St. Philip Neri and the God Who Dwells With Men

The Vision of St. Philip Neri, Giovanni Camillo Sagrestani (Source)

“Behold the tabernacle of God with men, and he will dwell with them. And they shall be his people; and God himself with them shall be their God.” – Revelation 21:3

St. Philip’s feast always falls within that sunny period of the Church’s year when, passing from Easter to Ascensiontide and following on to Pentecost and Corpus Christi, we find our days running over with the majesty of these great mysteries. The days grow longer, and so they seem to grow more golden with the ever-descending light of the Holy Ghost. We are in a season of peculiar glory. The culminating lesson of these mysteries is clear: God has made his dwelling among men, and in the midst of His people shall He reign.

St. Philip receives the Holy Ghost while at prayer in the catacombs. (Source)

St. Philip knew this truth well. His whole life could well be described as a journey between Pentecost and Corpus Christi, the two feasts that most clearly teach us of God’s enduring presence in His Church. It was on the Vigil of Pentecost, 1544, that St. Philip received the grace that would define his vocation and the character of his sanctity. While praying in the catacombs of San Sebastiano, the Holy Ghost descended into St. Philip’s heart visibly and sensibly in the form of a ball of fire. This experience, which provided as much heat and pain as rapturous joy, marked the true beginning of St. Philip’s active ministry. In St. Philip, the Holy Ghost once again made His dwelling among men.

St. Philip Neri Receiving the Holy Spirit in the Catacombs of St. Sebastian, Francesco Solimena (Source)

From then on, St. Philip’s whole life would be marked by a singular union with the Holy Ghost. He became the “tabernacle of the Most High” and a living fountain of graces. His many miracles testify to the indwelling of the Spirit within him. So does his manifest oddity, his clear and salutary estrangement from the ways and works of ordinary men. The prophet writes, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts: nor your ways my ways, saith the Lord.” So does the Holy Ghost speak from the heart of St. Philip. For this reason, the Church applies the words of St. Paul to the new Apostle of Rome:

The love of God has been poured into our hearts
through the Spirit of God dwelling within us

Introit for the Feast of St. Philip Neri

St. Philip’s priestly life was marked by the overwhelming presence of God. Everything about him spoke to the present reality of the supernatural. This reality took two chief forms. The most famous were the astounding miracles wrought by St. Philip – most notably the raising of Prince Paolo Massimo from the dead. But there was also St. Philip’s profound adoration of the Eucharist. His popularization of the Forty Hours’ Devotion was but the visible extension of his love of the Blessed Sacrament. So too were the Eucharistic ecstasies to which he was increasingly susceptible as he became older. St. Philip knew no sweeter hours than those that he spent at Mass as an old man, kneeling in darkness before the altar, lost in the rarefied heights of a contemplation we can barely begin to fathom.

Engraving of St. Philip Neri, Hieronymus Frezza (Source)

One particularly perceptive observer has written:

In recalling the holiness of Saint Philip, it occurs to me that it was essentially this: he was all priest. He was always and everywhere a priest. His priesthood suffused his very being, making him incandescent with the fire of the Cross and of the altar.

Vultus Christi

St. Philip’s extraordinary endowment with the Spirit was ordered towards his life as a priest – namely, towards the glory of God in the Eucharist. This is the case with all of us. The Spirit, God in us, is given precisely for us to receive the Eucharist, God with us. Confirmation, like all the other sacraments, exists with the Eucharist as its proper telos.

The Mass of St. Philip Neri, Circle of Giovanni Battista Piazzetta (Source)

How fitting, then, that St. Philip should pass into eternal life when he did. May the 25th, 1595, was the feast of Corpus Christi. As Fr. Faber has it,

Day set on Rome! its golden morn
Had seen the world’s Creator borne
Around St. Peter’s square
Trembling and weeping all the way,
God’s Vicar with his God that day
Made pageant brave and rare!

“St. Philip’s Death,” F.W. Faber

Providence often grants the saints a Christ-like death. It is a sign that, even in suffering and death, God is still dwelling with us. St. Benedict died in choro during a liturgy, just as Christ died in the fulfillment of His high priesthood. Many martyrdoms were accompanied by strange signs and mystical evocations of the Sacrifice of Christ. It should be no surprise that God would take St. Philip in a similarly edifying manner.

The Death of St. Benedict, F. Rosaspina, 1830, after D.M. Canuti. (Source)

In his death, St. Philip reminds us that we are all meant to imitate Christ in His Sacrifice, that is, in the Blessed Sacrament. There is no more perfect pedagogue in the life of the Spirit than the Son, who has presented Himself to us on all the altars of the world. Would that we might take this lesson to heart!

St. Philip died when he did because, by a singular grace of Providence, God was pleased to mark His servant’s passing with the Church’s celebration of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar. Just as St. Philip honored the Eucharistic God in his life, so did the Eucharistic God honor him in his death.

We, too, can honor the saint best by cleaving to the Lord. St. Philip’s words to a spiritual daughter are as true today as they once were:

“Let us concentrate ourselves so completely in the divine love, and enter so far into the living fountain of wisdom, through the wounded Side of our Incarnate God, that we may deny ourselves and our self-love, and so be unable to find our way out of that Wound again.”

St. Philip Neri

God dwells with us just as He once dwelt in the blessed heart of St. Philip. He comes to us just as He came once to the priestly hands of St. Philip. Let us abide in Him, just as St. Philip did once and does forevermore in the heights of Heaven.

Votive image of St. Philip Neri from the British Museum. As they have it: “St Philip Neri kneeling on a cloud in front of altar; angel to right holding tray with burning hearts and ascending towards Holy Trinity; Virgin Mary mediating surrounded by angels, after Maella. 1801 Engraving, printed on silk.” Note the Eucharist enthroned in a monstrance. (Source)
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The Hidden Wound of Christ

Christ Carrying the Cross, Titian, c. 1560 (Source)

In Holy Week, we edge ever closer to the Paschal Mystery that begins on Maundy Thursday and does not end until the joy of Easter Morning. Or, more rightly, the joy that never ends. The Paschal Mystery is always present on our altars. Christ deigns to give us all of the glory and drama of those frightful, baffling, sacred days in the course of every single Mass. The reverse is also true. Our meditation on the events of the first Holy Week must be impregnated by a sense of the profound Eucharisticity of it all. Everywhere, be it in the shadowed garden or the iniquitous court or the clamorous street or the desolate mount where Our Lord died, we discover hints of Eucharistic air. We cannot approach these scenes without catching a whiff of incense.

This scent of paradise would seem to waft from the very wounds of Christ as from the most fragrant flowers on earth. For they are the vessels of the new creation, the blooms of the new Eden, and the stars in the new Heaven. If we would have an idea of paradise, we must study the shape and depth and hue and feel and – in the Eucharist – the taste of these wounds. They are our gates to Heaven. They are our safe passage through the sea of tohu-va-bohu, the chaos of this sinful world. Yet, one must not carry the comparison too far. If the Israelites reached the Mountain of God kept dry of the waters of the Red Sea, the Christian must do quite the opposite. He finds God by drowning in that very different red sea, Christ’s Precious Blood. He must die there in that flood, just as His Savior did. But this death brings new life – and that everlasting.

