March 2013

Br. Thomas Aquinas Pickett, O.P.'s picture

Spiritual Journey

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Last Friday I gave a talk to the Korean Catholic Fellowship group at UC Berkeley on some aspects of the spiritual life according to St. Thomas Aquinas. This was a rather daunting task, since so much of what Aquinas says in his theological works can be applied to the prayer, worship, life, and belief of everyday Christians. I settled, then, on giving a broad picture of the spiritual life and then focused on several aspects in particular. In general it is important to recall God as the creator. For Aquinas, God is not the "Enlightenment" era watchmaker-god who wound the universe up, and now sits in aloof ennui as we mortals are left to our own devices and desires. Rather, all creation is being sustained by God, at every moment in time. If God were to remove his presence, the universe would simply be brought to nothing (ad nihilo, annihilation). Every moment we are being spoken into being by the Word. As rational creatures who may know the Word, we are meant to journey to God by His grace and our will. In particular, we find that the various elements of our journey to God are oriented towards charity. Love, Aquinas points out, begins by knowing, and so through discursive reasoning about God (meditation) and the resting intellectual vision of divine truths (contemplation) we begin to know God, which, in turn, allows us to love God. Love, however, is not complete until the lover and beloved are united, so our entire journey is not complete until, at last, we are united with God to the greatest extent possible on earth, and to the fullest extent ordained in heaven.

Br. Bradley Thomas Elliott, O.P.'s picture

Why We Study

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As is well known, St. Dominic was unique in his time in that he incorporated study into the spiritual life of the friars; study, not seen as an ancillary activity done as a means to a utilitarian end, but as a means of contemplation and prayer. In this presentation, the student Brothers of the Western Province of the Most Holy Name of Jesus expound upon the meaning of study in their own spiritual lives and explain how study of truth, far from being extraineous to their lives or prayer, is actually the main pillar in their walk with God.

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Br. Peter Junipero Hannah, O.P.'s picture

The Living Soul of Reform

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We live in exciting times. They are times of great change and great drama; of great controversy and great polarization; of great trial and great suffering. And they demand a vigorous response. We live in an era of cultural decay coming in the wake of the great upheavals of the 20th century, the most recent of which was the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Traditional forms of social cohesion like religious commitment, love of country, and familial stability, have been in decline for some years now. Crises have rocked the Catholic Church seemingly uninterruptedly Crepuscular Rays in St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City  - Uploaded by Jraytramfor the last 40 years—whether confusion and dissolution in liturgical discipline, near-catastrophic failures in catechesis, a dearth of religious and priestly vocations, or (more recently) immoral and scandalous behavior of clergy. The question arises, “What do we do?” To begin, I propose a way of rethinking our use and understanding of a particular word. This word is summoned by diverse and sundry individuals and groups to defend changes in the Church, whether great or small, good or bad, wise or foolish. And the word is...“reform.” But first, a few words about using words.[1]

Sometimes when a word begins to be used in a variety of contexts, and by different people with differing intentions, it gradually loses its original specificity and can act as a kind of bully club, delivering a punchy and often emotionally-charged swipe at the expense of clarity and reasoned engagement. Such, I suppose, is the fate of words like “liberal” and “conservative” in popular discourse, or “open-minded” and “fundamentalist” in popular religious discourse. The words indeed mean something, but that meaning has gone through the wash so many times, and been worn again and soiled by so many different people, that they are often hurled forth irresponsibly, casting, as it were, a dirty and undignified garment on the adversary in the place of reasoned and patient engagement. Thus, in one fell swoop, a proponent of same-sex unions can brand his opponents “bigots” and the defender of traditional marriage has of a sudden been verbally clothed in a white suit with a pointy-hat, bigotry ready at hand. Or, in a similarly fellish swoop, a Catholic who believes the Magisterium ought to be adhered to in all matters of faith and doctrine can be called, with a tinge of visceral disdain, “narrow” or “rigid,” after which jaws clench, voices hush, and the argument has apparently been ended.

