Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Spy Wednesday

Image: The Betrayal of Christ (detail), about 1460, Tempera colors, gold, and ink on parchment
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. Ludwig IX 12, fol. 110v

Monday, March 30, 2015

The Anointing at Bethany and the Threat of Generosity

There aren't too many points where the Gospel of John matches the narrative found so consistently shared by Matthew, Mark and Luke, but today's Gospel is one of them. While the details differ (only John identifies the woman as Mary of Bethany), the basic story is identical: Jesus is at a formal dinner when a woman comes to him with an outrageously expensive jar of perfumed oil and proceeds to pour it all out on Christ's body, provoking the disciples (or, standing in for the rest, Judas) to protest the extravagance. The ointment, after all, was worth a full year's wages!

I love John's version, which we hear today. Not only does Mary dry the Lord's drenched feet with her hair, the gesture filled the whole house with fragrance. Everyone benefitted from her unmeasured generosity, but only Jesus really seemed to appreciate it.

I noticed a number of contrasts in the story, especially as John tells it (specifying that Judas kept the common purse, and tended to pocket the contents):

    generosity // greed
          giving // taking
        unmeasured // calculating
              loving // observing
     cherishing // accusing

In other words:
Kingdom of God // Reign of sin

Judas seems threatened by Mary's reckless generosity. Why else would he attempt to squelch such an outpouring? She has introduced an uncontrollable factor into everyone else's relationship with Jesus, setting the bar rather high. After witnessing this, no one else can just give a little, can measure out their response to Jesus. No one can "match" her gift with precision so as to claim or attain parity. There is no standard measure, no way to establish rank. And yet, clearly, not everyone at the banquet table felt moved to such generosity. Where did it come from?

What if Mary's generosity is above all a response to a prior outpouring of generous love on God's part, a response to the presence of the Kingdom of God "in your midst" (Lk 17:21)? Mary is like the widow in the Temple, giving "all that she had" Lk 21:4). She knows that "the one who tries to save his life will lose it, but the one who loses his life for me and for the Gospel will save it" (Mk 8:35), and she stakes everything on that. Her generosity reflects a confidence, a security in God's provident love. After witnessing (at least in John's telling) the return of her brother from the grave at Jesus's word, she lives in a world of abundance, the same world of abundant grace you and I are invited to inhabit.

We are about to witness, through the Liturgy, the unmeasured generosity of Jesus toward us. What steps can we take to let go of any habitual calculation with God so as to receive his gift as it is given: "full measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over" (Lk 6:38)?

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Holy Week Viewing

As usual, there are a couple of TV specials timed for Holy Week (and beyond).

The first of these, Killing Jesus (trailer above), will be broadcast tonight (Palm Sunday) on the National Geographic Channel. (Listen to Sr Helena's breathless, 90-second "Movie Minute" review of Killing Jesus on Soundcloud.) As Sister Rose points out in her must-read review, the title is a bit deceptive, since the program covers the whole life of Christ. Whole, that is, if you ignore some really big gaps: anything in the life of Jesus that smacks of the supernatural, of the more-than-terrestrial, has been excised. That would make Killing Jesus less than complete for the Christian viewer, but it does show us how people of his own time would have looked at him--as well as how the leaders of his people (who heard about, but never witnessed, his miracles) could have handed him over to the Romans so easily. We will even hear as much in the reading from Isaiah on Good Friday: "There was in him no stately bearing to make us look at him, nor appearance that would attract us to him."

Next Sunday, oddly enough, we will get a broacast (on NBC) that could be more appropriately entitled "Killing Jesus" since it focuses exclusively on the events of Good Friday (and just barely into Sunday morning). This is A.D. The Bible Continues, by producers (and believing Christians) Mark Burnett and Roma Downey. I got a sneak preview last week, and found it very easy to pray with. (That's what I do with Bible movies; they aren't exactly entertainment.)

In coming weeks on
AD The Bible Continues,
we'll meet Saul of Tarsus.
I can hardly wait!
Maybe next year we will have it on DVD; that would make it easy to use for a Holy Week retreat or Good Friday day of prayer. It is a shame that this will be broadcast on Easter Sunday night, since it ends with the first dramatic hints of the resurrection (while in the upper room, Mary alone is holding on to her faith in Jesus' promise to rise on the third day). It is a promising start to a series on the first decades of the Church. I am looking forward to the series!

