Archive for December, 2012|Monthly archive page

Advent in Tough Times

In Christianity on December 17, 2012 at 11:29 pm

For Advent, I have been reading Advent of the Heart: Seasonal Sermons and Prison Writings, 1941-1944, by Fr. Alfred Delp, S.J.  Father Delp was executed on February 2, 1945, in Plötzensee prison, only three months before the Nazi capitulation on May 7, 1945. He had been imprisoned for opposing the Third Reich.

His first published writing about Advent was a play, “The Eternal Advent,” written in 1933 for the students at Stella Matutina School in Feldkirch, Austria—a Jesuit boarding school where he was assigned to work as prefect. The intended performers were children, a fact that is very sad but fitting, perhaps, in light of the terrible tragedy at Sandy Hook School in Connecticut during Advent 2012.

Despite the seemingly senseless loss of Fr. Delp’s own life, and despite the loss of life in the play (soldiers, coal miners, and prophetically, a priest), Fr. Delp’s theme was—and is—hope. Granted, it is not a blind hope; an easily maintained hope. As the dying priest in the play says, “My friends, believe it, we have to suffer a lot and hang on. Only then is it Christmas.”

What, then, is the eternal Advent hope for which we are to wait? Just this: that God will come. That He will come, as He did in Bethlehem, but that He also will come in the most difficult times of our lives. In Scene 1 of the play, a group of despair over their comrades and even their enemy’s loss of life:

All of them—on both sides—they’re all just stretching their hands out toward happiness. They all just want to be happy and content.  They all stretch out their hands. But nobody reaches a hand out to meet them. Nobody fills their empty hands with happiness and peace.

Their battalion then comes under attack. The speaker and all with him are killed. But at the end of the scene, after some time, a dead soldier slowly rises and speaks:

Dead soldiers, and you who live because they died here, all of you who . . . stretch your hands out toward happiness: one day God’s hand will touch you! One day His hand will come over you, stroke your hot foreheads, heal your bleeding wounds, fill your empty hands.

All of you who secretly stretched out your hands toward happiness: someday, Someone will come and take your hand!

This is the Advent hope in tough times—and for all time.

Honest Prayer

In Christianity on December 13, 2012 at 10:51 pm

Is prayer difficult for you? It is for most of us, at one time or another. Yet a wonderful pastor once told me that, if he awoke during the night, he simply said, “Jesus, I love you.” Honest prayer.

Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, now in eternity, wrote about honest prayer in his book As I Lay Dying. He prayed the familiar child’s nighttime prayer throughout his whole life: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray thee Lord my soul to keep; if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” Honest prayer.

Maybe we find prayer difficult because we think we need to say a lot, or pray more than we’re able to say. God be thanked, in such times, the Holy Spirit prays with us—indeed, prays for us!¹ But a heart in love with Christ always wants to bring its own prayer offering, however small. That’s why I’ve begun writing down simple prayers spoken by others. I want them at times words don’t come easily.

Here are a few, if you need them, too.

Keep on loving those who know You!
– Psalm 36:11, Grail Translation

Do not leave behind You a big crowd when You turn away from here, but have mercy on us.
– 8th Century Old English Advent Lyrics quoted in December 2, 2012, Magnificat

I dare to beg You, Father, forgive us! Not everything is wrong. Infuse those who persist in faith with courage and hope.
– The documentary, The Polish Pope (Polski Papiez)

¹ Romans 8:26-27

Eating Without Hunger

In Christianity on December 12, 2012 at 9:07 pm

“Whenever the Church dons solemn purple vestments, it always means that serious question are being set forth . . . ,” wrote Fr. Alfred Delp, S.J., in Advent of the Heart: Seasonal Sermons and Prison Writings, 1941-1944. I’m grateful to the editors of Magnificat for including Fr. Delp’s meditation in their December 2012 issue.

As I’ve reflected on my own response to Advent this year, the following analogy came to mind:

To seek to enjoy Christmas, without Advent, is like seeking to obtain the satisfaction a good meal provides, without hunger.

This, perhaps, is the primary cause of our oft-cited disillusionment with Christmas. For, like the hunger that prompts us to eat—indeed, makes us eager to do so—to come to Christmas without sensing any need for it leaves us wondering, “Why I am even doing all of this . . . the decorating, the shopping, the gatherings? I’m exhausted. I’d have been happier with a warm bath!”

Christmas celebrates the coming of Christ. But it’s easy for that to become an abstraction, an cheery, semi-sacred tradition. Fr. Delp’s words help refocus our attention where it belongs. Christmas celebrates the coming of our Savior! To understand this event’s immense significance, we must connect Christmas to the hunger, the need, that makes it meaningful.