The word “reform” has not quite the same emotional baggage as those just mentioned, but ever since the Vatican Council II, it has been at least as bandied about by diverse and sundry groups, dressed up in one ideological agenda or another. On one side of the spectrum it is used to justify sweeping liturgical changes or to dismantle the concept of “hierarchical structures” or to advance women’s ordination. On the other side it is used as a dirty word in the midst of a wholesale critique of everything that has happened since Vatican II, sometimes even rejecting the Council itself and longing for a return to the perceived-to-be-pristine 1950s. And yet, the Vatican Council II itself spoke of the need for “reform” in the Church: “Christ summons the Church, as she goes her pilgrim way, to that continual reformation of which she is always in need insofar as she is an institution of men here on earth.” (Unitatis Redintegratio 6). The Council is careful in its phrasing. In her human aspects, the Church has many deficiencies, and we should not be afraid to recognize them and “reform” them. But in her essence the Church, united to Christ her Head, is perfect, an eternal font of creative energy, holiness, and life flowing through her.  This distinction is vital for any notion of “reform.” 


In common speech today the term “reform” drums up associations with political and social movements that seek to recraft social structures or advance political agendas. It is often bound up with a notion of democratic participatory decision-making and grassroots “movements” that seek to challenge existing structures. This is not what the Church means by “reform,” and to project this meaning onto ecclesial realities can lead to grave errors. The reason is that the Catholic Church is not merely a human or social or political institution. These realities are an inevitable part of the way she is structured here on earth, but they do not constitute her core, her heart, her “soul,” as it were. Properly speaking, the “Church” is not so much a structure, as a living organism with its own inner vital principles all afire with life and energy, principles that need to be respected and properly developed. It is more like a living and breathing human being than a machine. In this case that “being” is nothing less than the Mystical Body of Christ, the second Person of the Trinity in unity with his pilgrim people on earth.


Avery Dulles—in an article more detailed and theologically nuanced than I can be here—has admirably laid out the principles for “true and false” types of reform, principles that should be presupposed for any thinking about what “reform” is.[2] He points out that the Second Vatican Council used the word “reform” very sparingly, more often opting for the terms “renewal” (renovatio) and “purification” (purificatio). These seem more adequate terms since they point not so much to molding and shaping and bashing a thing into order from without, as to an encouraging-from-within, a support and nourishment that catalyzes the inner-forces of a thing so it can grow and develop properly.[3] 


Dulles’ distinction is a very Thomistic one. All living things have their own proper laws placed within them. A flower will only grow in a healthy way through a combination of nutrients in the soil, an amenable external environment, sufficient light from the sun, and water. A flower cannot be slashed at and bent about from the outside in order to conform with an idea that we have of what it should be. We cannot make a rose into a violet by painting it and cutting and pasting its petals this way and that, any more than we can feed a turtle steroids and turn it into a crocodile, or work very hard to train our pet cat to beat a cheetah in a race. What we can do is feed and nourish the rose, the violet, the turtle, or the cat, so that each grows and develops into the thing that it—and only it—is supposed to be.[4] 


If things like cats and turtles and flowers have these inner-principles, these “forms,” that need to be respected if we are to enjoy their company or their beauty, the Church has an inner-constitution which is infinitely more alive, vital, creative, and deserving of respect. This inner-principle of the Church is all afire with the divinity and the creative energy of God, flowing from an eternal source that will never cease. This “energy” is nothing less than the Holy Spirit Himself, often spoken of as the “soul” of the Body of Christ, that is, the Church.


Popes John Paul II and Benedict have continually called for a “new evangelization” to spark an age of renewal and yes, even “reform” in the Church. But this reform can never be achieved through a clumsy application of political and social models, or a purely secularized morality where truth is relative, irresponsible or even perverse behavior is condoned, and the only social rule is that one should never “offend” another. But neither will the new evangelization happen by simply retreating into a previous era as if the last 50 years never happened.


