Passion and Compassion

crucifixion

Today we celebrate “Palm Sunday” or “Passion Sunday” the day is given to names in honor of the two Gospels that are proclaimed that day. The first Gospel proclaimed is that of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem. Here the people rejoiced and celebrated as Christ entered into Jerusalem.

The Mass than changes focus, and the second Gospel proclaimed is the long narrative of Jesus “Passion.” The word “passion” comes from the Latin word passio meaning “suffering.” So while in the first Gospel we rejoiced with Jesus as he entered into Jerusalem, in the second, we suffer with Jesus as he enters into the passion of the cross. To “suffer with” brings us to another set of Latin words: cum passio which brings us to the English “compassion.” So to have compassion is to “suffer with” another.

Interestingly, Christ’s passion is actually His compassion made flesh. That is to say, the reason Christ suffered was to suffer for us, who suffer the pain of sin. Thus, in his compassion, he chose to take on our suffering. We, in turn, are called to follow Christ, to “pick up our cross” daily. We can start to see how this cycles: our passion (suffering), produces Christ’s compassion (suffering with), which leads Christ to take on our passion, making it His own. In turn, we are called to suffer with Christ (compassion) for others who are suffering.

It is an interesting cycle, but it is also the way of Love. “Love consists in this: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 Jn 4:10). The letter continues, “We love because He first loved us. If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 Jn 4:19-20).

It is a good thing to celebrate with Christ, but even those who betrayed Him did the same. It was only those who loved Him who were willing to suffer with (compassion) Him in is passion. Similarly, there are many who will celebrate when others are celebrating, but to we voluntarily suffer when others are suffering? It is in this suffering that we demonstrate our Love, for others and for God.

The Sickness Unto Death

 

resurrection-of-christ-icon

Jackson Township Ohio very nearly became the location of our next school shooting. Instead however, the 13-year-old-middle-school student chose to take his own life. This event is a demonstration of the fact that often the line between suicide and homicide is razor thin. I believe this is particularly the case in those inclined toward such heinous acts as mass killings. Both mass killings and suicide share a fundamental commonality: the desire to sever oneself from the world; the latter is directed inward, while the former is directed outward. As such, I cannot help but believe there is a fundamental link between the record-setting instances of suicide, and the phenomenon of mass killings.

These killings, both suicide and murder, while caused by the evils of particular people, are symptomatic of the deeper cultural and moral rot existing beneath the surface of our otherwise prosperous nation. I would suggest that Alasdair MacIntyre’s thesis in After Virtue speaks to the heart of the moral rot in our culture. We have divorced ethics from the other branches of philosophy. That is to say what is “Good” no longer has any intrinsic connection to “Being” or “Truth.” “Good” has been reduced to either an emotional reaction or a social construct. That is to say, something is good either because it feels good, or the culture has determined it was good. Such feelings and emotions have no intrinsic connection “being,” i.e. metaphysical truth.

MacIntyre notes that this separation is not new, tracing its roots back to the enlightenment and culminating in the person of Fredrick Nietzche. However, the practical implementation of such a doctrine has limited due to the scarcities of life and the limit of our technology. For example, while Locke may have believed that marriage was something artificial to man (as were all relationships), the practical necessities of work and the household necessitated families staying together. However, modern society with its economic prosperity and technological advances have mitigated some of those necessities, leaving people with the false sense of being able to construct their own reality. Such beliefs have weakened our fundamental social structures (e.g. family and community), resulting in an increase in isolation and loneliness. Individuals today, divorced from nature and community, are left to create themselves and their reality anew from conflicting yet equally unfounded beliefs.

Without a foundation in nature, many today have placed their hopes in things which both fail to satisfy and easily decay. Wealth, popularity, sex, power, etc. are all but sand upon which people have built the castles of their lives. Further, some fail to hope even in these ephemeral realities. Instead, they wander through life dulling their pain through the innumerable distractions and addictions the world offers. In particular, the meteoric rise of technology in recent years has further separated human action from reality. Dr. Nicholas Kardaras was lead to research the phenomenon of technology addiction when confronted by a patient who could not tell whether or not he was in a video game.