Christ the True Vine. (Source)

It is thus the peculiar mission of the Christian soul to devote herself to the Holy Wounds. Few devotions are more perfect, for few are so closely bound to the very quick and marrow of our salvation. Indeed, devotion to the Holy Wounds is little more than devotion to Christ precisely as Redeemer of Mankind, and thus as our Prophet, Priest, and King, as Victim and Altar, as the Word Incarnate – in short, to Christ Himself.

It also inevitably means devotion to Christ in the Eucharist. All of the Holy Wounds remind us of the Blessed Sacrament. We find them there, on the altar, and we discover the shadow of the tabernacle falling over each wound in turn.

Anyone who has seen the Medieval materials produced around this devotion (including the flag of the doomed and valorous Pilgrimage of Grace) will know that, typically, there were five Holy Wounds: two feet, two hands, and heart. One could bring this count up to six if the wound in the side were considered separately from the heart. Yet St. Bernard of Clairvaux suggests there is another wound, rarely depicted, that gave Our Lord exquisite dolors unrecognized by men. Once, in conversation with Jesus, the Mellifluous Doctor asked him about his greatest unrecorded suffering. Jesus answered,

“I had on My Shoulder while I bore My Cross on the Way of Sorrows, a grievous Wound that was more painful than the others, and which is not recorded by men. Honor this Wound with thy devotion, and I will grant thee whatsoever thou dost ask through its virtue and merit. And in regard to all those who shall venerate this Wound, I will remit to them all their venial sins and will no longer remember their mortal sins.”

From the Annals of Clairvaux

A prayer to the Holy Shoulder Wound, bearing the imprimatur of Thomas D. Beaven, Bishop of Springfield, has circulated on the internet. It reads:

O most loving Jesus, meek lamb of God, I, a miserable sinner,
salute and worship the most sacred Wound of Thy Shoulder
on which Thou didst bear Thy heavy Cross, which so
tore Thy flesh and laid bare Thy bones as to inflict on Thee
an anguish greater than any other wound of Thy most blessed body.
I adore Thee, O Jesus most sorrowful; I praise and glorify Thee,
and give Thee thanks for this most sacred and painful
Wound, beseeching Thee by that exceeding pain, and by
the crushing burden of Thy heavy Cross, to be merciful to me,
a sinner, and to forgive me all my mortal and venial sins, and
to lead me on toward Heaven along the Way of the Cross. Amen.

Prayer to the Holy Shoulder Wound

All the wounds of Jesus teach us something of his Eucharistic life. The wounds and the Blessed Sacrament are mutually illuminating. If we would understand the Eucharist, we can look to the wounds; if we desire to penetrate those wounds more deeply, we must adore and receive the Eucharist. This can be seen in each of the typical wounds. The feet remind us of the absolute fixity as well as the global universality of the Blessed Sacrament. The hands remind us of Christ’s priesthood. The Wounds in the side and heart of Jesus speak to the burning charity which motivated the institution of the Sacrament as well as its generative power; along with Baptism, it makes mortal men into Sons of God.

A medieval image of the Holy Wounds and instruments of the Passion. (Source)

The shoulder wound, however, tells us something different. It points to the veil of the Eucharist. It reminds us of the hiddenness of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. It is a silent and unseen wound, and it tells us about the silent and unseen God who becomes present for us, silently and invisibly, in the Eucharist. It was this wound, so St. Bernard tells us, that caused Our Lord such terrible pain in His Passion.

Consider the duty of the Christian soul towards this admirable wound. She must make reparation to the Father for this wound on the unblemished Son; she can only do this by uniting her own sorrows to His. She must prayerfully let the Holy Spirit mold her hidden suffering into the very likeness of the shoulder wound. No suffering is too great for this transfiguration, nor any soul too far gone in sin for this empowerment. All that is needed is a penitent heart, a sacramental life, and humble prayer before the Father. The Almighty is merciful, and His mercy comes to us through the Wounds of Jesus Christ. In fact, we find here one of the great paradoxes of the Christian faith. If we would behold the mercy of the Father, we must look at the wounds of the Son – they are His mercy.

The Christian must burrow into them. We must bury ourselves in the wounds of Christ. We cannot be stingy with this self-offering. Every part of the soul belongs to God. The hidden wound of the shoulder reminds us that, even those parts we wish to keep away from the eyes of the world, those most interior sins, those most private sufferings, those darkest sorrows and temptations – all these unseen afflictions of body and soul – all must be given over to God. Nothing can remain outside His grasp. In the words of the Evangelist, “there is nothing hid which shall not become manifest, nor secret which shall not be known and come to light” (Luke 8:17 DRA). It is fruitless to hide from God, just as it was when our first parents fled from His voice in the Garden. And so, the hidden wound of Christ reminds us that we will be judged, even as it offers us mercy.

These considerations must spur us to a more authentically Eucharistic life. We cannot hope to save ourselves. Christ has died for us, and to take on His dying life, we must cleave to the Blessed Sacrament. Acts of Reparation, Adoration, and frequent reception of communion are all ways to press our souls into the sacrifice of Christ.

Have you sanctified the Holy Wounds in your heart? (Source)

In this sacred time of year, let us make a special effort to hallow the Holy Wounds in our heart, to unite our sufferings to those endured by our Savior, and to make reparation for the offenses that sin has wrought. And above all, let us praise God the Father Almighty, the author of these Holy Wounds, for His infinite mercy.

A Prayer to the Incarnate Word

The infant High Priest (Source)

O Wisdom, be enthroned in my heart,
O Adonai, inflame my heart,
O Root of Jesse, bloom in my heart,
O Key of David, unlock my heart,
O Dayspring, shine in my heart,
O King of Nations, reign in my heart,
O Emmanuel, abide in my heart,
Now and forevermore.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and the Holy Spirit,
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end.

Amen.

“Love is His Bond”

stphilipneribody

St. Philip, pray for us. (Source)

The Mass of St. Philip Neri is a little lesson in joy. The propers again and again stress a common theme: namely, the great saint’s joy, built upon his constant and fiery communion with the Holy Ghost. Holy Mother Church lifts her voice and sings in the Introit, “The love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which dwelleth in us. Praise the Lord, O my soul; and all that is within me praise His holy name.” At the Collect, we pray to God to “mercifully grant that we, who rejoice in his solemnity, may be profited by the example of his virtues.” When, in the third reading, we hear of the saint’s overpowering love of “the spirit of wisdom,” we learn as well that “All good things together came to me with her…and I rejoiced in them all” (from Wisdom 7). The Offertory likewise proclaims with the Psalmist, “I will run the way of Thy commandments, when Thou hast set my heart at liberty” (Ps. 118). Everywhere we turn, we find the joy and freedom that alone springs from communion with the Holy Ghost.

