September 2013

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

Surrender and Bend Low

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"Humility is one of the most difficult of virtues both to attain and to ascertain," Bl. Cardinal Newman reminds us in The Idea of a University. So how how does one grow in humility? Hear one answer in my reflection from 1st Vespers on the 22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time.

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

Steubenville Youth Conference - San Diego

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It seems as though many of us student brothers had positive experiences at youth conferences this past summer. Whereas Br. Michael James and Br. Peter attended "Ignite Your Torch" in the Pacific Northwest, my classmate Br. Thomas Aquinas and I, along with 5500 teens and volunteers, were fortunate enough to participate in the Steubenville San Diego Youth Conference on the University of San Diego campus. Named after the Franciscan University at Steubenville, which organizes the conferences nationwide, these conferences (more information can be found here) are designed to bring high school youth together to experience the love of Jesus Christ found within the Catholic Church. I attended as a youth chaperone to my home parish, St. Thomas Korean Catholic Center, while Br. Thomas Aquinas and our Province Vocation Director Fr. Steve Maekawa, O.P. staffed a Dominican vocation booth for young men interested in religious life and the priesthood. 

The Steubenville Conference utilizes a certain style of “evangelical” preaching and music, but combined with a fervent devotion to the sacraments, particularly Christ in the Eucharist and Reconciliation. I’m sure that Fr. Steve, one of 30 or so priests in attendance, alone must have heard hundreds of confessions over many lengthy hours. I know this because I entered his confessional on Friday night past 11 pm to see if he might need any water, only to find a determined grin and bleary eyes. I was moved to see thousands of teens lined up to declare their sins to the priest, receive absolution from Christ Himself, and experience the powerful mercy of God in the sacrament. 

The band, which played on stage throughout the conference, could not have performed any better. Likewise, each of the conference speakers, all of whom fearlessly proclaimed the infinite love of God, exuded a “cool factor” that was undeniably attractive to the thousands of youth present. At certain points, even I found myself steadying my own emotions while blinking back tears of my own. I’m fairly familiar with the intense “praise and worship” style of the Steubenville conference, having attended it before as a layman. Though I can certainly admit, as a Dominican friar, I’m more accustomed to a solemn liturgy that fosters quiet prayer and meditation. But I don’t believe that a charismatic approach to worship, such as was employed at the conference, need be in conflict with the Church’s venerable liturgical tradition; rather, it can complement it when balanced by other elements.

Today, “praise and worship”--drums, electric guitars, and all--seems to be the dominant popular mode of devotion among teens in the United States. Steubenville’s music ministry is remarkably effective at engaging young people through these means, and stirring them to the praise and adoration of the Triune God. A truly Catholic approach, it seems to me, might use and employ such methods—as Steubenville’s ministry does—in extra-liturgical settings to great effect. But in order for faith to last, it must be grounded in a consistent prayer life, and an intellectual understanding of the truths of the faith. Both of these, but especially one’s prayer life, require silence and space for quiet reflection. I think the reason why the Mass developed over the centuries with musical forms like chant and polyphony, was precisely that the Church had a strong instinct that the ordinary and enduring way to approach the Triune God required solemnity, reverence, and a contemplative posture.  At the same time, one of the geniuses of the Catholic Church through the ages has been precisely its ability to adopt and shape dominant cultural forms into itself, purifying them and making them serve the message of Christ and his Church.  There seems to me nothing against, and much to speak for, Catholics adopting this “praise and worship” devotional mode as a means of evangelizing people; while retaining the primary liturgical posture as one of more traditional solemnity.

In all of this, the most important thing that the Steubenville conference does is that it gives teens a chance to powerfully encounter Christ in a way they might not have before. Over and over, the speakers reminded the teens that they are "chosen" by the God of the Universe who calls them by name. Profound healing and conversion happens there; I’ve seen it with my own eyes. However, the Steubenville conference is just one event, one institution that cannot supply all of the Church’s needs. The Church is still in dire need of many things, including good catechesis, a powerful witness to Christ, and the renewal of the contemplative life. That part is up to us, you and me. Archbishop Di Noia, O.P. has insightfully called this period in history a “Dominican moment.” I experienced an aspect of this firsthand, as teens peppered me with theological questions in the common room at 3:00 in the morning. 