As Palm Sunday continues, here is a meditation on today's liturgy, and a slide show meditation to help you begin Holy Week.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Last Days of Lent

We're just one week from the end of Lent. You may have noticed that since Sunday the Mass readings have been getting progressively darker. The clouds are definitely gathering over Calvary. Today's Gospel is no exception: the last sentence reads "So they picked up stones to throw at him; but Jesus hid and went out of the temple area."

But there's something else in today's reading that struck me (and it wasn't a rock!). John's gospel has a way of repeating something three times in quick succession. There are two repeated phrases in today's nine verses: the first is "keep my/my Father's word": "Whoever keeps my word will never see death," Jesus declares. And his listeners throw the words back at him, "Abraham died, as did the prophets, but you say, 'Whoever keeps my word will never taste death." A few verses later, Jesus uses the same expression, but this time he is the one keeping the word, the Father's word: "I do know him and I keep his word."

That introduces the second repeated theme: I know him (the Father).

Both of these themes will come back in the "Farewell Discourse" at the Last Supper. "Keeping my word" will become "keep my commandments (as I have kept my Father's commandments...)"; knowing the Father will become, "If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him."

We are well on our way to Easter.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Cinderella: See it for Lent SPOILER ALERT

Last minute details from Fairy Godmother: the curfew!
Tuesday night is discount night at the nearby cinema, so five of us piled into one of the convent vans and headed out to see Cinderella, the princess movie that even Father Robert Barron did not disdain to review (although he reads way more into the story than I ever would). Seriously, Barron's review of Cinderella seems to assume that the Branagh film follows the (Christian-worldview-inspired) Grimm tale to the letter. That would explain the huge significance he attributes to the stag (traditionally a Christ figure, but absent from the Grimm telling). I'm not so sure Branagh meant it that way. (There's no stag in the Grimm tale, but there are details I'm glad got overlooked: do you remember what the evil stepsisters really did to fit into the amazing shoe?) Branagh's Cinderella is a live-action Disney remake, complete with flitting bluebirds and a kitty-cat named Lucifer.

Most of us grew up with the fairy godmother kind of magic.he magic in Grimm's tale is the bestowal of nature, with which Cinderella has a kind of Garden-of-Eden relationship, while Branagh gives us very magical magic laced with whimsy. But Cinderella is a kind of morality tale, and Branagh does not shy from this. That is the whole reason this movie is so appealing: it's not the wry retelling or the prequel that redeems the stepmother and sisters, but an encouragement to virtue. "Have courage and be kind" become the repeated exhortation, the ground rules for a new society. In the most striking moment of the whole film, more impressive than the pumpkin-coach, more stunning than the dress, more surprising than the lizard-coachmen (and the snack one of them snatched), as Cinderella is leaving the house hand in hand with her Prince, she turns to her scheming stepmother, who is slowly collapsing along with all her plans. We all expect a stunning comeuppance, but what we hear is "I forgive you."

That is what makes Branagh's Cinderella the Girls Night Out movie for Lent. Cinderella's "happily ever after" doesn't hinge on her meeting and marrying Prince Charming (well, Prince Kit). Without that grace of forgiveness, there would have always been at least a bit of her heart still captive to the injustices she had suffered. Eventually, her resolve to "have courage and be kind" would have imploded. Instead, like a good habit forged throughout Lent, it gave her the ability to transcend the provocations and choose a higher good than delicious vengeance.

Another approach to the Cinderella story comes in book form. This is Jennessa Terraccino's The Princess Guide: Faith Lessons from Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. Jennessa is here in the Boston area (we carry her books in our Pauline bookstores) and she sent me a review copy--quite timely! I did not read the whole book (I leave that to our in house expert in all things Princess, Sister Julia), but I did give it a substantial going-over, and I read the Cinderella chapters clear through. Terraccino bases her book on the Disney versions of the three classic Princess stories in the title. Using details from the movies, she develops advice for young women on things like body image, modesty, fashion, preparing oneself for marriage, and potential minefields like recognizing manipulative behavior, living together before marriage, and "settling" for Mr. Not-Right. Throughout she uses language and insights from the Theology of the Body.