And then we come to a remarkable moment. In the Secret, the priest prays over the offerings,

We beseech Thee, O Lord, favorably to regard these present sacrifices: and grant that the Holy Spirit may inflame us with that fire, wherewith he wondrously penetrated the heart of blessed Philip.

The Church has here enshrined a stunning and highly instructive truth. Yet it is easy to miss.

The very heart of St. Philip – that organ claimed so powerfully by the Holy Ghost in the catacombs of St. Sebastian, ever converting those sinners with the happy fortune of touching Philip’s breast, inflaming the saint with the deathless ardor of love, bearing such close likeness to those sacred hearts of Christ, Our Lady, and St. Joseph, beloved by generations upon generations – that heart is set up for us here in parallel to the Eucharist. For just as it is the Spirit who will so shortly transform bread into the most holy and eternal heart of Jesus, so it is that same Spirit who made of St. Philip’s heart a “hostia pura, hostia sancta, hostia immaculata.” Christ gives himself entirely to us by the Holy Ghost in the Liturgy, and St. Philip Neri became entirely Christ’s by the arrival of the Holy Ghost in those dark catacombs. To possess the heart is to possess the whole man.

RarePlatePNCardiff

A plate illustrating the life of St. Philip from a rare 1699 Vita, kindly shown to me and since publicly shared by the Cardiff Oratorians. (Source)

This mutual possession of God and man animates everything for the Christian. The more we are given over to it, the more God allows us to partake of His own life. The more we are His, the more He becomes ours. This spiritual truth was well understood by St. Philip, who enshrined it as the principal of unvowed community life in the Oratory. In the words of Bl. John Henry Newman, “Love is his bond, he knows no other fetter.” This line, written of St. Philip, could apply just as well to Our Savior, Jesus Christ. For it is by His indwelling love that we come to love Him. It is by love that we can join our hearts to His in the Eucharist. It is truly by love that we share “that fire, wherewith [the Holy Spirit] wondrously penetrated the heart of blessed Philip.”

The 83rd Psalm comes to the Church’s lips at the Communion. She sings, “My heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God.” These are not only St. Philip’s words, but those of every soul who gives herself over to the indwelling love of God. And at the Postcommunion, the Church prays,

O Lord, who hast fulfilled us with Thy heavenly delights: we beseech Thee, that by the merits of blessed Philip Thy Confessor, and by following him, we may ever earnestly seek after those things whereby we truly live.

filippo-neri

St Philip lived a preeminently liturgical life. (Source)

What are “those things whereby we truly live?” The Holy Ghost, the Eucharist, and prayer – those things, if it be not too blasphemous to speak of them as “things,” which were ever St. Philip’s “heavenly delights.” Or, more properly, that mystic unity of the three in the Liturgy. In his own words, “A man without prayer is like an animal without the use of reason.” And it is surely the grand and orderly and perfect prayer of Christ the Priest and Victim that St. Philip means when he speaks of our super-sensual reason.

What, then, does it mean to “truly live?” If I may be permitted to tie together a few of St. Philip’s maxims, we can discern his own answer to this question:

In the spiritual life there are three degrees: the first may be called the animal life; this is the life of those who run after sensible devotion, which God generally gives to beginners, to allure them onwards by that sweetness to the spiritual life, just as an animal is drawn on by a sensible object. The second degree may be called the human life; this is the life of those who do not experience any sensible sweetness, but by the help of virtue combat their own passions. The third degree may be called the angelic life; this is the life which they come to, who, having been exercised for a long time in the taming of their own passions, receive from God a quiet, tranquil, and almost angelic life, even in this world, feeling no trouble or repugnance in anything. Of these three degrees it is well to persevere in the second, because the Lord will grant the third in His own good time.

A departure from the passions and a cleaving to virtue; mortification mixed with convivial, holy companionship; and above all, an overriding joy.  These are the manifestations of the indwelling love of God. These constitute a life “truly lived.” These are the fragrant flowers accompanying the fruits of the Holy Ghost. “Thou hast set my heart at liberty;” the saint embodies the song of the Offertory.

St. Philip’s life was marked in every way by such a communion with the Holy Ghost, first in a singular and miraculous way in the catacombs, and then again at every Mass. The love of God made him the most perfect model of the very “angelic life” he described to his sons and companions. Those of us privileged enough to count him among our heavenly friends may, by his merciful intercession, hope to share that one Divine Joy he knew so well. May he so pray for us on this, his feast.

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Aparición de la Virgen a San Felipe Neri, Mexico, detail. (Source)

 

Another View of the Sacraments in the Eighteenth Century

A while back I produced a short post entitled “A View of the Sacraments in the Age of Enlightenment.” Here I give you another series of similar images, this time from the hand of Giuseppe Maria Crespi, also known as “Lo Spagnuolo.” These paintings from 1712, so reminiscent of Rembrandt, hang in the Gemäldegalerie, Dresden. Originally commissioned by Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni, that towering figure of late Baroque culture, they passed posthumously up to Germany, where they made their way into collection of the Elector of Saxony.

Let me begin by saying that, as with the information in the above paragraph, all of the images can be found at Wikipedia.

Giuseppe_Maria_Crespi_-_Baptism_-_WGA05763

“Baptism.” Crespi’s sparing use of light demonstrates the central conjunction of the scene. Allowing our eyes to wander along the central line of illumination, we follow the arm of the priest pouring water on the head of the outstretched infant to the mother’s rosary-wrapped wrist just beyond. I am convinced that the use of light in all of these images is the key to their meaning. Crespi uses light to illustrate the work of sacramental grace, and darkness to emphasize the mortality, evanescence, and weariness of our ordinary world. “The people in darkness have seen a great light” – thus spake Isaiah.

Giuseppe_Maria_Crespi_-_Communion_-_WGA05766

“Communion.” The priest’s face is shrouded in darkness, and rightly so. It is not he who offers the bread of life, but Christ in him. Interesting collar, too. Sure looks familiar. Cardinal Ottoboni was patron of the Congregation of the Oratory at Rome for some time, and it’s entirely possible that Crespi would have taken the Oratorians as his model here. Besides that, the setting of the scene is strikingly barren. Crespi’s choice to leave out the probable altar rail lends the scene an intimacy that captures the very heart of the worship here portrayed.

Giuseppe_Maria_Crespi_-_Confirmation_-_WGA05765

“Confirmation.” Crespi’s lightest and most colorful piece in the series. The vivid red-orange of the boy’s robes call to mind the tongues of flame that appeared on Pentecost, as does the (relatively) diffuse light bathing the scene. The brightest part of the image is the Bishop’s arm, only just anointing the boy’s head.  The strong predominance of vertical and diagonal lines in this piece only reinforce the sense of descent. Like all the paintings, the scene here is crowded without being cramped. Crespi seems to have penetrated to the deeply ecclesial nature of the sacraments. The sacraments are what give the Christian community its underlying spiritual cohesion and form. To quote De Lubac, “The Eucharist makes the Church.”

