Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Grandeur of Death

The row of windshields coruscated in the spent afternoon light, shadows lengthening at the summer day's end. A long line of flashing taillights warned that I was imminent upon a funeral procession. Cars in the opposite direction were stopped along the side of the road, a final salutation to the soul whose body was about to be laid in its final resting place. Other cars rushed past almost in protest at the languorous pace of traffic, as if the precious moments of courtesy would cheat them out of their urgent destination.

It was a jarring sight, those cars failing to stop at this moment of solemn passing: a human being whose earthly course had run was now returning to his Creator. A soul loved by God as no others could have loved, pursued and wooed to the end by the God whose very thought created this being. How could anyone fail to stop and acknowledge this moment of grandeur? But perhaps in the failure is an element of denial, a frenzy that keeps at bay the overarching fact that each of us, too, must meet this fate.

I wondered if this person had died in the friendship of God, if he had responded to the impulses of grace freely given, if he learned to speak with God with a quality of intimacy and ease that he had with his loved ones. Or did he die in rejection of the untiring call of God? At least, judging by the number of cars in the procession, he was held in esteem by a good number of people. Enough of them understood this auspicious moment of passing.

The procession snaked its way in the country lane, passing through towering spires of cornstalks rustling in the warm, gentle breeze. How many times did this person pass through these roads? Did his eyes behold these sights of rural beauty? And did he breathe in the joys of the life of simplicity so steadfastly lived in these bucolic parts? Or were the cares of the farming life so burdensome that death, in a way, was a welcome rest from the unrelenting pace?

I will never know the answer to the questions. But that did not stop my wondering as I slowed my car to match the mourners’ pace. Behind me, more cars added to the length of the line. Lord, have mercy upon him, this sinner whom you have called back to yourself, I prayed. May angels greet him at his coming.

The procession turned off at a major branch in the road. Soon, I was released from my brief role as mourner in this drama of death, returned to my own exigencies to arrive at my own temporary destination. Yet for the brief moment, time was suspended in the contemplation of the story of this soul, his pilgrimage ended. How easy it is to overlook the import of moments like these, wrapped up as we are in our own rituals and personal dramas. It is the genius of civilization that we have funeral customs of acknowledging the significance of the life just ended.

I have often contemplated what it means to be in the friendship of God. St. Gregory of Nyssa wrote about being a friend of God, the end of all intelligent creatures is the restoration of the original condition. Friendship expresses the absence of hostility or animosity. There is a likeness in thoughts and desires, and even more than likeness, a sharing of sympathies and compassions. The words "sympathy" and "compassion" imply a deep awareness of another's feelings and passions. To be friends with God then, is to long for the things he longs for, to care deeply for the things that he cares for. Both Abraham and Moses are described in Scipture as being friends of God.

Friendship involves an abiding in each other's lives. And this abiding calls to mind what Christ said about the True Vine. In this rich imagery, Christ gives us a picture of clinging, of growing, of being nourished upon the True Vine. This clinging quality is borne out in the virtue of faithfulness to God. So in the end, friendship with God is faithfulness and loyalty to God in all things. We must constantly ask ourselves if we as branches show forth the fruit of God's constant and meticulous care. Do we see and find God in all circumstances? And do we live the deep joy that comes in knowing him as he is, all adorable and all true, God in his all-surpassing greatness?

Or are we like the vines that bore bitter fruit or no fruit at all whom the Vinedresser mourned over as he pruned them off the Vine? Do our words and actions bespeak of the faithfulness of God in our lives? I often think that we rather like to dwell in the perversity of our anger and bitterness because that is all we are familiar with. In clinging to our anger, we cut off the grace that God desires to pour into our lives so that we may grow. What is reflected back to us is full of anger and anxiety that is far from the reality of life in Christ. And yet God constantly calls us to fruitfulness that reflects the hope of glory even in the most adverse of conditions. The holiness to which we are all called to live as Christians must show forth fruit if we truly believe in the Resurrection power of the Cross. Indeed, the daily dying to ourselves and our passions is an abandonment to the Holy Spirit who roots out the bitter passions of our former life as slaves to sin and death and refashions us into the image of the Son who bore the bitterest of passions for our sake. It is a cosmic paradox, this dying to take up eternal life hidden in the life of Christ.

In death, we are confronted with the only question that matters. Did we live the life of grace that bore fruit in

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Confirmed

In honor of our Confirmation Class who is receiving the Sacrament of Confirmation this evening from our Bishop, here is Rainer Maria Rilke's poem which was composed in Paris in May 1903. The photo is from the Liturgia website of Schola St. Cecile on the occasion of Confirmations at Saint-Eugène in France.

