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Monday, June 30, 2014

Ordinary Time and the Color of Hope

If you do a Google search on the question, “what is the color of hope?” you will get more answers than you’ll know what to do with, even when you leave out all the ads for L’Oreal lipstick. Blue is the color of hope, with no explanation other than a Patti Griffin song and a picture of a Montana sky. An blurb about a book about women in a Russian prison announces that “gray is the color of hope.” Beta-carotene is the color of hope, says a medical article. What is that, yellow-orange? There’s no picture. Other sites proclaim that green is the color hope, purple, yellow. I didn’t find any red, but of course red would appear in the rainbow, another “color of hope.”

The church vacillates on it. The liturgical color for Ordinary Time, the season of the year that covers all the Sundays not in the incarnational or paschal seasons, is green, the "color of hope," the color of vegetation and the earth. One could believe that on a day like this, certainly; we’ve had so much rain that the ground is lush and the trees are bursting with verdure. But then we have Advent, the season of hope, where almost every prayer makes some reference to hope or expectation, and the liturgical color for Advent is violet, perhaps a poetic nod to the darkness before dawn? I don’t know.

All of this was going through my head as I was reading the Letter to the Romans, used for the second reading on these Sundays of Ordinary Time Year A, after ingesting Reza Aslan's Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth , and wanting to read some of Paul (again) on the subject of faith and James (again) on the subject of works. Determined to prove, while looking straight into the eyes of Torah, that no human works or adherence to the Mosaic law can bring about the justification of a person, but only the saving act of God in Christ, St. Paul invokes the memory of Abraham, a childless centenarian with a barren wife, who is justified by his faith in God to keep his impossible-sounding promises.
Abraham believed, hoping against hope, 
that he would become “the father of many nations, ”
according to what was said, “Thus shall your descendants be.”
 He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body 
as already dead - for he was almost a hundred years old—
and the dead womb of Sarah.
 He did not doubt God’s promise in unbelief;
 rather, he was strengthened by faith and gave glory to God
 and was fully convinced that what he had promised he was also able to do.

The phrase “hoping against hope” catches my ear, because Paul goes on to describe, in apposition to the impossibility of Abraham’s becoming “the father of many nations” in his old age, faith in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Paul says that nothing we can do in obedience to any law can justify us in the sight of God. Only God can justify, and the way that God has chosen to do that is through his Son. But what does that mean?

In a later passage, we hear what seemed to me to be a further development of his insight.
Christ, while we were still helpless,
 yet died at the appointed time for the ungodly.
Indeed, only with difficulty does one die for a just person,
 though perhaps for a good person 
one might even find courage to die.
 But God proves his love for us
 in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us. 
How much more then, since we are now justified by his blood,
 will we be saved through him from the wrath.
 Indeed, if, while we were enemies,
 we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son,
 how much more, once reconciled, will we be saved by his life?
I hear in these words St. Paul describing the very nature of God, that is, unrequited and unconditional self-gift. Perhaps unable to use the words that John uses in the catholic letters that appear in the New Testament, nevertheless Paul describes the human condition: we’re commercial beings. Things have value to us, and we are more conditioned to trade, particularly at a profit, than to altruism. But God isn’t like that. The one thing we have that is irreplaceable and can’t be pawned is our life. There are times when we might be called to give it up for another person. We might do it, say, in time of war, when our love for the people or even the ideas for which might give our life is strong enough to overcome our need for self-preservation. But, says Paul, God isn’t like that. While we couldn’t do anything to help ourselves, when we were still sinners, “enemies” (of God), Paul says, far from God and unable to do anything about it, God did something. God did the one thing that God always does. God poured self out, became human in Jesus, lived a specific life and died a specific death for us, and was raised from death to show the truth of his life.

It’s not just that God became human. It’s that God became this man, who lived this life, and spoke these words, did these things, gave everything away until even his life was spent, and in the resurrection God poured life abundantly back into this same person because that is the way the cosmos is, because it is God’s cosmos. Later, in another letter, Paul or some disciple of his will call Christ Jesus the image of the invisible God, and even later, in the fourth gospel, John will see the parallels between the Logos becoming flesh in the world and the pouring out of the Spirit of God in the world when the Logos returns to the Father.

The thing is, the story doesn’t end there. The gospel describes the sending of the twelve to take Jesus’s work of healing, exorcism, and preaching to the towns and villages of Galilee. It’s the beginning of a story that is still going on, that got its great impetus at the foot of the cross, in the upper room, and at Pentecost, when the Spirit of Christ filled the disciples with the messianic breath of Jesus that the body of Christ might go on living and washing the feet of the world in every time and place.

Which brings us back to hoping against hope in a world with too much war, too much rain or too much drought, too much hate, not enough food, earthquakes, floods, IEDs, a hole in the ozone layer, melting icecaps, and ballooning energy costs. Maybe we think hundred-year-old Abraham has nothing on us. But God’s impossible promise is always the same, because God is always the same, can only be and do the same, pour self out completely, and show us how to do the same in Christ; how to not expect compensation, how to give ourselves even when the other is “sinful” or still our enemy. The church as “rainbow coalition” or “rainbow connection” is the color of hope to those who are without it insofar and always as we can live the life of God, live the life of Christ, giving life, giving ourselves away so that others may live, without counting the cost because there is no lack of life in the divine economy. The color of hope is the color of you, of me, of the hand that reaches across the well with a cup of water, or into the ditch to assist a battered enemy.

I guess these thoughts weren’t as clear as I imagined they’d be! But that’s what “ordinary time” is for — it’s the gospel measured out over real time so that we can slowly absorb the ineffable mystery of the gift of God, and choose, maybe, day by day, Sunday by Sunday, to surrender a little more to its fascinating invitation. Knowing my selfish heart, is it hoping against hope to think that I might, someday, plunge into that rainbow of hope trusting that what God promises God is able to do? It may be, but then again, I’m not yet (quite) a hundred years old.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

"Super hanc petram aedificabo..."

I like it when the sanctoral cycle, ordinarily celebrated at weekday masses by the  pious faithful who pray there, irrupts into the Sunday schedule. It happens too rarely. Feasts of the Lord can and do, and this year the feasts of the All Souls and the Dedication of the Basilica of St. John Lateran, the pope’s cathedral in Rome, will do so, the latter being a celebration of the Lord made visible in the Church and in churches. The feast of the Transfiguration (August 6) displaces Ordinary Time when it falls on a Sunday, as of course do the feasts of the Holy Trinity, the Body and Blood of the Lord, and the Baptism of the Lord (nearly) every year. But the sanctoral cycle is less hardy in its encroachment. All Saints, of course, occasionally falls on a Sunday, and the Birth of John the Baptist, but really the only other feastday which falls in Ordinary Time and has the significance to displace the Sunday cycle (that I can think of without actually doing any actual research ☹ ) is the one that occurs this Sunday on June 29, the Feast of Ss. Peter and Paul.

