Wednesday, August 31, 2011


Today I saw a church marquee that proclaimed, “Better to be alone than to be in bad company.” I posted the quote as is on my FB page; interesting comments have been made. But I want to expand on the idea behind the quote, if I may.

My “in-law cousin” Tim thinks: I agree. But on the other hand, bad company is so much more exciting, and you can live vicariously, and have better stories to tell 30 years from now.
And my dear friend Pastor Randy thinks: Interesting, but aren't those the sort of folks Jesus sought out?

I have comments in reaction to both of these, beyond what I just posted on my FB site in reply. The first is that there is a basic agreement with me and Tim on the issue, though not quite for the reasons (which Mark Twain would have loved) he gives. For me, the difficulty is precisely that “alone” for most of us equates to “loneliness,” and this is NOT a good. We have only to reach into Genesis 2 (an anticipation, by the way, of Aristotle’s Politics)—“It is not good for the man to be alone…” (Genesis 2:18).  It is fundamental to the understanding of humanity that community is essential to meaningful life. And so, all too often, we choose bad community over no community at all (or what we are afraid will be, or become, no community). Think of teen-agers and peer pressure…

Still, I think it is a serious mis-apprehension to relegate all efforts of desert spirituality, including the desires of people to be hermits, to some kind of pathological anti-social sense. I have to spend time alone in order to come to know myself—and if I am not happy with myself, why should I think that the presence of anyone else need be a “magic wand” to make me happy? Relationships and communion are, after all, mutual gifts of one to another, not a parasitic dependency of one on another.

When I reflect on Pastor Randy’s comments, I agree wholeheartedly (almost): as I said to him, it all depends on what you mean by associating. Did Jesus “seek out” those who were, so to speak, fallen by the wayside? Of course He did. But He didn’t become a “fallen one” Himself in so doing; that is the key to understanding the message of the marquee. Jesus encountered “bad company,” but He didn’t become part and parcel of bad company: He called it to higher, better things. For so many of us, tragically, being “in” bad company usually means being absorbed by it.

Being alone, if we embrace it, might just be the context and opportunity we need to listen to the voice of the Lord to us. We long (rightfully) for community, but embracing too quickly the wrong kind of community can damage us for a lifetime. Which is really better in the long run?

Friday, August 26, 2011


Today, 26 August, is the non-liturgical feast day of Our Lady of Czestochowa.  In her honor I am re-printing an essay I wrote reflecting on a trip to Poland I took in 2000 (guided by a Polish family I was friends with). 

Knees are arguably the strongest parts of the Polish body, to judge by the extended kneeling on stone church floors that they do. Knees are arguably the weakest of my body, thanks to surgery and other injuries. This leads to a magic moment for me in the monastery of Jasna Gora, the “Mountain of Brightness,” in which is enshrined the “Black Madonna,” Our Lady of CzÄ™stochowa.

We attended Mass there at the chapel of the Black Madonna, with a crowd that far exceeded the normal mental picture of “standing room only.” Though it was only during the Consecration itself and Communion that we knelt, the stone was hardly smooth. It took something out of my knees. It was simply standard operating procedure for all the Poles there.

After Mass, we moved up to get a better look at the Madonna. This chapel (and in fact most of the monastery church) is predominantly ebony wood and black marble, trimmed in gilt. The effect is initially gloomy, ultimately powerful. We were at the central entrance to the chapel, when the Blessed Sacrament was exposed and Rosary was begun. What happened next is terribly important, but it is hard to describe.

The chapel itself is surrounded on three sides (like a horseshoe) by a kind of passageway. This passageway is completely in view of the chapel on the two sides; the back portion goes behind the altar in which the icon is displayed. The Poles (very, very many of them) were going round the icon in this passageway– on their knees, while reciting the Rosary. I knew I could never do anything like that, partly because it wasn’t “my kind of devotion,” and partly because I knew the condition of my knees. And yet, by the strangest coincidence, I found myself in the line to do exactly this!

I barely made it around. I was in physical agony for the entire 2nd half of this loop, and if there had not been a kind of hand-rail around the chapel, which I clutched with my right hand and arm, lifting myself off my knees for seconds at a time, I could not have made it around at all. I would have had to lie down (and hold up scores of people right behind me), or else stand up (and probably be looked at as a heretic).

Pope John Paul II has written that “in the designs of Providence there are no mere coincidences.” Was this a “design of Providence”? What was the point for me of this devotional exercise?

One thing that is true is that this activity is NOT a “devotion.” I believe, especially based on this experience, that no such activity is ever a “devotion.” But they are actions which, if performed with the right disposition, foster devotion. I say this because devotion is a function of relationship, not of activity in itself. “Devotion” is the state in which one is “devoted” to another. To say “I love you” from the heart is to say I am devoted to you in ways that may cost me; I am glad to pay that price for you. To say “I love you” to someone without the proper interior disposition becomes worse than a non-devotion: it is a lie. It becomes a mechanical substitute for authentic relationship, a mask of “the right words” behind which one hides one’s lack of commitment, or ennui, or immaturity, or selfishness. It says “You are not important to me, but I cannot be bothered to be honest enough with you or myself to say so, and so I go through the motions as a path of least resistance.”