What the Body of Christ needs today is reinvigoration. It needs—or rather Christ now urgently calls—religious and lay people, priests and bishops, the whole Body of Christ, to a fearless and audacious confidence in the goodness of God and the power of the gospel to convert the world. We need, in a word, to become holy, to avail ourselves of the living waters flowing eternally from the Temple of God and the Heart of Christ pierced on the Cross. This can be the only true source of authentic renewal. How do we go about this? Ultimately, the responsibility devolves on each individual Catholic. But in a special way it devolves on: (1) religious to be faithful to their vows and the charisms of their founders; (2) clergy to order and lead and inspire their flocks with true knowledge and firm faith in Christ and his Church; (3) bishops to sound the call and be “examples for the flock” (1 Pet 5.3).

But getting more practical, Dulles gives a number of criteria to distinguish signs of true and false reform. True reform will: (1) not be an abandoning but a “return to the founding principles of Catholicism”; (2) respect the Church’s spiritual and devotional heritage, including Marian piety, the cult of saints, high regard for monastic life and religious vows, penitential practices, and eucharistic worship: (3) be committed to the “fullness of Catholic doctrine” as authoritatively proposed by the Magisterium; (4) respect the “divinely given structures of the Church, including the differences in states of life and vocations”; (5) sustain unity and communion, avoiding schism and factionalism; (6) be marked by a spirit of patient perseverance, not feverish demand for sweeping change; (7) not yield to our fallen nature’s tendency to prideful self-assertion; and (8) guard against reforms too closely associated with fads and ephemeral ideologies in the secular sphere.

Dulles sketches out in practical terms what he quotes one of the 20th century’s theological giants as affirming in more concise terms. Henri de Lubac said that he did “not believe that structural reforms...are ever the main part of a program that must aim at the only true renewal, spiritual renewal.” John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and—indeed—the Lord himself calls with intense urgency every Catholic to take up this call to the spiritual renewal and vigorous revitalization of the Church’s life. Such a renewal will come—can only come—from respecting and drawing off of the Church's interior vitality imbued and poured out by the Holy Spirit. God alone gives the growth, of course, but we are messengers and ambassadors of his work on earth, and he urgently, very urgently, exhorts us to the task.




[1] The inspiration and much of the substance of this article I draw from the late Avery Cardinal Dulles’ excellent article, “True and False Reform,” First Things Aug/Sep 2003. (Read it here.)



[2] see ibid.



[3] We do not have time to go into it here, but Dulles names a number of areas the Council pointed to for authentic renewal: biblical and patristic studies; liturgy; kerygmatic (i.e.preaching) theology; catechesis; lay apostolates; ecumenism; social teaching.



[4] I avoid the technical terminology here, but in Thomistic terms, this “inner-principle” is called the “form,” and the elements of change and particularity—all that goes into its color, shape, change through time—are its “matter.”


 

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Br. Cody Jorgensen, O.P.'s picture

Today I Have Removed ...

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The following is a transcript of a reflection given at Saturday Vespers. It is based on the First Reading from the Fourth Sunday of Lent (Joshua 5:9a, 10-12).

When Easter comes around, there's one thing that I immediately think about: Charlton Heston and The Ten Commandments. Growing up in a “culturally Christian” home, we did very few religious things in the house, going to church typically on Christmas and Easter…however, there was one thing that I looked forward to a great deal, and that was watching The Ten Commandments. Now, at the time, I don't know if I genuinely liked the movie. All I knew was that it was about four hours long on TV and that meant I got to stay up far past my normal bedtime. Around the age of seven, that's a big plus.

So when this reading from Joshua came up, it wasn't my Evangelical upbringing that instantly placed this passage in context, reminding me of the Exodus. It was, for better or worse, the reference to Egypt, which instantly reminds me of Charlton Heston proclaiming to Pharaoh: “Let my people go!”

It always seems to me like a stretch to see relevance in the Old Testament stories, and it wasn't until my first year as a baptized Catholic going through Lent that I had the epiphany that this entire recounting of the Israelites in the desert is most powerfully seen as an example for us in our spiritual lives. It's the example of leaving our sinful selves behind in Egypt, wandering through the purifying desert of Sinai and finally having the hope of entering into the Promised Land.