Giuseppe_Maria_Crespi_-_Confession_-_WGA05764

“Confession.” Quite in contrast to “Confirmation,” we come to Crespi’s darkest piece in the series. The overwhelming color is black. Confession is the sacrament that deals most straightforwardly with the reality of sin. The narrow contraction of the light – it comes only from one side, and very weakly. The formal likeness between confessor and penitent reminds us of the condition of sin common to all men. This painting is also the only one in the series where we don’t see a crowd. Only two figures are visible. In the end, we are always “alone with the Alone.”

Giuseppe_Maria_Crespi_-_Matrimony_-_WGA05769

“Matrimony.” Perhaps the most human of Crespi’s scenes. But we find unusual notes, things I can’t quite interpret with satisfaction. For a painting of matrimony, we hardly see the couple. Indeed, the bride has almost been swallowed up by the shadows. Nigra sum sed formosa. Perhaps. The priest stands like a pillar of cloud before them, blessing their union. That seems straightforward enough. Yet why is the man on the left holding his hand to his mouth, as if to signal silence? Perhaps because the matter of this sacrament is always properly taken in secret…

Giuseppe_Maria_Crespi_-_Ordination_-_WGA05768

“Ordination.” This composition is a swirling mix of blacks, browns, subtle golds, and occasionally, whites. The point that stands out most is the break in this overall scheme – the youthful, rosy visage of the ordinand, coupled with the slightly ruddy shadows that fall across his hand. What a contrast with the other figures, all of whom are shrouded in darkness and invested with a manifest pallor. Here is an image of youth, a prospect of renewal against a backdrop of dignified decay.

Giuseppe_Maria_Crespi_-_Extreme_Unction_-_WGA05767

“Extreme Unction.” At last we come to the end, the place of the skull. It is only fitting that Crespi should choose to depict a collection of Franciscans for this sacrament. Religious life is always a preparation for death. Yet the bright patch of light improbably illuminating the shoulder of the attendant friar contrasts starkly with the shadowy body of the dying father and points to new hope.

Letter to a Catechumen

HarrowingHell

“Christ has risen from the dead, trampling down death by death.” (Source)

My Dear Brother Thomas Bede,

Easter brings us from darkness to light, from loss to gain, from death to life. Christ vanquishes the world, the flesh, and the devil. His victory reveals the true meaning of Easter—it is above all the feast of our conversion. The whole of the Christian message is for naught if Christ did not rise from the grave. But He did, and He invites us to share in the superabundance of His sanctity.

We cannot have holiness on our own terms. There is one model—a single life given to us by the Holy Ghost. It is a mercy and a wonder of God that Our Lord impresses His one divine image and likeness into the hearts of so many and so various saints. But light refracted through a prism is still light. We mortals cannot learn the ways of the divine life except by constant recourse to the God-Man.

And where do we receive this sacred pedagogy? Where can we savor the words that bring resurrection? Where do we set our hopes in the long trek through “this valley of tears?”

I think you already know the answer: the sacred liturgy. The Catholic life is drawn from, tied to, and led before the Tabernacle. The final end of our journey is to reach the Tabernacle veil, draw it aside with trembling hands, send forth our last breath in a sigh of consummate joy and relief, and step gracefully into the everlasting House of God. The Catholic life lived well is thus a pilgrimage from font to Tabernacle. Our Lord does not abandon us in this long journey. Like the good father of the parable, He rushes out to welcome His prodigal sons with open arms. He has prepared a great banquet in our honor. Indeed, the Savior who died for you gives you His flesh as feast. Every Mass is a homecoming. Every Holy Communion is a kiss of reconciliation.

I know all of this from experience, having already walked the path you are about to take. And I speak from experience when I say, dear brother, that everything in the Christian life must be brought back to the Tabernacle. If we don’t center our lives on the Blessed Sacrament, we shall be like ships adrift in a stormy sea. What fruitless turbulence enters the soul of one far from the Eucharist! What celestial treasures do we miss! Treasures given to us anew every year in the Sacred Triduum. Soon it will all be yours—yours the Supper, yours the Cross, yours the sojourn in the Tomb, yours the descent into Hell, and yours the Triumph in the Glorious Resurrection of Our Lord. In all of these mysteries, Our Lord wishes to imprint His image onto your soul. He will fashion you to be His servant. Pray that in the latter end, you may also be His saint.

You have no idea how long and how ardently Our Lord has desired your first Communion. From the very fathomless heights of eternity, He saw and loved you. As the whips broke His spotless flesh and the hateful wood of the cross bit into His back, He bore your face in mind. And when He hung there, dying, and said the blessed word—Sitio—“I thirst”—He spoke of your union with His heart. There is no point at which Christ did not desire you. He seeks to possess you in your entirety: body, blood, soul, and spirit. In the Eucharist, He offers Himself to you in precisely the same way. And as His gift of self is perfect, He shall make yours perfect, too.

When Dame Julian of Norwich was given a mystic vision of the world, she did not see sin. I believe this is because she was afforded a fleeting glimpse of the world as it will be in the Eschaton, the world as God sees it. Think of that, my brother. All the sins committed by you and me and every human being we have ever met, all the crimes that have soaked the pages of history in blood, all the atrocities that rightly call out to God for vengeance—all will be washed away. The past will be wiped clean.

Your conversion reproduces this grand act of divine mercy in miniature. You come to the altar of God a mere mortal, and a sin-sick one at that. Your burden would torment and crush you. The world of sin affords no rest. But my brother, you have chosen the path of freedom. You have set down one burden, but you are to take up another. Only this one is light and free and easy, giving strength to whoever bears it. It is the Cross, a deadening foolishness to the world, but the “pearl of great price” to those illumined by Divine Wisdom.

At the Easter Vigil, everything will change. When the water flows over your brow, when the oil touches the same spot, and when the Host alights on your lips, you will no longer be the same person you have been all your life. You will become instead one body with Christ crucified. Your life will no longer be yours; the act of surrender must be total. Your words, your breaths, your steps, your very heartbeats will belong to Christ. And He will use you to bring His peace into this world. By that whitest of magic, the sacraments, you will start to become a “little Christ,” a Christian. What an awful, beautiful fate.

I will not give you advice. There will be many closer to you who have a fuller knowledge of the Catholic life than I do. Go to them. Seek the wisdom grown only in many years of faith. And keep close to Mary. Remember that you are but an infant, and she is your mother. She will guide you.

Now, my very dear brother, it is time for you to take up your cross and know the Life Eternal.