What does the liturgy have to say about these two men who are the pillars upon which the church grew in the first century of its existence and whose profound influence upon the interpretation of the gospel is felt today? The opening prayers praise God that through their teaching the Church “first received the faith,” and asks that we be kept true to their teaching. The alternative prayer paraphrases the letter of Peter, praising God through whose great mercy we have received “new birth and hope through the power of Christ's resurrection,” and asks that their prayers for us we might reach the inheritance of heaven with them. (Quotations are from the previous Sacramentary.)

But the readings point to their faith in Jesus and God’s support of them in their hour of need. The first reading, from Acts, describes the rescue of Peter from prison by an angel of the Lord, and the responsorial psalm, from Psalm 34, celebrates that “the angel of the Lord will rescue those who fear him.” In the second reading from 2 Timothy, the first part of which is so familiar to all of us who attend so many funerals through the years, Paul, writing from prison himself, confesses that his life is slipping away, poured out like God’s life and the life of Jesus, but that in every trial and in his time of need “the Lord stood by me and gave me strength.” The gospel is one we will hear again later this summer, the confession of Peter from Matthew 16, in which Peter announces, to Jesus inquiry as to his perceived identity, that "you are the Christ (messiah) of God," quite possibly giving the right answer but meaning the wrong thing. Jesus changes his name from the Jewish “Simon” to the Greek Kephas, in Latin, Petrus, a cognate of petra, which means rock, leading to the famous wordplay written in huge letters around the cupola of the dome of St. Peter’s in Rome: Tu es Petrus, et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam. (“You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.”)

That Peter and Paul came to have the same feast day is a triumph, I suspect, of some historical revisionism begun by the evangelists that homogenized and beatified a relationship in the early church that was probably anything but amicable. In Reza Aslan's recent book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, which sought to popularize some theories about the historical Jesus in the context of first century Judaism in a Roman world, what was arguably the best and most convincing part of the entire work was the last chapter, which analyzed passages in James, Acts, and the Pauline letters to reveal the serious rifts that divided the apostolic church and at the same time made Christianity possible after the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus in 70 CE. While Aslan is concerned about the animosity, possibly the antipathy, between James (the brother of the Lord) and Paul (who never met Jesus), Peter is clearly in James's camp. I don't want to get distracted by all this today, but the short version of Aslan's theory is that James knew Jesus, and led the Jerusalem church as a movement within Judaism that kept the Jewish law sacred in a way that edified the church's Jewish milieu. Paul, on the other hand, preaching in the diaspora and poaching Greek-speaking Jewish sympathizers had a more liberal bent, and preached that the law could do nothing to save a person, only faith in Jesus Christ. Hints in their letters show their barely concealed distaste for each other's teaching.

At the distance of two millennia, we have reconciled, to some extent, the faith vs. works argument, and rationalized a belief that sees, as James writes, that faith without works is nothing, and that good works are an outward sign of a faith that believes in the genuine Jesus. Still, even within Christianity that letter of James is not considered canonical by all believers. The question can be settled without it, I suppose, but it's interesting to me that, in spite of the heat of these arguments that separated these lions of the faith at the dawn of Christianity, they all believed in Jesus, his message, and his risen life to such an extent that these servants went to their violent deaths at the hands of the same governments and gods that had crucified the master. The Jewish Jerusalem church that had flourished under James and Peter disappeared after the razing of Jerusalem in 70, and what was left were the churches of the diaspora in the Mediterranean basin, Rome, and beyond that had been cultivated by Paul and his disciples.

So, rather than focusing on these men, who in the words of the entrance antiphon “(conquered) all human frailty, shed their blood and helped the Church to grow,” the liturgy focuses on the God who empowered them and who will empower us to continue to work to build up the church and make it truly catholic. Tacitly taking up last week's evangelical refrain to “be not afraid,” the liturgy encourages us to trust that the angel of the Lord will rescue us as well, and to trust that God will do what the word of God promises. The life and memory of these two men, so unlikely to share a feast day in a sense, who knew each other as allies and adversaries at the same time, is testament to a God who, in Christ, reconciles all things to himself.

Here’s our music for this weekend:

Call to Worship: Be Ye Glad. Michael Kelly Blanchard's great song of ransomed joy is a favorite of ours, and the choir is singing an arrangement as a call to worship. I chose it because it recalls the miraculous release of Paul and Silas from jail, a story from the readings of the vigil, not of the feast day, but still to the point. The spiritual "Eyes on the Prize (Hold On)" takes off from the same event. Blanchard's text is so beautifully crafted. If you are not familiar with it, this is the second stanza, the reason I chose it for today:
Now in your dungeon, a rumor is stirring.
You have heard it again and again.
Ah, but this time, the cell keys are turning
And outside there are faces of friends.
And though your body lies weary from wasting
And your eyes show the sorry they've had,
All the love that your heart is now tasting
Has opened the gate. Be ye glad! (© Gotz Music/Benson )
Gathering: The Christ of God, by John Foley, SJ. OCP octavo. I wrote about this song in my blog last year (see link). I like that the triumphalistic refrain is framed by a recitative question, “Who do you say I am?” The verses, complementing the faith expressed in the refrain, describe the role of the Christ and the disciple: “The servant of God must suffer much, be rejected, and yes must be killed....Take your own cross, and come, follow me.”
Psalm: Psalm 34: The Angel of the Lord, setting by Rory Cooney, OCP octavo. This is an alternative refrain to my setting of “Taste and See” from Cries of the Spirit 1, written for this feast twenty-something years ago.
Preparation Rite: God Is Love by Rory Cooney or A Dwelling Place, by John Foley, S.J.
Communion Song: Heart of a Shepherd, by Rory Cooney, (link is to a blog post on this song in the "SongStories" series) adapting verses from the Gelineau Psalm 23.
Recessional: Anthem by Tom Conry or Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones (traditional).