In white veils the confirmed enter
deeply into the new green of the garden
They have survived their childhood,
and what comes now will be something changed.

So let it come! Does not now the interim begin,
the wait for the next striking of the hour?
The festival is gone, and noises fill the house,
and more slowly the afternoon drags by...

That was an arising to the white gown
and then through the streets an adorned walking
and a church, cool inside like silk,
and the long candles were like avenues,
and all lights glittered like jewelry
gazed at by festive eyes.

And it was silent when the chant began:
like clouds it rose inside the dome
and grew bright in its descent; and softer
than rain fell into the white children.
And their white fluttered as in the breeze,
and grew lightly colored in its folds
and seemed to hold hidden flowers--:
flowers and birds, stars and strange figures
from an old ring of stories, far away.

And outside was a day of blue and green
with a shout of red at bright places.
The pond kept retreating in small waves,
and with the wind came a distant flowering
and sang of gardens outside at the city's edge.

It was as if things wreathed themselves,
they stood brightly--infinitely light and calm;
a feeling was in every housefront,
and many window opened up and shone.

~from The Book of Images, Rainer Maria Rilke

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

In Hora Mortis Nostræ Podcast

Click to listen

A deviation from our normal poetry podcast, here is a reflection on my experience at a prayer vigil for life.

It is late on the night of the tenth day of the 40 days for life prayer vigil. The half-lidded moon shines down upon us, thin clouds veiling its cold white light...but the pale yellow light from the street lamps dimly illuminates our faces. The bare branches of the oak tree eeriely silhouetted against the darkened inky blue sky, the branch tips splayed like gnarly fingers.. We are praying the rosary, eight souls standing at the bottom of the hill facing the darkened menace of the tower beneath which was housed a killing place. Our prayers fall softly from our lips, the night air muting our voices. We finish the Sorrowful Mysteries and after a short parting conversation, we disperse, our relief crew walking up the hill. We know that tomorrow, we will return.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Summer's Day Podcast

For Valentine's Day, I'm reposting the podcast that started it all....

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date.
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm'd;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature's changing course untrimm'd;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

~William Shakespeare

If you want to listen to me read the sonnet:

Stopping by the side of the road whilst traveling through Tuscany one brilliant morning in May

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Nunc Dimittis Podcast

~A reflection on when a priest dies on the Feast of Candlemas.

Click here to listen

A Song for Simeon

~by T.S. Eliot

Lord, the Roman hyacinths are blooming in bowls and
The winter sun creeps by the snow hills;
The stubborn season has made stand.
My life is light, waiting for the death wind,
Like a feather on the back of my hand.
Dust in sunlight and memory in corners
Wait for the wind that chills towards the dead land.

Grant us thy peace.
I have walked many years in this city,
Kept faith and fast, provided for the poor,
Have taken and given honour and ease.
There went never any rejected from my door.

Who shall remember my house, where shall live my children’s children
When the time of sorrow is come ?
They will take to the goat’s path, and the fox’s home,
Fleeing from the foreign faces and the foreign swords.

Before the time of cords and scourges and lamentation
Grant us thy peace.
Before the stations of the mountain of desolation,
Before the certain hour of maternal sorrow,
Now at this birth season of decease,
Let the Infant, the still unspeaking and unspoken Word,
Grant Israel’s consolation
To one who has eighty years and no to-morrow.

According to thy word,
They shall praise Thee and suffer in every generation
With glory and derision,
Light upon light, mounting the saints’ stair.
Not for me the martyrdom, the ecstasy of thought and prayer,
Not for me the ultimate vision.
Grant me thy peace.

(And a sword shall pierce thy heart,
Thine also).

I am tired with my own life and the lives of those after me,
I am dying in my own death and the deaths of those after me.
Let thy servant depart,
Having seen thy salvation.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Blow, blow, thou Winter Wind

Blow, blow, thou winter wind,
Thou art not so unkind
As man's ingratitude;
Thy tooth is not so keen,
Because thou art not seen,
Although thy breath be rude.
Heigh ho! sing, heigh ho! unto the green holly:
Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly:
Then heigh ho, the holly!
This life is most jolly.

Freeze, freeze, thou bitter sky,
That dost not bite so nigh
As benefits forgot:
Though thou the waters warp,
Thy sting is not so sharp
As friend remember'd not.
Heigh ho! sing, heigh ho! unto the green holly:
Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly:
Then heigh ho, the holly!
This life is most jolly.

from As You Like it, by William Shakespeare

photo from Argent's collection

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Wounded by love

Oh, I so need this quote from yesterday's Divine Office.