In Christ,

Rick

A Letter on the Face of God

HolyFaceMosaic

The Holy Face of Christ. (Source)

Dear Miriam,

Forgive me for my delay in replying to your message. You pose an excellent question, one that deserves an honest and well-considered answer. Indeed, I am not sure that I’m entirely qualified to speak on the matter. Not being a Biblical scholar, I can’t discuss the critical questions of authorship, Hebrew grammar, and culture that could be so useful. Alas. Nonetheless, I shall try to tell you what I understand the verse to mean, and why I saw fit to use it.

You ask me about what the Priestly Blessing meansespecially what we are to understand by those mysterious words, “The Lord make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee: The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace” (Numbers 6:25-26 KJV). You are right to note that there is something odd about this passage.

I believe the prayer is best understood through meditation. Let us look first at the beginning and bulk of the passage:

The Lord make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee: The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee…

What do we learn from these words? What does it mean to say, however poetically, that God has a “face,” a “countenance?”

First, it means that God is personal. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is not an abstract, nameless force. He is not the Tao of the Chinese mysticsor not just that. Rather, He is someone, a who, an infinite yet utterly unique spirit. This truth entails another; God is relational. The face is the chief organ and sign by which we communicate with other people. The full range of our emotions find expression in the human face. The face becomes a symbol or synecdoche of our individual souls. It is the way we share our hearts. It is the bridge between our interiority and the other. Through speech, a kiss, an exchange of glances, the face mediates our personhood and thus becomes the location of communion.

The use of the word “countenance” in English sums up all these ideas, with one rather startling implication. God Almighty desires to be in a relationship with us. More than that, He wishes to dwell with us. The words of the blessing are not that of a God who will reign remotely. If the metaphor of the “face” suggests personality and relationship, it also suggests presence. God wants us to be wholly His, that He may be wholly ours. That is why He goes so far as to establish multiple, connected covenants with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David.

But covenants, like great love stories, are exclusive. You are right to point out the negative implication in the verse. If we pray for God to turn His face towards us, then surely God’s face could be turned away from us as well? I think the certain answer of the Bible, not to mention ordinary human experience, is yes. The ancient Israelites believed that they were a privileged, priestly people, subject to a totally unique relationship with God. Yet the whole of the Old Testament’s historical and prophetic corpus also shows that the Nation of Israel repeatedly caused God to “turn His face” away from them, not in loving them less, nor in breaching His covenant, but in permitting them to suffer chastisements that they might return to Him. The Holy only communes with the holy; God cannot abide with sin. And the Israelites often sinned. We all do. Speaking from my own life, I can testify that mortal sin is a terrible thing. To fall away from the face of God, to want to hide from His face as Adam did in the Garden, to feel Him turn His holy face away from yousuch is the interior darkness and desolation wrought by sin.

Yet the ground of your questionwhy God’s face would be turned away from anyone reveals that whether you realize it or not, you already have a basically Christian idea of God. To the ancient Jews who composed the Priestly Blessing for the liturgies of Tabernacle and Temple, the Face of God only turned towards the Nation of Israel. The idea that God loves all, and loves them unconditionally, is a notion that did not exist anywhere before the coming of Christ.

Indeed, the prayer receives its perfect answer and fulfillment when God takes on a human face. Jesus Christ is the Face of God, a divine person who wishes to be in an eternal and perfect communion with all men. That is why He is called Emmanuel, “God with us.” He is our eternal high priest (Hebrews 7:23-28; 9:11-14; 10:10-14).

And as our high priest, He has fulfilled the Priestly Blessing in three ways, all of which were unimaginable when it was written.

First, in His coming. In Christ, God has turned His face towards usin the manger at Bethlehem, in His ministry among the poor and sick, in His companionship with sinners, in His Transfiguration, in His ceaseless prayer for us, in His cruel and unjust death upon the cross, and in His glorious Resurrection and Ascension.

Secondly, in the heart of the Godhead. By assuming human nature, God the Son becomes a human. By His Incarnation, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension into Heaven, He has brought a human face into the inner life of the Most Holy Trinity. God the Father gazes upon the human face of His Son, and He desires to see all mankind in and through that face. God the Spirit, eternal love, is born forth out of this mutual gaze. The Father and the Son only behold each other in the absolute love of the Spirit.

But what is the fruit for us today? The rest of the prayer tells us:

…and give thee peace.

Peace is not the absence of suffering, but the absence of disturbance. The peace of Christ, the peace “which passeth all understanding” is not to be taken as earthly ease and comfort (Philippians 4:7 KJV). That would merely be the false and facile peace of the world. The peace of God is a foretaste of Heaven, an inner rock upon which we may stand when suffering assails us, a seed of the Kingdom that may render us more perfect imitators of Christ. With the peace of God in our hearts, we may hope to know the true joy that, paradoxically, only grows from the cross. This peace is not a quiet meekness. It is the liberating freedom and security that comes from the knowledge of His love. Peace does not paralyzeit propels. It makes us undertake great adventures for God. Why? Because true peace is communion with God.

That is why I made use of the prayer at the end of my “Letter on Loneliness.” It occurred to me that the torment of loneliness is in some way redeemed if we remember the presence of the God who is love, and thus attain to His peace.

I don’t believe we can hope for the fullness of that peace without the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. It is simply impossible to be a Christian without the Eucharist. Any grace, any glory, any goodness in the world is only granted and sustained by Christ present with us in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar. Indeed, the graces of all the other sacraments flow from the Eucharist, since it is Christ Himself.

And it is in the Eucharist that we find the third way that Christ has fulfilled the Priestly Blessing and extended its meaning to all peoples and all epochs. In the Eucharist, we once again come face to face with the God of Israelquite literally. His Eucharistic Face can be found in any Catholic Church on earth. Go to a service of Benediction. Chant hymns of adoration as the incense flies up like a ghost into the shadowy heights of the sanctuary. Let your soul rise with it, high above the little lights of the candles that line the altar. Then, as the bell rings and the priest lifts the Host, you will see God. Or at least, you will see His veil. He hides Himself under the sight of mere matter. No matter what, He will see you.

Better yet, go to Mass. Go to the Easter Vigil. Go on any Sunday. There, you will not only see God, but hundreds of perfectly ordinary people communing with Him in the most intimate way imaginablebody and soul. That holy act is the true fulfillment of the Priestly Blessing. It is the seal and crown of all the covenants. Not everyone in the world partakes of itbut happy are those who do! They alone know the Peace that was promised, the Peace that is He.

Forgive me if I have rambled. One could, in theory, write whole volumes on the verses you have asked me about. I am sure someone with more learning and a deeper life in Christ could give you an altogether better explanation. But what I have written is drawn ex corde meo. I hope, at the very least, that I’ve answered your question. I’d be happy to continue discussing the matter.

Until then, I pray that the Good Lord blesses you in all your works and ways.