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Intimacy for Mission - my 'homily' for the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ

The Eucharist of the church is a precious gift. So much of what identifies the Christian church, and the Catholic church specifically, is the importance and centrality of the Eucharist as part of the Church’s practice and identity. We may celebrate it differently among the denominations, argue about its meaning, use one chalice or several or dozens of tiny cups, or no cup; we might receive the eucharist in the form of bread and wine, or bread alone, every day, or once a week, or once a month, or once a year. But in every case, we know that the Eucharist has a special meaning to us because its origins are with Jesus and the apostles and the early church, and the very meaning of who Jesus is, what he taught, and how he imagined God to be is wrapped up somehow in the sharing of food with one another.

You might think that the church would celebrate this central reality at the high point of the liturgical year, and we do, in fact, on Holy Thursday. We begin the sacred Triduum with the Solemn Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper. But there is a lot going on on that day, not the least of which is that historically Lent was a more solemn, even woeful, season of penitence. Holy Thursday also marks the institution of the priesthood, the washing of the feet, and the agony in the garden. There’s a lot going on that day! Late in the 12th century, a Saint Julianna was said to have had a vision of Christ asking for this feast day. An archdeacon from her Belgian town later became pope, and created this feast, calling it Corpus Christi, on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday. In the United States, we celebrate it on the second Sunday after Pentecost.

Many of you may remember the little book I wrote for Lent to help us uncover the meaning of our baptismal promises to renew them more authentically. Change Our Hearts observed those promises through the lens of Jesus' preaching about the reign of God as a clear choice over competing gods, like Tiberius Caesar. He preached about the alternate kingdom of a God who is Father of everyone, and not emperor, or judge, or executioner like other gods. Jesus made his teaching concrete to people through meal-sharing. He made his vision of a world without violence and threats visible by a day-by-day practice of sitting down to table with good people, like Pharisees and lawyers, and not-so-good people, like Roman collaborators and other sinners. The good guys accused him of claiming a special relationship to God while at the same time colluding with sinners, and accused him of blasphemy. The not-so-good people saw that he was claiming a different emperor-god than theirs, also blasphemy. In both cases, the penalty was death, and they colluded to kill him. But God raised him from death, and in his risen life the church came to recognize and celebrate him and his unique vision for the world by doing what he did, calling people to eat together at table, to live in unity, and to look out for one another's needs with love. In today’s 2nd reading, written just a couple of decades after the death of Jesus, Paul already is needing to remind the Corinthians of this reality.

Scripture scholars tell us that every time St. Paul speaks about the body of Christ, he means the church, head and members. He means Jesus, of course, but connected to all of the baptized who have all been given the same spirit. In today’s second reading, he is trying to convince people in Corinth to stop playing both sides of Church street, participating in pagan sacrificial meals as well as the agape meal of Jesus. His argument is that all sacrifices, Jewish, pagan, and Christian, create community. But the sacrifice of Jesus, remembered in the sharing of bread and cup in the eucharist, is unique. The bread we break, he says, isn’t it the body of Christ? He means that there is intimacy with Jesus and the whole church in that meal. Why would you even think of placing that on a par with meals of pagan gods and temple prostitutes? The cup that we share, isn’t it sharing the blood of Christ? We are all made one, he says, just as the loaf is one, and the cup is one. Don’t dilute and defile that intimacy with cults of violence and hedonism. What we have in the community of Jesus, symbolized by the eucharist, is too precious to be mistaken for the false promises of the gods of war, fertility, and weather.

Here’s a simple if crazy metaphor about intimacy and eating. Do you love the smell of babies? Not every baby smell, but that fresh-from-the-bath and clean diaper baby smell that makes you pick up a giggling baby and say, I could just eat you up. It’s a way of expressing intimacy, a desire for union and joy so deep that it seems like the only appropriate metaphor is consumption. Thank goodness, weird looks we get from other people and fear of life imprisonment keeps us from acting on those impulses. But you might remember that (our pastor) Fr. Bernie (Pietrzak) in his homily about the Holy Trinity last week spoke about God's life, life of the trinity, both as a dynamic intimacy and simultaneously an outwardly-focused love. God invites us into that great intimacy of his own life by making us part of Christ, filling us with the gift of the holy spirit, both to give us a sense of belonging to him and to one another, and to teach us how to move beyond ourselves in love to the service of others, inviting them into the divine life as well. Recall, for instance, when the priest adds a drop of water to the cup or flagon of wine as he prepares the gifts for consecration, and he says, By the mingling of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity. We do not pray idly in the liturgy. These ancient words in fact articulate our belief that God will give us a share in the divinity of Christ, the divinity of Godself.

In today’s gospel, Jesus tells the crowds that he is “living bread from heaven.” What is he talking about? First, he’s referring to the manna, the miraculous windfall described today in Deuteronomy that saved the Israelites from starvation on their journey to freedom through the desert. It may or may not have been miraculous in origin, but it was miraculous for Israel in that it came when they needed it, and they remembered its presence with them forever. That it fell from the sky was to them a sign that it was from God. They didn’t grow it, they didn’t buy it, they didn’t steal it. It just showed up one morning, and they received it. Exodus says everyone collected the exact amount they needed, no more, no less. It tasted like almost whatever they imagined it could taste like. And yet, eventually, they got tired of it, and, whether they ate it or not, whether it was from the heavens or not, they died.

But Jesus says of himself that he is living bread from heaven, and that those who eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Son of Man will never die. What is he saying here? The words “the Son of Man” are important. The “son of man” is a character from late Jewish apocalyptic writing who comes into the world to make right the injustices forced on humanity by the likes of Antiochus Epiphanes and the Seleucids in the 2nd century BCE. “Son of man” is a Semitism, a local figure of speech, that literally simply means “a human being”, but one whom God chooses to restore peace and justice in the world that Israel inhabits. So "son of man" is a political term, much like “messiah” was in first century judaism. Before your eyes glaze over about that, I just want to ask you to keep that political aspect in mind as you reflect on what it means to have “eternal life” in us because of eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ. There is reason to think that this intimacy of eating means a depth of life in this world, freedom and justice in this world, as well as in a world to come.

The passage from Deuteronomy begins with that resounding word, “Remember,” and echoes with it again when it says, “Do not forget!” Remember the lessons of your journey to freedom. Remember that you were slaves, and remember that this whole freedom thing was my idea, and that I promised to lead you, my chosen people, and to be with you, and how you promised to be people of my covenant. “Remember” - “do not forget” - these commandments are a charge not to simply be reverent or to make an intellectual recall of past events, but are a call to action, a call to keep faith, a call to covenant. “Remember” means “we have a deal here, and I kept my part of the bargain.” When you call out to your kids “remember your homework,” the correct response is more than just, “yes, I remember…I even wrote it down.” Mom means, DO your homework. It’s more than an act of the mind, it’s an act of the whole person.