That hunger is expressed in the deep longings we feel; the dissatisfaction; the sense of “something-not-right-ness.” The longer we meditate on this, the more likely we are to realize that not-right-ness is at least partly our fault—the result of our failings, of our sin. The not-right-ness is the result of what we have done and what we have left undone. What are those actions (and failures to act) in your life? In mine?

Self examination makes us realize we need a Savior! We are, in Fr. Delp’s words, facing one of life’s serious questions. God be thanked that, in the despair to which our examen can drive us, we also can exclaim with St. Paul, “Miserable one that I am! Who will deliver me?”¹

God be thanked, we can answer that question as St. Paul did: “Who will deliver me? Jesus Christ our Lord!”

May the purple garments of Advent remind us of our need, and may we give thanks always to God for His gracious response in giving His Son, our Savior. Let us approach our Heavenly Bread with true hunger and deep gratitude.

¹ Romans 7:24a

Reason and Revelation

In Christianity on December 11, 2012 at 5:56 pm

Two of Fr. James V. Schall’s wonderful books came to my attention a few months ago. The Mind That is Catholic & The Order of Things are among the most important, most helpful, books I’ve encountered in years.

Not long after I had read Fr. Schall’s The Mind That is Catholic, I noticed the following posting to Facebook by a friend:

If we have to use a “God” from above to teach us right from wrong, then we’ve already failed. Integrity is measured when nobody is watching. It’s doing the right thing without promise of reward, it’s avoiding the wrong thing even when there are no consequences for doing the wrong thing.

Fr. Schall often addresses the relationship between reason and revelation. His books speak directly to what my friend was trying to say. With apologies in advance for this very long post, and with credit to Fr. Schall for what follows, this was my comment:

What if the issue is not needing a “god” from above to teach us right, but using our knowledge of right to teach us there is a God above?

Even a child will object, when a playmate cheats at a game or steals a toy, “That’s not right! That’s not fair!” We do so at an early age, without our parents ever providing a complete list of things that are “fair” or not. The child is improvising, applying ideas about right and fair, based on some deeper sense. Where do we get our ideas about right and fairness?

In grand terms, what is being discussed here is the relationship between reason and revelation. Reason alone is enough to suggest we should treat each other decently; show integrity. But the question remains, “Oh, really? Why?” We might answer, “Well, because it works. The world is a better place if we do.” But serious thinkers from Machiavelli, to Nietzsche, to Albert Camus would argue that’s not the case at all. Machiavelli would say it’s better to get what you want. Camus would argue it’s all meaningless anyway.

Is it possible then, that reason as we use it (“Well, of course it’s right to behave with integrity!”) points to a larger reality only available to us ultimately through revelation? If so, then reason and revelation work hand-in-hand.

People rightly object to revelation without reason: “Oh, that’s just a myth about an arbitrary, made-up ‘god’ telling us what to do.” However, if reason can point us to a reality not fully available to us without revelation (yet consistent with reason), that’s huge! It’s a basis for believing “all the pieces fit together”; that this life isn’t an inexplicable puzzle, or worse still, a meaningless one.

The fact we intuitively understand what’s right, and encourage others to live with integrity, may well point us to God who wired us that way. If so, that is a much more powerful basis for striving to live with consistent integrity, because the Source is real and the possibility of doing so successfully really exists. We are living to be our true selves, not what we imagine we ought to be because some arbitrary god pointed a terrifying finger at us and commanded us to “do this or else!”

That relationship between reason and revelation, and the Church’s encouragement for us to use both, is, it seems to me, one of the incalculable blessings we enjoy in living-out Christianity Richly!

More Time to Write?

In Christianity on December 11, 2012 at 5:34 pm

Perhaps I should say “Merry Christmas” now, given the infrequent opportunities I’ve had to post to Christianity Richly during the past four months. Still, what’s that saying? “Hope springs eternal?”

Hope should spring eternal, of course. It is not simply one of the seven virtues, but is one of the three “theological” virtues (faith, hope, and love) given to us and nurtured by God. Nevertheless, I have a somewhat more earthly reason for hope in 2013, as well: a change of job responsibilities, which should allow more time to write.

I’ll still offer best wishes now for a happy, healthy, and most of all, holy New Year in 2013. But I hope to be present here at Christianity Richly more often, soon. Until then, may God bless you according to the riches of His grace in Christ Jesus, now and in the coming year. Let us give thanks for the blessing of this Advent Season and the coming of our Lord. That is the basis for Christianity—richly!