Lastly, it’s become known that many young people receive their vocations at Steubenville Youth Conferences. It was most edifying to see hundreds of young men and women respond courageously to a “Vocations Altar Call,” with a blessing given by Bishop Cirilo Flores of San Diego. It prompted me to reflect upon my own vocation, and why I chose to enter the Dominican Order. The answer in my heart was simple: because I love God, and I want to give my life entirely to Him. In the end, I’m not sure who got more out of the Conference, me or the teens I chaperoned. I find myself already looking forward to next year’s conference. Please keep in your prayers all the young people who attended this year's event – that they might always respond generously to God's call.

Br. Chris Brannan, O.P.'s picture

We Preach Christ Crucified

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Below is a recording of Br. Chris' preaching for Vespers on Saturday, September 14, 2013, the Feast of the Exultation of the Cross. The preaching is on the reading from 1 Corinthians 1:23-24, on the theme of the "scandal" of the Cross, and its apparent "foolishness."

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

When Nature Goes Gaga

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Official Logo of Haus of Gaga,, Author-Haus of Gaga (available to public through Wikipedia Commons)

I don’t dip into popular culture too often, but one can hardly exist today without having some knowledge of the inimitably freakish Lady Gaga.  (I don’t call her so out of bad manners! This is how she self-identifies, considering herself a—direct quote—"champion of freaks."1)  I have only read the Wikipedia article on her popular song “Born This Way,” but find the title exquisitely and uproariously ironic. Given Gaga’s penchant for wearing all manner of outlandish, shock-and-awe attire, one could hardly think of starker examples of how a person is not born! To my knowledge, babies don’t often emerge from the nine-month seclusion of the womb—unless they’ve been remarkably industrious during their stay—with bodies clad in bubble-outfits, telephones, and meat-get-ups, or donning elaborate and expensive doll houses on their freshly-formed heads.

I bring up Stefani Germanotta (Gaga’s real name) since she seems to me the perfect embodiment of a philosophical point on which our whole culture is going increasingly mad. And that is the status of "nature," especially as applied to the human person.

Classically there are two senses in which the word "nature" can be taken. One is "what tends to happen." This is the sense contemporary culture has almost exclusively adopted. Look round the habitable world and you see all manner of phenomena: people grow up and grow old; flowers bloom and then wither; sunshine and rain may happen within a 24-hour period. And then there are worse things that happen: earthquakes destroy towns and villages; hurricanes put lives in danger; diseases cause terrible pain and affliction to individuals and families. It is legitimate to call all these things "natural" in the sense that "they happen in the world we live in"—though some be delightful and edifying, and others terrible, difficult, and even tragic.

The other sense of natural is not "what happens to happen," but "what ought to happen." This is the sense contemporary culture more often rejects. But even the rejection is inconsistent. In certain areas, for example, no one has a problem admitting that things "ought to grow and behave" in a certain way. We all know, for example, the difference between a sick dog and a healthy dog; we know the difference between a flower that is wilting before its time and one that has, in the way it ought, come into full bloom. We know, to take a ridiculous and rudimentary example, that when dandelion seeds scatter, they don't pop up as roses, or geraniums, or puppies, or crocodiles. We know that nature, or Nature, has certain laws which structure and guide and shape the way things are "supposed" to be. Daffodils don't scatter tulip seeds; hamsters don't emerge by breeding goldfish; and there is a desirable difference between healthy, vigorous, and mature plant and animal life, versus the same that becomes enfeebled or dies before its time.