As we now approach the fourth Sunday of Lent, we hear from the Lord: “Today I have removed the reproach of Egypt from you.” This single verse provides much that we can learn from as we wander through the desert of life, and in particular as we live out our religious vocation as Dominicans.

First, notice that the Lord is the one “doing”: “Today, I have removed.” How easy is it for pride to enter into our lives, and so very hard for us to recall that it is God who has called us into this life, it is God who has called us to offer our lives to Him through our vows. While we may very much feel the effects of the slavery to sin, and desire greatly to leave the bondage of Egypt, it is the Lord who acts in the beginning. It is he who provides us the grace, giving us the strength through the power of the Spirit, to leave behind our sinful lives and pursue Him in a freedom and love no longer chained by sin.

In the second part of this verse, the Lord tells us what he has removed from us: the reproach of Egypt. What is this reproach of Egypt? Maybe in our life, the reproach is two-fold, and stems from our fallen selves and those parts of our lives that are still unredeemed either because we are unaware of them, or are unwilling to bring them to the Lord in repentance.

First, this reproach can be the material things that we still cling to with an inappropriate attachment. Egypt is behind us and we're walking in the desert, but what nice gold trinkets, what idols do we still cling to in the packs over our shoulders. Secondly, the reproach can be our fallen behavior towards one another, that lacking of perfection within ourselves that keeps us apart, and divided. We wander together through the wilderness, but do we grumble amongst ourselves and bicker with one another?

Finally, there is one thing that strikes me as incredibly applicable to our life here in community. God doesn't send the lone Israelite into the desert. He doesn't send Moses by himself to inherit the Promised Land: God sends a people, a community. We aren't just one lone set of footprints in the sand. No one is alone in this journey. It's not even just “God and me.” God has given us each other. If you lift up your heads and open your eyes to look across these choir stalls, you will see the people that God has brought into your life. These are the people that are here for you, and who you are here for. You cannot make it to the Promised Land by yourself, we need each other.

Instead of only making use of this image of the wandering Israelites once a year, it is something that we must keep within ourselves every day. Every day God gives us the grace to leave Egypt behind. Every day God pours out his graces upon us, to strengthen us, to bind our broken limbs and to make us whole. Every day we put to death those former selves that left Egypt, when we deny ourselves and seek after God with our whole heart. And every day God creates in us a new creation, like the children born in the desert, freed from the reproach of Egypt and finally prepared to enter into the Promised Land.

Br. Bradley Thomas Elliott, O.P.'s picture

Penance and Hope

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This is a reflection given at vespers at St. Albert's Priory. It is for the second week of Lent, a time when our practices of penance begin to wane. Although the virtue that is typically associated with lenten penances is temperance, this is a meditation on the connection between our acts of penance and the virtue of hope. When we practice penance for the sake of the kingdom of God, we do not merely grow in the virtue of temperance, which orders our desires for bodily pleasures according to right reason. We also practice the virtue of hope, hope for a world to come, and hope for the life of glory that surpasses what we could ever enjoy in this life through our bodily senses. The hidden secret to this season of mortification is the hope that springs from the promise of Jesus Christ.

Fr. Gabriel Mosher, O.P.'s picture

Ahh ... the Brothers

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Common life is awesome. The other day I felt compelled to address the new policy for Catholic Hospitals in Germany on the use of emergency contraceptives for rape victims who have not yet conceived a child. As is my custom, I had a strong reaction to the German Bishops' policy. I thought it was a great example of poor moral reasoning. So, I started to write a critique of the policy.

When my masterpiece of solo-synchronous scholarship was completed I made a decision. I chose to share my thoughts with some of my Dominican brothers. The conversations I had with them about this topic quickly turned into invigorating intellectual wrestling matches. With each conversation I was able to get a clearer picture of the proper principles that needed to be applied to the argument. Some of my thoughts were confirmed, others weren't. With their help I was able to consider aspects of the issue that I hadn't properly considered. I think they were also enriched by it.