Such a divorce from reality and lasting goods prevents the human person from attaining any true hope. When hope never existed, or fails, the result is despair, which as Kierkegaard recognized is a “sickness unto death.” In most cases, such death is a metaphorical one, i.e. being dead inside.  For some though, especially those afflicted by other psychological maladies, despair does lead to physical death as well. Dissatisfaction with the world can lead one to throw his life away. Most often, this action is turned inward and produces a suicide.

Rarely, however, despair can be turned outward against the world causing, a sort of suicide in reverse. In such cases, rather than simply wanting to destroy one’s self, the individual seeks to destroy the other, which in turn destroys the self. Murder/suicides are the horrific end of too many domestic violence situations. Many active shooters have elected to take their own life, rather than be captured by the police. Even those who have survived, have indeed thrown their lives away. Though they still live, the lives these attackers knew before is forever gone, which is, of course, their goal.

One cannot say that the culture “caused” anybody to commit such acts. The choices are still their own. However, in the complicated milieu that is our culture, a person may be more inclined toward such actions due to a lack of meaning in life which fails to produce the hope necessary to avoid despair. If this thesis is correct, no legislation is capable of stopping mass shootings any more than it is capable of stopping the problem of suicide. Our culture needs to rediscover a meaning of life that produces lasting hope. For those of us blessed by the grace of faith, we recognize that ultimately, the only source of hope is Our Lord, Jesus Christ. He is Truth, Being, and Goodness itself and, as such, the only true stone foundation of our lives. We cannot be afraid to share this Truth with our world, which is crying out for a Savior.

 

 

Lent and Virtue

FaithHopeCharity

Faith, Hope, and Charity

As I enter into this second week of Lent, I am confronted by my own shortcomings in my resolve to enter into this Great Fast. It is all too easy to make excuse for relaxing this or that observance to which I have committed myself. As such, I feel it is important to remind myself of the purpose in these Lenten observances of Prayer, Fasting, and almsgiving. These are not randomly chosen practices that the Church has deigned to give us. Rather, they at the heart of our life in Christ and direct us to the habits of such life, namely Faith, Hope, and love. The whole of our Christian lives can be seen in the light of these three virtues, and while these virtues are fundamentally a gift from God, they grow through a response to that gift. Three of the best ways that we can respond is through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

 

pantocrator

pantocrator mosaic at the top of the southern cupula of the inner narthex of the Church of the Holy Savior in Constantinople

Faith: Faith is not simply to know about God, but knowing God in the same way that we would know our closest Friend, our Father, and our beloved Spouse. This knowing is deepened through communication, which we call prayer, by dedicating more time in prayer we renew the love we have for God. Sometimes this can feel like a chore, but honestly, this is also the case for many of our relationships. There are times when we contact somebody or spend time with somebody, not because we are feeling drawn to it, but because we know that it is good and important. When I do this I almost always feel happy about having chosen to do so afterward. The same goes for prayer, sometimes we have to force ourselves to do it, or to stay in it longer than we are inclined, but it is in those moments that God truly wants to touch our hearts.

 

 

Michelangelo_-_Fresco_of_the_Last_Judgement

Michelangelo – Fresco of the Last Judgement

Hope: What an amazing thing hope is, and how desperately we need it in our lives. To hope is to move toward a possible future good. Hope, as a gift from God allows us to move toward our ultimate happiness, heaven. Unfortunately, all to often this vision of heaven is obscured because we place our hopes in things of this earth. We make things the cause and source of our happiness, our hope, and not God. As such, Lent calls us to remove these attachments from our lives. Only by clearing away the junk that distracts us can we see God as our true hope and salvation. Further, even those things which we intend to return to after Lent, take on a greater significance in the light of fasting and feasting. For example, to give up dessert for Lent and return to it at Easter, shows us how dessert is a foretaste of the greater sweetness of heaven.

 

 

364px-Sacred_heart_of_Jesus_Cordoba

Sacred Heart stained glass Cordoba Cathedral

Love: To love is not a feeling but a choice. A choice to give oneself to another. To love God is to respond to God giving Himself to us by giving ourselves to Him. We do this in two ways: directly and indirectly. Through our time in prayer and our offerings to the Church, we offer him a sacrifice of praise as an offering of our lives. Further, we love God through our love of others, this is expressed particularly well by giving to those who cannot give to us in return, as Jesus himself commanded (Mt 5:46; Lk 6:32-36). As such, “almsgiving” for most of us should be more than putting our spare change into the CRS rice baskets. C.S. Lewis makes this point far better than I do:

 

 “I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc, is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charitable expenditure excludes them.”

