Friday, November 30, 2012

5 Ideas: An Advent Wrapped in Silence

 A woman wrapped in silence and the wait
Of silence was her heart that heard

These words are from a classic narrative poem by John Lynch. "Wrapped in silence" is a beautiful phrase to describe Mary but it could also apply to the entire season of Advent.

Mary was a woman wrapped in silence. Her life was a contemplative response to the action of God in her soul. Our Advent is also meant to be wrapped in silence, enabling us to respond to God's love with openness.

Jesus, in the womb of Mary, was also wrapped in silence. His divinity was clothed in human flesh, given to him from the genetic material of his mother Mary. As an unborn child, Jesus lay in the silence of Mary's womb, awaiting the moment of his birth.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus tells Nicodemus that we must be born again in order to see the kingdom of God (Jn 3:3). How are we born again? Nicodemus understands Jesus literally at first, and thinks that we must return to our mother's womb. But Jesus tells him that we must be born in the Spirit in order to see the kingdom of God.

How can we be born in the Spirit?

Like Jesus entered the womb of Mary, we can imagine ourselves spiritually entering the womb of God. As Mary lent Jesus her flesh, God lends us his divinity, allowing us to become like Him. We enter the womb of God to be spiritually fed and sanctified. Like a mother feeds her child, God feeds us the body, blood, soul and divinity of Christ in the Eucharist. God also feeds us graces through His Word, our prayer and the other sacraments.

We grow in holiness when, like little children, we live in loving dependence on God, in the silent womb of his loving care. 

We can leave the womb of sanctification if we choose. We can eat the forbidden fruits of sin, and pretend that we are adults, that we know what is best. But only God feeds us eternal food. And it is only this food that will satisfy our souls.

This Advent I have decided to enter the silent womb of God and, like Mary, to wrap myself in silence so that I can grow closer to Jesus. I am doing this by taking a break from blogging and all social media for the season of Advent.

If you want to join me in an Advent wrapped in silence, here are some ideas:
1. Amp up the Grace: Nothing helps us listen to God more than the sacraments. They increase our union with the Trinity who dwells in us through baptism. Try adding an extra Mass into your schedule. Go to confession before Christmas. Pray an hour of adoration every week before the Eucharist. Even if you do just one of these things, it will be a precious addition to your Advent season.

2. Take Time for Spiritual Reading: Set aside time during your day or week to read a good spiritual book. Need some suggestions? Advent Grace is a wonderful book of daily Gospel meditations for Advent, written by my sisters at the Daughters of St. Paul. A Woman Wrapped in Silence, the narrative poem quoted at the beginning of this post, and The Reed of God are also beautiful Advent books.

3. Take a Break: Integrate a technology break into your day or week, or heck try the entire season of Advent! (e.g. Facebook fast during Advent, no technology on Sundays or in the evenings, put aside cell phone when you come home from work, one night a week talk or pray with the family rather than watch TV). Some ideas for online time well spent: Listen to Father Barron's weekly homilies for Advent. Keep up with Father Pontifex's Advent Youtube videos.

4. Do What Energizes You: Do more of the things that make you feel happy to be alive this Advent. Maybe it's art, writing, reading, sports, service or cooking.  Pay attention to the activities that leave you feeling energized and the ones that don't. You may be surprised that the activities that involve pouring yourself out for others, while physically tiring, can be the most energizing. When we actively discern the activities we engage in, we have more psychological space to make good decisions about prayer and our relationship with God.

5. Moments of Silence: We may think that we need to cocoon ourselves from the world in order to have a contemplative Advent, but the truth is that we can find God in our everyday activities, we just need to make the effort! During your day, try to continually fix your gaze on Jesus. If, moment by moment, we make an effort to unify ourselves to the presence of God, (who is right within us through baptism!), our lives will be transformed. And Advent will truly be a season wrapped in the silent peace of God.
May God bless you this Advent, you will all be in my prayers.

See you on the other side of this sacred season!

Friday, November 16, 2012

Anarchist Saints and the Folly of the Cross

Anarchy in the USCCB...
I am a notorious political waffler. In early high school, I considered myself an anarchist. Later, I became obsessed with Ayn Rand’s Objectivism. After college, I attended Quaker meetings and my political views were influenced by Quaker values. I have voted for Republican, Democrat and third party presidential candidates. 

And most recently, I found myself reading First Things, an amazing magazine, and surprised myself by exclaiming loudly, "Maybe I am a conservative!" (Reading articles by R.R. Reno can do that to you...)

I have hopscotched from ideology to ideology, looking for the right fit, the magic bullet that will be the answer to all of the world's problems. I see the good and true in different political thought but then, after a honeymoon phase, I lose hope in its potential to change the world and I move on to the next thing. I have been in serial relationships with political ideologies.

Predictably, after this year’s election, there have been articles suggesting that the bishops change their political “strategies.” It strikes me when I read these articles that there is a tendency to speaks about the bishops as if they were any other organization, following the same rules and strategies as the rest of the world. 

What many people do not seem to get is that the Church does not choose what to speak out about based on data and political polls. We are not in a popularity contest. If we were, we would be losing badly, even among our own.

Right now, the Church is vilified in the Western world as the big bad conservative monster under the bed that wants to tell people who they should have sex with and when they should have babies. People, including many Catholics, want to put our bishops in a box with other conservative politicians and dismiss them as out of touch, white males obsessed with power.