So Eucharist is a call to intimacy with Christ, with God, and one another, in the Holy Spirit, that acts on behalf of peaceful justice-making in the world. Christ calls us to discern our gifts, gifts given to us by God like manna from the sky while we sleep, and to use those gifts to live for the freedom and equality of all people. Intimacy is a call to action.

Over sixteen centuries ago, St. Augustine gave a homily on Easter morning on which he urged his community to live in the unity and integrity of the Eucharist. He said,
“If you want to understand the body of Christ, listen to the Apostle Paul speaking to the faithful: 'You are the body of Christ, every one of you is a member of it.' If you, therefore, are Christ's body and members, it is your own mystery that is placed on the Lord's table! It is your own mystery that you are receiving! You are saying 'Amen' to what you are: your response is a personal signature, affirming your faith. When you hear 'The body of Christ,' you reply 'Amen.' Be a member of Christ's body, then, so that your 'Amen' may ring true! … (St. Paul) says about this sacrament: 'The bread is one, and we, though many, are one body.' Understand and rejoice: unity, truth, faithfulness, love. 'One bread,' he says. What is this one bread? Is it not the 'one body,' formed from many?"

St Augustine says that the bread is us, friends, together with Christ as head of the body. We are bread of life, saving cup, to be broken and poured out for the life of the world. We have been given gifts of peacemaking, forgiveness, and unbounded love, like manna. Let us prepare to offer our gifts for the empire of God with the bread and wine we are about to offer, gifts that will be taken, blessed, broken, and shared by Christ that the world may live. To this I will say “Amen."

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

"King Corn" and "The Omnivore's Dilemma"

Once in a while (?), I feel like I should just put something out there that I don’t know anything about. Sometimes you just get the feeling that something you’ve read about is important, and that you want everyone to have the same information so that we can make enlightened decisions about our lives, and not just live in the bliss of ignorance. Since we Catholics celebrate the solemnity of the Body and Blood of The Lord ("Corpus Christi") this weekend, we're already thinking about the relationship between food and truth and life, so these thoughts may have some theological weight, too. Though he doesn't really cross the bridge into explicitly theological territory, nevertheless, Michael Pollan has a sense of the socially "sacred ground" upon which meals are made and shared, and translates his instinct about that into advocacy for best practices in the growing, preparation, and eating of food.

A few years ago, I became a big fan of New York Times food writer Michael Pollan when I add his book The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals to my list, for listening while I go walking or running. The Omnivore’s Dilemma purports to be “a natural history of four meals,” a sort of culinary journal in which the Pollan looks toward the origins and results of four meals: a McDonald’s meal with his family, a meal made from industrial organic foods (think of supermarket organics, like Earthbound Farms and Wild Harvest), a meal made from vegetables grown and meat raised by means of sustainable farming, and a meal made from food grown, hunted, or gathered by the author and friends. It’s an eye-opening tale from beginning to end, and you get the sense that you learn with the author as he researches the history of his meals, following the trail of his food from the parking lot at McDonald’s to the corn fields of the Midwest and the CAFOs (commercial animal feeding operation) of Colorado and Texas and elsewhere.) This history is at turns fascinating and stomach-turning, but nowhere is it more engaging and revelatory than when it turns to the history of corn and its symbiotic relationship to and genetic manipulation by U.S. agriculture. Using techniques of molecular spectography, Pollan discovers that the carbon in the average American comes, in high percentage, from corn. This leads to his trek to Iowa and interviews with farmers and ecoscientists. It documents the role that the US government has played, since the time of Earl Butz in the Reagan administration, in supporting the overproduction of corn by farm bill subsidies which keep prices artificially low. At every turn, this book is riveting in unexpected ways about topics I’d never have thought of reading about, and I think I’m a smarter eater and shopper than I was before I read it.

Then I discovered that two young college graduates from New England were also inspired by Pollan and his research, and after graduation moved to Iowa in order to become corn farmers and follow their corn through the food chain. They document their journey in the extraordinary movie King Corn [HD] , which both bubbles with their youthful enthusiasm and wonder and gradually darkens as they awaken to the reality of the strange world of overproduction and waste of which they’ve become a part. Particularly interesting are their interviews with researchers looking into the digestive diseases of cattle being fed corn, which they aren’t properly evolved to digest, and with a Brooklyn cab driver who lost 100 pounds when he quit drinking soft drinks sweetened with high fructose corn syrup. Along the way, we discover that 1 in 8 Brooklynites is diabetic, and that one of the main causes of diabetes is the consumption of products with high fructose corn syrup (and other sugars, of course), which somehow bypasses the “stop” triggers that the brain has for food consumption.

Since ingesting Dilemma, I've become a huge fan of Pollan and read everything I could get my hands on, and was never disappointed or felt like he was repeating himself. From The Botany of Desire to his most recent Cooked, he treats us to the natural history of food and the human relationship to food and our symbiotic relationship to the organisms we consume. He is not an advocate for vegetarianism (he's not a vegetarian himself) but reading his work pretty much convinced me that vegetarianism was possible for me, and Terry and I jumped into it three years ago or so and haven't looked back. Well, Terry hasn't looked back. I often look back at bacon, pork chops, and veal saltimbocca, but that's just me. I'm a serial recidivist passing as a cereal recidivist. So far, though, I've managed to ingest meat only by accident. Wonderful, delicious, accident.

If you don't know the outline of Pollan's philosophy of food, well, it's everywhere, and he's thrown his support to the effort of forcing big food to label products containing GMOs, among other things. WebMD has a good synopsis of his radically simple philosophy of eating, which can be stated succinctly in just seven words: "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants." WebMD goes on to clarify that "eat food" means to eat real food -- vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and, yes, fish and meat -- and to avoid what Pollan calls "edible food-like substances."
Here's how:
  1. Don't eat anything your great grandmother wouldn't recognize as food. "When you pick up that box of portable yogurt tubes, or eat something with 15 ingredients you can't pronounce, ask yourself, "What are those things doing there?" Pollan says.
  2. Don’t eat anything with more than five ingredients, or ingredients you can't pronounce.
  3. Stay out of the middle of the supermarket; shop on the perimeter of the store. Real food tends to be on the outer edge of the store near the loading docks, where it can be replaced with fresh foods when it goes bad.
  4.  Don't eat anything that won't eventually rot. "There are exceptions -- honey -- but as a rule, things like Twinkies that never go bad aren't food," Pollan says.
  5. It is not just what you eat but how you eat. "Always leave the table a little hungry," Pollan says. "Many cultures have rules that you stop eating before you are full. In Japan, they say eat until you are four-fifths full. Islamic culture has a similar rule, and in German culture they say, 'Tie off the sack before it's full.'"
  6. Families traditionally ate together, around a table and not a TV, at regular meal times. It's a good tradition. Enjoy meals with the people you love. "Remember when eating between meals felt wrong?" Pollan asks.
  7. Don't buy food where you buy your gasoline. In the U.S., 20% of food is eaten in the car.