In Christ,

Rick

Fénelon on the Return to God

Fenelon

François de Salignac de la Mothe-Fénelon, Archbishop of Cambrai in the age of Louis XIV (Source)

Continuing my Lenten series of Wednesday spiritual masters, I present to you here a letter by Archbishop Fénelon to an officer, often identified as the Chevalier Colbert. The translation I am using comes from 1877, but I would also recommend to you the version by fellow Wahoo Chad Helms in the 2006 Paulist Press edition of Fénelon‘s Selected Writings. It struck me by its beauty and force of feeling, as well as its Lenten spirit. 

You have forgotten me, sir, but it is impossible for me to forget you. Something in my heart continually recalls you, and makes me want to hear of you, as I have more especially felt during the campaign and its perils. Your forgetfulness only makes me feel the more. The friendship you showed me once is of a kind never to be forgotten; and when I recall some of our conversations, my eyes are filled with tears. I trust that you remember how pleasant and hearty they were. Have you found anything since then more acceptable than God? Have the truths which then satisfied you failed? Is the pure light of the kingdom of God quenched? Has the world’s nothingness acquired some fresh value? Is that which was but a wretched dream not still the same? Is the God to Whom you poured out your soul, and Who filled you then with a peace beyond all earthly ken, no longer to be loved? Has the eternal beauty, ever so fresh to pure eyes, no longer charms for you? Is that source of heavenly joy, of unmarred happiness, which springs from the Father of Mercies and God of Consolation, dried up? No, for He has filled me with an urgent desire to recall you to Him. I cannot resist it: for long I have hesitated, and said to myself that I should only worry you. Even as I began this letter, I laid down a limit of discretion to myself; but after the first few words, my heart burst its bounds. Even should you not answer, or should think me absurd, I should not cease to speak sorrowfully to God of you, when unable to speak to you yourself any more. Once more, sir, forgive me if I exceed all due limits. I know it as well as you, but I feel irresistibly urged: God has not forgotten you, since He stirs up so eager a desire for your salvation in me.

What does He ask of you, save to be happy? Have you not realised that one is happy in loving Him? Have you not felt that there is no other real happiness, whatever excitement may be found in sensual pleasures, apart from Him? Since, then, you know where to find the Fountain of Life, and have of old drunk thereof, why would you seek foul, earthly cisterns? Bright, happy days, lighted up by the soft rays of loving mercy, when will ye return? When will it be given me to see this child of God reclaimed by His powerful Hand, filled with His favour, and the blessings of His holy Feast; causing joy in Heaven, despising earth, and acquiring an inexhaustible fund of humility and fervour from his experience of human frailty?

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The Return of the Prodigal Son, Rembrandt van Rijn, c. 1661-69. (Source)

I am not dictating what you should do. God will Himself make that plain to you according to your needs, so long as you hearken inwardly to Him, and despise boldly that which is despicable. Do whatever you will, only love God, and let His Love, revived in your heart, be your guide. I have often thanked Him for having shielded you amid the perils of this campaign, in which your soul was even more exposed to risk than your body. Many a time I have trembled for you: put an end to my fears, and fill my heart with gladness. None can possibly be greater than to find myself once more with you in the house of God, united in heart and soul, looking together to one glorious hope, and the Coming of our Great God, Who will fill us with the flood of His pure delights. Your ears are not yet closed to the sublime language of truth, your heart is made to feel its charms. “Taste and see” the pleasant bread daily spread for us at our Father’s table. Why have you forsaken it? With such support, who can fear that anything else will be lacking? Even if you do not feel strong enough to regain the happy position where you were, at least answer me, at least do not shun me. I know what it is to be weak; I am a thousand times weaker than you. It is very profitable to have realised what one is; but do not add to that weakness, which is inseparable from human nature, an estrangement from the means of strength. You shall regulate our intercourse; I will only speak to you of such things as you are willing to hear. I will keep God’s secret in my heart, and shall be always, with unchanging affection and regard, etc.

 

A Letter on Loneliness

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Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, Veronese. Pinacoteca di Brera (Source)

My Dear Brother Josiah,

I received your last correspondence with a mixture of joy and sorrow. Joy, for all the good news you shared of our friends and familiars; sorrow, for those matters closer to your own heart that weigh so heavily upon your soul. Normally, I would not venture to offer unsolicited advice. However, as you have come to me seeking counsel, I will try to speak from what little light I have been granted. I will offer you, I hope, nothing but the constant teaching of the saints, nor anything I would not myself seek to follow. So much of what I must share is rooted in my own experience, the fruit of suffering not in all respects unlike your own.

You tell me that you worry about God’s blessing. You write that, in view of your griefs, you no longer trust that the Lord will bless you. This is a failure of Christian hope, but an understandable one. Faced with one reversal after another, it is easy to despair. I will point you first to the book of Job, a well from whose water I know you have already imbibed in more bitter times. What else could I tell you? The key practical thing is to recollect often those graces you have received. Savor them. Go over each, holding them close to your heart in memory. Make space in your week – better yet, your day – to ponder the grand and little mercies of God. I commend to you one of the very greatest pieces of wisdom I have received, that “a grace remembered is a grace renewed.” Continual recollection means that we are never really bereft of those graces once delivered unto us.

Look over your current state of life. The world, at least, sees your success. Many would desire your place. Thank God for what He has seen fit to give you so far.

But I know how incomparably small all of those worldly triumphs seem next to the losses you’ve suffered. I see what you mean when you say that you don’t trust God to bless you anymore. You aren’t speaking of those tangible blessings the world prizes in its vanity. You speak instead of the love of those taken from you. That golden blessing is worth all the others combined.

And so, we come to what seems to me to be the basic problem; not despair, but loneliness. The chill that stains even the brightest happiness and reveals the joys of this world to be fool’s gold. Have you considered loneliness in itself? Perhaps you have. It is a dark and loathsome thing. Perhaps you have found it buried down in your soul. A void. A hole that, like a carious tooth, aches and aches until it cries out for your full attention. A little black space at the bottom of things. You carry it around with you and never set it down. Grief carved it out, shaped it to its own image, and colors it even today.

I don’t know if you will always bear that burden. Some of us must. But I would encourage you to embrace it. That emptiness is, in the words of R.S. Thomas, “a vacuum he may not abhor.” Come close to the void. Peer at it. Ecce lignum crucis! It is the cross you have been given. Fasten your heart to its center with the very nails of Our Lord’s passion. Accept His invitation, and you will be able to endure those long and painful hours when hope fails. One day, when you are least expecting it, something may very well happen. You may be at prayer in your room. You may be savoring the Eucharist at Mass. You may be finishing the sorrowful mysteries of the rosary. But suddenly, unbidden, the Holy Ghost will visit you. The darkness will turn to dazzling light. By some strange alchemy known only in heaven, the emptiness will all at once turn into a full fountain of molten gold. The cavern will become a cup that runneth over. The silence will become song beyond sound or human voice. And your heart will be seized by the beautiful and terrifying realization that the Living God sees you. If only for a moment, you will know what it is to be “alone with the Alone.” Then will your heart become one with His. Then will you know a communion that obliterates all loneliness and a joy that erases all grief.