The rub comes at the species homo sapiens. We're fine with plants and animals "needing to behave and grow" in certain ways. When it comes to us, we're not so clear-headed. Sexuality and gender are the clearest current examples. When Gaga says in the song mentioned above, "No matter gay, straight, or bi, lesbian, transgendered life, I'm on the right track baby..." she is presuming the first definition of nature to the exclusion of the second; or rather taking the first definition and projecting it into the second. She is taking the fact that "this is what people do and how people act and how they are increasingly choosing to self-identify," as establishing without debate the moral rectitude of the claimed identities; as establishing beyond the possibility of challenge that same-sex attraction is unavoidable, inevitable, right, good, and fine, and all the bigots who think differently need to be shamed (and legally coerced) into thinking differently.

Pastorally, of course, these are very sensitive issues. Many are the noble and good souls who experience same-sex attraction and valiantly seek to live chaste lives. These souls know that chastity is ultimately freeing; and the fact that they experience SSA, though it can be a tremendous cross, has no bearing whatever on their intrinsic worth as a human being, or on their spiritual call to be holy, blameless, and happy saints in the kingdom of God.2 But this popular and widespread rebellion against the notion that women are made for men and men for women, or—from another but related area—little boys and little girls should use bathrooms and play on sports teams according to their biological makeup; all this popular confusion over gender is rooted, in one way, in a very simple philosophical mistake. And that is to equate human nature with whatever the current human beings walking around—especially those in large coastal California cities—happen to want and do.

Nave W window, William Wailes of Newcastle, 1866-detail; Uploaded to Twitter by Dave, Leicester, UK

But we live in a fallen world. "Nature" is therefore broken and there will always, within this mortal coil, be a gap between what "ought" to happen and what does happen. In one sense, Lady Gaga is perfectly right. Crazy, unpredictable, and disordered things happen all the time. Nature has been a bit Gaga ever since Adam. But Nature's Gaga-ness under the reign of sin does not justify baptizing, leaving as they are, and exalting these gaga-features. The "New Normal" promoted by television sitcoms and the new Queen of Pop, is really not new at all. It is quite old, as anyone familiar with ancient Rome in its decadence can attest.

The real fallacy is in believing that this melting together of gender difference into an undifferentiated social vat, is exciting, bold, fresh, and joy-bringing. But Nature is more exciting than that. Man's authentically natural state is what is really new, is ever-ancient and ever-new, is full of life and joy and communion with the Creator. It is a paradisical garden with magical fruit, marvelous flowers, and a man and a woman who become one flesh. Within that natural primeval duality between man and woman lie drama, romance, and the mystery of sacrificial love: a mystery crafted by the handiwork of God and inscribed into the bodies and souls of men and women even today.

It is true that all of us here below are "born this or that way," full of desires and inclinations running hither and thither (sexual or otherwise). But only by respecting and honoring the Natural Design woven into our souls by the Creator will we be happy. Our truly natural desires, thoughts, and personality then emerge, and begin to partake of that harmony and beauty we are called to reflect before the Face of God forever. Our gaga-nature bows to the light of Nature within, which flows from the supernal creative wisdom of the Divine Artist. By harmonizing our thoughts and actions with this inward illumination, we are made glad by the Radiant Light at the back of all things, beckoning and shaping and transforming us to be glorious creatures of our God and King unto eternity.

1 The quote comes from an interview with Larry King in 2010, which is quite interesting. As is often the case with celebrities, her off-stage persona is much more unassuming, even fragile, than her onstage rip-roaring, shock-oriented bravura.


2 For the record, the Catholic Church takes no position on whether SSA may be genetic or not, admitting that its "psychological genesis remains largely unexplained" (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2357). In this sense SSA may, especially from a subjective standpoint, be as close to something not chosen as one can get—which is why to merely experience the attraction (as with any lustful desire, homosexual or heterosexual) is not sinful, but only becomes so when consented to and acted upon.

Br. Christopher Wetzel, O.P.'s picture

The Mercy of God

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In this preaching from Sunday Vespers on September 15, 2013, I ask what made St. Paul such a great preacher, as part of a reflection on 1 Timothy 1:12-17.