I just wanted to make you aware of these two fascinating diversions if you hadn’t seen them, both the Pollan book (available at as well) and the movie King Corn (available to rent from You’ll enjoy yourself and you might learn something. Beyond that, it’s the question of whether knowledge is power, or just possibility, for change.

Friday, June 13, 2014

"Rebuilt," Bothered, and Bewildered

Thursday is usually my day off, but last week I went with about eight other staff members from St. Anne down to St. Mary Immaculate in Plainfield, about 35 miles south of us in the diocese of Joliet, for a daylong workshop/presentation by Brian Cook and Fr. Michael White, the authors of the popular Rebuilt and Tools for Rebuilding books on parish revitalization. Our pastor suggested it as a conversation starter and bought copies for everyone, and I read it on the flight to Providence in March. I was both impressed with the vision articulated in the book and wary of some of its conclusions, but came away from it thinking that they were onto something worth investigating. This workshop seemed like a chance to hear more about their experience and possibly find others who feel that the same tired strategies of parish life need to be retooled.

Clearly, others feel some of the same things. There were six hundred people from a dozen dioceses in three states crammed into the gym at the parish. But the staff at SMI and the diocese of Joliet modeled hospitality and efficiency from the doors of the place to the lunch tables, and everyone was very impressed with how smoothly the day proceeded. We were met at the doors of the large gathering space in the parish by school children and others who opened doors for us and smilingly wished us a good morning, and registration and lunch lines were well-organized, a feat that those of us who have hosted this sort of thing know is not a given, even with good planning!

For those who haven't read it, Rebuilt is an easy read, with a self-deprecatingly humorous, breezy narrative form that begins by looking backward at a specific parish's experience of what wasn't working, and then enumerating the difficult, sometimes painful steps and missteps that the pastoral team took to begin to steer the ship in a different direction. (I haven't read the sequel, because I'm not sure that the particulars would apply to us.) At its heart, Rebuilt is convinced that parish life in the United States is enabling consumer culture, rather than making disciples of the gospel. Big parishes have big staffs of people who try to serve the needs of the thousands who attend the parish on weekends for worship and other times for formation and community, but they seem to be unsuccessful at creating a community of people who are willing to undertake the missionary mandate of the gospel. Rather than being schools of service, parishes are more like service stations. More and more of our efforts are focused inwardly on serving our members, when the gospel mandate is "go out", and that mandate is given to the whole church, not just to the staff or priests.

The authors of Rebuilt, in the book and in the seminar, ask parishes to ask what they finally hit upon as the key questions about ministry: why does a parish exist? They answer, rightly, of course, that the parish exists to do what the church exists to do, that is, to "make disciples," people who love God, love neighbor, and make other disciples. In order to do this, they urge others churches to take a lesson from Protestant mega-churches, that is, to change their focus from serving members to enabling members to be servants, to change their focus to non-church people, to prioritize the weekend experience, and to challenge their congregations to move.

What resonated with me in that crowded gym last week was how everyone who spoke or reacted to the authors wanted a program that would be successful when transplanted to their parish, when it seemed to me that what the authors were presenting was a vision, based on their experience in one parish, with one staff, with a particularly demographic, in one part of the country. The resonance, I think, was similar to what many of us encountered giving institutes on behalf of the North American Forum on the Catechumenate (of happy memory). People often came looking for a program they could adopt in their parish with step-by-step instructions for success, when what we offered was a vision of initiation in parishes based on the rite. We could offer some strategies that worked in a variety of parish situations, but there is no, and can be no, one-size-fits-all program for evangelical and catechetical success.

I think that the "program" in both cases is the gospel. But understanding what the gospel is, what it means, and what it calls people to is anything but monolithic in this day and age. Rebuilt sees, in a sense, the damage that has been done to the Church in America because its American. It even names the problem fairly accurately as one of enabling consumer culture and entitlement. What it doesn't do, and what no one really wants to talk about, is what to do about that. What, in other words, is the choice that the gospel offers, and what are the consequences of that for daily life? And where is the model of that kind of living?

Those of you who have read my Lenten booklet Change Our Hearts, or any of the books or authors who have influenced it, know that my johnny-one-note speech about this is that at the heart of the gospels there is a choice between empires: the empire of this world (whether it is Rome or the USA or China, or any other political and economic system) and the empire of God. "Turn away from sin and believe in the gospel" is a way of articulating that choice. Jesus offers a worldview that is essentially different from the prevailing powers': God is for everyone, everyone is related to Abba in the same way, members of the divine household, and to be like God, to take the highest place, is to bend down and serve other people. This is a vision that completely restructures civilization. It is the choice that we are corporately afraid to talk about. We settle for far less, for shadows of real "good," and make "good for me" and "good for us" into absolute truth (God).

It seems to me that until we get around to talking about this, talking about how the gospel is different from what we're living now, and not business-as-usual, we are just re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, and no program is going to save us. The authors make a case that ministers need to work out of a "broken heart for the lost," and I would say that the "lost" are those who have been fooled into thinking that the security provided by money and guns and corporate control is God's will for them. The "lost" are those who have bought into American civil religion, or cooperate with it, just as the lost in the first century were those who bought into the Roman civil religion, and its god-emperors, and who kept the peace by cooperating with it in order to preserve their social status. But I don't hear Rebuilt talking about that, just about "prioritizing the weekend experience" with better (hipper) music and hospitality. The parish at the center of Rebuilt has a single presbyter, so there's no disparity in the preaching, no variance in the celebration of liturgical norms, no ethnic or language barrier to deal with. With the right pastor, which they seem to have, this seems like an ideal situation. But pastors move, and then what? Even if the new pastor appreciates the vision, he may not have the same skill set to carry off the vision that the current fellow has.