This reflection of C.S. Lewis certainly challenges me, but it gets at the heart of what Love is. To love is not about our excess, but about giving of our very selves.

While there is a beautiful correspondence of the virtues of faith, hope, and love to the practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving respectively, each of these practices plays a role in each virtue and each virtue in the practice. Faith is of course at the heart of prayer, but it is also the reason for our fasting and almsgiving. If we did not believe, too fast would simply be a diet and almsgiving would not be charity but social work. Our Hope leads us to see that prayer is a foretaste of the things to come. In almsgiving, it shows us that though we cannot help everyone ourselves, even the poorest of the poor (and perhaps especially them) might be satiated in heaven like our brother Lazarus. To love another does not simply compel us to offer them material support, but to raise them to God in prayer. Further, God will unite our very sacrifices and fasting to the heart of our Lord on the cross and use such actions to draw those whom we love closer to Himself.

I pray that this article helps renew your commitment and zeal to your Lenten practices and perhaps challenges you to enter such practices more deeply.

In Christ,

Fr. Seidel

Taylor Swift: The Tragic Prophetess

 

t-swift-2Don’t say I didn’t, say I didn’t warn ya.—Taylor Swift

Whether or not one likes her music, everyone must admit that Taylor Swift has been incredibly successful. While her style is not generally my favorite, I have, on occasion, been struck by the pointedness of her lyrics. Seen rightly, the lyrics in many of her most popular hits are as indicting of the contemporary romance culture as the work of many theologians and philosophers. If Miss Swift’s work were seen as such a critique of the culture, it might be a catalyst for great change within the landscape of modern relationships. Unfortunately, Miss Swift does not suggest any alternative, or even seem to desire an alternative, to the destructive relationship choices of modern times. It is because of this duality that Taylor Swift is today’s tragic prophetess.

                A prophet is generally viewed as one who predicts the future, but the bulk a prophet’s actual work in the Old Testament was critique aspects of their current culture and call the people to repent of their actions. Take, for example, the prophet Amos, who said:

 

“Hear this, you who trample upon the needy and bring the poor of the land to an end saying, ‘when will the new moon be over that we may sell grain…that we may make the ephah small and the shekel great and deal deceitfully with false balances, that we buy the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandal.’” (Amos 8:4-6 RSV)

 

Here the prophet is condemning the people for cheating the poor.  The Lord commanded the people of Israel to have a special care for the poor, the widows, orphans, and the stranger. By violating these commands, the people violated the fundamental tenants of Justice. The prophets criticized this exploitation, so as to restore justice in the culture.

                Miss Swift also writes lyrics that make pointed critiques of the contemporary culture. Take, for example, her song “New Romantics” which says:

We need love, but all we want is danger

We team up then switch sides like a record changer

 

These “New Romantics” exchange that which is needed, lasting committed love, for the thrill and excitement of fleeting emotional attachment. Because the “danger” of this excitement is fleeting, it leads those engaged in the new romance to wander from relationship to relationship.

Through these lyrics, Taylor Swift is acting the prophetess by pointing out the shortfall in our culture and society’s approach to relationships. Her lyrics demonstrate ways that people use, abuse, and discard others in their life and are in turn used, abused, and discarded, as if “the best people in life are free.”  This cycle, while often exciting and even intoxicating, again and again, leads to heartbreak and pain.

                Unfortunately, Miss Swift falls short of a truly prophetic role. True prophets not only criticize the problems they see but call the people to a different way of life. That is to say, a true prophet calls the people to repentance.  Repentance is more than turning away from something, but more fundamentally entails turning toward something, namely God. Without an alternative, change is impossible and Miss Swift’s critiques become tragically impotent.