Br. Pius Youn, O.P.'s picture

Shifting Gears

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A new chapter has begun. What seemed like a chapter of blurry words, with stains of bitter coffee, has come to an end. Yes, the novitiate year. I cannot quite comprehend how I persevered through it. Even a couple of weeks after making simple profession, I catch myself pondering whether I should ask Fr. Anthony, our novice master, for permission to grab a cup of coffee at a nearby coffee shop. With a few giggles, I walk out of the priory with a sense of relief. One thing is clear: the life as a novice and the life as a simply professed brother are radically different. 

The novitiate was not the most "feel-good" year, subjectively speaking, but it was the most contemplative year. There were moments of bumpy trials, but consoling moments along the way. I cherished these moments of consolations. It surely is edifying to be consoled, yet if our faith and our discernment are solely dependent on consolations, we are only left with what "feels right." People, nowadays, especially in prosperous nations, stubbornly hold on to comfort, and prefer what "feels good." Reason itself is losing its pure meaning as many compulsively give into their passions. I sense a certain fallacy here. Has reason lost its strength to guide emotions? Has faith been stripped down to mere feelings?

As Christians, we believe that God initiates his call to us and we respond with humility. God consoles those who follow him, but what are we to do when God seems to be absent? Of course, if you have been living a life with "feel-good" luxury, following the call of God may be a stepping stone. As a religious and as a Dominican, community life is not always a "feel good" experience, for what "I want" is secondary to the common life--even though many of us have strong opinions about every bit of everything. What is it we must do when we are desolate, when a certain idealism that we were looking for is stripped away?

If we look to the Scriptures--as we should always, for it is the Word of God--those who lose the sight of God look for fulfillment elsewhere. In Exodus 32, while Moses is absent from the Israelites for forty days and forty nights on Mount Sinai, the Israelites, by persuading Aaron, create a false god--the golden calf. This "golden calf" is looked at not as a "false deity" but as the "god" who brought them out of Egypt. Michael D. Coogan, in his book, The Old Testament, states that this act of using an animal to represent the deity is following the Egyptian tradition, whereas elsewhere in the Near East at this time, the custom was to use the human form to represent gods or goddesses. Fashioning the golden calf violated the second commandment for the Israelites: "You shall have no other gods before me." But why were the Israelites looking elsewhere to find other gods?     

The Israelites created the golden calf because they lost sight of God. One reason for this was the absence of a prophet to counter the desire; but more importantly, the Israelites were not patient enough to continue with their journey of faith. They gave into their feelings of inadequacy and ended up worshipping the golden calf. Just as the Israelites were "stiff-necked" and lost sight of God, we may find other ways to fulfill our passions and desires when we feel the absence of God. If feelings are what give credibility of God, then no wonder God seems to be absent when we are not feeling so well.

The life of a student brother is filled with activities. Being a student brother is fun, but busy. As I write, I am thinking of many other activities in my mind: demands for classes, unwanted chores in the house, consistent liturgical duties, and so on. I am constantly out of breath and I have deadlines coming up. In our busy schedules, it is easy to lose sight of God. While living a busy life may bring immediate joys, we must always strive for an authentic contemplative life. If we lose a sense of contemplation, then all that we do is simply "doing for the sake of doing." St. Thomas Aquinas speaks of contemplation as “delightful by reason of its object...insofar as you are contemplating what you love; just as with ordinary physical seeing, which is delightful not only because the act of seeing itself is pleasurable but because you are looking at someone you love.” If this "someone" you love is God, then everything we do starts from contemplation of the Creator. What other mission do we have, other than to "see" the one we love, to be a creature geared towards the Creator? Or better yet, all of our mission and activities per se start from contemplation.

If we are not rooted in contemplation, then managing time will be stressful, because our "study" or "work" is geared towards personal status and ambition, rather than giving the glory to God. It is through contemplation that kairos (God's time) becomes geared towards chronos (human time), and our actions begin to arise from contemplation. In our busy schedules, despite our demands and deadlines, let us first ask ourselves whether what we "do" is flowing from contemplation. Let us be reminded in moments of difficulties to contemplate God: by contemplating, reason will guide emotions. Let us not build a golden calf for ourselves as the Israelites did, but root ourselves in contemplating the Creator before we act like "busy-bodies" (2 Thess. 3:11).