Finally, after a few days of these conversations, I was ready. I opened up nvALT on the Mac I have the use of, found the document, deleted it, and started from scratch. After reworking the argument I passed it on to yet another brother for final editing before I committed it to the web. In this communal process, the brothers were able to show me where my reasoning was erroneous on a few  small but crucial points. If I didn't have them to bounce my thoughts against I would have written a piece that was both rash and inaccurate. Instead you can read a good and accessible work on this issue titled "A Bitter Pill To Swallow" at The Eighth Way in support of the German Bishops' moral reasoning.

This is one of the great things about living in this community. We are constantly bouncing ideas off of each other. We study, we think, we contemplate. But, we also share these essential parts of our Dominican intellectual life with one another. We correct and affirm each other. We do all this with our eyes corporately fixed on holiness and fidelity to the truth. This really is a beautiful life.

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Br. Michael James Rivera, O.P.'s picture

Where is Your Heart?

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The Lord said to Moses, "Go down at once to your people whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, for they have become depraved. They have soon turned aside from the way I pointed out to them, making for themselves a molten calf and worshiping it, sacrificing to it and crying out..." (Exodus 32:7-14)

This past week I was struck in a particular way by Fr. Augustine's reflection on the above passage. In his homily he spoke of two ways in which we as human beings fall into the sin of idolatry. The first way is rooted in our failure to recognize God's presence in our lives. More than a simple lack of thankfulness for God's mercy, this act often results in our forgetting the fact that our very existence is a gift from God. When we do so, we can become proud and supplant God's image with our own.

Admittedly this is not what we usually think of when we hear the word idolatry. Golden calves and graven images are what usually come to mind. Yet we must remember that making ourselves into gods is just as dangerous as worshiping idols made of silver and gold.

This, of course, is the other way in which we can practice idolatry. It is based on our tendency to turn all of our attention to worldly things. Nowadays these things are not usually molten calves that we bow down before in worship. They are often the trivial things we give all our free time and energy to, like television or surfing the web. Instead of focusing our minds and hearts on the Lord, we turn away from the path God has set before us. 

As I reflected on all these things at adoration that evening, it sparked a question: Where is my heart?

I am a little embarrassed to admit it, but at this point during Lent I would have to say that my heart is in my stomach. I'm hungry all the time, and constantly snacking between meals. My cravings have become almost insatiable, so much so that even foods I don't like call out to me, tempting me to indulge. Unfortunately this seems to be a perennial problem. Throughout my life I have struggled with the discipline of fasting, especially during Lent.

While I used to get upset about this, I'm starting to see it as a helpful thing. My obsession with food and eating is a reminder that my heart is not yet in the right place. My greater concern needs to be the kingdom of God, not my next meal. I have no doubt that the remaining weeks of Lent will be difficult. Self-control often is, especially when you are anxious about other things. But at least now I recognize the problem, and can turn to God and ask for help.

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Br. Thomas Aquinas Pickett, O.P.'s picture

Sing to the Lord!

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An anonymous early Renaissance-era English poet once wrote,

Where griping griefs the heart would wound

And doleful dumps the mind oppress,

There music with her silver sound

With speed is wont to send redress.

One would be hard-pressed to find a time, place, or people in history that did not make music. Music, indeed, seems to be a fundamentally human activity where sound and silence work together to form a language that expresses more than is possible in ordinary speech. It is no wonder, really, that most religions make use of music, precisely for its ability to suggest something beyond the ordinary. Far from being seen merely as a recreational device or a commercial commodity, ancient and medieval musicians and philosophers saw music as something pertaining to the harmony (from the Greek word for “joint”) of the universe and of man. By following the design of the Creator, nature made music; by living lives of virtue, man’s life was music; by making sounds through instruments, man expressed and imitated the music of life and nature. When several people join together to sing songs of virtue and truth, a true, just and good community is formed. Due to the power of music, it is no wonder, then, that, in the West, music was carefully prepared for the source and summit of Christian life: the Mass.