For myself, I longed for the proper interior disposition; I wanted to be “devoted.” And so my thoughts crossed to our Lord and Mary while I was on my knees. You suffered and died for me, my Lord; you watched your Son die, Mary. My discomfort cannot identify with your anguish and pain, but let it remind me and make my desire to love you burn with new life. May it intensify my prayer, and may I never shy away from discomfort brought upon me by commitment to the Gospel.

Don’t we all yearn to offer visible, physical, authentic displays of our affection for others? The people at Jasna Gora were in love; they were committed. On my knees I re-discovered my love and commitment, and I re-dedicated myself. Was the visit “devotional”? You bet it was, in the best and fullest sense of the term! I pray the intensity of relationship will never wane, and I pray that other opportunities will present themselves to strengthen me, even if they present themselves through “mere coincidence”! In point of fact, they have in the past and in the present. I know God will continue to shower them upon me– and upon us all– in the future.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


We are all sympathetic and want to help; we want to do the right thing.  Sometimes, though, others can turn our "right thing" into a very wrong thing, and that is what is happening in the famine-gripped country o Somalia now.  It is the saddest kind of repeat of the famine in Ethiopia years ago.

What can be done?  The strongest suggestion I can offer is to make a contribution, if you so choose, to an organization on site that can use the funds in the most proper way--an organization like Catholic Relief Services, known throughout the world for being able to do exactly this wherever there is great need.

Mother Teresa was often asked by people what they could do to help her in her work.  She never asked for money; she would simply say, "Come and see.  If you come, then you'll see what needs to be done, and what you can do, and you can do it."  We don't have the same opportunity to "come and see" in Somalia, but by going to the CRS web-site link, we can "come and see" even if from a distance, and we'll see what we can do, and we can do it.

Sunday, August 14, 2011


Excerpted as the “Meditation of the Day” for 3 August in Magnificat, Fr Bede Jarrett, OP reflects on the way to make the mysteries of religion come alive in one’s faith-walk: The whole series of mysteries will certainly be of no use to me in my endless advance toward God unless I try to make them my own by ceaselessly pondering over them. Of themselves, they are just the bare outlines of truths, yet it is not truths, but the facts that are contained in the truths, that are ultimately to influence my life.

This is a striking statement, and yet it is not the first time I have come across the attempt to make such a distinction. In another book, referring to the Christian story, a voice tells the main character, Pilgrim John:
Child, if you will, it is mythology. It is but truth, not fact: an image, not the very real. But then it is My mythology… this is My inventing, this is the veil under which I have chosen to appear even from the first until now. For this end I made your senses and for this end your imagination, that you might see My face and live.
This is the insight of C. S. Lewis in his first “apologetic” book, The Pilgrim’s Regress.

What does this attempt at a distinction (in Lewis or Bede Jarrett) tell us?

I think, first of all, that it is a way of entering into our sacramental worship—a reminder that what we do liturgically is true and real, but not final and absolute. Our celebration of the Eucharist, for example, is not the final goal but the vehicle by which we participate now by foretaste in what is our actual ultimate destiny—union with God in the Body of Christ.

It is also a way of keeping us intellectually humble. We humans must seek after, and may indeed have discovered, the truth; this does not mean we have a comprehensive grasp of Godhead. To think that we do really suggests that we have an idol instead of God. It is one of the virtues of a theology of the Trinity that it allows us to acknowledge fundamental truth about God (community of life and love) while forcing us to face our conceptual limitations (unity in multiplicity that permits the use of words like “triune”). Muslims and Jews regard Christians as polytheists; Christians loudly insist this is not the case, but “Trinity” is not a category in those other Abrahamic faiths, so we have problems explaining what we mean in a credible way to them. This is, I believe, all to the good—we have an expression of faith that leads us to surrender to the Mystery. We can be certain of the truth—we are less confident of the Fact. So we can be content to let God be God, and we recognize what the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 already taught us: that the distance between Creator and creature is so great that no matter how true the analogy we make about God might be, it will always be more “unlike” than “like.” As St Paul put it (II Cor 5:7)—“we walk by faith, not by sight.” And as he also said (I Cor 13:12)—“At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” That will be the great Day when truth becomes eternal Fact.

Thursday, August 11, 2011


Clare was perhaps 13 years younger than St Francis, but she outlived him by 30 years, faithfully leading the first ever convent of what were to be called the “Poor Clares,” and never leaving San Damiano for the rest of her life (over 40 years as Prioress).

Only toward the end of her life did St Clare realize that the extreme discipline of her and her sisters’ lives was too strict (as St Francis realized much earlier, about his own life)—she encouraged the sisters to modify their life-style with the words “After all, our bodies are not made of brass.”

Nevertheless, St Clare was adamant about living in complete evangelical poverty. When the pope (!) offered to dispense her and her companions of this vow, she said, “I need to be absolved of my sins, but I do not wish to be absolved from the obligation of following Jesus Christ.” The pope backed off, and he conferred on San Damiano the Privilegium paupertatis, the privilege of poverty.