Within literature, tragedy occurs when a hero is brought down by some interior flaw of their own. As Aristotle suggests, tragedy elicits two responses: pity and fear—pity for the characters involved and fear of falling in a similar way as the characters themselves. The cause for pity is quite obvious for Miss Swift’s Audience, whether it be: “I Knew You Were Trouble,” “New Romantics,” or “Bad Blood” Her music features characters, often herself, trapped in a cycle of destructive relationships. Also, Miss Swift is unable to offer an alternative beyond “Shake It Off” which, while at times is sufficient, often utterly lacks any promise of true healing.  The only semblance of hope within this system is seen in  “Blank Space:”

So it’s gonna be forever

 or it’s gonna go down in flames

you can tell me when it’s over

if the high is worth the pain

 

Perhaps, Miss Swift says, this relationship will happen to be the one that lasts forever. Barring that, the only possible hope is that the good times of the “high” are “worth the pain” of the fall. Sadly, this balance does not exist for either the characters in the song or the audience. Her only message of hope is ultimately a false one.

The tragic flaw which thwarts Miss Swift’s critique is that both she and her audience are blind to the great tragedy present in their culture. Cast in an upbeat fashion, her music, rather than warning people to flee the destruction of the “New Romantics,” actually encourages them to embrace it. The audience is ultimately reduced to characters within the same tragic narrative that Miss Swift herself seems trapped in.

What is necessary to escape this cycle is a redefinition of love. Love for the “New Romantics” is based solely upon emotion. With such a fleeting foundation, a person cannot help but try to get as much out of their partner as possible. If, however, love is based not on emotion, but rather on a steady will to choose the good of the other and trust the other to choose one’s good in return, then love becomes strong enough to endure the trials, tragedy, and tumult of life. In this love, physical affection becomes an outward sign of the gift of self to another, rather than the mere exchange of pleasure and body parts so common in modern romance. For those with eyes to see it, the task must be to dispel the blindness of those who don’t. Taylor Swift’s many fans must be shown the alternative of self-sacrificial love in order for a change in their own relationships to be possible.  Transformed with a message of true repentance, perhaps Miss Swift could cease being a tragic prophetess and become a real prophetess of tragedy.

Life and Football

Gonzaga football team 1934. Photo courtesy of the Gonzaga University Archives.

Gonzaga football 1934.  Photo courtesy of the Gonzaga University Archives.

While football is not my favorite sport (that honor belongs to soccer), I do like the game and all the more so when I can watch it with the brethren. In seminary, football games were one of the major social events, in particular a super bowl party that gathers over a hundred men studying for priesthood. In 2012 the NFL experienced a referee strike leading them to seek out replacements, many of whom proved themselves unprepared for the task.  As a result bad calls came to characterize the game with victories and losses turning more on the lack of skill of the referees than on the skill of the players and coaches.

Football, like all sports and games, is not about the rules. Football is about the skill, athleticism, and strategy of one team pitted against the skill, athleticism, and strategy of the other. However, without the rules you can’t have such a contest.  A bad call can ruin a game:  losers feel cheated, and even the victors feel that the victory has been cheapened in the process.  While the game is not the rules, there is no game without them.

Life is much the same way: it is not about the rules, but it does depend upon them. We so often picture the Christian view of life as a set of rules; follow them and you go to heaven, don’t and off to hell. This picture does not accurately reflect the law of Christ. In truth, the rules are no more the point of life than they are the point of football.

Life is about love, truth, beauty, and goodness. We desire these things at the core of our being and more than merely experiencing them, we desire to fully participate in them. We desire to dive head first into the mystery of it all. In this life we get bits and pieces:  a beautiful sunset, the love of a parent, the thrill of discovery, all of these things touch upon the deeper realities of what life is all about. All of these experiences point to a relationship with Him who is Love, Truth, Beauty, and Goodness itself. Further, He has revealed Himself to us directly through the faith. We see this meaning as through a veil and it is only in the next life that the veil will be lifted, and our relationship with Him who Is is brought to fulfillment. Only within fullness of eternity can the perfection of our desires be achieved.

We are so often like children learning the rules of a new game. We can’t understand, why the rule is what it is: why you can pass forward at one point and not another, or why at one position intentional grounding is illegal and another it not.  We might struggle to see why contraception is wrong or why Sunday mass is so important. Of course there are good answers to these questions, and answers that ought to be found, but they can only be found within the context of the rules. It is only within the law of God that truth can be found, and it, along with love, beauty, and goodness is what it is all about.