Many contemporary Catholics might be surprised to know that the dominant use of hymns at Mass is a relatively recent innovation, and is actually not the preferred mode of singing according to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal. While hymns have their rightful place in the Divine Office, what characterized the Mass throughout the centuries was the use of antiphons found already in the text of the Mass itself. Antiphons are so named because they were done to sound (Greek phone “sound”) back and forth (Greek anti “in return”), between people in the form of a musical dialogue. These antiphons, typically taken from the Psalms and Sacred Scripture, were not randomly chosen by music directors or clergy members, but were fundamentally linked to the spirituality, the understanding, and the praying of every individual Mass. Instead of singing human poems like the pagans, Christians sang the song of the Holy Spirit, i.e., Scripture. And by singing Scripture, the People of God became harmonized together in the Spirit, and thus they themselves became a Holy Song to God. Throughout their singing, they unlocked for themselves the divine mysteries of the Lord’s Supper.

In today’s Ordinary Form of the Mass, we still have three antiphons (or four, depending on whether the Gradual replaces the Responsorial Psalm). The first is the Introit, or Entrance Chant, which accompanies the entrance procession. Historically the Introit was so important to the people that they would often name masses after its proper Introit. We see this still today with Laetare and Gaudete Sunday. The psalms of the Introit not only named the Mass, but they set the entire tone of the Mass by pointing to the profound spiritual meaning of all the texts and prayers that would be said in light of salvation history. Hence, the 13th century liturgist Guiliemus Durandus writes,

“The Mass is begun with the Introit. The Holy Fathers and the Prophets, long before the advent of Christ, hungered after these times and predicted them. Long before His coming, they offered Him their desires, their works, their praises and their prayers, all of which things are figured in the Mass. With regard to the Introit, it is the antiphon that provides us with the title of the Mass and which provides us with their poetical and prophetical predictions, the desires of their holy prayers as they patiently await the coming of the Son of God and the incarnation of God Himself.”

The other antiphons at Mass, the Offertory and the one for Communion, also use Sacred Scripture to clearly show the spiritual meaning of what is happening at Mass. The Offertory was meant to accompany the presentation of the gifts by the lay people, and it shows that this dignified action of the lay people has been foreshadowed by the great prophets, and, indeed, is now being fulfilled in the midst of the worshipping community. The Communion antiphon likewise reveals that in Eucharist, the People of God are completing what has been foreshadowed in ages past. It, therefore, is meant to move the people, emotionally and intellectually, to a greater understanding of the mystery of Christ’s Body and Blood.

To briefly illustrate how antiphons illuminate the meaning of the Mass, celebrate the participation of the lay people, and move our minds and hearts to contemplate God’s gifts, here are the antiphons from the Solemnity of The Body and Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi), and the listing of the readings for year A. Take some time to see how well they all fit together to form a united gift of prayer.

INTROIT: (Ps 80:17,2,3,11) He fed them with the finest of wheat, alleluia; and with honey from the rock he satisfied them, alleluia, alleluia. V. Rejoice in the honor of God our helper; shout for joy to the God of Jacob.

1st READING: Deuteronomy 8:2-3, 14b-16a

2nd READING: 1 Corinthians 10:16-17

GOSPEL: John 6:51-59

OFFERTORY: The Lord opened the doors of heaven and rained down manna upon them to eat; he gave them bread from heaven; man ate the bread of angels, alleluia. (Psalm 77:23-25) 

COMMUNION: He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him, says the Lord. (John 6:57) 

By singing together people form a community; they become harmonized with one another. By singing the antiphons at Mass, Christians form a community that is united, in Christ, to all the men and women throughout history who have anticipated, rejoiced in, and look forward again to the coming of the Lord. In an era marked so much by individualism, perhaps a way to recover and nourish our identity as the People of God, is to rediscover the immense treasure of antiphons. In an era where disputes often occur between peoples of differing tastes in liturgical music, perhaps a way to come together as a single body of worship is to join our voices together in the songs of the Mass: the antiphons.

Br. Bradley Thomas Elliott, O.P.'s picture

To Love God

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This was a reflection given during Vespers at St. Albert's Priory. It is a meditation on the love of God.