This is not to say we should do nothing simply because nothing we do will last. Rebuilt hits a lot of the right notes for me, and came very close, in the seminar at least, to articulating the essential issue in an exegesis of Matthew 16:13-20. Fr. White spoke a little bit about the context into which this story is placed, the city of Caesarea Philippi, a resort built by Herod the Great on the site of Paneas, and renamed in honor of Caesar Augustus. Paneas was a city that dated at least from the time of the Seleucids, and was named for the god Pan, one of the gods of fertility. Underground springs flowed out from caves there, and were associated with the winter passage of the fertility gods to the underworld, hence, they were the "gates of Hades." Caesarea was a resort town for the rich and for the Roman governors, and had the reputation of being a "sin city," the Las Vegas of first century Palestine. So Jesus's promise to build the church, the ekklesia, on the rock of Peter, opened into a promise that the "gates of Hades," symbolized by the city at whose gates the conversation was reportedly taking place, would not overcome it. The church of which Matthew has Jesus speak was not a building but an ekklesia, a gathering, a community of people "called out." It was here that I wanted to hear the speaker make the turn and say Jesus was forming an alternative to the Roman empire of people called to serve one another in the name of abba. Right at the very gates of Roman civil religion and Jewish (Herodian and high priestly) collaboration, Jesus was naming his movement ekklesia, and then I hoped that alternative might be spelled out, and we would finally hear a reason for Rebuilt, and a fork in the path of history that we might again, finally, have a path to choose. But I didn't hear that. It may have been implied, but it wasn't clear to me, and I was listening for it.

Just the simple suggestion that capitalism and consumerism are not part of God's divine plan for the world initiated a Catholic capitalist counter-strike on Pope Francis, and ended the honeymoon in some American Catholic circles with the new pope. I suppose therein lies the key. If you want to know whether or not your "vision" or "program" for the church follows in the footsteps of Jesus, say it out loud, and see whether it sets in motion the wheels of commerce or the mechanics of crucifixion. Rebuilt is knocking on the door of the new evangelization by its critique of consumerism and advocacy for the message of the gospel. Whether it will make a difference in the church will depend a lot upon whether or not it will be able to articulate and start a movement, as Jesus did, that offers a choice between empires. Everything depends on that. For the "lost," and that is pretty much all of us, well, we already know that where we are is bad news. We need to hear the good news, and it's more than just serving donuts and changing our songs.

But I want to affirm the instincts of Fr. White and Mr. Corcoran and their counterparts in recognizing the problem in running large parishes and how we can perpetuate our mistakes, turning what ought to be centers of mission and evangelization into country clubs and elite schools. The 1960s novel Morte d'Urban told the story of a religious community that was dying and ultimately only had enough staff to run its own seminaries. The church exists for the mission. Its essence is to go outside of itself. When we find ourselves just staying afloat and trying to serve people who are our own members, we're in danger of losing our identity. Those people who are gathering on Sunday, those disciples, ought to be the evangelizers. They—we—need to know the difference that being a Christian makes, the difference in this world, the difference between the reign of the God of love and the reign of every other power that is competing for our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and what that has to do with my neighbor. If they can start that discussion, and bring people in by the hundreds to hear that there is a choice to be made between empires that will lead to eternal life, life here and now that is of bottomless value, they may yet launch a dangerous movement that could not only rebuild the church, but renew the face of the earth.

But pay attention to the Francis effect, and listen for the rattle of the machines of marginalization and cross-building to hum to life. It's scary. But "the gates of Hades" will not prevail. That's the promise.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

"To this I will say 'Amen!'" (Trinity Sunday A)

OK, I’m not going to do all the work for you re this little visual joke, but just let me say that if God looks like Carrie-Ann Moss, it’s a good start. (Insert multiple "Hubba"s and "hosannas" here).

Somewhere, a lot of priests got the idea that homilies should all start by telling us that Trinity Sunday is the “only feast of a doctrine” in the church calendar. I can think of a couple of different ways that is not true. The less important one is that the Feast of the Immaculate Conception and the Feast of the Assumption are pretty much doctrinal feasts, and more clearly so than this one. But more important, the very reason for this feast, if one reads the actual scriptures and other liturgical texts for today (including John 3:16), is anything but doctrinal. There is no attempt by the church to interject anything “doctrinal” into the liturgy of today.

A colleague once commented that two homilists at his church used the same story from the Christian midrash surrounding St. Augustine, you know the one, where he muses on the Trinity while walking on the beach at Carthage. As the story goes, a little boy is playing, digging a hole in the sand, and filling it with seawater a bucket a time. He asks the boy what he’s up to, and the boy says he’s trying to fill the hole up with seawater. Augustine tells him it’s a big ocean, he’ll never be able to do it. The boy replies that he has a better shot at moving the ocean into his hole than Augustine does of understanding the Trinity, then the boy vanishes from sight. I mean, whatever...but why is it that the very people who ought to be challenging us to thoughtfully plunge into the mystery of God are warning us off of it, telling us the journey is impossible? We already know that. But the truth is that a mystery isn’t unknowable. It’s just that it can’t every be known completely. It’s a bottomless depth, but the joy of a mystery can be known at all levels of the depth, and it ought to be plumbed: we were made for that. I guess I’ve heard that story on Trinity Sunday more times in my life than I care to remember. I hope to be spared it this year.

Some people are offput by John 3 because in it Jesus in speaking to Nicodemus about truth, and in the process speaks of condemnation:
God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,

so that everyone who believes in him might not perish

but might have eternal life.

For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world,

but that the world might be saved through him.

Whoever believes in him will not be condemned,

but whoever does not believe has already been condemned,

because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.

But rather than being a club to browbeat those who find belief difficult, I see the words of Jesus more as a sad statement of quantifiable consequences. To believe in Christ is to find a way out of the cycle of misguided desire and escalating mimetic violence by discovering a God to imitate who “lets the rain fall and the sun shine on the good and bad alike.” To follow Christ, in other words, is the only way out of the anthropological fact of scapegoating, ritual sacrifice and religious or state-sanctioned violence. Belief, in Gandhi’s words, is a way out of hell. It is not, therefore, God who condemns the unbeliever; it is simply a way of perceiving reality in which to say “no” to the way out of hell leaves one in there, to want ever more what we can’t have, and to be willing to do violence to get it. Judgment is exercised not by God upon the unbeliever; the judgment is self-imposed by the non-believer who won't choose the way out of hell. We were made for interdependence, community, and love; to choose the self alone is to choose the consequences of isolation and selfishness.