This moment cannot be rushed. God will not come but in His own way and in His own time. All the same, one can prepare.

First and foremost, take your loneliness and grief to the sacraments. When you are at the offertory or some other convenient point at the Mass, give your heart to the Eucharistic Christ. Ask to be alone with Him in the Tabernacle. Cleave to it as to the one rock of safety in a stormy sea. Consider, too, how Our Lord suffers loneliness in the Tabernacle. Think how He is neglected in His tabernacles through all the world. Think how He desires your consolation – yours! Truly, He wishes to make that emptiness in your soul His true and everlasting Tabernacle. Will you deny your Lord? For in the Tabernacle, He is at once most suffering and most glorious. So, too, where you are most suffering, He will render you most glorious.

Second, make a point of consciously drawing near to Christ crucified in your daily prayer. One thing I’ve done in the past – though, I confess, I have lately been lax about it – is to pray the Divine Mercy chaplet and dedicate each decade to one of the Holy Wounds. Start by contemplating Our Lord’s feet, His physical presence on Earth during His lifetime and evermore in the Eucharist. Consider His comings and goings, and how He willingly ceases all of that to offer Himself to the Father on the cross. Then consider His left hand, the Kingly hand that holds the orb of the world. Ponder the ways of His Providence. Take heart in His mercy towards the penitent and His just judgment of the wicked. Praise Him for His true and final victory over the forces of evil, for scattering the proud in their conceit. Then, move to His right hand, the Priestly hand of blessing. Think of how He has transformed all things by the peace wrought with His right hand, under the sign of His blessing. Look forward to the world as it shall be on the day of His Wisdom’s Triumph. It is a world we can already enter at the Mass. Bring your gaze up to the Holy Face, wounded by the crown of thorns. Offer him your anxieties, your fears for the future, and all those worries that come from not knowing what you must do or why some calamity has transpired. Consider the crown of thorns as the mortification of your very reason. As Our Lord unquestioningly accepted the will of His Father, may you do the same. But remember to gaze into the Holy Face as into the very countenance of the Living God. Ponder Jesus Christ in His humanity. God is a person; nor is he just any person, but a person who suffered all that we suffer, and more. Finally, move to the wound in the Holy Side and the Sacred Heart. Give yourself up to as pure an expression of love for your Savior as you can muster. Consider the flood of water and blood that fell from those triumphant gates, so rudely torn open. Think, if you can, of the power so much as one drop of either precious liquid would have to redeem not just one soul, but millions and millions of universes teeming with the souls of the very worst sinners. Ponder what it means that you may receive the Precious Blood at even a low Mass. Fix your gaze beyond the Holy Side, passing into the darkness of Our Lord’s chest. Dwell upon the Sacred Hear in its quiet and eternal radiance. Know that Our Lord’s chest cavity is so very much like the void to which I have already alluded, and so like the Tabernacle. For in both, we find the Heart of God! Imagine yourself receiving the Sacred Heart in the Eucharist. Meditate upon the immense fire of Love pulsing there until the last shudder of death – and, as you come to the Trisagion, recall how that love blazed forth again on Easter Morn, never to be extinguished.

Third, keep in mind the words of St. Philip Neri. Amare Nesciri – “Love to be unknown.” One thinks of St. Benedict. In his rule, St. Benedict enjoins his children to overcome the temptations of lust with a similarly simple phrase, “Love chastity” (RB IV). St. Philip’s words carry many meanings. They are a wonderful program of humility, of perfection, of freedom, but also of loneliness and grief. Love to be unknown. Find God in the moment when no one else notices you. Don’t do what you do to be recognized, as the Scribes and Pharisees (Matt. 6:3, 16, Luke 18:9-14). Be content that God sees and knows you. It will take time to grow into this practice, but you will come to recognize its benefit. You may someday find someone to share or alleviate the yoke of your sorrows – maybe even someone to love. But until then, embrace Solitude as St. Benedict would have us embrace Chastity; that is, as a beloved spouse. Focus on that task, the one you have been given for now, and the rest will come to you as God sees fit in His own time. I would wager that it will make you happier and help you love others more perfectly.

Fourth, do not depart from under Mary’s mantle. If you wish to see the very picture of loss, I will show you the woman who, though the only one free of sin among the whole human race, suffered the loss of her parents, her husband, and her son. Turn your eyes to Mary. The sorrows of her Immaculate Heart demand your attention. We have no greater advocate and comfort in our own suffering than Mary, in union with her eternal spouse, the Paraclete.

Finally – hardest of all – you must forgive. Jesus’s death was not just a perfect sacrifice because He was an innocent and willing victim. He forgave His murderers. If we are to have a share in that death, we must learn the extremely difficult discipline of forgiveness. It is the only way we can be truly free.

I would be remiss in giving you these counsels if I did not add with all due caution that, insofar as any of it applies to me, I often fail. But I feel no shame in saying so, since Our Lord is magnified in weakness. Don’t rely only on my words, narrow and feeble as they are. If anything I have said is contradicted by the example of the saints and the teaching of God’s holy Church, refer to their superior model. After all, I’m not a priest. I’m not even all that well versed in theology. Seek out a spiritual father who can help your soul more intimately than a friend can.

For all that, be assured of my prayers and affection. I hope you find the hope that can only come from the Lord, my dear brother. May He bless you and keep you, and make His face shine upon you, and be gracious to you; may He turn His countenance upon you, and give you peace.

In Christ,

RTY

The Five Idols of Christmas

ChristmasScene

A beautiful Christmas scene. (Source)

Five Golden Rings

Christmas is a time of great joy. At the heart of it all is the birth of our savior, Jesus Christ, true God and true man. Yet often, we let lesser things get in the way of the worship we owe to Him in this privileged season of grace. I don’t believe it would be too much to call these distractions “idols.” As the Catholic Encyclopedia puts it, “Idolatry etymologically denotes Divine worship given to an image, but its signification has been extended to all Divine worship given to anyone or anything but the true God.” Many of us unknowingly allow a number of idols into our lives during the holiday season. All of them are good things in themselves, but taken out of proportion, they distort our sense of the feast’s true message as well as our connection with the Living God. I’d like to examine five of these idols, “five golden rings” that often form the chain of our seasonal bondage.

Material Goods

Of all the idols, this one is perhaps the most readily apparent. It seems like each year, we hear new complaints of the commercialization of Christmasonly to watch the process get worse with every passing holiday. Advent washes upon us as a season of cluttered ads rather than prayerful penance. Sacred carols have been reduced to shopping mall muzak. Charlie Brown’s 1965 complaint rings just as true today as it did in the years of the Johnson Administration. For many, Christmas seems to be a time to show off their wealth to the neighbors, to cook and consume lavish amounts of food, or to receive a whole panoply of toys and giftsand little else.