I thought that the book, while rich in sensible content, seems to be either preaching to the choir (and thus reinforcing a young woman's virtuous path through the world of dating) or addressing young adult women who may have already established convictions and habits that practically preclude the book's message from being taken seriously. I can't help but wish it had been directed, at least in layout, to a young readership: say, age 12 (or even 11), given all that children are exposed to in what passes as "romance" in the secular media. That would meet a need that grows more urgent by the day, unless more producers take a page from Branagh.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

St Joseph's Day

Today's community Mass was offered for the repose of the soul of a Sister Maria Regina, whom I had never even heard of until her death notice came in yesterday's email. We don't get just the bare details (name, date of birth/vows/death) when a sister dies, but a brief (one page) biography, lovingly written by our own Mother General. (Before she became Mother General, she had been writing the death notices, and she just continued doing it; it's not part of the Mother General job description.) The notice is read in full to the community here just before Mass. I have never reproduced a death notice in my blog before, but this sister's witness cries out for it, even if I skip lightly over some parts:

Sr. M. Regina entered the Congregation in the community of Rome on 7 Oct. 1953 after finishing high school. Reminiscing about her sister, Sr. Assunta, who died several years ago, Sr. M. Regina wrote, “We were a religious family, made up of Dad, Mom, and 6 children (5 girls and a boy). We loved one another very much and were closely united among ourselves. I entered the Congregation 6 years after Sr. Assunta. When I told her that I too wanted to become a Daughter of St. Paul, she replied that she didn’t think I was suited to the religious life. In fact I was a ‘free spirit’–probably the least religious of all the members of my family.”
[After first vows in 1957, Sr M. Regina was assigned to our health care community outside of Rome and got a degree in nursing. For a few years she worked in bookstore communities, but was called back to the medical field for a second stint lasting almost a decade when, in 1987,] the Superior General asked her if she would be willing to go to the Congo as a missionary. With true Pauline zeal, Sr. M. Regina willingly embraced a completely new situation, which she quickly learned to love. She lived through dramatic moments in both Kinshasa and Lubumbashi, due to the fact that the civil war in neighboring Rwanda was having serious repercussions in the Congo. In 1991, she wrote to the Superior General: “After my experiences in Kinshasa, I am now in Lubumbashi. Thirty-six hours after my arrival, the end of the world exploded here too. Life is harder here than it was in Kinshasa. But the Lord has been faithful to his promise, “Do not be afraid; from here I want to cast light.’ He has been with us in every sense of the word.” Together with the rest of the community, she lived the turbulent days in which invading soldiers ransacked the city. The sisters’ only weapon was prayer, which obtained for them the grace of emerging unscathed from the hands of the guerrilla fighters. A few days later, the little group was able to escape from Lubumbashi and take refuge in Zambia. It was a time filled with danger but the unstable situation did not diminish in the least the heroic apostolic zeal of our Congolese sisters.
[After 25 years of missionary life, she was recalled to Italy.] The last years of Sr. M. Regina’s life were not easy for her but she accompanied her sufferings with the generous offering of herself to the Lord for the needs of the Congolese people. 

When I was living in Rome in 1998-2001, I was stationed with another missionary sister who had lived through the civil wars. The Italian sisters could have left with a UN transport, but they stayed alongside the African sisters and people. The sisters witnessed horrors, and entrusted themselves to the mercy of God every night as they barricaded the convent doors and windows. Every morning, they swept the shells and casings from the upstairs terrace and put them in a bowl in front of Our Lady's statue. Our sisters in Pakistan are probably best able to identify with the kind of trust it takes to live in such a precarious situation. It is the same trust that St Joseph had to live by, one day at a time, as the sole guardian and protector of the Incarnate Word and his Immaculate mother.

Last year I posted the ''St Joseph Angelus" as a way to remember Joseph's remarkable, if largely invisible, role in the history of salvation. I posted it again on the Angelus blog; you might want to use the prayer today, since the Solemnity of Joseph, Husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary doesn't get all the devoted attention it deserves.

This feast of St Joseph is also the anniversary of the pontifical approval of the Holy Family Institute, one branches of the Pauline Family. Members share the apostolic spirituality of Blessed James Alberione and make the same three vows as religious priests, brothers and sisters do, although they observe them according to their sacramental vocation as married persons. Yes, chastity: every Christian is expected to live this virtue, which is not identical to celibacy. Chastity, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, "means the successful integration of sexuality within the person" and actually fosters "the complete and lifelong mutual gift of a man and a woman." Poverty and obedience, too, take a different shape when lived in consecrated married life. The Holy Family Institute is the fastest-growing of the ten Pauline institutes, perhaps in part because it responds to the desire to really live as the Holy Family: in deep union with one's spouse, fostering the growth of their children "in wisdom, age and grace." 