Luckily for all of us, God never runs out of opportunities to change our mind, surrounding us with saints and the sparkling metaphors that invite us into the paschal mystery of God. One might further imagine, though we can’t see beyond the veil of death, that the opportunities for conversion and belief are not ended at the moment of death, when one might finally come face-to-face with unconditional love. We see that the grain of wheat has to fall into the earth and die to bear fruit; we guess that, perhaps, the same is true of people, and real death. Moses, in the first reading today, acknowledges how “stiff-necked” we are, but reminds God that S/He is merciful and slow to anger, rich in kindness and faithfulness. God precedes our birth, and “comes along with us” through life and death. This is the message in the readings of Trinity Sunday. If that’s some kind of doctrine, I’ll take it.

For me, the feast of the Holy Trinity celebrates principles that are woven into the fabric of observable creation: unity and diversity, agape and kenosis, the paschal mystery itself. We talk as Christians about God as Father, Son, and Spirit. We sometimes rightly bristle because of the male-dominant language of those words, and we are fortunate that in the very canon of scripture itself there are times when only feminine imagery can be used to describe God, scripture thus subverting any attempt at gender idolatry. But the church is also right, in my opinion, in reining in attempts to describe God in impersonal, functional terms like the oh-so-groovy “Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier,” because we don’t worship a doctrine, we don’t worship three functions in one God, the three persons don’t exclusively do any single thing (this was rejected in the third century as the modalist heresy). It’s important that we see God as somehow personal, while at the same time recognizing that to say that, like to say anything about God, is hopelessly anthropomorphic. In other words, whatever God is that manifests itself to us as “person-al” is God being God, and we’re just interpreting it as best we can. To me, even to describe God as three “persons” is to hide more information than we can reveal. We’re describing a human attribute that we want to attribute to God, but whatever it is we’re attributing, it can’t be more than a shadow or a nod toward the reality of God.

A divine community of persons who share power as three is a wondrous thought, especially when we realize that “power” in this Godhead is kenosis, or the emptying-out of self, so utterly and completely that John can only say, theou agape estin, “God is love.” We think of power as the ability to control, to get our own way, to force the outcome of things. But in God, “power” is the opposite of that: it’s the outpouring of life so that the sharing of authentic life might fill the universe in all its parts. Within this divine community of shared agape there is both unity and diversity, agape pouring out of the Godhead and being returned, creating out of God’s own “stuff” and filling it with God’s own life, never with a thought of or need for return or gratitude. God is completely selfless, without jealousy, or the need for repayment or retribution. This is a great mystery, and it is the nature of the universe, and the reality into which the Christian is plunged at baptism.

I wrote a song text that I originally entitled “Credo,” (I believe), but it has changed into a different thing, maybe I’ll call it “Be Known in Us” or maybe I’ll call it “O Agape.” I think I’ll leave you with it today, as a bit of a meditation for Trinity Sunday, a little dance of the heart with this “beauty ever ancient, ever new” that fills the universe with love and, in Brian Wren’s words, “changes places, leaves the lofty seat, welcomes us with warm embraces, stoops to wash our feet.” This is my song for now — maybe you’ll find some comfort or hope in it for yourself.

O Agape, by Rory Cooney © 2008

O Mystery, beyond my grasping,

Beyond the depth and height and breadth,

Refusing to be known

In idols made of stone

Nor gold, nor human wealth, nor strength,

I know you in the hand of mercy

Responding to the prisoner’s cry,

And by the light within 

The shadow of my sin

Who will not meet the beggar’s eye.


O Agape, love freely poured,

O Abba, mirrored in the Son,

Sophia, flowing through the world,

Be known in me, be known in us.

I know you not in idle promise

When spoken to the most distressed

By those who use your word

To comfort the assured,

And bless the ones already blessed,

But in the seed, once dead and buried,

Now risen green upon the field.

I know you in the quest

For peace, which never rests,

The victim saved, the breach that’s healed. Ref.

When crescent, cross, or star be marked

Upon our weapons and our law,

When violence is done, 

With no “Eleison!”—

I know you not as god of war.

I know you in the voice of prophets

Who see the human family whole,

And challenge us to ease

The famine and disease,

And poverty that bleeds us all. Ref.

I know you in your sacred word,

In shepherd, gate, and mustard seed,

In Good Samaritan,

Lost coins and sheep and sons,

In lily, sparrow, wheat and weeds.

In healing hands, in those who labor

In field and mill ‘til all be fed,

We keep your memory

In solidarity

By sharing cup and breaking bread.

O Agape, love freely poured,

O Abba, mirrored in the Son,

Sophia, flowing through the world,

Be known in me, be known in us.

Copyright © 2008 Rory Cooney.
 All rights reserved.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Songstories 33: You Are a Sacrifice (1987, NALR, from "Mystery")

Since Trinity Sunday is this week, I thought I'd write about one of my more clearly trinitarian songs. Though I wrote it 27 or 28 years ago, I think it still stands up lyrically, and though it was never anthologized in a hymnal, it's a sentimental favorite of ours that always gets a good reaction when we are able to sing it in concert.

We were visiting, or passing through, St. Louis in the early summer of 1986 (or so!), probably heading to an NPM or some other church musical event, and staying with friends in the area. I very clearly remember spending time at Terry's house, on the porch, with a guitar, and puzzling over this tune. It is quite possible that it was even the days before Trinity Sunday, which is why I was thinking this particular song through. What I do recall is that whatever Sunday was that weekend, we sang it publicly for the first time, having worked out the Simon-and-Garfunkel two-part harmony and little guitar riff that give the song its character.

By now you know that I'm pretty much obsessed with the concepts from our faith that are imbedded in this text: the kenosis of God who pours self out into creation and into Christ, the agape of God that can seem to be death to us, but is the fullness of creative and abundant life, and the gift of the Holy Spirit that animates the body of Christ and makes agape love possible for us. Thanks to the classes at Corpus Christi Center with John Gallen, I was also thinking about sacrifice in new ways (to me) that would soften the ground for the day some years later that Richard Fragomeni would sow from the philosophy of Rene Girard. "Sacrifice" is a Latin compound that means "to do a holy thing," or "to make (a thing) holy," and "You Are a Sacrifice" tries to celebrate that the self-gift that is agape and sacrifice are one and the same.

The lyric of the song has three verses, each expressing an aspect of these realities that relates to one of the persons of the trinity. The refrain is a prayer, reminiscent of John the Baptizer's saying, associated with his feast at the summer solstice, that "he must increase and I must decrease":
Accept our fading light that Christ more brightly blaze!
With Jesus, receive us,
A living sacrifice of praise.
The repeated lines, varying a little from stanza to stanza but echoing because of the finished/undiminished rhyme, are a paean to agape, and our faith that somehow the more complete our self-gift is, the more unselfishly we risk pouring ourselves out for others, the fuller life becomes. We are not only undiminished by love, but, startlingly, enriched, made fuller, more human, more alive. This is not because of anything we ourselves are capable of, but because we are created with the breath of God, and divine love dwelling within us enables our giving, forming us ever more perfectly into the image of Christ.

That's the little story of "You Are a Sacrifice." The CD is out of print, but the entire song is on SoundCloud for you to enjoy. Maybe one of these days we'll re-record it, and see if it strikes a chord, as it were, a generation later. What do you think?

You Are a Sacrifice
music and lyrics by Rory Cooney

Father, all we have is from you.

Universes you have made
For the joy of giving to Christ,
Who gives them back to you.
And at the finish,
You are undiminished.
You are a sacrifice of love.

Ref. Accept our fading light, that Christ more brightly blaze!
With Jesus, receive us,
A living sacrifice of praise.

And Christ did not imagine

Glory was a thing to grasp.
Rather, in the image of you,
He emptied himself.
And at the finish,
He is undiminished.
He is a sacrifice of love. Ref.

Your Spirit lives in us to show

That life is to be shared,
And the finest love
Is life that's given away.
And at the finish,
We are undiminished,
We are yours, a living sacrifice of love. Ref.

Copyright © 1987 Epoch/NALR. Transferred 2004 to Rory Cooney. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Tiresome perfectionism

"Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." (Mt. 5: 48)

"Do not be offended by the imperfect, even as you strive for the perfect." (#27, Music in Catholic Worship, quoting Augustine.)

A few weeks ago I was writing about Lent, sin, and grace, in a post entitled "Do Our Best and Doing Right—Not Necessarily the Same Thing," which was intended to spell out this sense I have that sometimes we Americans (especially) allow ourselves to feel that doing our best in a particular situation is the same thing as "doing good," or "doing right," which is a huge mistake, and starts us down the road that leads us away from the possibility of repentance and actually being in the reign of God. Learning that when our best choices are still not "good" allows us to say "Kyrie eleison," and remember that God's law, and not ours, is the only good. I think, for instance, of those bumper stickers on cars at church that say, "Freedom isn't free," as though that were an excuse for drones, torture, and all the other violence that is warfare. Yes, sometimes war seems to be our best choice, especially in a diverse nation. But to imagine that war is good, or God's will, makes a mockery of Christ, who would not allow the sword to be taken up in his own defense.

But that's not really what I wanted to write about today. More to the point of my own life, I want to look at what is, in a way, the flip side of that same moral coin. I'm talking about the way I can get that rankles and sputters when things don't go "by the book," when diocesan and parish leaders embrace practices that aren't what I consider to be according to the letter or spirit of best liturgical practice or pastoral judgment (you can substitute your own discipline here.) We are trained in the tradition of the church, we've been taught by people we consider to be titans in their field and people genuinely full of spiritual authority (however crazy they might have been), and lesser lights come along and ignore or contravene all their wisdom, tradition, and law, and we are left in what seems to be the rubble.

I don't know if I'm creative enough to give you examples without seeming to point the finger at specific people or practices, and my point isn't about what they do anyway, it's about what I do. But there are enough events buried in the years I've been in the biz that I might be able to surface a few to just indicate to you the kind of thing I mean. I mean, for instance, the bishop who has everyone kneel for an extended penitential rite during the Eucharist, or the priest who hears confessions during the penitential rite, both confusing, one could argue, the meaning of the rite, and even clouding the role of the Eucharist as the ordinary sacrament of reconciliation. The music directors who won't allow, say, the "Bridal March" from Lohengrin to ordinary brides, but who will improvise pop music or sports themes for the weddings and funerals of the rich and famous on their Mohlers and Steinways. The strange practice of having family groups go to the sacrament of penance together, for first confession, say, as if anyone in such a cluster has the freedom to express his or her sin.

It has sometime felt, in my work over the years, that I'm pushing a rock uphill. And I'm aware of the fact that it has no doubt been the same for those who have tried to work with me, that I'm the one pushing back on their work. My light has been my intellect, I suppose, my trust that the gospel and the liturgy will do their work on us if we allow them to, and don't try to re-form them in our own image and likeness. I believe in adaptation, too, that we live in a big church, and that the ritual experience of Christians in other parts of Christendom, even in the Roman church, can be valid expression for my community as well. I believe that the liturgy is not monolithic, that it allows and invites adaptation, as can be uncovered by even a cursory reading of the rubrics of the Roman Missal,  and paragraph 35 of the RCIA.

But it's also true that there are limits to what can be adapted, what can be improvised. It is, after all, the tradition of the body that we are celebrating, and not the understanding of that tradition of an individual presider or even bishop, though again, a bishop might have the power to do a thing differently even if he lacks the actual authority to do so. Like all of us, just because a leader can do a thing, it doesn't mean that s/he should.

That's the source of my confusion at this strange juncture in my life. Maybe I'm just tired of pushing the rock uphill, or, more likely, maybe it would be better to find a different path for the rock, maybe one that isn't so steep? What occurs to me more and more are those words from Music in Catholic Worship quoted above, words that suggest that nothing that we ever do is going to be perfect, so, since imperfection is to be expected, go with the flow. Still, "while you strive for the perfect" is part of the equation. And that brings me around to what it means to "strive for the perfect," and I come face-to-face with agape (I Cor. 13) and forgiveness (Mt. 5:48), not with liturgical law and the minutiae of rubric. Christianity, one has to admit, has bigger fish to fry than preserving every yod and tittle of rubric.

Maybe you're thinking about that mean old joke about the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist, and thinking that it's about damn time I (and others like me) owned up to our ritual narcissism. You might be right. I'm still a bit confused by all this. For today, at least, I'm admitting I deserve to be the butt of that hyperbolic joke, and I'm trying to see my way to cultivating a more open heart. Still, I won't be advocating pizza and beer as candidates for the eucharistic species, or obsessive love songs from Phantom of the Opera and Jekyll and Hyde as appropriate choices for the sacrament of marriage, or readings from Kahlil Gibran or Marianne Williamson in the liturgy of the word. Call me old-fashioned, I guess. These 62-year-old bones can only bend so far, but at least they're trying to learn to bend.