After all, isn’t this what most children look forward to each Christmas? Santa isn’t popular because he’s a jolly old man who likes milk, cookies, and Coca-Cola. He brings gifts! Of course kids love Christmas. The unfortunate thing is that this mentality is extremely hard to break, even for those well advanced in age. Nor does the culture help. After all, Christmas is a nearly half-trillion dollar industry. There’s no reason to think that commercialism in all its forms will go away any time soon.

Happiness

Beneath the idol of material goodswhether that means gifts, food, or all the decorations that beautify our houseshides another idol. Perhaps you’ve seen it elsewhere, at other times and places.

I was blessed enough to go to Disney World a few times as a child. When I later went back as a teenager, though, I noticed something. A kind of frantic, urgent energy pervaded the place. Everyone smiles a bit too widely. Everyone rushes from one amusement to another. And here and there, a tantrum erupts like a tiny pool of scalding water. Why? Because everyone who comes to Disney comes to have a good timeor else. If you don’t enjoy yourself, then something is wrong with you. You must have fun.

The regime of forced fun becomes universal at Christmas time. How many of us come away from the holidays in a state of utter exhaustion? How often have we stopped to think that maybe, just maybe, we’re trying too hard? The Christmas narrative is blissful. But we have substituted the quietly abiding “comfort and joy” of Christ for the plastic and fleeting pleasures of our own culture.

Our fruitless pursuit of happiness is one of the reasons that holiday depression is so rampant. The endless pageants and parades and parties, not to mention all of the work that goes into them, can be such a drain that it leaves us with little energy left for the spiritual life of the holiday. And that’s just when our plans succeed! We’re even more distraught and distracted when things don’t work out as we hoped. How greatly we differ from Mary and Joseph, who dealt with the disappointment of being turned away at the inn with a calm trust in Providence.

Traditions

One thing that bolsters the idol of forced happiness is the idol of tradition. Perhaps more than any other American holiday, Christmas is about the way traditions bring us together. But too often, those traditions can become unbalanced and rigid. Surely we all have one or two thoughts like this upon occasion. If the tree is not up and decorated by a certain day, all is lost! If we don’t make Christmas cookies on Christmas Eve, all is lost! If we don’t do the Elf on the Shelf this year, all is lost! And so on. Instead of a time of refreshment, Christmas becomes a daunting list of tasks and chores. Our freedom and ease vanish.

As Catholics, we need to remember that the only really necessary thing is Mass. That is the still point at the base of our lives and holiday. Taking a step back and detaching from our seasonal traditions can be a salutary reminder that we are not in control. God is. And if our traditions don’t serve His glory, then we should rework them and reclaim our freedom. Chances are, we’ll be saner (and happier) if we do so.

Family

Perhaps the easiest idol to miss is the one that often generates all the others: family. Surely, we may think, there can be nothing wrong with putting our families at the center of the holiday? Isn’t being with family one of the greatest and purest joys known to man? And isn’t the meaning of Christmas bound up with God entering into a human family?

These are all natural notions. But the truth is, we often have a disordered affection for our families. This disorder is frequently expressed in counter-intuitive manifestations. The holiday is poisoned by all the evident ways our own families don’t live up to our (possibly quite unrealistic) standards. So many of us use Christmas to penalize those in our families who are different from us, and who thus shatter our little ideal of what family should be. We make Christmas the occasion of settling scores or sniping about our petty differences. Or, on the other hand, we altogether ignore issues that might be very important. A kind of artificial peace may prevail, even though deep cracks open below the surface. But this is not the “peace on earth” that Christmas promises.

Families are always sites of intense friction and drama, as even the most cursory review of Western literature shows (not to mention our satires). Making family the center of Christmas merely injects that propensity for drama into a holy day where it doesn’t belong. Moreover, our ideological insistence on making Christmas all about family has been particularly hard on single people. Those with no family are left out in the proverbial, and sometimes literal, cold. One poisonous fruit of humanizing the divine holiday in this way is the terrible loneliness we have needlessly exacerbated for thousands.

Family is a high good, but not the highest good. When we forget that, we do an injustice to God. And we cannot love our families (or our lonely neighbors) properly if we don’t love God first.

Spiritual Consolations

I suspect that most of us idolize family at some level. It’s become such a dominant cultural value that even non-Christians who celebrate Christmas are susceptible to its malignant influence. But one idol may only occur to those who see Christmas as a time of potential spiritual gain.

Every Christian runs the risk of valuing God only insofar as he grants us His gifts. Sometimes, this takes fairly low forms. The Prosperity Gospel, for instance, is essentially a quasi-Christian materialism that equates the love of God with his financial blessings. They turn God into a sugar daddy. More subtly, some of us act like God’s fair-weather friends. We’re perfectly happy offering Him our heart as long as we feel we’re receiving some kind of spiritual consolation. It’s almost as if we think that God owes us something if we keep praying through the season, and we’re unnerved when nothing comes. No one likes aridity in prayer. That feeling can be even harder, and an even greater temptation, when it comes to us at Christmas time.

As Catholics, we shouldn’t worry if Christmas isn’t a time of tremendous spiritual growth. Just because at Christmas you’re not experiencing profound graces or consolations, doesn’t necessarily mean that you are doing anything wrong. Even a well-kept Advent may not produce discernible feelings of anticipation or contrition. Too much of a focus on the interior life can distract us from the objective glory of the feast.

God has come down to earth in the Incarnation. He has seen fit to take up human nature for our salvation, transfiguring all by the light of His face. And we who were born so many centuries after Him can nevertheless meet that same Incarnate God at the altar. But none of this depends on us. It doesn’t matter what we feel; the marvelous truth of it all is that God has done this work in an entirely gratuitous way.

That is why Christmas Mass is so important. It grounds our devotions in Christ. And as He did at His first coming, He still sweeps away all of our idols from His new home on the altar.

The Eucharistic Alternative

Christmas doesn’t have to be like this. All of the “idols” I have listed above are good in themselves. It is only our inordinate attachment to them that has twisted them into ugly perversions and distractions from the Incarnate God.

True, our culture has pressed many of these idols onto us, or at least exacerbated them. But we are complicit. We go along with the whole rigmarole. We have made these five golden rings into five golden calves. It follows that in our own small ways as Catholics, we can and should resist.

Instead of focusing on material gain, let us contemplate the poverty of the babe at Bethlehem; instead of mindlessly pursuing happiness at all costs, let us seek a healthy and realistic equilibrium; instead of rigidly clinging to our traditions, let us run in the freedom and flexibility of the Gospel; instead of taking a disordered view of our families, let us love them as creatures of the Most High; and instead of pining for a flood of sensible graces, let us be content to dwell adoringly at the side of the Infant God asleep.

It may all be more easily said than done. But the spiritual life is always a challenge for those who truly seek God. And what aid does Our Lord offer us in the Sacraments! If we avail ourselves of confession and the Eucharist, we will have made a very powerful start. Only then, to paraphrase Dickens, may we honor Christmas in our hearts, and keep it all the year.