As Christians we are commanded to love God with our whole heart, soul, and mind. But what does it mean to love God? Can we ever love God the way we ought, the way He deserves to be loved? How can we, as finite human beings ever love the infinite and invisible God who the ancient israelites dared never even look upon lest they die? 

Following our Lord's words in the Gospel that "whatever you do to the least of these you do unto me," should we not conclude that the heart inflamed with true love of God will desire nothing more than to express that love through service and kindness towards neighbor?

Br. Andrew Dominic Yang, O.P.'s picture

Me, the Prodigal Son

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The parable of the Prodigal Son features a character I can identify with. Saint Maximus the Confessor writes, “Again, he told of how that Father, who is goodness itself, was moved with pity for his profligate son who returned and made amends by repentance; how he embraced him, dressed him once more in the fine garments that befitted his own dignity, and did not reproach him for any of his sins.”

In Luke 15, Christ reminds us of the life-changing love the Father has for us. Reflecting upon my own life, I realize how easy it is to lose sight of this love, especially when we don’t keep vigilant on Christ’s desert path. At times this path appears lined with enormous billboards of temptation. Whereas my journey forward seems lonely and narrow, these temptations can practically seem lit up with the neon of the Las Vegas Strip. Sometimes, I can lose track of how far I’ve already walked –  how much progress I’ve already made. Like Lot’s wife in the Book of Genesis, I feel like turning around to catch a glimpse of the life I’ve left behind.

Indeed, Christ’s words in the Gospel are confirmed by the wealth of my personal experience with sin. First, we learn that disobedience to the will of God inevitably leads to sin and death. This is precisely what the Prodigal Son encounters in the Parable. Departing his true home for the world’s deceptive promises of happiness, and seemingly emboldened by his father’s mercy, the disobedient son enjoys the “good life” for probably quite some time. But where does that lead him? He has to face the consequences sooner or later, and he finds his soul just as sullied as his body is by mud. Confronted by his own misery, he starts the long “walk of shame” all the way home.

However, he does not yet know the depth of the Father’s mercy; he believes his Father would never accept him after all he’s done. If he’s anything like me, the son prefers anything else to having to face his father. But he’s short on cash, and out of options. After a sound beating, perhaps his father will allow him to work as a servant.

But what is the Father’s response? Since his son’s departure, he has not slept well. He has sent emissaries to search for him. He has scoured the horizon daily, waiting for the shadow of his son to appear. While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him. The shame of the son is covered by the overwhelming love of the Father.

In “The Problem of Pain,” C.S. Lewis says that “if God were proud He would hardly have us on such terms: but He is not proud, He stoops to conquer, He will have us even though we have shown that we prefer everything else to Him, and come to Him because there is 'nothing better' now to be had.” Jesus did not give us this parable to tell us about those sinners over there, yonder. This is a story about you and me — that Our Heavenly Father will accept us even when we’ve hit rock bottom. He waits for us in the confessional. All we can do is repent; meanwhile, God supplies the grace to cover our sins and inject life into the soul.

Now, having come face to face with the Father’s mercy, we surely feel that deep desire to return something to the Lord. What could possibly suffice? In Psalm 101, the Psalmist finds himself in a similar position of inadequacy.

“We have in our day no prince, prophet, or leader, no holocaust, sacrifice, oblation, or incense, no place to offer first fruits, to find favor with you. But with contrite heart and humble spirit, let us be received; as though it were holocausts of rams and bullocks, or thousands of fat lambs, so let our sacrifice be in your presence today as we follow you unreservedly; for those who trust in you cannot be put to shame.”

What could I possibly offer to the Lord to repay Him? After going through the possibilities among my material possessions, I am struck once again by the realization that I must daily offer Him my life, inadequate as it might be. It’s not a fair trade for Him, but it’s an exchange that Christ makes perfect.  

I pray for the Lord’s mercy as we approach the final days of Lent. Through the intercession of our Holy Father Dominic, may the Lord continue to mold us into holy preachers, intent only on the salvation of souls.

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