When St Clare escaped to the Porziuncola at Santa Maria degli Angeli the night before her wedding (she was 18), St Francis tonsured her, gave her the robes of a penitent, and took her to a Benedictine convent for safety—a good thing, as her family tried to drag her forcibly out of the church and back to “normal” life.

A delightful biography of St Clare is Clare: The Light in the Garden by Murray Bodo, OFM. He also wrote Francis: The Journey and the Dream.

The site of St Clare’s family house (marked by a plaque) is on the left-hand side of the piazza in front of San Ruffino in Assisi—in this church both she and St Francis were baptized.

The sisters were forced to leave San Damiano because there were fears for their safety (San Damiano is well outside the city walls of Assisi). They were given the church of San Giorgio (now Santa Chiara), with the friars moving down to San Damiano. The sisters reluctantly agreed, but they insisted on taking the famous crucifix with them—which is why it is now enshrined in Santa Chiara in a side-chapel to the right as you enter the church.

In the crypt of Santa Chiara in a reliquary one can see a glass and silver box containing some of the locks of St Clare’s hair from the tonsure—a touching memento.

Her dying words were: “Go forth in peace, for you have followed the good road. Go forth without fear, for He that created you has sanctified you, has always protected you, and loves you as a mother. Blessed be thou, O God, for having created me.” May we all find ourselves able to make such a prayer at the time of our departure.

Thursday, August 4, 2011


This is an essay I wrote back in July of 2005, but a friend suggested that I re-print it in light of the suicide of another Mobile Archdiocesan Catholic priest, Fr Ernie Hyndman.  And so here it is, with the slightest of re-working to make things a bit clearer.

I have had to face the issue of suicide as a pastor 4 times in the last 12 months [of 2004-2005], and it is one of the hardest things to do: the families are filled with so many conflicting emotions—grief, confusion, anger, fear, and so on. I also have several friends who battle mental diseases of one kind or another; I know the way they are ravaged by their illnesses. I recently received an e-mail from someone who is struggling to bring a bit of light to the tragedy of Fr. [Michael] Labadie’s death. I want to share an excerpt from it, and then to offer some comments of my own, in presentation of the Church’s teaching. The person wrote to me, in part, as follows:

“Church members who work with me have met me in the hallway, restrooms etc. have exclaimed, "But he was a priest! How could this happen?" My first reaction is to explode, but then I get my composure and try to educate them in a more gentler way. (I can't begin to address the topic that priests are human too…) Even after this, these individuals only remember our early teachings in religion classes that suicide is a mortal sin and you go to Hell for it. I pray for the Labadie family because they will face even more judgmental comments since their son was a priest.”

This is certainly, and very unfortunately, true. We all remember when suicide and many other things were classified as mortal sins, any one of which, even once, could consign a person to Hell. What was the context out of which this view emanated?

Until very recently, it was believed that actions done were actions chosen with sufficient freedom to make them sinful, and the person was by definition morally culpable (blameworthy). This is the view that led people to believe that alcoholism, for example, was simply a moral weakness that a person could overcome with sufficient effort and desire. But when the Church began to take seriously the insights of psychology, it became clear that our freedom to choose is often far more limited and compromised than we had previously thought. We learned that there are more kinds of compulsions than external, physical ones.

We learned also that mental illnesses like depression or bi-polar disorder can lead to behaviors that usually are seen as malicious when in fact they are the acting-out of the disease, often with little or no free choice involved in the persons, who cannot understand why they are compelled to feel and act as they do.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church recognizes all of this. Its teaching is clear. Suicide, if freely chosen, is indeed “gravely contrary to the just love of self,” and is mortally sinful. We can rationalize our way to evil, and it remains evil. Yet, the Catechism also teaches: “Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide. We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. …God can provide…” (CCC ##2281-2283). We know two things for certain: “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Matt. 7:1), and God is a God of love, mercy, forgiveness and healing.

Priests are human beings and are subject to illnesses of all kinds, physical and emotional. When a priest (especially a priest whose intense desire is to be holy and to be united with God forever in Jesus Christ) commits suicide, therefore, it is the strongest evidence that the disease took over the person, much as cancer or heart disease might. What I am saying here applies in general terms also to others, not ordained, who succumb to the ravages of mental illnesses of whatever kind. The choice is not free, and to the extent it is not free, to that extent it is not mortally sinful (even if it is devastating).

The Gospel for the 14th Sunday of Cycle A (Matthew 11:25-30, just this past Sunday) reminds us that Jesus calls us all, “Come to Me, all you who are weary and find life burdensome, and I will give you rest.” Sometimes the burdens we carry, self-inflicted or laid on us by circumstances, are too great to be relieved in this world. As Jesus is the one who makes the promise, though, He will be the ultimate source of eternal healing for us all: those who suffer from mental illnesses (even leading to suicide), those who suffer physically (from diseases like cancer or diabetes or cerebral palsy), and those who struggle morally with temptations like materialism, lust for power, self-centeredness of any kind. Our God is an awesome God, who can take us all up in His hands—to bless, to heal, to love. May we all fall into those hands!