cities of the industrial Northeast and Midwest, seems to be sometime in the late 1940s to about 1960 (at least from an economic point of view). The factories and steel mills, the storefront churches and neighborhood parks must really have been active. Now, great swaths of open lots and abandoned buildings remain as kinds of monuments to that era. But such is the fate of all human communities: there is growth, there is decline, there is recovery, there is redefining and innovation.

In a similar way, Advent invites us each year to imagine the “Golden Age” of the birth of Jesus. In my prayers and views of Christmas decorations such as cheap decorative lights and glowing Nativity scenes, I try to imagine Bethlehem in Year Zero, the “fullness of time” (Gal 4:4-7). A longing can, and should, enter here, whereby we become, as St. Josemaria liked to say, another character in the gospel scenes.

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The great thing, however, is that the “Golden Age” of the birth of Jesus really hasn’t ended or passed us by. Through our prayer and penances, and above all through grace, we spiritually enter into the real world of Jesus, Joseph and Mary. The Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity has become flesh, and still dwells among us (cfr. Jn 1:14). His humanity as well as his divinity are always with us in Sacred Scripture, the Sacraments (especially Holy Communion) as well as the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ. So, in this way, we really don’t have to long for a distant time or place. Look for the “Golden Age of Jesus” in your life, in your house, in your work, in your friendships, in your family, in your joys and sorrows… You will find it! As Jesus declared in some of his last words on this earth, “I am with you always, even unto the end of the world” (Mt 28:20).

David Bowie on Soul Train sings his classic ode to Nostalgia “Golden Years”: