Friday, March 16, 2018

Lenten Meditation #5: The Trial of God

"Pilate said to him: 'You do not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you, and authority to crucify you?'" (John 19:10)

"Pilate, seeing that this was not advantageous, but rather a riot was happening, took water and, facing the crowd, washed his hands." (Matthew 27:24)

Pontius Pilate may be my favorite character in the Gospels. Most of the people we encounter in the Gospels are fairly similar to the Evangelists themselves: ordinary people, of no great status or significance or responsibility, transformed over time and with great difficulty by the grace of God into disciples of the truth. In this conflict of grace and nature, nature offers its share of difficulties, but little determined opposition. Peter may stammer and swear and shout and betray, but he loves Jesus nonetheless; blind men and lepers may disobey or lack faith or be confused, but in the end they want to be healed; the poor and the great of Israel may not understand what the Kingdom of God consists of, or like the one who preaches it very much, but they do want God's Kingdom to come.

Pilate, though, never shows any such desire for the Kingdom of God, or any particular respect for it; he is, after all, the representative of another kingdom. He represents nature not in its weakness and receptivity to grace, but in the fullness of its strength and pride.

Like very many of us, though, his part in human society, in the fallen order in opposition to grace, is in truth a very small and difficult one. Americans prize individual freedom and power over just about anything--yet in reality, almost no human being who has ever lived has ever actually been free and independent and strong in any remotely meaningful sense. Power and freedom resides in kingdoms, not in men; and most of us, most of the time, get whatever power and whatever freedom we have (or pretend we have) merely by consenting to be one small cog in a much larger machine. America is the leader of the free world; and I am a citizen of America. Rome is the head of the world; and I am the representative of Rome. 

Pilate's career, as we get it not only from the Gospels but also from the Roman-Jewish historian Josephus, was not a wildly successful or fortunate one; given charge of a backwater full of religious fanatics, he was undercut and opposed at every turn, his brutal and unsubtle tactics usually ending in failure and embarrassment for both Rome and himself. A long, miserable career, with plenty of dead bodies but very little glory, pursued more for the imagined proximity of success and power than any tangible presence thereof: if we do not, all of us, see much of ourselves in such a man, then we are hardly being very honest with ourselves. 

Still, in the end, Pilate receives his reward for all those years of fruitless toil: he gets to be the judge of God.

Let us take a moment to appreciate just what an extraordinary privilege, what an extraordinary gift, this really was, to Pilate and to ourselves. Is this not, truly, what he had always wanted, what all of us have always wanted, and fruitlessly sought, in so many labors?

For this is, in truth, the one thing pride, in its heart of hearts, most desperately desires: to be the one whose thought and word and will stands alone and unquestioned, entirely apart from and above all others. What bitterness, what resentment, we suffer, whenever any other human person, whenever any other reality, whenever even God himself, takes away from this blissful power, this all-encompassing freedom. At some time in our lives, another human person, whether by word or deed or merely by their existence, has stood as an obstacle to our will or our knowledge or our desire; at some time in our lives, another human person has even dared to set out their own thought and will and existence as equal to, or perhaps even more important than, our own; at some time in our lives, another human person has even dared to sit in judgment over our thoughts, over our wills, to tell us that this is good and that bad--or even had the audacity to command us, to demand that we submit our desires to their desires, our thoughts to their thoughts, our will to their will. At some point in our lives, faced with this intolerable reality, with this crushing and hateful presence, everything in us has risen up in rebellion, and and we have longed to see this other crushed, humiliated, annihilated, ceasing to exist or else subjected totally and beyond hope of recovery to our thoughts and desires, our will.

If this is true with another human person, is it not true a hundred, a thousand-fold with God himself? Is he not, after all, the one whose thought and will really does stand unquestioned and above all others, is he not the one who dared to create us with his will, to sustain us with that will, and even to redeem us by his love? Is he not the one who beyond all others claims the right to command us, who demands that we to submit our own thoughts and desires and wills, totally and beyond all hope of recovery, to his? Is he not the one, finally, who has dared to judge us, to declare this deed of ours good, and that evil? Is it not God that we have hated in every person whose existence and thoughts and will and judgment and commands we have hated, God we have longed to see crushed and humiliated and subjected to us totally? 

This, then, is the gift Pilate received, in recompense for a whole lifetime spent fruitlessly bending and submitting, flattering and scheming, murdering and torturing and toiling: to look into the face of God himself, and tell him that you are his judge.

To be the one--the one--to see God standing before you, in chains, to be the one to examine God, question him, parse his conduct, decide without question whether he is guilty or innocent, whether he has acted wrongly or rightly, whether he will live or die: this is, in truth, the perfect fulfillment of all our human pride.

Still, as the Gospel account shows, sitting in judgment over God is no easy task; and in doing it, Pilate's pride, like our own, hardly achieves a perfect victory. Pilate is in turn frightened, overawed, annoyed, overcome, even humiliated, by the Jewish priests, their crowds of supporters, and Christ himself. For Christ Jesus is not impressed at all by Pilate's power, his status, his accomplishments, or the vast human systems that underly all these things; nor is he any more impressed with ours. Christ claims to be Truth itself, utterly beyond and utterly indifferent to all power and all knowledge; and he demands that Pilate, and we, acknowledge him, submit ourselves to him, be judged by him, and be, cruellest of all, loved by him.

Against this divine calling, it is very difficult for any human being to remain strong in his own pride; yet Pilate succeeds nonetheless, and it is this that is his real triumph, his only success, as it is so often ours. "What is truth?" he asks, not a question at all, but a final declaration of indifference, of rejection, of Truth standing before him and offering himself to him. "God is innocent," he declares, as he nevertheless asks the priests and the crowd what their preference might happen to be on this matter; a gesture of the most superb indifference to justice, to truth, to each and every single person present. Finally, though, the most glorious moment of his triumph, and ours, comes at last: when he as presiding judge declares God guilty and hands him over to be scourged and mocked and tortured and humiliated and be utterly broken and die in agony; and in so doing washes his hands publicly in front of all his enemies, in front of the entire human race, and declares himself innocent.

Contemplate, if you will, the greatness of this human pride, his and ours! To wash our hands entirely of God and the priests and the people, guilt and innocent, truth and falsehood, life and death: is this not the greatest and most potent declaration of our independence, our freedom, the absoluteness of our own thoughts and our wills?

Perhaps God, who is innocent, is indeed being tortured to death and dying in agony under my orders, before my face; but what is truth? I am innocent of this man's blood.

In the face of God, the only real power of man is in indifference, in simple and final rejection of other persons, truth, and God. This choice of Pilate we have made, each one of us, and this same choice we make daily. We see good and evil, truth and falsehood, we see other human persons and ourselves, we see God: and we are indifferent to and reject them all.

Justice is violated before our eyes, the poor are oppressed and tormented and forgotten, the weak and the innocent are bought and sold, corrupted and led astray, God himself is insulted in his Church and his representatives, and we do nothing, perhaps indeed we even take delight in it, because it is so powerful, so free to be and to do such things.

Does not each and every single one of us daily take delight in such indifference, in such freedom? How many of the deeds we do are done, truly, for its sake? How many even of the deeds we claim to do for God are done, in truth, for the sake of pride, for the humiliation and subjection of other persons, and God himself, to our thoughts, our wills?

Pilate is not at all the most evil character in the Gospels, as Christ himself, not without pity, declared; he had less knowledge of God than others, and so less power to wound him in his heart. We, though, to the degree that we claim to, and truly do, know God and love him, are like Pilate and yet far, far worse than him in every way, whenever we imitate him in his indifference and pride.

Daily God is brought before us to be judged, in the guise of our neighbor, in the guise of the Church and her Pope and priests and bishops and teachings, in the guise of the poor and the weak and the sinful and the oppressed and each and every single one of our brothers and sisters. Let us, if we claim to be Christians, not act the part of Pilate; let us not crucify God in pride and indifference, but in humility and love let us acknowledge God in whatever guise he comes to us, submit our desires to his desires, our thoughts to his thoughts, our will to his will. Let us acknowledge him, and him alone, as the judge of every person, of every deed of others and ourselves, and submit ourselves and all things to his justice.

When we have laid aside all the glory of our earthly knowledge and strength, our status in every earthly system and every power that comes from it, every power to judge and to decide and to will: only then can we receive from Christ the Eternal Kingdom he would offer to us in his Cross. If we can accept this Cross, we will be blessed indeed, and will no more be forced to spend our lives standing in judgment over God, declaring him innocent or guilty, trying desperately and in vain to wash his blood from our hands. We will, rather, live in peace, sustained by his love, submitting to and seeking the justice he has declared, in and through his Church, to the whole world.

This, then, is the judgment: that only when every last shred of our pride has been utterly destroyed, only when we have become, like God, entirely truth and entirely love, can we enter into the kingdom prepared for us from the foundation of the world, and delight in the fullness of joy forever.

Let us see to it, then.


Lord Jesus Christ, I acknowledge before you the greatness of my pride, and the great and willful indifference with which I have stood in judgment over you and my neighbor, and delighted in being free of you and your love. Grant, I beseech you, that I may truly repent of this pride, and truly and in all things submit my desires to your desires, my thoughts to your thoughts, my will to your will: first in your Church, her Pope and bishops and priests, then in all those set in authority over me by God, and lastly in each and every single one of my brothers and sisters, especially those who are most treated, like you, with indifference.


Thursday, March 8, 2018

Lenten Meditation #4: The Weakness of God

"And carrying the Cross for himself Jesus went out to the place called 'of the Skull,' which is called in Hebrew Golgotha." (John 19:17)

Third Station of the Cross: Jesus falls the first time.

Seventh Station of the Cross: Jesus falls the second time.

Ninth Station of the Cross: Jesus falls the third time.

"And they conscripted some passerby, Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus, as he was coming from the countryside, to take up Jesus' Cross." (Mark 15:21)

We are human beings, and so we are weak.

This is not in the least an evil; for weakness and strength are both relative things, valueless except in relation to God or human beings or time or space or some other created thing. God is strong in relation to us, because in relation to him we are nothing at all, and exist at each moment only because he wills it; but in himself, in relation to himself, God is properly neither strong nor weak. The Father does not need strength to beget the Son or to exist in relation to him; nor does the Son need weakness to be loved by the Father and love him in return, and with him spirate the Holy Spirit.

In relation to God and others and ourselves, there are times when it is good for us to be strong; and times when it is good for us to be weak. Sometimes we must help; sometimes we must be helped. Sometimes we must direct; and sometimes we must be directed. Sometimes, and in some things, we must act as though we existed, to accept the gifts of being and goodness which God offers to us, and use them as he wishes, offering to God his own offerings; but in many other things, and in the most fundamental heart of our being, we must be very weak indeed, existing in relation to God very simply as what we truly are: that is, nothing at all. In this humility is the only possible hope of our union with God.

Likewise, the real relations we have to our neighbors, and the genuine love that arises in them, are made possible in this life as much by our weakness as our strength. To love is to submit our own desires and fears and wishes to the good of another; and to be loved is to accept this submission and this will in another, for our good. This is a task that requires, often, all of our strength to fulfill; yet without weakness, we would rarely if ever even attempt it. In our fallen state, strength all too often does little more than make us proud, secure in a false illusion of self-sufficiency, while weakness reveals to us our own dependency and relatedness, and opens us to love.

Still, we are creatures to whom God has given intellects, to know the good, and wills, to seek it; and it is terribly vexing for us to be weak, to be unable to do what we will. We have bodies, which require food and desire pleasure, and hearts that seek always to love and be loved; and it is painful for us to not have what we desire, or to possess what we fear. To be weak, for us, is very often to suffer: to suffer the lack of some things we would have, and the presence of others we would escape.

Certainly it pleases us to be strong; to be able to do what we will, to have what we desire, to avoid what we fear. Yet here is another burden, another gift of God: that through our very strength we soon grow weak and weary, our bodies wearing away, our minds slipping from us, until we must seek nonbeing again in rest and in sleep.

Then, too, however strong we may be in body or mind, the utter failure of all our strength awaits us all in death. In the end, whether we will it or no, our bodies will fail and not be renewed, our minds will break and be torn from us and not return, and we will fall back into the feeble dust from which we came.

The Athenians, in the brief moment of their power, declared that the strong do what they will, while the weak suffer what they must. In the end, all of us, strong or weak, do what we do not will, and suffer what we must.

In becoming man, then, God became for the first time weak--and also for the first time strong, as we know strength. Christ Jesus in the body was a strong man, who overturned the moneychangers' tables and wandered the earth with no place to call his home. Day and night, he toiled and preached and argued and fought for the sake of sinners. Day and night, he did as strong men do, and carried out his will, which was to do the will of the one who sent him, in all things and at every moment, for the salvation of the world.

Even in his Passion, Christ Jesus was, as a man, strong; strong in the will and the desire that drove him to take up the burden of the sins of the world, to fight and to suffer and to die for the sake of his beloved. Christ Jesus, as man, knew each one of us, and as man he willed to seek us out and to save us, even through the pain and torment of the Cross.

Still, if Christ was strong, he was also weak; weak as we are weak, in the created nothingness of his humanity and ours. As he became strong out of love for us, to save us, so too he became weak for our sakes, to love us and be loved by us. He was weak when he came into the world as an embryo in the body of his Mother and at her will, when he was born to her and carried by her and nursed at her breast, when he cried aloud in the night for her to come to him and receive him and love him. He was weak when he wept over Jerusalem, because he willed to heal it, and his beloved willed not; he was weak when he sweated blood in the garden, because he willed that cup of sin and death pass from him, and it did not pass, since his own divine will must be done. As he became strong for the sake of love, so too did he make himself terribly, dreadfully weak, as weak as us and far weaker, so that we might recognize his love for us, and love him in return.

In the fullness of his human strength, for the sake of his great love for us, Christ Jesus our Lord took on himself the burden of the Cross, the burden of all of our sin and shame and misery; and in the fullness of his human weakness, for the sake of his great love for us, he was not able to bear it.

Christ Jesus willed to bear the Cross, to carry it until the end, and yet his body failed, his mind slipped, and he fell three times into utter darkness. In the end, he required the help of a human person to carry it with and for him.

Let us recognize the mystery and the glory of what we are saying: God required the help of a human person to bear the Cross. He required our help.

For the sake of his love, God did not will that he alone should save us; he willed rather that we should love him and one another, and with him and through him carry the Cross of salvation to the end. We are saved not merely through and by Christ, but in him also through and by one another; even through and by ourselves. Christ Jesus, as God, could have made his human body and soul strong enough to bear the Cross until the end; he did not. For our sakes he made himself very weak, so that we might help him, as he helped and helps us in all things. So great was his love for us that he desired that he should need our help to bring his love to completion.

In and through the grace of God, in the power of his Spirit, we too are called to offer ourselves for the salvation of the world; and without our cooperation neither the world nor ourselves will be saved. This is the responsibility, the burden, the Cross, which Christ Jesus lays upon us all. He has given into our hearts his own Divine Love, laid upon our backs his own Cross, and asked us to bear it until the end. So great is his love for us that he wills that we possess his love as our own, and fulfill it in ourselves.

There is no intimacy with the Lord closer than this, no divinization more blessed than this, than that we should possess as our own the Love of God, and in our own works and prayers and sufferings and lives fulfill it.

Still, if we would bear the Cross of Christ, we cannot bear it in our own human strength; far from it. We can only bear it by acknowledging, and living in, our own absolute nothingness, our own absolute dependence on God and his grace. Only by our own human weakness can we be strong with the strength of God. Only the Divine Love of Christ can allow us to will the Cross, and bear it faithfully until the end; every other love is only a counterfeit, a deception, and will fail the moment it is put to the test.

If we would bear the Cross of Christ, we must bear it not in our own strength, but through the strength of Christ; and if we would love, finally, as Christ loves, we must do so not through our own weakness, but through the weakness of Christ.

This is the deepest and most blessed mystery of all: to bear in ourselves, in our own bodies and souls and minds and hearts, the weakness of God. When Christ Jesus fell to earth beneath the Cross, he was weak with a weakness that saves and has saved us all; when he cried out in agony nailed to that same Cross, he was weak with a weakness that has torn the veil and revealed to us the very inner life of God himself, the Eternal and unbreakable love of the Trinity.

The lives we live, and the Crosses we bear, are full of suffering, and of weakness, and of failure. We will, and do not do what we will. We desire, and do not have what we desire. We fear, and have what we fear. By all this, we are made weary, and waste away, and fall into darkness. Christ Jesus, too, for our sake, was weak in just this way, and fell to the earth beneath the weight of the Cross; and by this he redeemed us all from everlasting death.

Let us, then, run to offer to him upon the Cross all our weaknesses, all our failures, all our nothingness and helplessness and lack. He will receive it all as his own, for he has indeed claimed it for his own. By it, far more than by our own vain strength, he will unite us ever more deeply with his own helplessness, his own failure, his own nothingness and weakness on the Cross. By it, he will lead us into the fullness of his Love, the Love by which he himself exists as Father, Son, and Spirit, far beyond all our weakness and all our strength, forever.


Lord Jesus Christ, weak and fallen Savior, take pity on us, and give us always the strength to accept your love, so that in us and our weakness the mystery of your own divine weakness may be completed, for the salvation of all the world.


Friday, March 2, 2018

Lenten Meditation #3: Stabat Mater

"By the Cross stood the mother of Jesus." (John 19:25)

There is a great paradox to be found in the Passion of Christ; that in suffering the sins of the world, Christ was alone, and yet not alone:

"Behold, the hour is coming, and has come, when you all scatter, each returning to what is his own, and leave me alone: and I am not alone, because my Father is with me." (John 16:32)

In a most important sense, Christ in his Passion suffered alone; for he alone could at once, as man, suffer for the sins of the world, and at the same time, as God, overcome them through the power of the Resurrection. Still, there is a far more terrible aloneness which Christ bore in his Passion; a loneliness and isolation that is the cruelest of all human evils, the most terrible of all human sufferings.

The greatest suffering of Christ in his Cross was his abandonment by those who were dear to him, those whom he loved; first his disciples, then all of us. They, and we, could not watch with him one hour; we, and they, would not drink of the cup of which Our Lord drank. For many reasons, fear and pride and greed and lust and, cruelest of all, simple indifference, we returned to what is our own, leaving the things of God, the things of Eternal Love, and leaving him all alone. As Saint Faustina Kowalska taught, all that we can call finally our own is our lack, our nothingness, our misery, and all that we choose to keep apart from God and his love: in other words, Hell. In his Passion, Christ was abandoned by the souls of the damned, whom he loved and for whom he died, yet who chose instead to return to what was their own, forever. This is, in some measure, the choice we make each and every time we commit a mortal sin.

In this sense, then, Christ in his passion was most profoundly and terribly alone--or rather, he was abandoned, betrayed: his Heart was broken. We all like sheep scattered, each to his own path, and left him alone.

There is and has been only one who did not share in the wandering common to our fallen condition; only one who faithfully followed the path laid out for her by God, not by her own knowledge or strength but entirely by his grace. This is the Immaculate Conception, the Mother of God, the only truly human person to have ever lived free from the stain of our inhumanity.

The dogma of the Immaculate Conception is usually, and naturally, connected to the conception and birth of Jesus: since it was indeed fitting that the woman who gave flesh to the Son of God, who bore him in her body and nursed him at her breast, should be, like the Ark of the Covenant, entirely pure and free of defilement. Still, it is well to remember that Christ was born to die; he took on created life in order to lay it down for us. In the same way, Mary was made pure by God not merely so that she might be pure for Christ's conception and birth, but far more so that she might be pure for his suffering and death. It was fitting that she be without sin in giving him flesh; but it was far more fitting that she be without sin in accompanying him to offer that flesh as a sacrifice.

That which Christ bore on his Cross could only be borne by one without sin. Christ was pure, and so saw sin as it is, and suffered it; we are corrupt, and so see sin as we wish it to be, and choose it. Mary, though, like Christ, was pure; and like Christ, and with him, she suffered to the end.

Imagine our life, then, as it truly is, as one long Passion, one long Way of the Cross. We are all set on the road towards the Cross, together with Christ; our love for him, and his for us, keeps us with him, and he with us, and unites us ever closer to him, and he with us, as we journey towards our common goal. Each and every sin of ours, though, is a straying from that path, an abandonment of Christ carrying and dying on the Cross, leaving him alone.

It is manifest, then, that only the Immaculate Conception, only the one entirely without sin, could truly follow and remain with Christ, in every part of his Passion, from the very first step to the very last, from the beginning to the consummation. This is the eternal glory of the Mother of God, that she most perfectly of all mankind loved God as man, as a human being, as her son, and loved him faithfully until the end. She alone did not leave him alone.

In and through Mary, though, we too can accompany Christ carrying in the Cross; we too can remain with him and not leave him alone. Inasmuch as we repent of our sins, inasmuch as we accept the Crosses that God lays upon us, in union with the Cross which Christ bears, inasmuch as we seek with all our heart and all our strength to follow after him, we follow in the path of Mary, and stand by his Cross, to console his heart. This is, in truth, the sum of our calling as human persons: to remain with Christ until the end.

Christ's heart was broken by our sins, by the terrible loneliness of his abandonment by us all. It was consoled, and is consoled, by each step we take to love him and to accept his love, as Mary did. As a mother accepts the smallest and clumsiest gesture of love by her child, so Christ accepts the smallest and clumsiest signs of our love. He requires no great deeds, no prideful and self-willed labors on his behalf; he desires only our presence with him, standing by the Cross with Mary, so that we may likewise stand by him in Eternity.

Here, though, is one of the most terrible things by which Christ's heart is broken, one of the most terrible and unspeakable of our many betrayals and abandonments; that we have not merely abandoned and forgotten Christ in himself, but also in those whom he loves. It is not Christ alone who is abandoned; it is not Christ alone who is alone, and forgotten. In each and every one of our brothers and sisters who suffers from loneliness, who has been betrayed or abandoned, who in any way and for any reason suffers alone, without consolation, Christ is once again made to be alone. And what do we do for these our brothers and sisters, what do we do for Christ abandoned and suffering before our eyes? Do we follow, accompany, remain, console, suffer with and for, until the end? Or do we scatter, each to what is our own, and leave Christ, once again, alone?

That even Christ, in the depths of his Passion, was not left alone, but that we have left all alone souls for whom he died: how can we hear this, and not tremble? By our indifference and lack of love, we have made his Passion vain.

Still, Christ is not mocked. Although a human person should be abandoned by all, although he should be entirely alone, yet there is one who is with him: Christ himself, who was abandoned and made to be alone for his sake. Let us never forget this, and let us pray to be made worthy to accept and to participate in this great love, which is for each and every one of us.

In and with and for each and every human person who is abandoned or betrayed or alone, who suffers without consolation, Christ is crucified alone: and Mary is with him. Let us not forget it.


Lord Jesus Christ, lonely and abandoned and forgotten by all, give to me the Immaculate Heart of Mary, so that I may no more leave you alone, but faithfully follow, with her, on the path of your Cross until the end.

Mary, Mother of God and my Mother, give me your heart, that in you I may be found worthy to accompany and console Christ crucified and alone in the hearts of my brothers and sisters.

O Mary conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.


Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Father Augustus Tolton

Before the end of Black History Month, I wanted to write something about a saint whose acquaintance I've made only in the last few years, but who has been very close to me in my prayer of late: Servant of God Augustus Tolton.
There are actually two African-Americans whose Causes of Canonization are open and progressing at the moment, both of whom were born as slaves. The other is Julia Greeley, who tirelessly helped the poor, often in secret, in Denver, Colorado.
Father Augustus Tolton, though, was a public figure even in his own time, for a very obvious reason: he was the first publicly-recognized African-American Catholic priest in the US.
Tolton was born into slavery in Missouri only six years before the outbreak of the Civil War. His parents were devout Catholics, who had not only married in the Church, but also ensured their children were baptized as well. Their life, though, was certainly one of suffering, and even as a young child Tolton was forced to work in the fields with the other slaves.
As the Civil War neared its end, Tolton's father ran away to join the Union Army and free his wife and children, dying shortly thereafter. Left alone, Mother Tolton (as she was known in her later years) took her three children and traveled north to Missouri and the border town of Quincy. There, life on the plantation quickly turned into life on the assembly line of a cigar factory.
Still, freedom brought with it opportunity, and Mother Tolton was determined to ensure her son's Catholic education. Her first attempt at entering her son in school, however, proved an unmitigated disaster, as white parents threatened the priests and nuns running the school and Augustus himself was viciously mistreated by his fellow children.
This changed, however, when Augustus and his mother were befriended by Father Peter McGirr, an Irish Franciscan. Taking the young boy under his wing, Father McGirr ensured not only his entrance into his parish's school, but his good treatment by the other children and congregants. Finally in a welcoming environment, Augustus thrived; in later years, he would look back longingly on his days at St. Peter's School, where he studied, served Mass with Father Peter, and gradually grew in faith and trust of God.
As time passed, Father McGirr become more and more impressed by this young man's intelligence and piety, and finally made the fateful decision to discuss with Augustus the possibility of a vocation to the priesthood. Almost from this moment, Augustus' heart was absolutely set on this goal; and he never faltered in his pursuit of it, regardless of the obstacles set in his path, or the sacrifices it would require.
Father McGirr and the other priests and sisters who knew Augustus all helped to train and tutor him in everything necessary for his priestly studies; but when Augustus applied for seminary, he was rejected in turn by each seminary in America. Their reason, for the most part, was simple fear: this was the time of the great Nativist movements, when anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic sentiment was dominant all over America, and seminaries and Churches had been targeted and burned by mobs. A Catholic seminary was bad enough; a Catholic seminary with an African-American seminarian, though, was sure to become a prime target for threats, violence, and worse. Even through the mid-20th century, in fact, the "Spectre of the Negro Priest" was to remain a major focus of Southern Protestant Anti-Catholic fears and resentment.
Still, this was hardly an act of courage or faith on the part of America's Catholic seminaries; and it left Augustus with almost no recourse in pursuing his vocation. Still, he and Father Peter did not give up hope, but redoubled Augustus' education and spiritual preparation, waiting for the Will of God to reveal itself. In the end, their faith was more than rewarded: for after many years and many setbacks, Augustus Tolton was selected to attend seminary and study in Rome itself. Then and now, this was a privilege reserved for the very best and most promising prospects.
So this young former slave and factory worker, who had never before strayed beyond the plantation in Missouri and the industrial town of Quincy, Illinois, sailed away to Europe, to Rome and the Seminary of the Congregation De Propaganda Fidei ("For the Propagation of the Faith"). This Seminary trained missionary priests, to be sent everywhere in the world where the Church was spreading and priests were in short supply. Here, amidst the splendor of the Eternal City, Augustus found himself studying side-by-side with people of every race and ethnicity and nation. In the evenings, for recreation, he would sing to brothers from all over the world the Negro Spirituals his mother had taught him as a child.
In the end, after six years of intensive study and discernment, he was ordained on April 24, 1886 in the Church of St. John Lateran, the Cathedral Church of Rome and the universal Catholic Church. Days later, he celebrated his first Mass as a priest in St. Peter's Basilica.
As a child, Father Tolton had toiled in the fields as a slave; now, in persona Christi, he offered Sacrifice at the Altar of the Church of the Prince of the Apostles, with a Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church as his Altar Server.
Still, along with the splendor of his Ordination came the promise of a very close conformity to the Sacrifice he offered. All through his seminary education, Tolton had expected that he would be sent as a missionary to Africa, where his skin color would be an advantage, not a liability; he had consequently spent a great deal of time learning the languages and cultures of the peoples among whom he expected to labor. On the day before his Ordination, however, his superior informed him there had been a change of plans; he would instead be sent back to the United States of America, to his own diocese and hometown.
The Italian Cardinal who made this decision reportedly announced it to his colleagues with the immortal words: 'America has been called the most enlightened nation in the world. We shall see whether it deserves that honor. If the United States has never before seen a black priest, it must see one now.'
This was certainly a momentous step for the Church in America--and a heavy burden for any man to bear. Augustus would hardly have been human if he had not regarded this news with trepidation, if not outright fear. Life in America had been, and would continue to be, a cruel Cross of suffering and prejudice and degradation: a Cross that would ultimately claim his life. Fittingly, the day he was given this news was Good Friday, the day of Christ's own Crucifixion.
Still, whatever his feelings, Father Tolton did not hesitate in agreeing to dedicate the rest of his life to ministering to his African-American brothers and sisters in the land of their exile and suffering. On his return trip, he toured the great Catholic shrines of Europe, celebrating Mass on altars that had seen many centuries of pilgrims and saints. At his request, though, the first Mass he celebrated in America was for the poor African-American Catholics of the Church of St. Benedict the Moor in New York.
And so Father Tolton returned to Quincy in honor, to the place where he had grown up and labored and suffered many things. Now, though, he was a public figure, looked to and admired by people all across America. Although there had been priests before him of "mixed" African-American descent, none had spoken publicly of their ancestry or been widely recognized as such. Father Tolton, though, was known and talked about in every corner of his country. When the Bishops of the United States gathered in Baltimore for their Convocation, secular and Protestant observers were shocked to see on the altar, alongside the high dignitaries of the Church, an African-American dressed in the vestments of a priest; and his example and words were crucial in inspiring many other African-American men in aiming for, and attaining, the same goal.
Still, all this purported fame occupied little of Father Tolton's attention; for he was engaged in the exhausting, overwhelming task of ministering to his poor and oppressed flock. His first efforts at establishing an African-American parish in Quincy ended in failure due to the bitter opposition of a fellow priest, a German, who was driven not only by prejudice but also by jealousy at Father Tolton's "poaching" of his white parishioners. Throughout his career, Father Tolton was noted for the brilliance and fervor of his preaching, as well as for the beautiful singing voice with which he chanted the Mass; and these qualities, along with his obvious piety, frequently drew to him far more than just African-American Catholics.
Still, Father Tolton's heart was set on ministering to his own people, and, stymied once again by prejudice, he accepted an offer from the Archdiocese of Chicago to establish a parish to care for the African-American population of that great city, many of whom had emigrated there following the Civil War and now lived lives of desperate poverty and oppression. During his eight years of ministry, Father Tolton's tireless and thankless efforts brought his parish from meeting in the basement of another parish, to a storefront Church, to planning and building a monumental Church of their own, St. Monica's, named for the African mother of St. Augustine.
Still, the task which he had set for himself was nothing if not overwhelming. As Pastor of Saint Monica's, Father Tolton presided over a congregation of the very poorest of the poor, subjected to the harshest material conditions and the cruelest prejudice and exclusion. For the good of these children of his, Father Tolton's time and energy was ceaselessly taken up with not only celebrating the Sacraments (saying Mass daily, marrying his congregants, baptizing their children, visiting the sick and the dying at home to Anoint and console them), but also teaching religious education classes, organizing and leading guilds and other fellowships, and doing everything in his power to provide for the terrible material needs of his people. These efforts took him constantly far from St. Monica's, into all the slums and tenements where his children lived. Through all this, though, he continued to have one very consoling companion: his mother, who served as his housekeeper, sacristan, and constant source of help and support. Another support, too, he had with him always: his faith in the Crucified Christ, expressed in the love with which he cared for his people and the fervor with which he preached and celebrated Mass and prayed privately with his mother every day in their tiny apartment.
These heroic efforts, though, took their toll. After only thirteen years as a priest, in his early forties, Tolton seemed an old man, forced from sheer fatigue to deliver his homilies seated rather than standing. In all these years, he had had no worldly success to speak of, and precious little rest.
Still, rest was not to be long in coming. At the age of 43, travelling to a retreat with his fellow priests, Father Tolton was overcome by the heat wave sweeping Chicago at the time, and collapsed in agony.
This father and teacher, a true image of Christ in his Priesthood and his love, had consumed himself entirely, body and soul, for the sake of his people, poured himself out utterly, like water, for the God he served. He reigns now, in and with the Crucified and Risen Christ, over all the world and the whole human race.
Serve Dei Auguste Tolton, ora pro nobis!

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Lenten Meditation #2: The Coronation of the King

"The soldiers led him away into the courtyard, that is, the praetorium, and they called together the whole cohort. And they clad him in purple, and weaving together a crown of thorns, they set it upon him: and they began to salute him: 'Hail, King of the Jews!' And they were striking his head with a reed, and spitting on him, and falling on their knees they were worshiping him." (Mark 15:15-19)

Jesus Christ is king of the universe not because he is God, but because he is man. Inasmuch as he is God, Christ exists entirely apart from creation, neither needing it nor existing in any relationship with it commensurate to his nature. To God, creation is nothing--or rather, less than nothing. No created thing can in any way either add to or take away from what he is in himself.

God, to be sure, is the cause and end of creation, who created it and directs it according to his will, and in this sense he may be compared to a king. Still, in the fullest and most proper sense, the king is not the one who creates the people, nor even merely the one who directs it, but the one who represents it, who embodies it in himself. A king is a single human person who stands for all the other human persons that make up a people--in his one body and soul, he reflects and embodies and effects the unity of all the other human persons like him. A king, then, is not king by virtue of his unlikeness to his subjects, but by virtue of his likeness. No angel could be king of a nation of men, nor any man of a nation of bees.

In the truest sense, then, God is King of Creation in and through Christ, not in his divinity, but in his humanity. It is as created that God rules over the created; it is as created that Christ reflects and embodies and effects the unity of all creation in himself.  It is as man that Christ becomes King of Creation--but it is as God that he freely shares his own divine life with his subjects, raising them above nature, and uniting them with the eternal, perfect Divinity that is his birthright and inheritance. In and through Christ, the uncreated God is made King of Creation, and the created is made divine.

Like all human kingships, Christ's came into being in time and space and history, the realm of the created. Christ was born the heir of creation, but he had still to enter into his kingdom, to be anointed and crowned, to take his seat upon his throne.

Christ was born the Son of David; he was anointed with the Holy Spirit at his Baptism; but it was only in his Passion that he assumed his kingship in its fullness. It was in his Passion that Christ took on himself the rule of humanity and of creation, through his perfect sharing in its sins and wounds and sufferings and, finally, in the death that is the lot of all men and all creation. It was in his Passion that he received the emblems of his rule.

The Coronation of Christ, the King of the Universe, took place, then, in the Praetorium of the Roman guard, on a Friday in spring in Jerusalem. It was one of the many anonymous soldiers tasked with execution duty who clad the King in his royal garments, another who set on his head the Crown of all Creation, another who gave him his Scepter; and this whole cohort of soldiers and torturers were the very first to pay homage to the newly crowned King of time and space and matter.

This, then, is how the King of Creation was crowned, worshiped, recognized--as the lowest of all things, the mocked and despised and condemned. These are the infallible signs and means of his power: the Crown of Creation, a garland of thorns, twined in gleeful malice and forced onto his head, piercing it in place after place, drenching itself in his blood--the Scepter of Omnipotent Power, a reed hastily snatched up, beating his face again and again until unrecognizable. This is the true and fitting homage given to the Eternal King at his Coronation: utter mockery, unrestrained laughter, the contempt reserved only for that which is most hateful and most despised and overlooked and forgotten.

This, then, is the right by which Christ rules over all things: not that he is the strongest or the most beautiful, or the most recognized or admired or loved or trusted, but that he is the lowest and most shameful, weakest and most despised and forgotten and abused and mocked of all men. This is the right by which God would rule over us.

What gifts, then, would you offer to the King? Money, power, riches? All these are already his, and would have adorned him if he wished it. He did not wish it; he chose instead thorns and a reed and a soldier's cloak. Beautiful words, praises, the honor of your acknowledgment of him as Lord or God? Christ was crowned and worshiped by the utterly indifferent, who hated him--and you think he has need of your acknowledgment?

Christ valued the sincere mockery and contempt of the soldiers more than your proud and self-serving recognition. Whether you choose to acknowledge him or not, he remains King, and you, like the soldiers, will worship him in the end, willing or unwilling.

Christ was crowned in this way to show that there was only one thing that he truly desired, only one gift that you or any other human person or any other creature could truly offer him: yourself.

God became King of Creation not to gain gold or riches or honors or praises or the acknowledgment of men, but to save souls. For this reason, he took on himself all the mockery and shame and hatred and indifference of mankind, for this reason he made himself the lowest and least of all: so that in this way he might win the love of those who are weak and lowly, mocked and ashamed and hated, prideful and indifferent and condemned and sinners. You and I are all these things, and more; but for this reason, we ought to trust in God all the more.

Approach, therefore, the Throne of the King, the Cross. Recognize that God lowered himself to nothingness, to your nothingness, and even lower, so that you might love him. Recognize that for your sake God set himself beneath your feet, made himself powerless and despised and forgotten, so that you might remember him, and weep for your sins. Give him the only homage he desires: repentance from your sins, obedience to his commandments, trust in his love. Give him the only gift he desires: yourself.

It is only when you have given him yourself in its entirety, body and heart and mind and soul, ignorance and weakness and shame and sin, the utter nothingness of your created self, in total trust and abandonment and love, that his kingship will be truly fulfilled: for the true king reigns, not for his own benefit, but for the good of his subjects. For the eternal good of us, who are his subjects, the man Jesus was mocked and tortured and died in agony. For this reason he is, and always shall be, our Lord and King, and the King of all Creation. Let us worship him!


Lord Jesus Christ, King of Creation, you humbled yourself to be crowned and worshiped by sinners in indifference and hatred and mockery; grant that by your omnipotent power we might so humble ourselves as to worthily and sincerely offer our whole selves to you, and so receive the rewards of your eternal Kingdom.


Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Lenten Meditation #1: "Then they spat in his face."

"Then they spat in his face." (Matthew 26:67)

There is a sacramental quality to the body that is unbreakable. We are complex creatures, with complex intentions and thoughts and willings, borne of our hearts and minds and souls--and we naturally express these things physically, through our bodies. There is nothing of our bodies, no action or feature or quality, that does not bear a meaning beyond the physical, that does not communicate. The most perfunctory hug is still as a gesture of affection: the touch of a stranger's handshake--a kiss on the cheek--the movement of a muscle in the face--all have their own proper meanings.

So let us consider, for a moment, what is expressed by the spittle on the face of Christ. Christ Jesus became man in order to inaugurate a system of Sacraments, or rather in order to be the one, eternal Sacrament of the love and mercy of God. His every gesture, his every word, indeed his entire being as man, spiritual and physical, was a communication, an expression, of the eternal Word and his love for each man and woman and child. All that he communicated, and all that he received, through the physical, through his body, was communicated and received also by God.

Thus the enormous significance of all that was done to Christ in his Passion, all that was done to and for Christ throughout his life. Christ came to earth to communicate his love physically, through the Sacraments of his body and life and actions--he also came to earth to suffer, in himself, all the sin and disorder and suffering of man. In this suffering, too, he worked out our salvation not only in soul, but in body as well. In his Passion, the sufferings of Christ's soul were signified and expressed and effected by the sufferings of his body. All that was done to the body of Christ by man was done also to the soul of Christ, and hence to God--all that has been done against God was suffered by Christ in his soul, effected and expressed in his body.

Christ did not merely suffer the sins of those who crucified him, or of his contemporaries--he suffered the sins and wounds and sufferings of each and every man who has ever existed or ever will exist, including each of us. He bore our sins in his soul and in and through his body, through all that he gave and received in the body. That which a few men did to Christ in his Passion, then, truly signified and expressed and effected that which has been done to Christ by us all. When Christ received the blows of the soldiers, in them he recognized and suffered the blows of us all.

Think, then, of the action of spitting in the face of Christ. This is, it would seem, a fairly universal gesture--one whose meaning and import strikes us immediately, across cultures and times and places. It is the physical embodiment of contempt.

Contempt, or despising, is not a sin that we think of, perhaps, very often. To define it, though, we have merely to look to the physical gesture, the physical sacrament, which very well both effects and reveals what it signifies.

When we spit, we cast out of our bodies, out of ourselves, something which we regard as superfluous, unnecessary, or even hateful to us. Our spit to us is both valueless and distasteful, not something we prefer to think of at all, a matter for disgust--and so we cast it from ourselves, usually without thought, into places equally valueless and disgusting.

When we spit upon another, then, we treat that person as an appropriate receptacle for our spitting, our casting out of what is valueless and distasteful. Our act of spitting is not intended to hurt, to cause pain, or even to harm. It is intended, rather, to humiliate, to lower, to disregard.

To spit in someone's face expresses this basic reality even more intensely. The face is the part of the body that shows forth the person, the unique, relational being, more clearly and more inescapably than any other. We both express and receive love through the face; when we recognize the face of someone we know, we recognize not merely a body or a mind, but something unique, irreplaceable, valuable, loved and loving, a you to our I. It is in the face we appear as we are, beings defined by relation, existing from and for love. To spit in someone's face, then, is to treat as valueless and disgusting not merely the body qua physical, but the person itself, the unique, relational being capable of love, with a name, a mind, a heart, a soul. It is to degrade and lower and crush not merely some person, but this person, you. I see your face--and I spit in it.

Imagine, then, spitting in the face of Christ. Here is the face of God, the face that embodies and makes effectual his love for each and every person, including you. Imagine the sorrow in his eyes as your spittle strikes the face of God. Imagine your spittle resting on that face, slimy and repulsive, dripping slowly down, in his eyes, his hair, his beard, covering up his features, obscuring, mocking, defiling.

You have taken that face, that love, and treated it as valueless, disgusting, as nothing. You have even taken pleasure in doing so--taken pleasure in the power, the superiority, the indifference, by which you so lowered, so degraded, God himself. You have seen yourself as you spat in the face of God, and have taken delight in what you saw.

Perhaps you think you have not done this, that you have not spit in the face of God, or in the face of any other man. You are mistaken.

We spit in the face of Christ, in the first place, each and every time we willingly despise another human person--whenever we treat another as valueless, disgusting, beneath us, whenever we choose to lower, to humiliate, to disregard. "That which you do the least of these, you do to me": strangers, waiters, sexual objects, political opponents, anonymous Internet trolls. In each and every person whose irreplaceable personhood, name, heart, soul, whom Christ loves and for whom he died, we have not acknowledged, we have despised and spat upon the face of Christ.

We spit in the face of Christ, likewise, when we treat his love for us, expressed in the Church and the Sacraments and in so many other things, as something valueless or distasteful or indifferent. It is difficult to accept the love of God, which requires us to submit ourselves to others, to deny our desires and inclinations and thoughts, and to accept and receive something far beyond our own knowledge or control. Far easier, then, to despise Christ and his Incarnation, and the means he uses to show us his love. Whether that is the teachings of the Church, or one's fellow Christian, or the Sacraments in which Christ offers himself to us, the blow is no less severe. It is most cruel of all when we reject and disregard Christ in the Eucharist, the most perfect sign of God's love, receiving him into our without acknowledging him or giving ourselves to him or desiring to be obedient to him in all things, or perhaps not bothering to receive him at all.

I invite you, then, to contemplate once again the image of Christ, with your spittle on his face. He willingly bears our contempt, our indifference, for the sake of his love. He allows us to despise him and disregard him and humiliate him and lower him, and he takes on himself all those situations in which we ourselves have been despised and disregarded. This is the measure of God's love, that he permits us to treat him, in comparison to whom we are nothing and can have no value at all, as valueless, as nothing. He chooses to love us, although he does not need us, and he allows us to despise him, although we cannot exist apart from him.

This is the extent of God's love for us, and the effectual sign of its omnipotence in regard to us. All that Christ asks of us is that we acknowledge that love, and accept it, that we permit him to love us and save us from our sins. He has willingly borne, and will willingly bear, all in us that is most distasteful and disgusting and shameful, and he will give us in return his own immortal and incorruptable life. He bears our spittle in his face, and gives to us his own flesh and blood. Let us receive him, then, worthily, and love him in our neighbor.


Lord Jesus Christ, as in your Passion you willingly bore the spittle of our indifference and contempt, so grant us both to acknowledge and accept your great love for us and for all mankind, so that trusting in you and following you in all things, we may both love and honor you in all persons, and faithfully obey you in all things.


Thursday, February 8, 2018

Saint Josephine Bakhita

I love Saint Josephine Bakhita, and the story I find most affecting among the very many of her life is that of her death. After decades living as a free woman and a nun, respected and revered as a teacher and a living saint by those around her, the coming of old age and death meant a terrible and lonely return. On her deathbed, reduced physically, delirious in her last agony, she relived the long years of her enslavement and abuse, crying aloud in chains and scourgings and other indignities. She had been kidnapped at the age of seven, after a happy but brief childhood, and then abused so badly she forgot her own name, so that she was left only with that given by her tormentors, Bakhita, "lucky"; later, freed by the nuns of Canossa, she had received at her baptism a new name of her own choosing, Josephine, for Saint Joseph. Now, though, she was nameless again, an abused child deprived of dignity and identity, a slave utterly in the power of those for whom she was nothing and less than nothing. Over and over again, she cried out to her nurse, begging her to loosen the chains.
Still, even after this last, terrible trial, she awoke one last time, to find herself safe, beyond the power of her captors, and surrounded by those who knew and loved her. When told it was Saturday, the day of Mary, she spoke what were to prove her last words: "Yes, I am so happy: Our Lady...Our Lady!"
Not long after, she awoke again, from a long, dark dream, to find herself safe, far beyond every power and throne and dominion, and face to face with the One who knew and loved her truly, who for her had been bound and scourged and crucified. She is still awake today.
Saint Josephine Bakhita, pray for us.