What, I ask, is more wonderful than the beauty of God? What thought is more pleasing and wonderful than God’s majesty? What desire is as urgent and overpowering as the desire implanted by God in a soul that is completely purified of sin and cries out in its love: I am wounded by love? The radiance of divine beauty is altogether beyond the power of words to describe.

~from St. Basil the Great's Rule for Monks
I am simultaneously reading John Saward's Beauty of Holiness and the Holiness of Beauty and von Balthasar's Glory of the Lord. There is so much in me that needs purifying, the interior burning up so that I may be more receptive to hearing God clearly. It's so easy to fall into the trap of self-satisfaction. How much I need humility. I suppose that's why I'm grateful to be teaching because it's always a reminder that to be a truly good teacher, one must first be a student.

Tonight, we will begin discussing the Our Father using Pope Benedict's Jesus of Nazareth. Zadok asked me before Christmas to meditate on how Christ's earthly ministry was a continuous prayer and dialogue with the Father. I thought about how that relates to the Our Father. What a privilege then it is to prayer it as Christ himself gave us the words. And in Pope Benedict's book, he says that
...we must also keep in mind that the Our Father originates from his own praying, from the Son's dialogue with the Father. This mean that it reaches down into depths far beyond the words.
Pope Benedict goes on with his catechesis in showing that in Jesus' submitting himself to God's will, we come to know the mind and will of God himself, most eloquently in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the Cross.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008


As if I needed another excuse to go to Rome, this event I wouldn't miss for the world.

Beatification of Cardinal Newman imminent.

Beatifications are now done at particular churches, so this beatification won't be in Rome. Although the Beatification of the Spanish Martyrs which happened just recently was at St. Peter's Square. The Church is returning to the former practice of beatifications at the local church and then Canonization at St. Peter's. Thanks to Fr. Z's explanation.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Against the Grain

We are in the season of Epiphany, though in the Ordinary Form of the Mass it's back to "Ordinary Time". My family still celebrates the season according to the Old Calendar.

So our Christmas tree remains in place until the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary also known as the Feast of the Presentation. We normally don't put up Christmas decorations until after Advent IV, but since we were away this year for Advent IV and Christmas, our house was bare of Christmas joy. So when we returned within the Octave of Christmas, the house was greened and Christmas cheer was put in place just as the neighbors were tossing their trees out and putting up banners of hearts and the like.

We're feeling quite counter-cultural, conspiratorial almost, being out of step with the world's chronos, but feeling just right in kairos.

It was amusing, at first, to see the giant inflatable Christmas decorations, especially those of the Grinch. But the amusement turned to distaste after a house, which we drive by everyday, displayed a giant inflatable creche. How totally crass, to cutify the Nativity in such a banal way...yes, it was in between a giant polar bear and a giant snowglobe. Then the cold snap came, deflating them. I may have to confess the sense of gloating that I indulged in.

Egg nog is on sale, and we're happily buying up quarts. And Christmas songs and chants still ring through our home. The mantle still has boughs of Frazier pine and red berries, and the window lights still shine to welcome the Christ Child.

Very, very soon, we will celebrate Septuagesima Sunday when the Alleluia will be buried and be put away in preparation for the austerity of Lent.

We have a few weeks yet of celebrating which will then be closed with the chanting of the beautiful Lumen ad revelationem gentium, one of my favorite plainchants.

Lumen ad revelationem gentium, et gloriam plebis tuæ Israel. Nunc dimittis servum tuum, Domine, secundum verbum tuum in pace. Quia viderunt oculi mei salutare tuum. Quod parasti ante faciem omnium populorum.

A Light revealed to the Gentiles and the glory of Thy people Israel. Now Thou dost dismiss Thy servant, O Lord, according to Thy word in peace; because my eyes have seen Thy salvation, which Thou hast pre¬pared before the face of all peoples.
Happy Second Day of the Octave of Epiphany!

Zadok just tried to post a comment and somehow Blogger isn't co-operating. Here's what he said (thanks for the illumination, Z):
We're not back into Ordinary Time yet. The week after the Epiphany is still Christmastide according to the liturgical books. White vestments are worn and the Christmas or Epiphany prefaces are used.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Seeking the Light

Happy Feast of the Epiphany of Our Lord, dear friends! Forgive the dearth of posts here. Multiferous tasks abounded the past quarter. Enjoy the day. We're emerging from a deep freeze (well, for us here in the South it's a deep freeze) and the water in the garden fountains and birdbaths are liquid again.

Journey of the Magi

'A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.'
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped in away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no imformation, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

~T.S. Eliot, 1927