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Audiobooks Update

I'm happy to report that our Audiobooks project for our Centennial Year (7 titles) is completely funded! I have already sent off the major "thank you" gifts (a sterling silver medallion I received after working for the Vatican during the Great Jubilee 2000, and a set of bronze medallions commemorating the opening of St John Paul's beatification process). When the campaign officially closes eight days from now I have my work cut out for me sending medals and bumper stickers--and fudge! (But only with Sr Donna's help; I have never made a successful batch of fudge in my life.)

Since we met our fundraising goal, the Indiegogo service will keep our page open for continuing donations. That is important because we have had to put the kibosh on many a worthwhile project due to lack of funds. Even a vocation video we started last year has been on hold. (As much as we believe it will "pay for itself" in future workers in the vineyard, the bills have to be paid "today"!) So if you were intending to make a Lenten donation to the project, please don't feel that your gift would be pointless. The audiobooks for this year are taken care of, but we still need (and appreciate) your support for our mission.

Friday, March 06, 2015

Book Review: The Thrill of the Chaste: Catholic Edition

The Thrill of the Chaste: I've always thought that was the best title imaginable for a book on the pure of heart. And now Dawn Eden's early book, written while she was on her way to becoming a Catholic, has been issued in an updated and revised "Catholic edition."  A Twitter conversation with Eden led to my receiving a review copy--which I read precisely as a most unchaste film was breaking box office records all across America.

I was expecting something a bit more targeted; a bit more on the "relationships" which would seem to be the only context for a book about chaste living. Instead, what I found in The Thrill of the Chaste is an integrated book of Catholic spirituality for young adults who are puzzled about how they can, in the words of the subtitle "find fulfillment" in their relational lives, not only with a prospective spouse, but in a deeper way: living a fulfilled life, rich in healthy relationships (starting with the self!). The Thrill of the Chaste uses the desire for a fulfilling spousal relationship as a home base for a thorough presentation of the human vocation to love. After all, the search for love is a driving force in every person's life, because we were created for God, who is love.

Sadly, the vocation to love is frequently compromised, and in many people's lives it is violated, leading a person to seek love in all the wrong places, or to sabotage their own desire for it. This was the case in Eden's life. Her book is a testimony to the mystery of the cross, in that the unjust and dehumanizing suffering that was inflicted on her has become, in her two books (the other is My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints) a means of light and guidance for thousands of others.

In some ways, Thrill is a catechism for young adult Catholics: a presentation of aspects of the faith that are particularly relevant (and particularly susceptible to misinterpretation) among the twenty and thirty-somethings who may for a time have fallen away from the practice of the faith to follow all the rules of the surrounding culture--only to be left disappointed, disillusioned, spent and alone. Eden does not just offer the readers guidance for getting their outward act together in a way that would be consistent with Catholic sexual morality: she puts it in a complete Catholic context with a presentation of the human vocation (in the words of St John Paul the Great's talks on love, better known as his Theology of the Body), the meaning and place of the Mass and Confession, the path of spiritual growth (ordered toward Heaven!) and the irreplaceability of a warm, personal relationship with Jesus. She does all this while also addressing issues like workplace flirtation and fashionably modest attire.

A thoroughly personalized book--Eden is drawing on her own struggles and misconceptions--The Thrill of the Chaste does not preach from on high, but offers a voice of friendship and accompaniment to those on a contemporary "Road to Emmaus."

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

A timely thought from Merton

I have no idea where I found this (somewhere in Merton's last decade of journals), but here it is:
The great hope of our time is, it seems to me, not that the Church will become again a world power and dominant institution, but on the contrary that the power of faith and the spirit will shake the world when Christians have lost what they held on to and have ventured into the eschatological kingdom—where in fact they are!” 

Friday, February 20, 2015

Lenten Recipe Collection

Here in the motherhouse, I can't exercise the culinary creativity and daring that is possible in a community of four or five, but I can still dream, can't I? Here is a collection of meatless recipes, along with a few inspiring articles, that may help you to do more than dream in the kitchen during Lent!
View my Flipboard Magazine.