We might have an anarchist Saint people! 
But I just want to point out that our big bad conservative bishops just unanimously promoted the sainthood cause of a self proclaimed Christian anarchist, Dorothy Day, known for her tireless work for social justice and founding the Catholic Worker Movement. 

When Robert Ellsberg, a friend and editor of much of Dorothy's writings, first met Dorothy, he asked: “Miss Day, how do you reconcile your Catholicism with your anarchism?” She looked at him and said, “Well, it's never been a problem for me.” Dorothy, while a radical tirelessly working for social justice also remained a loyal daughter of the Catholic Church. In her, I think, is a model of the mind boggling and paradoxical message of Gospel and therefore of the Catholic Church, (although Catholics, of course, do not have to claim anarchist as their political identification).

Another example is Pope Paul VI. In some circles he is known as the now infamous, conservative pope for writing the encyclical HumanaeVitae, which taught against the use of birth control. Not as many people know that he also wrote an encyclical called Populorum Progressio. When the encyclical came out, Time magazine wrote that parts of Populorum Progressio “had the strident tone of an early 20th century Marxist polemic.”

Yes, we Catholics like to confound the world.

We are a Church that is seemingly backwards thinking on social issues and far too forward thinking on issues of justice. We are seen as conservative fuddy-duddies on the one hand and are accused of being Marxist radicals on the other. There is no box you can put Catholic teaching in. As much as people try to wedge us in with the Republicans (or the Marxists), we aren’t going to be wearing elephant or hammer and sickle pins anytime soon. 

As Catholics, we cast our votes but (hopefully) our votes don’t cast us.

We are a faith of paradox because the Gospel is a paradox. I know a man who converted from Hinduism who told me that after reading the Gospels he thought, “This is so crazy, humans could not have made this up.”

It’s true, we have not made this up. The Holy Spirit has entrusted these truths to us as a Church.

Many Catholics are suggesting different ways to deal with the issues that face our Church today. A lot of them involve circling our wagons and protecting ourselves, or giving in on those issues that seem so backwards to many people.  We understandably want to avoid being crucified in the arena of public opinion and getting rights and privileges taken away from the Church we all love.

But the thing is - we serve a Savior who did not avoid crucifixion. The Gospel confounds. The Gospel enrages. The Gospel inspires. If we choose to continue following the Gospel, we will continue confounding the world. 

And yes, we just might be crucified. But, as Dorothy Day once wrote, “The most effective action we can take is to try to conform our lives to the folly of the cross.”

Which, I have been thinking, might be my new (and permanent) political ideology – the folly of the cross.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Post-Election Thought: Perhaps We Need Art?

Artists know they are tapping into something infinite when they create. Most artists will admit that what they create comes from something outside of themselves, something greater than their own mind, something universal and unifying. People of faith will say that art is a participation in the very creative nature of God.

Recently, while I was reading Blessed Pope John Paul II's letter to artists I was struck by one particular line:
The [artistic] intuition .. springs from the depths of the human soul, where the desire to give meaning to one's own life is joined by the fleeting vision of beauty and of the mysterious unity of things.
Picasso's Guernica, 1937
Unity is something often found beneath great art because art's message, while not always easily articulated, calls us to see our common humanity. This is why I think politicized art rarely becomes great art. Often when an artist has an agenda, their work loses power.  God always has messages that are deeper and higher than our own.

Pablo Picasso's Guernica is an example of political art done right. Rather than overtly taking sides in the Spanish Civil War, the painting simply expresses the horror of war.

When Picasso was pressed to explain the painting, he responded:
If you give a meaning to certain things in my paintings it may be very true, but it is not my idea to give this meaning. What ideas and conclusions you have got I obtained too, but instinctively, unconsciously. I make the painting for the painting. I paint the objects for what they are.
This, I think, is a beautiful description of the artistic process and a reason that politics and art can never be true bedfellows. Politics demands articulation. Art calls a person to something beyond articulation.

But this does not mean that art cannot be highly effective in shaping a person's view of moral issues, which can then impact the political world. This may seem like an obvious point but I think it is lost on many Christians who seek to change minds and hearts. We often resort to logical arguments before we get creative.

And honestly, I think the reason lies in our desire to control. We are fearful of where our country is headed, so we want to control our message. We would rather write poor imitations of Mere Christianity, than the Chronicles of Narnia. Or make movies like October Baby rather than Bella or The Tree of Life.

So instead of taking risks, we often just stick to cold, hard, logic. The problem with good logic is that it depends on well formed premises. People are not always open to questioning the flawed premises that underlie erroneous moral beliefs. When we focus only on logic, we battle head to head but it often looks like no one is really winning because the actual premises of the logic on both sides are rarely discussed.

Art gets to premises. It gets to our gut. It does a limbo dance under our overactive and error prone minds and cuts right to the heart.

I think this is something to think about as the election season wraps up. How did we as Christians express our morality informed by faith in this election? I am not saying that reasoned arguments aren't necessary, certainly they are. But perhaps more good art, the kind of art that taps into peoples' hearts on a deeper level and leaves them with more freedom to come to their own conclusions, would be more effective? And perhaps, as an added bonus, because of the unifying nature of art, it would lead to less divisive politics.

Certainly there were big stakes in this election and in our society, but perhaps the fight requires some different tactics.

Perhaps there is another way.

Perhaps we need art.